Hell Fest (2018) – Film Review

Initially conceived as a yearly horror franchise similar to Saw and Paranormal Activity, with a sequel released each following October. Hell Fest, released in 2018, is a gruesome throwback to 1980s slasher flicks. Equally violent and bombastic, the film includes many amusing moments for lovers of both scare mazes and ’80s horror. As a result of its formulaic and often uninspired screenplay, however, Hell Fest suffers from a number of issues that diminish its quality as a nostalgic slasher, even when taking into account it’s distinct horror-festival setting.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, a group of friends make their way to Hell Fest, a ghoulish travelling festival loaded with rides, games and scare mazes, hoping for an exciting night of thrills and chills. But, as the night continues, the scares soon become all too real as a masked serial killer turns the horror-themed festival into his personal playground…

Before director Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost DimensionCrimson) was chosen to helm the project, a handful of other filmmakers were considered, including Jennifer Lynch and Neil Marshall. Needless to say, whilst Hell Fest is competently directed, the premise of the film is really where most of its appeal resides, as the idea of a pursuing killer blending in with an enormous crowd dressed as various ghouls, maniacs and monsters is a rather alarming concept, of which the film takes full advantage. For instance, when the group first encounter the killer chasing another girl through a blacklight-lit scare maze, they assume it’s all part of an act, so they merely watch as he butchers her. As opposed to sporting a single mask throughout the runtime, the killer, only referred to as “The Other,” also swaps out his disguise at many points. Distinguishing the character from horror icons like Michael Myers, despite Stephen Conroy’s physical performance appearing reminiscent of Michael’s movements in the original Halloween from 1978.

The rest of the cast, including Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Roby Attal, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James and Matt Mercurio, portray their characters sufficiently. The actual characterisation of the group is where most of the screenplay’s problems lie, as the teens come across as rather cliché archetypes. This issue is only worsened by the screenplay placing more emphasis on the characters’ relationships than their personalities during their first few scenes together, which is also where a large amount of the film’s corniest dialogue can be heard. On a more positive note, Hell Fest is the second horror flick to feature the voice of horror legend; Tony Todd, in a theme park, the first being Final Destination 3 in 2006. Todd later appears in person, too, portraying an enthusiastic stage announcer and providing the murderous proceedings with a brief jolt of energy.

In terms of the visuals, the cinematography by José David Montero is quite visually interesting, making fantastic use of the daunting yet colourfully lit location of Hell Fest, particularly whenever the camerawork employs wide shots to display the true scale of the bustling festival of frights. Moreover, when it comes to the killings, Hell Fest does a fine job of slaughtering the teens in creative ways through an array of superb practical effects. However, many of these kills are unfortunately spoilt by the film’s over-reliance on shiny CG blood, which somewhat takes away from the charm of the 1980s-inspired artificial heads and rubber eyeballs.

Similar to the film itself, the original score by Bear McCreary feels contemporary yet simultaneously like a nod to the past, as the score combines two musical styles with synth and orchestral, along with some violin harmonics later in the soundtrack. The signature track of the score; Trophies, effectively serves as the killer’s motif and lurks in the background for most of the runtime (similarly comparable to an abundance of classic slashers). Many of the other tracks, such as Technical DifficultiesGuillotine and Welcome to Hell, do an admirable job of building suspense when required, but aren’t that memorable by themselves.

Of course, the most noteworthy aspect of Hell Fest has to be its exceptional production design, which utilises an eye-catching assortment of scare mazes segments, costumes and props from numerous Halloween events all across the United States. A fair amount of the decorations were borrowed from Six Flags Over Georgia’s annual Fright Fest, while many of the costumes were leased from the Netherworld Haunted House in Georgia, one of the highest-rated scare attractions in the country. Furthermore, many members of Hell Fest‘s production crew had formerly worked as scare maze decorators, designers and staffers, so they were more than familiar with the set-up of a scare attraction.

