Reviews: The Final Stand

The Final Stand,
Directed by Vadim Shmelyov,
Starring Artyom Gubin, Lubov Konstantinova, Igor Yudin, Aleksey Bardukov, Yekaterina Rednikova

Russia, 1941: the full weight of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, is upon the Russian people. The Nazis, having already taken Western Europe with their Blitzkrieg tactics, have turned this ferocious might on the vast lands to the east, storming through huge areas so swiftly that defences are overwhelmed before they can make a proper account of themselves. The enemy is trampling almost at will over the Motherland, seemingly unstoppable, with Moscow itself now in imminent danger of being overrun. The Red Army is bringing in more troops and equipment from far afield, but desperately needs time to marshal them for a defence. The cadets of the Podolsk infantry and artillery schools are going to buy that time.

The Final Stand begins with some beautifully shot battle scenes – if that’s not oxymoronic. Crisp, high-definition shots in slow-motion capture pouring rain (you can almost see the droplets hitting the helmets of the troops), the expressions on the soldier’s faces as they yell in alarm, the mud splashing around them, explosions. And as the film goes back to normal speed we realise this is the cadets in training, not in combat. It’s a good opening, on the one hand Shmelyov is setting out his stall – this is not a film which will hold back in depicting the realities of combat, and it will use refined film techniques to capture them in fantastic clarity – on the other hand it brings in a moment of light-heartedness to contrast against the brutality (the film mixes in some welcome little bursts of humour here and there, it isn’t all action and suffering).

The cadets are all young, so very, very young, just as their real-life counterparts would have been. They are aware of the war coming their way, most have not seen battle but feel they must do their duty to protect the Motherland. They’re willing to serve and risk their lives, but it’s also obvious that these young, untried cadets have that invincibility of youth feeling – while they know many are dying, they don’t quite get that, they are young, unstoppable, eager to prove themselves, it is almost an adventure, they are courting some of the equally young military nurses (their officers, older, more seasoned, know what is coming and are trying to prepare their young charges). Despite the advancing Nazi invasion their mood is high, but they are about to be put to the test, and a great many of these eager young cadets will not return to tell the tale.

While the film has its flaws – Shmelyov is a bit too fond of the high-definition slow-motion, or the fast action that suddenly goes to slow-motion then back to fast (which can be an effective technique, but needs to be used sparingly, I think), the characters and main plot are fairly generic (the big, tough lug with a heart of gold, the shy one, the schoolboy one etc) – it has some damned impressive moments, and some interesting details, such as the threat of Russian-speaking Nazi infiltrators in Soviet uniforms going ahead of the main forces, or the small forces of special troops who operate behind the enemy lines to get information back to the main forces.

And the main battle sequences are impressive set-pieces – screaming artillerymen trying to drag and move their cannon and line it up quicker than the turret on a German panzer can turn and target on them is tense and terrifying. The fearsome Stuka dive-bombers screaming out of the sky – the Russian airforce at this point having been largely knocked out of the game by the Luftwaffe – bombing and strafing almost with impunity, and its horrendous. As with the scenes as German aircraft attacked the almost helpless soldiers on the beach in Nolan’s Dunkirk, you can feel the visceral horror and terror of it, and you’re aware that what you feel is only a shadow of what the real historical characters went through.

While it does have some generic elements and sometimes leans too much on certain visual techniques, like the aforementioned slow-motion, it is beautifully shot, clarity and production values matching any Western war or action film. Like many of a certain age I grew up on war movies, The Longest Day to Reach For the Sky, In Which We Serve, Battle of the River Plate and more, and I still have a soft spot for WWII films, which were once such a huge part of cinema but, like the Western, is a genre that has largely faded these days to a few entries, so I’m always intrigued to see a new one appear, and in this case it is also very interesting to see the Russian perspective.

In Russia the Second World War is often referred to as The Great Patriotic War; while the West took its share of the horrendous butcher’s bill of the war in both military and civilian casualties, the sheer scale of the Soviet losses is just unbelievable. Shmelyov knows he cannot depict all the millions lost in the maelstrom of the Eastern Front, but his group of young cadets, answering their country’s call in its darkest hour, allows those few to stand for the many. A solid, beautifully shot war movie.

