Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Objective (2008) Daniel Myrick

A strange radiation in the mountains of Afghanistan, taken for a new weapon of terrifying power, tracked by a CIA man and an unknowing squad. A journey into those dusty wilds, beset by danger both ordinary and unknown, blending science fiction and horror and steadily escalating. I'm not usually a huge fan of military type horror for one reason or another, but The Objective grabbed me almost immediately. For the mountains of Afghanistan are one of the cradles of civilisation, among the first tribe-lands of Man before the great spread across all this blue green marble, and thus of great anthropological and mythological significance. So we have the new, the focused and rational coming upon the very old and implacably weird, menacing but not evil, utterly alien, with the new confounded, one of my favourite kinds of genre thread. Good mileage in this manner from weird lights, colours and so forth in hi-tech scopes. And hints of New Age delusionals along Sitchin or von Daniken lines as the imagery steers toward the other-worldly but without the sprawl and structure that turns fascination into dull fantasy. Interesting imagery in general, nothing too spectacular but at times nicely different and even a wee bit of the red stuff. There could have been more, and at times they could have been just a little better rendered, still effective though. 

But as well as general interest in the plot, the character tension is better worked out than many such films. Simply, the subterfuge of the CIA lead is apparent from the outset, there's never any question of him being some traitor or scoundrel even if he does come off as somewhat unfeeling and unlikeable. His narration neither overloads the film with exposition or the obvious but actually makes him more enigmatic and interesting, his is a well worked out character and well essayed by newcomer Jonas Ball. And the squad, while a fairly nondescript bunch are serious, committed soldiers with none of the clichéd grunting jackassery or latent psychopathy that can taint these films with the crude and condescending. They could have been given more space to grow and be sympathetic, mounting events don't have quite the intensity that they might have done with a more developed set, but they work quite well all the same. 

Altogether this is good stuff for fans of the offbeat. Few fireworks and fewer explanations but thought provoking with an almost perfect ambiguous ending, I suspect quite a few will be put off but this is just my sort of thing and I expect others are out there.

Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) Brad Anderson

I always welcome horror movies about the dark, especially those not just about the fell beasts or villains within but the dark and shadows themselves. And I'm also very fond of the weirder and/or quieter kind of apocalyptic horror, ones that don't knock us down with zombies or meteors and then boot us in the nards with man's inhumanity to man exposed. So Vanishing on 7th Street is pretty much my ideal film, and at comes close at times to my ideal of such a movie so though flawed I can't help but have quite a soft spot for it. 

Slick news guy Luke, cinema projectionist Paul and nurse Rosemary all start off going about their own business, but as mysterious blackouts cause mass vanishings, they find themselves trapped in a bar with kid James, fighting off the darkness as the situation grows dire. Hayden Christensen plays the first, the weaker of the four he struggles at times to convincingly animate his character. A trickier character granted, a little weak and unsympathetic to begin with, but still could have been handled better. John Leguizamo is a good deal better as projectionist Paul, a sort of awkward, geeky type whose reserves of intensity have been forced to burst. Thandie Newton is also rock solid as the desperate, straining at her tethers Rosemary, while Jacob Latimore is agreeably sympathetic as tough young James. An effective ensemble, most of the best moments here come from their interactions, which pack at times get a good hold on the ol' ticker despite being a bit clichéd. Even as things don't go as well as they ideally might they keep things exciting. 

Alas the film doesn't really make the best of its potential. At first the dark is a credibly creepy adversary, shadows not just the broken, shifting, grasping semblances of the physical but alive to catch and steal away, taking the forms of vestigial creatures, only just discernible from mere tricks. But before too long they take on consistent shape and then mostly change neither their shape nor their tactics, leaving the film in a slightly lower gear than it should switch to to really keep it going. The film also doesn't have much in the way of explanation, dropping frustratingly fascinating hints that it doesn't really follow up on. The idea of humanity not as masters of reality but mere flickering image to something else, the centrality of will to existence, this is heady stuff indeed. But instead things go along standard lines, no true commitment and a sappy and inane cap off for good measure. Still, there's a lot to like with these problems set aside, a number of tense moments, one or two legit jolts and general fun with the basic concept so this gets a fair recommendation to the interested and less inclined to pick away. Probably merits more investigation of the thoughts of others as like I said, this is totally my kind of thing and it seems not to be terribly popular, but still a thumbs up.

