The Shallows (2016) – Film Review

Ever since the release of the original blockbuster: ‘Jaws’ in 1975, shark films have never quite managed to reach the same heights, with flops such as: ‘Deep Blue Sea’, ‘Bait’, ’47 Meters Down’ and ‘Shark Night’ feeling quite distant from reality as they present the animals as nothing but blood-thirsty monsters that devour brain-dead characters. And while ‘The Shallows’ does feel like a slight improvement over many of these other flicks (mostly in regards to its protagonist), the film still falters at many turns.

Plot Summary: After losing her mother in an accident, medical student: ‘Nancy’ dumps her responsibilities in Galveston and travels to Mexico, hitchhiking a ride to a hidden beach that her mother loved when she was young. But following her discovery of a whale carcass whilst surfing, ‘Nancy’ is attacked by a great white shark, leaving her bleeding and stranded on a small rock, with no sign of rescue.

Releasing in 2016 to great success, ‘The Shallows’ was one of the first major shark films released into cinemas in quite some-time, but as well as being a creature-feature, the film also serves as a survival thriller, along the same lines of: ‘127 Hours Later’. As ‘Nancy’ has to face not only the shark, but also hunger, thirst, weather, and of course, the severe leg injury she receives when she first encounters the apex-predator. Yet despite this focus making for a far more engaging experience, the narrative simultaneously tries its hand at character development, with ‘Nancy’ receiving plenty of charactersation in the film’s first act, which is sadly made less interesting as its delivered through some immensely corny dialogue.

Blake Lively, who is by no means a renowned actress, with only two films throughout her career featuring her in the top-billed cast, carries the film solo, and her commitment to this role is certainly admirable, as Lively gives a very intense performance as a result of: ‘Nancy’ being in agonising pain for most of the runtime. Additionally, Lively did most of her own stunts for the film aside from her character’s surfing. In fact, in one particular scene, where ‘Nancy’ crushes a crab and then proceeds to eat it raw, Lively is actually eating a real crab that the production crew found dead on a nearby beach, so her reactions of disgust are genuine even though the crab initially getting crushed was achieved through CGI. This is all made even more impressive by the fact that Lively was pregnant with her second child at the time of filming. 

Flavio Martínez Labiano’s cinematography does provide a handful of attractive and memorable shots when not focusing on the characters, these usually being when the shots revolve more around the shark lurking beneath the water, or when the camerawork effectively uses framing to display how far ‘Nancy’ is from safety. And of course, with the film being shot off the Gold Coast of Australia (excluding a few scenes which were shot in a large water-tank), the film’s signature beach and crystal-clear waves are always an alluring sight, which is a superb visual-clash with the horror that lies within.

The original score by Marco Beltrami serves the story well enough, as the film’s soundtrack drifts from beautiful calming tracks like ‘Paddle In’ and ‘Nancy and Dad Facetime’, to much more tense tracks such as: ‘Main Title’ and ‘Towards the Dead Whale’. However, its when the story shifts into full on threat that the score begins to feel extremely generic, most notably, the track: ‘Underwater Attack’, which is barley distinguishable from any other thriller soundtrack as it doesn’t encapsulate either the beauty or isolation of the ocean as many of the other tracks do.

Unlike ‘Jaws’ or even ‘Deep Blue Sea’ during a few moments, ‘The Shallows’ exclusively uses CGI to bring its shark to-life, which is unfortunate. As while there was clearly a huge level of detail put-into the shark, as director Jaume Collet Serra (Orphan, Unknown, Non-Stop) worked closely with the art department to ensure a sense of realism in the shark’s design, having the team do thousands of hours of research. This all sadly goes to waste due to the demands of the film’s script, as the shark in ‘The Shallows’ rarely acts like a real animal, often feeling like just a hulking murderous monster whose CG effects drastically vary depending on the shot.

To conclude, ‘The Shallows’ is a step-up from a number of other shark flicks, but even with its above-average filmmaking and solid performance from Blake Lively. The film still falls into many of the common issues shark films do, as the story favours the idea of using its shark as a monster of the ocean and that alone, and this on-top of the film’s occasionally strange stylistic choices, shoddy CG effects and cheesy dialogue result in the film becoming just another poor attempt at revitalising the great white shark as a cinematically enthralling antagonist. A high 4/10 overall.