The Final Stand is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and Digital from March 8th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Lockdown Horror in Host

Host,
Directed by Rob Savage,
Starring Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Teddy Linard, Seylan Baxter

Six friends – Haley, Jemma, Emma, Radina, Caroline and Teddy – get together online for their weekly Zoom catch-up during the first, long months of Pandemic Lockdown, something we’ve all been doing a lot of over the last, grinding year or so, something that has become commonplace and everyday. As they are all separated under the Covid restrictions, these little online get togethers are a lifeline, as they have been to so many in real life, and to spice it up a little for this week, Haley (Haley Bishop), has invited a spirit medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to join them and conduct an online séance.

It’s fair to say the chums are not taking this terrible seriously, and there is a lot of giggling going on, and a drinking game (take a shot everytime Seylan mentions the “astral plane” for instance), while Haley tries to get them to behave a little more respectfully to Seylan. As Seylan instructs them to reach out to try to contact someone they know who has passed over, Jemma decides claims to have felt a touch on her shoulder and a presence, which she thinks is Jack, a boy who was kind to her back in her school days, but who later committed suicide.

After Seylan’s spotty internet connection causes her to drop out, and with Teddy having left the chat because of his girlfriend, Jemma admits that she made up the character of Jack – he never existed, much less visited her from the other side – for a bit of fun, well, that’s when things start to go wrong. One of the friends has herself and her chair pulled violently across the room as the other watch in shock, another’s glass suddenly shatters, while Caroline thinks she saw a body hanging up in her attic.

The initial reaction of shock gives ways to uneasy laughter as they all assume they are trying to prank one another (in fact the story idea was inspired by director Savage pranking friends during an online meet into thinking he had a spirit presence in his house), but the unease grows and the laughter turns to yells and screams as each of them begins to experience unexplained phenomena, which become increasingly violent. Poor Teddy rejoins the chat in the middle of this with no idea of what has been going on, and finds himself right in the middle of it. They manage to briefly get hold of the medium Seylan again, and she warns that by making up a fictitious dead person to call on, Jemma has actually left an open door through which anything may have crossed, and that being is what is now attacking them.

The whole idea of a circle of friends who don’t really believe in spirits holding a séance for a giggle, then it all going horrible wrong and a malevolent spirit manifesting itself against them is, of course, far from new in horror, and using new technology like the internet for horror scares isn’t new either – take Unfriended, for instance, Pulse or early efforts like FearDotCom. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of horror delight to be had here, and the added element of filming this during the first UK Lockdown adds a new frisson of horror, with that weird combination of being physically isolated, with all the emotional, psychological damage that has had on us all, while still being connected to loved ones, but only through the tenuous ether of Wi-Fi (not hard to compare this to the ethereal connection to the other side where spirits are meant to dwell).

Each actor is in their own home throughout – Savage had to direct them remotely, while the team held workshops to help train the actors not only to film themselves but to set up simple but highly effective physical effects themselves. Connected but simultaneously isolated as this presence they have accidentally invited in manifests in increasingly harmful ways (this spirit does not respect the two metre rule!), the unfolding story makes each of the friends both participants/victims but also at the same time voyeurs as all they can do is watch on their video chat windows (inviting thoughts about the voyeuristic side of our social media in real life, and that connected yet disconnected feeling we often have).

While horror is a broad church, for me it has always been at its most effective when elements of it touch on aspects which any of us could have in our own lives. In the 1890s Stoker brought his Count out of the distant dark and superstitious land and put him right in the heart of the modern city, a world of typewriters and phonographs and everyday items; it made the threat feel more real than the distant lands and castles of earlier Gothic tropes. In Host we’re right into something everyone of us has had to deal with recently, the pandemic, the lockdowns, the isolation, the use of online lifelines, and the confined, trapped feeling that comes with it, and plays with it well; again it makes it more real, more relatable, and that, for me, pushes up the scare-o-meter.

