Villains (2019) – Film Review

Engrossing, suspenseful and darkly humorous, Villains, released in 2019, is a fast-paced crime-thriller with a sharp comedic edge. Led by a quartet of strong performances, including the likes of Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe as the leading pair of romantically-entangled criminals, Villains has more than a few noteworthy elements. Alongside its many qualities, however, Villains also suffers from several shortcomings, mainly in regard to the lack of style in its visuals, despite what the film’s flamboyant promotional posters would lead you to believe.

Plot Summary: On the run after robbing a local gas station, amateur lovebird criminals; Mickey and Jules find themselves breaking into a secluded house in search of a new set of wheels. But, upon entering the quaint abode, the pair discover that the home they have stumbled into is actually the residency of a sadistic couple with more than a few dark secrets…

While never outright frightening, Villains does have a surplus of tense sequences and bloody violence to quench one’s thirst for excitement. However, these stirring moments don’t persist into the third act, as Villains‘ story actually reaches its peak absurdity during the second act, and then opts for a quieter, more emotionally resonant third act to conclude its narrative. Admittedly, this is a rather jarring decision, and the film’s pacing does suffer as a result, but it undeniably works in the characters’ favour. Furthermore, whilst not filled to the brim with plot twists and narrative subversions, the first act of Villains features enough twists and turns that I would advise those going in to go in blind as possible to get the full impact of the reveals.

Headed southbound for a fresh start in the sunshine state of Florida, the central couple of Mickey and Jules, portrayed by Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe, are surprisingly likeable characters in spite of being wanted criminals. Monroe is the most charismatic she’s ever been in her role as Jules, whilst Skarsgård portrays Mickey as a goofy yet considerate partner, delivering some of the film’s most amusing lines of dialogue. The pair could have easily been depicted as despicable, but Monroe and Skarsgård imbue them with such warmth and earnestness that you can’t help but root for them. As for the demented homeowners, George and Gloria, portrayed by Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Minturn, are charismatic yet equally intimidating, portraying their characters with a subdued sense of lunacy as opposed to being overly insane to an almost comical degree. On top of the terrific performances, all of the characters receive an adequate amount of development. I’d even go so far as to say it’s unfortunate that the runtime isn’t a little longer to further flesh out the characters, as the hints of backstory we receive for some of them (particularly Gloria) are both tragic and fascinating.

Visually, Villains is somewhat flat, as the cinematography by Matt Mitchell largely relies on unremarkable close-up and mid-shots without much innovation or implementation of style. Excluding the end credits, that is, which are vibrant and chaotic, emulating a skater-like art style through its animation and font choices. Luckily, the production design fairs better than the camerawork as George and Gloria’s house is uniquely coated in 1960s decor, complete with radiant colours and a vintage television. All of the outfits that the psychotic couple sport also play into this ’60s aesthetic. Moreover, writers-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen (BodyThe Stakelander) effectively utilise the setting of George and Gloria’s home, establishing the geography of their house scene by scene so the audience has a clear understanding of where each character is in relation to one another during the many cat-and-mouse chase sequences.

The original score by Andrew Hewitt is regrettably rather generic, boasting several tracks that sound as if they were lifted from various scores from a selection of genres, from mysteries to horrors. But, on a more positive note, Villains does make sufficient use of a number of soothing instrumental pieces, such as The Free LifeTime for Romance and Looking Back on Love, which all serve as excellent contrasts to the on-screen violence and grim setup of the narrative.

Upon first viewing, it quickly becomes apparent that Villains takes a lot of influence from other crime flicks. Most notably for its protagonists, Mickey and Jules, as the pair share many similarities to the couple; Pumpkin and Honey Bunny from the opening and closing scenes of the quintessential crime flick; Pulp Fiction, released in 1994. The film even pays tribute to this specific influence through a small Easter egg, as if you look closely, you can see that Mickey has a tattoo on his wrist of Stuntman Mike’s car from 2007’s Death Proof, another flick directed by Quentin Tarantino.

In summary, Villains is an entertaining crime-thriller, but it’s also a film that continuously feels as if it’s on the cusp of something extraordinary, yet it never quite reaches whatever that may be. While the performances are solid and the plot is engaging, the almost total absence of style and flair is exceedingly difficult to ignore. Still, Villains has enough of its own offbeat energy to avoid merely coming across as an assemblage of two young filmmakers’ cinematic influences, which is more than can be said for many modern releases. Rating: 6/10.

villains-movie-poster

Apollo 18 (2011) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

apollo_18-p480664

Resistance (2020) – Film Review

During the German occupation of France in 1940, a young Jewish man named, Marcel Mangel, fled with his family to Limoges where his cousin, Georges Loinger, a member of the French Resistance, urged him to join the cause. Eventually, both Marcel and his older brother, Alain, would join the French Resistance, adopting the last name, Marceau, and helping rescue countless Jewish children from race laws and concentration camps. Throughout his time in the Resistance, Marcel frequently used his skills as a mime artist to keep the children quiet and entertained as he helped them escape to Switzerland. With all that in mind, it’s difficult to imagine how a filmmaker could possibly disappoint when creating a cinematic interpretation of Marcel’s extraordinary story, but 2020’s Resistance is just that; a disappointment. Serving as a flawed yet honourable biopic that somewhat pushes past its varying performances and peculiar execution to function as an earnest tribute to its real-life protagonist.

