Archive for April, 2018

Ghost Stories

Posted: April 23, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. Starring Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman.

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Phillip Goodman (Nyman) is a professor who specialises in debunking fraudulent mediums and explaining the unexplainable. He wants to prevent people’s lives being ruined by superstition, and was inspired by a 1970s paranormal investigator named Charles Cameron, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances decades ago, and is now believed dead.

When Goodman is contacted by the very much still alive Cameron he’s thrilled, but when he visits the old man in a ramshackle caravan, he is dismayed to learn that Cameron now believes in the supernatural. He passes three cases he could never debunk to Goodman, challenging him to explain them.

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The first involves a night watchman (Whitehouse) who encountered something unearthly in a disused sanatorium, the second is a teenager (Lawther) whose life has been turned upside down after he drove into something inhuman in the woods. Finally there is a rich financier (Freeman) who was plagued by a poltergeist on the eve of the birth of his child.

Goodman can explain each incident, but is he merely deluding himself? Is the supernatural actually real, and if so will Goodman survive his own encounter with the paranormal?

 

For those of us of a certain age, there are fond memories of kind of portmanteau horror stories that used to be on BBC2 late on a Friday or Saturday night. Best known producer of such films was Amicus productions, who churned out multiple such films in the 1960s and 70s, films like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Such films usually followed a familiar pattern, a series of stories linked by a framing story that would invariably contain a twist in the tale. Of course even before Amicus got in on the act there’d been the 1945 Ealing classic Dead of Night. There have been American takes on this too; Creepshow for example, but for me it’s those old British chillers I have affection for, and so on a purely nostalgic basis I was excited to see Ghost Stories.

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Adapted by Nyman and Dyson from their own stage play I can’t call Ghost Stories an unqualified success, but even beyond a nostalgic yearning for those old-fashioned portmanteaus, there’s enough here to make this a scarily enjoyably film, just not a perfect one.

As with any anthology, in film or print, some stories work better than others, and the first two tales on offer represent the highlights of the film. Once you get past expecting him to go all Fast Show on you, Whitehouse is actually very good as the night-watchman all alone yet not really alone. There’s a palpable sense of unease as he makes his rounds through the dilapidated building, and the directors really ratchet up the tension here. They almost take it too far, there’s a limit to how long you can conceivably stay on the edge of your seat waiting for the scare you know is coming, but they stay just the right side of it.

The second story is almost as creepy, especially once you factor in Goodman’s visit to the teenager’s house which is genuinely unsettling. Anyone who’s seen the Black Mirror episode Shut Up and Dance will know how well Lawther can do on the edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown levels of terror, and Nyman and Dyson make good use of it here, it’s a wonderfully fragile performance from Lawther and the lonely forest makes an equally scary counterpoint to the deserted sanatorium.

Sadly it’s kind of downhill from this point. Freeman is very good but the third tale feels limp in comparison to the first two (though there is one really effective jump scare as Goodman and Freeman’s character walk the moors) and from here on the film enters its final act and reveals the twist, and this is where the film falls down, because the ending has a bit too much going on, it feels baggy and in some respects unearned. There are elements that are utterly predictable (seriously if you don’t see one particular twist coming a mile away you need to go to Spec Savers) and others that aren’t nearly predictable enough, although there is a lot of foreshadowing and it’s possible that I might appreciate the final act more upon second viewing.

At times genuinely terrifying, with great performances, assured direction and a palpable sense of old school dread, there’s a lot to like here, I just wish the second half of the film had lived up to the opening segments, but that’s anthologies for you.

Anyway, I must go, it’s time for me to tell my story to Peter Cushing and my other fellow travellers on this old steam train. As for Ghost Stories, it’s flawed but recommended.

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“Who are you calling a hobbit?”

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A Quiet Place

Posted: April 17, 2018 in Film reviews, horror, science fiction
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Directed by John Krasinski. Starring Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe

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One downside to this film, you’ll see people doing this a lot!

