I’ve never seen New Zealand cast in a dark or menacing cinematic light, having been used to stuff like the fantastical dazzle of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and the quaint, quirky whimsy of Taika Waititi’s fare. Not being that well versed in films coming from the country, I was fairly blown away and left in a kiln-fired state of deep shock by James Ashcroft’s Coming Home In The Dark, a vicious, unrelenting captivity thriller that wields a smouldering philosophical ember beneath a slick smokescreen of unbearable suspense, soul shaking acts of violence and stark, jagged cinematography that has as little visual mercy for the viewer as the two main antagonists do for their prey, a suburban family on a road trip through rural NZ who are stalked, terrorized and psychologically tortured endlessly. The villains, if you can called them that, are an interesting pair of spooky sociopathic drifters, led by the verbose, mercurial and terrifyingly dangerous Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and his mostly silent, hauntingly observant sidekick Tubs (Matthias Luafutu). They seem to materialize out of the windswept ether just beyond a patch of swaying long grass where this family is peacefully picnicking. Toting a rifle, an impossibly misanthropic attitude and the volatile outbursts to back it up, Mandrake makes it his personal mission to hurt, toy with and mentally break down these people, particularly the dad (Erik Thomsen). But why? Are these two just wayward sick souls that target anyone out there, or is there some hidden, decades old resentment towards this middle aged family man, some personal grudge that lodges itself into Mandrake’s very essence and keeps him on this bloody, seemingly personal crusade of violence and ill-will? That’s the film’s central secret and one that blasts open the narrative from simplistic “family held captive by psychos” motif into something far deeper, darker and more ponderous. Gillies is an actor I never much paid attention to in Hollywood, he always got lobbed the forgettable pretty boy stuff and to be honest I didn’t even clock him as a Kiwi back then. Here he’s a little more aged, time-worn and haggard, and he gives what must be the performance of a lifetime, certainly one of the most effective and chilling villains I’ve ever seen, something like John Ryder from The Hitcher meets Dick Hickock from In Cold Blood. He’s like an elemental force of unflinching, ruthless resolve, made so by a horrific past that still glimmers on a low burn just behind his tangled bramble beard in deep set, searching eyes that harbour a potent malice shielding the last gasp of a broken child beneath. This is not a film for anyone who is even remotely squeamish; it doesn’t play by the usual rules of taboo and what you aren’t supposed to show in North American stuff and as such, it’s a fucking exhausting experience. But it’s also utterly captivating in every area from score to atmosphere to performances and, best of all, it has the kind of rich, sinewy, impossibly challenging thematic material that will have you thinking, processing, digesting for a long while after as this wicked story leaves a brand upon the soul. Excellent film.
I’m not sure how to quite adequately describe Christian Neuman’s Skin Walker as I’m still not completely sure what I saw, even over a week after watching it. Some horror films not only have all their gore, atmosphere and acting bases covered to draw you in but go so far over the wall of coherency and conventional storytelling they sort of, burn a brand into your perception, never to be lost in the mental catalogue. This film tells the story of Regine (Amber Anderson), a disturbed young girl girl living a grungy nocturnal life in Luxembourg who is called home to her childhood house in the country when her grandmother passes away. She journeys back to the small rural town and massive, creaky manor she grew up in to find her cold, distant grandfather (Udo Kier) inhabiting an empty house full of sour, nasty memories. Her grandmother was a highly unpleasant person, as we see in unflinching flashbacks, but she also has hazy memories of her mother giving birth to a hideously deformed baby brother who may or may not still be wandering the forests on the edge of the property and seems to show up in her dreams and waking perception with unnerving regularity. I loved this film for a great number of reasons, beginning with the score, ambience and ethereal casting choices. Amber Anderson has these angular, dark elf features that are transfixing and somehow vulnerable yet vaguely eerie. Kier, well, Kier is king of the weird but strangely enough he plays a very human character here, where he often is just a spectral or allegorical presence. He’s got a ton of screen time and imbues his bitter old patriarch with a mental decay and resentment that hangs entrenched in the foggy air. The score is creepy, billowing and emotional especially in an early scene where Regine arrives back at her family estate and pours over it with worried doe eyes from a darkened car window as the vehicle ominously winds up the entrance road. The production design is lush, full of deep meditate browns, pale milky skin, cloudy skies, slick crimson blood and late autumn auburn detritus, a visual palette of stunning folk horror sensibility and startling eye candy that’s both gorgeous and gruesome to look at, like an orgy featuring Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro and Lars Von Trier (I’m terribly sorry for that mental image but I promise this film has more shocking ones). The issue with this film is that at a certain point it goes off the map of a logical, linear story and becomes a flailing arthouse caterwaul, a trippy psychological bedlam of noise, twisted memories, unreliable perceptions, so many subplot revelations and horrific, shuddering reveals that it becomes tough to view it as anything other than a story whose meaning and outcome was meant to be decided by the viewer themselves, and not spelled out for by the filmmakers. Now this isn’t an issue for me at all, I love stories like this, but the approach doesn’t always go over well with audiences, hence the mostly confounded and puzzled reviews for this that border on abject hostility. It’s fucking weirder than your most troubling nightmares, I won’t gloss over that, and if the narrative begins with a host of unanswered questions it ends with even more. But if you like bizarre stuff that doesn’t play by any sort of rules but it’s own, are into deep, dark folk horror with psychological overtones and appreciate a visual feast of colour, grotesquerie and unconventional beauty, you’ll love it. It’s a new hidden gem favourite for me.