In summary, Hell Fest certainly isn’t anything new. The film isn’t reinventing the slasher subgenre, nor is it trying to. Hell Fest is merely attempting to be an entertaining, modern-day slasher that pays homage to horror classics of the 1980s, and in that sense, I suppose it succeeds. It’s just a shame that Hell Fest doesn’t go further with its violence or horror-festival setting, as the production design is undoubtedly one of the most impressive elements of Hell Fest. And I’m sure that if any scare maze enthusiasts were to watch this slasher flick, they would be blown away by what the production crew accomplished with the detailed costumes, props and sets on display. Rating: high 5/10.

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Apollo 18 (2011) – Film Review

Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego (King of the HillThe Open Grave, The Hollow Point), Apollo 18 is an intriguing (if infrequently enthralling) found-footage fusion of period-accurate space-flight procedures, U.S. government conspiracy theories, and 1970s creature features. Presenting itself as authentic NASA footage through granular shots from astronauts’ suit cams and Lunar Module cameras alike, Apollo 18 is an interesting filmmaking experiment, to be sure. But, as far as its storytelling is concerned, the film is unlikely to leave an impact on general audiences, though it may appeal to a few sci-fi-horror fanatics.

Plot Summary: When decades-old footage from NASA’s abandoned Apollo 18 mission is uncovered, documenting astronauts; Benjamin Anderson, Nathan Walker and John Grey as they embark on a classified mission to collect geological samples. The ageing footage reveals a disturbing explanation as to why the U.S. has never attempted another mission to the moon…

A mere six months after the triumph of Apollo 11, NASA renounced its plans for Apollo 20 in January 1970. Soon after, Apollo 18 and Apollo 19 were also cancelled on account of NASA’s planned budgetary cuts for 1971. By this point, public interest in space exploration had declined since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s trip to the moon, with minimal attention paid to Apollo 12. As a result, many newspaper editorials and public figures began calling for the upcoming missions to be cancelled and for the money to be spent on eliminating poverty across America instead. Consequently, many conspiracy theories regarding why NASA never attempted another trip to the moon arose, which is where the filmmakers found their inspiration for the story. And whilst much of this inspiration is rather apparent, it’s even more obvious that the screenwriters lifted a lot from the original Alien, with a later plot twist feeling as if it was ripped straight from the sci-fi-horror classic. To its credit, though, Apollo 18 has no shortage of technically-accurate dialogue throughout its screenplay.

In regard to the cast, Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen and Ryan Robbins are all understated in their performances. Even when their situation escalates, and it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s little chance any of them will make it off the moon, the cast reign in their performances so as to not fall into the trap of screaming and wailing for the entire runtime, a common issue many entries into the found-footage subgenre suffer from. Having said that, Apollo 18 does suffer from another well-known shortcoming of found-footage flicks; one-note characters, as despite the film only containing three characters (excluding the transmissions), the screenplay never takes the time to develop any of them beyond some brief interviews during the first act, introducing each of the astronauts by name.

In addition to utilising a large amount of NASA stock footage to depict the period-accurate space-flight technology and procedures, Apollo 18 was shot using camera lenses from the ’70s, enhancing the visual authenticity of its grainy aesthetic. Furthermore, through a combination of both visual effects and sets, Apollo 18 manages to create a convincing imitation of the moon’s barren surface, harkening back to the hours of mission coverage that kept television spectators entertained during the heyday of the Apollo program. Due to this, José David Montero’s cinematography is able to perfectly capture the essence of the cratered lunar landscape, along with the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of the Apollo Lunar Module, making for an ever-present discomfiting atmosphere.

While the original score by Harry Cohen consists of merely a single sombre track for the end credits. The sound design throughout Apollo 18 is quite effective, with the continuous breathing from the astronauts’ helmets, as well as the constant static and technical malfunctions of the cameras sounding eerie yet not absurdly frightening as to take away from the sense of realism and isolation that the visuals produce.

A likely divisive aspect of Apollo 18 will be its preference for showing very little for most of its runtime, with a large majority of the story acting out like any routine NASA mission. When Apollo 18 does finally reveal what the malevolent threat lurking on the surface of the moon is, however, the film takes a sharp turn into body-horror as its malicious, spider-like creatures infiltrate the lunar module and later the astronauts’ suits. And whilst this approach to the horror elements could have worked should the film have stuck with it, Apollo 18 is more of a slow-paced thriller up to that point. So, these sequences of body-horror end up seeming somewhat out of place. Additionally, while this complaint undoubtedly comes down to preference, I personally feel that the designs of the creatures themselves aren’t all that frightening. So much so, I imagine that the only audience members that will be truly terrified of the extraterrestrial entities will be those with severe arachnophobia or petraphobia.