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Now You See Me (2013) – Film Review

Quite a unique film within the crime genre, ‘Now You See Me’ is seemingly a magician’s rendition of: ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, as director Louis Leterrier crafts an entertaining film following the story of a group of four illusionists, all with different skillsets, robbing establishments across the globe before then vanishing without a trace. And although some viewers may have to suspend their disbelief for a few elements regarding the film’s plot, the film still manages to remain a mostly enjoyable affair throughout its two-hour runtime.

Plot Summary: After four small-time magicians are anonymously invited to attend a meeting in a run-down apartment. They reappear one year later as ‘The Four Horsemen’, performing a live-show in Las Vegas in which they claim they are going to rob a bank in Paris from the stage and distribute the money to the audience. But after the French bank is found empty following the show, F.B.I. Agent: ‘Dylan Rhodes’ is assigned to the case with his partner: ‘Alma Day’, where the two begin to suspect that the heist was just a distraction for a bigger scheme…

Even though ‘Now You See Me’ prioritises its story over anything else, the film does still feature a couple of exciting action sequences including a car-chase and a fist-fight respectively. Both of which stick with the idea of the magicians performing magic-tricks, utilising many of the age-old illusions we know in creative ways, yet this shouldn’t be too surprising, considering director Louis Leterrier has worked on action flicks like ‘The Transporter’ in the past. However, ‘Now You See Me’ does miss a big opportunity to say anything interesting about the actual profession of magic, as with very few films focusing on characters with this skillset, it would make sense to delve further into figures with this expertise.

‘The Four Horseman’, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco are all splendid in their roles as the signature group of magicians. As despite Dave Franco’s ‘Jack Wilder’ feeling a little neglected at points as the forth member of the group, all of the cast give very charismatic performances to where you could believe they perform live-shows most evenings. The group also spends most of the film being hunted by a F.B.I. detective duo portrayed by Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent, and although both actors are great within their roles, the film does attempt to build-up a romantic relationship between the two, which comes-off as nothing other than forced and underdeveloped.

Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong’s cinematography is competent overall, having an overeliance on mid-shots to focus on the actor’s performances front and foremost. But when taking-into account the film’s constant emphasis on eye-contact and slight of hand, I did feel the camerawork wasn’t used very effectively to display that trickery, which would’ve surely placed the film’s audience in the same position as ‘The Four Horseman’s live-audience. The cinematography does still allow for plenty of stunning wide-shots during each live-show however, as the camera glides over the huge crowd giving an impressive view of the massive audiences that attend each night.

The original score by Brian Tyler is a jazz-style soundtrack in the same-vein as other crime/heist films such as the previously mentioned: ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. In particular, the tracks: ‘Now You See Me’, ‘The Four Horseman’ and ‘Welcome to the Eye’ are all deeply-rooted in jazz, fitting a familiar tone to many real illusionist shows. So much so, that it soon becomes quite evident that Tyler has done his research as his score fully embraces its funky percussion and snappy brass motifs.

Throughout the film, there are also a number of magnificent effects, CG and practical alike. In fact, near the beginning of the film when ‘Daniel Atlas’ is performing an extraordinary card-trick, we see the hands of Dan or Dave Buck digitally composited with Jesse Eisenberg’s face. These twin brothers are actually acclaimed sleight of hand artists, as well as pioneers in the art of cardistry. Their skills have also been seen in the film: ‘Smokin’ Aces’ from 2006, performing tricks for Jeremy Piven. Cardistry is an open display of skill with cards, similar to juggling, and the sequence of moves performed in ‘Now You See Me’ is called a ‘Pandora’, which at the time of filming, was considered one of the hardest moves to perform in cardistry.

Taking all this into account, I feel ‘Now You See Me’ serves its purpose as a crime/mystery thriller, telling an engaging and mostly well-written story that doesn’t take-itself all too seriously. While the film does disguise many of obvious flaws through smoke and mirrors, I believe the vast majority of viewers will enjoy this film for what it is. Overall, a low 7/10. And if you have already seen this flick and relished it, then I’d strongly recommend you watch ‘The Prestige’, another magician-related film which I personally think surpasses ‘Now You See Me’ (and its uninspired sequel) in many ways.

