Archive for the ‘horror’ Category

Hereditary

Posted: June 17, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Ari Aster. Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro and Gabriel Byrne.

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Just one big happy family.

At the funeral of her mother Ellen, Annie Graham (Collette) gives a eulogy detailing the difficult relationship she had with her mother due to Ellen’s secretive ways. She also mentions the loss of her father when she was a baby, and the fact that her brother committed suicide.

In the aftermath of the funeral, and unbeknownst to her husband Peter (Byrne), Annie visits a grief support group. She’s an artist specialising in miniature dioramas and an upcoming show has put her under added pressure, this stress isn’t helped by her uncommunicative daughter Charlie (Shapiro) and her slacker son Peter (Wolff).

As time passes and bizarre events begin to occur to the family, Annie becomes more and more convinced that the family is in some way cursed, and that a supernatural presence is stalking them, but are her fears genuine or is it a symptom of the mental illness that runs through the family?

 

Hereditary arrives on a wave of “Horror movie of the year/decade/century” level hype and expectation, and that’s always difficult to manage, but if you can get past the hysteria what lies behind it is an exceptionally well-crafted horror movie, albeit one that at times might be too well-crafted for its own good, but I’ll come onto that.

The first thing to say is that if your notion of a horror film is something like Insidious, a funfair ghost train of a film with a jump scare every five minutes, then Hereditary might disappoint. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have frights, but this is a slow burn of a film that prioritises atmosphere over action for most of its running time, and what an atmosphere! In tune with films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, or more recently films like The Blair Witch Project and Get Out, Hereditary is a film that aims to unsettle. There’s a palpable sense of dread that hangs over the film like a mouldy sheet. Even before much in the way of the supernatural occurs this world feels off kilter, from the odd way Charlie acts, to Annie’s work creating miniaturist art (and kudos to the design team because these miniature sets are wonderful) that is at once intriguing but also disquieting.

Once bad things start happening it’s a downward spiral for the family, but you have to give Aster credit, because he doesn’t let the story follow the path you imagine, in fact there’s one moment early on that left me awestruck at its audacity. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a certain level of predictability at work here, but there has to be, the best twists are ones that arise out of logical actions, and the film is littered with little clues which will likely make a repeat viewing even more interesting.

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The cast are excellent. Few actors can do frazzled and on the edge of nervous breakdown as well as Collette, and this is her film. Annie is a character seemingly out of step with the world even before the supernatural intrudes on her life. You get the feeling she’s hovered on the edge of a breakdown for a while, yet Collette never quite lets the character tip over the edge. Byrne has less to get his teeth into, because he’s tasked with being the grounded member of the family, but he does it well and between them they convince as a couple who clearly love one another, yet are somehow distant strangers.

1238244As Peter, Wolff does a great job essaying a young man who goes from someone whose only concerns are weed and girls, to someone who has to deal with incredible tragedy and then the fact that his family may be being haunted by an evil force, and much as with Collette you really fear for him. Then there’s newcomer Shapiro as Charlie and what a performance. Charlie is, to put it mildly, an odd bird, but despite her inexperience Shapiro never overdoes things. She’s an unsettling presence in every scene, the sort of loner you imagine would be bullied, yet somehow isn’t because everyone is, if not afraid of her, then unnerved by her.

Rounding out the small cast is Ann Dowd (yes Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale!) as another member of the grief support group.

Aster directs his own script, and whilst he has written and directed short films before, this is his feature debut and he does an excellent job, knowing when to close in on the family to emphasise the claustrophobia, but also willing to pull back to emphasise the isolation of the characters. He makes full use of the camera, from skewed angles to making wonderful use of shadow and reflection to highlight some very eerie moments, and he makes great use of the landscape, both the geographic and the more personal landscapes, focusing on every anguished line on Collette’s face as if her visage were itself were the surface of the moon. As with the best horror sometimes the worst parts of the film are the bits you don’t see, and Aster judiciously cuts away from several gorier elements that a lesser director would have focused on. Not that Hereditary isn’t gory, Aster just knows when to show and when to tell.

The one downside is that, with the tension wound so tight, and with the film walking such a razor’s edge between ludicrous and terrifying, occasionally the more melodramatic moments can teeter on the side of funny rather than frightening. For me it never quite fell into that trap, but I can see with the wrong kind of audience there may be more laughs than screams.

