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.

dark_skies_xxlg

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.

leatherface-p1002138

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, is 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.

silent_night_xxlg

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.

beneath-p823208

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.

cargo-poster-1

Hush (2016) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hush_xxlg

Terrifier (2016) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

terrifier-p1080489

Hellraiser (1987) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hellraiser_xxlg

Brightburn (2019) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

brightburn-p1056052

Slender Man (2018) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slender_man-p1102523