Wednesday, 28 August 2013

FrightFest 14 aka FrightFest the Last

I know I wrote last year that I was having serious doubts about continuing the long weekend marathon that FrightFest has become, but we decided to put ourselves through the wringer once again this year. I'm not sure it was the right decision and again, I have real reservations about buying the weekend pass next year. Perhaps the time has come to evaluate the proposed programme and to opt for tickets for selected movies only. That would provide less wear and tear on our weary old bones and might also result in less fighting to stay awake during some of the less involving offerings. Apart from anything else, the big screen at the Empire Cinema is being split in two later this year, and the organisers will then be forced to rethink the whole layout of the fest weekend. Mind you an increased selection at smaller screens might avoid something of the current mob scene which is one of the weekend's lesser appeals.

With all of the above bitching, you would be right to conclude that I was somewhat less than enchanted with the whole shooting match. We did manage to take in twenty films over the four and a half days, which is only six less than we could have scheduled, but it was still something of an effort and, dare I say, a disappointment. Having decided in advance to skip the five late night showings (in terms of getting home each evening while transport was still running), to try to limit the usually amateurish first-film offerings from British directors, and to studiously avoid any movie reeking of 'found footage' (we had our fill of it last year), there were still technically enough options left to make for an entertaining weekend. Why then were there so few films that really left me enthused? I will try to capsule each film that we saw, but there were only a few which I have any desire to discuss at length:

Opening night: "The Dead 2: India" - Never having seen the first offering from the British Ford Brothers, I gather that this movie is more of the same, but on a larger scale. A British engineer with a cute tyke in tow has to ward off hordes of white-eyed zombies (over and over and over) to get back to his rather hideous and pregnant girlfriend. Super!
                           "Curse of Chucky" - The fifth entry in the malevolent doll series still features the voice of Brad Dourif and its somewhat strained scenario references the previous films. Chucky remains a reliably scary entity and at least Jennifer Tilly appears in a cameo at the film's end, but I think Chucky has now had his movie day. Until someone decides to "re-imagine" the whole deal of course!

Day One: "The American Scream" - A mildly entertaining documentary on how some obsessed families in one small New England town plan all year to turn their homes into houses of horror to celebrate Halloween. Certainly no reason to give it an 18-certificate however.
                  "Dementamania" - Billed as 'The Fly meets The Office' this film chronicles the meltdown of an uptight City worker when he steps on a wasp after his morning shower. Both the day and his mental state deteriorate rapidly, until he (and we) no longer know what is really real. Reasonably well-done but somewhat forgettable.
                  "Sadik 2" (I gather there was never a "Sadik 1) - We usually try to include as many foreign language movies as possible on the grounds that they are less likely to ever receive a British release. This French one follows a group of six friends who are off to a rented cottage for their annual New Years Eve reunion, little realising that they are scheduled to be picked off one by one by the crew shooting a snuff movie in another part of the building. A surprising twist after a somewhat leisurely start, but ultimately not much cop.
                   "Haunter" - A professional turn from young Abigail Breslin, far removed from her "Little Miss Sunshine" days, where she plays the rising 16-year old daughter of a dead family doomed to repeat each day a la "Groundhog Day" until their spirits can be freed. An interesting spin on the boundaries between the dead and the living from the interesting director Vincenzo Natali.
                   "Wither" - We chose this Swedish film over the popular choice of "V-H-S 2" since nothing could encourage me to watch the parent movie a second time. This was yet another variation of the "Sadik" scenario where a group of friends on a holiday jaunt meet bloody deaths. It was engagingly made with plenty of gore, but just went on too long to avoid being overly repetitive.

