Warlock (film) – Review

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Warlock is a campy 1980s Gothic horror film, featuring Richard E. Grant as witch hunter Giles Redferne and Julian Sands as the eponymous villain. The film’s plot bears a certain resemblance to The Terminator, as Sands escapes from the clutches of witch hunters in 1691 Boston and enters the present day  – well, 1988 anyway – in search of pages from an ancient grimoire which has the power to destroy the world. He’s followed through time by Grant, who sports a hilarious hairdo and silly outfit. Both of them really give it a go, and the film is well-served by having two such capable actors in the main roles. It helps elevate some otherwise silly fare.

The film also stars Lori Singer as Kassandra, who acts as Redferne’s reluctant helper and guide in modern America. The warlock casts a sadistic curse on Kassandra which makes her age 20 years each day, which obviously limits the amount of time she has to lift the curse. Allegedly, Singer didn’t want to wear the facial prosthetics designed to make her character look older, and this results in a somewhat unconvincing ageing process.

Sands is great in the title role. Films about witches aren’t that common – compared to, say, vampires, zombies, and ghosts – and films about male witches are pretty rare. But Sands’ character is as evil as he is powerful (read: very), and is established early on as a huge threat. Although the special effects are lacking, this is by no means a no-budget film, and it’s surprising to see some relatively gruesome content here reminiscent of so-called “video nasties”, which managed to make me wince. Sands is an effective villain and he carries out shocking and despicable acts in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Warlock reverses the normal trope of the witch hunters being evil: in this case, the witch hunters are completely in the right, and God help us all if Redferne is unsuccessful. Apparently writer David Twohy attempted to write a movie about the innocent victim of a witch hunt “escaping” to the present day, where he faced the same sorts of problems and biases as he did in the 1690s. However, Twohy gave up because it was too complicated, and so we have this instead. It probably worked out for the best, as Warlock is a really entertaining movie: it’s fun, well-paced, and you’re unlikely to tire of it before the end. The special effects look very, very bad these days, but this adds to the film’s undeniable camp appeal. It’s definitely worth a watch for all aficionados of horror and 1980s “style”.

7/10

Stake Land 2: The Stakelander (film) – Review

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2010’s Stake Land was a refreshing take on the vampire genre. It went against the grain at a time when franchises like Twilight and True Blood were going all-out to make bloodsuckers teen-friendly, glamorous and sexy. By contrast, the vampires in Stake Land are a brutal, feral breed with low intelligence but unmatched viciousness and ferocity. Set in a world ravaged by the vamp-ocalypse, Stake Land was a flawed but effective film that brought to life the sort of world familiar to fans of Fallout, The Last of Us, and The Road. The story was derivative, but felt substantive and well-paced enough that it made you care about its characters, and the end result delivered scares but also reflected on human relationships. Specifically, the film was a moving tale of the difficult necessity of maintaining links with other people even if the world is dying around you.

Stake Land earned a solid reputation and a decent following, and so a sequel was always a possibility. The daftly named Stake Land II: The Stakelander was duly released earlier this year on video-on-demand, and now finds its way to Netflix. Sadly, it turns out this is one of those cases where a sequel wasn’t really needed. The writers don’t seem to have anything new to say, and the film mainly consists of an inferior re-hashing of the events of its predecessor. The first big problem is that Stake Land 2 immediately negates the upbeat ending of the first film, callously killing off Martin’s family again in an apparent effort to recreate the dynamic between him and his erstwhile mentor. Hoping for revenge against the vampires who killed his family, Martin seeks out the vampire-slayer and general badass known only as Mister (Nick Damici). The script suggests the world is an even more hopeless place than it was a few years earlier, but the disappointing cinematography doesn’t really bear this out. Cannibalism is now rampant, and the closest thing to an organized human force is The Brotherhood, a far-right Christian outfit who are in cahoots with the vampires, who they think have been sent to “purify” mankind or something.

Mister has continued his one-man crusade against vampires and the Brotherhood since the first film, but it’s a losing struggle. Moreover, vampires themselves now seem to be developing a knack for organization and strategy which bodes ill for the few remaining human settlements. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t take this anywhere. Although in the first film the vampires felt tough and menacing, they don’t have the same effect here, partly because of how they’re filmed. They hardly ever go straight for their prey: normally preferring to knock people over, then scream in their faces for a few seconds, or however long it takes for someone to stab them in the back. Doing this once or twice is fine, but when it happens over and over again, it becomes really annoying. The lead vampire also makes liberal use of the head tilt, surely one of the laziest and most overused horror gimmicks around. In fact, the look and feel of Stake Land 2 reminded me of nothing more than 30 Days of Night, which is not a flattering comparison. That film was shit.

