Reviews: Thine Ears Shall Bleed

Thine Ears Shall Bleed,
Directed by Ben Bigelow,
Starring Andrew Hovelson, Hannah Cabell, Lea Zawada, Duke Huston, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe

This debut by director and writer Bigelow follows a family headed by the preacher Ezekiel Thatcher, heading through the vast American landscape in the mid 1800s in a covered wagon He and his family, wife Sarah (Hannah Cabel), daughter Abigail (Lea Zawada) and their blind son Luke (Duke Huston) are travelling across country to pick up, of all things, a pipe organ, to take back to Ezekiel’s church (he’s convinced this addition will bring in more worshippers to his church). As the deeply religious family travel slowly across the forested, hilly landscape, the road comes to a y-shaped fork, which isn’t on Ezekiel’s map; after some debate they decide since Jesus sits at God’s right hand, they will choose the right fork.

Unfortunately, after travelling this path between the trees for some time, they find the road simply peters out. Deciding it is too late to turn back to the fork now, they prepare to make camp there for the evening, planning to backtrack in the morning. Of course, as any self-respecting horror fan will likely suspect, when you take a road that isn’t marked on the map, into some remote, rural place, you can be fairly sure something is going to happen, and it does.

It starts slowly – the family hear strange noises in the night, which they try to shrug off as part of the natural world, but you just know whatever made those sounds is not natural. In the morning they find that both of their horses have somehow gotten loose from their ropes. Ezekiel tracks their hoof-prints through the forest until they just vanish by a swampy pond, with no sign of the animals. Stuck now in the wilderness with limited supplies, the mother, Sarah is concerned, but Ezekiel adopts the “the Lord will provide” approach, seemingly unconcerned.

When he hears the booming noise once more, he tracks it to a large canyon, the sound so loud it makes his ears bleed. He becomes increasingly obsessed with the sounds, believing it is a message from God, that he must transcribe into his journal and pass on, as if he is a prophet of old. Ezekiel is encouraged in this by young Luke, who likens the echoing, booming, roaring sound to the voices of angels from on high.

When Luke wakes one morning to discover his sight has been miraculously restored to him, he and Ezekiel take this as a further sign that this is a blessed place and they have been chosen, while Abigail and Sarah, although delighted at Luke’s miracle of sight, are far more sceptical – what if this isn’t God speaking to Ezekiel? What if it is something else? Finding a seemingly lost traveller (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe’s Woodrow) just adds more uncertainty to the mix – is he what he seems? Why couldn’t he leave this place and are they also stuck?

While far from perfect, I found Bigelow’s debut to be a very atmospheric chiller, with knowing nods both to the religious horror and to the folk horror genres (and I must confess to a particular soft spot for folk horror). Like Brit folk horror To Fire You Come At Last (reviewed here last year), this film knows it doesn’t have a lot of resources in terms of budget or effects, but it deploys atmosphere very well to cover this, and like that other film, it also uses a small cast, with remote location and night sequences to help suggest things rather than show outright, aided hugely by the score and the excellent soundscape.

The darkness of the forest night, with those noises, is wonderfully creepy, then the sudden flare of light from a burning torch, mysteriously planted right outside their wagon at night, casting shadows over the canvas of the wagon (was that a figure moving outside or not?), building that creepy atmosphere, as Ezekiel becomes more and more religiously deranged.

While not without its flaws, I thought this was an impressive debut, and I found the clever use of sound and darkness to slowly build an increasing sense of unease and an atmosphere that somehow, even surrounded by the nature of the great outdoors, there is something simply wrong, something unnatural about this place. A good one to watch late at night, with most of the lights out.

Thine Ears Shall Bleed will be available from Miracle Media on digital platforms from July 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Lovely, Dark and Deep

Lovely, Dark and Deep,
Directed by Teresa Sutherland,
Starring Georgina Campbell, Nick Blood, Wai Ching Ho

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
(Stopping by Woods on a Winter Evening, Robert Frost)

The directorial debut of Teresa Sutherland, who, among other things, was the writer on the excellent Western chiller The Wind (which I reviewed after it’s Edinburgh Film Festival screening in 2019 – see here), drawing inspiration from the Robert Frost poem quoted above, this is an intriguing, slow-burning horror which crafts an increasing atmosphere of unease right from the start. We have beautifully filmed landscapes of the vast American wilderness filling the screen, but soon that alluring wonder of nature starts to transform into something else, just with the simple device of changing angles, to something less normal, less natural.

Lennon (Georgina Campbell) is a newly-minted park ranger, on her way to her first posting, something she has fought for a long time to earn. As she drives through the countryside to a national park to take up her duties, she stops the car on the isolated road for a moment, noticing a cut in her fingertip (from a nervous habit of chewing on her nails). When she looks up, she realises a young deer has wandered onto the road. It raises its head curiously, looking through the windscreen at her, its eyes seeming unnaturally dark. Her car radio suddenly lets out a shriek of feedback, static and garbled voices, startling her. When she looks back up, the deer has vanished.

