Waking from a late night, the thought of spending 14 hours in Leicester Square ought to be a daunting one. Fortunately today’s 6 film line-up looks like just the ticket. Munching a Pret sandwich and downing a coffee I stroll in shortly before half 11 for the morning’s opener.
FILM 1: LANDMINE GOES CLICK (2015)
Directed by Levan Bakhia
First disappointment of the day. I’d been looking forward to this one, expecting something resembling a tense outdoor chamber drama. In this slice of indie horror a contrived set of comical events lead to an American tourist, visiting the Georgian mountains, stepping on a landmine. As the title suggests it subsequently clicks, leaving Chris (Sterling Knight) glued to the spot. At first the movie exploits this vulnerable position for a character study, with our marooned protagonist confronting the love triangle between himself and fellow travellers Alicia, (Spencer Locke) and Daniel (Dean Geyer). However, an overly exaggerated plot twist later and it’s just him and her, as she tries to dig a trench for him to leap in to. Enter Ilya (Kote Tolordava): a bumbling stereotype, with a dog, that will soon become the villain of the piece. His threat is initially well handled, being more an annoyance than a danger, thus making the film a frustrating watch, but preserving its blackly funny feel. However as viewers may be settling into the film’s ways it transitions from fun to full blown misogyny.
Sure, signs were there from the start, with Alicia’s slut shaming via a possessive Daniel. But for the second two thirds it seems to go beyond one character’s perspective, making for a deeply uncomfortable watch. We see Alicia being goaded giving Ilya her panties, taken her clothes off and then getting brutally raped. And this is before we meet the other women. The final act reverses the dynamic somewhat, with the newly introduced women being similarly reduced to the level of unthinking objects: mere pawns in a male driven game of chase. Now obviously there’s nothing inherently wrong with depicting these events and many great works in this genre have. But unfortunately director Bakhia exhibits neither the skill nor sensitivity to do so well, choosing to keep the tone goofy in a way that undermines the tragedy of the events. When going from funny to horrific it’s difficult to play the aftermaths for gratuitous laughs and violence without it being disrespectful. To be fair the ending attempts to contexualise the content, though this takes the form of a finale that weakly condemns the same behaviour it just spent 90 minutes reveling in. In short I expected this movie to be an explosive character-driven horror ala Frozen. Pity it was an overly mean-spirited dud.
Verdict: 1.5 out of 5.
FILM 2: THE DIABOLICAL (2015)
Directed by Alistair Legrand
It’s haunted house time! This is the first of today’s trilogy of specter movies. Here single mother Madison (Ali Larter) and her two children Hayley (Chloe Perrin) and Jacob (Max Rose) are kept awake at night forces so malevolent that paranormal experts dare not take it on. And to be fair, you can’t blame them – the monster designs are solid. When it all gets too much scientist boyfriend Joel (McCarrie McCausland) is recruited to help get to the bottom of it. However, a short trail of evidence soon suggests that maybe he knows more about events that he says. There’s a lot here to make it stand out above your average horror. There’s decent performances, especially from the young cast who are both total revelations.
There’s also some genuinely strong jump moments throughout as the threats appear then disappear around our frightened characters. Unfortunately the problems arise when the plot goes in a science fiction direction, with the introduction of Project Echo. The direction it takes is actually a very interesting one which looks at a fairly underutilised concept. Annoyingly it just isn’t explored enough and fails to live up to its potential. What would have excelled as a sci-fi with horror elements simply doesn’t work well as a horror with sci-fi elements. Consequently it ends without the coherence or intrigue that would have made it a much stronger piece of work and a genuinely inspired twist falls flat. Still, this is a debut film here and whilst Legrand doesn’t show himself to be a natural he’s certainly bursting with potential.
Verdict: 3 out of 5.
FILM 3: WORRY DOLLS (2015)
Directed by Padraig Reynolds
As with how Indiana Jones films start with the end of an unseen movie, Worry Dolls opens on the gory ending of a thrilling serial killer hunt. Led by divorced detective Matt (Christopher Wiehl), we see drills, guns and chains in a frankly thrilling set piece. Clearing up the considerable mess after, the police take all the killers’ possessions out of the lair. Amongst the usual suspects is a little wooden box of dolls. Now creepy dolls are something of a horror staple these days. But whilst they are normally old and dusty, here the terror comes from a batch of brightly coloured Guatemalan toys. After accidentally landing on the counter of Matt’s daughter Chloe’s (Kennedy Brice) stall these enchanted talismans begin to cause erratic behaviour in their owners.
A lot of this is done brilliantly, with Reynolds having a great eye for gore, utilising some unusual tools along the way and not shying away from making the suffering look genuinely painful. Yes there’s some very stunning kills and great use of discoloured makeup throughout. The blood pours out plentifully without it ever feeling cheap. Reynolds also knows how to bring out the best from his cast, with the believable relationship between Wiehl and Brice giving the film some powerful emotional stakes. What is less convincing is the supernatural element that gets awkwardly explained by a clichéd mystic black woman who lives in a hut. Juxtaposed against the gritty procedural that’s preceded it this feels like a plot element from a much worse film. Yes the premise is inherently supernatural, but as it turns into a race to burn some figurines I couldn’t help but feel some things are better left unexplained. Still, this can only detract so much from a film that has gotten so much else right.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
FILM 4: WE ARE STILL HERE
Directed by Ted Geoghegan
A 70s pastiche movie set in the wintry landscapes New England, this pulpy ghost film is maybe the single most successful marriage of comedy and horror I can think of. Prior to it playing the director assured us it was ok to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and laugh you will. The purposefully hammy acting is frequently hilarious, along with the pipeline dialogue and overly polarised character dynamics. Yet this is very respectful of its source material, with the team making, rather than mocking, a quintessential 70s horror. Following the death of their son, Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) hope to start over with the unconventional step of moving into a converted funeral home. This film being what it is they naturally have to confront their grief whilst getting haunted by the spirits of their new home.