One of the big dangers in making a sequel like this is that it brings to light latent problems you couldn’t quite see in the well-liked original. As well as ruining the ending and sullying fond memories of the first Stake Land, Stakelander also has some troubling implications for its treatment of women. The main female character here is probably the vampire leader, who doesn’t have any lines, and who spends most of the film screaming and head-tilting; and, well, you can probably guess her fate. The other female character is an improbably well-groomed and attractive feral human who was supposedly raised in “the wild”. Mister and Martin sort of adopt her after rescuing her from some cannibals who were treating her as a pet/slave; she then bonds with Mister like a cat would with its owner. She doesn’t have any lines, either. The actress isn’t exactly given much to work with, but even so, it’s a pretty cringeworthy performance in a pitifully bad role.

One of the only things that Stake Land 2 has in its favour is its short length. It would be wrong to say it doesn’t outstay its welcome, because the film doesn’t have a good reason to exist at all. But a run time of 85 minutes goes by pretty fast. Even so, this is a hard film to recommend. Fans of Stake Land will likely be disappointed, and could find that this outing mars their enjoyment of that far superior film. And if you weren’t a fan of the original, why would you consider watching Stakelander in the first place?

4/10

 

Would You Rather (film) – Review

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Would You Rather is a consummate horror B-movie, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. The grammatically suspect title tells you what you need to know about the film’s simplistic premise, which sees a bunch of people forced to play a nightmarish game of ‘Would you rather?’ In terms of plot, this is about as basic as it gets. But within its rather limited ambition, the film manages to be very effective.

Would You Rather assembles a quite remarkable cast, with a keystone performance from Jeffrey Combs. Combs is something of a horror legend due to his role in the classic Lovecraftian 80s horror film Reanimator, but his movie appearances since have been sadly few and far between. It’s delightful that he has so much screen time here, and he shows his characteristic ability to inhabit weird and disturbing characters with a trademark fusion of menace, humour, and a disarming vulnerability. Combs is a special talent and he makes this film. He plays Shepard Lambrick, the wealthy head of the Lambrick Foundation, an ostensibly philanthropic body dedicated to giving down-on-their-luck Americans a second chance. Just so happens their way of doing this is by subjecting them to horrific torture in the guise of some kind of social experiment or as a means of ‘re-educating’ them. The film superficially satirizes inequality in modern America and particularly the philanthropy of the rich and powerful, but ultimately the story and script just serve to set the scene for ninety minutes of increasingly bloody action.

Would You Rather’s superb supporting cast features familiar faces from a motley assortment of movies and TV shows. As if Jeffrey Combs wasn’t enough, Would You Rather also gives us Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, Victor from Dollhouse, D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire, porn legend Sasha Grey, and the dad from Home Alone. What’s all the more amazing is that they all have proper parts. If there was any justice in the world then whoever cast this movie would have won an Academy Award.

Most of these poor sods have been lured to Combs’ mansion by the prospect of a lucrative prize if they win his mysterious ‘game’. Everyone involved has some kind of life problem that has rendered them desperate, mainly drug or gambling debts; while our heroine and main character (Brittany Snow) is trying to raise money to pay the hospital bills for her kid brother, who is dying from cancer. Everyone has agreed to participate in the event without knowing what is entailed, and they quickly find out that once they’ve started participation is no longer optional. Thus begins the world’s most sadistic game of ‘would you rather…?’, which quickly escalates into torture, mutilation and murder.

As you may have guessed, this is not a film for the squeamish or faint of heart. But then you’re unlikely to come across this film by accident, and if you’re seriously considering watching it chances are you’re already a fan of the genre. Even then, this isn’t as nasty as some other more famous ‘torture porn’ movies, and on the whole it has a bit more of a black comedy feel than some other examples of the genre. If you find yourself short of a horror movie some Friday or Saturday night, you could do a lot worse than give this one a try.

8/10

Scream (season two) – Review

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Stop tilting your head you f*cking loser

I found the first season of Netflix’s episodic reboot of the Scream franchise to be fairly entertaining, partly due to the inherent novelty of a TV show based around the slasher format. The series suffered from major problems, particularly a poor script, but there was enough action and gore to keep your interest, and the killer reveal at the end of the season felt fairly satisfying. Scream’s first season was predictably heavy on the pop-culture references and had a generally cringeworthy, self-referential postmodern style, but on the whole it did just enough to earn itself a relatively sympathetic audience.