Day Two: Arriving too late in the morning to secure any of the alternate selections, we were 'stuck' with the main screen programme:
                  "The Hypnotist" - I must confess that I had high hopes for this Swedish film after "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" premiered here some years back. This one is not in the same involving category and is more akin to the Scandinavian made-for-television series that have been gracing BBC4's television screens most Saturday nights for the past years. Although the film was Sweden's entry in the Oscar race -- the story of a disgraced doctor using his hypnotic abilities to unlock the memories of the teenaged survivor of a family massacre -- it's an adaptation of a popular novel that might have been more at home on the small screen.
                   "Frankenstein's Army" - Russian soldiers in the last days of World War II stumble upon a secret Nazi laboratory where a mad scientist is creating unstoppable new soldiers from the body parts of the dead. While the monster creations are very visually imaginative, the film is something of a hard watch since all of the cast are speaking in 'funny' accents. It's a movie that may well find a cult audience in due course. Anything is possible!
                   "No One Lives" - We skipped the middle film of the afternoon ("Hammer of the Gods"), since I had no desire to involve myself in gratuitous Saxon violence; I had my fill of that with "Game of Thrones". This next film on the programme from the now US-based director Ryuhei Kitamura was a somewhat muddled affair. Some time after the massacre of fourteen students, a gang of toughs hijack the car driven by the slaughter's perp and his comely hostage, whose father has posted a substantial reward. The resulting bloody mayhem as psycho faces off against psycho left me a little baffled, as the two lead actors looked remarkably interchangeable.
                   "R.I.P.D -3D" - I had read several pretty negative reviews of this film, but hoped that the combination of an engaging premise and the presence of the ever-watchable Jeff Bridges would be sufficient compensation. The title stands for 'Rest-in-Peace Department', a posse of deceased cops from various eras, who police the after-world against marauding mutants, all very derivative from the Men in Black series, but less imaginatively envisioned. Bridges plays a gentlemanly Western type (very definitely hamming OTT) who is teamed up with a new recruit, the slightly boss-eyed Ryan Reynolds who has been dispatched by baddie Kevin Bacon. They must battle to save the world from a deadly scheme that will erase the boundaries between heaven and hell. When they return to earth they are seen by earthlings in different forms -- Bridges as a voluptuous blonde and Reynolds as a dweeby elderly Chinaman. That's the level of the so-called humour. The 3-D effects added virtually nothing and seemed to be out of proportion much of the time. The film could have been a whole lot better I reckon and it is apparently one of the many flops of the Stateside tent-pole summer.

I had intended to cover the entire week-end in one blog entry, but this has rapidly fallen into the 'too-long-to-read' category. I will therefore return to the subject, hopefully well before my regular Wednesday entries, to deal with the last two days. I should be able to drum up some enthusiasm for the task since the two movies I liked best (and really liked) were shown on days three and four respectively. That's it for now...  

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Woman in Black (2012)

Forget about "The Conjuring" (see below). If you want to see a really scary movie, try this one:

Frankly, I was in no rush whatsoever to see this film, despite a young lady of my acquaintance (stand up Mara!) repeatedly asking me if I had a copy. Probably because I knew that the stage play has been running here for the best part of twenty-five years and because I had seen the 1989 television movie which left me distinctly underwhelmed, I decided in advance that the movie starring a grown-up Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) would be nothing special. I was so wrong.

The play, the TVM, and this film are all based on Susan Hill's 1983 novel which I've not read. However where all previous versions have been effectively a two-hander, with the aged Arthur Kipps relating the strange experiences of his past to a young actor, crafty screenwriter Jane Goldman has opened the story out to encompass a large cast and some very spooky scenery. Set in late Victorian times, Radcliffe plays a young solicitor, not in his firm's best books, who is sent to a remote village to sort out the affairs of the late Mrs. Drablow. Her sprawling and isolated mansion, Eel Marsh House, is set on salt marshes at the end of Nine Lives Causeway and is totally inaccessible at high tide. While it is a little hard not to associate the Potter persona with Radcliffe, he makes a convincing young widower and devoted father to his four-year old son, anxious to secure his job. What he is not prepared for is the hostility of the local villagers, all of whom encourage him to turn tail and return to London on the next train. The exception is a local gent played by Ciaran Hinds who befriends the young man, although he too has suffered the loss of a young child, in common with too many others in the community. They have all heard of the infamous woman in black, whom Kipps reports as having seen at the supposedly empty house, and they believe that her vengeful spirit has carried away the village youngsters. Kipps' own beloved son is due to arrive with his nanny later that week to spend a 'jolly' weekend in the country with his dad.

As he valiantly wades through the tons of paperwork he finds at Eel Marsh, he learns that Mrs. Drablow had been raising a boy as her own son, who was actually the offspring of her mentally unbalanced sister; the lad drowned in the surrounding marshes and his body was never recovered. His real mother hanged herself in sorrow, and it is apparently her restless spirit that has been seeking revenge, appearing as the black-garbed ghost. Kipps witnesses the horrifying deaths of some more local kiddies and develops a theory that if he can find the missing body and place it in the mother's grave, reuniting her with her lost son, the curse will be lifted. This gives rise to some harrowing scenes where, with Hinds' help, Radcliffe dives in and out of the muddy swamp to find the boy's amazingly preserved corpse. However, in a denouement which is radically different from previous versions, the fearsome lady is still not at rest. Without spoiling the movie, let me just say that the finale is a strange mixture of a startling and depressing event, which could in its way be read as an acceptable happy ending.