On arriving at the headquarters, she and the other rangers are briefed by their chief, Zhang (Wai Ching Ho), before being helicoptered out to their remote locations, each given a territory of the enormous national park to patrol, with a Spartan hut (without even electricity). She’s soon settled in, and out on her rounds, checking sites, there for any hikers who need help. On one of her walks her radio starts to play up, at one point it makes static noises very much like her car radio did earlier – despite the fact she had just taken the batteries out to check them…

 

She has to put this to the back of her mind, however, when a distraught hiker batters on the door of her hut for help, before fleeing into the dark of the night-time forest; on catching up to him she finds he is in a disturbed sense of mind, seeking his friend who vanished from their camp. She calls in the other rangers and a large-scale search and rescue operation swings into action. Lennon, with a foot injured while pursuing the distraught man earlier, is ordered to stay at her camp in case the lost person comes there, while the others go off, but she disobeys this order, and in the process finds the woman, who is in a strange state, asking Lennon if she is real.

At this point it starts to become even darker and more bizarre – I don’t want to spoil any of that here, the build-up to that point does an excellent job of introducing Lennon (and hinting that she has deeply personal reasons for wanting this job – she lost her younger sister in just such a forest long ago) and setting up her post, as well as casually mentioning that a large number of people go missing in national parks each year (a normal bit of data, but here it gives you a little shiver, because you know it is going to be related to something in the film, eventually).

As with The Wind, there’s a strong element of “is there something supernatural, or is it all in her head?” about Lovely, Dark and Deep, which I liked (I think later it comes down more on one side of that than the other, though), and then there are hints of ancient folklore and that there is some secret here, one the rangers may even be aware of, but how are they connected to it, what role do they play?

While there are small but excellent turns from others such as Ho as her boss, or Blood as a fellow ranger near her territory, the vast bulk of this movie rests on Campbell’s shoulders, and she does a great job, managing to convey someone who can be organised and efficient and confident, as you’d expect a trained ranger to be, but at the same time nervous, eaten by memories of her sister’s disappearance years before and also sensing there is more in the woods than any training can prepare her for. An excellent, moody, atmospheric, psychological flick, with elements of the folk-horror about it too, perhaps even a tiny nod to Parisian-set horror As Above, So Below and even a little touch of some of the wilderness-set X-Files tales .

Lovely, Dark and Deep is available on streaming services from Blue Finch from March 25th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: animation & artistic creation collide in Stopmotion

Stopmotion,
Directed by Robert Morgan,
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, James Swanton

I have been eager to see this film since Phil posted the trailer here on LFF; a lifelong love of animation (especially stop-motion work), and of horror, this film was calling to me. I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed – this is one of the more unusual British horrors of recent years, delving into psychology, family ties versus our own urge to create our own path, and the lengths an artist will go to when creating something. Just how much of yourself can you pour into your creation without endangering your sense of self and the real world around you?

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is a young animation artist, but instead of forging her own path, she’s spinning her wheels, helping her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) with her work. Her mother is a revered figure in the world of animated film – one friend comments how her work was required viewing at art college – but age and progressive illness have robbed her hands of their once finely tuned skills, so Ella is effectively now her hands, painstakingly setting up each frame of her mother’s final stop-motion film, millimetre by millimetre.

It’s work which requires a huge investment of time and attention, time she should be spending carving out her own artistic identity and work (as it opens the two women are even dressed alike), so Ella is chafing, and it doesn’t help that her mother is overbearing and seems quite uncaring about the demands she is making on her daughter, which increases her resentment. Interestingly Franciosi and Morgan opted to show this simmering resentment not through explosive anger, but through a far more nuanced and subtle performance. Just like the demanding art she works at,

Ella is good at keeping herself relatively still, emotionally as well as physical, instead allowing only small changes in expression and body language to hint as the growing tempest within her; it’s a damned fine bit of acting craft on her part. When illness puts her mother in the hospital, at first Ella considers finishing her film for her, but she really wants to create her own, and realises this is her chance at last. Her boyfriend arranges for her to borrow an empty apartment in an almost deserted block of flats to use as a nice, quiet studio space, and she sets herself up to… Realise that now she has the time, she’s not sure what story she wants to tell (I’m sure many of us who have created works have experienced that phenomenon, our best ideas seem to come when we don’t have time to work on them!).

It’s at this point she meets the only other person she ever seems to see in the building, Caoilinn Springall’s unnamed young girl, who with a child’s curiosity asks what she is doing and if she can look. And with that lack of filters that kids have she is quite blunt in telling Ella that her ideas aren’t good, and instead proposing some story ideas of her own. Slowly she starts to make a new story, a quite disturbing-looking one, about the figure of a woman in fear, fleeing through a forest, being pursued by a slow but relentless being, the Ash Man.

As the girl encourages her not just to change the story, but to start using, shall we say “unusual” material for creations, including raw meat, or organic items instead of the usual metal armature skeleton inside her figures. And it is at this point that Ella’s imagination and work and the real world start to overlap one another – the stress and resentment of looking after her ailing mother, of carrying out work for an ungrateful person, of feeling her own life has been left behind, finally starts to seep out from this seemingly quiet, centred woman.

This is a beautifully made film, and it is quite clear Morgan and his crew have gone to great lengths to craft each scene to be just so. Even at the opening of the film this is obvious – we see Ella in a nightclub, lit by flickering strobe lights, their periodic bursts making the dancers around her appear to be almost stop-motion figures themselves, while with each flash of the strobes Ella’s facial expressions change. It was a statement of intent made right at the start of the film, and one I felt they adhered to throughout.