I have to say I was incredibly impressed at the way Savage and his team managed to make a film under lockdown conditions – not just using the lockdown as inspiration for a story, but actually working within those difficult rules to create a whole film (albeit one that clocks in at just under an hour, which to be honest I didn’t find a problem as it meant the pacing was kept going well). Really, I doff my hat to creators who managed to work in such circumstances and still managed to pull together a highly entertaining horror flick, and one which had some really nice horror thrills, from the expected jump-scare of a sudden image appearing or door opening by itself to incredibly creepy moments, such as when a filter graphic appears in mid-air on one friend’s feed, as if the camera thinks there is someone there and it is trying to apply the filter, yet we can’t see anyone, just the filter face.

The tight pacing and relatively short length work well for this story (I think extending it would have weakened it), and again the use of Zoom as the medium helps here, because they are using the free version, and we can see the countdown to the end of the free chat session ticking away, the time running down as the action escalates, and we’re wondering what happens when the timer gets to zero, and if anyone will remain unscathed. And no, I am not going to tell you anything about what happens to who, because I don’t want to spoil it for you! Suffice to say the tension rises as the timer counts down, and there are some inventive and gruesome moments.

This was a Shudder Original, but I am glad to see our chums at Second Sight are doing a special, limited edition Blu-Ray release, which boasts the film, plus a slew of extras, including the cast being interviewed; again these extras were created during Lockdown rules and so, like the recently reviewed Nightingale, couldn’t be professionally filmed but had to be done via Zoom, but as with some of the Nightingale’s extras this in no way impacts the enjoyment of the extras (in fact in the case of this film it rather suits it, being a similar format to that used for the narrative).

It’s pretty remarkable listening to how the film-makers and the cast worked and often improvised their way to creating their parts of this film for Savage to then stitch together – again I am just amazed at how well the creative talent here rose to such a challenge. The limited edition also comes with more extras, including Savage’s original prank video that inspired the story, two short and highly effective films by Savage (Salt, and Dawn of the Deaf), a BFI interview and more, plus a case with new artwork by Thomas Walker, a set of collector’s cards and a book with the original story outline and essays. Highly recommended and inventive Lockdown horror.

Host gets a limited edition Blu-Ray release by Second Sight on 22nd February

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films movie site.

 

Reviews: Clementine

Clementine,
Directed by Lara Jean Gallagher,
Starring Otmara Marrero, Sydney Sweeney, Will Britain, Sonya Wagner

I was drawn to check out Lara Jean Gallagher’s debut feature film Clementine partly on the good word of mouth it has been picking up on the film festival circuit (including at the Tribeca), and partly because she was been likened to a young Jane Campion (which certainly helped get my attention).

Karen (Otmara Marrero) is reeling from a bad break up with her lover, an older, successful woman artist, D; we find her watching her ex’s home until she is sure she is out, then trying to let herself in sneakily to reclaim the dog. But the locks have been changed; this relationship is most certainly over, it would seem, she’s locked out physically as well as emotionally, and she has to leave after only being able to see the dog through the doorway. Driving off, she decides to leave LA and heads on out into the woods, to the huge lakeside home by the edge of a forest that also belongs to D, only to find the spare key normally hidden nearby has been moved and once again she is locked out. Undeterred she simply breaks open a small window to let herself in.

It’s clear Karen really isn’t in a good headspace – who is after a break up, after all? – but the film gives the impression there is more than just losing her lover that is preying on her mind, and that even she isn’t exactly certain why she has retreated to her ex’s luxurious, secluded lakehouse, or what she is looking for here. A bit of clear space and solitude among the trees and the lakes to think things through? Perhaps, but it feels like there is more going on here.

In fact that feeling that there is much more going on that we’re unaware of extends through the film – while the viewer feels natural sympathy for her going through the end of a relationship, we’re also left wondering, why did the relationship actually end? Did her older, more successful lover discard her and she’s now left emotionally hurt and feeling abandoned? Or was it her own behaviour that drove them apart? We don’t know, but we have seen her prepared to dognap from D’s home while she was out, then to break into her country retreat, neither of which are exactly admirable traits.

The thing is Gallagher, who also wrote the film as well as directing, chooses not to give the viewer the semi godlike overview of the characters and their histories that some narratives do, and that continues when Sydney Sweeney’s precocious teen Lana turns up on the scene. We first see her sunbathing on a small dock near the house, in a bikini, peeling fruit, glimpsed by Karen who conceals herself at first before finally making herself visible and approaching the girl. The way Lana is lounging in her bikini by the dock seemed to me to hint at just a tiny nod to the classic Lolita, and that hint felt stronger later as there is some possible romantic tension between the two women, once they start to drop their guard and talk to one another (with Karen reminding herself that she is much older than Lana, but still clearly romantic and sexual thoughts are there).