Plot Summary: Before he became a world-famous mime, aspiring Jewish actor and artist, Marcel Marceau, joined the French Resistance alongside his brother, Alain, in an effort to save thousands of orphaned Jewish children from the impending threat of the Third Reich…

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express, Hands of Stone). The screenplay for Resistance continuously appears distracted, creating a scattershot portrait of Marcel Marceau’s life when it could’ve easily been a straightforward celebratory biopic documenting his valiant actions and incredible feats throughout the Second World War. The perfect example of the film’s unconventional approach can be seen in the structure as Resistance bizarrely chooses to tell Marceau’s story through the means of a flashback, narrated by General Patten (portrayed by Ed Harris) as he addresses the serried ranks of the U.S. troops who have just liberated France. This flashback structure adds nothing of value to the plot and ultimately only serves as a distraction. However, the film does partially redeem this issue during its epilogue as the filmmakers pay respect to the real-life events they’re documenting, inserting text that states that the Nazis killed over a million children during World War II and that this film is dedicated to them.

When it comes to the cast, the supporting actors of Clémence Poésy, Félix Moati, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey and Matthias Schweighöfer all give serviceable performances as various members of the French Resistance and those who oppose them. The standout, however, is, of course, Jesse Eisenberg, who portrays Marcel Marceau himself. And even though Marcel’s personality is only explored in bullet-point tropes, swiftly moving from one trait to the next, Eisenberg portrays the war hero with complete serenity, his performance only being hindered by his inconsistent French accent. Still, there are plenty of undeniably tense moments that showcase Eisenberg’s ability to jump from comedic to dramatic acting on the fly.

Visually, Resistance is more than competent as the cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin-Menz has its fair share of attractive shots, often utilising the story’s diverse mix of locations to great effect with symmetrical lines. And for all its unusual choices in terms of structure, it can never be stated that Resistance leans too hard on certain moments to drain them of maximum emotion. Take the opening scene, for example, in which a little girl’s house is raided by Nazis who subsequently kill her parents. A brief scene, during which, we see no on-screen violence whatsoever. With that said, the colour palette of Resistance never tries to be anything but gloomy and grey. Whilst I understand that this was likely done to further establish the story’s World War II setting, even in more cheerful moments where Marcel makes the children laugh, Resistance rarely employs vibrant colours in its visuals.

Similarly, the film’s music is a rather mixed bag. As while the original score by Angelo Milli features a handful of memorable tracks such as You Are Not Alone and Adagio for a Silent Performance, both of which help add dramatic weight to the scenes they are featured in. There are also plenty of moments where the film is lazily manipulative with its music as the sound of an angelic children’s choir is contrasted with scenes of brutal executions.

Another problem Resistance suffers from is its overabundance of subplots, an issue that frequently results in a complete lack of narrative focus. From Marcel’s somewhat strained relationship with his father, who after seeing one of his performances as Charlie Chaplin calls him; “A Clown Dressed Like Hitler in a Whore House,” to a similar kind of resentment toward his brother, as well as a romantic fling with fellow Resistance member, Emma. Nearly every subplot in Resistance goes nowhere and practically fades into thin air by the time the end credits roll. Proving that when it comes to biopics, more story doesn’t necessarily mean a better story.

In summary, Resistance is neither a fully drawn biopic nor a thrilling war epic despite its largely convincing performance from Jesse Eisenberg as the mime artist-turned-war hero. The main reason for this is that Resistance constantly feels as if it isn’t sufficiently delving into Marcel’s numerous talents or his brave endeavours within the French Resistance. Nevertheless, I do believe this was a film worth making as its mere existence helps in celebrating Marcel Marceau’s remarkable life. A life that many may not have even been aware of before this film’s release. Rating: low 6/10.

resistance_ver3_xxlg

Extraction (2020) – Film Review

Based on the graphic novel: Ciudad by Ande Parks, which in itself was based on an unproduced screenplay written by Joe Russo in 2014. 2020’s Extraction transfers the story it’s adapting from the Paraguayan city of Ciudad Del Este to Dhaka in Bangladesh whilst still indulging in all of the same barbaric violence and exciting action set pieces. Yet despite its spectacular stunt work, impressive long takes and electric performance from Chris Hemsworth, Extraction isn’t entirely saved from its generic complexion, as the film frequently falls back on many of the usual tropes we tend to see in modern action flicks.