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As Above, So Below (2014) – Film Review

Co-written/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 “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”.

Although 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 unlikable, 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 sound-stage. 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/crew. Yet this does pay-off as the film utilises it’s location extremely well, always placing its characters in tight areas to insight 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 any echo or density.

As a large portion of the film’s narrative is 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, a 5/10 for: ‘As Above, So Below’. 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 honestly, 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.

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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 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 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 viewers, 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 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 previously mentioned, 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 under-utilised 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 viewers, 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. A high 5/10 overall.

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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) – Film Review

Co-written/produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Troy Nixey, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ embraces many of the same elements as del Toro’s other films, crafting a narrative which combines both traditional gothic horror and childlike fantasy. But sadly, unlike a usual del Toro project, there is a noticeable absence in everything from captivating characters to memorising practical effects/creatures, resulting in a film that feels like a mostly copy-and-paste effort beyond a few interesting ideas.

Plot Summary: After being sent to live with her father and his new girlfriend at their recently-renovated manor, the previous home of the long-missing painter: ‘Emerson Blackwood’. Young ‘Sally’ begins to hear ominous voices emanating from the basement’s ash-pit, soon leading her to discover the cause of the painter’s disappearance…

Taking heavy inspiration from the classic H.P. Lovecraft short story: ‘The Rats in the Walls’. ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is actually a remake of a low-budget 1973 TV film, as the now-iconic director Guillermo del Toro has stated in the past that he was terrified of the film when he first watched it as a child, later inspiring him to reimagine the mostly-unknown horror flick. Yet even with a much larger-budget and a more well-known cast, the film is still quite underwhelming when it comes to both its scares and story, as the film’s narrative follows a formula almost identical to many other modern horrors.

All of the performances throughout the film aren’t anything overly-impressive, as whilst Katie Holmes does try her best to portray a young girl witnessing sights that no one else believes. Her character: ‘Sally’ (similar to the rest of the film’s characters) receives very limited characterisation, which does make many of the scenes revolving around the family-dynamic far less entertaining. Then there is also ‘Sally’s father and his girlfriend: ‘Kim’ portrayed by Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison respectively, and although Madison gives a serviceable performance, Pearce may give one of the weakest performances of his career here. As ‘Sally’s father: ‘Alex’ always shows little concern or remorse when it comes to his daughter, making the character immensely difficult to resonate with.

The cinematography by Oliver Stapleton is very grand in its execution, allowing for a large number of wide-shots, some of which even flow smootly-around the various rooms of the manor. But it’s the film’s colour palette which is most worth noting, as the film utilises much more red and yellow than many other modern horrors, which is a pleasant change in terms of visuals as the more vibrant colours reflect the manor’s elegant design, which is probably one of the most visually-striking ‘haunted houses’ in recent memory, with even the manor’s front entrance having a beautiful carving of an old oak tree merged into the multi-coloured glass.

Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders provide the original score for the film, which similar to the film’s cinematography, gives the story a much more ‘epic’ feel. As the heavy-orchestral score could’ve easily been taken from any classic gothic horror, lending itself effectively to many scenes aside from a couple of generic tracks. The film often also features some fantastically-creepy sound design, as the film’s creatures continuously speak to ‘Sally’ using their ghostly whispering voices, which seemingly echo throughout the usually-empty corridors of the manor.

Although many of del Toro’s other outings do provide plenty of wonderful practical effects to gaze at, usually creating an array of unsettling/memorable creatures, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ takes another (less-appealing) route to its monsters. As the film’s creatures are brought-to-life almost entirely though CG effects, which not only makes some shots appear slightly dated, but also manages to take-away from nearly all of the film’s tense moments. Additionally, the film’s creature designs aren’t all that menacing, as despite the idea of evil fairytale monsters being quite unique (as the creatures are later revealed to be a sinister incarnation of tooth-fairies). The creature’s extremely small-size does make them feel very unthreatening even if it is a nice change-of-pace over having one large entity, as the film never does enough with its miniature antagonists regardless of what knives/tools they arm themselves with.

‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is regrettably a film that is just not worth its short runtime. As while I admire the effort to combine famed fairytale stories with a chilling atmosphere, the predominantly poor performances and numerous unexplored concepts leave the film simply another bland horror flick with a surprisingly weak screenplay by del Toro to-boot, especially when compared to much of his other work. Still, with all that said, I feel that Troy Nixey does deserve another shot in the director’s chair someday, as since this film’s initial release, he actually hasn’t worked on any other projects, which is unfortunate, as I do believe he does have some talent as a filmmaker when looking at this film’s merits. Overall, a high 3/10.

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The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Film Review

Upon its initial release, the original: ‘Blair Witch Project’ blew many audiences away with its realistic depiction of found-footage horror, leading many viewers to believe that the events they were watching on-screen actually took-place, making for a truly petrifying experience. However, now, many years after its first appearance in cinemas, the film’s reputation has significantly altered with both critics and audiences alike, as ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is definitely a film that lies outside of the usual horror clichés.

Plot Summary: When three student filmmakers travel to Burkittsville, Maryland in attempt to produce a documentary based-around the local urban-legend: ‘The Blair Witch’, they mysteriously disappear after traveling into the nearby Black Hills Forest, leaving only their footage behind to be discovered one year later.

Whilst ‘The Blair Witch Project’ wasn’t the original found-footage horror film, with the infamous exploitation flick: ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ first introducing the horror subgenre in 1980. ‘The Blair Witch Project’ was the first film to popularise the found-footage concept, as this film was at one point in time in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ for the largest box-office ratio. As the low-budget film only had a budget of around £45,000 and made back over £189 million, quickly spawning an inconsistent horror franchise to follow, despite the film’s only partially-complete backstory for its creature/setting.

The three main cast members of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams (who all share their real-names with their characters), are all tremendous throughout the film. As while their character’s don’t receive nowhere near as much development as they should considering how much screen-time we spend with them, each one of the actors do give the impression they are becoming more tormented and frustrated the longer they remain in the Black Hills Forest. The main reason the film’s protagonists don’t receive much characterisation however, is actually due to the film’s production itself. As with the film not focusing very heavily on story, the actors were given no-more than a thirty-five page outline of plot-points rather than a full script, so as the shooting days continued, the cast just played-out various scenes. Only having little knowledge of the mythology behind: ‘The Blair Witch’ and improvising the vast majority of their lines.

Practically the entirety of the cinematography by Neal L. Fredericks is exactly what you’d expect from a found-footage horror, featuring an abundance of both shaky and out-of-focus shots, further adding to the idea that just behind the lens is a group of amateur student filmmakers (with some scenes even being shot by the cast themselves). In addition to the hand-held camerawork, the film’s visuals are also quite distinctive when it comes to its visual quality, as throughout the duration of the film, many shots remain incredibly grainy and occasionally even switch to a completely greyscale colour palette, which again, whilst adding to the realism of the film being a no-budget student documentary, does ensure the absence of any genuinely attractive shots.

Although its only heard during the film’s atmospheric end credits, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ does actually have an original score composed by Antonio Cora, but obviously being a found-footage horror, the film mostly aims to please with its sound design. As the sounds of crackling leaves and chirping birds are heard continuously, with many of the eerie branch-cracking sounds heard at night even being made by the director and his friends simply walking-up to the cast’s camp-perimeter and then tossing-around twigs, rocks and branches in various directions.

The main aspect that many will either adore or despise about ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is its previously mentioned focus on realism and minimalist storytelling, as while the film does utilise its forest setting very effectively throughout the runtime, many who may be expecting a thrilling final act or possibly even a glimpse at ‘The Blair Witch’ herself will be greatly disappointed. As a result of the story’s constant emphasis-on realism, the film never actually provides any evidence of the supernatural, with many of the film’s tense moments mostly relying on the darkness of the woods or the belligerent quarreling between the characters.

In conclusion, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ is certainly a fascinating horror film even if it isn’t always a successful one. As to this day, this found-footage indie flick has always been a very divisive film for horror fans, with a 86% score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has the highest-rating of any film that was also nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Picture. So even with the cast’s emotionally impactful performances alongside ‘The Blair Witch’ being an intriguing urban-legend simply on-itself, this is one horror that really depends-on your personal tastes. But for me, its a low 6/10 overall. While the film is far from perfect and considerably less compelling than many other iconic horrors, I can appreciate what this experimental piece of filmmaking (and its marketing) was trying to accomplish, and for that, I feel its worth at least one viewing.