It’s delightfully disturbing and unsettling viewing, the psychological elements, the stop-motion moments, the clever cinematography and use of sound and music (the soundscape is superb and compliments the visuals perfectly) all work together, while the creepy nature of inert items being brought to life is mined well, making nods to creators like the great Jan Švankmajer (“Prague’s alchemist of film”) and the Brothers Quay among others. Slowly building horror, disturbing, atmospheric, visually and aurally beautiful, this one is highly recommended.

Stopmotion from IFC is released in cinemas from February 23d, and on streaming from March 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: seaside terror in Punch

Punch,
Directed by Andy Edwards,
Starring Kierston Wareing, Alina Alison, Daniel Fathers, Jamie Lomas, Faye Campbell, Macaulay Cooper, Sarah Alexander Marks

That’s the way to do it!

The slasher sub-genre, like the found-footage one, is one I rarely visit much these days – not because I don’t like them, but more because for the most part they feel pretty played out these days. Every now and then though, someone does something a bit different, and when I heard about Punch, it got my attention – British slasher, for a starter, and using the iconic Mr Punch character? Oh, and it went down well with the FrightFest crowd? Oh yes, I was totally having a look at that!

Andy Edwards and his cinematographer, Max Williams, deserve kudos straight off for making the most of their location here, shot around Hastings. And yes, of course while Punch and Judy shows have been performed everywhere, including markets and fairs in towns and cities, today most of us associate it with the British seaside, and probably, if honest, the fading British seaside, a generations-old act that somehow kept going into the fairly recent era, but was always fading away (even when I was a kid many years ago, it was already something you saw far less than you used to).

And that fits this film perfectly, because this is the British seaside town out of season, when it is quiet, many of the businesses literally boarded up until the next summer season and the return of the tourists and day-trippers (which seem even less each year as the once popular seaside holiday is swapped for affordable foreign trips). Edwards and Williams really make the most out of this feeling of semi-abandonment, taking in garish, colourful signs for amusements and food places, most of which are closed for the off-season, their bright signage now more like mockery of a small town that, outside the summer, has little left to offer, especially for the local younger folk.

And after dark it all seems worse, not just run-down, but creepy – if you’ve ever walked through a funfair as they are switching off all the lights at the end of the night, you will recognise that feeling, where something that was bright and cheerful becomes creepy and scary. Then add in to that the unsettling figure of Mr Punch, who, despite being sometimes being seen as children’s seaside entertainment, is (and always has been, really) also a downright creepy and potentially scary figure himself…

Frankie (Alina Allison) is reluctantly back home, forced to take time off from her university studies to take care of her mother (Kierston Wareing), a mother who seems less than grateful her daughter came back home to look after her, and downright hostile to the thought she will soon leave again – you can feel the resentment bubbling through. Frankie finds more of that around some of her old friends in the town as she and her best friend Holly (Faye Campbell), and later her ex, Darrell (Macaulay Cooper), reluctantly drawn into their social circle, head out for a good time. While some are happy to see her back, there’s an obvious air of resentment from others – she made it out, made it to somewhere else, somewhere better, away from this dead-end with no prospects.

They’re reminded of an old local story about a killer in a Punch mask who is said to attack wayward youths (in the finest Slasher tradition, our killer especially hates youthful character who are having fun like drink, dancing, and sex). They all pretty much dismiss it as an obvious scare story told by parents to put teens and twentysomethings off of misbehaving at night, but we get glimpses of fading “missing” posters on the closed pier and seafront businesses (a nice nod to the missing posters in Lost Boys), and naturally there is a raving lunatic character around the town who delights in telling the kids how the killer will hunt them down. It’s all a silly, old story… Until the killings start…

As the Punch character appears, starting by picking off side character before slowly moving towards out core group of characters, the tension and creepy levels mount, and again the use of the location and season work well (an extended chase on a now empty pier at night, all the noisy lights of the amusement arcade playing to nobody except the victims and the killer make for an eerie setting). I should probably amend “slasher” to “basher” here, though, as the choice of weapon is a baseball bat! And to be fair, Mr Punch is known for walloping people, so that makes sense!

The mask and that creepy Punch voice add to the unease, and the film even drops in scenes which help explain how the killer (relentless but always slower than the running victims) manages to always catch up to them and find them (which was a nice wee touch, some movies don’t bother with that), and then, on top of the actual slasher (or basher) serial killing, the film also starts to infuse a touch of British Folk Horror into the proceedings – yes, this is a relentless man-in-a-mask killer, stalking youthful victims, but there’s more going on here, drawing on both the mythos of the Punch act and old traditions to add that frisson of folk element to the proceedings, which for me really added to the film.

It’s fun to see someone take the old slasher genre and give it a fresh twist, and for me especially fun to have it be a British location for a change (I know slashers can be set anywhere, but most of the really big ones that spring to mind are mostly US-set), and adding in the possible tradition/folkloric element of this unusual and unique (and often as creepy as he is entertaining) character like Mr Punch just gives more depth to the film, while the good use of those closed-up, out of season seafront locations imparts a distinct style and atmosphere to the whole film. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see another Punch follow this one.