Assuredly directed, wonderful acted, this is an unsettling, yet utterly mesmerising film that will likely only get better with repeat viewings.

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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?”

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…

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Edited by Mark Morris.

I was hunting for something new to read in Waterstones and this caught my eye. I like a good horror anthology, plus I’d read some of the authors before.

There are nineteen stories in the book, and I’ll try and say a bit about each one, in particular shining a spotlight on the ones I really liked, and the ones I really didn’t!

As with most anthologies, the stories within this books pages are a mixed bag. This is both the strength of an anthology—if you didn’t like a story chances are you might like the next one—but also a weakness—it can be hard to keep your momentum going, especially if you get several rum tales in a row.

An added problem with any story, no matter its length, is that often some stories are great set-ups with weak endings, and sadly there was a lot of that in this book. This doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy those stories, it’s just a shame the endings didn’t live up to the central idea.

The collection opens with The Boggle Hole by Alison Littlwood, which is a fairly mild horror, a nice way to ease yourself in, though not one of the highlights of the book.

Next up is Shepherd’s Business by Stephen Gallagher, a well written story centred on a young doctor taking up a position on a remote Scottish island. I liked this, and the story ended up going somewhere I didn’t expect.

No Good Deed by Angela Slatter is an excellent tale of magic, poisoned brides and revenge from beyond the grave. Definitely one of the highlights, although I’d say it leaned more towards fantasy than horror.

The Family Car by Brady Golden has an interesting premise, a young woman whose family vanished in the family car years before suddenly finds herself stalked by the titular vehicle, but the ending let it down.

I adored the writing at work in Four Abstracts by Nina Allen. It gripped me from the off and I got really involved and engaged with the characters. The ending is a damp squib but there’s much to enjoy before you get there thankfully.

Sheltered in Place by Brian Keene is a sharp little tail with a wonderful twist in the tale.

The Fold in the Heart by Chaz Benchley is a romantic tale set around the Cornish coast. It’s ok but didn’t really grip me.

Departures by A.K. Benedict is an inventive tale where the newly dead wind up in limbo, which is an airport bar.

The Salter Collection by Brian Lillie is a delightfully creepy tale of demons and hidden messages on old wax cylinders. It ends a bit abruptly but has a nice atmosphere.

Speaking Still by Ramsey Campbell is a pretty stock tale of messages from the beyond the grave.

The Eyes are White and Quiet by Carole Johnstone is an interesting post-apocalyptic story, though it doesn’t get much time to breathe unfortunately.

The Embarrassment of Dead Grandmothers by Sarah Lotz is a darkly humorous story about a young man who takes his gran to the theatre, only to have her die in her seat, suffice to say that the young man doesn’t do what any normal person would do in this situation. It’s ok, but a bit throwaway.

Eumenides (The Benevolent Ladies) by Adam Nevill is a turgid tale of a man who goes on a date with a woman from work to a local deserted zoo. It goes exactly where you expect it to go and takes ages getting there.

Roundabout by Muriel Gray has an interesting central conceit—a monster living on a roundabout—but like the previous story it’s a bit of a slog to read.

After struggling with the previous two stories, The House of the Head by Josh Malerman was a welcome improvement. Yet again the ending is a bit of a let-down, but the story of a haunted dolls house is wonderfully creepy anyway.

Succulents by Conrad Williams is sadly another tale that didn’t connect with me. A father and his young son take a bike ride whilst on holiday in Spain and the tour guide makes the father partake of a strange fruit with strange results.

Dollies by Kathryn Ptacek is one of the highlights of the book, as a young girl grows up she names each of her dolls Elizabeth and in turn each of them “dies” of smallpox. Not an easy read but it’s well written and heads in an unsettling and unexpected direction.

When it comes to stories with weak endings, The Abduction Door by Christopher Golden is the reverse, I thought it was fairly average until the final few pages where it really comes alive and has a hell of a twist. Another highlight.

Rounding out the anthology is The Swan Dive by Stephen Laws, a grim and gory tale of a man who tries to commit suicide and finds himself led on a murderous tour of Newcastle by a demonic creature. It’s not the best the book has to offer, but is far from the worst and is a good way to finish the book.

