Dark Tourist

Film4 Frightfest 2013


Grief/dark tourism, or thanatourism for those who like the extra scrabble options, is described by Wikipedia as “travel to sites associated with death and tragedy”. Places like Culloden, Ground Zero, and the London Dungeon are examples of the more common side of this, but in Dark Tourist Jim (Michael Cudlitz of Southland) prefers to spend his holidays visiting locations involved in the lives of serial killers. We follow Jim as he visits sites important to New Orleans mass murderer Carl Marznap, and the movie pulls no punches in its view into his mind and inner conflict.

Unblinking in its character focus and bolstered by an intense and believable performance by Cudlitz, it’s a gripping and disturbing piece of work. That Frank John Hughes only has one other writing credit (2011’s Leave, which had story cowritten by Rick Gomez) is testament to a clear talent on the page as well as onscreen – he is more recognised as an actor in the likes of 24 and Bad Boys.

The end result is chilling, a bit grimy and ultimately saddening; Jim may not be ultimately sympathetic but the view into his life shows the experiences and challenges that have led him to the path he has taken. Unfortunately, these are the very aspects that prove limiting as the film’s nature means you won’t want to make a return visit into Jim’s head anytime soon.

Like many visits to the sites involved in grief tourism, watching Dark Tourist is an experience that is appreciable rather than enjoyable. It’s certainly worth viewing once, but it’s unlikely to go on a most-frequently-watched list. Now, I think I need a shower… ***1/2

In Fear

Film4 Frightfest 2013


I wonder if in these times of austerity, if director Jeremy Lovering had a conversation with production company Big Talk that went something like this:

“Hey, so I have an idea for a horror movie that will be really cheap – it’s called In Fear
“Good title! So how’s it cheap?”
“Well, there’s only three cast members for a start!”
“Go on?”
“Well there’s Tom, who’s played by Iain De Caestecker, and Alice Englert as Lucy – they haven’t known each other long, and he’s trying to impress her with a posh night in a fancy hotel before they head to a music festival. Well of course they get lost, and they’re on unfamiliar roads as it gets dark…”
“Ah, so most of the film takes place in the car? I can see how it’s cheap, but won’t that be kind of boring?”
“There’s an element of mistrust with a possible altercation at the pub where they started their journey, and their lack of familiarity is brought to the fore. And then it starts to seem that there’s someone – or something – out there with them too…”
“Intriguing! How will you keep up tension?”
“There’s the great trick – I’m not telling the actors about the plot in advance, and the script is secret for each of them so their emotions are going to be real”
“Careful, you’re going to be directing the first episode of the new series of Sherlock, you don’t need to be giving The Moff ideas for secrecy!”
“Sound plays a big part too, this is really a film about building atmosphere. You won’t realise it’s cheap when you see it”
“On the flipside, because its so psychologically focussed it’s probably the kind of film you have to be in the right mood to appreciate so to speak.”
“Agreed, but there’s alot to appreciate when you are”

It’s not quite the masterclass that the mainstream press have described it, but it’s a solid watch and bodes well for Lovering going in to Sherlock ***


Film4 Frightfest 2013


The Church of the Latter-Day Saints is not one that gets much attention in films (Saints and Soldiers and Orgazmo aside – which is likely the only place you’ll see those two films paired!), so it being held front and centre in all information for Missionary certainly tweaked my interest. The story centres around Katherine (Dawn Olivieri), who is raising her son alone after separating from her husband and moving back to her home town. Her eye is caught by Elder Kevin Brock (Mitch Ryan) while he is going door to door, and it isn’t long before the title of the film refers to more than just Kevin’s position in his chosen faith! When estranged husband Ian (Kip Pardue) then comes back on the scene making a concerted effort with his son, Katherine wavers – but Kevin isn’t so willing to let her go…

Anthony DiBlasi shows restraint in direction letting the actors tell the story, with occasional touches such as Katherine savouring the memory of a clinch with Kevin while driving nicely done – though she maybe should have been concentrating more on the road! Being primarily a character piece, performances are crucial, and are the real strength of Missionary; acting is natural and believeable across the board. Unfortunately the flipside of that is that I found Katherine quite unsympathetic in some ways as she has quite literally made her own bed…

Wisely, the film doesn’t take the easy route of blaming the character’s behaviour on their religion – Kevin is bending the tenets and statements of his faith to suit him rather than the other way round. The portrayal of Mormonism seems fair and even-handed and while less probing into the belief structure than Trey Parker’s works gives an interesting insight into the day-to-day life of the Elders.

Missionary is a solid if unspectacular thriller in the kind of mould of Fatal Attraction, though with gender roles reversed. There’s added interest in its integration of Mormon culture seen comparatively rarely, and though it’s unlikely to be a title you’ll come back to time and again it’s worth catching once! ***

Cheap Thrills

Film4 Frightfest 2013


What would you do for $100? And what about if your friend was competing for the cash? That’s the core of Cheap Thrills, with recently fired Craig (Pat Healy) and old schoolmate Vince (Ethan Embry) getting sucked into the increasingly elaborate bets made by bored rich couple Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton).