Edgar Wright’s Last Night In Soho has been a surprisingly divisive film so far this year, and while I wouldn’t call it any sort of spectacular milestone or anything, it’s a beautifully atmospheric, lavishly detailed, very well acted mystery thriller that led me right into its world and entertained me thusly. Rising star Thomasin Mackenzie plays Eloise, a shy, reserved girl from a small village in the country who is excepted at London’s college of fashion design. She arrives with stars in her eyes only to be disappointed by less than accommodating classmates and a stern, odd landlady (the great Diana Rigg in her final film role). As if homesickness, displacement anxiety and loneliness aren’t enough, she finds herself whisked away back in time to a dazzling London of the 60’s every night when she goes to sleep, where she becomes the mirrored dream avatar of aspiring singer Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose life takes a dark, tragic trajectory in a series of events that Eloise has an unfortunately intimate, visceral backstage pass to observe. Who is Sandie, and why does she draw Eloise into her hazy nightmare that’s now decades gone by? Who is the dapper yet nasty lounge lizard Jack (Matt King) who encircles her life like a satin suited vulture? And who is the Silver Haired Gentleman played with devilish malevolence by the legendary Terence Stamp who appears to Eloise in the present like some kind of spectral Greek chorus? These are questions best left answered by the film’s twisty, macabre narrative that unfurls like a snake ready to strike. Mackenzie has an impossibly bright future and anchors the film in human vulnerability, while Joy’s gorgeous yet ever so slightly sinister features make a nice ghostly aura hovering over the story. London itself is lovingly and meticulously obsessed over by Wright and his creative team, and beautifully resurrected for the time travel to the 60’s, complete with lush smoke rooms, dank heroin soaked brothels and star spattered retro marquees. The story isn’t just an empty shock horror romp either that exists for cheap thrills or just to lead the audience on a blood soaked breadcrumb trail, there is actual emotional resonance and sorrowful tragedy here, especially in Sandie’s unfortunate, horrifying story arc. So I’m not really sure where the unimpressed reactions have come from, I mean it’s not a groundbreaking game changer for horror but it’s definitely a stunning gothic mystery full of chilly autumn atmosphere, detailed production design, a jaw dropping soundtrack and performances that are wall to wall scene stealers. A lot of spooky fun.