In summary, Apollo 18 certainly had potential, but as a result of its lack of polish, the film is rarely able to provoke intrigue or an underlining sense of dread to the degree it wants to. Nevertheless, Apollo 18 is a unique film, a largely entertaining found-footage sci-fi-horror with an unnerving atmosphere, capitalising on the claustrophobia of 1970s space travel. And while the film isn’t for everyone, I enjoyed Apollo 18 on account of its period-accurate visuals and surprisingly true-to-life sets and technical details. Rating: 6/10.

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The Forest (2016) – Film Review

The Aokigahara forest, more commonly known as “The Suicide Forest” or “The Sea of Trees,” is a thirty-five-square-kilometre grove lying at the northwest base of Mount Fuji in Japan. The forest is often cited as the most widespread site for suicide in the country, given that in 2003, over a hundred bodies were discovered in the forest, exceeding the previous record of seventy-eight in 2002. The site became so heavily associated with suicide that a sign at the start of the main trail was later installed to urge suicidal visitors to contact a suicide prevention helpline. So, with all of this notoriety, it was merely a matter of time until a film would utilise the infamous location. Enter, 2016’s The Forest, a supernatural horror flick that sacrifices all of its compelling ideas and despairing real-world setting for cheap, predictable scares and an immensely uninteresting story.

Plot Summary: When orphan, Sara Price, receives a phone call from the Japanese authorities informing her that her twin sister, Jess Price, has disappeared and was last seen heading into the Aokigahara forest, Sara decides to travel to Japan to investigate her sister’s disappearance. But, after entering the notorious forest, accompanied by her Japanese guide, Michi, and American reporter, Aiden, Sara’s investigation begins to send her down a dark path of tormented souls and supernatural occurrences…

Whilst two other films were released before The Forest inspired by Aokigahara, those being; Shawn4Ever in 2012 and The Sea of Trees in 2015, neither film could be considered a horror. And this is what ultimately attracted director Jason Zada (Project Dead Zone) to the project, as Zada was surprised to learn that there had never been a horror film based on the ill-famed site. After discovering that the Aokigahara forest also has a strong association with demons in Japanese mythology, Zada’s interest in the project grew as this information opened the door for a more supernatural narrative. However, the story eventually selected for The Forest is hardly what I’d call engrossing, as while the first act sufficiently sets the story in motion, the narrative quickly devolves into Sara simply meandering through the forest getting sporadically interrupted by blaring jump-scares, many of which are easily foreseen.

Portraying twin sisters; Sara and Jess Price, Natalie Dormer delivers a compelling performance throughout The Forest by lending her acting talents to dual characters. Yet, she is frequently burdened by the screenplay’s lack of characterisation and stale dialogue, which is often as wooden as the trees in the forest. Moreover, the supporting cast of Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa and Eoin Macken give understandably bland performances as their characters are given next-to-no development and little urgency when it comes to their decisions within the plot.

Since the Japanese government would not allow the filmmakers access to the Aokigahara forest for filming, the Tara National Forest in Serbia served as a suitable stand-in for the location. Aside from the forest itself, however, all of the scenes in Japan were shot on location, and this authenticity does come across on camera. Speaking of the camerawork, the cinematography by Mattias Troelstrup is serviceable, for the most part, as the film makes adequate use of the eerie forest backdrop by implementing a large number of environmental shots, lingering on the calming beauty of the forest in contrast to the tragedies that repeatedly occur within it.

Ominous yet forgettable, the original score by Bear McCreary fits the dreary tone of The Forest appropriately yet lacks anything to make itself distinguishable from other horror scores. Furthermore, whilst there are multiple fast-paced tracks, there is a surprising shortage of slow and moody pieces for a film set in a location like the Aokigahara forest. Nevertheless, I will give McCreary credit for integrating a children’s choir into the score, effectively blending the ghostly juvenile vocals with the rest of the instruments (most notably in the track; Into the Forest), almost as if the choir represents the siren call of the forest.

