Pet (2016) – Film Review

An unsettling indie horror firmly within the mould of the classic thriller: ‘The Collector’ from 1965, 2016’s ‘Pet’ takes what could be potentially be nothing but an exploitative horror and twists it into a unique story that continuously indulges in defying its viewer’s expectations. And although the film never manages to fully escape its various flaws by the end of its brief runtime, ‘Pet’ is able to achieve a nice balance between many of its best and worst aspects.

Plot Summary: After ‘Seth,’ a socially-awkward recluse bumps into his old high-school crush: ‘Holly,’ he subsequently becomes obsessed with her just as he was many years ago, ultimately leading him to abduct her and hold her captive beneath the animal shelter where he spends his working days, enclosing her in a cage just as he does with the dogs above…

Directed by Carles Torrens (Apartment 143) and written by Jeremy Salter, the writer partly responsible for the disastrous ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot in 2015. ‘Pet’ was considered a utter-failure upon it’s initial release, with the film only earning a box-office gross of around £8,000 on a total budget of £15,800, in addition to receiving a series of extremely mixed reviews from both critics and audiences alike. While this may be due to many fearing ‘Pet’ would be nothing but a grotesque ‘captive woman’ flick, ‘Pet’ is actually much more interested in going against the typical clichés many viewers will be associate with this idea to delve into the ever-shifting power-dynamic between ‘Seth’ and ‘Holly,’ making for a pretty engrossing and unpredictable watch even if a level of disbelief is surely required as a result of the film’s many, many plot twists.

Much of what makes ‘Pet’ work can be attributed to its two leads, with Dominic Monaghan being hugely effective as ‘Seth,’ portraying him as a soft-spoken introvert who simply meanders his way through life with a small apartment and boring job, looking anyone (or anything) that could make his life truly worth living. And whilst Monaghan is certainly capable of being intimidating when the story requires it, it is a shame that much of: ‘Seth’s transformation from a wholly-reclusive loner to a plotting unhinged stalker feels very rushed. Then of course, there’s ‘Holly’ portrayed excellently by Ksenia Solo, who is far from your usual helpless victim alluded to almost immediately through Solo’s sly performance and the unhealthy relationship that grows between her and ‘Seth’ as the story continues on. However, ‘Pet’ sadly still features a weak link amongst its cast, as Jennette McCurdy’s performance as ‘Holly’s best friend: ‘Claire’ feels lacking in nearly every scene she’s in, despite her actual character serving a crucial role in the overall development of: ‘Holly’s character.

A large majority of the cinematography by Timothy A. Burton is visually-interesting, but unfortunately, many of the film’s shots are spoilt due the overreliance on hand-held camerawork, with a number of shots being accomplished through hand-held for seemingly no reason. Still, the cinematography is varied enough to stop the story’s limited number of locations from becoming monotonous, especially when placed alongside the film’s cinematic lighting and grimy set-design.

Similarly, the original score by Zacarías M. de la Riva is competent, yet many tracks do feel more suited to something like a modern crime thriller than a disturbing psychological horror such as this, feeling especially out-of-place during any scenes that feature graphic violence. Furthermore, there are also a number of moments where the film implements its soundtrack during scenes that I personally feel would’ve been far more effective should they have been completely silent or possibly placed more emphasis on sound design.

The main issue ‘Pet’ suffers from is the inconsistency of its writing, as although its many subversions of the horror genre immediately put it on a level higher than a large majority of modern horror flicks that entirely rely on obnoxiously loud jump-scares. Much of the film’s characterisation is ruined as a result of clunky dialogue, whether that’s due to the actual line itself or its delivery, which is unfortunate as many of the film’s extended dialogue scenes are where the story has the most to chew on, developing its characters and their motivations while simultaneously implementing its signature theme of taking advantage of the opposite sex, even if this underlining theme is fairly surface-level.

In short, whilst ‘Pet’ undoubtedly has its strengths, many of them do feel undermined by its weaknesses. From Jennette McCurdy’s weak performance to the peculiar dialogue and continuous overreliance on hand-held camerawork, ‘Pet’s constant tension building and subversion of horror tropes may not have been enough to drawn-in horror fans in 2016 with the likes of: ‘Don’t Breathe,’ ‘Hush’ and ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ all releasing around the same time. Still, while I understand why ‘Pet’ was given so little attention, I do hope more viewers stumble across this horror, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll receive praise from all. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Saw (2004) – Film Review

Before it became the colossal horror franchise we know it to be today, ‘Saw’ was originally just a low-budget thriller ingeniously co-written by Leigh Whannell and debuting horror director James Wan. Boasting an intricate structure consisting of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, the original: ‘Saw’ was far more focused on crafting a compelling (and occasionally confusing) mystery that takes-place primarily within a single location rather than plainly indulging in blood and guts similar to its many sequels, and as a result, still remains the best entry of the ‘Saw’ franchise to-date.

Plot Summary: When two strangers awaken in a grimy bathroom with their ankles chained to pipes and no recollection of how they got there, the pair soon discover they’re pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by the notorious serial killer: ‘Jigsaw.’

Despite the ‘Saw’ series being predominantly known for its constant display of extreme violence, with the franchise even becoming infamous at one time for introducing the ‘Torture Porn’ subgenre to general audiences. The original: ‘Saw’ actually contains very little in the way of gore, as director James Wan never intended to make an immensely disturbing film. It was not until the sequels that the films became what he describes as “More Explicitly Nasty.” Still, this wouldn’t stop ‘Saw’ from its rampant train of success, as the first film alone would go on to earn over £90 million on a budget of only £1 million, instantly providing Wan and Whannell with the funds for their next project(s) in addition to placing ‘Jigsaw’ among the ranks of: ‘Jason Voorhees,’ ‘Freddy Kruger’ and ‘Michael Myers’ as a horror icon.

Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell lead the film as ‘Dr. Lawrence Gordon’ and ‘Adam Stanheight’ respectively, and whilst neither actor gives a truly poor performance, Elwes easily outshines Whannell in many scenes. Obviously, this is due to Whannell being a writer (and now director) first and foremost, but with a better actor in Whannell’s place I feel many moments during the narrative could’ve been greatly enhanced. And while Danny Glover, Monica Potter and Tobin Bell all do a serviceable job, due to Elwes and Whannell’s performances taking-up nearly the entirety of the film’s runtime, any faults in the actor’s portrayals are tremendously hard to ignore.

The cinematography throughout ‘Saw’ ranges from brilliantly clever to simply irritating, as director James Wan and cinematographer David A. Armstrong wanted the movement of the camera to reflect the central character’s emotions and personality, meaning ‘Dr. Gordon’ is displayed through steady, controlled shots while ‘Adam’ is seen exclusively through hand-held shots. Yet even with this attention to detail, ‘Saw’s camerawork suffers from its repeated inclusion of the ‘Bullet Time’ shot, first introduced in the sci-fi classic: ‘The Matrix’ in 1999. As although this shot was very impressive when it first appeared, by 2004, this overused technique of having the camera rapidly rotate around a subject feels nothing but exasperating, especially when combined with the film’s chaotic editing and unpleasant colour palette.

Aside from the film’s signature track: ‘Hello Zepp’ which would go on to become a staple of the series, being utilised for each film’s final scene, the rest of: ‘Saw’s original score isn’t anything special. Being a mostly by-the-numbers horror soundtrack consisting of a variety of tense tracks with the occasional effect thrown-in to further relate to the industrial nature of: ‘Jigsaw’s many traps and devices. The sound design itself however, significantly adds to the horror, implying much of the gruesome violence that isn’t directly seen.

As a result of its smaller-budget, there are many occasions where director James Wan had to get quite creative with how to execute certain scenes. For example, the car chase that appears later within the film was actually filmed inside of a warehouse garage, with the illusion of being outside being achieved by turning-off all of the lights, adding some fog and shaking the cars whilst filming from the front. This thin budget is also why the film contains no exterior shots whatsoever, as nearly all of the film was shot in a converted warehouse where the bathroom set was built, while any other locations were simply existing rooms redressed. However, even with this restrictive budget, the production crew actually made ‘Jigsaw’s now-iconic puppet: ‘Billy’ completely from scratch instead of pre-buying an antique puppet from a local store.

To conclude, the original: ‘Saw’ is far from flawless, but considering the film started-out as just a low-budget short before attracting the attention of Evolution Entertainment, who immediately formed a horror-focused subcompany with Twisted Pictures, the ‘Saw’ franchise has truly come a long way. And although the series’ first instalment is certainly plagued with many problems, there is a clear level of passion and effort poured into the project, and whilst I wouldn’t say it deserves to be one of the most profitable horror films of all time, I would say it deserves a watch even if your planning to pass-up the rest of the progressively-grotesque franchise. Final Rating: 6/10.

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V/H/S (2012) – Film Review

Combining six found-footage horror stories from upcoming filmmakers of the time, 2012’s ‘V/H/S’ was a pretty ambitious indie horror upon its initial release. As while the film didn’t exactly reinvent the found-footage subgenre or avoid the usual problem anthologies tend to run into with its segments greatly ranging in quality, ‘V/H/S’ does manage to overcome some of its flaws through its eldritch stories and unique 1990s aesthetic, yet the film still pails in comparison to classic horror anthologies like ‘Creepshow’ and ‘Body Bags’ or its much improved sequel: ‘V/H/S/2.’

Plot Summary: When a group of misfits are hired by an unknown party to break into a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they are surprised to come across the owner’s decomposing body sat in front of a wall of video monitors and an endless supply of VHS tapes, each containing a piece of footage more disturbing than the last…

Although nowadays found-footage horror feels mostly played-out and even quite creatively limiting, ‘V/H/S’ does attempt to utilise its concept in the best way possible. Having its wraparound story titled: ‘Tape 56’ explain the other five, as every VHS tape a member of the group watches are the same stories we as the audience are seeing, its just a shame that this central narrative goes pretty much nowhere, only seeming to exist for the sake of the film’s anthology structure rather than to provide the film with a terrifying and memorable climax. But it does help that this segment takes-place in the same house as the ‘Marble Hornets’ web series, also known as the YouTube series that popularised the internet icon: ‘Slender Man.’

Due to the film featuring multiple stories, the huge cast of: ‘V/H/S’ ranges about as much as the segments themselves, as whilst no performance throughout the film is particularly bad, no performance is excellent either with the exception of Hannah Fierman as ‘Lily,’ who gives a very animalistic and continuously unnerving performance in the film’s first segment: ‘Amateur Night.’ Yet I don’t think this is entirely down to the cast, as ‘V/H/S’ does suffer from an overall lack of characterisation, which while hard to avoid in an anthology film where each story is given a limited time-frame, ‘V/H/S’ simply chooses to fit all of its characters into a certain stereotype and not development them at all beyond that.