All in all your typical anthology, a mixed bag and if you like horror you’re bound to find something to like here.

The Hunter

Posted: December 7, 2017 in Free fiction, horror, science fiction
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Over time humanity grew and spread, like a field of bishop’s weed, quickly dispersing far beyond their point of origin. They covered the globe and then reached further, at first just tentatively into the solar system, but then they grew smarter, they grew bolder.

Some stayed behind, most went to the stars. It made his life harder, but however far they went he grew adept at locating them. He had long since learned to create copies of himself, corporeal shadows that ensured he could track millions of them at once across a thousand worlds.

His list grew year by year, but so did his guile. Whether you lived in a bunker on Mars, or sailed the crystalline seas of a world three hundred light years from Earth, he would find you.

At night you would secure your doors and sleep soundly, and whilst you dreamed he would enter your home, bypassing any alarm, any lock. He would stand by your bed and watch as your chest rose and fell, rose and fell.

And when you woke the proof of his visitation would be there at the end of your bed. A neat parcel, tied with a bow. Just what you’d wished for.

And one nebulous facet of Santa Claus would cross your name off his list.

Until next year…

 

The Mummy

Posted: June 17, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis and Sofia Boutella.

 

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So that’s where I put my giant head!

In ancient Egypt Princess Ahmanet (Boutella) is first in line to succeed her father, the pharaoh Menehptre, or at least she was first in line. When Pharaoh has a son courtesy of his second wife Ahmanet slips down the pecking order. Not a woman to take disappointment lightly the princess sells her soul to the God Set and gains supernatural powers. She slaughters her family but, before she can claim the throne, her father’s priests capture her and mummify her alive, burying her in a sarcophagus where they think no one will find her.

In present day Iraq, solider (and part time treasure hunter) Nick Morton (Cruise) and his long-suffering partner in crime Chris (a nice turn from Jake Johnson) survive an encounter with IS militants as they search for lost artefacts to loot. In order to survive they have to call in the cavalry, but when the army arrive so does archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis).

When a cave-in reveals a hidden tomb Nick, Jennifer and Chris discover a sarcophagus. Jennifer insists it must be taken back to London, but en route things don’t go as planned. Soon the sarcophagus is lost and something monstrous stalks England.

Can the risen Ahmanet be stopped? What does this have to do with the uncovering of a Crusader tomb under London, and just what part does a mysterious Doctor played by Russell Crowe have to do with all this?

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Come with me if you want to live…forever!

Mummy films have a long history in Hollywood that began with Universal studies who, between 1932 and 1955, made six Mummy films. That these began as straight horror films with Boris Karloff as the Mummy and ended with the Mummy meeting Abbott and Costello speaks volumes about how the franchise went downhill. Just a few years later the franchise was resurrected (see what I did there) by Hammer, and between 1959 and 1971 they made four Mummy films.

Flash forward to 1999 and Stephen Sommers gave us an action adventure romp starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. More Indiana Jones than Boris Karloff the film was nevertheless a huge amount of fun and a huge success, spawning two sequels, plus a spin off (The Scorpion King) and a raft of straight to DVD sequels.

2017’s effort is clearly not the worst Mummy film of all time. What is clear is that it’s a long way short of the best Mummy film.

Its main problem is in what kind of film it’s trying to be? The 1999 version proved that turning the franchise into an action blockbuster could work, so the overall theme of the film isn’t the major problem. The trouble is that it tries too much to be all things to all people, without settling on a definitive tone. It’s not especially scary, but yet it does tread closer to horror than Sommers’ version did, and this is reflected in its 15 certificate, and whilst it’s action packed, it can’t compete with the kind of action franchises you get elsewhere. This leaves the film reliant on its performances and its script, and whilst the actors do ok, the script lets them down.

