Come Day three it’s not uncommon for festival fatigue to kick in. Two days down, so it’s getting hard for anything to seem truly shocking. Still, with some terrific looking films today I enter with high spirits to watch:
FILM 1: THE MASTER CLEANSE
Directed by Bobby Miller
My new pick for film of the year – and I don’t just mean horror. The movie’s a surprisingly sweet monster one takes a rather literal approach to our need to conquer personal demons. Haunted by an old breakup and in pain, Paul (Johnny Galecki of The Big Bang Theory fame) needs his life to start afresh. So he’s understandably overjoyed when he gets given the chance to take a trip to the misty mountains as part of a new self-help programme, dedicated to personal cleansing. However, once there things go from hippy to horrific as he and fellow patients lose more than just painful memories. Each births a cute little monster made from all their bad bits, with their own mannerisms, and looking something like a ‘butterball’. But be warned – though they’re cute when they’re small, as hipsters find out about pet pigs, they’ll get bigger.
Writing this shortly review afterwards, I don’t mind saying the ending almost made me cry. Everything works. The script is tight, the escalation is masterful, the effects are spot on. And for a monster movie it’s deeply human. This is a movie I really don’t want to spoil, as I fear it’d be extremely easy to do. But what I will say is it’s a lot more emotionally involving than I’d initially figured. Galcki is brilliant, absorbing every last punch life throws at him but never losing the will to love. The times when he’s with his creature are a genuine joy to behold. Anna Friel also excels as the equally troubled Maggie, and elevates her character beyond a woman to be won, as is often the case in awkward-man comedies. Her story (when we eventually get it) is heart-breaking and the performance very raw. The rest do a lot with their more limited screen-time, creating a cast it’s hard not to feel for. And that’s what this film’s all about: feelings.
The ones we can’t let go off, and maybe don’t even want to. Yeah, many of the jokes land, and it’ll make you smile. But before a more life affirming final act, the main thing it’ll make you feel is sad. Everything in this ought to be very relatable – particularly in an age where we can communicate a lot but don’t always make the time to really talk.
FILM 2: THE REZORT
Directed by Steve Barker
Following on from his Outpost series, Steve Barker returns to zombies in this movie that’s Jurassic Park by way of Romero. In the wake of an outbreak, that saw 2 billion die, the undead are rounded up and put into a safari park setting on a stunning island. Here the wealthy pay many, many pounds for the privilege of hunting them down for sport/ fun and revenge. Among them on this visit there’s a pair of former soldiers two horny teens that love their first person shooters, a mourner plus a should-be bride that couldn’t get a refund. As per any other zombie movie the real flesh of it comes down to how the protagonists are characterised, in the absence of an interesting enemy. And for the most part the cast work great together despite not having too much to work with ‘til things inevitably go wrong.
With this I’m not really sure where the running time went. As an action adventure, the money shots are fairly well put together, with some high octane chases, a pumping soundtrack and powerful set pieces. Yet there’s minimal drama to fuel it. From the beginning the film’s central conflict is clear: if the undead can be considered “fair game” or not. Heck, there’s even a cringy ‘I wonder who the real zombies are’ moment. But save for a genuinely excellent (and very dark) twist towards the end this ethical dilemma is undermined by the blood-thirsty tone and high body count. Not that it isn’t welcome to be reminded zombies aren’t cuddly – but in laying the groundwork for an anti-zombie movie it’s jarring to see it so aggressively become one. Our sympathies stop being played with when the film becomes the very thing its against. Furthermore, as with how Outpost dealt with its silly Nazi-zombie premise too seriously (for a more rounded effort see Dead Snow), The Rezort downplays the inherent ridiculousness of its own. To me, this seems a mistake. Be it through an exploration of capitalism on steroids, or lampooning a sadistic voyeurism among audience members, it feels there’s a potential for a satire that’s not fully realised. In a saturated market of zombie films, this would have made all the difference. Thus when it eventually overcomes its novel setup, in favour of a running and gunning second act, it’s all very good and well. But it should have been more.
FILM 3: ABATTOIR
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
Since quitting the mainstream when he was younger than I am, to do an outlandish musical, Darren Lynn Bousman is a director I’ve always had respect for. Yet ’til now his output’s never quite wowed me. There tends to be moments of greatness let down by questionable narrative decisions, overly twee visual stylings or tonal inconsistency. However, not only is Abattoir his most complete movie to date, it also tests the boundaries of the haunted house subgenre and sees the birth of an excellent new villain. First our hero: Julia (Jessica Lowndes). She’s a journalist aching for a crime to solve, finds her sister massacred via a tense home invasion sequence. What’s weird is house is snapped up, and the murder room entirely gutted, by the ominous Jebediah Crone (Dayton Callie). What the hell’s going on? She teams up with colleague, and partial love interest Grady to find out (Joe Anderson; also seen this long weekend in My Father Die). Despite the gruesome getup, the tone isn’t strictly a horror one: rather than first act owes more to film noir, with the leads channeling the likes of Bogart on a grim mystery. This takes them on a trip to a cursed small town, through the woods eventually a stunning mansion literally made of death.
