Await Further Instructions (2018)

afiA low-budget British horror film, Await Further Instructions betrays such an amateur feel it’s almost like a student film. The script is all over the place, its ambition far beyond the budget – so much so it just looks silly and does more harm than good; the script, such as it is, should have been reined in to match what the budget could handle. When it starts it looks like it might  something like a good Black Mirror episode, but instead turns out to be more like a pretty bad modern Dr Who episode. Both are tv shows, which perhaps indicates how much of a ‘movie’ this movie, er, isn’t.

It’s Christmas, and the Milgram family unites to spend the holiday together in their pleasant unassuming suburban home. Tensions are strained however as they don’t really seem to get along- prodigal son Nick (Sam Gittins) has been away for a few years due to falling out with his dad, Tony (Grant Masters) who himself has issues of his own with Grandad (David Bradley) who bullied him as a child and continues to belittle him. Indeed Grandad is a completely horrible old git, and evidently a racist who does not approve of Nick’s Asian girlfriend, Annji (Nerja Naik) who Nick has brought along. Completing the ensemble are Nick’s incredibly stupid (and very pregnant) sister Kate and her almost as stupid partner Scott. Mom is of course just happy to have the family all together at last just as long as she can keep the peace. Cue arguments playing Boggle and comments about ‘bloody foreigners’.

So Christmas morning these charming characters awake to find that their house has been sealed off by a strange black metallic surface blocking all doors and windows. Phones, the radio and the internet are no longer working, and the tv only displays a text message: ‘Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions‘. Something obviously Apocalyptic is happening outside and Dad takes charge to ensure every instruction that follows is dutifully obeyed.

Well, cue all sorts of bickering and fights and family politics and general carnage as the instructions become ever more provocative and testing. Dad does not seem to think it’s particularly odd that the house has been sealed off during the night without anybody being awoken by any loud construction work or trucks or workmen outside, or that nobody in authority thought to warn or advise of them. A bag of hypodermic needles is dropped down the chimney with precisely enough needles to inoculate the number of people in the house (remember, some of them are visitors not on any register)… wait, I’m thinking about it too much. It really does not reward thinking about it too much, because it increasingly collapses into nonsense and almost parody.

By the time the deaths start and the bodies pile up in the spare room, its beyond silly, and the climactic descent into body horror is hampered by just being too much with too little money. Its rather a shame. The actors have little to work with, the characters all very stereotypical and almost caricatures (did Grandad really have to be an old racist bully, or Dad a childhood bedwetter, or sister so remarkably stupid?). The script really needed much more work and more of a focus on the psychological pressures/tension in what is essentially a preposterous scenario. Maybe the family should have heard  noises outside, of explosions etc or sirens or maybe a car alarm or horn occasionally going off to suggest what may or may not have been happening outside in the street. Maybe somebody (a neighbour?) outside banging the barrier trying to get in, to reinforce Dad’s assurances that everything is fine and the family safer inside the house?

Anyway, here I go again writing too many words and divesting too much of my time reviewing what is essentially a pretty poor and supremely forgettable bit of nonsense. One for you lucky buggers who have not yet seen it to avoid, I think, and one for me to forget as soon as possible.

 

Advertisements

Voice from the Stone (2017)

voice2.jpgVoice from the Stone is a European-set mystery/ghost story… I think. Set in 1950s Italy, a nurse that specialises in helping children, Verena (Emilia Clarke, yeah, her with the dragons) is hired by moody sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas, so brilliant in Kingdom of Heaven) to help his son Jakob (Edward Dring) who has not spoken since his classical pianist mother Malvina (Caterina Murino) died several months ago. They live on a remote beautiful estate with a grand old house, Malvina’s family being rich for centuries from the profits of working a quarry nearby that held a particularly fine stone. The quarry is now disused and flooded, and the house showing its age, the estate almost frozen in time as if unable to shake off the grand old days. Varena struggles to connect with the boy, who believes he hears his mother speaking to him from the walls. Is it possible that the house, and the boy, are indeed haunted by Malvina?

