Dark Skies (2013) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Rabbit (2018) – Film Review

Based on the children’s book; The Tales of Peter Rabbit, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter, 2018’s Peter Rabbit is the first live-action adaptation of the mischievous, jacket-wearing bunny. And although Potter herself would’ve more than likely not enjoyed the film as the condemnatory author was well-known for her continuous criticisms of how her characters were utilised (to the extent that she even oversaw much of the characters’ merchandise). Over a century on, it’s understandable that Peter’s garden high-jinks would pale in comparison to many modern family flicks. Thus, Peter Rabbit unsurprisingly attempts to update the character, resulting in a mixed bag of a film brimming with over-the-top antics and wild animal house parties.

Plot Summary: After spending years in the countryside toying and tormenting the old, crotchety gardener, Mr. McGregor, as they steal from his luscious vegetable patch. Peter Rabbit and his twin sisters find themselves up against a real challenge when Mr. McGregor dies of a heart attack, prompting his young, compulsive great-nephew, Thomas McGregor, to inherit his property and all that comes with it…

While screenwriters Rob Lieber and Will Gluck (who also directs) do a serviceable job at crafting a family adventure, one of Peter Rabbit‘s biggest issues is that its story is often told from an American perspective, in which, the picturesque British countryside is exclusively filled with cosy cottages and well-meaning residents. This frequently results in quite the disconnect whenever the story becomes more chaotic as garden rakes begin to fly, explosives go off and electric fences impart a never-ending stream of injuries to both humans and animals, all played with flippant humour that’s somewhat at odds with the emotional fallout of Peter’s parents’ death many years earlier.

The voices of James Cordon, Colin Moody, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Sia lead the cast, lending their star-studded vocals to the various animals ripped straight from the source material in terms of both their designs and personalities. On the human side of things, however, many of the characters have been significantly reworked from their original appearances, mostly in an attempt to modernise them, which is pretty clear from Mr. McGregor being swapped out for his younger nephew in an admittedly bleak fashion. And even though Donald Gleeson is incredibly exaggerated in his performance as Thomas McGregor, the character does serve his purpose well as not only a foil for Peter, but also a reasonably likeable man thrown into an understandably aggravating conflict with a troublesome rabbit. Rose Byrne equally elevates her role as the friendly next-door neighbour who is fond of both Thomas and Peter, often leaving the two boys to fight over her affection.

On a technical level, Peter Rabbit is a fairly polished film as the blend of actors and CG characters is well-done and feels natural, while the cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. ensures the film stays visually appealing even during the story’s more outlandish moments, often having the camera level with Peter and his relatives to give the animals more intimate scenes. Moreover, the film frequently integrates animated sequences which are remarkably reminiscent of the source material, having many flashbacks appear as water-coloured paintings similar to the book’s endearing artwork.

With the exception of the uplifting track: Rascal Rebel Rabbit, the original score by Dominic Lewis isn’t overly memorable. But thankfully, Lewis still manages to compose a score that has a youthful bounce to it as the soundtrack’s melodies all have great energy to them. Furthermore, the way the score is structured means the audience gets to experience the slapstick fun of the film’s first and second acts, but as the third act arrives, some real emotional weight creeps in. Also worth noting is the brilliant use of garden tools in the fabric of the score, the most notable of which is the use of the garden shears as percussion throughout several tracks.

Curiously, many of the live-action scenes for Peter Rabbit were actually filmed in Australia, not the United Kingdom as Sydney was chosen as the primary filming location as the city is home to Animal Logic, the company that produced much of the film’s advanced animation. However, this did cause a problem for the filmmakers as rabbits have been regarded as pests in the country since the 1800s as the country was once overrun with them. And at its illegal to bring living rabbits into the country, the actors had to work opposite CG characters for the entirety of the production, with even their closet of interactions being achieved through the use of CGI, which luckily does hold up.

In summary, Peter Rabbit is bitterly average as it’s a film you can sit through, but not much else beyond that. In many ways, it almost feels as if Will Gluck was bored with the source material and was concerned that audiences would be too, leading him to implement as many disorderly action sequences and childish, fourth-wall-breaking gags as he possibly can. Unfortunately, making the film more frenetic only adds to its sense of desperation. Still, with Peter Rabbit racking in over £229 million at the global box office, I’m convinced we’ll be seeing many, many sequels (and potentially spin-offs) to this family adventure in the near future. Rating: 5/10.

