Reviews: The Grudge – the Unseen Chapter

The Grudge: the Untold Chapter,
Directed by Nicolas Pesce,
Starring Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver

Directed by the gifted Nicolas Pesce (Eyes of My Mother), and produced by the legendary Sam Raimi, and with a very fine cast, this new take on the established horror franchise created y Takashi Shimizu promises a lot, this promises a lot, but sadly only partially delivers. Originally conceived as a new start on the US version of the J-horror classic series, during production this changed tack, deciding not on a reboot but on a side story, an offshoot covering events that take place in the established history of the other films.

Fiona Landers (Tara Westwood), an American nurse working in Japan in 2004, visits the now infamous house in Tokyo, and leaves in a disturbed state of mind. In fact she is so shaken by her visit to this house she phones in her resignation to the nursing agency and is on the next flight back home, desperate to return to American and her husband and daughter. What she doesn’t realise – and long-term fans will already have guessed – is that anyone who sets foot in that house is now under its curse, and that curse knows no geographical constraints. Fiona is, in effect, bringing the curse to her own home, without being aware of it…

The film takes a multi-part approach to the narrative, criss-crossing different people and families in different years who are all affected by the curse after coming into contact with the house which was once the happy family home of the Landers, including Betty Gilpin’s (Glow) Nina Spencer and Star Trek’s John Cho as her husband Peter, who don’t even live there, but as estate agents come into contact with the curse when Peter visits the house after being unable to get the Landers to answer their phone to deal with their house sale. Others drawn into this cursed orbit include horror queen Lin Shaye (Insidious), newly bereaved detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) and her young son trying to make a new life in a new home after the loss of her husband, and local police officers, one of whom senses the curse and avoids the house, while his partner is slowly driven mad by it.

I thought this multi-chronology approach, with multiple story arcs converging as Muldoon investigates a newly-found body in a car in the woods (newly-found but one that had clearly been there for years) that is linked to the house, a house with a history of previous deaths, was pretty clever in principle, but, for me at least, it didn’t quite deliver as much as it should, with the moving between different characters in different years making it hard to settle into the narrative or really get to know and care about the characters. That said I salute the attempt to shape a different storyline from the previous entries – I’m glad they wanted to make something a bit different, I’m just not sure it entirely gels as it should have.

This is not to say it is a bad film overall though – this old horror hound still found some pleasures here, Pesce and his very fine cast delivering some nicely chilling – and in some cases quite gruesome (a scene chopping food in the kitchen made even me wince) scenes, and, as I said, the idea of the multi-angled narrative of several different years in the life of the cursed house and those whose lives it corrupts is interesting, and a refreshing change of tack in the franchise, and I appreciated that this is part of the established history of the series rather than a reboot. Pesce and cinematographer Zachary Galler also frame and light some very effective scenes (William Sadler’s Detective Wilson, standing on the lawn in the pouring rain, just staring at the house is as disturbing as the more overtly horror moments). It’s not going to win over any new converts, I think, but while flawed, it still has some effective moments and long-time Grudge fans should still find it interesting.

The Grudge: the Untold Chapter is released by Sony Pictures UK on Digital from May 18th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 1st, including bonus material and alternate ending.

Reviews: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood,
Directed by Marielle Heller,
Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper, Maryann Plunkett, Enrico Colantoni

“You don’t consider yourself famous?”

“Fame is a four letter word, like tape, or zoom and face. Ultimately what matters is what you do with it.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“We are trying to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings.”

Fred Rogers, simply knowns as “Mister Rogers” to generations of child viewers, was an institution in American broadcasting for children, an integral part of many a childhood, a virtual friend to many kids who needed one, with his show, Mister Rogers Neighbourhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001 (with a small gap in the 70s). Like many in the UK I knew very little about him as the show wasn’t really known here, and most of what I knew about it I had picked up from references in countless American TV shows and films (the amount of times the show and the man are mentioned in so many different programmes and films gives you an idea of how embedded in the popular culture it was in the US, generations grew up with this).

Not being overly familiar with the show and so lacking that nostalgic affection for it, I was curious to see this movie (especially after it garnered praise at the highly respected Toronto film fest), but also rather worried that without that familiarity and affection for the show and the man, that I might not be able to connect with it. Well, that wasn’t the case – Marielle Heller and her crew and cast (especially Hanks, pretty much perfectly cast, and Rhys as the cynical journalist Lloyd) have crafted a film which is universally accessible to all viewers, regardless of their familiarity or lack thereof with the show, because this film is, at its very core, a film about the emotional depths of the human soul, about the dark places, the things that frighten us, worry us, make us angry, and how we can try to overcome them, about how it is is a good thing to listen, to be there for someone, to help, and in turn that it is okay to admit we are scared or angry, and to take a hand when it is offered.

The film is not, as I first thought, a biopic about Rogers (played by Tom Hanks), rather it is inspired by a late 1990s article about him for Esquire magazine. Journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a famous and respected investigative journalist, and more than a little put out when his editor hands him the assignment of a short interview with Rogers for a special issue on heroes. He’s far from happy, considering this a puff piece, and after his brief meeting with Rogers during a short break filming his show, he feels that there is something more here. While everyone loves Mr Rogers, he starts to think there must be something else, darker, hidden behind the home-knitted cardigans and gentle manner, and begins to plan a much longer piece on his own.