Fertile Ground (2011) Adam Gierasch

Fertile Ground is one of those slightly irritating films that makes me feel like a sucker. For a fairish stretch, the opening third coming up on the first half or so, this is pretty much the best work from steadily unsteady genre writing/directing couple Adam Gierasch and Jace Anderson yet, with characters and plotting that aren't contrivedly quirky or chaotic, and even a core of legitimate emotionally hefty potential. Opening on a dinner party, main characters Nate and Emily are established swiftly, attractive young couple moving up in the world and facing challenges with smarts and good humour. Their bright and easy chemistry is straight away compelling and generally well handled, the editing of another early scene of moving into a new house has them working in time though separate, just the sort of unspoken but close union to make spooky events all the more affecting. It's handy because this is as predictable as they come even before the first hint of anything supernatural. I mean, has any couple ever moved into an ancestral country house to regroup following a tragedy and not encountered a frying pan/fire situation? Basically you've seen this a million times before even if you haven't, but somehow it works okay for a while. The performances are able, the location is pleasing and the scare tactics get a few hits. Though erring on the jumpy side of things I was "got" a couple of times and there's a certain atmosphere to the spectres, an old, grave worn malignant misery that makes a nice change from outright aggression or manipulation. 

Unfortunately things are spread too thinly, with a very much unnecessary 90 minute plus run time. There are only so many predictable spooks, plot beats, questions of paranoia or genuine evil that one can take, in something like this measured escalation just doesn't work because the viewer can already guess beyond intrigue what things are escalating to. By the final block doldrums set in sufficiently that the plot illogicalities become impossible to ignore (you're not isolated so why act as though you are!) and are not charming but annoying, while the potentially interesting aspects of the story are left undeveloped. There is at least a notable climax but this too is fudged, the kind of adolescent grasp at edgy cynicism that just comes across tired and mean and leaves a bad taste but not in a good way. So this is ultimately pretty hard to recommend. My interest in following Gierasch/Anderson and their work remains, seemingly nice people with some talent and legit genre enthusiasm, but I think by and large their best work was the screenplay for Crocodile 2: Death Roll and their progress through working with classic directors and then getting their own gigs has overwhelmed them. So I guess I'll stay a sucker for a while. Meh...

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Rogue River (2012) Jordan McClure

I don't know exactly when the vogue for shocker flash forward openings commenced or whether it has roots in any genre favourites, but I do know it's one of my least favourite ways to open a horror. Unless the narrative is cyclical or some kind of nested puzzle dealie I just find them a lazy means of trying to hook the audience and am immediately put on the offensive as a viewer rather than relaxing for a good time. So it is with Rogue River, a pretty basic backwoods torment venture of frustrating potential. Young Mara heads down to the river where her deceased pa used to take her to fish so she can scatter his ashes, but first a pleasant enough local named Jon tells her she can't scatter the ashes without a permit, then when she goes back to her car she finds it towed. So the aforementioned pleasant local offers her a trip into town, that is after they stop off so he can tell his wife Lea. Of course his wife invites young Mara for dinner and board, and, well, you can take a pretty good punt on what's to come... 

