Malevolent (2018)

mal1An American brother-sister team of ghostbusting scam artists who swindle gullible bereaved people, have repatriated to Scotland, home of their late mother who used to hear voices/see ‘things’ before cutting out her own eyes and killing herself some years ago.  Angela (Florence Pugh) is growing tired of the scams/developing a conscience/starting to ‘see’ things herself, but elder brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) owes money to some vague mob and one last job that promises to pay double is his way out of trouble. Unfortunately for the siblings and their two friends who assist them, this last case involves a sadistic multiple torture/ murder in a children’s foster home and there’s more than just ghosts they need to deal with- the original torturer/killer is on the loose…

Well, if anything that seems even remotely realistic and reasonable to you, then, well, I’m sure this film is for you. Me? I nearly choked on my cup of tea several times as the twists and coincidences piled up. In the films defence, its a low-budget horror film in an already busy market place, so I guess there’s a tendency to pile on the dumb horror as quickly as you can. Not that there’s really much horror- a few jump scares, lots of low dark synth mood music and the usual torture porn that passes for creepiness/tension these days.  Considering its set in 1989. it doesn’t really feel like it’s set in that decade at all, and if I were a cynic I’d suggest it’s just a plot device to maroon our heroes in a desolate old building having no mobile phones to call for help. Oh go on then. Its absolutely just a lazy/simple contrivance to keep mobile phones off the menu.

Florence Pugh, who was so good in Lady Macbeth awhile ago, looks utterly bored here.  Maybe she’s too pretty? It seems unfair to blame her for being pretty, but her character is basically a blank slate/porcelain doll that’s devoid of any interest, so her coolly detached looks are all she’s got. When you’ve got no empathy for the lead actress, you know a film is in trouble, and the supporting characters are even more cardboard/unremarkable. When the bad stuff starts to happen and the bodycount starts to climb, it’s hard to even care or feel any interest at all, so certainly tension is lacking.

Ultimately it’s all very predictable, so much so it’s hard to shake the feeling you’ve seen it all before, maybe in an old 1970s movie you’ve otherwise forgotten. I think they let anyone make movies these days- maybe that’s the problem with much of this Netflix Originals stuff; Netflix just wants something to fill the airtime and are a bit too generous with the money, so anyone with a script and a camera can make a quick buck.

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The Lazarus Effect (2015)

laz1Oh dear. Flatliners meets Brainstorm and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Its funny really, watching this so soon after rewatching 1989’s Pet Sematary, another film in which fools embark gladly on playing Frankenstein and things go very badly. It’s as if movies are made in some alternate universe in which no scientist has ever read Mary Shelley or watched any horror film about bringing back the dead. I suppose it gets points for resurrecting a dog first instead of a cat, but still, when the inevitable accident happens and our heroes are ‘forced’ by cruel circumstance to use their new science breakthrough on a human subject, it’s clearly not going to end well. One of the scientists teases us with the old adage that humans only use 10% of their brains, but only people paying the film 10% of their attention could be surprised how things turn out, it’s so routine and poorly telegraphed throughout.

Which is something of a shame, because the cast is pretty good -Mark Duplass (so good the other night in Paddleton), Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, these are pretty impressive names, and the film even features Twin Peaks fave Ray Wise as a corporate bad guy to add some geek appeal, but its all for naught. They are stuck with a script that is Dead on Arrival, and no miraculous Lazarus Serum is going to resurrect this one.

It is so frustrating, because although the premise is inherently daft (scientists develop a serum that when injected into a corpses brain and activated by an electrical shock brings them back from the dead) it offers all sorts of possibilities but doesn’t even try other than suggesting that sometimes dead is better. No wait, wrong movie….

Lets try again- let’s say they do bring someone back, lets not saddle them with esp/telekinetic superpowers straight away, lets show her demonstrate her acting chops by dealing with being pulled back from Heaven (or Hell, it seems in this case) and returning to the living and all that psychological and religious baggage that entails. But no, I suppose that risks upsetting someone in the audience for ridiculing their belief system or actually making an empirical statement about Life, Death and the Beyond, so instead… lets make her eyes go spooky black and have her bump everyone off one by one. The irony is, even as a horror film this film fails, it simply cannot carry of any level of tension or scares.