Lana too is similarly something of a mystery to the viewer – as with Karen the director decides not to reveal all of their true story to us via flashbacks or cutaway scenes. Instead we have only what she tells Karen to go on, and fairly early on it looks pretty obvious that Lana may be mixing fantasy in with truth in what she reveals to Karen about herself and why she spends so much time by herself up here by the lakehouse. Adding to this is the arrival of young Beau (Will Brittain), supposedly D’s handyman who keeps an eye on the lakehouse, trims the trees, makes repairs (including to the window Karen broke to gain entry). Once more we don’t know his full story either: is he really D’s handyman, or is he just using that as an excuse to hang out with two attractive young women and flirt? Or maybe he is the handyman but he is also there to report to D, who may suspect that Karen has fled to the lakehouse after leaving town? And if so what is his game?

I’ve seen some reviews criticise this approach as frustrating, but personally I thought it was not just a good move by Gallagher, but quite a ballsy one, to give the audience no more information or insight than any of the characters have. We’re having to watch them, listen to them and try and decide what is truth and what is embellishment, or even outright fabrications about themselves and why they are where they are. It’s a bit of a cliché to say “nobody here is quite what they seem”, but it is appropriate, and frankly I found this a great approach. I often find that I can predict where scenes or entire narratives are headed early on in some films, simply because I’ve watched so many over the years that I pick up cues of where things are going. I’m sure many of you have experienced that too.

But here it was different, Gallagher’s less is more approach really worked for me, as did the styling and cinematography of Clementine. At some points it felt like it was going to go into love on the rebound (with added triangle when Beau appears), but at other times it felt like it may become a thriller and there was something dangerous among those hidden character histories, at some points it even felt like it could go into horror territory, or coming-of-age LGBTQ tale. All of this, and the fact we only have what the characters will reveal about themselves, and we are pretty sure they’re not always truthful about it, combined to make this a compelling film for me, and I commend Gallagher for sticking to her guns with this approach, when the temptation to go down an easier, more conventional route must have been huge, and I appreciate that she felt this was the better way to go and stuck to it. An unusual and intriguing piece, I look forward to seeing what Gallagher directs next.

Clementine is released by Bohemia Media on digital from Monday 8th of February

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Jennifer Kent’s powerful The Nightingale

The Nightingale,
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Baykali Ganambarr

Aussie director Jennifer Kent’s debut, The Babadook, blew me away, and many other audiences around the globe. It didn’t just give us a fascinating, engrossing horror, it had such fabulous emotional complexity to it, matched by some beautiful crafted visuals. It was hard to believe this was the work of a debut director. The Nightingale, Kent’s second feature film, has again left me quite happily astonished at how incredibly confident and assured she is in bringing her vision to the screen and getting the best out of her actors. With great accolades accrued on the international film festival circuit, it is now getting a richly-deserved special edition Blu-Ray release by the good folks at Second Sight, which gives us a great excuse to revisit this powerful and compelling film.

It’s the 1820s in Van Diemen’s Land – what would later be called Tasmania – during the era where the Land Down Under was still being used by the British Empire as a colony built using exported convicts, many of whom would have committed what we would consider tiny infractions (stealing bread to stay alive, for instance), and found themselves sentenced to Transportation to the other side of the world, to a land totally alien to them. It was a cheap and exploitative way for the British authorities to start settling this vast new southern continent (well, new to Europeans who, as usual in history, pretty much ignored the fact that others had lived there for thousands of years already, such was the colonial mindset of the era).

Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict, in a remote settlement overseen by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She’s already well past the duration of her sentence, but Hawkins simply won’t sign her release papers. Claflin makes a wonderful job of delivering his Hawkins, a petty man desperate to be The Big Man (he’s clearly relishing the chance to portray such a nasty character). He’s in charge here, but only of a ragged troop of very sorry looking soldiers and a few convicts, taking every opportunity to show his power over them, but painfully aware of his own junior rank by a visiting superior, and that there are others above him who hold power over him as he does over the people below him, and how he hates that.