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Silent Night (2012) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although Silent Night, Deadly Night had its fair share of gore, Silent Night takes its gruesome violence to another level, as the bloodthirsty Santa make use of a range of tools including an axe, a cattle-prod, a scythe and even a flamethrower, in addition to constantly exploiting the environment around him, such as a scene where he impales a teenager onto a mounted set of deer antlers in a clear reference to the original film. What’s more, 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.

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Brightburn (2019) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It: Chapter Two (2019) – Film Review

Once again directed by Andy Muschietti, and once again based on the iconic novel by Steven King (only this time the adult portions of the story). ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unfortunately quite a downgrade from chapter one, as in spite of its excellent cast and continuously impressive visuals, ‘It: Chapter Two’ proves that bigger doesn’t always mean better when it comes to sequels, as the film’s over-reliance on giant CG monsters along with its inconsistent tone and unreasonably long runtime of two-hours and fifty minutes, demonstrate how this spine-chilling follow-up frequently overindulges in its source material.

Plot Summary: After being defeated by ‘The Losers Club’ many years ago, the demonic clown: ‘Pennywise’ returns twenty-seven years later to terrorise the town of: ‘Derry’ once again. And with the childhood friends have long since gone their separate ways, ‘Mike Hanlon,’ the only member of the group to remain in ‘Derry,’ calls his friends home for one final stand…

Jumping from character-to-character, location-to-location, many of: ‘It: Chapter Two’s biggest faults appear within its screenplay, as rather than focusing on a straight-forward narrative like the original film, this time around the film revolves most of its plot around a bootless errand of a story where ‘The Losers’ search all over ‘Derry’ to acquire various artifacts from their youth in order to perform ‘The Ritual of Chud,’ which will supposedly destroy ‘Pennywise.’ The problem being that much of this set-up is ultimately meaningless, as almost every character receives their own segment in which they simply recall moments from their childhood, which often just recap scenes from the first film or leave the audience bloated as a result of the huge amount of exposition they have to digest.

Yet it has to be said, that James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ranson and Andy Bean all portray the older versions of their characters remarkably, as despite the characters now being much older, each actor/actress recreates the younger actors’ body moments and manner of speaking flawlessly. ‘It: Chapter Two’ also never forgets to reinforce the character’s trauma, as even though ‘Bill’ is a successful writer and ‘Ben’ has remodelled himself into a muscular architect etc. Each member of the group is still haunted by their past, or at least, what they can remember from it. Of course, Bill Skarsgård also returns as ‘Pennywise,’ and while his performance does occasionally venture into ‘Beetlejuice’ territory due to how over-the-top he becomes, Skarsgård is still endlessly entertaining as the malevolent clown.

This time around the cinematography is handled by Checco Varese, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that ‘It: Chapter Two’ had a different cinematographer, as the film is just as visually pleasing as its predecessor, with some elegantly orchestrated transitions between the character’s incarnations thrown in for good measure. The huge increase in budget also comes across through the film’s visuals, as ‘It: Chapter Two’ feels much grander in scale and presentation alike. However, where the sequel stumbles is with its scares, as instead of utilising ‘Pennywise’s mimicking ability to transform into every character’s greatest fear, the film lazily depends on towering CG creatures, which usually have little relation to the characters or the story at large, and although a number of the monsters are interesting design-wise, it doesn’t stop them from feeling out-of-place.

Benjamin Wallfisch’s original score effectively continues on from that of the first film, as tracks such as: ‘Losers Reunited,’ ‘Nothing Lasts Forever,’ and ‘Stan’s Letter’ are calming and beautiful, whereas tracks like ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Very Scary’ are loud and intense to add to the film’s horror. The main issue with the soundtrack is in its lack of distinction from the first film’s score, and while I understand ‘It: Chapter Two’ is essentially just the second part of a larger story, the original score does little to set itself apart, with some tracks sounding near-identical to others.

Even though ‘It: Chapter Two’ is trying to accomplish a great deal within its lengthy runtime, spending a large portion of its story in flashbacks and dream sequences as it attempts to adapt everything not already covered in the first film. The sequel is saddled with an even bigger obstacle; constructing a suitable climax for the story. As although its well-known by this point that Steven King often has difficulty writing satisfying endings for his novels (a criticism that the film repeatedly mocks), ‘It: Chapter Two’ is faced with this exact task, and even if the story doesn’t completely collapse under the weight of its disappointing finale, its admittedly still lacklustere, especially when the final act veers into metaphysical surrealism.

