What We Do in the Shadows (film) – Review

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2014’s New Zealand-based vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was something of a cult hit, and with good reason. It’s largely the brainchild of Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, who appear in the film in lead roles as the vampires Viago and Vlad.  The script has a distinctive take on the vampire genre, following the escapades of an ineffective and neurotic group of vampires who live in a squalid houseshare in Wellington, New Zealand. Although the vampires are ancient, ranging from several hundred to many thousand years old, and have conventionally super-human powers, their indolent and impulsive lifestyles prevent them from leading fulfilling lives as they try (and fail) to keep up with the modern world.

What We Do… is filmed in a faux-documentary style, and although the whole thing is executed with tongue firmly in cheek, the film’s unique setting and genuine good-humour set it apart from much of the tediously self-referential horror emanating from within the Anglo-Saxon world in recent years. The fact that Clement and Waititi appear in prominent roles also helps the film, as they are able to bring the right kind of energy and register to their performances; I’m not sure a film of this budget could have secured the right calibre of actors otherwise. Indeed, if you want to be picky (and isn’t that the point of a culture blog?) then you could say that the film’s cast is one of the things that holds it back: a higher budget could perhaps have allowed for more charismatic actors to appear in a wider range of roles. As it is, Clement’s delightful chewing of the scenery carries much of the weight of the film.

The vampires find a lifeline to the contemporary world in the form of Stu, the friend of recently sired vampire Nick. The actor who plays Stu gives an exceptionally naturalistic performance which really helps put across the idea he’s an unusually down-to-earth and nice guy. The film also features some entertaining exchanges between the vampires and a pack of local werewolves, which plays with familiar tropes in the same way as the main story. The werewolf scenes are memorable highlights, and apparently a spinoff centred on this community is in the works, which has some potential.

Werewolves aren’t the only creatures depicted in the film, and one of the central events  is the “Unholy Masquerade”, a supernatural ball held in a seedy community centre which is convened by vampires, witches and zombies. The film certainly succeeds in divesting supernatural entities like vampires of their glamour, but at the same time, it also makes them feel strangely sympathetic. Much of the film’s appeal surely resides in that, for a film about the supernatural, its subjects often come across as distinctly human.

8/10

Texas Chain Saw Massacre (film) – Review

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It’s hard for me to think of it this way, but Texas Chain Saw Massacre is now almost fifty years old. It’s an iconic and hugely influential horror movie, and even after all these years it remains an extremely effective and frightening film. As a teenager in the UK in the 1990s with an interest in the horror genre, I was intrigued by the aura of fear and danger around the movie, which was not classified for distribution in the UK until 1998. I saw it for the first time a year later, in 1999, when it was screened for the first time on British television by Channel 4. I remember finding certain sequences of the film to be utterly terrifying and profoundly disturbing; but I was also intrigued by some of the film’s subtext. Two decades later, the raw power of its horror hasn’t faded, and even if its thematic content feels a bit hackneyed, it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre is presented as a true story, but it isn’t actually based on real events (although like many other horror movies, it was informed by the real-life crimes of Ed Gein). Part of the film’s influence can be seen in that its early sequences – a group of twenty-somethings on a roadtrip in Texas come across a cabin in the woods – have been reproduced endlessly by later movies. While most horror movies tend to be shot at night, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre is shot for the most part during the day, and in intense sun and heat too. There’s a lurid quality to the cinematography that’s quite unsettling, and it’s not just down to the references to graverobbing and dead animals on the highway. The (admittedly outlandish) events of the film are situated in close proximity to the meat industry and the industrial slaughter of livestock, and the callous and inhumane treatment of animals is an important part of establishing the film’s horrific atmosphere; because of course when we see people treated in such a way, it is appalling and really scary. It would be too much to say the film has a vegetarian message as such, but it does make you think about the meat industry, in a really unsettling way.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspired legions of films that tried to copy its formula for success, but few have been able to reproduce the sense of tension and dread which it establishes over its first half hour. The whole hitch hiker sequence in the beginning is disturbing as hell; shortly after that, the film also features arguably the most frightening sequence in cinematic history, which anyone with an interest in the genre really has to experience.

