Silent Night (2012) – Film Review

One of the most controversial films of the 1980s, primarily due to its promotional material, which featured a killer ‘Santa Claus’ brandishing an axe as he emerged from a chimney. ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night,’ released in 1984, is well-known amongst horror fans for its bizarre legacy, spawning a franchise consisting of four low-budget sequels that had barely any relation to each other, yet still gained a cult following thanks to their bewildering stories and unintentionally hilarious moments. Years later, in 2012, we received ‘Silent Night,’ a remake of the original film that reimagines the concept of a murderous ‘Father Christmas’ for modern audiences, utilising its attractive visuals and creative kills to provide slasher fanatics with their fill of ho-ho-horror, even if ‘Silent Night’ is filled with many of its own unique issues.

Plot Summary: When a sadistic serial killer dressed as ‘Santa Claus’ embarks on a Christmas Eve rampage through a remote Midwestern town, the local police force must follow the killer’s trail of victims in the hope of uncovering his identity and averting the rest of his festive bloodbath…

Partially inspired by the 2008 Covina Holiday Massacre, during which, forty-five-year-old Bruce Jeffrey Pardo killed nine people at a Christmas party whilst wearing a ‘Santa Claus’ suit. ‘Silent Night’ isn’t the first voyage director Steven C. Miller (The Aggression Scale, Marauders, The Line of Duty) has taken into the horror genre, though, it may be his goriest, as Miller along with screenwriter Jayson Rothwell, up the ante from the original film by jumping straight into the violence, having the kills drive the story forward as they occur one after another. However, the screenplay certainly falls short when it comes to some other aspects such as developing the characters or building intrigue regarding the true identity of the masked killer, as the characters are insipid and the mystery uninteresting, making the film’s climactic plot twist feel less than galvanising, which is only made worse by the overcompensating dialogue.

The main cast of Jaime King, Malcolm McDowell, Donal Logue and Ellen Wong all try their hardest at giving their lifeless characters a personality and a reason for the audience to empathise with them, but it’s a largely wasted effort as King and Logue merely go through the motions as small-town police officers with a few glimmers of characterisation. While McDowell truly steals the spotlight as a dimwitted and pompous sheriff, often coming across as if his performance was taken from another film entirely. Then there is veteran stuntman Rick Skene, who fulfils the demanding physical requirements as the killer ‘Santa’ without saying a word, using his size and threatening demeanour to great effect.

Contrasting the horrific bloodshed of the story with a candy-coated aesthetic of stereotypical Christmas traditions, the cinematography by Joseph White allows for a number of visually interesting shots throughout the runtime, nearly all of which are enhanced by the festive colour palette, which employs an abundance of bright red, green and blue lights to make potentially bland locations such as the police station or a motel more visually appealing. And despite the moments of barbaric murder frequently falling back on hand-held shakiness in a feeble attempt of increasing the brutality of said murders, ‘Silent Night’ does redeem itself during its flashback sequences, as these scenes are entirely coated in black and white, aside from the killer’s ‘Santa’ suit, which remains a glowing red.

Contrarily, the original score by Kevin Riepl is a blaring and often tedious horror soundtrack, as outside of the track: ‘Sheriff Cooper,’ which strangely contains a guitar riff that sounds as if it’s from a ’70s crime-thriller. The majority of the score, including the tracks: ‘The Chipper’ and ‘Rack Mounted,’ are simply loud and unexceptional. Of course, being a film set at Christmas, the film also features a handful of renowned Christmas songs such as: ‘Up on the Housetop’ and ‘Deck the Halls,’ which thankfully aren’t overused.

Although ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ had its fair share of gore, ‘Silent Night’ takes its gruesome violence to another level, as the bloodthirsty ‘Santa’ make use of a range of tools including an axe, a cattle-prod, a scythe and even a flamethrower, in addition to constantly exploiting the environment around him, such as a scene where he impales a teenager onto a mounted set of deer antlers in a clear reference to the original film. What’s more, is all of the practical effects seen throughout these moments are magnificent, rarely relying on CG enhancements for further shock factor.

To conclude, ‘Silent Night’ is a modern slasher with its heart firmly in the ’80s, and I say that as a good thing. As with the film being a remake, it maintains the same level of cheese, dark humour and seduction as ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night,’ but as a result of its modern techniques, looks far better than most horror remakes/reimaginings. So, it’s truly a shame that the screenplay and original score continuously let the film down, as with a few improvements, ‘Silent Night’ could’ve gone down as a certified Christmas horror classic. But as it stands, while the film is far from a masterpiece, I believe ‘Silent Night’ will please fans of the series as well as those seeking a festive slasher. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Beneath (2013) – Film Review

Directed by Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo, Depraved) and distributed by the horror-centric production company, Chiller Films, a now-defunct television network responsible for many low-budget supernatural horrors including ‘Siren,’ ‘Animal’ and ‘Dead Souls.’ ‘Beneath,’ released in 2013, may have sounded like an estimable idea during its conception, being pitched as a minimalist creature-feature that explores the direful outcomes of human behaviour under the influence of extreme isolation and fear. But as a result of its overemphatic performances, mindless screenplay and frequently mishandled visuals, whatever little tension and intrigue ‘Beneath’ manages to build-up is completely capsized by the time the end credits roll.

Plot Summary: Following their high-school graduation, a group of friends decide to spend one last summer outing together at ‘Black Lake’ before going their separate ways. But when their rowboat is struck by an amphibious creature, subsequently killing a member of the group and destroying their oars, the five remaining friends find themselves trapped in the middle of the reservoir, contemplating whether one of them should be thrown overboard as a distraction…

While the original screenplay for the film had flashbacks which further developed the characters and explored their individual journeys throughout high-school, Fessenden ultimately decided to remove them. This allowed the entire film to be shot in a mere eighteen days, which certainly shows, as ‘Beneath’ is a largely dull affair, following the usual formula for a creature-feature outside of one or two subversive moments. Given Fessenden’s past work, it would also make sense that the film could go so far as to suggest that the creature in the lake doesn’t actually exist, and is, in reality, just a physical manifestation of the characters’ ulterior motives. Yet regrettably, this is not the case, and ‘Beneath’ opts to play things relatively straight, with the characters being devoured one-by-one in equally idiotic ways.