We’ve sadly become all too use to many much-loved popular culture figures later being exposed as something so far from their warm, public persona, and often feel a sense of betrayal, of another layer of cynicism added to our emotional armour when this happens. Here, however, the darkness is very much Lloyd’s own problems being reflected – his cynicism, his still simmering anger years later at the loss of his mother, of his estranged, womanising father’s betrayal of her when she was ill, his worries about responsibility for his and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their newborn baby. Rogers sees this in Lloyd, and with the same patient, understanding, reassuring approach he took to helping kids deal with emotional problems on his show, he gently befriends Lloyd, helping him to realise he can face that loss, grief and anger, but come through the other side.

This really, really could have ended up being a sugary, shmaltzy, syrupy story. That it isn’t is a huge credit to Heller, Hanks and Rhys, who offer a quite beautiful, emotional tale that will want to make you both cry and smile, while also giving some lovely visual treats – the model of the neighbourhood that was used in the show re-appears here (as do the various puppet characters and others), but that model approach is then also used for the different locations throughout the film, a lovely touch (and props to the model makers re-creating this in the same style as the original), or Lloyd hallucinating himself to be the size of the show’s puppets, on the model set, being asked by Fred about his problems, or a moment with the pair on the New York subway, where passengers recognise Rogers and start to sing his theme song, to his delight.

No, this may be a feel-good film in many ways, but it avoids most of the normal, overly-sugary traps those kinds of films often fall into. Instead we have a piece which feels very empathic, emotionally – you may well find yourself thinking about moments good and bad in your own life as you watch (I certainly did). Neighbourhood takes us on that emotional journey, but tell us that it’s okay, that it’s only human to feel, that it is okay to be sad sometimes, that anger is normal, it is what we do with them, how we deal with them that is important, and how we deal with one another, that bad things happen to us sometimes, but so often there is someone there who wants to help, and it is not weakness to take that hand that reaches out to you. As our entire global community deals with stresses and strains of the pandemic, this may very well be an almost perfect film to enjoy. An absolutely beautiful, warm, emotional journey.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is released by Sony on home digital from May 25th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from June 8th

Reviews: The Man With X-Ray Eyes

The Man With X-Ray Eyes,
Directed by Roger Corman,
Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles

Here’s an under-rated gem from the stable of the legendary Roger Corman, 1963’s The Man With X-Ray Eyes (aka X: the Man With X-Ray Eyes). I remember reading about this in some movie monster books when I was a kid, and seeing it late night on TV in my teens, but it rarely aired as often as the old Hammer or Universal movies did, and I haven’t seen it in decades. So I am delighted that Second Sight have brought it back, and indeed given it the deluxe treatment: a limited edition Blu-Ray set with a newly restored print, plenty of extras (including interviews with Roger Corman and Joe Dante), poster, a book by Jon Towlson and Allan Bryce, and boasting excellent new cover artwork by the always-brilliant Graham Humphreys.

For those who haven’t seen this very unusual slice of 60s Sci-fi/horror, made between shooting some of those iconic Edgar Allan Poe films Corman is still, rightly, highly regarded for, it follows Doctor James Xavier (Ray Milland), a physician who is working on an experimental mixture which he administers as eye droplets, with the goal of allowing human sight to be expanded. As he explains to his ophthalmologist friend Doctor Sam Bran (Harold J. Stone), in the last few decades humans have discovered a wide electro-magnetic spectrum – ultraviolet, X-rays and more – that their natural senses cannot see. What if they could, with their own eyes, not with imprecise instruments? Imagine how this would help a medical doctor – no fuzzy X-Ray plates, they can literally see through flesh and bone to diagnose an illness, formulate the correct treatment.

While his friends caution him for pushing too far, too quickly, Xavier is eager to test his work, despite the death of a test animal. His reasoning is that the animal couldn’t comprehend what its new visual senses showed it, but he, as a rational, intelligent being, can learn to do so. He is, well, partially correct – at least at first. He finds his new vision increasing, going from being able to read a letter through another sheet of paper covering it, to being able to see into a patient being readied for surgery, a young woman, and he can see what is wrong – a different diagnosis from the attending surgeon, leading to a showdown between the pair as Xavier uses his new powers to save her life.

It’s at this point that things start to spiral out of control – the medical authorities will not accept his abilities, and therefore not believe them as his excuse for his behaviour in the operating theatre (despite saving the patient). His career hanging in the balance, his research funding cut, struggling to control his new abilities, a terrible accident leads to him having to flee to avoid arrest. Desperate for somewhere to hide and continue his research (and a way to reverse the new visual abilities too), Xavier takes refuge, of all places, in a carnival sideshow, posing as a stage magician who can read minds and tell secrets (it’s here he comes into contact with the nasty, selfish carnival barker Crane, played by Don Rickles, in a rare straight, dramatic role), before also trying to use his new abilities to win in Vegas, to get sufficient funds to get his research going once more.

It remains one of the more unusual horror classics of that era – amazingly shot in something like three weeks for a budget of only $300, 000 (tiny, but huge by the normal American International Pictures’ budget standards!). Naturally, given the era it was made in, the special effects are not exactly dazzling – to be fair, this isn’t just because of budget restrictions, the technology to show what they really wanted was simply not there at the time. Despite this the effects team and art director still, in my opinion, managed to give the viewer the feeling of Xavier’s increasing dislocation, as his powers grow, as he can see more and further.