The big problem here is a fundamental miscalculation of how to make the story work. The basic structure is entirely predictable, with the interest and lone minor deviation from standard form lying in Jon and Lea, played rather nicely by Bill Moseley and Lucinda Jenney. An awkward, eccentric and early on winningly understated pair with a distinct undercurrent of sadness, given more space to breathe they might have made a memorable film even within predictable confines. But instead largely redundant and ineffectual scare tactics clutter what should be the suspense building first half, even sapping the couple of scenes that really work. Then when things really kick off the nastiness is tamely presented and ineptly abandoned while the forays into twisted territory are laughably abrupt and ill formed. As a whole it comes across as a forceful effort to conjure escalating twisted and shocking tension, but without actually thinking any of it through so that despite some bright spots none of it really works. Still, the film is swift and easy, never dull viewing, occasionally nicely shot and Michelle Page puts in a fairly effective harrowed turn as the central Mara. So for fanatics of this kind of stuff like me it isn't too painful, but I still wouldn't recommend it for anything more than a base level slow evening time filler. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

Prowl (2010) Patrik Syverson

Cinema is littered with directors sure footed through to great on their home turf, lured by the bright lights and bigger budgets of the US only to find themselves unsteady through to cack handed. I don't know of many that would call Patrik Syverson's previous outing Rovdyr (Manhunt) great, but it was at least a relatively memorable slice of brains free backwoods brutality. Prowl unfortunately is anything but memorable, in fact just four days after watching it for a second time and I can scarce remember any details. The story is workable enough, a pretty young thing desperate to escape her one horse town takes a ride with a trucker along with her friends, only to wind up locked in a disused factory hunting ground for monsters. No sensation but it definitely has potential. And however essentially faceless, the cast sell it all well enough with the great Bruce Payne giving out good underused grizzled and menacing but not exactly outright evil vibes as the trucker. Just doesn't really work though. Predictability is a villain here but not the main one, sure you've seen this situation play out a thousand times before even if you haven't but this shouldn't be a problem, heck the aforementioned Rovdyr was even rustier in the plot department. What hurts more is the absence of any notable bloodshed or gore (we get the red stuff splashed about a bit and a few severed limbs but that's about it) the uninspired antagonists and the dully irritating camera-work, both in the post 28 Days Later style. Lighting fast and cat agile human beasts might be good but the budget/performers/imagination involved don't permit anything too interesting. Syverson is a little more competent than many in employing the camera style, he does at least appreciate the benefits of visually coherent action so when things hot up they aren't entirely frustrating. But its still a cheap and unconvincing gimmick (do people really experience and process violent events with a severe case of the jitters?) that robs events of much of their potential impact. Also the factory setting is dull, the sort of place that worked in a plethora of 80's through 90's cheapjack action/sci-fi fare because lots of people and/or things got shot, set on fire or blown up but here holds little such excitement. While on the whole this didn't make me want to eat my own head, it moves fast and is at the very least mildly diverting, there's almost nothing about it to really recommend. I suppose I liked the twist character as I generally do such types, but that's more of a personal quirk. You'd probably be better off antiquing or smoking meth or something.

The Enemy (2011) Dejan Zecevic

A man sits smoking in pitch dark, quiet, but then light breaks in and he is walled up no more... In 1994, the first few days after the end of the conflict in Bosnia a team of soldiers are working to dismantle and remove mines they themselves planted, while staying in an abandoned farmhouse awaiting relief. Should be a time for packing up and going home but they just released someone they possibly shouldn't have. A rum cove at the least... 

The Enemy probably won't be dazzling anyone with its originality or innovation but within confines it gets things pretty right. Wisely it sets out its stall pretty clearly pretty early on, there's some interesting mystery in the finer details but overall the deal isn't complicated or elusive so the audience is well set up to just take it and settle in to get thrilled, the appeal is mostly visceral rather than cerebral which makes a nice change. Curious freed prisoner Daba is a cerebral type though, quiet, polite and wry, authoritative not by force but by wisdom, indeed with neither need nor inclination to really use force. He's the films trump card, such fun to spend time with that most predictability is smoothed over. Mind you, the generally solid performances also work in this way, without too much in the way of exposition or general fat they come across as a tight, coherent unit, not always comfortable but perfectly able to work together. And when it comes to ratcheting up the excitement now and again alongside the growing tension, mines make for a rather fun complement to the expected guns and fisticuffs. 