On a similar note, the title of the film doesn’t just refer to what lurks in the tranquil water, but is also a guide to where ‘Beneath’s substance lies. With the film’s unbearable roster of characters, compromising of: ‘Johnny,’ a brooding, long-haired loner, ‘Kitty,’ the rotating object of desire for practically every male character in the film, ‘Matt,’ the golden-boy jock whose prospects seem to be going downhill since graduating, his younger, less athletic but more intelligent brother: ‘Simon,’ along with ‘Kitty’s best friend: ‘Deb,’ and the hyperactive filmmaker: ‘Zeke,’ each having a respective outburst as simmering high-school grudges, rivalries and romantic betrayals factor into the survival stakes. But as a result of the exceptionally awful dialogue, the prospect of any tension within the story soon becomes virtually non-existent, even with the cast of Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jon Orsini, Mackenzie Rosman and Griffin Newman having their brief moments of promise in a film brimming with atrocious performances. Moreover, the friendship between the characters feels so unnatural from the outset considering their vastly different backgrounds and personalities.

Cinematographer Gordon Arkenberg tries his best at keeping the solitary setting of a stranded rowboat visually interesting, which beyond some oddly framed shots and sequences that can only be described as ‘visual disarray,’ is a goal he somewhat succeeds in, particularly whenever the camera is pointed towards the beautiful scenery, where the stillness of the lake accentuates the ominous threat of the creature prowling just beneath its surface. Nevertheless, these shots are soon defaced by harsh shadows and a bleached colour palette due to the whole film being shot using natural light. Judging by the editing, you would also be forgiven for thinking that ‘Black Lake’ is the largest lake in America, as the characters spend hours upon hours rowing with their broken oars (and eventually hands) only to make zero progress in a poor attempt of elongating the runtime.

Even though there is next-to-no focus placed on the original score by Will Bates, the score for: ‘Beneath’ is competent if very forgettable, making a fair effort to enhance the supposed tension on-screen. Except for the track: ‘Last Stand’ that is, which sounds as if it’s from another soundtrack entirely, mimicking the score from a light-hearted romantic-comedy more than anything else.

As for the film’s main feature; the creature itself closely resembles the appearance of a giant anglerfish. And whilst I can respect this decision given the anglerfish is one of the most naturally frighting animals on the planet, this choice also displays a great deal of laziness on behalf of the filmmakers, as taking what is already an intimidating-looking animal and simply enlarging it is a rather indolent approach to designing your marketable monstrosity. Having said that, the combination of puppetry and animatronics that bring the creature to life are impressive despite their limited range of movements.

All in all, while some may get an ironic laugh out of this ninety-minute trainwreck, I feel most will agree that ‘Beneath’ is above all else just a frustrating experience, with one of the film’s only positives being its commendable reliance on practical effects over CGI. But truthfully, the effects alone don’t even come close to rectifying what are the film’s many, many other shortcomings, distinguishing ‘Beneath’ from other films within the genre solely on how moronic and tiresome of a horror/thriller it is, paling in comparison to Fessenden’s other low-budget efforts. Final Rating: low 2/10.

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Cargo (2017) – Film Review

Based on the short film of the same name, which went on to be an online sensation following its release in 2013, garnering over thirteen million views on YouTube alone. ‘Cargo’ takes a refreshingly character-driven approach to the post-apocalyptic genre, differentiating itself from other films featuring flesh-devouring monstrosities through its secluded setting and Martin Freeman’s terrific lead performance. A combination that will surely satisfy most zombie fanatics even if the genre’s more mainstream crowd could potentially be disappointed at the exclusion of decaying hordes of the undead, a true sense of dread and a lack of extravagant gore.

Plot Summary: After an epidemic spreads across Australia morphing humanity into flesh-eating monsters, ‘Andy,’ along with his wife: ‘Kay’ and infant daughter: ‘Rosie,’ attempt to escape the Outback via the river, making their way to a presumably secure military base. But when the trio stumbles upon an abandoned yacht, ‘Kay’ is bitten while searching for supplies, soon passing the virus onto her husband. Now, with his time running short, ‘Andy’ has one mission: find a new home for his daughter…

Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, ‘Cargo’ is not only Howling and Ramke’s first feature-length film, but is also Australia’s first-ever production to be spotlighted as a Netflix Original, releasing globally on the streaming service in 2017. And although Netflix has ventured into the post-apocalyptic genre before with projects like ‘Ravenous’ and ‘Z Nation,’ both Howling and Ramke wanted ‘Cargo’ to be more than just a straight-forward story of survival, subsequently leading the pair to intertwine social commentary into the story relating to everything from environmental fracking to the exploitation of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. But, in my opinion, the best thing about ‘Cargo’ is its central concept, as the idea of a father having only forty-eight-hours to find a new life for his child is a plot enriched with dramatic potential, with a nocuous outbreak providing the perfect backdrop to juxtapose the qualities one would look for in a guardian during such a crisis.

Speaking of the protagonist, Martin Freeman leads the cast brilliantly as ‘Andy,’ portraying an affectionate father/husband who is determined to protect his family at all costs, an intention which, whilst honourable, often lands him and his loved ones in an even worse spot, as ‘Andy’ refuses to accept when he is out of time. Freeman’s young co-star, Simone Landers, unfortunately, doesn’t fare quite as well, as her frail performance frequently results in poignant scenes feeling less sincere. However, ‘Thoomi’ herself is still an intriguing character, with her subplot, focusing on the demise of her father and the survival of a nearby native tribe, providing a vastly different perspective on the epidemic when compared to ‘Andy’s point of view.