Interestingly, one of the promotional posters for The Forest features the top half of Natalie Dormer’s face with the bottom half removed, the dividing line between them forming a silhouette of treetops and dangling nooses. This imagery carries a clear resemblance to a photograph of an actual suicide victim once found within the Aokigahara forest; a bald man in such a decomposed state that his jaw had fallen off and strips of flesh were hanging from where it had once been. This photograph is also recreated in the film, albeit in a less grotesque form. Fortunately, outside of this scene, The Forest doesn’t contain much blood/gore, which I’d argue was a good decision on behalf of the filmmakers to remain respectful of the families who have lost loved ones to Aokigahara.

In summary, while The Forest offers Natalie Dormer a few chances to showcase her range through a dual role, it isn’t enough to offset the fact that The Forest is just not all that startling or interesting. Of course, these shortcomings could be attributed to Jason Zada being a music video director by trade, harbouring only one other horror flick in his filmography. But, regardless of the cause, it’s unfortunate, as I feel that given the right attention, the Aokigahara forest could make for a phenomenal setting for a minimalist horror, especially if it’s combined with a tasteful narrative that plays upon the site’s infamy. Rating: low 4/10.

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The Pyramid (2014) – Film Review

Poorly lit, inconsistently shot and lazily written, The Pyramid, released in 2014, is a horror flick that perfectly demonstrates the notion that giving a large budget to a project doesn’t necessarily make it a success. In the case of The Pyramid, this claustrophobic (predominantly) found-footage horror was given a budget of almost £6 million, a rather substantial amount of funding for a modern horror. Yet, even with a budget of this size, the film squanders almost every penny as its potentially captivating delve into Egyptian history/mythology is tainted by repeatedly clunky dialogue and countless lacklustre jump-scares.

Plot Summary: When a team of U.S. archaeologists unearth an ancient pyramid buried beneath the desert just outside Cario, they yearn to explore the interior of the structure despite extensive pushback from locals. Ignoring the residents’ objections, the group decide to head into the depths of the pyramid, soon becoming hopelessly lost in its endless passageways, eventually coming to realise that they aren’t just trapped, they are being hunted…

Directed by Grégory Levasseur, a frequent collaborator of producer Alexandre Aja. The Pyramid was Levasseur’s first and only directorial credit to date, and upon a first watch, it quickly becomes apparent as to why that is as The Pyramid is a horror ripe with imperfections that nearly any critic or casual audience member could spot. However, many of these issues are a result of Levasseur continuously brawling with the constraints of the found-footage subgenre, which might explain why the film makes so many baffling choices when it comes to its cinematography. Moreover, many of the scares throughout are telegraphed well in advance, so if you watch plenty of horror flicks, you’ve likely already seen everything the film has to offer.

When it comes to the story, the first act rushes through a string of contrivances, such as threats of air poisoning following the opening of the pyramid’s entrance, a military-ordered evacuation, and a NASA rover being mysteriously destroyed inside the pyramid, all of which were plainly written into the screenplay in order to get the central group of characters into the foreboding burial site as swiftly as possible. Yet, through this entire act, the screenplay rarely tries to develop any of the characters beyond a few traits, whether that be Dr. Nora Holden; a prodigious prehistorian and graduate of the Christmas Jones Academy of Scientist Couture, portrayed by Ashley Hinshaw, or the dim-witted British cameraman, Fitzie, portrayed by James Buckley. Every one of the characters are remarkably unoriginal and uninteresting. And even though certain supporting cast members, such as Denis O’Hare and Christa Nicola, deliver respectable performances, they ultimately add up to very little as most of the dialogue consists of excessive exposition or generic lines like “This Is the Find of a Century.”

As mentioned previously, The Pyramid bizarrely utilises both a first-person and a third-person perspective. So, despite many of the characters wearing or carrying cameras to present the film as found-footage, the cinematography by Laurent Tangy frequently reverts to well-presented shots that none of the characters could have realistically obtained. This illogical decision pretty much ensures that the audience will be taken out of the spine-chilling, claustrophobic scenarios the screenplay is trying to craft, in addition to breaking the illusion that what the audience is watching is recovered footage. That being said, The Pyramid does harbour some impressive set design, as from the moment the group enter the pyramid, they are ensnared in narrow chambers and passageways, each retaining sand-littered bases and detailed Egyptian wall hieroglyphics.