The cinematography during every segment of: ‘V/H/S’ remains fairly consistent despite being handled by an array of cinematographers, and while the camerawork is very familiar for a grungy found-footage flick, the film’s assortment of glitch/static effects, grainy overlays, footage corruptions and occasionally chaotic editing all help to ground many of the segment’s supernatural elements in an almost documentary-like realism. And in spite of: ‘V/H/S’s lower-budget, all the film’s directors including Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid alongside Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Chad Villella under the title of: ‘Radio Silence,’ each try their hardest to distinguish their segment from the others.

Being a found-footage film, ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t have an original score, but with the film’s visuals leaning heavily into glitch and static effects, the sound design backs-up these effects with a distorted soundscape, adding tension to a number of scenes. And although the film only features one licensed song, it does fit well over the film’s end credits.

But ‘V/H/S’ doesn’t escape the most common issue of anthologies, as there is certainly a noticeable shift in quality between its segments. As while I thoroughly enjoy the previously mentioned: ‘Amateur Night,’ the second and third story titled: ‘Second Honeymoon’ and ‘Tuesday the 17th’ respectively, are a drastic downgrade, with the first being an incredibly dull slow-burn thriller, and the second being nothing but a cringy retelling of a ‘Friday the 13th’ film as the title implies. Neither of which are very memorable or creative, and feel like a chore to get through. However, these lacklustre segments are redeemed by the last two stories, as both ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ and ’10/31/98′ do implement some more inventive ideas even if they aren’t flawless in execution.

Altogether, ‘V/H/S’ has its strengths but also a great deal of weaknesses. Having many of it’s spectacular moments of horror spoilt by weak writing or the restrictions of it’s anthology structure, making for an occasionally enjoyable but very inconsistent experience. So while I personally think ‘V/H/S’ is worth at least one viewing for fans of horror anthologies, just bare in mind that the film never quite reaches the same heights as some others including its own sequel. And despite the third entry in the series: ‘V/H/S: Viral’ being an enormous disappointment for me, I’d still love to see the low-budget franchise continue. But with a prequel titled: ‘V/H/S 94’ being brought to the table by young filmmakers in 2019 only to then never be mentioned again, it seems the future of this series is unforeseeable, even if the first two films are surefire candidates for obtaining a cult status. Final Rating: low 6/10.

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Spree (2020) – Film Review

The world of social-media influencers vying for clicks, likes, views and retweets all to achieve viral fandom is a twisted one, and ‘Spree’ is far from the first film to delve into this subject matter with a satirical lens. What makes the film different is its secondary inspiration, being based on the true story of an Uber driver who went on a killing spree in 2016, ‘Spree’ has plenty of comically-violent scenes to accompany its social-media commentary. Yet even in spite of Joe Keery’s magnetic screen-presence, ‘Spree’ is a film that always feels as if its on the verge of being something exceptional, but it’s reach far exceeds its grasp.

Plot Summary: Desperate for an online following, twenty-three-year-old wannabe influencer and rideshare driver: ‘Kurt Kunkle’ devises a malicious scheme to go viral, installing a series of cameras inside his rideshare car in order to film his unsuspecting victims as they meet a gruesome end…

Co-written/directed by Eugene Kotlyarenko (A Wonderful Cloud, Wobble Palace, We Are), ‘Spree’ was initially envisioned as a claustrophobic horror based-around the story of the previously mentioned serial killing Uber driver who claimed a “Devil Figure” inside of the rideshare app was controlling his actions. And although this terrifying true story would have certainly provided enough inspiration for an indie horror, Kotlyarenko and co-writer Gene McHugh soon began to swerve more into dark comedy after giving the killer an intense craving for attention. This eventually evolved into the film’s central theme of social-media obsession, which while often used to great effect to mock online influencers, does frequently feel underdeveloped and retracts from the film’s tension, pushing ‘Kurt’s killing spree into the background in exchange for awkward character moments, which will inevitably disappoint those hoping to see plenty of grisly kills.

Joe Keery portrays the film’s psychotic protagonist: ‘Kurt Kunkle,’ who is suitably just as upbeat and inappropriate as many real-world influencers. This realism is most likely a result of Eugene Kotlyarenko and Joe Keery’s research, as the pair watched many cringe compilations of people online without a big following to help create the character, and this comes across through Keery’s body-movements and relentless optimism, making for an occasionally irritating yet charismatic protagonist as ‘Kurt’ always remains hopeful his night of murder will increase his follower-count after trying (and failing) for the past decade. Its just unfortunate that ‘Kurt’ doesn’t receive much development over the course of the runtime aside from one or two scenes, with ‘Kurt’s life outside of the internet intentionally being left a mystery.

The cinematography by Jeff Leeds Cohn is obviously in the style of found-footage, but rather than simply having ‘Kurt’ film his every move similar to most found-footage flicks, the camera itself takes on numerous forms as the story is seemingly spliced-together through iPhone cameras/screens, dash-cams, body-cams and even CCTV footage. Yet despite this ever-changing camerawork ensuring ‘Spree’s visuals stay varied, there does come a point when it begins to feel as if the film is simply piling on footage, even sometimes having three shots displayed at once through a spilt-screen effect which does become slightly overwhelming, especially when combined with the film’s rapid-editing.

Whilst there a few found-footage films that have successfully integrated an original score without taking-away the sense of realism the subgenre provides, ‘Spree’ is most definitely not one of those films. As although the pulsing-electronic score composed by James Ferraro does help to build excitement, the film’s soundtrack often plays-over scenes with no clear source, which does greatly dampen the illusion of the film being found-footage. 