Utilising the vegetation-splotched, sun-parched rural land of the Australian Outback flawlessly, the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is both varied and visually interesting. Even if, in reality, the Australian wilderness where ‘Cargo’ was shot threw everything it had at the production crew, with South Australia experiencing what was supposedly its worst weather in a century, with floods, power blackouts, torrential downpours and even a miniature cyclone all occurring over the five weeks of production. Yet miraculously, the crew didn’t lose even a single day’s worth of filming, very fortunate considering that the remote setting is a crucial player in the film’s identity, with its harsh and unforgiving nature hurling countless obstacles at our characters, whilst at the same time, offering them a means to survive.

Managed by four different composers, including Michael Hohnen, Daniel Rankine, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Johnathon Mangarri Yunupingu. The original score for: ‘Cargo’ greatly strengthens each scene’s emotional significance, almost as if the score is applying a proverbial highlighter to certain moments, with sombre, tenuous tracks such as: ‘The Grave’ and ‘Goodbye’ flourishingly pulling at the audience’s heartstrings more times than one.

Taking an alternate route to avoid comparisons to zombie designs of the 1970s, seen in classic horror films like ‘Rabid’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ ‘Cargo’ strays away from many of the usual clichés associated with the undead, centring its zombie design around an orange pus-like substance that oozes from the infected’s facial orifices, rather than the bleeding open wounds the living dead are commonly known for. This distinction is further emphasised through what we see of their behaviour, as the infected are presented as mindless animals more than they are man-eating monsters, requiring dark/damp areas to incubate during the daytime, before feasting on whatever wildlife they can find once night falls, reminding the audience that what they are witnessing is a viral infection, hence why the infected are even nicknamed: ‘Virals.’

On the whole, even if ‘Cargo’s story could’ve been executed in a more effective fashion with a motley of improvements, I feel ‘Cargo’ is still a creditable entry into the realm of post-apocalyptic storytelling. Being a zombie film with soul and pathos, which, in turn, makes the living dead formidable once again, not because of jump-scares or excessive bloodshed, but becuase of the film’s biggest drawcard; its sheer humanity. Telling a story that largely revolves around the notion of human determination, seeing how far an individual will go to protect another even in the bleakest of circumstances. Final Rating: 7/10.

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Hush (2016) – Film Review

Exceptionally gripping in the face of its simplicity, ‘Hush,’ released in 2016, navigates the bloody waters of the home invasion subgenre to tremendous results. With only five characters and a single location to speak of, the performances and sound design of: ‘Hush’ are both key in the film’s goal of establishing a disquieting tone, captivating its audience while simultaneously making them dread that the story they are witnessing on-screen could realistically transpire in the most peaceful of surroundings. Certifying ‘Hush’ as a concise and well-executed horror/thriller despite the film’s continuous cat-and-mouse pursuits growing a little tiresome by its third act.

Plot Summary: When ‘Maddie,’ a deaf and mute author, moves to a secluded woodland house with the hopes of living a peaceful, solitary life as she writes her second novel, she soon finds her isolated home the target of a deranged masked killer…

Co-written, directed and even edited by Mike Flanagan, this talented director has been the face of modern horror for many years now, crafting chilling and original genre pieces such as: ‘Oculus,’ ‘Before I Wake’ and ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ in addition to adapting much of Steven King’s iconic catalogue of literature with ‘Gerald’s Game’ and ‘Doctor Sleep.’ ‘Hush,’ however, was one of the director’s earlier films, with Flanagan conceiving the storyline whilst on a dinner date with his co-writer/leading actress Kate Siegel in 2014, not long before the pair married in 2016. To get a better understanding of the film, Siegel and Flanagan even role-played each scene in their house before writing them into the screenplay, enabling them to better envision how the characters would react in the face of danger, a method that I feel ultimately paid-off.

Although the lead role of: ‘Hush’ seems tailor-made for a hearing-impaired actress, Kate Siegel portrays ‘Maddie’ divinely as a quick-witted heroine who keeps the audience on her side at all times, constantly thinking on her feet, overcoming a few of the obstacles that come with her disability, as well as using her hearing impairment to her advantage when possible. John Gallagher Jr. is just as stellar as the mysteriously motivated antagonist; a character only ever known as ‘The Masked Man.’ Who, throughout the film, we learn seems to enjoy playing mind games with his victims, receiving some kind of fetishistic pleasure from toying with those he’s about to slaughter. In many ways, ‘The Masked Man’ shares similarities to the horror icon: ‘Michael Myers,’ with his motivation for killing never being stated and his costume consisting primarily of an unadorned white mask, which only adds to the character’s intrigue.

Whilst a substantial portion of the cinematography by James Kniest is hand-held, removing the possibility of: ‘Hush’ being one of Mike Flanagan’s most visually impressive films. The fluidity of: ‘Hush’s camerawork does allow the audience to follow ‘Maddie’ as she wanders through her contemporary home, the camera tracking her every movement as she enters/exits various rooms on impulse. However, a major shortcoming of the film’s visuals is certainly it’s lighting, as due to all of the narrative taking place at night, it makes sense that ‘Hush’ would be quite gloomy lighting-wise, yet most shots are seemingly over-lit considering the characters are supposed to be in a dense woodland area in the dead of night.

At times peaceful, at times aggressive, the original score for: ‘Hush,’ composed by The Newton Brothers, greatly enhances the story at many points, as tracks like ‘Maddie,’ ‘Intruder,’ ‘Against the Glass’ and ‘Crossbow’ are all incredibly atmospheric. And even if the score lacks a predominant track that could be regarded as the film’s theme in years to come, ‘Hush’s soundtrack still more than serves its purpose, especially when taking into account the film’s reliance on sound as opposed to a non-diegetic score.