Well, Scream has come back for a second season, and I have to say it was a massive disappointment. The main mystery this time revolves around the identity of the accomplice to the first season’s killer, who now runs amok tormenting the first season’s survivors. One of the season’s weaknesses is that you never really get the sense the writers have fully embraced their choice of killer, and even by the last episode it felt to me like they hadn’t quite decided who it was going to be. In the end, the reveal was massively predictable and entirely underwhelming, and for a franchise that takes pride in how genre savvy it is, it felt very poorly done.

The first season had a fairly high body count and so season two has to introduce some new characters to get the core cast to a critical mass. This is a good thing as most of the original cast are pretty unbearable by this point. Main character Emma has become somewhat unhinged after the first season, but the main problem here is that she is so insecure and lacking in confidence that she constantly seeks validation from other characters; she’s incapable of making any decisions for herself and therefore frequently manipulated by anyone and everyone. Considering that many of the characters here are clearly sociopaths if not actually serial killers, this makes for some pretty ludicrous scenarios. It’s not helped by the fact the actress playing 17 year old Emma is actually 25, and made to wear some truly bizarre and frumpy outfits. It’s all rather strange.

Audrey, Emma’s bestie/rival, is played by a younger actress who at least looks the part, but who can’t act for toffee. Meanwhile, her nymphomaniac friend Brooke spends the whole season pining after boys, seemingly under the impression she is the main character in Dawson’s Creek rather than a sidekick in what’s supposed to be a horror show. Supposedly genre-savvy horror nerd Noah also becomes insufferable in this season, with practically his entire dialogue consisting of tortured references to horror tropes and witty ‘banter’ with Audrey. Moreover, Noah is involved in a ‘sex’ scene in this season which is probably the worst and least sexy love scene I have ever witnessed in television, accompanied by the most inappropriate choice of music imaginable. It’s utterly bizarre and completely painful to watch.

It would be easier to put up with all this if there was more action in the season, but it felt like there was significantly less than first time around; perhaps not helped by the unnecessary decision to increase the series length from ten to twelve episodes. Most of the season consists of endless scenes of 20-somethings who are pretending to be teenagers texting each other ad nauseam, about how sorry they are for betraying each other, or whatever. It’s so, so lame. You might come to decide you wouldn’t mind for some of these characters to be bumped off.

Another major problem is that by this point the killer holds practically no menace to a seasoned viewer. We’re used to people putting up a bit of a fight in our horror films these days, not just acting like headless chickens and running around screaming. The original Scream came out when I was 12, and it was actually fairly scary at times. Twenty years later, whenever I see one of these cloaked douchebags on my screen I just want to take their knife off them and knock them over the head. Especially when I see them do the ’tilt your head slightly to the side’ motion so beloved of lazy directors, which I suppose is supposed to indicate some kind of sadistic toying with the victim, but which has become such a cliche it makes me want to scream in frustration at the lack of imagination on display. This is a franchise that was originally supposed to be about exposing the staid, formulaic nature of the slasher genre, but which is now irrelevant, creatively moribund and bereft of ideas. It’s time to kill it off for good.

2/10

Insidious 3 (film) – Review

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Boo!

I’m a glutton for horror movies and will watch just about anything in the genre, so in a way films like this are my fault. Horror films can be made on pretty low budgets, without expensive actors, and they have a guaranteed audience at home and in the cinema. In recent years the American horror genre has served up an endless procession of largely substandard and deeply formulaic movies which are routinely successful at the box office. For every great scary movie like It Follows or The Babadook it seems like there are half a dozen movies starring Ethan Hawke or Patrick Wilson.

Insidious 3 is a perfect example of a pointless, artless horror movie that somehow still managed to make over $100 million at the box office on a budget one-tenth that size. The Insidious series is the brainchild of James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the original creators of the Saw series. Wan also recently made The Conjuring, a somewhat better and actually scary horror film that made over $300 million on a budget of $20 million; a sequel is coming out this year.