In conclusion, ‘It: Chapter Two’ is unquestionably an ambitious horror sequel, with a renowned cast, spectacular set-pieces and numerous exciting moments, the film truly goes all out. But does it work? Well, not entirely, but it’s a diverting horror blockbuster, nonetheless. And whilst I feel that by splitting the story of: ‘It’ into two films, Muschietti has done a gratifying job of commanding the massive blimp that is King’s extensive novel, most of the issues with ‘It: Chapter Two’ do boil down to its story and structure, which end-up leaving the film a pleasurable romp rather than the ghoulish denouement it could’ve been. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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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 potentially be nothing but an exploitative horror and twists it into a unique story that continuously indulges in defying its audience’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 canines 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 an utter failure upon its 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 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 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 over-reliance 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 dramatic 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 reliance on hand-held camerawork, ‘Pet’s constant tension building and subversion of classic horror tropes may not have been enough to draw in horror fans back in 2016, especially 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 genre fanatics stumble across this obscure horror, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll receive praise from all. Final Rating: 5/10.

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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 that each room thy enter 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 while serving her country.

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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The Babysitter (2017) – Film Review

Originally filmed in 2015 with the intention of playing in cinemas, the horror-comedy: ‘The Babysitter’ wasn’t seen by any horror fanatics until it released late 2017 after Netflix acquired the rights to the film for streaming. And although ‘The Babysitter’ doesn’t exactly break any of the rules we’ve come to expect within the horror genre, this horror-comedy with splatterings of style must’ve been entertaining enough for those who decided to watch it, as the film would eventually spawn a Netflix-exclusive franchise with two later sequels.

Plot Summary: Riddled with anxiety, twelve-year-old: ‘Cole’ has always been bullied and picked on due to his constant panicking, only finding comfort around the one person who understands him, his attractive babysitter: ‘Bee.’ That is, until one night, after ‘Cole’ secretly stays up past his bedtime to discover she’s actually part of a satanic cult, forcing ‘Cole’ to spend the rest of his evening evading ‘Bee’s band of killers who will stop at nothing to prevent him from spilling their dark secret…

Directed by Joseph McGinty Nichol (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator: Salvation, This Means War) or ‘McG’ as he more commonly goes by, ‘The Babysitter’ is a film that has received a number of alterations (both big and small) since even the early stages of its pre-production. For example, in the original screenplay for the film, ‘Sonya’ was actually a cheerleader, ‘Allison’ was a journalist for her high-school newspaper, and ‘Max’ had dreadlocks, but eventually it was decided that ‘Bee’s cult followers should be reimagined to more closely reflect the stereotypical characters seen in classic slasher flicks, only in this film, they’re the antagonists. And this idea is one of the film’s best aspects in terms of its writing, as it gives the film a real sense of self-awareness in addition paying respect to what came before it. Most notably, the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, which ‘Max’ references directly at one point when he chants: “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ah-Ah-Ah” whilst chasing ‘Cole.’

Judah Lewis does manage to leave an impression in his first film role, portraying protagonist: ‘Cole’ as an innocent twelve-year-old with few friends aside from ‘Bee,’ even if a large portion of his anxious characterisation feels far too over-the-top. Then there is also Samara Weaving as the titular babysitter: ‘Bee,’ and her cult followers: ‘Max,’ ‘Allison,’ ‘Sonya’ and ‘John’ portrayed by Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Hana Mae Lee, and Andrew Bachelor. Who are all wonderfully devilish throughout the film, having plenty of dark comedic moments between them making their deaths quite unfortunate, as while I’m sure most could’ve guessed their characters do die at some point within the narrative, we don’t get to spend enough time with any of them to get a strong grasp on their exaggerated personalities or any understanding of their malevolent cult.

In spite of the usually dull cinematography by Shane Hurlbut, ‘The Babysitter’ still manages to be one of the more visually interesting Netflix Originals through its unique style, as the film continuously implements different text, graphics and colours to give it a distinct stylistic appeal, not too dissimilar from (although nowhere near impressive as) ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ from 2010. Many of these editing decisions also help to redeem the film’s humour, which is extremely inconsistent, bouncing from hilarious cut-aways and meta horror jokes to embarrassing lines of dialogue which try far too hard.

Whilst composer Douglas Pipes has crafted some great scores in the past like ‘Monster House’ and ‘Trick ‘r Treat,’ ‘The Babysitter’ is certainly not one of them, as even with the film having many serviceable tracks. The soundtrack in general just lacks anything distinctive, and I believe that if it was ever compared to any other score from Pipes, or even just a handful of random horror scores, I doubt most would be able to tell it apart. The film also throws in the iconic Queen song: ‘We Are the Champions’ nearing the runtime’s end, which feels immensely out-of-place and comes out of nowhere.