Similar to the cinematography, the original score by Nima Fakhrara is rather inconsistent. Although the score clearly takes admirable influences from Egyptian culture and includes a commendable array of effective tracks. In actuality, The Pyramid shouldn’t have an original score, given the film is supposedly a found-footage flick. The end credits sequence is also accompanied by the rock song; 5173 by Kevin Hastings, which only adds to the utter strangeness of the soundtrack.

Perhaps The Pyramid‘s greatest flaw, however, is that even those with a strong interest in Egyptian history/mythology are unlikely to enjoy the story, as many of its ideas are barely explored and there are numerous instances where the Egyptian mythology that the story does integrate is incorrect. For example, near the end of the runtime (spoilers ahead in this section for those who wish to go in blind), the evil entity behind the pyramid’s existence is revealed to be Anubis, an ancient Egyptian deity. In the film, Anubis is composed of terrible CGI and presented as a ferocious beast. Yet, in Egyptian mythology, Anubis was quite benevolent towards humans, treating them with respect as they embarked on their voyage into the afterlife. Hence, his characterisation in The Pyramid is a far cry from how Ancient Egyptians actually viewed him.

In summary, very little of The Pyramid is especially engaging or particularly frightening as many of the characters are portrayed as cardboard cutouts, simply meandering their way through an exceedingly tiresome plot. So, aside from some convincing set design and supporting performances, I feel The Pyramid is undoubtedly a horror worth skipping. Considering that the production company behind the project, 20th Century Fox, decided not to release The Pyramid on physical formats in many territories due to its dismal box office performance, it seems that most have already forgotten this found-footage catastrophe. Rating: low 3/10.

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Red Riding Hood (2011) – Film Review

A reinterpretation/modernisation of the centuries-old fairy tale; Little Red Riding Hood; a children’s story centring on a young girl as she encounters the Big Bad Wolf on a journey to visit her grandma. Red Riding Hood, released in 2011, retains the framework of the original story, but not much else, as this reinterpretation aims to be a dark fantasy with elements of romance and gothic horror thrown in. Yet, in almost all of these genres, the film falls flat as a result of its subpar screenplay and direction. That’s not to say that Red Riding Hood doesn’t have any positives, however, as this fantasy flick undoubtedly deserves praise for its outstanding production design and dreary fantasy aesthetic.

Plot Summary: For years, the residents of a remote mountain village have maintained an uneasy truce with a fearsome werewolf by offering the bloodthirsty beast a monthly animal sacrifice. But, when the wolf violates their trust by taking a human life, the village falls into hysteria, prompting the arrival of the famed werewolf hunter, Father Solomon, to assist in their hunt. Meanwhile, Valerie, a beautiful young woman torn between two viable fiancés, begins to suspect that the beast maybe someone she knows…

Similar to most European fairy tales, the origins of Little Red Riding Hood lie within the folk tradition of oral storytelling. So, no singular author can be credited for the story’s creation. However, the two most prominent renditions of the fairy tale are proclaimed to have been written by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm in the 17th century. Despite this history, Red Riding Hood seems to largely disregard the various iterations of the fairy tale, to instead take influence from the first instalment of the infamous Twilight series, as the two films share a number of similarities. For example, the opening title sequence where the camera majestically glides over vast snowy landscapes closely resembles the opening title sequence of Twilight. Furthermore, Taylor Lautner, who previously appeared in Twilight, was considered for the role of Peter early in pre-production. Still, these similarities shouldn’t be that surprising, considering that director Catherine Hardwicke (ThirteenLords of DogtownMiss You Already) helmed the first entry in the series in 2008.