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Happy Death Day (2017) – Film Review

Another horror flick from production company Blumhouse Pictures, ‘Happy Death Day’ released in 2017, does at least extend-out of the usual range of Blumhouse horrors to become more of a horror-comedy than just a straight-forward teen slasher. But similar to the rest of their associated franchises e.g. ‘Insidious’, ‘The Purge’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’, both ‘Happy Death Day’ and it’s sequel definitely have their fair share of issues, with some being far more severe than others.

Plot Summary: Waking-up in the dorm room of a boy whose name she can’t remember after a night of heavy-drinking, self-centered college student: ‘Tree Gelbman’ intends to continue her trend of avoiding her birthday, but little does she know that later that night on her way to another party, someone is waiting to murder her. Only after being killed, ‘Tree’ awakens in the same dorm room, soon realising she is being forced to relive her brutal night of murder over-and-over again until she discovers her killer’s identity.

‘Happy Death Day’ similar to many other day-repeating stories in the past, takes most of its inspiration from the comedy classic: ‘Groundhog Day’ from 1993. Yet unlike many of the other films that are inspired by this beloved comedy flick, it becomes clear over-time that ‘Happy Death Day’ is quite derivative of: ‘Groundhog Day’. As the film’s story not only utilises the comedy’s plot without much innovation (only throwing a killer into the mix). But the film even steals the main point of the narrative, that being its main character and their correlating character-arc, using the time-looping concept to in a way punish the protagonist for their cruel behaviour towards others.

In spite of this however, the protagonist: ‘Tree’ portrayed by Jessica Rothe, is by far the best element of the film. As while ‘Tree’ does go through a character-arc that is all too familiar as previously mentioned, Rothe makes a fantastic first-outing as an actress through her very enjoyable performance. Then of course, there is the killer, whose identity remains a mystery throughout most of the runtime. Known as ‘The Babyface Killer’, the killer’s outfit is actually the mascot of: ‘Bayfield University’ where the film takes-place, and although the costume itself is far more goofy then intimidating, the mask/costume was actually designed by Tony Gardner. The costume designer behind the now-iconic: ‘Ghostface’ costume from the ‘Scream’ series, which does help redeem to the killer’s undoubtedly petty motivation.

The film’s cinematography by Toby Oliver isn’t anything amazing overall, but does still back-up the story effectively in a variety of scenes. Whether that’s through its use of wide sweeping-shots when the characters are in an intense chase, or when more shaky hand-held camerawork is used to reflect ‘Tree’s break-down when she first realises she is stuck in her current crisis. Yet similar to much of its story, the film never leans enough into a more outlandish/experimental nature when considering what the film could accomplish with its cinematography.

Talented composer Bear McCreary handles the film’s original score, which isn’t very distinctive from most of his other work within the horror genre. But despite the score’s lack of memorability, it still does feel as if there is a decent amount of effort put-into it, as the soundtrack actually has quite a lot of range even if some of the tracks don’t always fit with the tone of the film. This also goes for many of the songs used throughout ‘Happy Death Day’, as nearly all of the film’s song choices massively differ in both their genre and general popularity.

But still, the biggest problem ‘Happy Death Day’ suffers from is the inconsistency of its tone. As although the film does attempt to have scenes featuring both scares and humour alike, many of the film’s jump-scares and jokes range in quality, and occasionally even cancel each-other out. Additionally, the film also takes an unusual approach to its violence, as while ‘Tree’ dies countless times throughout the film in a number of different ways. The film never allows for any creative or darkly amusing deaths due to its lack of any blood or gore. Yet this wasn’t always the case, as the original script for the film did actually include more violence, so much so that it would have gained the film a higher age-rating, with plenty of scenes having much grislier deaths that were later altered by director Christopher Landon during pre-production.

Altogether, a 5/10 for: ‘Happy Death Day’. Whilst the stand-out performance by Jessica Rothe does help to make the film far more enjoyable, alongside the film’s idea of being murdered repeatedly having plenty of potential for a horror-comedy. The film just doesn’t do enough with its story, feeling almost as if its a little restrictive on-itself, never delving enough into being either funny or freighting respectively. So if you desire an amusing horror-comedy to stick on one evening, maybe just go-back to your more accustomed choices over this mediocre slasher.