For a large duration of its tight runtime (which the film breezes through as a result of its unrelentingly fast-pacing), ‘The Babysitter’s story is predominantly just one long chase sequence, and whilst occasionally tense, I couldn’t help but feel that the film’s screenplay could’ve taken better advantage of its evil babysitter concept or its few supernatural elements, despite the series second entry: ‘The Babysitter: Killer Queen’ delving much further into the latter. Yet the film doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its violence, having plenty of fantastically gruesome gore effects which are all successfully played for comedy.

Overall, I could see ‘The Babysitter’ being an enjoyable experience for some and possibly just a boring viewing for others. As when ignoring the film’s graphic gore and fun stylistic choices, the story leaves a lot to be desired, and can often feel derivative of horror classics even if this was the film’s intention to an extent with its focus on horror tropes/clichés. For me personally, although I do admire the film’s ridiculous tone and dark humour, the disappointing story can often feel sluggish, diminishing the film’s memorability and rewatchability. Final Rating: 5/10.

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As Above, So Below (2014) – Film Review

Co-written and directed by John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine, Devil), ‘As Above, So Below’ is certainly an interesting found-footage flick, as while at a first mention the film may just sound like another a stereotypical horror, this claustrophobic delve into the caliginous Paris catacombs does actually have some depth hidden beneath its generic exterior. But unfortunately, even with the story’s intriguing religious imagery/influences, the film soon plummets into clichéd mediocrity, mostly as a result of its bland characters and weak scares.

Plot Summary: When a team of explorers venture into the miles of twisting catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, all in search of the historical: ‘Philosopher’s Stone,’ they encounter far more than they bargained for when they realise they have entered into the first of the nine rings of Hell, where visions of their past sins begin to relentlessly torment them…

From a quick glance at the film’s visuals, its understandable why many would see ‘As Above, So Below’ as just another found-footage horror, only this time capitalising on the daunting real-world location of the Paris catacombs, which hold the remains of more than six million people in the small part of a tunnel network built to consolidate Paris’ ancient stone quarries. But the film’s setting does heavily relate to the story of: ‘Inferno,’ a short poem written by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth century, focusing on the tale of man who journeys through Hell guided by the Roman poet Virgil. Even the film’s title plays into this central idea, as the words: ‘As Above, So Below’ are derived from “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” which is a line from the ‘Christian Lord’s Prayer,’ which begins with “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…”

Even though their characters are immensely mundane, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar are all serviceable in their respective roles, delivering the usual screaming, ventilating and panicking performances that occur in most found-footage films. However, while the film’s protagonist: ‘Scarlett’ is portrayed well by Perdita Weeks, the character herself is noticeably very unlikeable, mostly due to her constant obsession with the ‘Philosopher’s Stone,’ which she places all of her friend’s lives at risk for without question, and its never made clear whether we should actually be rooting for her to survive or not.

The cinematography by Léo Hinstin is more of the usual for this subgenre, providing the viewer with plenty of shaky and out of focus shots as the characters make their way through the almost pitch-black burial ground. This doesn’t distract from what is easily the film’s most impressive (and most ambitious) filming tip-bit, however, which is that the film was actually shot in the Paris catacombs themselves, not in a soundstage. In fact, this was the first production ever to secure permission from the French government to film within the catacombs, which would have been quite a challenge as the series of narrow, winding tunnels with centuries-old skeletons arranged on the walls would’ve had little room for equipment and crew. Yet this does payoff as the film utilises it’s location extremely well, always placing its characters in tight areas to insight a feeling of claustrophobia in the audience.

While the film doesn’t feature a complete original score for obvious reasons, one of the strongest aspects of found-footage flicks, sound design, is actually an area where ‘As Above, So Below’ is lacking. As despite the film’s many attempts to feel impactful when the characters dive into water or are nearly crushed by a collapsing celling, a vast majority of the sound effects don’t sound as if they are coming from within the catacombs, usually sounding quite evident they have been added in post-production on account of the absence of echo or density.

With a large portion of the film’s narrative being based on Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ the film’s basic structure revolves around the characters heading further and further into Hell, with each character facing a vision of a personal sin from their past. These rings (or levels) in order are ‘Limbo,’ ‘Lust,’ ‘Gluttony,’ ‘Greed,’ ‘Anger,’ ‘Heresy,’ ‘Violence,’ ‘Fraud,’ and ‘Treachery.’ But outside of the film’s previously mentioned religious symbolism, after the characters leave the initial catacombs, each ring is represented purely through dark empty caverns, which become quite repetitive after a point.