In regard to the cast, Amanda Seyfried portrays the titular character of Valerie/Red Riding Hood sufficiently, but her performance is somewhat hindered on account of her placement between Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons as her love interests, Peter and Henry, whose performances leave a lot to be desired coming across as drab and rather wooden for the majority of their screen-time. As per usual, the highlight of the cast is undoubtedly Gary Oldman as the morally-grey werewolf hunter, Father Solomon. Though Oldman doesn’t get to exhibit immense amounts of emotion (despite his character having a tragic backstory), the veteran actor does stay committed to his detestable character.

Aside from some outlandish CGI and a handful of moments where cast members/props that should seemingly be in focus are not, the cinematography by Mandy Walker is one of the finest components of Red Riding Hood. From the glowing red of Valerie’s hood contrasting against the white snow, to the blood-red moon gradually emerging over the village rooftops, Red Riding Hood is a visually stunning fantasy at points. What’s more is that the set, costume and prop design are all exceptional, as every location feels rustic yet fantastical, whilst every costume/prop appears worn and functional. From a design standpoint, even the trees that appear throughout the runtime are visually unique as they harbour cadaverous spikey branches, giving the impression that merely wandering through any of the dense forests surrounding the village could result in a wound and subsequently a trail of blood.

Unsuitable yet well-crafted, the original score by Alex Heffes and Brian Reitzell begins rather promisingly with the track; Towers of the Void, which Reitzell co-wrote with musician, Anthony Gonzalez, of the electronic band; M83. As such, the ominous track contains waves of strings and industrial-sounding electronics, these instruments then persist onto the second track; Kids, where they are accompanied by ghostly vocals and moody synth. Essentially, while not a bad soundtrack, by any means, the score for Red Riding Hood is simply so unfit for a story set in this time period and genre, that it’s difficult to overlook when reviewing the score.

For a significant portion of the runtime, the story of Red Riding Hood unfolds like a mystery, with the human identity of the werewolf being kept a secret to keep the audience guessing. And whilst many suspects are immediately dismissed, the screenplay does a serviceable job of introducing red herrings without seeming overly conspicuous. When the truth is finally revealed, however, the answer as to who is behind the beastly slayings is rather disappointing, especially since the reveal is quickly followed up by an equally disappointing climax and epilogue.

In summary, as far as gloomy retellings of classic fairy tales go, Red Riding Hood is certainly one of them. While Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman are magnetic in their respective roles, the unremarkable leading men along with the painfully formulaic screenplay, continuously devalue the beautiful production design and often spectacular visuals. So, whilst it’s possible that the Twilight crowd will find a specific appeal in Red Riding Hood, outside of that devoted fanbase, I doubt many others will. Rating: low 5/10.

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Dark Skies (2013) – Film Review

As much a science fiction as it is a horror, Dark Skies, released in 2013, has a solid cast, a fascinating premise and some admirable ambitions, attempting to break away from the familiar tropes of alien abduction stories in favour of delivering its own take on the common phobia of extraterrestrials discreetly arriving on Earth. Unfortunately, however, writer and director Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest, Holidays – Segment: Christmas) doesn’t seem to know how to utilise any of these elements, and as such, Dark Skies ends up being an extremely underwhelming film in more ways than one, even if it is a slight improvement over Blumhouse Productions’ usual jump-scare-filled endeavours.

Plot Summary: Suffering from financial troubles and the slow decline of their marriage, middle-aged couple, Lacy and Daniel Barrett, soon find their suburban life even further disrupted when an escalating series of unexplainable events leads them to discover that a terrifying force is monitoring them, a force which may have arrived from beyond the stars…

Originally pitched as a found-footage film with a screenplay written in only six weeks. Dark Skies curiously borrows more from supernatural horrors than it does from other extraterrestrial stories like SignsSkinwalker Ranch and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the film somewhat follows the structure of a conventional haunted house/possessed child storyline. And, as a result, suffers from many of the same issues that those films do. Appearing overly formulaic and frequently missing the opportunity to shift into full-on genre mode by the time its final act arrives. Furthermore, this structure results in many of the daytime sequences feeling quite tiresome as almost all of the extraterrestrial-related events don’t transpire until nightfall, leaving the daytime scenes to solely be used for kindred drama than foreboding moments of sci-fi dread.