Its an intriguing premise for an old-fashioned ghost story, but I’m not sure this film really really wants to be a ghost story. Based on a book, I don’t know if this is a factor in the original work, but the film itself seems to be all over the place- not really helped by a lack of chemistry between Clarke and Csokas when a romance suddenly flares up between them, possibly engineered by Malvina who seems to be possessing the nurse. I say ‘seems’ because the film really feels like its in two minds- serious romantic drama or supernatural thriller, it can’t seem to decide which. By the end of the film. I wasn’t sure what was even going on. Was Varena herself going mad or was she really possessed? And was Malvina’s mother really a ghost or just some kind of projection of Varenas?  Maybe the film was trying to be sophisticated enough to have it both ways, leave it up for interpretation.

voice stoneIn anycase, it doesn’t pull it off, turning out to be a somewhat confusing mess. Which is frustrating because it looks ravishing and the cast is pretty good. I must confess to feeling a little ambivalent about Clarke, though- her range seems to consist of raised highbrows for confusion, frowned highbrows for intensity, and relaxed highbrows for mild amusement. LIke in Game of Thrones, I don’t think she’s really up to the material (something true of most of the younger thespians in that show, which is carried thankfully by all the older actors who elevate the material somewhat) – or maybe I’m just being unfair to her, maybe it’s just that I don’t ‘get’ what she’s doing.

Overall the film has a very fine sense of mood and atmosphere but this only carries it so far, and the confusing last half-hour really leaves a bit of a sour feeling of disappointment.  Perhaps it really wasn’t intended to be a horror film, but not for the first time of late, it feels like it was horror film made by film-makers who thought they were above such pulpish horror nonsense, and it just got away from them.

The Predator (2018)

pred1
Gun-toting hot chick Botanist: “Schools out, Predator scum!”

Oh dear. It would be easier (and quicker) to write about what was right about this film… except actually, no, it might be a shorter post, but it’d be much harder to find something this film actually did right. This thing is a bloody mess, right from its effects-laden space dogfight start which dispels any mystery/tension regards the Predators themselves. I suppose, just like with the Alien franchise, we’ve travelled such a long road since the first film (which teased us with glimpses of the titular character until the pay-off at the end), that any awe/horror/mystery is long done, and it’s all now just the same old same old.

Which annoyed me right from the start, as it instantly put the film into comic-stip territory to me, a feeling that persisted throughout. Maybe it’s a tonal thing, but for me the first film was more a horror film than an action film (whatever the Arnie fans may argue), and the whole point of characters like the Predator (and indeed the Alien) to me is the respect they should demand, the sense of horror and dread and fear. Demoting them to just being standard CGI or prosthetic characters that are thrown onscreen whenever in increasingly graphic detail, that just diminishes them to me.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the law of diminishing returns, evidenced by both this and the Alien franchise, should rear its ugly head again here, but I really did not expect this to be so crushingly ill-conceived and executed. The fact they could have a great actor like Thomas Jane wasted in a supporting role and such a bland lead in the form of Boyd Holbrook, just reinforces how ill-judged this whole thing was. They even have the nerve to throw a kid into the film – a ‘genius’ kid (and idiot adults) in the grand annoying genre tradition of Wesley Crusher of ST:TNG and Doctor Zee

zee
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

from Galactica 1980, an astonishing move that left me slack-jawed. This kid can translate alien language and figure out alien technology that seems to have befuddled scientists for years, it’s the kind of genre stupidity I thought we had grown out of-  “the next step in the evolutionary chain” they call him. To throw even more salt into the wound, they even throw in a ‘cute’ alien dog that follows our heroes playing ‘fetch’ at any opportunity. Frankly, I still can’t believe it. When at the end they get a nifty anti-Predator costume straight out of the Stark Industries CGI Iron Man line of toys, well, I was beyond numb.