Punch is released by Miracle Media via On Demand services from January 22nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mercy Falls

Mercy Falls,
Directed by Ryan Hendrick,
Starring Lauren Lyle, Nicolette McKeown, James Watterson, Layla Kirk, Joe Rising, Eoin Sweeney, Gilly Gilchrist

Rhona (Lauren Lyle) still deals with flashbacks to a childhood trauma in the Highlands, involving an injured horse and her father. Following his passing, she recruits several of her friends for a road trip north to the Scottish Highlands, with a plan to hike across the moors and glens until they find the old, family cabin, which her estranged father left to her. On the rural roads they pass a solitary female walker, Carla (Nicolette McKeown), trying to hitch a lift, who joins up with them where they have to leave the cars behind and set off on foot for a long hike to the cabin’s remote location.

The early, almost holiday-like feeling at the start of the hike soon starts to dissipate, as the group begin bickering, then some outright feuding with one another, with romantic and sexual tensions in particular rearing their ugly head, not helped by the interloper in their midst, Carla, who appears to be suffering from PTSD from the Afghanistan war. When these increasing tensions lead beyond arguing to a fight, an accident ensues, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the film, which descends into hunt, and a fight for survival.

I have to confess I had some problems with this film. On the positive side, I was pleased to see it didn’t go down the more predictable town folk get hunted by feral locals route, and instead took its own path, which I appreciated (nothing against the revenge of locals type story, but we have had plenty of those). And the cinematography is superb, with John Rhodes using the camera work to bring out the Scottish Highlands location for the best, with some amazing landscape and drone shots.

On the other hand the character’s infighting felt too forced, that it suddenly comes to a head when they are miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the isolated countryside, and it also suffers from that affliction of many such films, namely The Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make. There are a couple here in particular, including an absolutely pivotal one, where I simply found it hard to believe that all of the characters would agree with a single other person (one they don’t even know well) that they should do something they all know is wrong, and go along with it so easily. It felt very much like they do something purely because the film-makers decided this was how to move to the next phase of the story, and not because it made any sense in terms of characters or logical narrative structure, and it really irked me.

That said, the hunt and evade segment of the story that it leads to is handled very well, even if you can predict how some of the inevitable deaths will come (again that Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make, which usually leads to me shouting at the screen). Despite those niggles, this main part of the film proved to be good, ratcheting up the tension, and again making the most of the landscape and terrain to stage some significant moments, and I also liked the fact that much of the film is carried by two female leads (Lyle and McKeown). So a bit of a mixed bag, for me at least, but still a decent bit to interest the viewer, and worth a look.

Mercy Falls is out now on digital from Bingo Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Red River Seven

Red River Seven,
A.J. Ryan,
Orbit Books,
Paperback, ISBN 9780356520056,
Published October 2023

A man wakes up on what appears to be a small naval patrol boat. He has no memory of how or why he is there – in fact, he has no memory of who he is, what he does, where he went to school, the names of any of his family (if he even has a family). And yet his knowledge of the world and his own skills are still there, just his most personal memories are missing. And there are scars from recent surgery, both to his cranium and elsewhere on his body, close to where the kidneys are located. He doesn’t even know where the boat is sailing, as it is surrounded by a deep fog.

And then he sees the dead body, bullet wound through the skull, and realises the sound that woke him was a shot – from the looks of it, self-inflicted. On examining the body and the pistol, he notices he handles all of this professionally – was he a policeman or some other sort of investigator? The body has similar scars to his, and a tattoo reading “Conrad”. Looking at his own body, he find a similar tattoo reading “Huxley”. He soon finds several others in the lower decks, men and women, none of whom can recall any personal details, although all also seem to still recall their particular skills and knowledge, like him – it looks like one may have served in the forces, one was an explorer or mountaineer, one a scientist; all have tattoos to identify them in lieu of their own personal memories of who they are, such as “Pynchon” or “Plath” – all names of authors.

The boat is on its own course, all the screens and dials are blank, the controls are sealed away with little indication of where they are or why they are going to… Wherever they are going. When a satellite phone rings, the voice is artificial and terse, not answering any of their understandable questions, demanding to know their condition and telling them little, except they have to open a buoy which has been dropped ahead of them, which they reluctantly do. Information is drip-fed to them only in tiny increments via this phone link, and when a few of the ship’s screens come to life, they can now see their geo-location and realise they have been sailing off the east coast of England, approaching the Thames. But why they are heading that way, who put them there, what they are expected to find or do, is all a mystery…

I really don’t want to write more about the plot of Ryan’s (better known as Anthony Ryan, for his fantasy series) novel here, because this is one of those tales where the reader knows no more than the characters, and I don’t want to spoil the surprises as they slowly discover little pieces at a time (usually at a cost). I will say that it cracks along at a fair old pace – you’re dropped right into it from the first few pages, the pace, the bewilderment of the characters, the feeling that they are clearly on some sort of urgent mission, that something terrible has happened to the world and that their desperate mission and lack of memory is all connected to it, it all builds into a compelling read that I tore through in a few hours.