I don’t know if there really are a bunch of creepy catacombs beneath Paris that you could get lost in, but if there are I definitely would not check them out, even if the fabled philosopher’s stone itself was buried somewhere down there as it is in John Patrick Dowdle’s As Above So Below, and extremely effective and sometimes downright terrifying horror film. It’s a found footage, which I’m usually not a fan of, but here the technique is employed in a less shaky, obnoxious and obtrusive way that it often is, and feels more fluid. The story tells of ambitious historian Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) who has figured out that far below Paris’s streets in an ancient cave system lies the grave of Nicholas Flamel, the infamous alchemist of old who also shows up in Harry Potter. She assembles a team of fellow scholars and guides and they all descend into these tunnels, where it soon becomes clear that Flamel’s grave isn’t the only place they lead to. The title is key, as they discover a strange metaphysical duality down there where no matter how deep they’ve gone, whenever they try to go back up, it only keeps getting deeper. Then they start seeing hellish visions, nightmarish ghosts and spirits of long dead demonic cult weirdos, and start dying one by one. This can of course be compared to Neil Marshall’s The Descent and it is similar in some scenes of claustrophobia and disorientation, but it’s a less vicious and hectic affair. There’s another film called Moscow Zero (that I’m pretty sure only I saw) with Val Kilmer which is pretty much the same idea but in Moscow instead of Paris and it feels a bit more akin to that in its esoteric nature and thick atmosphere. The visions they see and the resulting gory attacks are quite threatening, but for me the scariest scene comes early on when they first enter the catacombs, and are still quite near the surface. They hear spine chilling singing coming from one chamber, and as they look in and see impossibly eerie women standing still in unison choir dressed very strangely, their guide informs them nonchalantly “always weird people down here.” There’s a casual absurdity to that scenario that chilled me deeply and is a terrifically creepy aperitif to the more in depth horrors waiting for them farther below the earth. Aside from an ending that feels a bit too neat, this is an impressively doom and dread laced story that makes you feel genuinely lost and hopeless alongside its characters way down there, and tangibly threatened when they are hunted and preyed upon. Very effective stuff.
Curse Of Chucky, although the beginning of a fascinating chapter in the legacy, feels almost a bit in stasis, or rather kind of still trapped in the cloud of exhaust left behind by the rip roaring double feature of Bride and Seed, which are pretty hard to top. The cool thing about this one is that Brad Dourif not only gets to voice Chucky but also play Charles Lee Ray once again in some stylish flashbacks to the 80’s, where we see him involved in the lives of a Chicago family whose young daughter grows up to be our protagonist, a wheelchair bound, traumatized girl named Nica, played by Dourif’s own daughter Fiona who has amassed a cult filmography and rogues gallery of villains these days that is almost as prolific and impressive as her dad’s. Nica lives in a freaky old house with her ailing mother (Chantel Quesnelle) until a family tragedy heralds the arrival of both her domineering, sleazy sister (Danielle Bisutti) and Chucky himself, disguised in his formerly benign looking self and playing the waiting game until he can spring to action. This is a fun entry, but it doesn’t quite have the same deranged wind in its sails as the previous two and sometimes feels a bit… stuck in airy passages where not much happens. When it gets going though it’s damn good, there’s some great use of movement in the stalking/kills and it’s a treat to watch an apparently unblemished, fresh faced Chucky doll slowly lose the fake face revealing that torn up, scarred rubber nightmare of a face beneath. Plus Fiona Dourif is a huge asset to the franchise, she’s got the same high-wire intensity and demonic charisma as her dad, talent definitely runs in that family and I love her character here. Fun stuff.
Today on what is Bruce Willis up to in the B-movie lane we have Midnight In The Switchgrass (isn’t that a cool title though?), a moody, subdued southern gothic potboiler by way of a serial killer procedural that I actually really enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still DTV, it’s low budget and rough around the edges but a genuine effort was made here by first time director Randall Emmett, a truly impressive cast is assembled, all of whom are clearly having fun and a mood is established through soundtrack, suspense and down to earth writing that cannot be written off as simply B grade trash. Somewhere along the desolate Florida interstate a nasty serial killer is kidnapping women, murdering them and dumping their bodies. Various factions of law enforcement are desperately trying to stop him including two world weary FBI agents (Willis & Megan Fox) and one undeterred state police rogue (Emile Hirsch) who has been looking for this monster for some years. The killer is played by Lukas Haas which isn’t really a spoiler since the trailers reveal that fact, he’s a real formidable, despicable force here, made all the more sickening by the fact that he has a wife and young daughter of his own who, by default, are constantly at risk of him having a full meltdown. Fox is terrific here, the more assertive of the pair, she has great chemistry with Willis and some sharply delivered lines that illustrate her character. She has a few scenes with musical artist Machine Gun Kelly (now her real life boyfriend), playing a violent, trash-bag motel pimp who once saw the killer briefly and is therefore an asset to the case, as hard to control as he is, he crackles with a sleazy, downtrodden volatility. Hirsch is so intense, fired up and doggedly earnest it sometimes feels like he’ll jump out of the screen, run around your living room and knock over the furniture, I miss when he was in the spotlight and he’s very good here. As for the film, it all depends on how you look at it. Yes, Willis has fallen from grace, admittedly he doesn’t get much to do here beyond an extended cameo and naturally this comes nowhere close to his iconic films we’re all used to, but as a brooding, atmospheric, slightly run of the mill yet still distinctive and ever so slightly horror tinged procedural thriller you can certainly do a *lot* worse. There are some mournful, melancholic soundtrack choices with beautifully sung lyrics and titles like “No Time Left”, “Maybe Heaven” and “Are You Washed In The Blood” that are used strategically at key moments and just add so much personality and emotion to the story. So, it ain’t high pedigree cinema, but in my eyes it is a commendable genre effort that held my attention, had some nice cinematic flourishes, a brutally suspenseful final act, a cast worth clapping for and lyrical atmospheric tension that I really connected with.
