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.
Freaks is… something, to say the least. I don’t think I understood every law of nature, paranormal phenomena or mutant related plot point in this narratively nebulous, kaleidoscopic and brazenly unique indie SciFi effort but I can tell you this might be one of the most ambitious things ever attempted with a lower budget, like if a young Chris Nolan did an X Men film with the first signs of his playing with time, space and physics in full blossom. The story tells of a young girl (Lexy Kolker) who has spent the first seven years or so of her life in a strange, dilapidated Vancouver house with her paranoid, protective father (Emilie Hirsch). He keeps her there and tells her of a dangerous world out there that they must not venture out into, for fear of sinister forces that want to hurt them. As she gets older her curiosity coupled with bizarre dreams prompt her to evade his efforts and leave the house, where she finds a threatening world in which her kind are hunted and prosecuted, while a mysterious, benevolent ice cream truck driver (Bruce Dern) who seems to know she is tries his best to help her. That’s only the first ten minutes or so I’ve described and only the tip of a very complex, indescribably reality bending puzzle box of a story that I feel like I’d have to watch at least a half dozen times to properly work out in my THC scorched brain. It concerns a form of time travel, clandestine government agents, harvesting brain material, brain stimulated altered visual perception, multigenerational family ties and how they affect genetic abilities and a plot line that defies the laws of time, space, nature and the act of screenwriting itself. I can’t help but think what they would have wrought here with a blockbuster level budget but I also ponder if that might gloss over the scrappy, lo-fi, boundless charm and careening creativity to be found here. Kolker is a phenomenal young actress and you feel believably alongside her protagonist every step of the way through danger, confusion and self discovery. Hirsch, relegated to fascinating work since his fall from A-list grace, is wonderfully haggard and intense here while Dern is his usual excellent, scene stealing, salt of the earth old self. They’re supported by a host of others including Amanda Crew and Grace Park as a ruthlessly efficient agent. I can’t say I understood the whole thing or was able to follow the multiple crisscrossing story threads entirely but they weave together a tapestry that has to be seen to be believed, and is one impressive effort overall.
People really love to rag on Neil Blomkamp don’t they.. do you think it’s super fun being that miserable? Anyway he has a new horror film out this year called Demonic, his first feature since 2015’s Chappie. People are kind of tearing it apart in reviews, unreasonably so in my opinion because I had an absolute blast with it and one of the most fun time with a horror so far this year. It’s like this sort of odd, multi-genre amalgamation of different tones and ideas, so much so that one can’t really get a proper idea of it from trailers, posters or even word of mouth alone, which means you’re onto something already. It stars the excellent Carly Pope as a troubled woman who is dealing with residual pain of a mother who committed really, really horrible crimes when she was just a kid, and has been institutionalized in a coma ever since. She’s trying her best to forget, until two mysterious sleep tech researchers from a clandestine organization ask her help with a very strange experiment: be put under into REM sleep, enter the unconscious mind of her mother and establish communication within the dream world of both of their subconscious minds, linked via technology that feels simultaneously futuristic and sleek yet retro, analog and VHS themed as well. What are these researchers looking for, you may ask? Well that’s the fun, and that’s all I’ll say about the plot here, it’s a diabolically twisty game of horrors that spill out from the dream world into real life and this girl discovers much, much more about her mother’s state of mind, and whatever else may be in there with her. The film is not only shot but actually (for real this time, not just me stubbornly insisting so) set in and around Vancouver, with some of the story taking place near Kelowna on Lake Okanagan. I’m pretty sure that Blomkamp has seen Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond The Black Rainbow because one of the researchers is played by Vancouver actor Michael Rogers, who was the terrifying antagonist Dr. Barry Nyle in that and there are shades to his performance here that feel directly referential, which was a really nice touch. The film covers a LOT of ground in only 90 minutes, in terms of genre, and maybe it felt too rushed or hectic for some people but I just can’t wrap my head around the negative responses to it. It’s absolutely horrifying in some scenes, incredibly imaginative in an almost tongue in cheek way and stylistically so damn cool, it has the feel of a balls out, conceptually audacious type of horror SciFi flick you’d see in the 90’s. Picture something like The Cell meets The Exorcist meets Virtuosity meets Ghostbusters but still it’s own fiercely original creation. Great film, don’t listen to the haters, see it for yourself and form you own honest opinion. Mine is that it fucking rocks.