It evokes the influences of other works, notably films like Cube and Carpenter’s classic The Thing, along with touches of Jeff Vandermeer’s work, or Mike Carey’s Girl With All the Gifts, while still ploughing its own furrow, building tension, paranoia and a resigned, reluctant acceptance that no matter what horrors are revealed, their only course is to carry on. An excellent, fast-paced blend of horror, action-thriller and science fiction.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace,
Directed by Paris Zarcilla,
Starring Max Eigenmann, Jaden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman

Joy (Max Eigenmann), is an undocumented Filipino immigrant in the UK, part of the all-but-invisible army of people who often do the most laborious, low-paying, manual work that is so necessary to keep everything in our society running, but with none of the legal safeguards others workers have the right to, ripe for easy exploitation, unable to ask anyone in authority for help. With her young daughter, the eponymous Grace (Jaden Paige Boadilla), she goes from one gig to the next, usually cleaning homes, cooking and tidying for wealthy families.

The pair appear to be living in a storage room in an apartment block, secretly, their domestic life as hidden as their work life, although when some of her rich clients are away on nice trips abroad, they sleep over in their homes, carefully tidying everything before the family returns (leading to some tense “will they get caught” moments early on), while Grace amuses herself by playing practical jokes, like swapping gravy granules for the coffee powder, one of the child’s few outlets for fun.

Behind on her payments to the fixer who arranges for the immigrants to get into the UK for a large fee, she is feeling desperate, when she is offered what seems like the perfect opportunity – housekeeping duties at a large, isolated mansion, while also looking after its terminally ill owner, an elderly gentleman, Mister Garret (the always-excellent David Hayman). Garrett is dying of cancer and is largely comatose – his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best) is taking care of his affairs meantime, and offers Joy not only a large wage, but paid in cash, no questions asked, and free lodgings in the large country house.

Best does an amazing job of showcasing the casual condescension of the very wealthy, upper parts of society towards immigrants like Joy, giving her Katherine that arrogance that clearly thinks “I am a nice, inclusive person” while being anything but (yes, phrases like “you people” will be deployed). Joy, of course, simply has to nod, smile and say “yes, miss” to all of this because Katherine has all the power. Joy is also dismayed to see how Katherine treats her comatose uncle, forcing his daily pills prescription into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow while still asleep. This is all further complicated by Katherine not knowing about Grace, who has to hide her presence.

What starts as an interesting drama about vulnerability, exploitation, race, class and privilege starts to morph into more of a thriller and horror, drawing on the Gothic tradition and also the classic Old Dark House, very effectively using both the grand house location, and the small but excellent group of actors. Snooping around secretly, young Grace finds some disturbing, hidden facts about the house and those who have lived in it, and there are hints that perhaps the medicine Katherine is giving to her uncle may not be what she claims. Hayman, when he does waken from his coma, essays an especially fine performance, managing to take us from twinkling-eyed, gentle, loving older uncle figure to radiating menace (a simple scene where he tells Joy not to call him “mister” but “master” is powerful and chilling).

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Raging Grace 04
(Director Paris Zircalla with some of his cast, on stage after the EIFF screening, pic from my Flickr)

This was one of the EIFF screenings I really wanted to catch, and it did not disappoint, with some amazing performances from the small cast (young Jaden stealing many scenes as Grace), and beautifully shot, making the best use of that large, creaking old country home location, mixing horror and drama. The subtexts about past colonialism and echoes in modern day exploitation of immigrants is well done and powerful, and as the director remarked at a Q&A after the screening, much of what was seen on screen is drawn from what many experience in their day to day lives, and it is something that applies not just to the immigrant experience but across society, where those in the poorer-paid jobs are often badly treated and seen as disposable. A brilliant, Gothic-tinged horror-drama with some serious social commentary woven into its structure.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

FrightFest – To Fire You Come At Last

FrightFest 2023 – To Fire You Come At Last,
Directed by Sean Hogan,
Starring Mark Carlisle, James Swanton, Richard Rowden, Harry Roebuck, Stephen Smith,
Severin FIlms

Debuting at this year’s recent FrightFest, Sean Hogan’s To Fire You Come At Last may be short, but it certainly delivers, drawing on the influence of classic British folk-horror movies. It’s a nice, clean, simple set-up: Mallow, the local squire (Mark Carlisle) and his manservant Pike (Richard Rowden) have enlisted Holt (Harry Roebuck) to arrange the carrying of the coffin of the squire’s son Aldis (Stephen Smith), Holt having been his best friend. The squire has sent his man to obtain villagers to carry the coffin across the moors to the church, but none want to come, as the moors (of course!) have an evil reputation for witches and mysterious black dogs that signify impending death (shades of the old Black Shuck legend). All they can get is Ransley, a local drunk and ne’er do well, forcing the squire to also assist in the carrying of the casket.

It’s against this backdrop of lonely moorland our four men set out with their macabre burden, Holt warning that with only four of them they will not likely make the churchyard before dusk, and they really don’t want to be caught on the moors after dark. The squire arrogantly chides him for foolishness and superstition, and the four continue, but Holt is correct, darkness falls while they are still treading this lonely, rural path, the blackness of the countryside at night, dispelled only in small pools of light around them from their lanterns.

And they start to hear noises – is that a dog growling somewhere in the gloom? Footsteps? As the darkness and thoughts of local folklore play on their nerves, the men bicker among themselves, and soon accusation are flying too – connections each had to the deceased (even the lowly drunk, Ransley), until it seems they have all committed sins that may leave them vulnerable to Damnation, and therefore ripe for the picking for whatever dark, supernatural forces roam the moorland at night. Except the squire, who insists he is a good, upright man (so you just know this arrogant aristocrat is hiding a secret!).