The film is incredibly derivative, not only of previous Mummy films, which you’d kind of expect, but also of other films—most notably other horror films. An American Werewolf in London is a wonderful film, and I wouldn’t decry any director who wanted to ape its glorious balance of horror and comedy, but lifting a recurring plot idea so shamelessly is so downright disgraceful that someone ought to sue. The other film , admittedly perhaps less well known and certainly less well lauded (though its truly wonderful in its own way) this riffs on is 1985’s Lifeforce; a film about a beautiful alien vampire who stalks England, sucking the lifeforce out of people by kissing them and turning them into desiccated zombies. Oh and she has a psychic link with the all-American hero who’s trying to stop her. Ahmanet’s mode of killing is so on the nose as a rip-off of Lifeforce (as is the look of the zombies she creates) that again I’m surprised legal action hasn’t ensued.

Throw in far too much exposition (hang on, it’s ten minutes since the last info-dump we’d better pause and regurgitate some more mythology) and lacklustre direction, and you’re left with a film that should be terrible. That it isn’t is down purely to some “so bad it’s great” moments and the performances.

Rumour has it that Tom Cruise had far too much creative control, and that’s part of the reason the film sucks, I can’t comment on this, all I can do is go with what’s on screen, and on-screen Tom almost saves the film through sheer force of personality. He’s engaging, funny, and proves yet again that he’s a good actor and an honest to goodness movie star.

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“I’m sorry, Tom, I can’t hide the truth any longer. I am the real monster of this film.”

If Cruise is the main reason to see the film, then Crowe’s performance is another. It’s fantastic. It’s just amazing for all the wrong reasons! I won’t go into why or how, suffice to say that there comes a point where his performance shifts and the film reaches such a level of preposterousness that you will either laugh or cry. I chose to laugh.

As the titular Mummy (or is she?) Sofia Boutella works very well. There’s a languid alien grace to her—no doubt born out of her dance training—and she’s probably a better villain than the film deserves. If anyone loses out it’s Wallis, who doesn’t get much to do other than explain what’s going on and fall in love with Nick improbably quickly.

The film will supposedly form the start of Universal’s Dark Universe, and one can only imagine that, having seen the riches Marvel/Disney have reaped in recent years, they’ve decided they want a piece of that, but the only property they own is all the old Universal monsters so, voila, let’s just reimagine the Mummy, Dracula and the Wolfman et al as superheroes/supervillains.

Based on how The Mummy has been received I wonder how many of the Dark Universe films will actually get made.

This is an unmemorable and derivative film that isn’t scary enough to be horror and isn’t action packed enough to be an action film, and yet I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It made me laugh (admittedly sometimes for the wrong reasons) and I was never bored at least so that’s something.

Ok then, I think that about wraps up this review…

 

Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup.

 

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“I am NOT Groot!”

The colony ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6. It carries a crew of fifteen plus 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos in stasis. Acting as caretaker is a synthetic named Walter (Fassbender). Disaster strikes during a routine maintenance stop and Walter is forced to awaken the crew, with tragic consequence. In the aftermath the ship picks up a strange transmission coming from an unexplored planet nearby. Further investigation shows a planet with a lush, earth-like environment and the ship’s acting captain, Christopher Oram (Crudup), decides that the colony has a better chance of survival there than in continuing on to Origae-6. Daniels “Dany” Branson (Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert feels it isn’t worth the risk, but Oram overrules her.

Most of the crew take a shuttle to the surface and find that the planet is indeed inhabitable. All too quickly several crewmembers are exposed to alien spores that gestate inside them, eventually releasing vicious creatures that wreak havoc with the landing party. The survivors encounter another synthetic named David (Fassbender again) who arrived on this planet in the aftermath of the previous film with Dr Elizabeth Shaw. David can fend off the vicious neomorphs, but is there a deadlier monster still to make an appearance?

 

As anyone who’s read my review will know, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Prometheus, so I was initially hopeful about a new Alien film that promised to get back to basics. After I saw the trailer I started to worry again, and I’ll be honest I expected Covenant to be bad. The odd thing is whilst it is bad, it isn’t necessarily bad for the reasons I expected it to be bad.

Prometheus wasn’t enough like an Alien film (though that was hardly its sole flaw) and to be honest I thought Covenant would go too far the other way and be too much like an Alien film (I know, some people are never happy, right?) and whilst it is guilty of this, it’s Alien greatest hits medley is accompanied by a side order of “You know, Prometheus wasn’t that terrible, we should do some of that again” ensuring this is a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be.