I fell a little like Charlton Heston at the end of the 1968 Planet of the Apes“They did it, they finally goddam did it” (or thereabouts): they killed the Predator franchise, forever. Hopefully, anyway- I couldn’t bear to suffer through another one as bad as this.

I Think We’re Alone Now (2018)

i think 2Hmm, contrary to expectations, this isn’t a film about pop star Tiffany’s ‘Dystopia 2018’ tour across a post-Apocalyptic America. Mind, that might make for a pretty interesting movie in its own right (I certainly hope readers aren’t scurrying to google to search out who the hell Tiffany was/is- I didn’t think it would be too obscure a reference).  Anyway, there’s no songstress belting pop songs out in this one. Instead we have Del (Game of Throne‘s Peter Dinklage) as a lone survivor of an unexplained event in which everyone else has strangely perished.  He’s all alone cleaning up a deserted mid-Western American town, spending his days disposing of the bodies littering the town in unceremonious burials out in a field and tidying up the empty houses. It seems a strange way to spend your Apocalypse but it seems to give him some routine that keeps him occupied and sane. Fortunately he seems totally comfortable in his own company.

ithink2However, one day a young woman named Grace (Ellie Fanning) arrives in the town (well, it could have been Tiffany in her tour bus I suppose) and Del suddenly realises he is not the only survivor of the blight that killed everyone around him. The taciturn Del doesn’t appreciate a strange woman breaking the idyll of his lonely but oddly satisfying existence and  we are suddenly in a character-based study of the interactions between two strangers in a post-traumatic situation at the End of the World. Its a slow, quiet film, its dour mood intensified by a fine, and effectively moody soundtrack score from Adam Taylor (who seems particularly adept at this kind of piece, having also scored the dystopian series The Handmaids Tale).

Unfortunately (well, I say unfortunately, some may think the subsequent ‘twist’ enlivens the film considerably), the film takes a sudden turn into a road-movie thriller, of a sort, and the cast list doubles with the arrival of two more survivors who are looking for Grace- played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Paul Giamatti, no less. It felt like an awkward shift to me but it works, I guess, and offers a slightly surreal coda to the film by offering a suggestion of the world outside of Del’s bubble of existence.

On the whole, I’d say this was an effective and quite refreshing take on the Apocalyptic genre and well acted by its fine cast. Maybe it’s a better cast than the material really deserves, but Dinklage is very fine, carrying the film all by himself really and it’s almost an imposition when Grace turns up, because a Wall-E by way of The Walking Dead seemed a pretty fine way to spend an evening, to be honest, especially with Dinklage in the lead. Indeed, the quiet, moody and intense existence of Dell surviving the End of the World was a bitter reminder of the possibilities of character-focused storytelling that The Walking Dead has largely ignored.

I expect some may have found this film all too slight and all too slow and dark and therefore unsatisfying. To a degree it is indeed an arthouse Walking Dead, but it’s none the worse for that and I found it very interesting and well made. The score, as I have noted, is very fine and the steady calm throughout seems at odds with what these kind of slicks tend to be like. It was quite refreshing and while I have the suspicion it might have been more substantial without the sudden doubling of the cast (seriously, the credits have four named performers, that’s all- although I can’t help but feel insulted on behalf of the canine cast member who was oddly uncredited, for shame) I did enjoy the fact that the Apocalyptic event, alluded to by Dell and Grace, is never explained and remained a mystery.

Nice little film.

 

 

Upgrade (2018)

upgradeSet in an undefined near-future city, Upgrade is a low-budget sci-fi action thriller that reminded me of the good old days of the (original) Robocop. Its a reminder that sci-fi films don’t have to be mega-budget/high-concept blockbusters to succeed, and indeed in many ways Upgrade is more successful than Alita, which I happened to have seen not long before.

