Following a couple of night buses home, I get a few hours of sleep in then head West for Day 2. Fortunately, Saturday has some of the ones I’ve been most looking forward to. A black coffee later and I’m sat in my seat for:
FILM 1: MERCY
Directed by Chris Sparling
Home invasion time, with the new movie from the director of The Atticus Institute. Here two sets of estranged brothers-from-another-father return to their childhood home to say bye to their dying mum. Nobody knows how long she’s got, but curiously the father of the house may have a means to alieve her suffering. Predictably this brings up a series of questions about ethics and inheritance as the 5 men of the house (and one of them’s partner) try to come to a decision. But what starts as a well-judged, and refreshingly ethically balanced, familial drama in the first half turns to a furious fight for survival in the second.
How audiences take to this will depend on how much they appreciate the jigsaw narrative that follows. I really dug it, though it admittedly doesn’t serve much of a purpose except to tempt viewers down a path that it should be fairly obvious the film’s not going to follow. Still, it’s rewarding to see how the chronology lines up and gradually find out the fates of each character. There’s some intensely claustrophobic scares along with some genuinely unnerving jump moments (none of which are false). The invaders causing them are creepy as hell, and for once their every move is accounted for! The main cast are great at selling the scary bits along with bringing the strained dynamics to life and selling their role’s internal lives.
I was completely on-board up until the last part, where there’s some unnecessary humour. Worse, this is followed by an unconvincing plot twist that’s entirely reliant on people speaking in vague, unnatural dialogue earlier on. Furthermore, the geography in and out the house is also never laid out, though I appreciate this is a pedantic point. There’s a lot to like here and it further identifies Spalding as one to watch. A good one for a stormy night in.
FILM 2: FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET
Directed by Alastair Orr
The film focuses of the abduction of a wealthy diamond dealer’s daughter, from the titular location. Only, unknown to her kidnappers, is not as vulnerable as she first seems. Instead she appears to be possessed by a demon many times nastier than they are, and able to project ghosts from their past around the room (yet is seemingly unable to break a chain). Not the most novel of premises. And that’s really my main issue with this one. Being a supernatural spookfest from South Africa, it maybe seems something of a curiosity. Yet it hits many of the same notes as a mediocre American horror.
We have the same green-tinted neo-noir visuals that Saw made standard, screeching musical jolts, a steamy factory setting and lots of ham-fisted dialogue to offer backing story (the bit that explains why that girl and that house was unintentionally funny). Accordingly, it struggles to develop a sense of identity or deliver much fresh scares. The characters are similarly generic, with most of their arcs being telegraphed and their visions too bland to justify the concept. They also talk in largely functional dialogue that exists mostly to prompt the next scene. Still, this doesn’t mean it’s bad per se. It’s visually impressive, has some strong set pieces and the pacing’s fairly good – so it passes on enough of the fundamentals that it won’t have viewers put down their popcorn to hit the stop button. Hence despite my complaints I can picture many a punter enjoying it enough. But I can’t imagine any loving it.
FILM 3: HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL
Directed by Marty Stalker
As a documentary about a real life exorcist, one could be forgiven for sneering at this entry. Yet despite being a staunch atheist, and long-since lapsed catholic, it’s one of the movies I was most looking forward to. Tracking the demon-fighting adventures of Father Malachi Martin, up until his odd death in 1999, Hostage to the Devil is a captivating series of surprisingly sober talking heads and old footage of the man spliced with some reconstructions (and lots of stock-footage of people walking).
For the first half, the film weaves together a tapestry of contradictions and arguments to present its subject as a complex and flawed man. Some say he’s a saint and others a sociopath. Arguably this is the movie at its most interesting, along with its most balanced. The accounts make Martin seem sincere and fraudulent in equal measures, and some of the backstage at the church info is really fascinating. The second half is more concerned with exorcisms themselves and the nature of demonic possession. Horror fans may be particularly interested to learn about the misconceptions with what typically happens in these cases, along with what actually “does”. Furthermore, sceptics may be surprised at how rigorous the screening process is for people to be seen in the first place. Then come the climatic scenes, concentrating on specific case, that are so atmospheric and the narration so powerful, that it’ll leave even the most doubtful thinking maybe there’s something to it.
Problem is the more the movie goes by, the less objective it becomes. With alternative explanations for some of the biggest events, in particular its subject’s death, shoved aside in favour of faith over rational discussion. How people feel about the final product is likely influenced by their own convictions. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it because I’m not religious, and others will because they are etc. Rather it’s not rigorous enough for believers or non-believers to be challenged. Instead the narrative tries to answer questions without admitting there are any to begin with. There’s also much ebb and flow to the storytelling. Some sections are seemingly tied loosely by theme over chronology, meaning attention jumps back and forth, and also for a short and punchy doc there’s much footage of speakers repeating themselves. This means the momentum gets lost and what ought to be a ‘next’ eventually feels like a ‘more’. Still, at its best Hostage to the Devil is a deeply engrossing and very informative documentary. But with a few touches it could have been a classic.