The Nightingale is not an easy film to watch – its subject matter is fiercely strong, including gender and race issues, violent sexual assaults and brutal torture and murder of Aboriginals, and that content is there from very early in the film, where Clare is forced to sing to entertain the troops before the visiting senior officer (who Hawkins hopes to impress as he tries to gain a promotion), with the drunken rabble leering horribly at her, followed by Hawkins inviting her to sing to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her.

Franciosi’s acting is utterly remarkable throughout this film – a scene following this rape sees her lying side by side with her baby, telling her stories by the firelight. Franciosi perfectly captures the competing emotions running through Clare; she is smiling for her infant, bonding with her baby, but behind that smile you can see micro-expressions, especially around the eyes, the trauma manifesting itself, that “what just happened to me, how could that happen?” feeling, and you can see her struggling to hold it in check, to be warm and loving and strong for her child while fighting the effects of the brutality visited upon her. It’s a small scene but just one of many where Franciosi’s acting craft is displayed; she clearly cares about her character deeply and wants to convey all the contrasting emotional depths of Clare.

In one of the many extras on this special edition there is an interview with Franciosi, where she reveals how drawn she was to the part. She tells us that Kent had a psychotherapist in the production, and she was free to constantly talk to the therapist about people who had endured traumas and PTSD, how they reacted both physically and mentally, as well as them taking her to visit women in refuges who had been in violent relationships so she could talk to them. She also commented that some of those women found those scenes hard to watch (they are, and they should be), but also pleased that these issues were being raised so viscerally and visibly in a public sphere, because these are not just historical atrocities but sadly a very modern reality for too many (likewise the abuse and murder of Aboriginal people being shown so clearly was also felt deeply by contemporary Aboriginal viewers).

Clare is put through worse, however, driving her into an almost Western-style quest through the outback for vengeance, with Billy – Baykali Ganambarr – as her Aboriginal guide. At first she’s as bad as the English officers and soldiers, seeing “the blacks” as monsters, not human, likely to turn round and cut her throat if she isn’t careful. She even spend the first part of their trek through the forest with her rifle pointed at Billy. As their perilous trip continues they very slowly start to realise how similar they are, how both have been robbed by the brutal, uncaring Powers That Be, with everything taken from them, their lands, their families. Baykali Ganambarr’s performance too is just something else to behold – modern Australia is still coming to terms with the historical abuse of Aboriginal people, and it seems clear this young actor took very seriously the chance to portray some of that history on the screen. A scene where he is treated with some small humanity by an elderly man sees him break down in tears, “this is my land, this is my land…” he weeps as the gentle treatment breaks the emotional dam within him.

These actors are put through the emotional wringer repeatedly, without even so much as a soundtrack to distract from the vicious horrors inflicted upon them, and yes, it is hard to take – it should be hard to take, after all – but ye gods, the acting craft on show here from these young leads is just superb to see, and the way it is constructed and put together so assuredly by Kent I was again constantly reminding myself that this was only her second feature film, and yet here was this immensely powerful subject matter, deftly handled by director and actors, unflinchingly presented with assured hands on the tiller. I’ve got Kent marked down as one of my directors to watch out for in the future. Like Karyn Kusama after watching Destroyer and The Invitation, I now have Kent on my list of film-makers where I will watch any new work they do (and come on, we all love film here, so I am sure many of you also love finding new talent like this too).

This limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight comes with a pile of extras, including numerous interviews (some had to be recorded during the ongoing pandemic and so aren’t shot in quite the way they would be normally, but that’s to be expected in current conditions, and in fact I think kudos go to the Second Sight team for being able to arrange them during these wretched Covid days). I found Franciosi’s interview in the extras to be the most compelling; I said earlier how deep her acting felt to me, and in this extra she revealed a lot of what went into that performance, and also how much it took out of her (I was unsurprised that at the end of filming, emotionally and physically exhausted, she told her agent to hold offers for a while because she needed the rest). All of that performance, that authenticity, that depth of expression and emotion, is all up there on the screen, a testament to the cast and the crew,