I recently binge watched all the Hellraiser sequels and man, they are one wild ride. One of my favourites is the fourth one, titled Bloodline, that traces a family lineage from French silly wig times where a toymaker first crafts the evil puzzle box for a dark magician, who initially conjures up Pinhead and his homies. The film traces this genesis into the 90’s art-world scene in a big city where the cube has been embedded into the architectural foundation of a skyscraper where it causes havoc, and then yet another timeline far, far into the future where a scientist on a massive deep space station experiments on the box, trying to put a stop to Pinhead and close the hellish portal for good. It’s an ambitious, wildly entertaining, boundlessly imaginative sequel that covers thousands of years and many characters including a sultry demon princess (Valentina Vargas) who is first summoned in French silly wig era by a very young Adam Scott, who wishes he never met her. She’s terrific and adds a sort of supernatural femme fatale aesthetic to the mythos. Doug Bradley is off the chain here and this is by far my favourite of his Pinhead turns in any of the films. He gets a whopping amount of screen time (often not the case in these sequels) and is a terrifying, antagonistic asshole who feels like an actual tangible threat here instead of his sometimes illusory, half-there half-not theatrical presence. I appreciate such ambition in horror sequels, where the same retread or motifs aren’t just tiredly recycled through new characters and settings, but actual innovation is employed and new lore is pioneered into the canon. The outer space stuff is a fucking blast, as the team of mercenaries played by recognizable faces (Christine Harnos & Pat Skipper are awesome) race against time to find the scientist before all hell breaks loose where no one can hear you scream. The finale is a jaw dropper and one of the most creative moments in the entire franchise as the space station becomes… something more, it’s a slow-clap moment of adrenaline pumping sound and fury and, in a way, the final narrative beat of the entire Hellraiser legacy, despite the fact that there are many more films to come. I would say this is tied with the second film, Hellbound, as my favourite in the series, it’s so well structured, gory as ever, creatively inspired and just so much fun. Oh yeah and there’s a Cenobite dog, too! So badass.
It’s been a long wait for Dune, but it’s finally here and let me tell you it was worth it. I didn’t get to see it in theatres because my country has gone collectively insane for a minute (hopefully a temporary situation) but it’s a strong testament to Denis Villeneuve and his entire creative team that even on my modest 55” TV with a JBL soundbar, this thing is one powerful spectacle of immense, grandiose science fiction storytelling, a Shakespearean space opera for the ages and the culmination of this filmmaker’s work so far reaching a fever pitch of visual creative energy, motion and sound. Obvious comparisons will be drawn between this and David Lynch’s notorious 1980’s version of Frank Herbert’s novel, but I won’t be making any other than to say I deeply love both films for different reasons, and they are so far removed from one another in style, tone and essence I can’t even place them on the shelf next to one another. The story is told in broad, sweeping strokes with an elemental momentum to both the set pieces of thundering action and soulful, dialogue driven character interaction. Keystone sequences like the Harkonnen invasion, the spice harvester rescue and the Atreides house triumphantly arriving on Arrakis are handled with massive scope, vision, beautiful world building and breathtaking, dreamlike production design. Hans Zimmer’s reliably supersonic score is a bass soaked deep space lullaby, a trancelike composition that echoes his work in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 while organically blasting into new neural pathways of what is possible in music for film. I thought that Timothee Chalamet might annoy me as Paul, but he’s stellar, almost underplaying the enigmatic budding hero with a layered introspection and genuinely discernible arc from naive youngling prince to rough, rugged desert wanderer. All of the other actors are superb and imbue the characters with a subdued, mesmeric and haunted aura that adds to the spacey atmosphere, apart from Jason Momoa as fierce warrior Duncan Idaho, his performance is lively, brusque and the closest any of the actors get to down to earth. Stellan Skarsgard gives the same sort of villainous turn here as he did in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, a wistful, distant and detached yet quietly malicious and rotten bastard of a Baron, like an evil floating Humpty Dumpty, but in a good way. My favourite performance of the film goes to an unassuming Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica, a character not featured all that heavily in the marketing but one that comes across as the desperate soul of the film, a loving mother torn between her fealty to a strange sisterhood of weird nun magicians and her love for Paul and Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac is superb) and her people. Ferguson is eerie, wide eyed and charismatic in the type of way that holds you attention raptly, the only performance in this film that feels like it might be at home in Lynch’s version of Dune. The world presented here is tangible, tactile, the special effects are a seamless blend of CGI and practical, the baroque design of dragonfly winged spacecrafts, mammoth ancient pyramids, impossibly detailed metallic frescoes depicting the lore and history of these civilizations are a magisterial tapestry of woven visual creativity, costume design, detailed wildlife and anthropological wonder that will sweep you away into this realm. My only complaint is that, because this is only part one, the air gets sucked out of the room narratively speaking when this thing ends and I felt an aching yearn for the continuation of the story, which it looks like we will now indeed get and I understand that Villeneuve made a wise choice splitting the novel up to let the story breathe, but it still finishes on an airy exhale that leaves you craving more. I’m excited for part two, there are several characters that *are* featured a lot in marketing that only show up for like, five minutes or less, I want to see this story develop further so that I may get to know them, experience more brilliant performances and sink deeper into this gorgeous, hypnotic, mythologically rich universe. Great film.