The visual processing in the human brain is enormously complex (as AI programmers have found in trying to replicate it with technology), and also relies on years of us learning to interpret the visuals coming into our brain into something coherent. While Xavier can cope with the titular X-Ray vision, as he begins to see more, things he didn’t even know existed, seeing into matter and the universe itself, he’s slowly losing his mind, and those visual effects, for all their early crudeness, do a good job of conveying this, in conjunction with the excellent Milland’s acting. (it isn’t all drama and doom though, there is some fun to be had, such as Xavier realising he can see through everyone’s clothes at a party, a nod to the old X-Ray specs gimmicks sold in the back pages of comics).

Adding much to this story is the fact that this isn’t the formulaic Mad Scientist story. Yes, Xavier may have a little arrogance of the highly skilled doctor who believes he knows better than others, but he’s not a bad man, and risking his career to save the young woman using his powers shows that he is a decent man. He genuinely wants to use these new abilities to advance medicine, to save more lives, to expand scientific knowledge, and that’s a large part of what really makes this such a compelling film, because he’s not a madman trying to take over the world, he’s a pioneer, with his heart in the right place, who succumbs eventually to the new, uncharted discoveries he has made, like the Curies and other scientists before him.

“What did he see?” asks his love interest, Doctor Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) of the unfortunate test monkey who proves the formula works, but dies afterwards. Those words haunt the film, as the abilities Xavier has gained become cumulative, taking him far beyond even the broadest speculations in science, into new realities he simply cannot cope with. He can’t even escape by closing his eyes now, because he can see right through the lids. This well-intentioned work leading to disaster lends the story a deeper, emotional, tragic aspect that compels as strongly as the idea of the new discovery does. An absolute classic of Sci-fi and Horror.

The many extras in this special edition are also great, not least the iconic Corman talking about the making of the film, how he came up with the rough idea, originally thinking he knew some of his musician friends on the jazz scene dallied in drugs, and perhaps he should make the central character a musician who overdoses, before realising he hated that idea, and going back to the notion of having a scientist, someone who was pushing into new frontiers without realising what the consequences would be. Corman also talks about his desire to remake the film, with modern effects able to realise the remarkable new visual abilities of Xavier in any way they want. Personally while the story is strong enough to stand a remake, and the modern visuals would indeed be better, as I said, it isn’t the visuals which really make this film so powerful, it’s the central idea and especially Milland’s performance that do so.

The Man With X-Ray Eyes will be available from Second Sight on limited edition Blu-Ray from May 4th.

Reviews: The Shed

The Shed,
Directed by Frank Sabatella,
Starring Jay Jay Warren, Cody Kostro, Sofia Happonen, Frank Whaley, Timothy Bottoms, Siobhan Fallon Hogan

I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with the monster in the closet, or under the bed, or the basement. Sabatella’s Indy horror moves the monster action to the most innocuous of domestic locations, the garden shed. There’s no messing around, we are dropped right into things from the start with little preamble – a hunter, out in the woods with his rifle, is now the hunted, fleeing from something barely glimpsed, something his bullets will not stop. A vampire.

And not a pretty, sparkly Twilight vampire, or a swooning, handsome Anne Rice vampire, nope, this is a pretty horrible looking predator, a proper monster. And he catches his prey, but as he bites into the hunter (Bane, played by Frank Whaley, who you will doubtless recognise from a myriad TV and film roles, from Luke Cage to Pulp Fiction) he realises he’s made the classic bloodsucker mistake – he’s stayed out too late. The rising sun pierces the forest canopy and burns him; staggering back in pain from his prey, he’s exposed to direct light and then it’s time for ashes, ashes, we all fall down…

Given our monstrous vampire has just been introduced and then dispatched in the opening few moments, where is The Shed going from here? Well our now dusted vamp had bitten Bane before his severe sunburn got the better of him, but he didn’t finish off the fleeing hunter. Wounded, Bane tries to rise, still shocked from the realisation that vampires exist and he had just been attacked by one – and survived. Or has he? His arm enters a shaft of light breaking through the treetops, and he too burns. Looking at the pile of smoking ash that had been the fearsome vampire, he realises what has happened to him, and that if he doesn’t want to die the same way, he need shelter from the daylight.

It really is a remarkably efficient and swift setup – this opening takes only a few moments and already we’ve had a vampire attack, Bane infected, then having to make a run for shelter, finding the tool shed in the garden of Stan’s house (Jay Jay Warren), an orphan living with his grandfather (veteran actor Timothy Bottoms). There’s even a nice little nod to Katherine Bigelow’s classic vampire Western, Near Dark, as the unfortunate Bane grabs an old blanket to wrap around his head as he has to dash across the open ground in full sunlight, before finding sanctuary in the shadow of the eponymous shed.

Stan’s life is not a happy one – his mother and father are dead (a dream sequence hints at illness and suicide), he’s spiralled into petty infractions of the law and is now living with his grandfather, Ellis, his last option other than Juvenile Hall. And to make it worse Ellis is the “you kids today are too soft, I was in the army being shot at when I was your age” kind of brutish, unfeeling man, totally unsupportive of his clearly emotionally damaged grandson. He and his best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro) have it no better at school either, both being at the bottom of the food chain, Dommer in particular a target for the bully brigade, and even Stan’s former crush, Roxy (Sofia Happonen) has joined the clique of the nasty kids.