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The Babadook (2014) – Film Review

Surreal, engrossing and truly terrifying during some scenes, ‘The Babadook’ is in my opinion, one of the best modern horrors released in quite some-time. Through its excellent filmmaking, astounding performances and horrifying yet also intriguing creature, ‘The Babadook’ attempts to do something different with its horror, going-about its story with far more depth than many other films within its genre, soon becoming an experience that’s just as immersive as it is disturbing for anyone who stumbles upon it.

Plot Summary: Following the death of her husband in a car-crash, the now-widow: ‘Amelia’ struggles to cope as a single mother, as her son’s chaotic behaviour and constant paranoia of monsters makes her friends become distant and even her sanity begin to fade. Until one night, after the pair read a mysterious pop-up book titled: ‘Mister Babadook’, they soon discover a malevolent creature has manifested itself into the dark corners of their home.

Directed by Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale), ‘The Babadook’ is a horror film that has much more to offer beneath its surface, with themes of family, grief and trauma throughout. Based-on the short film: ‘Monster’ also directed by Jennifer Kent, ‘The Babadook’ actually takes much of its inspiration from one of Kent’s real-world friends, a single mother whose son was traumatised by a monstrous figure he thought he saw everywhere in the house. So Kent imagined a scenario in which this creature was real, eventually leading her to create her short film, before then wanting to expand-on the idea further.

The main area ‘The Babadook’ excels where most modern horrors fail is the characters. Only featuring a main cast of two terrific actors, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, with Wiseman only being six-years-old at the time of filming. The mother and son of the film are both compelling characters for very different reasons, as the mother: ‘Amelia’ struggles to cope as a single parent. Alienating her friends/collogues and becoming more lonely and sexually-frustrated as time passes, mostly due to her son: ‘Samuel’. Who continuously struggles with anxiety and his absence of a real father, which makes it challenging for him to mix with other children. This all adding-up to making the film just as effective as a family drama as it is a supernatural horror.

Although Radek Ladczuk’s cinematography isn’t quite as impressive as the film’s magnificent editing, which allows for plenty of quick visual storytelling in addition to giving the film a level of style that I personally didn’t expect. ‘The Babadook’ does still feature a number of attractive shots, which are enormously enhanced by the film’s dread-inducing lighting. As not too dissimilar to the horror flick: ‘Lights Out’ from 2016, ‘The Babadook’ himself only appears within the shadows. So with nearly the entire runtime being set within a dark run-down house (usually also at night), the creature could be lurking within any shot, and occasionally, even is.

Slightly fairytale-esque in parts, the original score by Jed Kurzel may not be a stand-out horror score up-there with the likes of: ‘Halloween’ or the original: ‘Psycho’. But the score is still a fair amount more creative than many other modern horror scores, with tracks such as: ‘Trippy Television’ and ‘It’s Only a Story’ giving the film a very dreamlike feel, sounding almost as if they were composed for a Tim Burton project at points. That is, before the soundtrack becomes a little more of the standard horror affair with tracks like ‘The Playground’ and ‘Re-Writing the Story’, despite these tracks still helping to build tension throughout.

Immensely creepy throughout the film, ‘The Babadook’ himself is a very memorable and frightening presence in spite of his fairly goofy name. As every one of his appearances is always elevated by his bone-chilling sound design, which is very uncanny in a similar fashion to the original score. The only major issue I take with the film is the lack of encounters the characters actually have with the creature, as while many of his scenes are extremely well-executed, ‘Mister Babadook’ just doesn’t have quite enough screen-time for me. However, this problem also extends to nearly all of the film’s side characters, as ‘Claire’, ‘Robbie’ and ‘Mrs. Roach’ all feel under-utilised within the narrative, even though the story’s main focus is very clearly the mother and son relationship.

To conclude, ‘The Babadook’ is a brilliantly-crafted horror, mostly as a result of its atmospheric cinematography/lighting and masterful editing, alongside its great performances and array of tension-filled moments. Whilst perhaps not for every horror-addict due to its sparse amount of jump-scares and very low body-count. Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut is certainty a horror flick I’d recommend to most, and considering Kent has stated that the film will never receive a sequel, its clear the film was a true passion project that won’t fall into the trap many successful horrors do of milking themselves into a over-blown franchise. Overall, an solid 8/10.