I wasn’t quite prepared for Can Evrenol’s Housewife, a disarmingly gruesome slow burn horror flick that I went into blindly on purpose. Had I looked it up first I might have seen that Turkish director Evrenol is also responsible for another notoriously fucked up horror called Baskin, which I’ve heard many a rumour about but have been circling for years as I just don’t have the stomach for the heavy stuff like I used to. Anyways I waded into Housewife uninformed and unassuming and, well… it’s quite the fucking experience. It tells of a girl (Clémentine Poidatz) living in Istanbul with her husband, who is troubled by nightmarish dreams of her traumatized youth where she watched her mentally ill mother murder her older sister, for starters. She always feels on the edge of that same mental instability, which is put to the test when she reconnects with an estranged best friend who has become deeply involved with a dangerous doomsday cult, particularly it’s charismatic leader (David Sakurai). The film starts off as an eerie, cerebral, glacial buildup full of terse atmospheric visuals and a truly genius, beautifully spooky musical score but as soon the cult angle barrels into the narrative it gets wild and bloody pretty quick, which is a shocking left turn. The ever present yet unseen threat of something bad turns into a geyser of gore, torn off faces, ruthless umbrella shankings, slimy demonic babies, hooting and hollering insanity of clamouring cult members and a third act that is so far beyond the stratosphere of subtlety that all I could do was laugh with the characters as they succumb to the frenzied, maniacal final beat of the narrative that would be too much if it wasn’t just too damn hilarious in a “throw your hands up and surrender to the shenanigans” type of way. I think I liked the first half of the film more, it feels like the measured, dread soaked first two acts of Rosemary’s Baby in tone and atmosphere, obviously way more R rated, contemporary and balls-out psychosexual than that creaky old classic. And where that one never showed the grisly viscera in person, only ever suggested it, this film shows *everything*, and trust me it ain’t pretty. There’s an ethereal beauty and calculated, delicate menace to the buildup and while the third act fells a tad cluttered, a bit too grotesque in some frames and nothing like the hushed, reverent opening acts, I admired its sheer willingness to plough head on into kinky, perverse, violent sex games and some hysterically over the top Lovecraftian cosmic pandemonium. It’s good, but bring a titanium lined stomach or a Costco orders worth of barf bags because it’s a truly sickening experience, the kind of gross-out Euro erotica shocker madness that most North American audiences just are not used to.