The film gets your emotions to boiling point early on, and sets a high-water-mark which the rest of the film finds hard to match; to my mind, the second half gets a bit bogged down in unnecessary quasi-supernatural material. Filmmaker Tobe Hooper has explained the film was partly a reaction to events like Watergate and the Vietnam War, and it certainly exhibits a cynicism about American culture which was very much of its time in the early 1970s. In general, there’s probably too much pseudo-intellectual deconstruction of films like this (pot, meet kettle), and I think it’s misguided to regard Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a post-modernist film per se. But, with its cynical perspective, it’s easy to retrospectively cast the film in such a category.

On a purely functional level, it’s hard to criticize Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Its power to disturb and terrify is undiminished, which testifies to its basic integrity and twisted artistry. It’s remarkable that after so much time, it is still unsurpassed in the stakes of pure horror; which is also a statement on the development (or otherwise) of the genre. That said, certain things that helped makeTexas Chain Saw Massacre feel authentic would not fly well today (the health and safety conditions the actors and crew worked in are almost as frightening as the film itself). Also, while the first half of the film is perfectly paced, the second half does feel like it spins its wheels too long. It’s already a short film, but it probably could have afforded to lose ten minutes. You feel for the poor actress who spends so long screaming – it must have played havoc with her vocal chords. But as T. pointed out to me, at least here the screaming is in the service of a plot point, rather than the plot point itself: in other words, at least this film shows you there is good reason to scream, and you know what’s going on.

Considering that Texas Chain Saw Massacre provides the perfect template for a horror film, you’d think others would follow it better. While it might not have much of a soul of its own, it certainly does a good job of making you fear for your own.

9/10

Blair Witch (film) – Review

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Don’t go into the woods today.

Some horror movie directors don’t seem to understand that just watching other people lose their shit from fear isn’t necessarilly scary; it can inspire other emotions depending on the context, like amusement, irritation, or even apathy. Quarantine, the extraneous remake of Spanish zombie film REC, was a good example: Jennifer Carpenter was a hysterical mess for the last 30 minutes of the movie, rendering it all but unwatchable. Blair Witch relies on the same technique, with equally disappointing results.

The last half hour of Blair Witch see the surviving characters running around aimlessly while shouting each other’s names over and over again. The setting and events of the film are unsettling, but the OTT panicking and idiotic behaviour of the characters drains the proceedings of any tension. When I think back to unforgettably scary sequences in movies – the first kill in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the shower scene in Psycho, or the ending of Don’t Look Now – the characters themselves aren’t  acting like they’re about to shit their pants from fear (not until the last second, anyway). The fear and tension comes from the dreadful atmosphere and the fact the audience has access to information the characters don’t. It’s true you can have effective extended sequences where someone is absolutely terrified (the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but if you try to keep that level up for too long you’ll just wear out your audience. I felt like the makers of Blair Witch didn’t have any ideas beyond mimicking the events of the first film, and sought to rely on on viewers having an uncritical reaction along the lines of “look, these guys are totally scared, so this must be a really frightening situation!”

Blair Witch Project was an influential film that popularized the whole “found footage” genre, as well as the amateur shaky-cam visual style. It received plenty of critical accolades when it was released, but it also has a very mixed reputation among horror fans with many considering it rather overrated. This sequel, simply titled Blair Witch, is set two decades after the original, and sees the brother of one of the people who disappeared all those years ago going back to the woods to try and find out what happened to her. He manages to rope a couple of friends into joining him, and is also obliged to bring a couple of local horror nuts along as well (bad idea). The characters are cliched and lacking in charisma, and the script is moribund; there’s no wit or humour, and it’s hard to care about the characters even in the face of their inevitable fates.

The Black Hills Forest in which the movie is set is actually quite atmospheric, and the first half of the film is functional if generic. The movie’s real problems start once things begin to go wrong in the forest, and it becomes clear that the makers of Blair Witch either didn’t trust their own abilities to create frightening sequences, or the capacity of its audience to pay attention. In the end, the surviving characters spend an eternity searching for each other in the dark, through the woods and abandoned buildings, breathing heavily and repeatedly calling out one another’s names. There’s nothing scary about it, it’s just inane and boring. Blair Witch is a stultifying film and it’s guaranteed to try the patience of most serious horror fans.

2/10

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