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Midnight Special (2016) – Film Review

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud, Loving), ‘Midnight Special’ may not be one of the most original or imaginative science fiction films to be released in recent years. But regardless of its many recycled story elements and unexplored ideas, this low-budget sci-fi drama/thriller still manages to retain a sufficient amount of entertaining scenes, impressive CG effects and terrific performances to-boot. All equalling to a fairly enjoyable experience, even if the film never quite reaches its full potential.

Plot Summary: ‘Alton Meyer’ is a boy unlike any other, a child with powerful abilities and strange weaknesses alike. But after ‘Alton’s abilities attract the attention of both an isolated cult and the U.S. government, ‘Alton’s father: ‘Roy’, vows to protect his son as the two rival forces pursue the pair across the country.

Although ‘Midnight Special’ was Nichols’ first film made in-conjunction with a large production company, Nichols wanted to ensure he had full creative control over the project just as he had previously with his low-budget indie films. So despite Nichols originally considering making the film with an independent film studio rather than with Warner Bros Pictures. During his last meeting with the company, the producers actually agreed to all his demands, due to the small-budget needed for the film. Meaning Nichols got his complete-control, and the film was more successful at the box-office as a result of its wider release. This did however, mean many audience members were left a little dissatisfied with the film, as ‘Midnight Special’ doesn’t follow the usual sci-fi clichés many would expect.

Michael Shannon leads the film as the concerned father: ‘Roy Meyer’, and as per-usual, excels in his role as this simple yet engaging character, wanting to protect his son at any cost, occasionally even at the expense of others. Playing into the age-old theme of doing anything to protect your child. Then there is also Jaeden Martell as ‘Alton’ himself, which considering his young age of twelve during filming, gives a competent performance. As even though ‘Alton’ may look like a normal child, he acts in a very robotic and eccentric manner. Whilst this is completely intentional, this type of performance does sometimes make it quite difficult to resonate with ‘Alton’ as effectively as his father. The supporting cast of Joel Edgerton, Kristen Dunst and Adam Driver are all also great additions to the film, even though their characters don’t add much to the overall narrative.

Well shot throughout, Adam Stone’s cinematography for: ‘Midnight Special’ may not be some of the most astounding camerawork ever seen within the sci-fi genre, but due to the film mostly being set at night, the film does manage to enhance many of its already attractive shots through its dim lighting. In addition to the cinematography, the film also makes fantastic use of its many CG effects, with the majority of them being used quite sparsely to ensure they all appear as detailed as possible without going over-budget.

The original score by David Wingo also isn’t too memorable when compared to some other scores composed for science fiction flicks, yet it still greatly adds to the film. Alternating from slow piano-focused tracks to more electronic pulse-pounding tracks when necessary, the entire soundtrack is both atmospheric and suitably sci-fi, with my two personal favourite tracks: ‘Doak and Levi’ and ‘New World’ being the perfect two examples of this change in tone when it comes to the score. The film also features a new rendition of the classic folk song: ‘Midnight Special’ during its end credits, which is actually where the film gets its title.

Yet in spite of its appealing cinematography and remarkable original score, the area where ‘Midnight Special’ falls flat is its story. As whilst many stories similar to this have been executed-well in film before, most notably the sci-fi classic: ‘Starman’ from 1984. ‘Midnight Special’ revels in not providing its audience with much information, keeping many aspects of: ‘Alton’s character, his abilities, and the world the story takes-place within a mystery. This is most evident when it comes to the (presumably) sinister cult known as ‘The Ranch’, as while the cult does play a small role in the story, they remain mostly underdeveloped throughout the film, and as the runtime approaches its end, soon disappear entirely.

To conclude, ‘Midnight Special’ is a sci-fi film that will appeal to a more niche audience. As whilst a simple pitch of the plot may sound both familiar and interesting to many fans of the genre, its the way ‘Midnight Special’ goes about its story that will divide many viewers. If the film was to provide a little more backstory/exposition here-and-there, perhaps the story would’ve felt more fleshed-out and matched with the brilliant efforts of its filmmaking. But as it is, ‘Midnight Special’ feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity, as it remains a decent film that could’ve been so much more. All in all, a high 6/10.