The Nightingale is released on a special limited edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight on February 8th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: The Night Porter

The Night Porter,
Directed by Liliana Cavani,
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Phillipe Leroy

Cult Films brings a sharp, 4K restored version of Cavani’s 1974 controversial classic to Blu-Ray, and the passage of the decades has not lessened its impact, the ability of this film to be simultaneously fascinating, compelling, provocative and disturbing. Max (Bogarde, an actor too often overlooked these days, I think), is working as a night porter, manning the desk in a hotel in 1950s Vienna, where he and several other old comrades meet regularly to plan how to keep their wartime records in the SS concealed and themselves safe from any possible justice for their actions as part of the Nazi regime. They ensure documents are destroyed and any potential witnesses dealt with to ensure their anonymous safety. There is no hint of regret for their part in the atrocities performed by the SS, only the ruthless desire to avoid ever being brought to account for it.

Max is quiet, not just a man keeping a low profile, Bogarde invests him with a real feeling of a damaged person who has retreated from much of the world, not only to hide his past, but because he feels self-revulsion, even preferring to work night shifts because the harsh light of day shines too bright a light on his life and guilt. He is tightly buttoned, quiet, fastidious in appearance, not rocking the boat with his old SS comrades but neither fully joining in either. When we see him in a scene in his apartment we see behind this quiet, impeccably turned out exterior, his hair awry, pulling his curtains against the coming day, shuddering and crying as wartime memories overwhelm him.

When a famous conductor arrives at the hotel with his wife Lucia (Rampling), the pair recognise one another, triggering flashbacks for both: Max as an SS officer in one of the death camps, Lucia as one of the inmates who captures his eye. It’s an interesting reversal – from the wartime camps where Max held all the power and could indulge in exploitation as he wished, with impunity, now he is the one who is frightened, his potential survival threatened as she now has the power over him.

Except Night Porter isn’t that simple – you might expect after the initial shock of encountering this former SS officer who used her, Lucia would be angry, seek justice, tell her husband and then the authorities who Max really is. But that doesn’t happen – both she and Max struggle with the rush of barely repressed memories, but what transpires, both the wartime events and the current events in the hotel, is a more complicated mix than oppressed and oppressor, there is a strange relationship here. A twisted, very damaged relationship, to be sure, but there is something there, and they feel its compulsion once more, falling into a strange, often sado-masochistic, dark form of romance.

A lot of the criticism of this film, then and now, is that it is basically Nazi sexploitation. And while, yes, it does feature a lot of very odd sexual scenes – a shorn-haired prisoner Lucia, half naked in an officer’s cap, singing Lili Marlene songs as she dances seductively for the SS officers in the camp, for instance, or vulnerable, naked prisoners being filmed by Max as they are interviewed – I don’t hold with the sexploitation label myself. Despite the sexual scenes and nudity it’s often not what I’d think of as erotic, more disturbing, an exploration of two fragmented , damaged psyches. Cavani always maintained that it wasn’t really about the sex, and I tend to agree, those elements are more visual symptoms of the trauma both have lived with.

I first saw this film many decades ago, and this is the first time I’ve rewatched it since – I found it a remarkable and unusual film then, and even more so today. Cavani frames some astonishing scenes – the half-naked cabaret scene I mentioned earlier is a visual that sticks in the mind – but the real standout here are the performances from Bogarde and Rampling, so much communicated through very small gestures, body language, tiny changes to expressions to indicate the whirling turmoil within Max and Lucia.

Cult Film’s 4K restoration does justice to this unusual, provocative movie, showing it off, and including extras such as new interviews with both director Cavani and Charlotte Rampling, both of whom have some interesting insights into this very unusual slice of film history.

The Night Porter gets its 4k Blu-Ray release by Cult Film on November 30th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Walkabout

Walkabout,
Starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil,
Directed by Nic Roeg

During the Lockdown, BBC4 in the UK broadcast David Stratton’s “Stories of Australian Cinema”, a three part documentary on the history and evolution of film-making in that vast, continent-sized country. Naturally one of the films covered was the legendary Nic Roeg’s 1971 movie, Walkabout and I’ve had a strong urge to revisit this film since watching the series. And then Second Sight announced a limited edition Blu-Ray of Walkabout (packed with extras, including interviews with Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, in a box set complete with James Vance Marshall’s original 1950s novel), and there I was losing myself in this classic again.