David Koechner was apparently interested in the film as a way to move away from association with comedy, but in reality this is not much darker than his role in Final Destination 5. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case as while he is the centre of much of the humour in Cheap Thrills, it provides a welcome offset from the uncomfortability that comes from scenarios that have a disturbing ring of authenticity – that sense that this could happen, and probably already has!

With that sense of reality, the performances have to be up to the task, and the cast are uniformly excellent. Sara Paxton was great in 2011’s The Innkeepers and shows quality here in a totally different kind of role, and it’s difficult to see how anyone other than Koechner could balance manipulation, creepiness and affability in the same way.

Despite all that, I did find myself pulled right out of the film when it took a sexual turn that didn’t feel consistent with the characters as drawn to that point – granted it was predominantly a setup for one of the funniest scenes but was kind of jarring considering the believability to that point.

Overall, Cheap Thrills is successful in generating cringing for the right reasons. It’s well worth checking out, but you may find that its nature doesn’t inspire repeat watching. And who knows, maybe someday David Koechner will manage to shake the comic typecasting! ***1/2

R.I.P.D. 3D

Film4 Frightfest 2013


Take the first Men In Black and mix liberally with Ghostbusters. Add a sprinkle of Constantine and you have an easy description of R.I.P.D., the target of much critical vitriol on its US release.

Naturally, most of those completely ignored the film’s actual origin in the Dark Horse comic that began in 1999. Killed during a raid, Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) finds himself drafted to the Rest In Peace Department, who use dead police officers to capture the undead who have returned to Earth. Nick finds himself partnered with 19th century US Marshal Roycephus Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges) and they uncover a plot that could change the afterlife irrevocably…

Ryan Reynolds is generally watchable in an unusually flawed character for the kind of film, but the screen belongs to Jeff Bridges who is a hoot as the Old West lawman. The conceit used whereby the R.I.P.D. officers have avatars as they can’t look the same as their dead selves in case of recognition is fun too, and the humour in general may not be highbrow but is actually pretty funny.

The 3D is surprisingly decent as well – it’s not too gimmicky and scenes like an early shootout show a good understanding of 3D space in both design and direction. Unfortunately some of the other CGI effects come across less well as the elements to make the dead look disturbing make them stand out as different so instantly look a bit wrong to the eye; it’s a bit easier to make aliens in that respect as the viewer expects them not to look so, well, human!

While it does suffer from comparison to those similarities like Ghostbusters, and is hardly intellectually challenging, R.I.P.D. is fun popcorn entertainment. And it even has a role for Kevin Bacon that’s almost enough to forget the EE adverts! ***1/2

Short: Chuck Steel – Raging Balls of Steel Justice

Film4 Frightfest 2013


Remember the show Sledge Hammer!, with David Rasche as the caricature cop-on-the-edge with a penchant for violence? Give him Bruce Campbell’s chin, Max Headroom’s quiff and make him out of clay and you have Chuck Steel…

The plot is like taking the movie-cop cliche book to extremes – a gang of thugs have holed up in a warehouse with a hostage who they are going to repeatedly kick in the balls until they pop out of his nose (if interested, the magic number is 250). Only one cop can save the day – Chuck Steel!

What follows is 10 minutes of violence, explosions, bloodshed, brilliant names, one-liners (a personal favourite is “When are you gonna realise it’s not 1985 anymore – it’s 1986”), a sexually obsessed robot and pure unadulterated entertainment. Creator Mike Mort (he of the criminally underseen North Walian series Gogs) may be most recognised for the “Mr Boombastic” Levi’s advert from 1995, and the character design and use of sidejokes are easily identifiable.

There is talk of a Chuck Steel feature – based on the short, it’ll be nothing short of epic! Frightfest has always shown some great shorts, this is up there with the best *****

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No One Lives

Film4 Frightfest 2013


2013 has been a year of interesting directorial choices for WWE Studios films – Dead Man Down was helmed by (the original) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Niels Arden Oplev, The Call by Brad Anderson (The Machinist) and now No One Lives by Ryuhei Kitamura. This was a selling point of the film for me – ever since I saw Versus I’ve been a fan of Kitamura’s dynamic style and wicked sense of humour, maintained when Midnight Meat Train was one of my favourites of Frightfest 2008 so seeing his name piqued my interest in what had initially appeared to be a fairly straightforward home invasion/stalk and slash movie.

In fact, No One Lives is a tricky film to advertise, suffering from the curse of the spoilery trailer, and it’s anything but straightforward! After a home robbery goes violently wrong, Flynn (Derek Magyar) tries to make amends with his family-based cohorts by targeting a couple he sees in a local bar (Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) for kidnapping them to get access to their money. At the same time, there is news that an heiress missing after 14 of her friends were murdered may not be dead but abducted. Could the two be connected somehow?