Of course, with ‘Spree’ having a heavy focus around all things social-media, it would be crucial that the film stays truthful to what the internet is actually like (even through its cynical view). And while the film does have many scenarios that feel as though they lack realism, whether that’s due to incredibly forced dialogue or ‘Kurt’s beyond-moronic actions when trying to avoid the Los Angeles police force, anytime the film displays a phone-screen there is a certainty that every app/website will be a real brand and will be overflowing with detail. For example, ‘Kurt’s constant living-streaming never shies away from reality, meaning his stream’s comments are always rapidly unfurling with insults, jokes and questions all from distinct usernames.

In short, Joe Keery’s entertaining performance can’t distract from ‘Spree’s shallow critique of social-media. As whilst some may argue the story’s lack of depth is precisely the point, for me the film feels as if its unsure as to what to do with its concept, which is greatly disappointing. As I personally think a dark comedy revolving around the obsessive culture of social-media is ingenious, and films like ‘Ingrid Goes West’ prove this idea can be executed well. ‘Spree’ however, fails to deliver on this or its even promise of a violent and comedic thrill-ride. So, while I do still believe the film will have a niche appeal, ‘Spree’s apparent flaws are likely to stop most from hitting the subscribe button. Final Rating: high 4/10.

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The Void (2016) – Film Review

An excellent throwback to 1980s sci-fi and horror, ‘The Void’ released in 2016 and directed by duo Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, first began its life as a simple idea with two passionate minds behind it. As this surprisingly crowdfunded project makes remarkable use out of its thin-budget especially when considering the film’s many potentially-expensive set-pieces, displaying its huge array of fantastic creature designs/effects, colourful lighting and creative cinematography with enough confidence and innovation to keep any genre enthusiast enthralled.

Plot Summary: After ‘Sheriff Deputy Carter’ stumbles across a blood-soaked man limping down a deserted road, he quickly rushes him to a local hospital with a barebones, night-shift staff. But when a series of strange events occur within the hospital, seemingly linked to a group of cloaked figures standing just outside the building, ‘Carter’ decides to lead a mission into the hospital’s basement to find an exit, only to discover something far more sinister…

Although ‘The Void’ did have a handful of major producers on-board more familiar with the horror genre, as mentioned previously, the film was primarily a crowdfunded project, earning most of its budget in addition to a limited theatrical release in 2017 as a result of its online community of donators and fans. And its not exactly difficult to understand why many fanatics of sci-fi and horror alike were so interested in supporting the film, as immediately from the stylised intro any fan of 1980s cinema can tell ‘The Void’ is truly a love letter to everything 80s, with the film’s narrative clearly taking heavy inspiration from classics like ‘The Beyond,’ ‘Night if the Living Dead,’ ‘Re-Animator’ and of course, pretty much all of John Carpenter’s filmography. Yet despite all of these influences, ‘The Void’ also manages to never feel overly-derivative, even with the film’s plot sharing many similarities to the cult horror: ‘Prince of Darkness’ from 1987.

The cast of: ‘The Void’ is primarily comprised of unknown actors, which is by no means a bad thing, as the cast give solid performances across the board even in spite of their fairly one-note characters, with Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe, Daniel Fathers, Mik Byskov, Evan Stern and Ellen Wong portraying the main group of staff and survivors trapped within the hospital’s walls quite well. But the real stand-out of the film has to be Kenneth Welsh as ‘Dr. Richard Powell,’ easily the compelling character of the story who undergoes some enormous changes over the course of the runtime.

Samy Inayeh handles the film’s cinematography and handles it well, as whilst there are plenty of moments where the camerawork is far too reliant on hand-held shots, the film manages to even itself out over-time with plenty of visually-appealing ones. However, it’s the lighting and colour palette that are certainly the most visually-impressive elements of the film, as ‘The Void’ jumps from harsh reds to cold blues almost from scene-to-scene, not only to add to the film’s unearthly atmosphere of dread, but also to help hide some of the film’s budgetary-shortcomings. Furthermore, the story’s signature location of an empty hospital is a very distinct setting for a horror such as this, as the building seemingly becomes more unnatural and dilapidated the further the characters explore it.

For its original score ‘The Void’ actually had quite a large group of composers (five in total), who expertly crafted a classic 1980s synth score with undertones of dark horror, which greatly adds to both the film’s style and atmosphere. And although the film’s soundtrack is usually more atmospheric than cinematic, tracks such as: ‘Starless Night’ and ‘A Hole in the World’ prove the score does have some memorability amongst its many foreboding tracks.

Partly due to the film’s budget and partly due to Gillespie and Kostanski wanting to use as little CGI as possible, ‘The Void’ is a science fiction flick that delights in its practical effects. Ensuring every creature design and the costume/prosthetics that bring it to-life are nothing but flawless, from their skin to their teeth to their various tentacles (of which the film seems to relish in), nearly every aspect of each creature looks truly spectacular, and its these otherworldly-designs alongside the film’s over-the-top gore and buckets of blood that help create some genuinely disturbing moments.

