Three days down and two to go. Online this was the day that most people seemed to be looking forward to. I can see why – looking at my schedule there’s a fine-looking mix of the funny, the freaky and the festive. I arrive feeling tired but enthused and see the following:
FILM 1: ROAD GAMES (2015)
Directed by Abner Pastoll
There’s a killer on the road. This feature debut takes places in rural France (though it was shot in England), where the locals speak in fear of a serial killer that appears to target young hitchhikers and old people. Cue a cast with youthful hitchers Jack (Andrew Simpson) and Veronique (Josephine de La Baume) plus creepy elders Grizard (Frederic Pierrot) and Mary (Barbara Crampton). The simple plot sees the younger cast members getting picked up then staying in a postcard mansion, owned by the older two. But as darkness falls things get creepy as they learn their hosts are not as normal as they first seemed. There’s an engaging mystery to the first half, with enough red herrings dropped that any of the main cast may be the murderer in question. Technically it’s a strong effort too, with great cinematography, a quality score and charismatic performances (especially from Crampton). And whilst some of this groundwork is undermined by an overkill of ironic comical dialogue, it remains a genuinely tense piece of countryside cinema. Yeah, it may seem a little slow, but at this stage we assume Pastoll knows what he’s doing and the payoff will be something great.
It saddens me to say the second half fails to meet this potential, resulting in an identity crisis that undermines a lot of the character work and never commits fully to a tone. The final piece feels disjointed, with too much ebb and flow. It’s neither violent enough to be visceral, funny enough to be a horror-comedy or deep enough to be arty. There’s a twist at the end, though it seems so utterly incoherent with what’s happened that I suspect audiences will feel cheated rather than saying ‘of course!’ There’s also a second antagonist that enters the picture but receives very little context, seeming to serves no greater purpose than simply being another threat: a further loose thread in an already badly sewn together second half.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
FILM 2: INNER DEMON (2014)
Directed by Ursula Dabrowsky
Another rural horror – this time from down under. Unfairly compared to The Babadook, for no reason other than Aussie heritage, this is a slow paced horror about kidnapping. A tense intro sees sisters Sam (Sarah Jeavons) and her sister get abducted by backwoods dwellers Karl (Andreas Sobik) and Denise (Kerry Ann Reid). Fortunately Sam escapes, though unfortunately the trail she takes leads her straight into her captor’s house and results in her being tucked away out of sight inside their cupboard. This chase section is thrilling, with a sustained sense of threat despite the minimal gore or even exposure to the very human enemies. But once hidden in their closet, here Sam stays for the entire second act which, despite this minimalist setup, makes for a brilliantly claustrophobic exercise in building tension. During this section the villains argue with one another, have company over for drinks and creepily riff on fairy tales in a scene equally odd and sinister. The performances are brilliantly grimy and bring life to some fairly underwritten baddies. Meanwhile Jeavons, determined even in her vulnerability, keeps us invested in the outcome.
Though where it goes from here will please some audiences and really irritate others. I very much fall into the latter, as the ‘til then harsh realism gives way for an all too metaphorical supernatural turn. Come the credits the finale ends up being one that may resolve the movie’s wider themes in an emotionally satisfying ways, but seems completely at odds with the story being told. As with Road Games above, I felt cheated by a third act that had minimal build up. Which is a shame as it did so much right before then.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
FILM 3: SLUMLORD (2015)
Directed by Victor Zarcoff
A movie for those of you that have known the horror of a bad landlord. If you thought your’s not fixing the noisy pipe was bad, wait until you see what newlyweds Claire (Brianne Moncrief) and Ryan (PJ McCabe) have to put up with from their voyeuristic foe. Among other things there’s surveillance, chains set up in their soundproofed basement and their dog getting sick of the endless supply of bacon burgers he takes round in secret. With some of the movie coming from cameras placed secretly around the house, you could be forgiven for expecting this to be a similar deal to Hangman. However, the key differences between this movie and yesterday’s is that this time the character drama is engaging. Focusing on Ryan’s affair with his assistant Hannah (Sarah Baldwin), Slumlord is an effective look at when the idealism of a young marriage fizzles out. Of course Ryan doesn’t act honourably, but same time it’s handled realistically enough that we don’t give up on him throughout. Both leads hone their roles and when the two plotlines finally meet it is a tense battle for survival that culminates in a genuinely horrific last few minutes.
These tandem plots never mix satisfyingly though, and I was left wanting to see a bit more of the titular slumlord (a grotesque Neville Archambault) since the performance is so unnerving. In particular it’d maybe have been good to see something that fleshes him out, beyond a rancid caricature, and offer him a greater context. These limitations aside though, Slumlord is an interesting example of a delayed tension that, when it happens, fully lives up to expectations. Even if the idea of a young American middle class couple moving into a house with a basement and not turning it into a den, gym or study pushes credibility.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
FILM 4: SUMMER CAMP (2015)
Directed by Alberto Marini
Ah school camp! Care free days of archery, orienteering and rage. So goes this new horror from genre veteran producer turned director Marini. As per Day 2’s Jeruzalem and Landmine Goes Click, Summer Camp focuses on vulnerable young Americans going abroad. This time the destination is Spain as they take up work as counsellors in a disused mansion where kids go to stay. Alas, the night before the brats show up there’s an outbreak of contagious rage that makes people hungry for blood. Whilst this may sound like an idea that took 28 seconds to come up with, this offering does throw some new ideas into the mix. In particular, the rage is only temporary rather than being a constant infection. This extra ingredient to the formula allows for some very funny mixups as characters assume others to still be infected when they’re trying to get their attention. This simple twist on the infected formula keeps the identity of any survivors a surprise and adds an enjoyable layer of paranoia to proceedings. It also means the gang want to try their darndest to not kill each other since they may still come back.
In terms of writing there’s a lot to enjoy, with frequent callbacks to small details recurring throughout the movie. Unfortunately where it stumbles is in introducing too many new ingredients towards the end (particularly some new baddies to fight), making the longwinded payoff seem unfocused and incomplete. It also never quite settles into a consistent tone, with comedy being emphasised in the final act but largely absent throughout. More crucially, for its handful of new ideas it still just feels a little too generic, with few standout set-pieces that can elevate it above other not-really-zombie films.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
FILM 5: A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2015)
Directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban & Brett Sullivan
Slay-bells rings in this festive anthology of ho-ho-horror, where 3 filmmakers get in touch with the dark spirits of Christmas. From this grim parcel they pull out Santa fight zombie elves, one family run in fear of a Krampus while another bring home a changeling and finally a group of kids investigate the dark past of their school. All of these cinematic gifts are accompanied by the words of William Shatner, playing local DJ Dan who tries, and fails, to keep the night holly jolly. With the exception of the school plot (the token pack of socks), which never establishes or explores its own lore in a meaningful way, the different shorts are all crackers. Furthermore, there’s quite a chris-massacre with forks, staffs and chains turning the snow red.
However, a frustrating aspect is the decision not to treat the movies like a traditional anthology i.e. one after the other. Instead the chronicle leaps between them freely. Whilst this initially gives A Christmas Story a dynamic feel, it also sacrifices some of its narrative coherence, with each of them building tension and arriving at their third acts with very different pacing. For instance, Santa is knee deep in elves’ blood whilst the others are gaining momentum. This kind of ebb and flow definitely hurts the final product. However, when a late twist in the tale skilfully waves together some of the movie’s contents it means we go out on a bang. A solid all round effort, and more than just a token stocking filler.
Verdict 4 out of 5
With the night ending at eleven it’s a relatively early night. Feeling content I take the tube back and enjoy my complimentary candy cane.