Yes the story being told is a very traditional one, and save for a little computer enhancement on eerie the monsters (borrowed lovingly from Carpenter’s The Fog) it looks and feels like one too. However, the near-miraculous feat is doing so without feeling derivative or mocking. Rather it’s a batch of fresh tension-heavy setups, though it’s equally happy aiming for jumps. As the plot goes on there’s some notable turns from the supporting cast including evil villagers and some “spiritual” friends (Larry Fessenden & Lisa Marie) who visit and suffer in the house. However, if you’re expecting a traditional slow burn final act, ala Ti West tribute House of the Devil, think again. The blood hits every wall in the house in what is a hilariously gory final act. Overall this gives a bit of everything – decent scares, good laughs and even some touching character drama towards the end. A very fine example of what horror can both been and can still be.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
FILM 5: DEMONIC
Directed by Will Canon
This year’s jumpy supernatural horror is Demonic: another product from the James Wan and associates conveyor belt. This time it’s not just a haunted house by numbers – instead the movie encompasses other recent genre trends, with found footage, police procedurals and occult phenomena all blended into a movie that has too much going on, but too little to it. Following the brutal murder of five college students in the infamous Livingston house, detectives Mark (an underused Frank Grillo) and Elizabeth (an underused Mario Bello) speak to the sole survivor John (Dustin Milligan). The bulk of the movie’s made up of his narrative, though we leap back to the interrogation scenes periodically. His tale concerns mummy issues, a love triangle (unrelated to the mummy issues) and heaps of healthy scepticism. Handily it also features plenty discussion over a previous murder in the same house (that which made it infamous). Though the gist is that, as per many other well-intentioned paranormal investigations in horror, the young ghost hunters have bitten off more than they can chew.
Demonic is the kind of horror film that will do nothing for seasoned fans. Rather, as with Insidious, The Conjuring and Annabelle before, it’ll find its natural audience in children getting started on the genre or couples that see one a year on Halloween. It is to horror what The Stereophonic are to rock music. In defiance of the complex narrative, all scares are simple and telegraphed. Still, for all these flaws the workman like approach still offers the kind of technical competency and charm that’ll make you want to stick around and see how it ends. Though be warned that it does so via the sort of twist you’ll have likely seen coming from 20 minutes in. And those that didn’t will shrug. No it isn’t terrible. But then in a bustling market it’s a horror slice you’d only want to go for after it’s been greatly reduced.
Verdict: 2 out of 5.
FILM 6: JERUZALEM
Directed by Doran Paz & Yoav Paz
Got to admit I wasn’t looking forward to this one, but then if being a critic has taught me anything it’s to accept when I’m wrong. Finishing the day on a holy note, this Israeli production combines cutting edge technology with ancient grit and gives a new spin on found footage horror. As per Landmine Goes Click, Jeruzalem follows the plight of three American tourists. This is where similarities end though, as whilst the former told a small tale, here the frights take on an epic scale as Judgement Day rages. Our tourists in question are the likeable best friends Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) and Rachel (Yael Grobglas), plus the initially smug but charming anthropologist Kevin (Yon Tumarkin). Really though, the star of the show is Jerusalem. With seemingly unfettered access to the ancient city, the filmmakers present us with a version that’d both please and disgust the tourist board. We see the inside of picturesque temples, hidden down enigmatic side streets and deep caves below the belly of the city. Much of the first half is spent sight-seeing, yet it never drags because the sights we’re seeing are so impressive and far from the war zone most of us will be familiar with.
Once things go biblical the vast amounts of demons are more heard than seen. Yet those we do catch sight of are beautifully realised. There’s black angels, zombies and giants all stomping the streets and there to scare the heck out of them and (more importantly) you. Sure it’d have been nice to see some more of them, and I suspect some budgetary constraints have prevented this from being the case. But what we do see is an excellent calling card for the Paz brothers. A word on the found footage element – this is more of a perspective film than a standard down-in-the-woods diary. This time there’s no camera, but instead a set of Smart Glasses (i.e. Google Glasses). While at first seeming like just another excuse for shaky first person visuals, the device comes into its own throughout as maps, Wikipedia, videos, social media and Skype calls all get a chance to feature in the mix. Far from a cheap gimmick, this allows the backing story and sense of location to be skilfully built up on the move. It also gives the action a poignant side as Sarah’s worried father pops up from time to time: a kindly voice among all the hell. Like many first person films though, the scares get a bit incoherent towards the end and, prior to the stunning final shot, the third act possibly outstays its welcome. These are reasonably minor points though. Jeruzalem’s great – if you get a chance then do visit.
Verdict: 4 out of 5.
And from there it’s another night bus back. Landmine Goes Click being the worst of the day and Jeruzalem being a highlight – funny how these things work out.
For an interview with the Paz brothers watch this space.