All in all, I feel ‘The Void’ succeeds in being an enjoyable throwback to many people’s favourite decade for sci-fi and horror, with its astounding filmmaking and many impressive practical effects all resulting in plenty of thrills and chills. And although some may argue the film lacks much in the way of originality, I’d argue otherwise. As I feel ‘The Void’ is less of a capsule for nostalgia and references for all things 80s, and more of a tribute to what came before it, never quite matching-up to many of the films from the time-period its referencing, but still raising the bar for indie filmmaking/crowdfunded projects in its best moments. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Tarantula (1955) – Film Review

Before the horror genre truly began capitalising on the common phobia of creepy-crawlies with films like ‘Arachnophobia,’ ‘Itsy Bitsy,’ ‘Kingdom of the Spiders’ and ‘Eight Legged Freaks,’ the 1950s sci-fi/horror classic: ‘Tarantula’ terrified many viewers with its marvellous creature effects and continuously unnerving atmosphere. Ensuring the film would go on to be the exemplary for future monster flicks despite featuring many of the usual problems plaguing creature-features at the time.

Plot Summary: In a remote facility in the Arizona desert, ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ is conducting a series of experiments in the hopes of finding a way to increase the world’s food supply, injecting growth hormones into various animals to greatly increase their size. But when a tarantula escapes from the isolated laboratory, still growing at a exponential rate due to the formula, the giant arachnid begins to wreak havoc on a nearby town…

Directed by the late Jack Arnold (With These Hands, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man), ‘Tarantula’ was just one of the many science fiction flicks Arnold undertook throughout his career, and in a similar fashion to many of his other stories revolving around horrifying creatures, ‘Tarantula’ was part of the 1950s wave of sci-fi/horror films crafted around the newfound fear of nuclear radiation following World War II. Yet while we now know ‘Tarantula‘ did greatly help in creating the ‘giant animal’ subgenre, there is an argument to be made that if not for the release of: ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ just a year prior, ‘Tarantula’ may not even exist, as general audiences only gained interest in creature-features on account of that film’s success.

The late John Agar portrays the film’s square-jawed hero: ‘Dr. Matt Hastings,’ and just like a large majority of male protagonists in 50s sci-fi, ‘Dr. Hastings’ is charismatic-enough to carry the film in spite of the actual character receiving very little development over the course of the runtime. And as expected, ‘Tarantula’ also includes a romantic subplot between ‘Dr. Hastings’ and secondary-protagonist: ‘Stephanie Clayton’ portrayed by Mara Corday, which although made palatable by Agar and Corday, still feels pretty forced. However, one of the film’s biggest missed-opportunities is certainly ‘Professor Gerald Deemer’ portrayed by the late Leo G. Carrol, as whilst Carrol gives a decent performance here, the story sadly pushes his character into the background and nearly entirely ignores the suffering his character later endures after injecting himself with his formula, making his character’s inclusion seem quite superfluous.

Despite the many creature effects throughout ‘Tarantula’ clearly being the film’s main focus, the cinematography by the late George Robinson does have its share of attractive shots even with the film’s lack of colour/camera movement due to the technological restrictions of the time-period. As any wide-shots displaying the vast Arizona desert or the fictional town of: ‘Desert Rock’ are fairly appealing, and occasionally, even add to the film’s tense atmosphere as the uneven rocky landscape alongside the film’s dim lighting allows the giant arachnid to often lurk unseen.

The original score by the late Herman Stein and the late Henry Mancini is a thunderous and sometimes overly-dramatic score, feeling very much like a soundtrack taken from films of the 1950s for better, and for worse. And while both composers are often uncredited for their work on the film, ‘Tarantula’ is far from the first time Herman Stein has collaborated with director Jack Arnold, providing scores (and having much of his music reused) for a number of his films.

But of course, ‘Tarantula’ will always be best-known for its effects, which are in all fairness the film’s best attribute. As whilst many fondly-remembered science fiction and horror films of the 1950s relied on models, costumes and stop-motion to bring their strange creatures to-life, many of these filmmaking techniques can feel very dated and tacky by today’s standards for films brimming with CGI. This isn’t the case with ‘Tarantula’s effects however, as the way the film brings its signature creature to-life is quite innovative, as the filmmakers actually used a real tarantula shot separately from the rest of the film, before it was then enlarged and composited/projected onto the desert locations. This clever technique allows the spider to move naturally, and was not only state-of-the-art for the era, but is still quite impressive now, as the matte effect is usually impeccable aside from one or two shots where some of the tarantula’s legs seem to phase through the environment.

Overall, just like many other films released around the time of the 1950s/1960s, ‘Tarantula’ does have its entertainment-value, but is also much slower-paced and far more simplistic than many of the sci-fi blockbusters and epic creature-features we’d see released today. Yet whilst its characters are a little uninspired and the film is more about spectacle than anything else, ‘Tarantula’ definitely has its moments, and even if just for the effects alone, I think it deserves its place as a 50s classic, flaws and all. Final Rating: high 6/10.

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Possessor (2020) – Film Review

Following his 2012 directorial debut with ‘Antiviral,’ Brandon Cronenberg, son of legendary sci-fi/horror director David Cronenberg, crafts a captivating sci-fi thriller with ‘Possessor,’ a film that deals with heavy themes of identity loss and sexual discomfort, all whilst displaying its story through some truly spectacular cinematography and lighting. And although Brandon’s second sci-fi outing doesn’t quite reach the high-bar set by his father’s work, ‘Possessor’ is still more than successful as a surreal and layered science fiction flick with outbursts of strong, bloody violence.