While the first Insidious film was watchable enough, this third film is vacuous and self-referential and feels completely extraneous. It’s a prequel of sorts to the first two films, moving away from the Lambert family and showing the background of the ghost hunter (Lin Shaye) and her team. Shaye is called in to help a young girl who is being tormented by some sort of entity who likes to creep around at night. What sets everything in motion is that the girl’s mother has passed away, and she tries initially to ‘call forth’ her mum’s spirit so she can talk to her. But, of course, she starts to summon sinister entities instead. Cue lots of creepy shots of things lurking in the background, sudden loud noises, limb injuries, etc etc…

All of this has been done a million times before, and literally everything here has been done to death already in Wan and Whannell’s other films. Part of the problem is the deliberate, stubborn shallowness of the story and setting. There is no explaining where any of these things come from; unlike The Conjuring, Insidious 3 avoids dealing with themes of religious horror, relying instead on the audience’s readiness to invoke whatever lazy horror tropes they’re familiar with to make sense of it all. About the only thing the film has going for it is if you look at the girl’s ordeal as a a metaphor for dealing with depression after the death of a parent. But other than that, this is about the most generic horror film I’ve seen in the last decade.

Shaye has received good reviews for her role in this series, and I don’t want to knock her, but the character just comes across like a warm blanket, someone’s fantasy of a nice grandma. And you’d think someone with her experience of interacting with the spirits of the dead wouldn’t start screaming hysterically the first time she, you know, actually encounters one of them in the story. The rest of the cast is very poor and, with such a small number of actors, I particularly dislike the way Wan and Whannell insert themselves into the movie. Wan has a cameo casting an audition and Whannell has a recurring role in the series as–inevitably–a writer. An overweight Angus Sampson also returns, with a silly haircut and a vintage He-Man tshirt. The whole film just has this knowing, smartass feel to it that I really disliked. I hope the series stops here, but considering the amount of money they’re making, there’s a slim chance of that.

4/10

 

 

It Follows – Review

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Halloween may have passed, but the British Winter is well and truly setting in. That means it’s horror season, and it’s as good a time as any to watch and discuss It Follows. This movie was released last year to no fanfare but has received wide critical praise and become something of a cult classic. I would argue that it’s on course to becoming a true classic of the horror genre.

This film is terrifying. There is something about the way the environment, cinematography, subject matter and musical score interact that makes it deeply unsettling. The first scene is perplexing but deeply compelling, and ends with one of the most disturbing yet understated single shots I have ever witnessed in cinema. The standard doesn’t drop from there for a single minute. This is not a film that is played for ‘jumps’ but nevertheless it contains some of the scariest moments I have ever witnessed in a movie. Moreover, it is able to cultivate a pervasive atmosphere of fear that lasts throughout.

For me, the secret of its success is that the film is not just a good horror film but an intelligent film, period. David Robert Mitchell, the writer and director, does a masterful job at telling the story while using a minimum of dialogue and verbal exposition, instead relying on environment, scenery, music, and his talented cast, who use subtle body language to communicate or hint at details of the plot without spelling everything out in black and white. Mitchell trusts his actors and also trusts his audience to be invested enough in the movie to try and work out what is going on, or what a line of dialogue or a single gesture might allude to. He is also not afraid to let you use your imagination to fill in the gaps, which is after all one of the secrets of good horror. Once we know everything about something it loses its capacity to scare us.

The film has a dreamlike quality at times and supposedly had its origins in a dream Mitchell experienced. Certainly the Detroit setting, which seems to combine elements of different time eras, feels like something out of a dream. Moreover the subject matter (fears related to sex, family and mortality) is ripe for Freudian deconstruction. The storyline can sustain a certain amount of analysis, and you can easily draw metaphors with regard to STDs, particularly HIV/AIDs, and also perhaps even things like pregnancy. But we shouldn’t deconstruct the film too far lest it start to lose its magic. This is a film that you should just allow yourself to experience and enjoy, and be thankful that such an intelligent and terrifyingly effective horror film can still be made in this day and age. I found it laughable to read that Quentin Tarantino, while claiming to like the movie, poked holes in how the film failed to stick to its own internal ‘rules’. The basic earnestness and humanity of this film is one of its best qualities and, to my mind, its sheer artistry far surpasses anything that has emanated from Tarantino. He should humbly try to learn from this film rather than criticize it.

Maika Monroe’s performance as Jay is wonderful, but all the characters come across well which testifies to the quality of the script. The musical score is absolutely stellar, being one of the most atmospheric and piercing horror themes I’ve come across in years. Parts of it capture a John Carpenter-esque 80s atmosphere but it also feels utterly contemporary as well, and is really very impressive. The first time I listened to it (at work, with headphones), my eyes literally teared up I was so scared. The composer, Disasterpeace (Rich Vreeland), deserves praise for it.

If you haven’t seen this film, do yourself a favour and watch it. If you’ve seen it already, watch it again. And never stay somewhere that has only one exit.

10/10