The film seems to have been spun off the possibilities, for good or ill, of AI (Artificial Intelligence) – there are trashy settlements of disenfranchised and unemployed on the wrong side of the AI divide, while the rich live in high-tech homes that are controlled by AI and who are driven around by AI cars. Inevitably, while it reminded me (through its violence and corporate dystopia) of Robocop, it also reminded me of Black Mirror, in how it spun its story around the technology and how it impacted the characters and world.

Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue guy in a digital world, is a mechanic who prefers old-fashioned cars that are driven, over high-tech cars that drive people around. His wife, Asha, has no such issues, fully at ease with the AI world that serves her every whim and ensures her a promising career with a tech company. However one night their AI car is hacked and malfunctions whilst driving them home and crashes. Four assailants pull them from the car wreckage in what is apparently a high-tech robbery, but it escalates into something more and Asha is killed, and Grey left crippled by a shot though his spine.

One of Grey’s clients who he rebuilt a car for, approaches Grey in hospital where Grey, mourning his dead wife is also bitterly looking ahead at a life as a quadriplegic. This client, Eron Keen, is the head of a tech company that has a radical (albeit illegal) new tech that involves implanting a revolutionary computer chip named ‘Stem’ into his spine to fix his new disability and offer Grey a normal life again. Grey agrees to the experimental procedure and signs an NDA to ensure the technology remains secret.

The operation is a success, although Grey has to continue to pretend to be paralysed until the procedure can be analysed and proven safe.  It also has unexpected benefits- Stem is a self-aware AI that Grey can ‘hear’ in his head and while it ‘fixes’ his disability is also able to take control of Grey’s body giving him super-human reflexes and combat skills, and all sorts of high-tech connections through databases. Stem offers to help Grey investigate the robbery/murder that ripped his world apart and Grey accepts, frustrated by the police inability to solve the crime.

Logan Marshall-Green is pretty damn good as Grey, it’s a tricky role in that he’s often reacting to, and having conversations with, a voice in his head and it’s a pretty physical  part as well, with some considerable action scenes and stunts. He manages to elicit some sympathy for his condition and fight for justice and carries the film pretty much by himself.

Naturally there are plenty of twists involved and in the great tradition of both Robocop and Black Mirror nothing in the corporate world is as genuine as it seems and the AI tech has a few issues of its own. The low budget ensures the film has a few limitations but on the whole its very successful, with offerings of body-horror/manipulation that reminded me of Cronenberg’s Videodrome.  Ultimately what seems to be a pulpish sci-fi action flick transpires to be a rather cautionary tale and on the whole it’s a great little movie.

Hereditary (2018)

hered1

Hype springs Eternal, especially with horror films, as the 2017 reboot of IT would testify, and it rings true with Hereditary, too, unfortunately. Thinking about it, I suppose it really depends upon what you want from a horror film. Scares, sure, they would seem a prerequisite, but anyone can do scares in movies (well, jumps anyway) – it’s mostly a question of manipulation, timing and throwing a loud ‘boo!’ on the soundtrack. Trickier, really, is establishing a sense of mood and dread, and here Hereditary scores pretty highly. This is a horror film that drips mood and the threat of scares, delivering plenty of creepiness and shocks, which is likely why it received all the hype and positive word of mouth it did.

But for me it lacked any logic, any sense, and the increasing hysterics of the family started to descend into farce long before the film reached its rather Pythonesque conclusion. I think any horror film works best if it can establish some sense of normalcy and then raise the stakes as things go wrong but right from the start the main characters are over the edge, nothing really seems normal and it just goes wilder as it goes on. Okay, here be Spoilers, so here’s a warning, although I’m one of the last few to get around to having seen Hereditary:

A text card states that Annie’s mother has died and the film opens on her family at the funeral. Annie (Toni Colette) is really rather unhinged from the off, and while Colette’s performance has been widely praised it just seemed too crazed for me, leaving her nowhere to go but further Out There. Gabriel Byrne is cast as her husband Steve and he’s utterly wasted here, and fails to have any discernible chemistry at all with Colette, not the only casting crisis of the film (which I’ll turn to later). Events get increasingly nuts (sic) around Steve and he just does nothing in particular, really. The couple’s two kids are frankly peculiar- ten year old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) behaves very oddly cutting off dead birds heads (foreshadowing there, I think) and making odd clucking sounds with her tongue, while teenage Peter (Alex Woolf) mopes around looking permanently terrified, stares forlornly at a girl he fancies and gets high on pot. Normal?

Would any mother insist on sending a ten year old girl with a deadly food allergy to an unsupervised high school party with Peter, and would Peter, intending to smoke pot and hook up with girls at said party, so easily agree to his sister going along? How many high school parties take place in huge luxurious mansions and how many teenage hosts bake fresh cakes in the kitchen (loaded with nuts, naturally)? So without Annie insisting that they take an Epi Pen along with them, when his sister eats the wrong kind of cake and starts to react badly, instead of calling for an ambulance Peter, having already smoked some pot, decides to put his sister Charlie in his car and race through the night to hospital.

So Peter has an accident on route, decapitating, no less, his sister. He then calmly drives home, and goes to bed, leaving his sisters headless corpse on the backseat and her head at the roadside. So next morning whilst he is still in bed Annie goes out to the car and finds her daughters corpse (well part of it) and screams her head off (sic).

Where are the cops in all this? Surely someone finds poor Charlie’s head on the roadside? Surely Annie and Steve have to explain to the police, or even more likely, demand an explanation from the police, regards how Charlie lost her head and died? Manslaughter charges anyone? Driving under the influence? Poor parenting taken to task? Peter’s punishment seems to be that he has to bike to school in future. Indeed, he returns to school soon enough, has a seizure and is sent home having nearly smashed his head to a pulp on his desk. Hello? Hospital anyone? Counselling? Maybe the cops would be interested?  Do they do Social Workers in America, are they a thing over there?

What really sent the film off the rails for me was the frankly bizarre casting of Ann Dowd as Joan, a woman who befriends Annie and sets her on the course of amateur seances and chatting with the dead. I mean, after stints in The Leftovers and The Handmaids Tale as crazy women with dark deeds in their minds, it’s like putting up a red warning light as soon as she appears. Terrible casting- I like Dowd and she was excellent in The Leftovers as a leading figure in a dangerous cult, but this is taking typecasting to some other level. Its lazy and its predictable- is anybody in the audience remotely surprised when it transpires that Joan is up to no good? Its getting so that everytime I see Dowd in something I audibly groan. She’s great at that kind of role but come on, she’s gone to the well too often, its run dry, it’s getting boring now.

It later transpires that Annie’s mother was a Satanist and she spent her life trying (and failing) to bring a demon to the world. It would seem that her Satanist colleagues dug up her body (when Steve is informed of the grave desecration, he decides not to tell Annie- I mean come on, someone’s dug up her mom for goodness sake) and somehow put that body in the family attic without anyone in the family twigging that strange Satanists have been in the house (other than somebody at one point wonder about a bad smell in the house).

Now, I may have it wrong, the film is obtuse to the point of making no sense at all, but it appears that said Demon is inside Charlie and this is why she behaves oddly and she has to die so that the Demon can escape her body, and that Peter has to die so that the Demon can enter his. One person has to die to lose the Demon, another die to be possessed by it? Did Charlie have to die before the Demon could enter her body in the first place, and was it a Satanist that put the nuts in the cake? When you really think about it, nothing in Hereditary really makes much sense. Annie’s mothers decomposing body up in the attic (for whatever reason) is apparently headless and for some reason Annie starts crawling on ceilings acting really unusual after begging Steve to burn one of Charlie’s notebooks and set himself alight in the process. He burns like a Human Torch but doesn’t singe the wooden floor much less burn the house down.

hered2DId I mention that the family also just happen to have a big treehouse across the drive that doubles as a ritual meeting room for the Satanists? DId I see Annie decapitate her own head with cheesewire and then her headless body float through the air into said treehouse?Is that her mom’s also-headless body kneeling alongside her own before the now Demonic Peter?