One of No One Lives‘ strengths is its awareness – the dialogue pokes fun at the habits and overobviousness that pervades the genre, and from the outset there is a similar attitude to the kind of predictable behaviour that usually has viewers rolling their eyes. The sense of fun is furthered by inventive kills too which had the Frightfest audience cheering as well as laughing.

The directing is actually a little more subdued than Kitamura’s other films for the most part, though there are still some excellent visuals (including – unsurprisingly given the 80s genre influences – a gratuitous moonlight butt shot), and the cast are all strong too. In short, No One Lives is an absolute blast, especially when watched with fellow horror fans. Perfect Halloween fun – or any other time for that matter! And who knew that the tagline from The Thing really was true? ****1/2

Hammer of the Gods

Film4 Frightfest 2013


Vikings! In Wales! Er, what? Don’t worry, director Farren Blackburn hasn’t taken his Who experience from The Rings of Akhaten and rewritten history, it’s a filming location, but don’t go in expecting historical accuracy anyway!

Hammer of the Gods is set in 9th century Britain, where the Viking invaders are making inroads. Wounded in a battle against the Saxons, King Bagsecg (James Cosmo) sends son Steinar (Charlie Bewley) and a team of warriors to find his estranged elder brother Hakan (Elliot Cowan) and bring him back into the fold. Of course, things are never quite as simple as that….

If it doesn’t sound a particularly new story, it isn’t really, and the change in direction in the latter third just makes it reminiscent of different films than it did earlier. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and it all feels a little bit hollow.

Yet that also feels like a shame, which is unusual. It’s certainly not all bad – it looks great, with the Snowdonia-shot backdrops being suitably imposing, is decently paced and the action is suitably brutal and bloody.

Hammer of the Gods isn’t a horrible film, but I came away with more of a sense of disappointment, as though the look and style of the film deserved more. There is some entertainment value in a popcorn sense, and it’s probably the only time you’ll ever see Cockney-sounding Vikings joking about STIs! **1/2

Frankenstein’s Army

Film4 Frightfest 2013


Anyone remember Clive Barker’s Tortured Souls, the brilliantly designed McFarlane toy range that promised a movie which sadly got stuck in development hell? There’s a sense of that style of object mutilation in Frankenstein’s Army, the first feature from Richard Raaphorst.

It’s near the end of WWII, and a Russian reconnaisance unit is being filmed for propaganda while pushing into Germany. As mistrust grows between the soldiers and those filming, the true purpose of the mission starts to become clear – they are to find a Nazi scientist who as a descendent of Viktor Frankenstein is continuing his research. Cue the undead Nazi zombie monsters!

The creatures are the real stars of Frankenstein’s Army, and the design and implementation are uniformly excellent. They are varied and inventive, and you get a feeling that there are many more that we have yet to see. Partly as a result, I found myself slightly in two minds about the use of the found footage style used – while it is a comparatively rare case of feeling genuinely linked to the story (niggles like the footage not being in the aspect ratio used at the time fade quickly) and it proves a handy way of working round budgetary and pacing constraints when things kick off, it also limits the amount of monster visibility as the cameraman is generally unsurprisingly trying to get away from them! Of course that’s probably because of the limitations of the budget, but when watching there was the occasional wish they had longer and more detailed screentime.

While solid and entertaining, it’s not a film that will go down in many best-of-year lists, but as a design showcase and potential franchise it is a good start. Now, where’s the toy range… ***1/2

100 Bloody Acres

Film4 Frightfest 2013


And now, a film about fertiliser. No, not that kind of fertiliser – that would be 100 Crappy Acres surely and would make for very easy reviewing if it wasn’t very good! Fortunately (!) it’s about the blood and bone type fertiliser, which is much more the kind of crap that’s appreciated at Frightfest…

Brothers Reg and Lindsay Morgan run a small fertiliser business in South Australia, and are always trying to set themselves apart from the competition. Happening across a crash site while on a delivery, Reg spots an easy opportunity for fresh blood (sorry!) with the driver’s body, so hides it in the back of his truck to take back. Just bigger roadkill than normal, which wouldn’t be so bad if not for a group of tourists hitching a lift to a music festival…

By keeping the focus and scale small, 100 Bloody Acres belies its low budget and is an assured feature debut by writer/directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes. The concentration on the characters helps – at heart this is a tale of love in truly unfortunate circumstances – though there’s also a helping of old-fashioned farce to keep a sense of fun. That said, it’s not a constant joke-fest, though when it goes gross-out it easily equals anything by the Farrellys with more mind bleach needed than with Kingpin at one point!

On the weaker side, none of the characters are particularly likeable, and the seeming justification of infidelity rankled on a personal level – which also goes to show a level of believability to the writing. It may not be one for watching back over and over, but 100 Bloody Acres is still entertaining and a good pick for a midnight movie! ***

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