This short film is split into four acts, each slowly ratcheting up the tension rather splendidly. It’s shot in a crisp black and white, which is particularly effective once night falls – four figures burdened by a wooden coffin, illuminated only by carrying lanterns, the world around them almost invisible, black darkness, the odd skeletal tree coming into view as the lamp light reaches it, the only other features the stars in the nocturnal skies above them. It’s a great choice, aesthetically (props to cinematographers Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson), giving the film a simple but very effective look, and it also works well for a small budget, enhancing the look of the film without the need for expensive sets or locations to match the 17th century period.

A highly effective, atmospheric short that draws on the fine Brit folk-horror tradition.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: 80s style fun in She Came From the Woods

She Came From the Woods,
Directed by Erik Bloomquist,
Starring Cara Buono, Clare Foley, Spencer List, Michael Park and William Sadler

It’s the 1980s, and young camp counsellors in very 80s tight shorts and T-shirts are making the most of the last night of summer camp, when the seasonal frolicking and hi-jinks suddenly take a sinister and bloody turn, leading to multiple mutilations and deaths. If that sounds like a very familiar scenario then yes, it is – quite deliberately. Erik Bloomquist and writing partner Carson Bloomquist clearly loved those now-classic 1980s camp-set slasher movies, of which there seemed to be an endless wave of in the local video stores (although, of course, Friday the 13th remains the standard-bearer).

I grew up with those films, the bastard video sons of Carpenter’s Halloween, and I still have a lot of love for them, but they did run their course until the tank was well-dry (and in some cases beyond), eventually playing themselves out, leaving themselves more as memories and markers in horror film history, and, frequently (and sometimes deservedly) ammunition for parodies and spoofs. And yes, there is a reason that sub-genre became played out and parodied, but by the same token, there’s also a reason why those early films in that genre were fun and made an impact, and I get the impression the Bloomquists are thinking along the same lines, and thus comes She Came From the Woods, which isn’t really a parody, or that dreaded thing, the Reboot, but rather a film made by people who loved those kinds of genre flicks, realised they don’t really get made any longer and thought, surely we can do something in that line that would still work.

The camp counsellors – the usual mix of the Responsible One, the Sexy One, the Dorky One, the Asshat One – have a bit of a tradition of holding a ceremony on the final night of camp, out in the woods, meant to call the spirit of a mad, murdering camp nurse who legend has it went berserk decades before, killing many kids and counsellors. It’s a joke, a bit of fun as their summer working together comes to an end and a return to the regular world calls.

Except this time it looks like the ritual has actually summoned something back, and soon people are being picked off in a variety of gruesome ways.

I’m not going to go deep in the nuts and bolts of it here – anyone interested in this love-letter to the camp slasher film surely knows the standard format of the story by now! But suffice to say, the Bloomquists do this with a lot of love for those iconic 80s slashers – there is a nod and a wink to fans, well-versed in the tropes and norms of those movies and characters, but it is laughing with us and the genre, not at it. We’re really having our cake and eating it here, because we get an 80s style camp Slasherthon, but we also get to enjoy it in a very self-aware manner, so we can enjoy it as a return to that style of decades ago and lose ourselves in that as we munch the popcorn, but we are also aware of all they are doing, and the references they are making.

If you were never a slasher movie fan, it’s unlikely to convert you, but for those of us who grabbed all those films off the local video store shelves at weekends to watch with friends, this is a a hugely enjoyable trip back to that style of horror, made by creators and actors who obviously know those films and have a lot of love for them.

She Came From the Woods is out now on Digital via Blue Finch Film Releasing

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews : comedy horror fun with Final Cut

Final Cut (Coupez!),
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius,
Starring Romain Duris, Bérénice Bejo,Grégory Gadebois, Finnegan Oldfield, Matilda Lutz, Sébastien Chassagne

I’m not normally a big fan of remaking an existing film in another language, but this French take on the cult hit, low-budget Japanese flick One Cut of the Dead intrigued me, not least because it was being helmed by Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of The Artist, and starred some well-known French talent on-screen, including Bérénice Bejo (who he worked with in The Artist), and Romain Duris, so I agreed to have a look. I’m glad I did – I remember thinking the original was a good bit of fun, and also liked it because it was more than it first appeared, and that’s the case with the Francophone version too. It’s as much comedy as it is horror, and it’s also something of a loving homage to those who have toiled through trying to make a B movie on a tiny budget, with few resources.

We’re dropped into the middle of the film shoot at the start, which deliberately confuses the viewer somewhat as to what is real and what is part of the film the crew are shooting. We see the actors preparing for their scene, one in zombie make-up, we see the scene of the attack, then the director, Remi (Romain Duris), screaming at the actors (even slapping one) for ruining his film. As they take a break after this, the make-up artist, Nadia (Bérénice Bejo), tells the actors that the deserted building they are using as a location has an evil history, having been used by a secret branch of the Japanese military during World War Two for human experimentation. This seems odd in a French-language film, as does the fact the cast and crew all have Japanese names, but this starts to become clearer in the next segment of the film.