Altogether, despite the Paris catacombs being a very compelling setting for a modern horror film, in addition to much of the film’s religious influences making for quite a unique story. I’d still suggest other claustrophobic horrors like ‘The Descent’ and ‘The Thing’ before ‘As Above, So Below,’ as not only does the film eventually devolve into the standard horror formula without much experimentation, but if you’re unaware of any of the religious context, then I could definitely see the film being fairly forgettable. In all honesty, I feel this film may have been better-off as non-found-footage, as I think this would’ve allowed the film to better explore its story and themes. Final Rating: 5/10.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) – Film Review

Based on the controversial 1980s children’s book series of the same name, written by Alvin Schwartz and nightmarishly illustrated by Stephen Gammell. The film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ directed by André Øvredal and co-written/produced by Guillermo del Toro, takes a very different approach than what many may expect when considering its source material, as the film ditches the book’s original anthology structure in favour of a more interconnected story to mixed results.

Plot Summary: On Halloween night, 1968, a group of childhood friends darlingly enter the abandoned home of: ‘The Bellows’ family, whose shadow has loomed over the small town of Mill Valley for generations as a result of the notorious murder: ‘Sarah Bellows,’ who turned her tortured life into a book of scary stories many years ago. But these terrifying tales soon have a way of becoming all too real when the reclusive: ‘Stella’ decides to take-home ‘Sarah’s story-filled journal…

Clearly inspired by Steven King’s classic novel: ‘It,’ ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ takes the now-popular route of focusing on a younger cast, capturing that classic spirit of childhood adventure mixed with plenty of light-horror, but rather than setting the film in the hackneyed time-period of the 1980s, the film actually chooses to set it’s story near the end of the 1960s, which I feel helped the film stand-out amongst the ‘It’ remake and it’s many similar incarnations. However, since its release, ‘Scary Stories’ has received plenty of criticism for its underwhelming horror, despite this being a completely intentional decision on behalf of the filmmakers, ensuring the film as a first step into the horror genre for younger audiences, never displaying too much violence or overly intense scares, not too dissimilar to the book series itself.

Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Abrams portray the main group of friends and all do a decent job overall, as while their individual characters don’t exactly break new ground, they are likeable enough and have their inklings of both personality and humour. Contortionist Troy James, who once appeared on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ also appears in the film as one of the monsters: ‘The Jangly Man.’ Who aside from having some CGI-enhanced facial expressions, actually performed all of his impressively unnatural body movements himself, including walking backwards, twisting his torso and crawling upside-down.

Roman Osin’s cinematography does remain visually interesting for the majority of the runtime, having plenty of creative shots with an effective implementation of colour alongside. But its the film’s monsters that are unquestionably the best aspect of this adaptation, as the film takes the horrifying and abstract illustrations of Stephen Gammell and melds them into live-action flawlessly. So much so, that even in spite of each creature’s very limited screen-time, every monster manages to be quite memorable in its own right, from ‘The Pale Lady’ to ‘The Big Toe’ to the dilapidated poster-child scarecrow: ‘Harold,’ all of which were brought to life through prosthetic make-up and convincing practical costumes, rather than just CGI.

The original score by Marco Beltrami and Anna Drubich is a fairly average horror score, yet does still serve the story well for what it has too, even if most of the tracks aren’t worth looking-up afterwards. But its also within the main score that there a small nod towards the original book series, as one of the tracks that plays throughout the film is titled: ‘The Hearse Song,’ which is actually a short song from the book series’ first entry.

As mentioned previously, the main creative decision that seems very peculiar to me is that the film adaptation of: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ is not an anthology film, despite the books the film is based on focusing entirely on different characters/monsters with each new story. Instead, the writers chose to create an original story based-around the depraved spirit of: ‘Sarah Bellows’ bringing the stories within her book to life, which was apparently done in order to stop one of the stories from overshadowing the rest, according to Guillermo del Toro. Yet I personally feel that this makes the film less entertaining, as many of the story’s concepts and creatures feel underutilised due to this overarching (and occasionally corny) narrative, even if the main story does borrow some of its ideas from other unused tales within the books series.

For the most part, ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ does triumph in its goal of crafting a horror more accessible for younger audiences, as I could see this film appealing to many young audience members in search of a gateway into the horror genre. If you are already a veteran within the genre, however, then I feel ‘Scary Stories’ will more than likely disappoint, as the film’s many cliché story-beats and lack of any gore or truly tense moments does result in this adaptation becoming a mostly forgettable horror flick with the exception of its many unique creature designs. Final Rating: high 5/10.

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