For all its failings at least Prometheus had a clear tone, whereas Covenant is just a messy mashup of B-movie monster flick and pretentious “thoughtful” sci-fi.

Ridley Scott provides fair warning of what’s to come in a 2001-A space Odyssey inspired flashback where Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce sans makeup this time) has a conversation with a newly online David. They talk about creators, the nature of God, and immorality and…the whole thing is about as subtle as a brick that has BRICK written on the side in neon green paint.

The film then segues into something more reminiscent of the older films, with a space ship and a crew in hibernation. And then there’s a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. If this all sounds familiar it’s clearly supposed to because the call-backs in this film are not subtle. Now don’t get me wrong, harking back to previous films in and of itself doesn’t make a film terrible. I’m a huge fan of The Force Awakens but I can see it’s blatantly riffing on A New Hope. Thing is with TFA it works because what’s new is so well done that you just enjoy the call-backs. Covenant fails so badly on its own merits that the call-backs just seem really jarring. And there are a lot of call-backs. Crew of grousing space jockeys? check; express elevator to hell, going down? Check. Fight in a cargo bay: Check…and I haven’t even listed them all because some would be blatant spoilers. And when the film isn’t harking back to Alien films, it seems intent on stealing from others. The opening space scenes feel like Sunshine, there are some echoes of Blade Runner here, and even Covenant flying through the clouds whilst a storm rages just made me think of Event Horizon. Pretty much everything in this film will make you think of something else. Probably something better.

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“Where we’re going we don’t need quarantine procedures.”

The script is flimsy, and whilst Scott is clearly still a great director (The Martian was just a few years ago) he seems incapable of being able to salvage a ropey script, and the pacing is off throughout. Using a Goldilocks metaphor, when it’s slow it’s too slow, and when it’s quick it’s too quick (seriously, if you thought AVP sped up the Alien Lifecyle you ain’t seen nothing yet!).

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“Don’t call me Ripley. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ripley.”

Cast wise there are a lot of people in the ship and down on the planet, but most of them are cardboard cut-outs and they’re stupid in much the same way most everyone in Prometheus was stupid, and they’ll be dead soon so you don’t have to worry too much. Part of what made both Alien and Aliens good was a cast of easily identifiable characters, but here the cannon fodder just merge into the background. Initially Waterston is very good as Dany. She makes for an engaging protagonist. Until the midway point of the film where she’s shunted to one side so that Fassbender can have pretentious existential chats with himself about Shelley and Byron and talk about flute playing in a way that’ll make your adolescent-self snigger. Don’t worry, Ripley will come back to the fore in time for the finale. Sorry, I meant Dany. It’s shame as when she has something distinct to do she’s very good. Fassbender is always a joy to watch, and seeing David and Walter interact is nicely done, it’s just that their conversations are a trifle ponderous to say the least. Crudup’s acting captain is given a potentially interesting character trait as it’s awkwardly shoehorned in that he’s a man of faith. Once done this will barely be referenced again and certainly won’t seem to inform many of his actions. Of the rest only Danny McBride makes any impression as (do you) Tennessee (what they did there?) but this might be down to him wearing a cowboy hat.

One of the things I found so annoying about Prometheus was it’s need to explain where the Xenomorphs come from, completely missing the point that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re terrifying and unstoppable (mostly). They work best as creatures of mystery lurking in the shadows. Explaining their origins is like pulling the curtain away from the great and powerful Oz, and when you have them leaping around in broad daylight they’re just another CGI monster. Captain America could have turned up at the end and wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

If you found the Engineer origin of the Xenomorphs annoying, prepare for that annoyance to be dialled up to eleven as the franchise lurches in a new direction that makes little sense, and frankly I have no idea how they’ll get from this point to the beginning of Alien.

Oh, and if you don’t twig a certain plot point early on, well I envy you your cinematic naiveite!

After The Martian I thought Scott was back on form, but it seems he is only as good as the script. Covenant looks good, has a few nice ideas bubbling around, and features good performances from Waterston and Fassbender, but in the end it’s a dull mess, and whilst I was always slightly wary of the idea, I really want to see Neill Blomkamp do Alien 5 now, because it just has to be better than what we’re getting from Scott and co.

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I guess he didn’t like the cornbread either.