Since the protagonist of: ‘Hush’ is both deaf and mute, the film contains less than fifteen minutes of dialogue, meaning, with a runtime of around eighty-two minutes, ‘Hush’ has more than seventy minutes of screen-time without a single word spoken. This set-up provides Mike Flanagan with a perfect opportunity to play with sound in creative ways, removing audio entirely (with the exception of an ultrasound machine) to put the audience into ‘Maddie’s shoes and deliver a sudden jolt when appropriate, avoiding the common horror cliché of having nonsensical, ear-piercing jump-scares for no apparent reason. Through the sound design, we also learn more regarding ‘Maddie’s character, as she hears the echoing voice of her deceased mother whispering to her, a voice that usually helps her conjure-up endings for her novels, but, in this case, layouts her options on how to approach her current situation.

To conclude, ‘Hush’ is a sharp, violent and finely-tuned horror/thriller that goes down familiar paths yet with flair and skill, not quite reinventing the wheel, but proving that the genres it’s drawing from still have firm legs. From ‘The Masked Man’ toying with ‘Maddie’ as he steals her phone and sends pictures to her laptop, to ‘Maddie’ rapidly locking all of her windows and doors before the killer can enter, ‘Hush’ is truly an engrossing story with an excess of suspenseful moments, its sound design only adding to this appeal as the film frequently gets closer to becoming a sensory-deprivation experience. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Terrifier (2016) – Film Review

Grisly, taut and seasonally atmospheric, ‘Terrifier,’ released in 2016, aims to pay homage to the inexpensive slasher flicks of the 1980s, relishing in the same simplistic approach and over-the-top gore that classic horrors like ‘Friday the 13th’ and ‘Blood Harvest’ specialised in. And while the film does admittedly fall prey to many of the usual limitations low-budget horrors tend to have, ‘Terrifier’ is preserved through a genuinely terrifying performance from David Howard Thornton as ‘Art the Clown,’ in addition to plenty of fantastically gruesome effects and a willingness from writer-director Damien Leone (All Hallows’ Eve, Frankenstein vs. The Mummy) to push on-screen violence to its limit.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, ‘Tara Heyes’ and her best friend: ‘Dawn,’ find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as they become the unfortunate targets of: ‘Art the Clown,’ a demented serial killer with a morbid sense of humour…

With coulrophobia (the name given to the fear of clowns) being one of the most common phobias in the world, it makes sense that the horror genre would try to capitalise on this widespread fear of individuals with white face paint and oversized shoes. And if there’s one area ‘Terrifier’ more than thrives in, it’s fully realising this common phobia, as ‘Art the Clown’ is consistently frightening, as the film jumps from moments of complete silence as ‘Art’ stares down his victims, to violent murders where the sadistic clown’s black and white costume is showered with blood. ‘Terrifier’ isn’t actually ‘Art the Clown’s first appearance though, as Damien Leone first introduced the character in his second short film, which not only shared the ‘Terrifier’ title, but is essentially the same story just condensed into a brief twenty-minute runtime.

Even though the conceited: ‘Dawn,’ somewhat sensible: ‘Tara,’ and loyal sister: ‘Victoria Heyes,’ portrayed by Catherine Corcoran, Jenna Kanell and Samantha Scaffidi, respectively, all serve an important purpose within the narrative. The characters themselves never attain anything beyond being generic slasher victims, and although each of the actress’ screams of terror sound as suitably realistic as a director could hope for, the delivery of some lines (particularly from the supporting cast) can feel clunky. But the true star of the film is undoubtedly David Howard Thornton as ‘Art the Clown,’ as Thornton stays in character ceaselessly as the psychotic murderer, portraying ‘Art’ as a fun-loving mime whose killings involve a combination of predatory sadism and joyful glee. So much so, that ‘Art’ will make many viewers nervous purely due to his unpredictability, as the character’s manic actions make it almost impossible to predict what he’ll do next.

On a technical level, ‘Terrifier’ is top-notch considering its thin budget, as whilst the cinematography by George Steuber is far from groundbreaking, the film has a reasonable amount of creative shots, the majority of which are enhanced by the film’s highly saturated colour palette, thin layer of granularity, and scenes lit primarily by natural light, truly giving the film a low-budget ’80s appeal. And, as mentioned previously, Terrifier’ does not hold back when it comes to brutality and depravity, certifying the film as one, not for the faint of heart, as the gore effects are gut-churning and grotesque with the amount of work and detail that has gone into each effect being more than deserving of applause, especially when once again acknowledging the film’s budget, which is estimated to have been around £73,000.

The original score by Paul Wiley is a triumphant blend of 2010 and 1980s horror scores, with tracks such as: ‘In Pieces’ and ‘Clown Car’ being daunting and metallic-sounding similar to many modern horror scores, whereas tracks like ‘Kill Horn’ and the film’s main theme, simply titled: ‘Terrifier Theme,’ are reminiscent of the original: ‘Halloween’ score in more ways than one, which by no means a poor comparison when it comes to unnerving soundtracks.

These connections to past genre films continue further into the film’s visuals, as director Damien Leone inserts many explicit nods and visual tributes to everything from ‘Psycho’ to ‘Hostel’ to everything in-between. And whilst some may not like when a film relies so heavily on pastiche, it never feels overdone in ‘Terrifier,’ as the film strikes a satisfying balance between throwbacks and unique ideas, occasionally playing with the conventions of slashers by adding some twists to the killer and final girl dynamic, which will most definitely catch some viewers off-guard.

In short, ‘Terrifier’ has plenty of entertainment value should you fit into the film’s principal audience, as this modern slasher is an unabashed reminder of the bloodthirsty horror films that populated the 1980s, a.k.a. the kind of nasty flicks that were banned during the video-nasty era. The film has its issue, undeniably, most notably with its shortage of interesting characters and often oversimplified story. But ‘Terrifier’ does make the most of its foreboding atmosphere and unsettling killer, and it quickly becomes clear while watching the film that Damien Leone wants ‘Art the Clown’ to join the ranks of: ‘Jason Voorhees’ and ‘Michael Myers’ as a horror icon in the near future, which I think is more than feasible depending on how the horror community perceive the film as a whole. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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Hellraiser (1987) – Film Review

Written, directed and based on the novella: ‘The Hellbound Heart’ by Clive Barker (Nightbreed, Lord of Illusions), 1987’s ‘Hellraiser’ is truly a fiendishly unique vision. Offering a discomfiting and sadistically smart alternative to mindless gore, this classic horror rarely has a tiresome moment, utilising its outstanding practical effects and onslaught of intriguing ideas to great effect, up to the point where the film sequentially became a victim of its own success, being so influential that it not only spawned a decades’ worth of poor imitations, but even its own series of continuously disappointing sequels. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that the original: ‘Hellraiser’ is an unforgettable excursion into a netherworld of monsters, murder and disloyalty.