The central cast of Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett and J.K. Simmons all do a serviceable job throughout the film, portraying members of a family that is slowly growing apart as time goes on. A situation that is only made more difficult by the family’s mounting bills and Daniel’s numerous attempts to find a replacement job falling flat at every turn. And whilst all of this is interesting for a family-centred plot, the problem here is that outside of the family’s general struggles, all of the characters are given very little development, an issue that is only exacerbated by the film’s many altering subplots, which cover everything from Lacy and Daniel’s declining sex life to their teenage son’s developing hormones and subsequent teenage crush.

Moving onto the visuals, with the exception of a couple of bewitching shots, the film’s cinematography by David Boyd is rather bland, primarily relying on hand-held mid-shots and close-ups. The film also continuously employs dim lighting for the majority of its runtime, meaning that nearly every shot at night is almost pitch-black with only a few small beams of moonlight to illuminate each room in the family’s house. Additionally, the film’s setting is, again, rather bland. As even though the location of a pleasant, everyday American suburb was chosen by Scott Stewart to help ground the story in reality, the setting itself is exceedingly dull, particularly for the horror genre.

Luckily, the original score fares a little better as composer, Joseph Bishara, best known for his fear-evoking score on 2010’s Insidious, once again uses his musical skills to craft a chilling soundtrack stocked with eerie futuristic noises and unsettling sound cues most present in the tracks: Two PosibitliesNight RideNot in Control and The Disturbances. Showcasing the true terror that these extraterrestrials are capable of purely through a distorted soundscape.

When it comes to the concept of creatures from another world studying our planet, it isn’t often that this idea drifts into the realm of horror, especially with the cliché image of a small, grey-skinned alien with an oversized head and black eyes, commonly referred to as a Gray, being any but frightening. However, in Dark Skies, the Grays are genuinely unnerving beings, appearing as lanky, shadow-like figures that tower over the Barrett family. In addition to the Grays, the film establishes two other extraterrestrial races known as the Reptilians and the Insectoids. Interestingly, all three of these races are actually based on real-life abduction reports where abductees described their encounters, with Reptilians being described as green-skinned humanoids with attributes of reptiles such as hairless scaled-skin, concave-vertical pupils and the ability to shapeshift, changing from reptilian to human at will, while Insectoids are described as large beings with a close resemblance to grasshoppers/praying mantises. Playing into the various conspiracies that surround life on other planets.

In summary, whilst Dark Skies doesn’t earn many points for originality. When the film manages to tap into more low-level, relatable anxieties with its family-focused story, it does come far closer to getting under its audience’s skin than your typical horror film ghost or ghoul. Having said that, Dark Skies also repeatedly devalues the effectiveness of the alien abduction subgenre with its uninspired visuals and fairly predictable plot. And while I do consider Scott Stewart to be a talented writer and director with the right project, his films occasionally do leave something to be desired, Dark Skies simply being another example. Rating: low 5/10.

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Leatherface (2017) – Film Review

Considering the monumental impact of the original, Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the annals of horror cinema, it’s peculiar that the film’s ensuing franchise has had such an erratic history, bouncing from excessively jokey entries like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986, to absolutely bonkers ones such as Texas Chainsaw: The Next Generation in 1995. 2017’s Leatherface continues this trend by once again attempting something different; aiming to be a prequel that explores the origins of the face-wearing menace himself. Unfortunately, however, even though the film has good intentions, Leatherface only succeeds in replicating the skin of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre flick and non of the guts within as the journey its titular character embarks upon ultimately doesn’t feel worth the eighty-seven-minute runtime.

Plot Summary: In 1955, the young, Jedediah Sawyer, is assigned the task of luring an unsuspecting traveller into his family’s decrepit barn for the sake of blood. But when it turns out that this unfortunate victim was actually the lone daughter of Texas ranger, Hal Hartman, Jedediah is forcibly separated from his family and placed in a mental institution. Ten years later, the now near-adult, Jedediah, along with a handful of criminally insane inmates, manage to escape the asylum during a riot, beginning a journey of murder and turmoil as the group trudge across rural Texas evading the vengeful ranger pursuing them…