Plot Summary: In an underworld of weapons dealers and traffickers, Ovi Mahajan, the son of a notorious drug lord, becomes the pawn in a war between two criminal syndicates. Now, held hostage by a group of kidnappers in one of the world’s most impenetrable cities, his rescue beckons the unparalleled skill of black-market mercenary, Tyler Rake, a broken man with nothing to lose, harbouring a death wish that makes an already dangerous mission near impossible…

Extraction marks the feature-length directorial debut of Avengers: Endgame stunt coordinator/second unit director, Sam Hargrave, who producers, Joe and Anthony Russo, hand-picked to helm the project following their collaboration on the superhero blockbuster. Meaning, of course, that Hargrave’s profession as a stunt coordinator (and stunt double) repeatedly comes into focus as each of the film’s action sequences are relentlessly thrilling and well-orchestrated. If truth be told, however, most of Extraction‘s faults come not from its directing, but rather its screenplay, as, in many ways, Extraction‘s screenplay is structured much like a video game, continuously introducing new ‘boss levels’ that Tyler must complete before advancing, such as a corrupt general who also happens to be the country’s best sniper. Quickly equalling to tiring formula, especially when the film introduces the odd interesting idea, such as a subplot focusing on a troubled teenager taking his first steps into the world of organised crime.

Although Chris Hemsworth gives an admirable performance as the film’s protagonist, Tyler Rake, a fearless mercenary and former SASR operator, discreetly mourning the loss of his son who died from lymphoma. The character’s promising (if a little cliché) set-up is soon spoilt by the complete lack of development from that point onwards as Tyler essentially goes nowhere after the groundwork for his character is laid, cementing him as a by-the-book action hero and nothing more. Surprising, considering that Extraction was effectively conceived as a star vehicle for Hemsworth, a remarkable actor who has struggled to obtain a signature role outside of Thor Odinson. On the flip of this, there is the school-age son of a Mumbai drug lord, Ovi Mahajan, portrayed by Rudhraksh Jaiswal, who serves his purpose as an innocent child caught in the crossfire between two gangs. It’s just unfortunate that the film tries to build a parental relationship between the two, merely reminding the audience how paper-thin its characters are.

When overlooking the murky, displeasing colour palette, a majority of the visuals throughout Extraction are spellbinding as the film uses its dynamic, hand-held cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel to place the audience alongside the characters in the busy streets of Dhaka. Having Tyler grapple with corrupt police officers while tuk-tuks and scooters disorderly rush past, a feeling that is only amplified by the film’s multiple one-takes. One of said takes, which clocks in at around eleven minutes and twenty-nine seconds, is, in actuality, comprised of thirty-six stitched sequences, some of which took over twenty-five takes to line up correctly, according to director, Sam Hargrave.

Regrettably, the original score by Henry Jackman and Alex Belcher isn’t as innovative as the soundtrack almost solely consists of indistinguishable ostinato-driven action tracks such as Police Search and Checkpoint, all of which have a heavy emphasis on percussion, with only the occasional pause for breath. And whilst there is no standout theme, as such, Extraction does have an effective little motif that runs through some of the tracks to give the score a bit of personality.

Naturally, the action sequences of Extraction are what the majority of the film hinders. And luckily, they do deliver, being brutal, bloody and fast-paced as dissimilar to characters like John Wick, whose fighting style is inherently tactical and calculated, Tyler Rake engages in combat far more spontaneously, improvising weapons and thinking on his feet whenever he is thrown into a dangerous scenario. As previously mentioned, the film’s camerawork also amplifies many of these exhilarating moments, particularly one car chase sequence, during which, Sam Hargrave actually manned the camera himself whilst he was strapped to the hood of the vehicle pursuing Tyler and Ovi.

In summary, Extraction is slightly contrived and sporadically over-the-top, and there’s no question that the film’s characters are essentially just cardboard cutouts delivering line after line of uninspired dialogue. In fact, for most of its runtime, Extraction almost feels as if you’re watching someone play a video game, which as I’m sure any video game enthusiast will tell you, is only amusing for a short time. But purely in terms of action, Hargrave and the Russo Brothers bring the noise with a film fueled by the charisma and physicality of its star, suggesting that Hemsworth has found his genre once he retires his iconic superhero. Rating: high 6/10.

extraction_netflix_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

The Wretched (2019) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wretched_ver2_xxlg

Saw (2004) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2004-saw-3

V/H/S (2012) – Film Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vhs_xlg

Easy A (2010) – Film Review

Taking inspiration from romantic coming-of-age comedies like ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘Clueless,’ and ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Easy A’ released in 2010, certainly has its ups and downs. As despite Emma Stone leading the film with an extremely lively and charismatic performance, it’s hard to ignore the film’s immensely corny tone and many, many moments of humour that fall completely flat. Still, for those looking for a light-hearted morality tale about how a small lie can ramify out-of-control, ‘Easy A’ should suffice.