Plot Summary: When ‘Kirsty’s father: ‘Larry’ and stepmother: ‘Julia,’ move into ‘Larry’s childhood home, ‘Julia’ discovers the newly resurrected, partially-formed body of her brother-in-law: ‘Frank,’ a sexual deviant who lost his physical form after solving a supernatural puzzle box which summons a group of multi-dimensional demon sadists known as ‘The Cenobites.’ Now, to reclaim his body, ‘Frank’ convinces ‘Julia,’ his one-time lover, to lure unsuspecting men back to the house so he can use their blood to revitalise himself and escape the clutches of the demonic beings pursuing him…

One of the central concepts of the ‘Hellraiser’ franchise; a seemingly innocuous puzzle box that is, in reality, a gateway to Hell, has its basis in the urban legend of: ‘The Devil’s Toy Box,’ which concerns a six-sided cube constructed of inward-facing mirrors. According to the legend, individuals who enter the structure will undergo disturbing phenomena that will simultaneously grant them a revelatory experience and permanently warp their mind. This story has heavy ties to the idea of insanity, which is certainly prevalent throughout ‘Hellraiser,’ as the film similar to the rest of Clive Barker’s work, is very surreal in nature. However, unlike the rest of Barker’s work, the budget for: ‘Hellraiser’ was astonishingly low at around £730,000. Whilst this was most likely due to Barker’s lack of filmmaking experience (only having directed two short films at the time), ‘Hellrasier’ quickly earned over £14 million, immediately cementing Barker as a promising writer and director in addition to establishing ‘Hellraiser’ as a series we’d still see years down the line.

The superb cast of Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Sean Chapman and Ashley Laurence all effectively serve their purpose within the narrative, as ‘Hellraiser’ admirably values its characters more than many other horror films, developing each of the family members so they feel both genuine and distinct from one another, ensuring the pivotal plot threads of adultery and ‘Julia’s subsequent guilt remain riveting. Then, of course, there is Doug Bradley as the film’s icon: ‘Pinhead,’ who, despite being kept in the background for a majority of the runtime, gives a solid performance, especially considering ‘Pinhead,’ similar to the rest of: ‘The Cenobites,’ has very limited dialogue and screen-time.

Speaking of iconography, while ‘Hellraiser’ no doubt has its fair share of recognisable shots, much of this iconic imagery isn’t due to the cinematography by Robin Vidgeon, but more so because of the film’s masterful creature, costume, and prop design. As the camerawork itself, although dynamic, often just falls back on conventional close-ups and mid-shots with the occasional zoom or tilt thrown in to further magnify the effects on-screen.

For the original score, Clive Barker originally wanted the experimental electronic music group, Coil, to compose music for the film, but when that notion was rejected, the film’s editor Tony Randel suggested composer Christopher Young as a replacement. And truthfully, I feel this was for the better, as Young’s score perfectly lends itself to the dreamlike, otherwordly tone of the film, with the opening theme: ‘Hellraiser’ being a grand orchestral piece with a dark, fairytale-like undertone, whilst tracks like ‘Resurrection’ and ‘The Lament Configuration’ have an unnerving, almost gothic quality to them.

But it’s undoubtedly the artful designs of: ‘Hellrasier’ that make the film so unique, with the grotesque and somewhat sexual designs of: ‘Pinhead’ and the other ‘Cenobites’ being particularly striking, as Clive Barker drew inspiration for their diverse looks from punk fashion, catholicism, and visits he took to S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam. Interestingly, in spite of the character’s reputation, in the novella, ‘Pinhead’ is present but is not the lead ‘Cenobite.’ ‘The Female Cenobite,’ ‘The Chatterer’ and ‘The Engineer’ all have more prominent roles, but as a result of the visually impressive yet extremely restrictive prosthetic make-up for the respective characters, ‘Pinhead’ took point on account of Doug Bradley’s prosthetics allowing for the most facial movement, promptly resulting in ‘Pinhead’ becoming the face of the franchise.

To conclude, ‘Hellraiser’ is truly one of the most gruesome, indelible and captivating horror films of the 1980s. And even though it’ll no longer leave audiences chilled to the bone just as it did way back when, ‘Hellraiser’ is still an exceptionally eerie slice of ’80s horror, and its importance in the history of cinema can’t be discredited. As not only did the film force ostentatious critics to accept that the horror genre could have real artistic weight, but it also pushed the boundaries of practical effects, with many of its effects even outshining today’s CG efforts. Final Rating: 8/10.

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Brightburn (2019) – Film Review

An inversion of the iconic ‘Superman’ origin story, ‘Brightburn,’ released in 2019, is a film with an aggressively simple pitch, essentially boiling down to “What if the Man of Steel was Humanity’s Oppressor Rather Than its Saviour?” And even though the film doesn’t fully follow through on that enthralling premise, primarily as a result of its sketchy screenplay and often botched sense of dread, ‘Brightburn’ crossbreeds horror tropes with superhero staples in an effective enough fashion to at least offer something unique for enthusiasts of both genres.