Unsurprisingly both would love to be free of their tormentors and their situation, and when Stan first discovers Bane, now transformed into full, bloody-thirsty vampire mode, is hiding in his grandfather’s shed, Dommer sees an opportunity to turn the tables. What if they can lure the bullies here, get them close enough to the shed door to be grabbed and dragged inside? Stan is horrified at the idea – no matter how much he despises the bullies, feeding them to a monster is wrong. He wants to figure out a way to deal with this, while not letting the authorities know (with his record he worries he will take any blame), but Dommer, poor, damaged Dommer, has been beaten up and abused once too often, he wants them dead, and in as painful and terrifying a manner as can be managed.

While not spectacular, I think Sabatella and his cast and crew did a great job with limited budget and resources. Yes, there are some flaws (aren’t there always?) – dream sequences that get confused with reality are a bit over-used, for instance, but for the most part this melding of hidden, secret monster with the high-school as hell (complete with its own kinds of monsters) works well, and you feel for both Stan and the hard life he’s been handed (that kid needs to catch a break, opines Siobhan Fallon Hogan’s Sheriff early on), and Dommer’s revenge fantasies, fuelled into murderous rage by the appearance of the vampire, while wrong are also quite understandable given what he’s been constantly subjected to.

It’s good to see vampires as proper monsters again too, instead of handsome, seductive or sympathetic beings (and no sparkles, thank goodness), an element I suspect many of my fellow horror fans will appreciate. There are also some nice touches, little homages and the like, thrown into The Shed for genre fans to notice, such as the aforementioned blanket over the head daylight run from Near Dark to even a quick reference to Ferris Bueller (as Stan has to run on foot to his house to beat the Sheriff there, cutting through gardens, running right behind her car before she notices). Some good, solid, enjoyable horror fun.

The Shed is available from Signature Entertainment on HD Digital from May 11th

Reviews: We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness,
Directed by Mark Meyers,
Starring Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, and Johnny Knoxville

Another collaboration between Signature Entertainment and FrightFest Presents, We Summon the Darkness seems to be channelling some Old School 1980s and 90s teen slasher vibes. We have the good-looking young women and boys, all off the leash for a weekend of fun free of adult supervision, drink, drugs, music and sexual tension, and this all takes place against a background of a spate of serial killings across the state of Indiana, allegedly the work of a Satanic cult.

The media is loving this, of course, and is not just reporting on it, but clearly stoking a folk panic over the killings, and unquestioningly putting up evangelical preacher types who assert it is all the fault of the “demonic” rock music scene, as if they were speaking fact. Those of you of a certain age will likely see this as a wry commentary and throwback to some of the media frenzies, the so-called “Satanic Panic” tales the media pushed, which had terrible real-world consequences for local communities caught in them (normally once the hoopla died down and serious investigations took place they were found to be nothing more than rumours and outright lies). Knoxville plays against type as TV evangelist condemning the “corruption” of youth (and like most of these rich media preachers, you just know there are going to be skeletons in his closet).

It’s 1998, and three friends, Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Valerie (Maddie Hasson), and Beverly (Amy Forsyth), are making a road trip to attend a large heavy metal concert, while snippets from the local news plays, condemning the concert and the kids who enjoy the rock scene as part of the problem that has created this alleged Satanic murder spree by leading the youngsters away from Jesus. On the road a pimped out van passes them and one of the boys aboard throws his milkshake out, across their windshield, nearly causing an accident. When they arrive at the concert venue, lo and behold, there is the same van, and it is obvious the occupants are in the back getting high, so Valerie decides on some payback by throwing a lit firecracker through their window.

After a little argument the boys – Mark (Keean Johnson), Kovacs (Logan Miller) and Ivan (Austin Swift) – seem to accept this prank was justified revenge for what they did earlier, and soon the youngsters are bonding over their love of rock, swapping concert-going stories. By the end of the gig they’re enjoying hanging together – three boys, three girls, all into the same music, all free for the weekend, it seems like the perfect opportunity for some fun, and Alexis invites them to join them at her father’s large mansion as he’s away for the weekend.

So far it’s all playing like you might expect an 80s/90s flick to play out – the young women and men are playing with rock music, drugs, booze, flirting with sex, all the usual transgressions that see nubile teens and twentysomethings punished in slashers of that period. But there is something else going on here, not all is as it appears, and much as I would love to talk about it, I can’t because it would blow some spoilers, so I must zip my flapping mouth closed.

Suffice to say that Darkness continues to plough the genre pretty well – I mean that in the good way, while it is using many of the tropes of the genre of the 80s and 90s, it is clearly doing so deliberately and with much love, in a way that I think most horror-hounds will enjoy and approve of. But it also happily subverts some of those generic elements as well, on who is truly the good and the bad, or delighting in playing with gender expectations. Yes, there are moments where some of this seems to be following a well-worn path, but it is doing so with deliberate intentions, partly for the love of the genre, and partly so it can then gleefully mess with some of those expectations. Get the beer out, pop the corn and enjoy some fun Friday night horror viewing for fans.

We Summon the Darkness is out now on Digital HD from Signature Entertainment and FrightFest Presents.

Reviews: Sea Fever

Sea Fever,
Directed by Neasa Hardiman,
Starring Connie Nielsen, Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Olwen Fouéré, Jack Hickey, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Bouakaze

After the film festival circuit – including a debut at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 – Neasa Hardiman’s Indy Irish horror movie arrives on DVD, Blu-Ray and on-demand from this week. Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), is a marine biology student, and one who really isn’t a people-person (as we see right at the start, as her classmates pause in the lab to celebrate a birthday, despite warm invitations to join in, she remains aloof). She is reluctant to undertake a required field work segment of her course, but her tutor tells her firmly she has to get out of the lab and get her hands dirty. To this end she’s booked aboard a trawler for a few days, to examine their catch, looking for pattens and irregularities in the marine life.