Director James Watkins, in his sophomore outing (he previously wrote and directed the beware-the-children shocker "Eden Lake"), makes sparing use of the regular horror clichés, unlike "The Conjuring" which tries to include them all. What the film creates is a lurking apprehension -- nothing seems quite right. So when the jolts appear -- strange noises, the brief apparitions, the self-rocking chair, the scary old toys acquiring a life of their own -- the viewer readily jumps. There are no guts or gore, and unusually no attempt is made to stop our seeing the all-too-solid spectral wraith. As one of the first productions from the newly-revived Hammer Studios, home of classic British horrors of the 50s and 60s, this is a superb example of how to modernize horror effectively for our times.

Talking about horror, FrightFest has rolled around again and will be filling my days from tomorrow through Monday evening. I know I've said previously that I should really give up these marathon days, but we've purchased the week-end pass yet again.  Maybe next year??? Anyhow you can expect to read the first reports sometime next week.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Frankenweenie (2012)

I wrote last week that there are some films that I just can't wait to see on their release and the above stop-motion animation from quirky director Tim Burton was one of them. However, somehow I didn't get around to seeing it in the cinema, although I knew in my heart of hearts that it was a movie that I would love. I finally caught up with it a few days ago and found it a joyful viewing experience, but I can understand why it was not the runaway success that it deserved to be.

By way of background, Burton started off his career as an animator at Disney, and during this period he turned out two short films. The first was a brief and macabre stop-motion animation called "Vincent", narrated by Burton's hero and mentor Vincent Price and the second in 1984 was a 25-minute oddity called "Frankenweenie". Unlike the above movie, it was actually a live-action feature, starring Shelley Duval, Daniel Stern, Joseph Maher, and even a 14-year old Sofia Coppola (in a blonde wig). The story is of young Victor Frankenstein, played by Barret Oliver, whose best pal Sparky is killed while chasing a ball. The boy brings his beloved dog back to life by experimenting with lightning a la his namesake's 1932 film, much to the horror of his neighbours. They pursue the animal to a windmill on a miniature golf course which is set on fire, trapping the boy and the re-animated dog, but good old Sparky drags the lad to safety at the expense of his second life -- to their chagrin. Understandably Burton and Disney soon parted company, as his stories and outlook were a little too 'dark' for their candy-coated world of the time.

So it is a satisfying twist of fate that Disney has backed Burton's remake of a story that obviously he has treasured over the years. Choosing to film in black and white as an homage to the horror classics of the 1930s and not using the bright colours and 3-D effects that have taken over recent animations, it is easy to understand why this film lacks an immediate appeal for today's children and why it was not a sure-fire hit. It is however a real treat for the adults who might have accompanied them and indeed for any of Burton's fans. To my mind, it is not only a labour of love (stop-motion being one of the most time-consuming modes of picture-making), but also a work of real genius. Burton has opened the story out, although much is a recreation of the original short -- especially the reanimation scenes in young Victor's attic lab and the ending where the formerly vindictive neighbours circle the dead doggie with their cars and try to revive him with their battery power.

To stretch the story from 25 to a 80-odd minutes, Burton has young Victor's school class competing against each other in a science fair, inspired by their spooky teacher Mr. Rzykruski, a puppet created as the spitting image of the late Vincent Price. When a classmate, one Edgar E. Gore, spies the resurrected Sparky, he blackmails Victor into showing him how to bring a dead goldfish back to life, although the experiment doesn't quite work. He in turn spills the beans to the class' precocious oriental know-it-all and his mates. Before you know it, they are all trying to work Victor's magic and we soon have a were-rat, a colossal hamster, packaged sea-monkeys that morph into gremlin-like humanoids, a fat-cat Mr. Whiskers that fuses with a dead bat that he has dragged in (a cat-bat?), and the class genius' dead turtle Shelley turning into a giant Gamera-like monster. Victor must not only help to save the day, but must also protect his dear Sparky from the wrath of his neighbour, the town's mayor Mr. Burgomeister!!! 