David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (such beautifully deliberate typos) blends the director’s trademark kinky, drippy body horror with a tactile, analog virtual reality aesthetic that is one of his most fun, freaky and mind warping SciFi horror outings I’ve seen. Jennifer Jason Leigh is an edgy, uncompromising, fearless actress who has made it her personal mission to work with some of the wildest, weirdest filmmakers out there including Tarantino, Paul Verhoeven, The Coens, The Safdies, Charlie Kaufman, Brad Anderson and of course David Lynch. Her collaboration with Cronenberg provides us with fascinating protagonist Allegra Keller, a futuristic video game designer who Leigh imbues with a wistful, detached-from-reality aura, a girl who got lost in the virtual world and is only half present in any given scene. Allegra is the target of corporate assassins out to plunder her tech, so she’s on the run with a low level marketing schmuck (Jude Law) from her firm, hiding out in a backwoods motel. Her only choice is to play her own game with this underling in order to find out if it’s damaged or not, and here the film veers into unsteady narrative territory as reality bends and all sense of linear cohesion is thrown to the wind for some truly trippy mind-games. They encounter other players personified by a rogues gallery of Cronenberg regulars like Sarah Polley, Ian Holm, Callum Keith Rennie, Don Mckellar, Christopher Eccleston and Willem Dafoe as a nasty, treacherous gas station attendant whose name is literally… Gas. The film is a sort of paranoid, uneasy game of virtual Russian roulette to see who’s who, who’s not who they say they are, what’s real, what’s not and who is going to end up dead or insane from playing this very dangerous game for too long, and goddamn is it ever fun until it’s last, ruthless, kick in the nuts final beat before the credits. Leigh is wonderful and adds a deliriously sexual connotation to the already very sexual, body penetrating nature of the tech used for gameplay, she puts her sly, playful yet shady smile to great effect and it’s one of the best actor/director collabs with Conenberg I’ve seen since Jeff Goldblum for The Fly. The special effects are excellent too, all kinds of gorgeously grotesque organ mimicking tubes, fleshy portals and genitalia reminiscent weaponry that will have all the parents in the audience getting uncomfortable. It’s a great picture, the mix of virtual paranoia, worlds within games within worlds and freaky, glistening practical viscera is a delicious flavour and one of my favourite cinematic recipes yet from our Canadian master of the macabre. Great film.
I love a good aquatic set horror movie, whether the events take place down below in the depth in a submarine or on the surface in a boat. Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is a solid offering that features a bit of both of these worlds, set aboard a trawler somewhere off the Irish coast that encounters something previously undiscovered in the animal kingdom. Captained by a veteran couple (Dougray Scott & Connie Nielsen, always welcome in my book), the boat soon finds itself marooned way out in open water as some massive, otherworldly creature attaches itself to their hull with with powerful phosphorescent tentacles and holds them in stasis. It’s up to a loner marine biology major (Hermione Corfield) to try and discover the nature of this animal and how to get it off their craft, but soon it becomes clear that this thing has a terrifying way of reproduction that involves tiny spores ending up in human anatomy systems after which some truly shocking body horror commences. The scenes of horror are bloody, frantic and genuinely disturbing but they’re juxtaposed with an ethereal beauty and reverence for this creature, and the power that nature has over us as a species. One character even observes that this animal isn’t malicious or evil but simply mistook their boat for another large animal and did what is in its nature: attempt to feed and reproduce. There’s a compassion there in the scriptwriting that you don’t often have in these types of horror films, and it gives it a different aura overall. We never truly see the creature in its entirety but the luminous encroaching limbs emanating ghostly blue light from the deep and the vague suggestion of a vast body mass below it are incredibly haunting, almost profound images that linger with you. If you’re a fan of aquatic horror in the vein of things like The Abyss, DeepStar 6, Leviathan and The Rift you’ll get a kick out of this. It’s restrained yet scary, brutal yet lyrical and does a great job at evoking atmosphere.
Bruce Willis, for whatever reason, is determined to go the schlocky B movie route these days and has been cranking them out with stunning punctuality and frequency. Last year he did a “body snatchers in space” style one called Breach which I actually kind of enjoyed and now he has a new one called… “Cosmic Sin”, which sounds like a flavour of Axe Body Spray. Well… and I just know I’m going to catch major shit for this, but I didn’t hate this one either, as slipshod, incoherent and cheap as it is. Willis once again plays a legendary military leader who has fallen from grace. Once called “the blood general” for dropping a mega-bomb on an entire species to eradicate them before a war could break out, he’s been dragged out of his favourite bar (complete with robot bartenders, I must excitedly note) for One Last Mission: first contact with another aggressive alien species has been established and the leaders of what’s left of humanity want him to spearhead a deadly preemptive strike in order to avoid intergalactic war, an operation called ‘cosmic sin’ that should have been called ‘operation I’ll fucken do it again.’ It’s basically sanctioned genocide, and an odd idea for a story but I suppose it makes sense, if the species in question is hostile and nasty enough to warrant it. So he blasts off in a special quantum leap suit to the forest moon of Ellora with several others including his longtime sidekick (Corey Large, also responsible for writing and producing these things), a battle hardened veteran (Costas Mandylor and a surprisingly good British accent), a lab tech (Adelaide Kane) in charge of handling their ‘Q-Bomb,’ a hotheaded rookie (Brandon Thomas Lee, who is Pam Anderson & Tommy Lee’s kid), a foxy scientist (Perrey Reeves) who has vague romantic history with Willis and Frank Grillo as yet another military badass. The film consists of lots of murky pseudo-scientific and political expository dialogue, clunky gunfights in cheap looking mecha-suits, half mumbled lines from Willis, lots of running, shooting, neon lights, a pulsating video game type score and eventual aliens that look like regular people in Spirit Halloween costumes. I’m not gonna lie, the thing sucks hard, but if you’re a trash aficionado like me, it sucks in… just the right way (I realize after typing that how it sounds). It’s the kind of breezy junk food cinema you’d find playing at 2am on SyFy in the glorious early 2000’s in between reruns of Xena, and honestly sometimes I miss those days. I think the fact that it has Willis in it, and that people aren’t quite used to him in fare like this yet (you’ll come around, don’t worry. It happened to Pacino and DeNiro too lol) is why it’s being *especially* shredded and roasted in reviews. And yeah, its shitty, but it’s fun shitty, and I need those type of films on my menu just as much as all the rest. Oh and one more thing: I have to give this extra points for having maybe my favourite written line in any film of 2021. As one character tries to reassure another who has been shot and is bleeding out, he literally says “Don’t even think about dying, or I’ll fucking kill you.” *That*, my friends, is what cinema is all about.