Plot Summary: After a difficult struggle with fertility, ‘Tori Breyer’s dreams of motherhood become a reality when a child from another world crash-lands on her farm. But, years later, as ‘Brandon’ nears puberty, a darkness begins to manifest within him, leading ‘Tori’ and her husband: ‘Kyle’ to become overwhelmed with terrible doubts concerning their son, doubts that soon put them in grave danger…

Directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive, Nightbooks) and written by James Gunn’s brother and cousin, Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, respectively, ‘Brightburn’ certainly succeeds in its main goal, setting-up an almost identical scenario to ‘Superman’s origin before then taking the narrative in a far darker direction. And the film clearly has no pretences with what it’s drawing from, as ‘Brightburn’ actually shares many similarities to the ‘Superman’ comics beyond just its story. From ‘Brandon Breyer’s name following the comic book convention of superheroes with alliterative first and last names, such as: ‘Clark Kent,’ ‘Peter Parker’ and ‘Bruce Banner,’ to the story taking place in Kansas, the same state where ‘Kal-El’ touched down and later grew-up to become ‘Superman.’ The film’s connections to the ‘Man of Steel’ are ever-present, even extending to the costume design in certain scenes as ‘Brandon’ wears combinations of blue, red and yellow, the principal colours of: ‘Superman’s classic outfit. Still, all of this association doesn’t fix what is ‘Brightburn’s most predominant problem; its runtime. As the plot is squeezed into a very brief ninety-one-minutes, meaning the film wastes no time in jumping straight into ‘Brandon’ discovering his abilities and embracing his detrimental side, thus, the story allows for little emotional investment, with much of the first act being nothing but scene-after-scene of what seem like trailer-made moments.

When it comes to the cast, Elizabeth Banks and David Denman share most of the film’s character-related scenes as the pair portray concerned parents starting to suspect that their blessing from the stars might, in actuality, be a curse. However, whilst this is an acceptable start for writing your central characters, ‘Tori’ and ‘Kyle’ have little nuance and barely any development outside of the love (and eventual doubt) they share for their son. Then there is ‘Brandon Breyer’ himself portrayed by young actor Jackson A. Dunn, who does a great job not only considering his age, but also a similar lack of characterisation. As once ‘Brandon’s twelfth birthday arrives, his psychopathic behaviour suddenly arises, morphing him from an innocent child to a homicidal supervillain so swiftly it appears forced, even if Dunn’s performance does help to make the transition feel slightly more believable through his complete absence of emotion during the latter half of the film.

Aside from some nice visual nods to further associate itself with ‘Superman,’ including a sweeping rural landscape and a farmhouse interchangeable with that of: ‘Clark Kent’s. The cinematography by Michael Dallatorre is fairly unremarkable, often just displaying shots without much thought or creativity put into them. With that said, many of the film’s CG effects are solid, especially when taking into account the film’s budget, which was considerably smaller than most superhero blockbusters.

Moreover, despite being described as a merging of superhero and horror soundtracks, make no mistake that the bulk of the original score for: ‘Brightburn,’ composed by Tim Williams, is firmly entrenched in the horror genre, with tracks usually starting-out slow and composed before warping into something far more nightmarish, likely symbolising ‘Brandon’s gradual corruption from the evil that dwells within him. This idea is further illustrated by the unnerving sound design, as the more ‘Brandon’ falls into the abyss of immorality, the more distorted voices he begins to hear, each speaking a foreign alien language.

Unfortunately, out of the two genres ‘Brightburn’ is attempting to represent, the film undoubtedly appears underbaked on the horror side of things, as ‘Brightburn’ lazily relies on clichéd scares like flickering lights and twitching curtains. Meaning it’s a rarity that the film actually tries to build tension or have any frightening occurrences outside of loud jump-scares or the admittedly gruesome ways ‘Brandon’ disposes of his victims.

In conclusion, between the red cape and blazing heat-vision, ‘Brightburn’ is a film that knows exactly what it is; an immoral retelling of an established superhero’s beginnings complete with plenty of violence and an abundance of horror trickery. Yet all of the film’s spectacle ultimately feels meaningless when compared to its deficiency of strong characterisation and emotional depth. And, as such, a majority of the film’s most entertaining moments come at the expense of understanding any of the characters on a deeper level, consequently leaving ‘Brightburn’ a film that never manages to strive past the subversive elevator pitch it was conceived as. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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Slender Man (2018) – Film Review

Releasing years after the internet icon had long since passed his popularity, the first mainstream film for the supernatural entity: ‘Slender Man,’ was released to little praise from critics and audiences alike in 2018, not only due to the film’s abysmal quality, but also as a result of the negative publicity surrounding the ‘Creepypasta’ creation following the attempted murder of a twelve-year-old Wisconsin girl in 2014, which was supposedly catalysed by the urban legend. The negative reception to the character got so severe that production companies Sony and Screen Gems were reportedly nervous about releasing the film, sequentially leading the companies to release the occult horror with hardly any promotion and no critic screenings. And yet, despite having all that backstory, the actual film is nothing but forgettable, as ‘Slender Man’ sands away virtually all of the mystery and subtlety that made the character so intriguing, to begin with.

Plot Summary: In a small town in Massachusetts, a group of teenage friends, fascinated by the internet lore of the ‘Slender Man,’ attempt to disprove his existence by summoning him with an online ritual. But, one week later, after a member of their group mysteriously disappears, the teens begin to realise that the urban legend of the ‘Slender Man’ is all too real…

Directed by Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard, The Losers, The Mark of the Angels – Miserere), ‘Slender Man’ himself first appeared on the ‘Something Awful’ forums in 2009, emerging in a series of photographs edited to depict a tall, humanoid entity unnoticed by others but almost always surrounded by, or near, children. Since then, many have speculated regarding the origins of the internet icon, the earliest reference to a similar creature being in ‘Der Großmann,’ a German folk tale written in 1702. But, of course, none of this captivating history was used for the film. Instead, ‘Slender Man’ simply just ignores all of the character’s rich history from the ‘Marble Hornets’ web series, the fan-made video-games and the bottomless trove of fan-fiction, in favour of telling a formulaic and derivative story surrounding a group of teens watching an ‘ominous’ video online before then vanishing one-by-one.