The ship is captained by the grizzled, taciturn Gerard (Scots actor Dougray Scott essaying an Irish accent), and owned by his partner Freya (Wonder Woman’s Connie Nielsen), and they are glad of the money the university contract brings – like many independent trawlers the wolf is never far from the door. There is some reluctance from the crew, partly at having someone onboard who isn’t a sailor, let alone experienced on the hard life of the trawler ships, and her stand-offish behaviour doesn’t help, nor does the fact she is a redhead (seen a bad luck on a ship, although interestingly I noticed there was no mention of the other old superstition of a woman being bad luck aboard – in fact with Hermione there are now three women on the ship).

The ship is warned by the coastguard that they cannot continue to the spot they originally planned to trawl, a potentially rich source of fish, that the area is currently off-limits as whales and their calves are in that zone. Unknown to the crew or authorities, Freya and Gerard make the decision to cut through this forbidden zone anyway. Of course any seasoned horror buff will know that going into a forbidden zone is the equivalent of leaving the path in the deep, dark forest in a fairy tale – you don’t do it, and if you do, expect trouble…

The trouble arrives fairly swiftly – something strikes the trawler, despite it being in deep ocean waters. And then they notice some very peculiar shapes forming on the planking of the wooden hull’s interior, deforming the thick wood, softening it – prodding it with a pencil, it goes right through, letting water in and revealing a glimpse of… something. Siobhán had planned a diving session as part of her field work, and at Gerard’s suggestions she reluctantly dives to investigate whatever has been striking the hull, finding something she never expected, an unknown creature, huge and glowing with bioluminescence, its long tendrils attaching to the hull. Is it attacking them, or has it just mistaken the ship for normal prey, in the way sharks sometimes bite surfers or divers, mistaking them for seals?

I thought this was the point where Sea Fever became far more interesting – especially given the situation we are all in at the moment, although that is just a lucky coincidence in timing – because until now it is giving the impression of a fairly standard monster movie. People go out on a normal, routine journey, encounter something unknown, it hunts them, they must fight to understand and survive. Except, no, it doesn’t go down that very well-worn route. Instead this becomes more about different types of life and their rights to exist, how they try to live (human and marine), and also, in what is now suddenly a very contemporary slant, about infection and controlling any potential spread from contact with unknown new organisms.

I wondered at first if this change in tack was down to budgetary restraints – an Indy movie like this simply can’t afford numerous, convincing effects scenes a full-on monster movie would demand. But I don’t think that’s it, I think Hardiman is more interested in people and their web of relationships, their interdependencies, and the way all of the elements, such as the sea, and other life (the fish, the whales, the unknown creature), how they react under sudden stress. I think it doesn’t quite hit the high mark it is aiming for, although again I think that may be due to the budget limitations Indy movie makers labour under, but nevertheless I found this to be a more unusual and far more interesting slant on the horror movie than I was expecting, and well worth checking out.

Sea Fever is available from Signature Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and on-demand services from this week

Happy birthday, Charlie Chaplin

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.”

The opening of the final speech in Chaplin’s first talkie, The Great Dictator. Released as the nations of the Earth fell into the horror of the Second World War, it remains a stirring oration, full of optimism, that the tyranny of the greedy and selfish shall pass, that people can be better than we have been. Reposting today to mark Chaplin’s birthday and also because, dammit, we need optimism and hope right now.

Reviews: Charlie’s Angels

Charlie’s Angels,
Directed by Elizabeth Banks,
Starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Elizabeth Banks

Elizabeth Banks writes, directs and stars in this latest take on the all-woman super-team that was such a popular staple of 1970s TV viewing. Originally touted as a reboot several years after the frantically bonkers fun of the McG Angels films with Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, instead the decision was taken to make this a continuation of both the films and the original TV series. Not that this is a sequel – it is a new story and new Angels that you could take as stand-alone if you so wished, but it tips its hat with some montages and cameos to the TV series and the films, to include them in this history. This is, effectively, a new entry in those stories, set years on with the latest recruits, but, rather satisfyingly, I thought, including that previous history as a background (even including original 1970s Angel Jaclyn Smith in a cameo as one of the senior staff who train the new girls).

Since the events of the previous films the Townsend Agency has gone international, in an expansion lead by the main Bosley (now a rank in the organisation), John Bosley, played by Patrick Stewart (who looks as if he was having a lot of fun here), with other Bosleys in charge in offices in different cities and countries, and a larger roster of highly-trained Angels on call for missions around the globe (although here this is mostly background, with the story, wisely, sticking mostly to the tried and tested tradition of the triumvirate of three women agents and a Bosley to help). We open with a mission to bring in a creepy international fraudster, the sort of man who happily steals from disaster relief funds, brought down by his misogynistic take on women (Kristen Stewart’s Sabina using this weakness to infiltrate then take him down with help from the other Angels, including Ella Balinska’s impressive Jane Kano, a former MI6 operative). This success crowns John Bosley’s final act at the Townsend Agency as he is preparing to retire.