The ill-tempered director we had seen shouting the actors reveals he knew of this history, and has used the “blood star” ritual to activate the evil still within this site, bringing forth real zombies, which he demands the cast and crew act around to improve the film. As we’re wondering what’s going on – are there real zombies intruding into a B movie zombie film shoot? – the second section of the film takes us back a few months, to Remi being offered the chance to direct the film by a Japanese lady, but part of the deal is it must use the same plot, no deviations from the original language version, and that includes the names (hence whey French actors all have Japanese names in the film shoot). And it must be shot in one, continual take. Not easy, but Remi, who mostly makes small productions for TV and music and corporate videos can’t turn down the chance of a feature film, even a B movie one, and agrees.

We see the preparation over the weeks preceding the scenes in the opening third of the movie, as the cast meet, and they plot out their lines, work out how they can create everything so it can be filmed in a single, unbroken take – effectively having to do everything “live”. And it is quite clear from the outset that this is not the most well-oiled production machine that will be required to pull off such a demanding technical feat as a single-take film. The main camera operator has a dodgy back, his assistant is keen to help but has a totally different idea of how she wants to film everything, the actors are bickering with one another, one of them turns out to be an alcoholic, and the man doing the music and sound effects (also to be done live during the continual shoot) has trouble communicating with Remi.

All in all, it’s not painting a hopeful picture for the actual film shoot, and as we catch up in the chronology, we see again some of the scenes being filmed that we saw in the opening section, except now from different angles, and with much more context, and this time we follow through right to the end as body parts and undead start to mount up. How much is real, how much is invention for the film they are meant to be making, has the demented director really invoked a slumbering evil just so he can make a low-budget horror film more effectively?

This was an enormous amount of fun, especially the second and third reels, where we see the build up to the film-shoot we see at the start, and then what happens during and after it from different perspectives. We have the horror elements, but we also have the manic chaos of this tiny, underfunded crew attempting to pull off a technically challenging, single-take film shoot that they really are not up to, and the continual problems that surface, from drunken cast members to sudden illness, actors who didn’t show up, necessitating Remi, the director, to step in and also play the role of the director in the film, and his wife Nadia to play a role – she at least, is an experienced actor, but one who had to stop because she took her roles so seriously she started to believe in her characters, leading to disaster, but there’s nobody else who knows the lines, so…

This frantic dealing with endless problems – poor Remi is constantly running around their location trying to put out the forest fires while screaming into his radio to the producer’s booth not to cut, to keep going – lends a frenzied energy to proceedings and fuels so much of the humour, as they lurch from one disaster to the next. Then there is the question of those real zombies on the location set… It’s a loving homage to those who somehow manage to make many of the micro-budget horror flicks that so many of us love, to the constant trying to outpace gathering problems that bedevil any film shoot, and it feels as if they had fun making it. Originally titled Z in France, it was changed to Coupez because of the Russian forces using the Z symbol for their illegal invasion of Ukraine, while the international title is Final Cut.

A perfect Friday night, get some pizza and beer in, horror-comedy viewing that left me delighted and smiling.

Final Cut is available from Signature Entertainment, via online platforms from November 7th 2022

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: lush, erotic, Gothic fantasy in A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood,
S.T. Gibson,
Orbit Books,
Hardback,
Published October 2022

My in-built book radar started pinging as soon as I was offered a sniff at this book, and I am happy to report that instinct is still steering me to books I find I absolutely love. Fair disclaimer at the start: a lifelong Gothic fiend, I am a sucker for a good vampire tale, although to be fair, that also means having read a lot of them, I can also be quite critical – as with, say, fantasy, it can be too easy for new novels to simply trade on well-worn generic tropes. Which makes me all the more delighted when I find one which is taking a fresh angle (while still maintaining a number of the elements you would expect), and, even better, that approach also has a lot of socio-cultural relevance to debates in our own contemporary society.

Constanta is a simple peasant girl in Eastern Europe; her family and village are all but wiped out in an attack, while she is abused and left for dead – until he shows up, like carrion, attracted to the leftovers of the slaughter field. This darkly handsome, powerful nobleman offers her a choice – she has to ask him, he will not compel her (shades of Louis and Lestat) – an offer of a new life of power and privilege, or to slip away into the darkness, just another anonymous victim of another small battle, which history is sadly replete with.

It isn’t much of a choice, and unsurprisingly Constanta chooses life – in her case immortal life – and her battered, abused body heals itself, raising her from certain death, and, satisfyingly, allowing this previously powerless peasant woman the overwhelming strength to take revenge on those who harmed her and cut down all those she knew and loved, while at the same time quenching her new-born thirst for human blood.

In the following chapters we see Constanta settle into her new life – her noble husband, centuries old (a serious spin on the older man / younger woman dynamic!) seems so sophisticated to her, wise, well-read, intellectually curious, so keen to look after her and make her happy. We see, from Constanta’s perspective, the passing of years and centuries, of the two settling into a life together, both domestic and, of course, vampiric, the home scenes contrasting with the depictions of the pair hunting and feeding on humans across various European centuries

Cracks start to appear in her husband’s mask though – his temper, a callous, arrogant streak he tries to keep hidden beneath his cultivated persona. She slowly, across time, comes to realise he used his greater age, experience, power and wealth to impress her when she was most vulnerable and impressionable. Like many in such relationships, she often convinces herself this is all in her mind, or if something offends him, it must be her fault (and he is an expert in ensuring she does – this man could use the entire North Sea supply for his gaslighting).