I didn’t expect much from Discarnate (aka Shapeshifter in some dvd regions), a super low budget supernatural horror I only really watched for Thomas Kretschmann, an actor I greatly admire. The is squarely B grade territory but at least it made a commendable effort and is quite enjoyable, for what it is. Kretschmann, getting to play a good guy and lead role for once, plays a paranormal scientist whose son was once snatched in the night and killed by some kind of terrifying inter-dimensional being. He organizes a sort of scientific seance, using the powers of an untested chemical serum that works on the pineal gland, propelling the perception of whoever takes it partly into the spirit realms that exist within ours, but are usually invisible. He also hires a medium (Nadine Velasquez) to oversee the experiment and a bunch of chatty science undergrads and stages the whole thing in a dilapidated house just outside LA, in hopes to lure this thing back from the netherworld and get some long awaited revenge. Of course the entire thing goes disastrously, the being shows up and starts attacking everyone one by one, messing up the fabric of reality and causing a whole lot of confusion. Problem is, he didn’t inform anyone what’s really going on and they all just think they’re part of a slightly less than routine drug trial, because they’d never have agreed to this other idea, let alone believe him. So everyone but him is totally unprepared for the arrival of this creature, to its advantage. The special effects for this thing are cool, if a bit under-lit. The being is a grotesque, inky black slimy mess of muddy features, gaping orifices and arachnid like physicality, able to change its form and mimic those it devours somewhat, and there’s a folklore based backstory for it I enjoyed too. This isn’t anything memorable or noteworthy but it does make an effort, has a fascinating premise, and the monster is a good one.
In Don Mancini’s Seed Of Chucky, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly’s demon doll couple unleash their spawn on the world, although the resulting progeny isn’t as… ill adjusted as it’s messed up parents, at least initially anyways. This is the most demented, hilarious film in the canon and although it’s not quite as coherent or witty as Bride before it, still holds second place for me, if on nothing but sheer shock value and WTF pedigree alone. The film blasts off the screen and into the real world, giving Tilly a chance to send up her own slutty image and play herself for a good portion, as she stars in a Chucky iteration and vies desperately for a role as the Virgin Mary in a biblical character study directed, of all people, by hip hop artist Redman, also playing himself. Over in the UK (don’t ask me how it got there) Chucky’s androgynous child (voiced wistfully by Pippin from Lord Of The Rings) has never met his parents until he sees the fake versions on TMZ, journeys to the states and resurrects them for real, so these characters exist for real and fake in the world and it all makes your brain melt a bit. This is a deranged vision, I appreciated Tilly’s willingness to go full bugnuts and make fun of herself very, very savagely. Chucky and Tiffany fight over both the gender and murderous ambitions of their kid, who isn’t sure whether he or she is a he or she and whether he or she wants to be a benign, gentle spirit or a prolific, Fisher-Price mass murderer like mommy and daddy. Got all that? It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride and have some fun, which the films offers in spades, and I haven’t even mentioned John Waters as a sleazebag paparazzi photographer who catches Chucky in, shall we say, a *very* private moment. The franchise has come a far cry from the simple, effective notion of a possessed doll hunting a kid and killing anyone who stands in his way, but the snowball trajectory from that to this mad world, meta, loopy universe chapter of the legacy is something to behold, and of each new interlude, the creative energy, madcap vibes and brazen storytelling of Bride and Seed are my favourite so far. Join me next time when we look at the next two, which couldn’t be more different.