Plot Summary: After many years of working as a corporate agent utilising brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies and force them to commit assassinations for the benefit of the company. ‘Tasya Vos’ struggles to suppress her violent memories and urges, soon causing her to completely lose control when taking-over the mind of a new subject, whose identity now threatens to destroy her own…

Debuting at Sundance Film Festival in early 2020, ‘Possessor’ has quickly gone-down as one of the best low-budget releases of that year. Or at least this version of the film has, as according to writer-director Brandon Cronenberg, there was an alternate screenplay for: ‘Possessor’ which drastically differed from the version that was released. So much so, that Brandon stated it could possibly become a second film later down the line, encompassing all of the material that didn’t quite make it into the first, which was primarily inspired by two pieces of media, the first being the 1971 novel: ‘Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psycho-Civilised Society’ by José Delgado, and the second being the short film: ‘Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You,’ written and directed by David Cronenberg.

Andrea Riseborough gives a fantastically-cold performance throughout the film as ‘Tasya Vos,’ making it clear within only a few minutes that ‘Tasya’ is deeply suffering from the effects of her job. As each-time she steps into the life of a new subject, she remerges different, finding it harder and harder to untangle her true identity from the one she just inhabited. And it probably goes without saying that as a sci-fi focused-around entering other people’s bodies, the story does explore sexual desire/discomfort, never shying-away from scenes of: ‘Tasya’ being entranced with her new body after taking-over the mind of: ‘Colin Tate’ portrayed by Christopher Abbott. Who also gives a superb performance as the unfortunate host chosen to execute the company’s assassination, continuously switching between two personalities before eventually becoming devoid of all emotion as minds conflict.

‘Possessor’s cinematography by Karim Hussain also rarely ceases to impress, as nearly every shot is both attractive and memorable, with many shots leaning-into the narrative’s themes in addition to providing a closer-look at the heavily-detailed gore effects through an array of extreme close-ups. The innovative camerawork is also enhanced by the film’s terrific use of colour, as the lighting/colour palette swiftly alters from bright yellows to dark blues to eye-piercing reds. But this isn’t where ‘Possessor’s filmmaking peaks, as it can’t be denied that the film is at its best whenever it visualises ‘Tasya’ and ‘Colin’ mentally-battling for control of: ‘Colin’s body, as the film visually-displays this interesting concept of a psychic battle on the astral-plane through a range of editing techniques and creative yet strange practical effects. The scene in which ‘Tasya’ first enters ‘Colin’s mind is particularly astounding, as the film displays fake bodies of the two main cast members, which then melt entirely into liquid flesh.

Many of the film’s bizarre visuals are also elevated to a great extent by Jim Williams’ original score, as ‘Possessor’s synth-esque soundtrack keeps the film’s eerie atmosphere present throughout the runtime, capturing the story’s surreal tone and constantly building tension through its atmospheric feel until we arrive at the story’s thrilling climax. My two personal favourite tracks: ‘Reborn in the Mind of Another’ and ‘A False Reputation’ aren’t exactly distinctive, but both tracks do help tremendously in this regard.

The main issue ‘Possessor’ suffers from is its lack of world-building, as supposedly the film takes-place in an alternate version of the year 2008, but aside from one short scene where we see ‘Colin’s day-to-day job as a data miner (which does at least serve as a comment on the paranoia of corporate overlords and their nefarious activities), the world of: ‘Possessor’ receives very little development and can often feel inconsistent when it comes to its technological advances.

To conclude, ‘Possessor’ is the perfect hybrid of sci-fi, character study and body-horror. As whilst its lack of world-building and compelling side characters do stop the film from reaches its true potential, ‘Possessor’ (along with Brandon’s previous film), definitely prove that Cronenberg’s son has talent for telling harrowing and violent stories, all the while never forgetting to integrate intriguing concepts and ideas. And with Brandon pushing for most of: ‘Possessor’s effects to be completed in-camera rather than with CGI, the two directors may be even more alike than I first thought. Final Rating: low 8/10.

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The Voices (2014) – Film Review

This obscure horror-comedy released in late 2014 will certainly make for a divisive viewing, as while ‘The Voices’ does feature an inspired use of colour and set-design alongside a stand-out performance from Ryan Reynolds, the film is also far more disturbing than much of its marketing would lead you to believe, swerving from absurd moments of humour to visceral moments of gore in a heart-beat. The resulting film essentially becoming a parody/throwback of/to classic horrors like ‘American Psycho,’ and is a far-cry from a realistic study of psychosis for better, and for worse.

Plot Summary: After working a nine-to-five job at his local bathtub factory, the mentally ill: ‘Jerry’ finds comfort in returning home to his beloved pets: ‘Bosco’ and ‘Mr. Whiskers.’ Until one day, with the help of his psychiatrist, ‘Jerry’ decides to pursue his office crush: ‘Fiona.’ But when their relationship takes a sudden, murderous turn leaving ‘Jerry’ with the corpse of his co-worker, he tries desperately to strive for normalcy, only to fall deeper into instability…

Early in the pre-production of: ‘The Voices,’ director Mark Romanek, best known for the 2002 drama: ‘One Hour Photo’ was attached as the film’s director, before Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums, Radioactive) later took-over as the head of the project. And whilst ‘The Voices’ does feel like quite a large shift from Satrapi’s usual work, its hard to know exactly which director would’ve excelled with a screenplay as original as this one is. As while ‘The Voices’ does share some similarities to other serial killer flicks, many of the film’s ideas are just brimming with personality, as everything from ‘Jerry’ showing symptoms of OCD when cutting-up the bodies of his victims, to ‘Jerry’ living above an abandoned bowling alley, the film just has such a unique appeal.