If there’s a problem it’s some slow-down in the second act that sees the plot slow down then unfold through outright telling rather than showing. Though once it gets where it’s going, taking some interesting twists and turns on the way, then it’s well worth the wait: the third act is about the closest I’ve ever seen to a nightmare being captured onscreen. In this house the same tragedies play on repeat: unfortunate souls forced to live their dying moments time and time again. The cinematography becomes increasingly complex, smoky and frankly fucked up. Each shot is excellently constructed, having the same attention to detail as a panel in the comics it was based on. With a vast palette of colour, truly unnerving effects and the sounds of jazz horns squeaking in the distance it’s pure Bousman. And now that he’s opened the door to his Abattoir I hope he has us back for guests again – looks like there’s so much to explore.
Coming soon: an extended review and a 2 part interview with creator/ director Bousman.
FILM 4: BEYOND THE WALLS
Directed by Hervé Hadmar
A three part miniseries, from France, focusing on the psychological torment of a 30 year old speech therapist, named Lisa (Veerle Baetens). After another day in the office, her life takes an interesting turn when she finds herself inheriting a creaky old house across the road courtesy of an enigmatic, benefactor. Still, the mysteries surrounding why she got it are soon forgotten for the mysteries inside it. One evening, after she’s moved her stuff in, she hears the sounds of some crying beyond the walls. Breaking through one of them down to identify the source, she finds herself in a hidden world of corridors, candles and creepy figures. She tries to navigate the labyrinth, to get back to home, when she meets Julian (François Deblock), a young looking solider from decades before. To escape the hellish world they must work together and track down something known as ‘the red door’. And this is just the first episode.
The pacing of each part is fantastic, with rarely a dull moment. The world it presents is exceptionally sinister and well crafted, with each part of the maze being immensely atmospheric and the creatures we see truly threatening. It may seem too early to say, but I don’t doubt that by the end of the festival this will be the scariest thing I’ve seen by far. It’s definitely the scariest TV show I can think of. Across the 3 episodes the range of locations is pretty extensive. It’s not just stone hallways – no, Lisa’s quest takes her through tunnels, into woodlands and across the greenest pastures. It all adds up to a dazzling but deeply haunting journey. There are some problems with the script – in particular, neither character nor their backing story are quite interesting enough to ground the show, and the romance seems shoehorned. For a movie this wouldn’t matter so much – but for a show the lack of character depth is crucial: particularly for one which becomes a perspective piece at points. Furthermore, as touching as the ending is, it doesn’t quite feel like it was earned based what we’ve actually seen enfold. Rather it seems like the closing of something very different and altogether more poignant. Nonetheless, it’s a truly gripping piece of horror television and further proof if it were needed that the French do good frights.
Beyond The Walls is coming soon to Shudder streaming services.
FILM 5: SADAKO VS. KAYAKO
Directed by Koji Shiraishi
It’s the endless Japanese franchise showdown literally nobody asked for: The Ring vs. The Grudge. aka the poor man’s Godzilla vs Kong. Still, with me having many fond teenage memories of each franchise, there’s no way I was going to miss it.
In a familiar start, Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) watches a dusty old VHS and finds herself haunted by the evil, pale, long haired, girl Sadako. Meanwhile, on the other end of town Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro) saunters into the old Saeki house, attracting the attention of evil, pale, long haired, woman Kayako. But can these two plucky hauntees pull together, to combat their respective curses, by making the mythical monsters duke it out? You’ll have to wait a long time to find out. It’s about 90% through the movie’s running time that the titular fiends finally meet. And when they do it’s hardly an epic slobber knocker either. A few enjoyable hits aside, and an admittedly pretty cool outcome, the conflict focuses more on the humans watching it than our two favourite Asian ghosts. A let down considering, since the original April Fools Joke, it’s this that the audience will be eager to see.
However, in the place of an epic confrontation is a surprisingly funny take on the Ring franchise with a lot of self-awareness. It acknowledges, bends and outright mocks previous entries. The sudden appearance of the charismatic ghosthunter Keizo (Masanobu Ando), with a blind psychic sidekick, also offers something new. But make no mistake – this is very much Sadako’s movie. Sure, Kayako and her kid are up to the usual croaky tom-foolery – though her inclusion feels more like a subplot. Which is unfortunate as, despite poking fun at it, the gusto with which this sticks to the now aging template is disappointing. At its best, this is a love-letter to the late 90s/ early 00s J-horror scene. But at its worse it’s yet another disappointing picture with the word vs in the title. Give me more Tucker and Dale.
And from there it’s back home I go. All in all a mixed day, but with a lot more good than bad. But with another five films tomorrow, and five the day after, the best may be yet to come.