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside, Among the Living, The Deep House). Leatherface is, for all its flaws, at least an earnest attempt at franchise course correction, avoiding another reboot of the series to instead tell a story that tries to connect a few dots in the very tangled web of this horror franchise. Needless to say, being a prequel, Leatherface still suffers from the usual problem most prequels do: explaining things that don’t need explanation. As in the original film, Leatherface stands out because he is a complete enigma even in a family of cannibalistic lunatics. We never receive answers to any of the questions we have about him as Leatherface simply exists, which is what makes him so terrifying. So, naturally, exploring his backstory diminishes that aspect. Furthermore, with Leatherface being just one member of a homicidal family, a prequel would be a great opportunity to develop some of the lesser-explored members of the Sawyer family such as the Proprietor, the Hitchhiker and Grandpa Sawyer, yet none of their backstories are even hinted at.

Despite their frequently flat dialogue, the film’s main cast of Sam Strike, Vanessa Grasse, Sam Coleman Jessica Madsen, James Bloor and Stephen Dorff all throw themselves into their respective characters with confidence as once Jedediah finds himself inside the mental institution, he encounters several intriguing patients. From the silent brute, Bud, to the callous couple, Ike and Clarice, all of whom make members of the Sawyer family look sane by comparison. Then there is the idealistic nurse, Lizzy, who essentially serves as the story’s final girl, yet due to a severe lack of development similar to many of the other characters, it does become increasingly difficult to empathise with her outside of just acknowledging her horrific situation. However, the highlight of the cast is undoubtedly Lili Taylor as Verna Sawyer, the family matriarch who is bursting with pride for her boys, but devoted to the point where every outsider is seen as an adversary.

When it comes to the visuals, even though Leatherface wasn’t actually shot in America, but instead in Bulgaria for budgetary reasons. The film does utilise its varied colour palette along with natural lighting to create an effective and convincing backdrop of back-country Texas, giving cinematographer, Antoine Sanier, plenty of opportunities to integrate creative shots, including a shot that references the extreme low-angle dolly shot from the original film.

Regrettably, the original score by John Frizzell isn’t quite as remarkable as the soundtrack rarely breaks the mould of a typical horror soundscape, being rather forgettable outside of the score’s occasional use of a chainsaw-like rumble. Numerous songs from the 1960s can also be heard throughout the film such as Leave Me Alone, Working on the Line and Don’t Take Me for Granted, which help further ground the story in the ’60s time period alongside the lavish costume and production design.

On another note, for those who desire graphic violence, there is a commendable amount of gore in Leatherface even if the film is more plot-driven than kill-driven. Still, I will always prefer minimal gore over a constant bombardment of blood when it comes to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise as whilst no sequel, prequel or spin-off will ever be able to recapture the ominous tone and documentary-like feel of the 1974 classic, having minimal violence does at least make any later entry in the series seem closer to the original’s deceptive absence of on-screen brutality.

In summary, Leatherface is repulsive and disturbing much like the original film. The only difference is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also relied on intrigue and an eerie atmosphere to back up many of its horrifying concepts, whereas Leatherface does not. And while the film does admittedly deserve some credit for doing something different with the franchise, being the eighth instalment in this ongoing series, it’s apparent that Leatherface and his chainsaw slayings are starting to wear thin, becoming less and less enthralling each time they return to the silver screen. Rating: high 3/10.

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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 Clause 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 Clause 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 Clause suit. Silent Night isn’t the first voyage director Steven C. Miller (The Aggression ScaleMaraudersThe 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 of 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 Santa’s 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, all of the practical effects seen throughout these moments are magnificent, rarely relying on CG enhancements for further shock factor.

In summary, Silent Night is a modern slasher with its heart firmly in the ’80s, and I say that as a good thing as rather than being dull and instantly forgettable, 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, Silent Night will please fans of the series as well as those seeking a festive slasher. Rating: high 5/10.

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Beneath (2013) – Film Review

Directed by Larry Fessenden (HabitWendigoDepraved) and distributed by the horror-centric production company, Chiller Films, a now-defunct television network responsible for many low-budget supernatural horrors, including SirenAnimal and Dead SoulsBeneath, 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 that 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 emphasis 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 brings the creature to life is impressive despite their range of movements.

In summary, 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. 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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