The main story follows Sabina and Jane in Europe, following up on Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott), a programmer at a hi-tech firm with a radical (and badly needed) new power device for the world, which she has found has a serious problem – it can be hacked to be used as a deadly weapon rather than purely for good as an environmentally-friendly form of energy. Her attempts to tell the head of the company, Alexander Brock (Sam Claflin) about this and how she can fix it are thwarted by an oily supervisor, Fleming (Nat Faxon), and a cold and relentless assassin, Hodak (Jonathan Tucker), which is, of course, where our heroines step in.

I’m not going to risk any spoilers by going too far into the plot, which, anyway, is, as you’d probably expect from this kind of movie, delighting in twisting around with surprises and double-crosses and red-herrings as to who really is pulling the strings here, and why, and just how this involves the Townsend Agency in ways they never expected. Suffice to say it rolls along at a cracking pace, and while the style is different from the McG films (which had a very stylised look and cut), there is a similar mix of action and humour and some bonding between these very different but equally strong and determined women.

We get high-kicks, car chases, abseiling off tall buildings, clever gadgets (mostly non-lethal, these are the Angels, after all, they prefer not to just shoot people) and globe-trotting locations and stylish outfits. In other words we get pretty much what we want from this sort of film: it’s a great, fun ride of action and humour, with Stewart and Balinska particularly strong as two very different personalities that still manage to be complimentary despite those differences, and there is always that great underlying message that Angels, new and old, are unstoppable when they work together. A perfect Saturday night popcorn movie to enjoy.

Charlie’s Angels is released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on digital on from March 23rd, and on Blu-Ray and DVD from April 6th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: First Love

First Love,
Directed by Takashi Miike,
Starring Masataka Kubota, Nao Ohmori, Shōta Sometani, Becky, Sakurako Konishi

The superb and prolific Takashi Miike returns to our screens on Valentine’s Day, and that is, of course, a good thing for those of us who love film. In First Love Miike returns to the Yakuza gangster genre that he has done so well before, but, naturally being who he is, he gleefully plays with the expected elements of the genre too, while still delivering a strong narrative with a sense of fun. And, as the title intimates, there is some romance going on between the drug deals gone wrong, the inter-gang warfare, the bullets, the sword-based beheadings, the corrupt police and conniving gang lieutenants. Oh, and the ghost of a middle-aged man in his underpants.

While there’s a good array of cast members, the main focus here is on two innocents, Leo (Kubota) and Monica (Konishi), who become accidentally embroiled in inter-gang warfare between the traditional Yakuza of Japan (now somewhat in decline) and the opportunistic Chinese Triads moving into their turf. Leo is a failing boxer, skilled but somehow not quite getting his act in the ring together as he should,, and now living with recently revealed news that he has a terminal brain tumour. Monica (Konishi – Miike specifically wanted a newcomer for this role) is a troubled young woman, effectively sold by her father into sex work and living next to one of the Yakuza members and his rather nasty girlfriend with anger management issues. And poor Monica is also troubled by the spectre of her father appearing to her, clad only in his white underpants; a symptom of trauma brought on by abuse or just hallucinations brought on by drug use? Or both?

As the Yakuza and Triads fight one another over a bungled drug deal, and plotting gang members attempt double or more crosses to further their own personal gains, Monica is pursued, suspected of having a missing drug shipment. When she runs from a corrupt police detective who is involved with the Yakuza after being spooked by another ghostly vision (which no-one else can see), Leo rather gallantly floors the pursuing officer. Unfortunately he had no idea it was a policeman he had just knocked out, he thought he was protecting a young woman from a predatory older man.

The pursuit of these two young people, caught between competing Yakuza and Triads, is the main engine of the story here, but a simple description of the plot like that doesn’t do First Love justice. It is, after all, a film by Miike, so you will be unsurprised to hear me tell you that is is replete with some delicious, delectable moments of sly, often gallows-black humour (a fast editing cut from a falling boxer to a gangster’s head rolling across an alley after being decapitated by a katana blade, a conspiratorial gangster who ends up with an accidental dose of the missing drugs sparking both a sexual faux-pas and a hilarious inability to feel pain during a fight scene), while Miike, as always, takes generic elements and puts his own very stylish stamp on them to great effect, and yes, there is a romance here, but again it takes its own peculiar form.

Action, romance, humour, bullets, swords, drug deals gone bad, gang warfare and ghosts in underpants, First Love is an absolute pleasure.

This review was first penned for Live For Films.

First Love is released by Signature in UK cinemas and Digital HD from Februry 14th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from February 24th.

Reviews: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit,
Directed by Taika Waititi,
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates

The latest from one of my favourite creators, the Kiwi director and actor Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarök), Jojo Rabbit, based on Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, brings with it some controversy for using humour and fantasy elements to depict the Nazi regimes, from Hitler Youth teams to the Gestapo (a fun turn from Stephen Merchant with just a touch of the old Herr Flick about it) to a cartoonish version of the Fuhrer, and even opening credits that conflate Beatlemania screaming crowds with the crowds adoring Hitler. Some seem to think this detracts from the horror of that regime or the historical events it is based on. After catching a preview screening

I have to disagree – first off, it is Taika Waititi, so surely you expect some delightfully skewed (and often dark) humour, even in the face of awful events? Criticising a Waititi movie for those elements is like saying Gene Kelly danced too much in Singing in the Rain. Secondly, I think the humour and fantasy elements were well-used – some for outright comedic effect, but many to counterpoint the barbarity of the Nazi regime, of the brainwashing of children to hate others as different and sub-human, of a state which doesn’t serve its people but consumes them in a hate and fear-filled spiral. Debuting at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, these criticisms by some didn’t stop the film doing well and winning the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award.