Ryan Reynolds really gets a chance to shine portraying the film’s mentally ill protagonist, as whilst ‘Jerry’ does commit many horrible acts over the course of the runtime, Reynolds manages to capture the idea of: ‘Jerry’ being a man forced down a road of violence. He is a distinct serial killer in the sense that he desires companionship and happiness, and doesn’t receive any pleasure from killing. So when its eventually revealed what happened to him as a child, you can’t help but sympathise with him, invoking a level of emotion that many murderous characters struggle to achieve. But unfortunately, the film’s side characters portrayed by Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver, all feel quite thin as a result of them only being in the story to serve as ‘Jerry’s potential victims.

Maxime Alexandre handles the film’s cinematography well, as the camerawork throughout ‘The Voices’ remains fairly creative. The film’s visuals are most impressive most however, when it comes to the film’s colour palette and set-design. As with nearly the entirety of the story being seen through ‘Jerry’s perspective, the film displays the true extent of: ‘Jerry’s delusions through its use of colour/sets. For example, when not on his prescribed medication, ‘Jerry’ views his apartment as very clean and organised, giving the location a much more comfortable feel, whereas when ‘Jerry’ does take his medication, he sees the grim reality of his home.

The original score by Olivier Bernet is similar, never reaching into full-on horror, but being a mixture of cartoonish dreamlike tracks such as: ‘In the Woods’ and ‘Jesus Dad,’ before then moving onto more upbeat tracks like ‘Don’t Mess with Milton’. A seemingly a ironic track focused around the fictional woodland town of: ‘Milton’ where the story is set, claiming the town to be nothing but a friendly and welcoming place.

The main aspect of: ‘The Voices’ that I feel could make or break the film for many is likely to be its comedy, as whilst it is revealed fairly early on that many of the film’s bizarre moments such as: ‘Jerry’s pets speaking to him or ‘Jesus’ appearing on a forklift are all taking-place within his mind, much of this strange humour is very hit-or-miss. However, an interesting yet small detail regarding the talking pets is that Ryan Reynolds actually voices each one of the animals himself, with each pet having a different accent, furthering ‘Jerry’s delusions. In fact, Reynolds actually modelled the voice of: ‘Mr. Whiskers,’ a.k.a. ‘Jerry’s cat, after a Scottish friend he knew for over twenty-years.

Overall, while ‘The Voices’ is overflowing with both charm and wit, it also has many issues. From its quickly altering tone and many jokes that fall-flat, the film is far from a perfect horror-comedy. But it does redeem many of its faults through its great performances and eccentric style, all playing into the film’s quirky personality. And its due to all of this that the film feels as if its made for a very niche audience, yet for those ‘The Voices’ does appeal to, there is a fair amount to enjoy here. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Black Swan (2010) – Film Review

Fantastically deranged at all times, ‘Black Swan’ directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Mother!) is for many, the pinnacle of the director’s filmography as of yet. As the film’s combination of numerous genres soon evolves into an incredibly unique experience that leaps onto the stage in an effort to impress, with its gorgeous lighting, dreamlike atmosphere and occasionally grotesque visuals all elevating the film’s twisted tale of a dancer obsessed with achieving her dreams. And whilst the film does trip over itself once or twice, its faults are few and far between.

Plot Summary: When ‘Nina,’ a ballerina for the New York ballet company discovers she has been chosen for the lead role in the company’s production of: ‘Swan Lake,’ she struggles to maintain her sanity as her rival dancers, eccentric casting director and obsessive mother twist her perception of reality, forcing ‘Nina’ to prove herself worthy of the duel role and be the exemplary for both the ‘White’ and ‘Black Swan.’

Although the film was never marketed as such, director Darren Aronofsky has always maintained that ‘Black Swan’ is first and foremost a psychological horror film, as the story delves into themes of mental illness and obsession, in addition to displaying many graphic sequences of what is essentially body-horror. And yet, the film also somehow manages to never feel restrained to just one genre, which is what keeps it so compelling. This experimental nature might also explain why it took around ten-years to be green-lit, as Aronofsky made many changes to the original screenplay in an attempt to get the film funded, with his original hopes for a budget of around £22 million being drastically-lowered to roughly £9 million in the end.

The phenomenal lead performance from Natalie Portman nabbed the actress an Oscar back in 2010, and throughout the film it quickly becomes clear as to why she won, as Portman flawlessly portrays ‘Nina’ as a committed and talented dancer being crushed by the pressure of the role she is undertaking. Portman even went to the extent of altering her voice (which had been continuously criticised by directors in the past for its childish qualities), as Aronofsky requested that for the role of: ‘Nina,’ Portman would need to regress backwards and make her voice more child-like. Furthermore, Portman not only lost over twenty-pounds for the role, but at least 95% of the dancing seen within the film was performed by Portman herself, with the professional ballerina Sarah Lane acting as her body/dance-double for the complex en-pointe work. All of this is without even mentioning the excellent supporting cast of Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder, whose performances all add to the film’s surrealist feel.

Matthew Libatique handles the film’s cinematography, which despite relying far too heavily on hand-held shots during some scenes, also makes for some truly astonishing visuals at points. As the film’s cinematic lighting alongside the grand gothic-influence that the film borrows from cult horrors and other art-house films, most notably, the stylised supernatural horror: ‘Suspiria’ from 1977, grant the film a very distinct and striking look. Aronofsky’s trademark of camerawork also creeps its way into the film, as there are a number of moments throughout the runtime where the camera tracks ‘Nina’ from behind as she walks through various locations, giving the cinematography a great sense of movement not too dissimilar to dancing.