Naturally, this issue could’ve been concealed with a strong cast, but while Julia Goldani Telles, Joey King, Jaz Sinclair and Annalise Basso try to make their presence felt, especially King as ‘Wren,’ a soulful waif in a punk choker, and Sinclair as ‘Chloe,’ who beams with life until she watches in unflinching horror as ‘Slender Man’ records himself entering her house. The teens are so poorly defined that they’re practically interchangeable, so when ‘Slender Man’ starts abducting them, you may not even realise that any of them are gone. And even though the teens do try to protect each other, it’s obviously to no avail, and means nothing to the audience as they are entirely disposable protagonists.

The film’s cinematography by Luca Del Puppo, fortunately, fairs a little better, as the camerawork allows for a reasonable amount of attractive shots, particularly in the first act. Nevertheless, this is soon spoilt by the film’s atrocious colour palette, as there isn’t a single shot throughout the film not drenched in drab blues and greys. By that same token, even though I strongly subscribe to the idea that darkness perfectly lends itself to the horror genre, shots in ‘Slender Man’ are often layered with so many coats of black that it becomes almost impossible to tell what’s occurring in some scenes, which is only made worse by the film’s dreadful CG effects, repeatedly uninteresting set-pieces and collection of deafening jump-scares.

Surprisingly composed by Brandon Campbell and Ramin Djawadi, the original score for: ‘Slender Man’ does manage to be far eerier than the visuals through its heavy use of string instruments, creating as daunting of an atmosphere as it can through tracks like ‘Him’ and ‘Library.’ The sound design also effectively adds to the film’s soundscape with thundering cicada buzzing and woodland ambience, both of which are efficacious even if repetitive.

Considering that ‘Slender Man’ is infamous for tragically invoking an attempted murder, in addition to being blamed for many suicides. It’s almost inconceivable that a high-risk film such as this could also be so inaccurate when it comes to the character it’s based upon, as the mythology for this incarnation of the character almost seems to be fabricated on the fly, as ‘Slender Man’ is given multiple abilities he was never known to have had previously, such as mind control, world manipulation and more.

In summary, the inherent creepiness of: ‘Slender Man’ never comes across in this cinematic interpretation, which despite having a runtime of only ninety-one-minutes, feels as if it lingers on for over three hours. Having said that, it’s not as if more resources would’ve improved the film, as the main fault of: ‘Slender Man’ lies within its portrayal of the titular character, as the story ultimately loses sight of what made the internet icon so unnerving in the first place; the trepidation in what you don’t see him do. And, as a result, the film gives you plenty of reasons to put your hands over your eyes, but almost no incentive to peek through your fingers. Final Rating: high 2/10.

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The Wretched (2019) – Film Review

When it comes to the horror genre, you may not always desire a film that sets-out to rewrite the rules of spine-tingling storytelling, occasionally you find yourself just wanting to dim the lights and ensconce with a low-budget popcorn flick, and 2019’s ‘The Wretched’ falls firmly within this category. With appealingly modest ambitions, the film utilises its cast of unknowns, unique creature design and admirable focus on body-horror as effectively as its thin-budget will allow. And even though ‘The Wretched’ is far from a game-changer for the realm of supernatural horror stories, it still overcomes its various flaws to be a mostly engaging if fairly foreseeable tale of witchcraft and body-snatching.

Plot Summary: After being sent to live with his father for the summer on account of his parents’ imminent divorce, defiant teenager: ‘Ben’ begins to suspect there is something wrong with his current next-door neighbour, eventually discovering that there is an execrable entity lurking just beneath her skin…

Originally titled: ‘Hag’ before it was later changed following negative feedback from test audiences. ‘The Wretched’ was certainly a departure for writer-director duo Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce, as the pairs’ prior film: ‘Deadheads,’ released in 2011, was a zombie road-trip comedy. Even so, this leap in tone and genre rarely seems to impair ‘The Wretched’ from a directorial standpoint, as the film leaps head-first into its grim tone and horrifying visuals right from the opening scene. And whilst the film does struggle to balance its plot threads from time-to-time, it quickly becomes clear that the main source of inspiration for the story was the low-budget creature-features of the 1980s, tied together with a desire to create a newfangled interpretation of witchcraft and revitalise hags into terrifying antagonists.

Acting-out since his parents’ separation, seventeen-year-old: ‘Ben’ competently portrayed by John-Paul Howard, is the protagonist of the film. And while it’s always challenging to portray an angsty teenager due to the concern of the character becoming incredibly abrasive, Howard pulls it off successfully, presenting ‘Ben’ as a frustrated and confused adolescent struggling to come to terms with his altering life. Furthermore, ‘The Wretched’ even aims to justify the common horror trope of parents not believing their children once the supernatural occurrences begin, as when ‘Ben’ tries to explain the situation to his father, ‘Ben’s past transgressions of trespassing and stealing medicine come to light, prompting his father to dismiss his claims as either lies or delusions. The supporting cast of Piper Curda, Jamison Jones, Azie Tesfai and Zarah Mahler are also serviceable in their small roles as members of the lakeside community.

Filmed around Omena and Northport, Michigan, near the Pierce brothers’ hometown, the cinematography for: ‘The Wretched’ by Conor Murphy often ranges in quality. As some scenes are beautifully shot with a strong focus on close-ups, whereas others, usually during conversations between characters, seemingly just rely on dull, hand-held shots. With that said, when working in synch with each other, the camerawork and lighting do a remarkable job of masking the creature early on in the story, only giving the audience brief glimpses of the witch in her contorted, feral state, before later displaying the film’s full range of prosthetic make-up and practical effects.

Excluding the ominous theme for the titular witch heard in the tracks: ‘Woods’ and ‘The Wretched Appears,’ both of which feature avant-garde strings led by a manipulated sarangi, the original score by Devin Burrows admittedly leaves some room for improvement. As tracks like ‘Don’t Let Her In,’ ‘Honey… Beer?’ and ‘Broken Window’ continuously overuse strings and brass horns to the point where the tracks themselves become too disruptive, often mismatching with what’s on-screen.