As you can probably gather from this, I enjoyed the film, but I am an admirer of Waititi’s approach – if his style and humour isn’t your thing then this isn’t for you, but for those who do there is a lot to enjoy here – the humour and the more fantastical elements (not least Hitler – played by Waititi – being Jojo’s childhood imaginary friend) are grounded by the events of the dying days of World War Two, from the indoctrination of children through propaganda, misinformation, lies and the spread of hatred, the ever-present fear of being suspected of not being Germanic enough and getting a call from the Gestapo, of seeing your own country go so insane with a hate-driven regime that it trains eleven year old children to use as cannon-fodder.

As we watch young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his best pal Yorki (Archie Yates, who reminded me – in a good way – of a very young Nick Frost) trying to come to terms with the reality of the Nazi regime as he sees supposed traitors strung up from a gallows in the town square (his mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, forces him to look at it, to see what the Nazi regime really does) to finding his mother has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home to save her. Jojo is ten – he has been raised in a Germany controlled by the Nazis, indoctrinated since he was a tiny boy to believe in the Aryan supremacy, of the conspiracy of others (especially Jews), conditioned to think as the state wants him to.

Scarlett Johansson is superb as his life-affirming mother Rosie, clearly loving her son more than anything in the world and yet wondering where did the little boy who ran to her because he was scared of thunder go, when did he turn into this small, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Nazi in a miniature uniform, spouting party propaganda. While you could take much of Jojo Rabbit as an odd, slightly surreal take on the brutalities of that regime, it seemed to me you could also read the film in a number of other ways, from a comment on toxic masculinity (boys being told how to be men mostly through hiding emotions, being “strong”, brutal, pitiless), or the way such propaganda spreads hate through our society, especially to the younger, more impressionable – in Rosie’s anguished musings over how her beloved wee boy became this fervent Nazi I was reminded of an article by a mother in the US whose previously well-behaved, loving teen son absorbed right-wing hate-group material online and changed drastically in much the same way.

Johansson steals many scenes, a mother in the worst of circumstances, trying to salvage her wee boy from the hateful poison put into his young head, to protect a young girl who reminds her of her own lost daughter, of her husband supposedly lost on the Italian front somewhere, of her country gone mad, and yet she does so many happy little things to make life more bearable, to make Jojo smile. It reminded me in some ways of Roberto Benigni in the remarkable Life is Beautiful. The relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa is also nicely handled – it doesn’t feel too forced and it did feel to me like the way a child would see the world, not an adult trying to speak as a child. The always brilliant Sam Rockwell, playing wounded army captain Klenzendorf may have a supporting role, but it is Rockwell, so it is beautifully underplayed, his damaged soldier moving from caricature of the war-crazy retired warrior to something more human, almost a father figure for Jojo.

Yes, this is an unusual beast, and I do understand when some criticise the cartoonish and humorous elements depicting the Nazis, but I don’t think those do reduce the reality of what happened. As I said at the start I think if anything the humour and fantastical elements contrast against the brutality and make it stand out more. And we do have a long tradition of using film to lampoon Nazis, after all – Bugs Bunny did it for the war effort in the 40s, the great Mel Brooks has lampooned them many times and even the Blues Brothers had their inept Illinois Nazis to ridicule. In an era where it feels like far-right hatred is expanding in so many countries, I think Jojo Rabbit may be portraying a historical period, but there is an awful lot of contemporary issues which we can see woven in there.

Reviews: The Invitation

The Invitation,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Aiden Lovekamp, Michelle Krusiec, Tammy Blanchard

Other than the fact The Invitation debuted to some acclaim at the London Film Festival, I knew next to nothing about this film in advance (a rare occurrence these days when we hear about most films well in advance), but frankly they had me at Karyn Kusama. Kusama impressed me with her Nicole Kidman-starring Destroyer, which I reviewed on here back in the spring (see here). When I realised it was the same director I was more than happy to have a look at The Invitation, and I am glad I did, as it proved to be a masterclass in tension and discomfort, right from the start.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his partner Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving up into the hills behind LA, invited to a dinner party with old friends, hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The sense of something out of joint is present right from the start, when Kira and Will’s car hits a coyote on the isolated, tree-lined road up through the hills. And this isn’t just a sudden accident, Kusama drags the scene out – the animal is mortally wounded but not dead yet, making the whole incident more distressing. Will is already uncomfortable at the thought of returning to the house he once shared with his former wife, without this incident – a portent? – on the way.

I imagine most of us would feel awkward at having dinner with and ex and their new partner, and in this case we learn that it is a gathering of a bunch of old friends, but none of them have heard from Eden in a couple of year, leaving them all wondering, understandably, why now, out of the blue, they send an overly-elaborate invitation insisting they all get together at this time. Will is clearly ill at ease, and we gradually discover through tiny flashbacks of memory, triggered as he goes round the home he once shared with Eden, that this isn’t just because they are ex-partners, it is that something happened to them something very, very bad, something that drove them apart and almost finished both of them. Something that happened around this house…

This makes Will question why she can stand living here again, not to mention the strange serenity she and David seem to now possess – a rather creepy form of serenity, the type you expect from someone sucked into some phoney therapy or cultish type group. And then they mention a group run by a guru in Mexico, and introduce two strangers into this reunion of friends, two people the rest have never seen before but David and Eden know from this Mexican retreat. Again Will wonders why these two, odd strangers have been invited to what is meant to be a gathering of old fiends?