Plot Summary: After being prompted by her best friend to spill details of her boring weekend, ‘Olive Penderghast,’ a clean-cut seventeen-year-old high-schooler, decides to spice things-up by telling a little white lie about losing her virginity. But when the high-school busybody overhears their conversation and spreads it all over campus, ‘Olive’ suddenly becomes popular for all the wrong reasons…

Written by Bert V. Royal and directed by Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits, Annie, Peter Rabbit), ‘Easy A’ doesn’t strive too far from what we usually expect to see in our teenage romantic-comedies, taking place primarily in a high-school and focusing on the rippling effects of: ‘Olive’s constant lies and her growing popularity after she fully embraces her new persona as the school tart. And while I wouldn’t call ‘Easy A’s portrayal of an American high-school realistic per-say, many of the teenage characters we meet throughout the story are purposely represented as over-the-top stereotypes or even just one-note jokes through the film’s witty writing, which does vary from being hilarious to tiresome, depending on the scene.

Possibly being the biggest role of her career at the time of the film’s release, Emma Stone’s performance is undoubtedly the film’s finest aspect, as Stone truly brings her all to the role, portraying ‘Olive’ with such self-assurance that she elevates the game of every actor/actress around her. Having perfect comic-timing and a strong yet not irritating playful attitude that ensures ‘Olive’ will remain a likeable and intelligent character for viewers to follow. Then there is the supporting cast of Amanda Bynes, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church, and Lisa Kudrow, who all attain at least one or two amusing moments even if many of their characters serve little-to-no purpose within the actual narrative.

With its story being set in California, ‘Easy A’ does utilise its West Coast setting for a handful of attractive wide-shots. But aside from these few shots, nearly all of the film’s cinematography by Michael Grady fails to display anything overly interesting or creative. However, with that said, the film does flaunt its opening titles in a pretty imaginative fashion, having every cast/crew credit placed inside the shots themselves, whether that’s on the ground where characters are walking or placed on signs above the character’s heads, which is a fairly inventive way to avoid having each piece of text simply appear at the bottom of the screen.

Although the original score by Brad Segal is barely noticeable, ‘Easy A’ fills a large majority of its short runtime with a huge assortment of various pop songs, from ‘Change of Seasons’ to ‘Cupid Shoot Me,’ ‘Trouble is a Friend,’ ‘Bad Reputation,’ and, of course, ‘Pocketful of Sunshine’ by Natasha Bedingfield, which essentially becomes a running joke within the film as a result of the song’s catchy nature. Yet regardless of how widespread or beloved many of these songs may be, the sheer amount of licensed music that appears in the film is almost overwhelming, and when combined with the film’s editing, soon begins to feel quite choppy when rushing from song-to-song.

While the plot of: ‘Easy A’ does parallel the romantic novel: ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in more ways than one, ‘Easy A’ isn’t exactly a film that’s subtle about its influences. So, just as the film embraces its similarities to that story with ‘Olive’ continuously mentioning both the novel and film in addition to wearing the scarlet letter ‘A’ on her clothes, ‘Easy A’ also takes clips from many of the films its directly inspired by. In particular, when it comes to John Hughes’ iconic filmography, as everything from ‘The Breakfast Club’ to ‘Ferris Buller’s Day Off’ to the previously mentioned: ‘Sixteen Candles’ is not only referenced, but eventually, even sampled into the film during a clip-montage, which while unique, I couldn’t but think is a just a clever tactic of escaping criticisms regarding the film’s lack of originality in some areas.

Overall, whilst ‘Easy A’ owes an enormous debt to older (and in all honesty, better) teenage romantic-comedies, it is enjoyable in bit-size chunks, particularly for those who are fond of Emma Stone. As in many ways ‘Easy A’ was unknowingly a showcase for the actress, alluding to her future career in Oscar-winning films such as: ‘La La Land’ and ‘The Favourite.’ And even though I’m certain its underlining cheesiness and subplots that feel like afterthoughts will annoy some, in my opinion, ‘Easy A’ has its moments, but it’s unlikely to leave a strong impression. Final Rating: low 6/10.

easy_a_xxlg

Tarantula (1955) – Film Review

Before the horror genre truly began capitalising on the common phobia of creepy crawlies with films like ‘Arachnophobia,’ ‘Itsy Bitsy,’ ‘Kingdom of the Spiders,’ and ‘Eight Legged Freaks,’ the 1955 sci-fi-horror classic: ‘Tarantula’ terrified audiences with its marvellous creature effects and continuously unnerving atmosphere. Ensuring the film would go on to be the exemplary for future monster flicks despite featuring many of the usual problems plaguing creature-features at the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tarantula_poster_05