Ronny Yu’s Bride Of Chucky is the point where the franchise deliberately goes off the rails and reinvents itself into something demented, meta, and completely inspired. Chucky gets a new look here, I mean you can’t really kill the little bastard but his visceral encounter with the wind fan in part 3 has left him quite a sight, all metal stitches, stark patches of sewn on hair and jagged scars adorning his plastic visage. He’s brought back to life by trailer park dwelling mega-psycho ditzy maven Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), an aggressive groupie and former girlfriend of Charles Lee Ray’s, resurrecting him with more voodoo and, once it’s apparent that these two had a more troubling, dysfunctional relationship than Harley Quinn and The Joker, eventually trapped in a female bride doll of her own, bonded to Chucky in kinky rubber wedlock complete with a hilariously sincere sex scene. They hit the road looking to find a secret amulet in Ray’s grave that can give them both human bodies, piggybacking in the van of a teenage runaway couple (Katherine Heigl & Nick Stabile) escaping the girl’s nasty army colonel daddy (the late John Ritter). The plot is framework for one hell of a bunch of kills, jokes, bickering, heavy metal soundtrack choices and dark humour, this is by and far the best film in the canon for me, and Tilly is a big part of why it works so well, she’s the wild card element that turns a well established slasher formula into something that transcends its own blueprint and becomes just… wild. Director Ronny Yu also helmed the awesome Freddy Vs. Jason, another slasher reworking for two legendary franchises that has the same loopy, infectiously fun meta energy, metal music and inventive, vivid flesh and blood opening credit graphic design. The kills are unbelievable and one cheekily references another beloved slasher icon, the gore is cartoonish yet still ruthless and the overall vibe is one of utter devilish revelry. Such a fun time and the harbinger of a new, crazier, bloodier era in the series.
I can’t imagine what a challenge it must be to write, direct and star in your own feature debut, there are so many ways it can go wrong from being just too ambitious an undertaking to a scattershot vanity project, but Carlson Young blasts into the scene with her striking new film The Blazing World, as assured, unique and breathtaking embark on a creative journey in cinema as I’ve ever seen. The film opens with two twin sisters playing in the woods near a lavish house, while their troubled parents (Dermot Mulroney & Vinessa Shaw) have a ferocious domestic dispute within, interrupted by a fatal tragedy befalling one of their daughters, an event that will haunt the family forever and cause the grown up girl (Young) to be propelled in a hallucinatory, surreal, otherworldly voyage into dimensions of the soul and spirit worlds to work through the pain, mental turmoil and anguished memory from that time. This is a strange, disorienting film but Young commands the narrative so that as weird as it gets, it only skirts that realms of outright incomprehensible arthouse tendencies and still has roots in what feels… I don’t want to say ‘commercial’, but let’s go with ‘accessible.’ It’s still bizarre as all hell though, in the best possible way, a vividly prismatic burst of visual inspiration, deep fluttering colours and puzzling, baroque subconscious imagery, I was reminded of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell in both style and structure. As Young’s protagonist arrives for a visit at the family home for the first time in years she finds mom a despairing mess and dad a tornado of alcoholic depression, but that isn’t all she finds. A menacing supernatural stranger played by the one and only Udo Kier appears, beckoning her down a metaphysical rabbit hole into the netherworlds beyond waking life, a constantly shifting dream state of astral projection where she must face the memories that have haunted her for years, confront the tormented dream egos of her parents and even face her own sister eventually. It’s a darkly dazzling journey beyond time, thought and consciousnesses and who better than the always captivating Kier to host it, he rips into this role with a seething, wide eyed malevolence and Young, as both his actor and scene partner, lets him do some wild, intense stuff and go to some places I’ve never seen from him before. The stylistically audacious world she plunges into is brought to life by impossibly detailed production design, like a fine abstract painting with potent life breathed into it, a fearsome, dark fairytale musical score by Isom Innis with some effective classical music choices and incisive, alluring sound design. Young commands it all with unbelievable skill so early in the game, as an actor she has a sensitive heart and smouldering vulnerability hanging on every syllable, completely believable as this character. As a filmmaker she clearly shows she’s in love with her medium and has been influenced by some of the most striking artists, while boldly finding her own voice and presenting a debut that’s overflowing with lush creativity and a strong beating heart which, when you consider the amount of triple-threat labour and creativity has gone into it, is a staggering first time effort. Highly recommended, one of the most unique films this year.