FILM 4: WHITE COFFIN
Directed by Daniel de la Vega
The best of the fest ‘til now – and first to make me think ‘wow’. An Argentine horror, this is a brief but brilliant road movie gone wrong. Virginia (Julieta Cardinali) is driving to an uncertain future with her daughter Rebecca, when she stops at a gas station for food and a call of the annoyed dad. However, things go from bad to worse when her kid vanishes. It’s any parents’ nightmare. It gets harder though, and before too long as has just a few hours to find her. During which Virginia faces increasingly mystic forces, as she meddles with the occult. But how far will she go to save her loved one?
People that have read more than a handful of my reviews may know a recurring sore-point for me is movies that trade off nostalgia and cinematic heritage at the expense of plot and character. White Coffin ought to be no exception, with it feeling like a large Euro-70s homage. But it’s just so damn good! An absolute banquet for your eyes and ears, every last frame of this is beautifully constructed with vivid colours, eerie sounds and just enough gore to satisfy hounds without presenting a distraction. Sure, the story’s maybe not particularly well developed, in particular some of the motivations are never made especially clear. Yet the performances are utterly raw, meaning even if the reason something happens is vague the emotional resonance is not. This is especially true towards the end, where Virginia has to make one of the toughest decisions any person can. Moreover, these relative weaknesses can be forgiven since the other-worldly quality is genuinely mesmerizing. In all, not a jack of all trades. But in terms of presentation it’s thus far the most striking horror of 2016.
FILM 5: THE UNRAVELING
Directed by Thomas Jakobsen
This is one I really wasn’t looking forward to, seeing it because there wasn’t much else on. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by it. The movie follows the exploits of a stag-do with a difference. Having missed out on a trip to Vegas, because he was too darn high, drug addict Mike (Zack Gold) is taken to some woods by ‘the guys’ (Jason Tobias, Bennett Viso and Bob Turton). Here he has to contend with something worse than the odd dare or being photographed with his arse out. For when going for a drunken wee he worries they may not be alone in the wilderness.
For fans of backwoods horrors there’s much of the classic iconography and standards. There’s no phone signal, people ducking between trees, a cabin in the woods (complete with a convenient axe) and ritualised violence. To be fair, it delivers on these tropes without feeling too clichéd for the most part. This could be because it’s not shot with much sensation – it’s glossy, but isn’t fast-paced, gritty or jumpy. It’s also maybe because it spends a lot of time developing character relationships and revelling in slightly crude, but often poignant, manly banter. The cast may not be individually great, but as a group they make one of the most believable sets of horror friends I can think of in ages. On a shoestring budget, The Unraveling knows it’d be dumb to try and scare with elaborate effects and well timed strings. Instead it relies upon pure atmosphere and your goodwill for those that are under threat. For the most part it’s adept at doing so, and as the body count starts rising it gets seriously tense. There’s not much in the way of gore, but then there doesn’t have to be when the sense of dread is so thick.
That’s until a third act turn ruins much of what came before. It’s not that the twist itself is bad – although it works against the realism of the movie elsewhere – it’s that the film cheats a little to get there. And whilst of course it’s about the journey stupid, I can see many of the audience leaving let down. It starts off well enough, but come the end the idea is better than the practice. But then isn’t that true of camping too?
FILM 6: PET
Directed by Carles Torrens
My limited experience of Dominic Monaghan has been as happy hobbit Merry and cuddly-junky Charlie Pace. As such I didn’t know how believable an antagonist he’d make. Thankfully, as per his old co-star Elijah Wood, he takes to the dark material like a dog to the track. Starring in this eerie psychological thriller as socially awkward canine pound worker Seth, he drops much (but not all) of his past charm for an unnerving powerhouse of a performance. Opposite him, as object of his affection Holly, is the equally excellent Ksenia Solo. The pair meet on a bus, when he recalls they used to go to high school together. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember him and is far less interested in reconnecting. What follows is a dark tale of love, loneliness and obsession, as the down on his luck Seth tries to make her want him as much as he does her.
It’d be very easy to give the game away with this one, so I’ll say little more on the plot. Except that the traditional, and accomplished, stalker first half develops into something much darker and less predictable for the second. For when Seth captures his old crush, caging her, things don’t go the way you’d necessarily think. Rather it becomes a contest of cat and mouse where the roles keep reversing. Each one understands the other a little more than they do themselves, and knows how to push the right or wrong buttons. Audiences can except to have their identification pushed to the limit throughout, with each of the key cast finding nuance and empathy for their challenging parts. Visually it looks great, with the director being confining where needed and occasionally very gory. These elements pull together to make a fantastic small-scale horror: one that, like a well-trained dog, will stay with you.
Coming soon: an interview with star Dominic Monaghan.
I come out to the dark, drunk noises of a Saturday. Hooray for the night tube!