Burton cheerfully incorporates so many familiar images from the old movies, even including Sparky's love interest, the next door giant black poodle, developing an Elsa Lanchester white streak in her carefully coifed coat. He has also selected an excellent voice cast with Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short taking on multiple roles, his Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) voicing the teacher, and reuniting with Winona Ryder from "Edward Scissorhands" as the voice of the mayor's niece, Elsa Van Helsing. For a change, however, no Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter join the fun. I had a whale of a time with the film and I think Burton also enjoyed the opportunity of introducing his early brain-child to a wider audience.

The only thing I've never understood is the title -- I get the 'franken', but why the 'weenie' for the patchwork Sparky? Never mind, it's a wonderful movie in my book.      

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

When I think about it, there sometimes seems little rhyme or reason about which current movies we choose to see at the cinema, rather than waiting for their release to DVD or for satellite transmission. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to be given preview tickets (which in turn means we sometimes watch films that we are actually in no hurry to view). Most often we go to see movies which we really, really want to see as soon as possible -- either because they are part of a continuing franchise, e.g. the Harry Potter films, or because we didn't get to see them at one or other of our regular film festivals, or because the reviews make them sound a good match to our sometime weird tastes.

In this instance we went to see the above 'scare' movie, not because of the positive vibes the reviewers have given it, but because we promised ourselves we would do so. When we queued at some length late June to get our weekend pass for FrightFest later this month, we could have seen a preview of this movie, a regular 'treat' from the fest's organizers for those faithful souls who attend each year. They call it 'the lazy Q' since some regulars will camp out all night -- needless to say we do not go to that extreme -- and a free show is the regular award. In truth, we have never availed ourselves of these showings for one reason or another, but seriously considered it this year. To ease our conscience, we decided to see the movie on its release instead and our resolve was underlined by the aforementioned positive hype.

I can agree that it is a very well-made and well-cast film, a sign that the director of the "Saw" franchise, James Wan, has matured, since the copious gore of his 'torture porn' movies has been replaced here with carefully orchestrated big 'boos'. Yet I can not agree with those who have written that it is the best horror film of this century or alternatively the best thing since sliced bread. It is competently put together and purportedly -- like so many modern movies -- based on 'true' events. I do not doubt that the ghost-hunting team of Lorraine and Ed Warren (played here by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) really existed nor that they actually did investigate the strange happenings at the home of Lily Taylor, her husband (a nothing special Ron Livingston), and their five daughters back in 1971. However I suspect that the events have been somewhat enhanced to create the 'jump' movie Wan has given us and like the 'Amityville' series, a healthy scepticism needs be retained.

Anyhow, this working class family are delighted to move into the big, old house (one of those houses that seem twice as big on the inside than on the outside) that they have purchased at auction, but strange events soon begin to dent their happiness. Wan throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix and given time we would probably have discovered that the sink was haunted as well: slamming doors, stopping clocks, spooky toys, secret passages, a cobwebbed cellar full of old furniture, a history of sordid past events, a beloved pet that won't cross the threshold, birds flying to their deaths against the walls, sleep-walking, levitations, and subliminally brief spooky apparitions. Just about every cliché of the horror genre is present and correct, although to give Wan his due, they are presented with an air of freshness;  creeping dread gradually morphs into terror. The film is something of a slow-burner, supposedly on the grounds that the first half of the movie allows us to get to know the various players, but in fact we have little insight into their psyches. A rather bland Wilson is super-protective of his sensitive and perceptive wife who has been scarred by previous supernatural encounters, and Farmiga gives a fine performance as the fighter who refuses not to do whatever is necessary to 'save' the tormented family. Similarly Taylor out-acts herself as the mother who adores her children but who is possessed by a being that wants to harm them. According to Farmiga, objects are not innately evil (and they have a museum of artefacts at home from previous cases), but act as a conduit for hostile entities who want to inhabit a human vessel; once these spirits have established a foothold in someone, leaving the premises does not cure the problem, only exorcism will do the job. Eventually, Taylor's possession has become so extreme (she has just about turned into Linda Blair!) that the unordained Wilson performs the ritual himself since they can't afford to wait for the necessary Vatican sanction. Clever chappy! Happy ending!

Given all the positive vibes the film has generated, I must confess to being a little disappointed with it. It is far from a classic in my book, but probably because I have seen a hell of a lot more scary movies than most. However in its favour, despite all the equipment that the Warrens and their assistants set up, it was not -- thank goodness -- any kind of 'found-footage' movie, and for that I sincerely thank Mr. Wan.