Across the decades, then centuries she starts to see him more for what he is, as their family grows – a second ‘wife’ with the strong-willed Spanish noblewoman, Magdalena, who challenges him intellectually as well as physically, and much later, Alexi, a young Russian. They become, in effect, his harem, there to satisfy him, and god forbid they act outside his precious rules and wants. This creates an interesting dynamic, not just between the lord and his harem, but between the three of them, Alexi, Magdalena and Constanta.

As the ‘original’ (she finds that there were in fact some before her, who have vanished) Constanta feels, understandably slighted by these later additions, but at the same time, she also feels a kinship – I found this far more realistic and satisfying emotionally, more like real groups of friends and families, the push and pull of love and jealously, possessing but also wanting to be possessed, while other times desiring freedom. And then there’s the sex, centuries of sex; male, female, bi, in a group or pairs, wonderfully lush and erotic – even in later years as Constanta questions everything in their lives, the sex and the hunting as shared and enjoyed and binds them together. The eroticism hinted at in the likes of Interview With the Vampire is out here in full, earthy form.

The story is written from Constanta’s perspective, as if she is writing a series of letters to her husband, who is never named, a deliberate choice, I am sure, and a part of her, now older, wiser, more assured, coming into her own power and realising she doesn’t have to be what he wants, that she can be herself, make her own choices. Dowry drips in deliciously decadent High Gothic, sensual, erotic, dark; it doesn’t shy from serious subjects like spousal abuse and male abuse of privilege either, all areas we’ve all been increasingly aware of in recent years (as we should be), or why some remain so long in such relationships, and I think this very much added to the novel’s power and in drawing the reader into it emotionally.

A deliciously decadent, erotic romp in some places, a darkly, deeply emotional tale in other places, as much a tale of a survivor of abuse as it is vampiric novel, nodding its head to Bluebeard or the 1970s films like The Velvet Vampire, as much as the influential Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. Perfect reading for the dark autumn and winter nights.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity

Reviews: wartime horror in Burial

Burial,
Directed by Ben Parker
Starring Harriet Walker, David Alexander, Charlotte Vega, Tom Felton, Barry Ward, Kristjan Üksküla

Fresh from the 2022 FrightFest comes this wartime horror with an intriguing premise: a special Soviet team is tasked with recovering the body of Adolf Hitler in the ruins of Berlin in 1945, verifying they are indeed the remains of the Fuhrer, then to covertly transport the corpse across war-ravaged Europe, back to Mother Russia, where Stalin wants to look his opponent in the eye. Naturally, things go wrong, and as a secret mission, they can’t just call on reinforcements to help, because nobody know what they’re doing or where they are going.

Burial is framed at the start and end by segments set just as Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union; an older woman, Anna Marshall (Harriet Walker) in a house in Britain is the target of what looks like a burglary and/or attempted assault one evening. Except the break-in is not what it seems, and indeed, neither is she. The intruder, a skin-headed man (David Alexander), turns out to be a Neo-Nazi, seeking something from her; she, in turn, is revealed to be more than capable of defending herself, despite her age.

Having overpowered and secured her would-be attacker, she begins to tell him a tale, to reveal to him the truth he thinks he wanted to hear. This quiet, older lady was once a combat officer for Soviet intelligence, and she was on that mission to spirit away the body of Adolf Hitler, part of a wider plan by the Russians to sow confusion among their wartime allies about whether Hitler was indeed truly dead by his own hand, or had perhaps secretly escaped, perhaps to South America as many other Nazis did (yes, even in 1945 Russia enjoyed spreading fake stories to confuse other nations, even friendly ones, some things, it seems change little!).

The bulk of the running time is taken with the journey of the small Soviet force (Charlotte Vega playing Brana Vasilyeva, a younger version of Anna, now living under an adopted identity) with the body, becoming stalled in rural Poland, attacked by the notorious “Werewolf” units, who have somehow learned what they are transporting. Here these real-life historical Nazi die-hards who vowed to fight on after the surrender in 1945 may not be actual lycanthropes, but through the use of wolf skins (shades of Nordic Berserkers) and a hallucinogenic smoke employed before ambushes, they create a phantasmagorical vision to their prey, distorting their sense of reality, heightening their fear, and, of course, making them easier targets.

I found this to be a fascinating film – it almost, but doesn’t quite carry off this interesting premise all the way (I felt it lagged a bit in the later sections into more of a straight combat between Nazis and Soviets), but some of that I think is likely due to budget and resource restrictions (as with any Indy film, you can only do so much, and for the most part they do it rather well). The film also picks up on repeating themes – the collapse of regimes, the rise of new ones, collapse and rise again decades on, the brutality of both sides in war (the Polish civilians are as terrified of their Soviet “liberators” as they were their Nazi conquerors), and the role of propaganda and lies to further a cause and whip up hatred and fear.

The actual truth of what happened in those final days in the Bunker and of the ultimate fate of Hitler has fascinated many for decades. I first came across it as a history student reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic Last Days of Hitler many years ago (he was a British intelligence officer tasked with finding the truth of those events despite much Soviet obfuscation), and it struck me right away as a terrific premise to use for a horror movie. In a modern era where the political ideologues still proclaim blatant lies to their faithful, with awful consequences for many, the story also has a contemporary relevance. While far from perfect, Burial is still an intriguing and unusual wartime horror.

Available on digital from 26th September

This review was originally penned for Live For Films