The original score by Clint Mansell suitably feels like a score composed for a ballerina recital, as ‘Black Swan’s orchestral soundtrack is mostly a variation on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ ballet, the only difference being that the notes are played backwards in a distorted manner. This makes the entire score feel very extravagant and almost overly-dramatic, as tracks like ‘Nina’s Dream,’ ‘A Swan is Born’ and ‘Perfection’ add to both the tragedy and beauty of the story.

As previously mentioned, due to its many scenes of graphic (and frankly disturbing) moments of mutilation, ‘Black Swan’ is far from an easy watch. As while the film doesn’t feature any ‘gore’ per-say, all of the scenes of: ‘Nina’s harmful acts towards herself feel more grounded in realism as a result of how minimal they are, with all of the skin-picking and dancing injuries she endures being reminiscent of a real disorder, known to medical professions as Dermatillomania, a disorder primarily focused on skin-picking.

In conclusion, although many believe ‘Black Swan’ to be Aronofsky’s best effort, ‘Requiem for a Dream’ will always be my personal favourite film from the director. As in spite of: ‘Black Swan’s beautiful visuals and captivating narrative, the film also feels like it isn’t quite reaching its full potential, mostly due to its overuse of hand-held camerawork and unexplored characters/ideas. Regardless, this art-house horror does sustain its entertainment-value for the most part, and just like many other art-house films, can be interpreted very differently from viewer to viewer. Final Rating: high 7/10.

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Escape Room (2019) – Film Review

Divertive yet still quite thrilling in parts, ‘Escape Room’ directed by Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Insidious: The Last Key) fails to unlock much of the potential in its premise, eventually devolving into what is simply scene-after-scene of the film’s characters solving puzzles in a number of themed rooms whilst on a strict time-limit. Yet depending on what you desire to see from a modern thriller, this may be enough to serve a passing diversion, as the film chooses to just ignore its lack of realism and originality in favour of distracting its audience through creative set-design and tense fast-paced sequences.

Plot Summary: When six strangers are each sent a mysterious black puzzle box withholding an invitation to an immersive escape room, they all make their way to the ‘Minos’ facility on the promise of being able to win a fortune should they escape. But after entering what seems to be the building’s waiting area, innocent fun soon turns into a deadly game as the group discover each room is actually an elaborate trap…

From a mere mention of the film’s plot, the ‘Saw’ and ‘Cube’ franchises are understandably the first two things that come to mind. As in many ways, ‘Escape Room’ is effectively just a far-less violent version of those familiar set-ups, with a character heading into a room only to be greeted with a convoluted trap that will result in their death should they not escape it. And while ‘Escape Room’ does contain at least a couple of sparks regarding something original, the film is also far from subtle in both its storytelling and dialogue, with plenty of cheesy lines, implausible events and character’s backstories being shown through literal flashbacks.

Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll and Nik Dodani all give passable performances as the main group of characters forced into a twisted game. Their actual characters however, are possibly the film’s biggest missed opportunity. As whilst a few of the characters do receive development early on in the narrative, its quickly becomes clear as to which characters the film is favouring, making it easy to predict who is going to live, and who is going to die. But if the film would’ve managed to better balance its characterisation, then not only would the story have been more compelling overall, but this would’ve kept the viewer constantly guessing as to who could go next.

Aside from one or two wide-shots when the group first enter a new room, the cinematography by Marc Spicer is mostly uninspired, never really attempting to integrate any incredibly innovative or unique shots. Still, the cinematography does serve its purpose for the most part, backing-up the story without ever relying too-heavily on the use of hand-held camerawork or overly-choppy editing. Additionally, the film’s CG effects (as sparsely used as they may be), are serviceable but not much else beyond that.

Contrarily, the original score by Brian Tyler and John Carey is fairly inventive, as the pulsing and suspenseful electronic score utilises everything from ticking clocks to power tools, representing the time-pressed characters and the constantly changing environments from which they are trying to escape. This means tracks such as: ‘Coaster’ and ‘Testing Your Limits’ massively help to build tension, whereas moody tracks like ‘The King of Trading’ and ‘Let the Games Begin’ feel more sci-fi and atmospheric in nature. The film’s main theme simply titled: ‘Escape Room’, even receives a dubstep-like remix by musicians ‘Madsonik’ and ‘Kill the Noise’, which plays over the film’s stylised end credits.

The film’s set-design is possibly its best aspect, as rather than going for the bog-standard look of libraries and basements for the basis of each room, the film explores an array of diverse environments for its puzzles. From a log cabin complete with a snowy mountain vista to an upside-down billiards bar, the film’s ever-changing locations help keep the story’s signature concept feeling fresh. Many of the rooms also relate to the character’s traumatic backstories, the first room for example, is essentially a giant oven which will burn the group alive should they not escape, this mimics ‘Amanda’s backstory, who was badly burned after she barley survived an IED explosion.

In conclusion, not only is ‘Escape Room’ similar to the ‘Saw’ series in terms of its story and set-up, but unfortunately, also in terms of its franchise potential. As its pretty obvious from the film’s extremely forced ending that Sony Pictures wanted their own low-budget horror/thriller franchise as an easy way to gain profit, and riffing on an already iconic series is a trouble-free way to achieve this. So although it’s set-design and original score are admirable, in addition to a large majority of the filmmaking ‘Escape Room’ has on display being above-average if not better, the film definitely has its share of problems, and in my opinion, isn’t worthy of an entire film series. Final Rating: 5/10.

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