This is altogether, rather good stuff if military themed psychological horror is your thing. Aside from one expected bit of shallow brutishness that strikes more as lazy than shocking I have no real complaints about the general lie of it, in fact I had a really good time. But it surely could have been more. The mine removal set up could have been a piercing light into the absurd fog of war, a scene of outright offbeat humour shows how inspired, how different this could have been had it really spread its wings. Sure, quality generica is still quality, but I can sense the film shifting and preparing to recede less than a fortnight after viewing. Meh, don't take that as a deterrent though, watch it anyway and you might well think different. Over and out!

The Burrowers (2008) JT Petty

Watching a horror western hybrid like The Burrowers I become acutely aware that I come at it one handed. The number of Westerns I've seen in my life would barely break ten and so there's a wealth of genre context that I just don't have. In this case The Searchers, with which The Burrowers seems to share narrative fundamentals. But I guess it doesn't matter too much because this is a distinctly modern affair, posing as these things do that the West was not a melting pot of derring do and cultural creation myths but ugliness and violence despite blissfully attractive locations (this is shot in lovely New Mexico). It's not a serious study though, more an interesting backdrop. The story is of an Irish labourer about to propose to his beloved but finds her stolen away, possibly by Indians. So he joins a pack of Indian hunters for pursuit, but inevitably things get a bit weirder. The romance alas is contained in a brief opening, staying undeveloped, and while the low status of the Irish at the place and time is mentioned it provides no friction either underlying or ongoing. Likewise a black servant character proceeds with little discomfort although the racial situation of the time is also mentioned. And of course the main human villain is no more than an arrogant sadist. So the film doesn't really work on historical dramatics, but the setting suits the horror well. The titular burrowers are like huge and limbed maggots, crawling through the Earth to create and feast upon decay, and multiple top down shots establish the Earth as living thing, ground a flat, dull expanse of skin dotted by grass and trees as hair, humans with all their discord and violence invaders feeding the rot within. Makes for an interesting universal message that goes quite some way towards excusing other flaws in the conception. 

It could all have worked out splendidly but unfortunately isn't all there. The quest isn't as pronounced as it should be, nor the villain as vicious or the creatures deeds as grotesquely gruesome in presentation. The villain is nasty and the creatures, announced by a sinister creaking sound, are scary, but only towards the end does the film lock down in the way that it should and even then the close is a bit too open ended to fully satisfy. But it's still a generally effective ride. Karl Geary, earlier seen in 90's art vamp gem Nadja makes for an engaging, sympathetically driven hero, Clancy Brown is a good old school tough but decent guy, William Mapother is a similarly effective goodie, Doug Hutchison plays loathsome like its second nature (not quite as repellent as in The Green Mile but he still works well) and Sean Patrick Thomas rounds out the mains nicely as a quietly smart, stoic servant who sure isn't a sap. I was disappointed that Jocelin Donahue only appeared for about a minute at the beginning though, when you have an actress so goddamned cute you could happily watch her watching paint dry you really ought to show her a bit more. There's some reasonably exciting Western style action and bloodshed and what creature nastiness there is neat indeed though there isn't enough of it. And the generally bleak, serious tone is well judged, atmospheric and compelling rather than cloying. So in the altogether this is worthwhile stuff. For all its imperfections it still offers a good bit to chew on and does fair justice to both its horror and western sides. Many may happily skip but for fans of the slightly off the beaten track this gets a good recommendation.