The others, even his girlfriend Kira, think he is over-reacting, that it is his history with this house, Eden and the tragedy that befell them that is causing him to react so badly to the evening, to jump at shadows, suspect for no reason. Perhaps he is still disturbed, discomfited, out of his element, in a place he doesn’t want to be. But why does David lock all the doors once everyone is in? Why are there bars on the windows, why is there no phone service, why are Eden and David so keen nobody leaves early?

Is this all in Will’s abused psyche or is something really wrong here? I don’t want to ruin anything with possible spoilers, so I won’t say anymore on the plot. I must say, though, Kusama, crafts such a sense of ever-increasing unease throughout the film, expertly cranking up the sense of wrongness and disturbing atmosphere, but for much of it leaving us to wonder how much is genuinely out of kilter and how much is the broken psyche of Will reacting badly to this event. The slow reveal of the tragedy that befell him and Eden aids in this and gradually changes the viewer’s perspective, leading to a fascinating and darkly compelling third reel.

The sense of tension, of unease and wrongness lurking below what seems like a lovely home and group in a nice area is beautifully done – think Blue Velvet era Lynch crossed with Get Out, perhaps, and the use of mostly one location – the house – enclosed everything and makes it more tense, more claustrophobic. Highly recommended.

The Invitation is released on Blu-Ray (with a raft of extras, including commentary by Kusama, making of and interview features) by Second Sight on November 4th

Reviews: “lost” 90s horror movie Skinner get the 4k Treatment

Skinner,
Directed by Ivan Nagy,
Starring Ted Raimi, Traci Lords, Richard Schiff, David Warshofsky,
101 Films

Unavailable for years – some thought it was actually lost – the late Ivan Nagy’s 1993 is returning to the horror movie scene with a spiffing 4k resurrection on Blu-Ray by 101’s Black Label. Dennis Skinner (Ted Raimi), wanders from town to town, pursuing his obsession – in a nice bit of normative determinism, our Dennis enjoys not only nice, long walks in the seedier parts of town, but picking up sex workers who he not only kills but then expertly skins, keeping those skins as trophies. And even more disturbingly, to wear, to show his “true self”.

The story has elements of the 80s slasher, with the focus on killing young women in bloody fashion, with elements of the serial killer genre (not least Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill and his woman “skin suit”, and a couple of scenes that hint to Norman Bates in Psycho). One of the aspects which differentiates between this and other similar horrors of the era though, is the use of Ted Raimi. Of course Raimi is no stranger to horror and the fantastic genres, having been in everything from Dark Man to a recurring role in Xena. Fair to say, in fact, Ted is a much-loved genre regular.

Here however Nagy is playing Raimi against type – there is always something of the charming goofball about his characters, and normally a lot of humour and a fair bit of charm too. And those qualities are here, and feel very Ted Raimi. And then we see the other side come out, the monster within that charming, smiling, considerate, polite, affable guy in glasses, a monster created in his youth by a brutalising father and the murder and dismemberment of his mother by his father in a grotesque parody of an autopsy.

I must admit at first I wasn’t entirely convinced – the initial glimpses of Raimi’s Skinner letting his restrained inner demon out didn’t quite work for me, it was hard to buy cuddly Ted as an evil killer. But the more I watched the more I revised that opinion because I realised that was more than likely the intention here, that we’d find it difficult to believe one of his characters could be this nasty. Like Ted Bundy and some other real-world serial killers, Raimi’s Skinner is the last person you’d expect to be a bloody-minded psychopath, he seems the nicest, gentlest person, always a ready smile, and that’s a major part of Skinner’s draw here, having a monster who, most of the time, doesn’t seem like a monster.

Traci Lords plays Heidi, the only streetwalker to survive Skinner’s murderous thirst for women, terribly disfigured and in constant pain, hiding her multiple scars and wounds as she relentlessly hunts for Skinner. As with many serial killers Skinner has a preferred method of operating, and as Heidi mutters, this makes him “as creature of habit, predictable”, aiding her quest to hunt him and seek revenge. As the film progresses and we see more of her, while sympathising with the suffering inflicted on her and her right to seek her own brand of justice, the film also starts to intimate that her scarring is as much mental as physical, and that, in some ways, her single-minded pursuit, letting no-one stand in her way, has perhaps made Heidi something of a monster, a dark twin of Skinner, the two drawn together in mutual violence and pain.

Some of the film very much shows its 1990s roots – a hidden area in a run-down factory that Skinner uses as a lair is lit with contrasting spots of green, blue and red light that were a style in more than a few productions of the time, but given that’s when it was made that’s fair enough. The early killings are fairly quiet and almost bloodless on-screen – a sex worker lured away, the intimation of Skinner about to strike, then a cutaway to flashes of skin being cut, but only brief flashes rather than the grand guignol bloodbath some may expect. Theses scenes grow longer and more explicit as the film progresses, however, which is more effective in ratcheting up the levels of tension and horror, and while we have to wait for those longer scenes – and the slow reveal of what Skinner does with those pieces of skin he slices from the victims – it works to the film’s advantage.

Skinner is getting the full 4k restoration treatment, and arrives from 101 Films on a dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD, with extras including interviews with Nagy and Raimi, and a limited edition booklet.