In the future humanity has been almost wiped out by the appearance of a deadly species of predators that, although blind, have incredibly sensitive hearing. Lee Abbott (Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (Blunt) along with their children have survived by embracing a near silent existence, communicating mainly through American sign language which they learned because their daughter Regan (Simmonds) is deaf.

After an early encounter with a creature the family set up home in a remote farmhouse, doing everything they can to stay safe by being as quiet as possible, but their survival is threatened by the fact that Evelyn is pregnant, and about to give birth any day. The family make plans to mask the sound of the impending birth, and the noise the baby will make, but stress is affecting each member of the family, especially Regan and one of her brothers, Marcus (Jupe) and all it takes is one inadvertent loud noise to draw the lethal hunters towards the family…

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“Look we can’t get you an X-Box so stop asking!”

In many ways horror shares traits with comedy. Scaring or amusing people is equally hard. In this respect good horror films, like good comedies, are rare.

A Quiet Place is a good horror film.

When I first saw the trailer I wasn’t too impressed, but following on from a lot of positive word of mouth I decided to watch this and I’m so glad I did.

A Quiet Place is a short sharp shock of a film, with a refreshingly lean run time, an original script that doesn’t overload the audience, inventive direction and sound design and great acting from a small cast, this is a film that belies its minimal budget and, much like last year’s Get Out, kinda came out of nowhere.

Kudos must be given to Krasinski who not only directs, but also rewrote the original script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, and stars. This is a simple story, but a simple story told very well, and each choice Krasinski made feeds into a whole that is in many ways more than the sum of its parts. The decision to start the film in the middle of the action, and to end in the midst of a confrontation works perfectly, emphasising that what we’re seeing here is a snapshot of Armageddon and how one family survives it. Krasinski wields silence so effectively that the absence of sound is almost a character itself, as much as the creatures, and when I came out the world seemed impossibly loud all of a sudden (thankfully my fellow patrons were mostly quiet during the film which aided in creating the right atmosphere). This means that when noise comes it can’t help but shock, even if it isn’t the imminent arrival of one of the terrible beasties.

What’s amazing is that even in this world of silence Krasinski quiets things even more at times, and the decision to completely mute the soundtrack whenever we’re seeing things from the point of view of Regan is another spot on choice, emphasising how different the world seems to her—and in many ways she’s the most vulnerable because she can’t tell if she’s making noise, can’t tell if there’s a creature right behind her—and in the casting of a deaf actress (and Simmonds is truly phenomenal in this, essaying a frustrated teenager who isn’t only trying to fathom her place in the world as she grows up, but is having to do it with a disability and in a post-apocalyptic setting where monsters are real!) he adds and extra layer to the story. I can’t say whether this was a good onscreen portrayal of a disability, all I can say is that, to me, it felt like a very good one, and one we need to see more of.

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Don’t you just hate it when you go for a bath then realise you’ve left your clothes on?

As the father Krasinski is as good in front of the camera as he is behind it. Blunt is a great actress so its no surprise that she’s great here, and she looks truly terrified at times, yet still managed to imbue Evelyn with strength. Rounding out the cast Jupe does a good job as the younger child, who clearly wants to be brave yet who is scared to death much of the time (can’t blame him for that).

Best of all they feel like a family. Sure, Krasinski and Blunt are married, but often couples with a genuine relationship find it hard to replicate that on screen. Not so these two and they share some lovely scenes.

Krasinski’s direction is top notch, especially considering he’s relatively new to directing, and given he freely admits he’s never been a big horror buff. Maybe that distance allows a new perspective? Not that this is a film that necessarily has anything new to say, but in Krasinski’s hands it feels fresh. Maybe it’s the use of silence, maybe the focus on character. The world building is also excellent, especially given how short the film is, but the family home feels real, care has been taken to come up with solutions to the problem of how you raise the alarm when you can’t make a noise, for example, and note the elegance with which Krasinski makes it clear there are multiple other communities of survivors, without needing more than a single extra.

Best of all is the way he creates tension; when the film enters the final third it’s a masterclass in edge of the seatness, and be warned, it features one of the most wince inducing foot related scenes since Die Hard!