Seconds Apart (2011) Antonio Negret

Freaky people, twins. In a trick of a haircut my ma and her sis can look uncannily similar, and lets not even get into the infamous round of Pictionary some decades back when one correctly guessed the other's elephant from the briefest momentary formless scrawl. Freaky people indeed. Seconds Apart comes from the freaky school of twin movies, though quality wise is more Blood Link than Dead Ringers. Counter-intuitively, though perhaps audaciously it doesn't bother with much in the way of human duality or shifting of personalities, mostly sticking with telepathy. Seth and Jonah (or is it Jonah and Seth?) get off on fear, creating, manipulating and recording fear in a deadly narcotic exchange, doggedly pursuing that first perfect high that slinks away unceasingly into the past. A nice idea executed with a pleasing cruelty and flair for the twisted, but the film isn't really that special. 

The main trouble is that Jonah and Seth just aren't really interesting at all. They look creepy enough but never come across across as more than dicks, just utterly average *beep* kids who fail to communicate anything through their average ass-holeness. A film like this really needs the fuel of torment or sadism, some real disturbance behind things, but it isn't here. There's not much here in general in fact. The victims of the film receive only the most cursory of character sketches and so depart with little power, the embittered detective on the case has only a little further shading and likewise only a little more impact. A romantic interest that pops up to rack up some tension is underwritten and unconvincing, though not really the actresses fault, who looks nice and gives it the old college try. And while there are a few scenes of bloodshed there's almost none of the sort of nasty gore that could have made several of them pretty great. Still Orlando Jones impresses as tough, determined Detective Lampkin, showing none of his better seen roots in lighter fare. And between the effortless experience of watching this and its scattered glimmering of legit inspiration it sits just on the right side of average, making it one of the better releases in the After Dark Original line and a reasonably cromulent slow evening watch in general. Not one to strain to watch of course, but not one to flee from either, minor thumbs up all in all. Elephant.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Al-ta'weeza (1987) Mohamed Shebl

Well, this was my first experience of Egyptian horror and I do hope it won’t be my last. But this hope does come with the significant caveat that I also hope Al-ta'weeza is not too representative of its fellows. The basic plot is quite reasonable, a villain wishes to acquire a flat for reasons that are not entirely clear, but the father of the family cramped within isn't interested in selling or moving so the villain sics a bit of the old supernatural menace on them. And the supernatural visitations are amusing enough, with objects moving of their own accord, room shaking, pyrokinesis and the like. We also get some nice moments as the camera takes the eye of the demonic, prowling through the flat low and sinister. A little disappointingly there's little in the way of local colour to the terror but much as they may be the most basic of Western generica the tropes are solid enough, I mean no one wants mystery tremors or unexplained fire, that shit is dangerous. And I guess maybe in a culture removed from the secular mythology japing of horror in the West to explicitly tackle local custom may have been less palatable. Could have worked OK, but the pace, oh dear oh dear the pace. I’m not fundamentally opposed to big clunking chunks of soap operatic filler but they have to be done right, either building and maintaining tensely churning and hence hilarious melodrama or at least poised at enough of a skew from reality and relatable human behaviour to be perplexingly compelling. Al-ta'weeza opts simply for a banal facsimile of real living, there’s some potential in the characters and basic conflicts established (between young and old, change and tradition, global and local perspectives, etc.) but nothing is developed and most of the time just feels like dead fat, with corresponding just about workable but basically flat performances. And it bulks up the film to nearly 100 minutes!  I'm sure it's more relatable to Egyptian audiences and perhaps more interesting too but the fact remains that you just can't really get away with a horror film in which at least half the run time isn't the least germane to the actual horror. Much the more frustrating because this actually ends on a memorable high note, a bit of bloody lunacy that isn't often seen anywhere that shows that the film-makers weren't too afraid to shock and spread their wings but just didn't. All in all this isn't something I'd recommend even to the most dedicated of obscurity searchers, it's just too long and not very good. Didn't make me want to poke my own eyes out or anything but at times I did wonder why I never seriously pursued learning French or other languages and whatnot. Take of that what you will...