Both then and now there was some debate, not least in Australia itself, around whether Walkabout is really an Aussie film – a British director, US money, but shot in Australia. For my money it is very much an Australian film, not just because of the location, but the way Roeg makes that vast, ancient land an important part of the film. These are not just locations for a scene, the land itself often is the scene, or a strong part of it; the small-scale human interaction within it may drive the actual narrative, but the land itself surrounds everything they do and say, the two English children (Agutter and a very young Luc Roeg as her small brother) in their school uniforms and prim, plummy accents, outsiders in an environment they not only don’t understand but aren’t really equipped to even really try to comprehend, Gulpilil the Aboriginal boy on Walkabout, brought up to respect the land, the stories that go with it, that form his culture and his guide to survival.

The story is essentially pretty simple – the two children, Agutter and Roeg – are stranded in the Outback desert when their father, who has driven them there for a picnic, loses his mind, and attempts to kill them, before setting fire to the car and taking his own life. Agutter hides the suicide from her young brother, grabs some of the food and the two start walking. But they are from a city environment, and a strata of society that back then still had a middle-class that basically tried to recreate the middle-class English existence, there’s no attempt to adapt and assimilate into this other country, it is more an attempt to push a transplanted cultural imperialism onto it, and means they haven’t the faintest idea about the vastness of the Outback, much less how to survive (when they encounter Gulpilil Agutter asks him for water. He doesn’t speak English so she simply repeats herself as if speaking to an imbecile, before muttering that she can’t be any clearer. It’s a polite version of the modern, mono-lingual Brit abroad who thinks if they shout loudly in English the other person will understand them somehow).

The good-natured Gulpilil communicates with them through mime and gesture, mostly with Roeg’s younger brother, the two forming a bit of a bond together. Gulpilil generously helps the pair find water and shares his hunting kills with them, slowly guiding them back towards their own world after some shared travels. You could see it as strangers in a strange land fable, as a coming of age story (especially Agutter and Gulpilil, the two teens on the cusp of adulthood and all that brings with it), or as a survival story, or a mix of all three. And indeed yes, Walkabout is all of these things, but really, those are just the skeletons the film is draped over.

No, the real essence of Walkabout isn’t really those elements, it is a wonderfully-realised dream-like state, using clever imagery, symbolism and cross-cutting and editing, to create an atmosphere and imagery that is as rich as the Outback environment itself, a filmic version of the ancient Songlines and Dreamtime of Aboriginal culture, sometimes languid, like the dream of a half-waking doze on a warm day, sometimes sudden, even violent, mixing Aboriginal culture (Gulpilil, already an experienced dancer despite his young age here, crafts an intoxicating scene entirely through traditional dancing) and allusions to the Garden of Eden, innocence and its loss, nature and the urban.

This isn’t a film that is easy to review, because it’s more than a film, Walkabout is an experience, a waking dream on celluloid that can be shared, and how each of us reacts to those images and sounds will be different. It is a film to lose yourself in, to drink in those rich images, that landscape and nature. A commercial flop on its original release, it remains an important film, lauded by many critics and the BFI as a classic – it helped to kickstart the new wave of Aussie film-making which has gone on to enrich world cinema (something we here obviously care deeply about), and it launched the then-young Gulpilil onto a career which has seen him become an iconic figure in Australian cinema. If, like me, you haven’t seen this film in a long time, this is a very welcome chance to revisit this moving dream of a movie; if you haven’t seen it before then sit back and let this classic wash over you with its rich imagery.

Walkabout will receive a limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight from 27th August

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.

Reviews: Echoes of Fear

Echoes of Fear,
Starring Trista Robinson, Hannah Race, Paul Chirico, Marshal Hilton, Norman Zeller
Directed by Brian Avenet-Bradley, Laurence Avenet-Bradley

Arriving after generating a lot of good word of mouth on the festival circuit, Brian and Laurence Avenet-Bradley’s Indy US horror offers the discerning horror hound an intriguing, well-made, gloriously slow-burn take on the age-old haunted house genre, not using the (to me anyway) increasingly annoying jump-cuts to generate fright (I don’t think they do, startling is not the same as creating terror or fright), but by doing it the correct way, taking time to build atmosphere, slowly building up events and adding in some red herrings, to draw the viewer deeply into the film.