There are flaws. The first act is a little slow, a certain (presumably noisy) event occurs off screen and there’s a pretty big plot hole, but none of that dented my enjoyment one iota. There are a lot of terrible horror films out there, but Krasinski shows what you can do with a limited budget if you have a great script, an inventive director and a great cast.

I’m sorry but I can’t stay quiet, I’ve got to shout from the rooftops about how good this is!

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Surely the kids will be safe in here…

Unsane

Posted: April 3, 2018 in Film reviews
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Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Claire Foy and Joshua Leonard.

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“Seriously, mom. I keep telling them I’m the Queen of England but they refuse to let me out.”

Sawyer Valentini (Foy) is a young woman who’s recently moved cities to take a new job. This has taken her away from friends and her mother Angela (Amy Irving). Sawyer’s supposed reason for moving is that the job was too good to turn down, but what her mother doesn’t realise is that Sawyer actually moved because she was being harassed by a stalker named David Strine (Leonard).

After a panic attack Sawyer seeks help from a support group at a local hospital that specialises in helping victims of harassment. During a meeting with a counsellor she admits to sometimes having suicidal thoughts, and when given papers to sign to inadvertently commits herself to the psychiatric ward for 24-hours. Despite trying to back out, and even calling the police, she isn’t able to leave the hospital, and after a violent run in with a fellow patient named Violet (Juno Temple) her 24-hour stay is extended to seven days.

She finds an ally in a man named Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharaoh) who’s in the hospital recovering from drug addiction. He lends her his contraband phone and Sawyer is able to call her mother. Despite Angela’s arrival, getting her out of the hospital still proves difficult, and Sawyer has to face up to the fact that she’ll have to stay in for the full seven days, but things take a dark turn when one of the orderlies appears to be her stalker…or is he? Confused, and increasingly paranoid, is Sawyer imagining the presence of Strine in the hospital, or is she trapped in a building with a man who’s obsessed with her, and will do anything to posses her, even resort to murder?

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“Look all I’m saying is, maybe ease up on the Queen of England thing…”

Shot on an iPhone 7, Steven (didn’t you retire?) Soderbergh’s Unsane is a queasy, stripped back B-Movie that provides a showcase for Claire Foy to demonstrate that she can do much, much more than just play Queen Elizabeth II.

In almost every scene Foy is superb, and I suspect the film wouldn’t be half as good without her in the lead role. At times incredibly fragile, at times extremely resilient, she breathes life into a character who could have been just another stock final girl style heroine. Instead she wrings every last bit of character from the script, making Sawyer someone we can root for, whilst also making her seem real—she isn’t always the nicest of people, she’s manipulative when she has to be, and emotionally distant, using a dark sense of humour to spar with her co-workers (understandable given what she’d been through, but still a brave choice to not make her innately likable).

The decision to film on an iPhone allows Soderbergh to give Sawyer’s experiences an extra twist of the surreal. Foy and other actors are often viewed in closeup, adding to the sense of claustrophobia, and the iPhone lens further skews the images, adding to the Kafkaesque nightmare Sawyer finds herself in. In particular a scene where Sawyer is drugged is incredibly well shot to give us a glimpse into how disorientated Sawyer is.

I’ve never been a huge Soderbergh fan, though I’m not sure I could tell you why aside from the fact that his films always feel a trifle clinical, and despite the emotional intensity of Unsane it has that same, somewhat detached feel about it, but for the first two thirds of the film Soderbergh does a great job of discombobulating the viewer. Unfortunately in the third act things take a downward turn and the film becomes far more predictable. It wouldn’t have been so bad except for several elements that seem way too similar to a certain Stephen King adaptation to be coincidental, and these especially jarred, as did the inexplicable cameo appearance of a big name actor, which only served to pull me out of the story and remind me that I was watching a film.

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As a stripped down, exploitation horror/thriller Unsane works well due to its decent cast and inventive cinematography, and you have to admire a B-movie that actually has something meaningful to say about the American healthcare system, it’s just a shame the more intriguing and nuanced elements are pushed aside when the film reveals all and from then on treads a very well worn path.