Nicolas Cage has a big laundry chute from his agent’s office that goes right to his mancave at home, wherein various wild, weird and wonderful scripts are just hurled through, whereupon he can evaluate them from the safety and comfort of his pad, and agree to do absolutely amazing, one of a kind cinematic celebrations of unconventional spirit and innovation like Sion Sono’s Prisoners Of The Ghostland, a psychedelic arthouse dream-poem that I promise you is unlike anything you’ve ever seen Cage do and sits atop the mighty crest of other such curios in his recent career like Mandy, Willy’s Wonderland and Colour Out Of Space. This is my baptism by fire, so to speak, in Sono’s work, a Japanese mad scientist of celluloid whose work here is as wantonly jagged and subconsciously nebulous as it is specifically calibrated and lovingly detailed as he tells the story of one lone hero recruited by a sinister southern dandy called The Governor (Bill Moseley, curdled to hammy perfection) to rescue his ‘granddaughter’ Bernice (Sofia Boutella) from a vague netherworld called the Ghostland where she is being held by forces unknown. Cage is outfitted with an explosive device suit that looks like a hand-me-down from Snake Plissken, complete with little bombs to detonate each testicle, should he get frisky. I’m not sure why I’m describing plot here because there really isn’t one, but there also kind of is. Ever have one of those dreams where you’re in a narrative that should make sense from an earthly, rational perspective yet everything is somehow… off, somehow topsy-turvy and abstractly bizarre? This film literally functions within the logic of a dream, and you have to shift gears of perception before you’re in tune with it, there’s just no sense to be made of it beyond the intuitive on a subconscious level. Cage’s character here is nameless beyond the archetypal moniker of ‘Hero’ but I suppose if we wish to put a name to this stranger we can refer to the actor’s own comments, as he has said this guy is supposed to be a spiritual amalgamation of his work as Sailor Ripley in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart and Castor Troy in John Woo’s Face/Off. How awesome is that? It’s fitting because there’s a reunion of sorts for him and Nick Cassavetes, playing his hulking partner in crime here. The film is much less of a manic action spectacle than the trailers might show; there is action, yes, but mostly there’s just atmosphere, and heaps of it. Cowboy/samurai hybrid goons, giggling geisha girls overflowing with bizarrely effervescent personality, animalistic scavengers who roam the Ghostland, all adorned in breathtaking costumes and inhabiting some of the most arresting, beautifully otherworldly cinematography I’ve ever seen, something like post apocalyptic kabuki with vivid splashes of steampunk and shades of zombie horror peppered in too. Characters behave free from inhibition and careen wildly about at the mercy of their own impulses and those of Sono’s who is one hell of a visual artist. There are random pauses in the narrative as the cast breaks out into song for no apparent reason other than they feel like it, including a haunting group rendition of Burl Ives’ ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ led by Moseley and tons of hectic Greek chorus exposition in blessed unison from background cast. This is cinema distilled straight from REM sleep mode and blasted onto a screen, strikingly unique dream logic storytelling disguised as a latter day Nic Cage gonzo picture, the stuff of beautiful nightmares that will lull you into a hypnotic trance with it’s relentless, all encompassing alien energy. One of the best films of the year.