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The Bye Bye Man (2017) – Film Review

Simply from the laughably-atrocious title of the film alone, I’m sure many can guess why ‘The Bye Bye Man’ fails so miserably as a horror flick. Coming-off more as a student film project rather than a feature that actually made its way into cinemas (mostly due to its amateurish acting and filmmaking alike), ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is an incredibly lacklustre and mindless horror down to even its last few minutes of screen-time.

Plot Summary: When three college students move into an old house just off-campus, they unwittingly unleash a supernatural entity known as ‘The Bye Bye Man’, a dark creature that preys upon any victim that discovers its name. Now withholding this knowledge, the group attempt to keep the existence of: ‘The Bye Bye Man’ a secret whilst also trying to save themselves.

Despite the film’s title implying otherwise, the actual antagonist of the film hardly appears in-full throughout the runtime. In fact, the story on which the film is based: ‘The Bridge to Body Island’, actually has a much more complex mythology for the creature than the film itself. Originally being born albino in New Orleans in 1912, who eventually ran-away from home and began murdering people and cutting-out their eyes and tongues, which he would then sew together and bring-to-life using voodoo. The original story of: ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is far more interesting and disturbing than what appears in the film, which is nothing short of undeveloped and even fairly boring in terms of both his design and his abilities.

Relatively new actors Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas and Lucien Laviscount unfortunately, all lead the film with quite poor performances. As while the cringy and often moronic writing certainly doesn’t help, their performances are lacking in both urgency and charisma, so it becomes quite difficult to care about them once the supernatural occurrences begin. Surprisingly though, the actor behind: ‘The Bye Bye Man’ himself is Doug Jones, known for his fantastic creature/character performances such as: ‘Abe Sapien’ in the ‘Hellboy’ series, and ‘The Amphibian Man’ in ‘The Shape of Water’. Yet even though Jones may seem like too much of an accomplished actor to be in such a minimal role as this, with talented actress Carrie-Anne Moss also making an appearance, its possible that at one point in time the script for this film may have actually contained some creative ideas.

James Kniest’s cinematography is another area in which the film lacks, as the bland camerawork only allows for a couple of visually interesting shots throughout, usually resulting in the film having a very flat and occasionally cheap look. However, one shot the filmmakers must have been pleased with is the shot of a large industrial train traveling at night, as this shot is continuously reused at multiple points. But what’s confusing here is that this shot’s inclusion is never explained, nor does it having any bearing-on the plot whatsoever, only appearing at random within the protagonist’s dreams and once in the real-world nearing the end of the film.

The film’s original score by the Newton Brothers isn’t memorable in the slightest, simply being a standard piano/strings-focused horror score with the exception of the track: ‘The Bye Bye Man’, which feels very out-of-place when compared to the rest of the film’s soundtrack. As the creature’s main theme sounds like something ripped straight from an episode of: ‘Goosebumps’. Also worth a quick mention is the film’s corny use of the recognisable 50s song: ‘Bye Bye Love’, which is just far too on-the-nose for me.

From its constant jump-scares to its many typical horror clichés (e.g. a group of college teens, creepy scribbled drawings, an old foreboding house, the protagonist looking-up the creature’s origins in a library), the film is teeming with much of the usual problematic writing that floods many modern horror scripts. Only this time, the film has simply nothing else to set itself apart from others within the genre. The only aspect of the film that could’ve been remarkable would’ve been ‘The Bye Bye Man’ himself and his ‘Seeing-Eye Hound’, made from pieces of his victims. But as already mentioned, the film does nothing with its antagonist or his hound, only utilising the dog-creature to stand alongside ‘The Bye Bye Man’ through some abysmal CG effects.

In conclusion, ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is one of the last films I’d recommend to any horror fanatic. Completely absent of any likeable characters, an intriguing/threatening antagonist or any sense of an eerie atmosphere, its hard to believe that the film has any positive reviews at all. Yet it somehow does, just not one from me. A 1/10 overall. All we can do is hope horrors such as this fade into obscurity and never receive a sequel, prequel or anything else of the sort. As this genre has already suffered enough in recent years with the likes of: ‘Truth or Dare’, ‘Ma’ and ‘The Gallows’ just to name a few.

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