People took this film seriously.

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

velvetNetflix’ latest movie, Velvet Buzzsaw, has a great premise (basically, it is In the Mouth Of Madness replacing an author and his books with an artist and his paintings) but surprisingly, it pretty much fails dismally in its execution. One of its issues is its lack of focus- on the one hand it’s a satire on the artworld (similar parallels in how The Neon Demon was ostensibly about the world of fashion) and on the other hand, it’s a horror story about paintings, er, possessed by evil and about as hokey as some of the 1970s Amicus/Hammer horrors that might suggest.

Even the title suggests the messy state of the final film. Its a great title, sure, but there’s a sense they had the title before they had the film, shoehorning it in with an offhand reference to a character’s role in a 1980s counterculture band that has no further bearing upon the film at all, other than a tattoo featured in an awkward ‘obligatory because all horror films do it’ sting prior to the end credits.

There’s clearly a sense that the film-makers knew the story of a dead artist whose life’s work is possessed by his spirit, and that all who profit by it will die in horrible fashion, is a terribly unsophisticated premise and far below the talent involved. Its not the first horror film derailed by its talent thinking that the genre is beneath them.  It does appear that to maintain the film-makers interest there’s all this artworld commentary about millionaire dealers profiting on high-society sophisticates investing in art not because of its beauty but because of its worth, and  the shallowness that suggests. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and money corrupts all, those old tropes being the central theme of the film. One art dealer berates art critic (and film protagonist) Jake Gyllenhaal for a negative review thats costs him big money in a deal. The orbits of all these artists and dealers around the opinions of Gyllenhaal’s character is ironic, in the sense that Gyllenhaal himself, like most critics, has no apparent talent himself in the field upon which he is commentating (Gyllenhaal, by the way, is brilliant in this, and deserves to be in a better film) and that Gyllenhaal’s entire career is dependant upon the talents of those he can make or break. Indeed there’s no doubt a meta-irony here that I’m criticising a film when I have no film-making talent/training either, but what’s all us bloggers to do? The film doesn’t really explain why it is Gyllenhaal’s opinion, as opposed to any other art critic, that seems to be so important to everyone, but I suppose that’s true of most leading critics in whatever field they work in. In the end, it’s all ephemeral, except the money. Its all about the money, although everyone would deny it (except Rene Russo’s art dealer, maybe).

Its interesting how this satire commentary depicts the art world and its avarice and corruption- and then gets saddled with this strictly average horror film, in that this highbrow film-making team seems to be looking down on the horror genre as if it’s too easy and formulaic yet that’s what beats them. John Carpenter is no average film-maker; it takes a keen eye and surprisingly adept skill to succeed as he did in the horror genre and it’s foolish to under-appreciate the difficulty making a good horror film. This film is competently made; it’s got a great (largely wasted) cast and great cinematography (the HDR really sings) and in those respects it’s a far better film than Carpenter’s In  the Mouth of Madness, but as a horror film its woefully inferior.

Not a total waste, then, but distinctly a wasted opportunity considering the talent involved, and a salient reminder that Carpenter is some kind of genius and he should be making some Netflix movies of his own, if only someone, or some project, could get him interested again. In some ways, with Netflix giving filmmakers such apparent riches and creative control without the nemesis of cinema box-office, this is the perfect time for Carpenter to be making his brand of low-budget/high-concept horror, but his apparent indifference to directing again confounds all. A Velvet Buzzsaw with him at the helm, hell, that’s a film I would love to see. But maybe the Age of Netflix came just a decade or two too late.