As you may guess from that statement, I am a sucker for a good haunted house story, but all too often come away disappointed by directors who opt for predictable cliché and quick jumps in lieu of the effort of deeper storytelling and atmosphere-building, the sorts of things that really make a good ghost story work. Here the Avenet-Bradley’s do take that time, allowing their camera to explore the huge, unusually laid out old house from intriguing, often unsettling angles, and their minimal cast (Trista Robinson as Alisa carries much of the film herself, her boyfriend, Paul Chirico as Brandon, often absent – also fairly useless in helping her – her only main help her best friend, Steph, played by Hannah Race) to lay down those foundations that let the story grow at its own pace.

Alisa has inherited this huge, rambling, hillside house from her doting, loving grandfather, who supposedly had a heart attack in the shower… Except a brief prologue hints to us that perhaps this wasn’t quite natural causes and there is someone, something in the house. Alisa moves in with the intent of sorting through her grandfather’s belongings, fixing up anything needing repaired and selling the house on. Her boyfriend can only stay briefly, leaving her mostly on her own, apart from visits from her friend Steph, even when Alisa starts to worry that there is something not right in the house.

The house itself is almost another character in this minimal cast ensemble. Built on a rocky hillside it has multiple levels sloping down, and many rooms, an awful lot of storage spaces (more than you’d expect), crawl spaces behind walls and under the lower parts of the rambling structure, concealed elements above in the high ceiling upper parts. The camera glides around all of these by day and night, and soon generates a feeling of unease even before anything much has happened – there is something just wrong about this house, the size, the layout, the multiple rooms and closets, the hidden little nooks. Despite her growing unease – at first she fears a squatter has been using the weird design of the house to sneak in and camp out somewhere, and she may be right – Brandon shrugs everything off and leaves Alisa to sort the place out.

But she is right, there is something wrong with this place, and not just a potential squatter. It starts slowly, finding something in a different place from where she left it, wondering if she just imagined it, noises that may just be the sounds of an old house or may be something more. Finding items from a squatter in a concealed area should solve that mystery, but no, that’s not the main cause of the noises and unease. The camera follows Alisa through both big, open spaces, like the high-ceilinged, broad living room to the tight confines of the crawlspace under the house.

While you’d expect the latter to create a nice, claustrophobic fear, which it does, the Avenet-Bradleys also manage to craft that fear even in the more open, well-lit spaces, making Alisa seem vulnerable to something that could come from anywhere around her. Even minimalist moves like the camera looking out of a brightly lit bedroom into a dark hallway beyond the open door contrive to create a creeping unease – such a simple move but so effective (it reminded me of Dyson and Nyman’s Ghost Stories, which took a dark staircase in an ordinary suburban home and also made it creepingly terrifying through little more than slow camera moves and darkness and tension).

As Alisa realises there is more going on than a squatter, she attempts, despite her fear, to deal with it in a fairly practical fashion, she’s quite resourceful and determined (I would have been running out of there!). Since most ghost lore hints that a spectre remains because it has some unfinished business in the mortal realm, that it needs help to complete before it can move on, she starts to investigate the house, and her grandfather’s death. Was it really a heart attack? Was this presence there when he lived here? What does it want? Is it connected to her family in some way she doesn’t know, or just a random manifestation?

I’m not going to go any further on those latter points as it would risk us crossing over the border into that unattractive land of Spoiler Country. Suffice to say Alisa is going to investigate, and there may be more going on here than at first we may think. In many ways Echoes of Fear plays the many classic tropes of the Old Haunted House genre, but in many other ways it takes its own path and its own style to generate a genuinely dread-inducing ghost tale, wonderfully slow-burn, building, building, building, to a satisfying crescendo. This is one to watch good and late at night, with most of the lights out, for maximum effect!

Echoes of Fear is released on demand and download by Second Sight from July 20th, and on DVD (Certificate 15) from August 3rd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

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 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.