Of course, the witch herself is unquestionably the main draw of the film, and ‘The Wretched’ presents its central creature with pride, making sure to include all of the most off-putting aspects of the creature’s devilish design and malicious nature. And whilst the witch isn’t grounded into any specific mythology, with the screenplay only giving small hints towards its origins, the witch’s carved symbols, salt fragility and quasi-religious shrines all give the creature an element of personality when outside of its human disguise. Speaking of which, the way the creature is presented when inside a body is just as disturbing, as we along with ‘Ben’ observe how the witch essentially lives the life of the person whose skin she now inhabits, caring for her decaying body the best she can as she attempts to act human, each day climbing closer to feasting on the unfortunate children of the mother she is impersonating.

All in all, although ‘The Wretched’ isn’t as polished as it could be, I feel this well-paced horror flick will please most genre fans. As even in spite of its occasional continuity issues, corny dialogue, and lack of focus regarding the film’s duel plot lines, ‘The Wretched’ still delivers on its promise of a skin-crawling creature-feature reminiscent of ’80s cult classics. The film is also one of the few horror films I’d personally like to see a sequel or prequel to someday, as I feel the concept of a witch that feeds on the forgotten is an intriguing idea that doesn’t reach its full potential here, but undoubtedly could in a more refined film. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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The Final Girls (2015) – Film Review

An affectionate nod and occasionally parody of 1980s slashers and their associated tropes, ‘The Final Girls,’ released in 2015, may not be as inspired or as tonally consistent as the similarly self-mocking likes of: ‘The Cabin in the Woods,’ ‘Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon’ or the original: ‘Scream.’ But with plenty of humorous moments, some stellar visuals, and a surprisingly strong layer of emotion tying together all of the film’s meta amusement, ‘The Final Girls’ is sure to delight any admirer of the gruesome subgenre, even if the film focuses far more effort towards being a comedy than a horror.

Plot Summary: When ‘Max Cartwright’ and her friends reluctantly attend a tribute screening of the notorious 1980s slasher: ‘Camp Bloodbath,’ a film that starred ‘Max’s late mother, the group are seemingly transported into the cult classic horror. Now, reunited with an on-screen version of her mother, ‘Max’ and her friends must join forces with the ill-fated camp counsellors to confront the film’s machete-wielding killer and survive the ninety-two minute runtime…

Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson (Drunks vs. Highs, Zombies and Cheerleaders, Isn’t It Romantic) and co-written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, ‘The Final Girls’ does a fantastic job of capturing all the aspects of ’80s slashers in a way that highlights the hilarity of their predictability whilst still respecting the subgenre. From one character losing her virginity and thus instantly condemning herself to a violent death, to each of the camp counsellors fitting into one of several slasher stereotypes e.g. ‘The Jock’ and ‘The Harlot’ etc. The screenplay gets plenty of mileage out of playing with the clichés we all know from the slasher films of old, but it’s undeniable that the main influence for: ‘The Final Girls’ is the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, as the films share many, many similarities in everything from structure to sound design.

The cast for: ‘The Final Girls’ is certainly a large one, but due to many of the characters from ‘Camp Bloodbath’ intentionally being written as walking clichés, the film places most of its attention towards developing ‘Max’ and her mother: ‘Amanda,’ portrayed by Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman, respectively. And their relationship is where the majority of the story’s poignant scenes come from, as after losing her mother in a tragic car crash three years earlier, ‘Max’ finally sees her chance to save her, or at least, the on-screen version of her through saving the fictional character of: ‘Nancy,’ a sweet-souled, unaware shadow of actress: ‘Amanda Cartwright.’ However, while the pairs’ performances are superb, along with the rest of the cast of Alexander Ludwig, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev, Thomas Middleditch, Angela Trimbur and more. Adam Devine is horribly miscast as ‘Kurt,’ the sportsman-type character, as instead of being an athletic, perverted jock, Devine comes across as far more pathetic and obnoxious than he should, almost as if he isn’t fully aware of what slasher archetype he is supposed to be portraying.

Other than some briefly utilised CGI, which has noticeably aged very poorly. A large portion of the visuals throughout ‘The Final Girls’ are impressive yet not always authentic to the ’80s time-period, as the cinematography by Elie Smolkin allows the camera to swerve, zoom and spin around the characters, all the while, the film’s colour palette is either immensely vibrant or exclusively black and white for whenever a flashback to the killer’s origin story is called for. Moreover, the film features a number of creative sequences including a tooling-up montage and a slow-motion chase, both of which not only add to the film’s style but are also terrifically edited.

Though lacking a central theme like many iconic slashers from the 1980s, the original score by Gregory James Jenkins and Eddy Zak is like a musical time-capsule of sounds that are no longer used within the horror genre. As tracks like ‘The Diaphragm Van’ and ‘Puttin’ It Together’ are easy on the ear synth tracks that whilst competent and reminiscent of ’80s horror scores, never quite manage to surpass any of their inspirations.

Unfortunately, despite all these positives, ‘The Final Girls’ isn’t an impeccable horror-comedy, as even with its brief runtime, the film does lose a bit of steam during its last third or so, as the story begins to fall into less inventive territory as the body-count rises. Still, the screenwriters do still find ways to integrate a clever surprise or two, such as the cliffhanger ending which alludes towards the prospect of a money-grubbing sequel titled: ‘Camp Bloodbath 2: Cruel Summer.’ The second primary issue ‘The Final Girls’ suffers from is its almost complete absence of violence/gore, as aside from one or two shots of dripping blood, for a slasher, ‘Camp Bloodbath’ seems fairly family-friendly, which, in my opinion, is a huge misstep in light of the slasher subgenre being well-known for its excessive amounts of blood and guts.

Overall, with much of the ‘The Final Girls’ essentially being a film-within-a-film, it’s entirely plausible that this horror-comedy could’ve declined into nothing but constant fourth-wall-breaking jokes and pop-culture references. Yet through its engaging story and facetious writing, ‘The Final Girls’ successfully deconstructs the slasher subgenre without the cynicism that could render a comedy into a unsurprising, humourless snore. Final Rating: 7/10.

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