Not so much a case of sometimes dead is better, then, but maybe that 1989s Pet Sematary (and Brainstorm and Flatliners before it) is better than previously thought. All things are relative, I suppose, and it does seem that you can count on new bad films showing old ‘bad’ films in a new, kinder light…

Party like it’s 1989: Pet Sematary

pet1I saw Pet Sematary back in 1989 at the cinema, and while I enjoyed it the thing I took most from it was the films gorgeous, ghostly score by a then-new rising star among film composers, Elliot Goldenthal: the score was part-Poltergeist, part something else entirely, and was a big part of the film’s success for me. Strangely enough, I’ve never seen the film again since… which raises the question-  just how well does it hold up today?

Well, I must say it’s really rather mixed. Biggest issue for me (but possibly a bonus for others) is the fact that the screenplay was written by the books author, Stephen King. Now, what makes for a great, engrossing horror book is quite different to what makes a great, engrossing film- books and film are entirely different media and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in just the same way as some things that work in a Marvel comic just don’t in a Marvel movie. The Pet Sematary film would be just perfectly fine without Victor Pascow’s ghost, persistent ghoul that he is, dropping in with regular ghostly warnings, or daughter Ellie’s own warning nightmares- it’s all quite unnecessary and threatens to tip the film into parody (it’s just a pity Ellie didn’t warn daddy not to buy the house in the first place). In the book I’m sure it’s all harmless and part of the creepy fun (it’s been a long, long time since I read the novel- well before I saw the film*) but in the film it’s just a little too much on the nose, more subtlety would have been preferable to me and helped avoid the film tipping into the fantastic. Also, does Rachel really need the hokey subplot about her deformed sister Zelda and the guilt over her death complicating things even further? Fans of King likely differ from my opinion, feeling that the film is more authentic as a King film, but it reminds me of King’s disdain for Kubrick’s The Shining, which works brilliantly as a horror film in its own right but differs from King’s source novel. Kubrick knew what worked in film, and must have struggled with some of King’s material- the film has a life all its own, as it stands, but is not by any means Stephen King’s The Shining- its really Kubricks, and that’s how it should be.

Coming back to this film after near thirty years and being older (maybe wiser) I must say, I was surprised just how thoroughly nasty and unnerving Pet Sematary is. The central premise- childhood experience of death, mortality and the overwhelming parents grief from losing a child and the almost blasphemous, Frankenstein-like horror of bringing loved ones back from the dead- it’s quite heady stuff and genuinely unsettling. King’s excess in having scary dead sisters, friendly ghosts offering dire warnings and chummy old men with dark secrets they just can’t keep to themselves just threatens to overload what should be a chilling and very personal horror. Its a relentlessly morbid film, for all its faults, and as far as horror films go, I find that oddly rewarding.

What really doesn’t help the film is some of the casting- both Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby, pretty as they are, are pretty dire, hopelessly wooden and not helped by sharing a shocking lack of chemistry while they try to carry off some of King’s dialogue and plot twists. Its almost hilarious how they are completely out-acted by then-two year old child actor Miko Hughes as their unfortunate son, Cage. He’s cute, charming and natural in ways that Midkiff and Crosby simply aren’t. To be fair to them, they would likely have benefitted without the film’s insistence of them having ghostly visitors and guilty childhood baggage.

Pet Sematary reminds me that Stephen King’s work exists in a world all of its own- hugely popular as his books may be, most of the time the situations and characters have no similarities to how real people would behave. I guess he can get away with it in books but in film, I really think he’s pushing it, and that’s where this film suffers for me. Sure, have a young family suffer a terrible tragedy and yes, let the grief and terror push them into trying to beat death and nature to a horrible end, but don’t chuck in the horror equivalents of the kitchen sink regards ghosts and nightmares and deformed sisters etc. In just the same ways as dead is sometimes better, so less is often more.

*I was a huge fan of King’s books back in the day, but over the years his prolific nature (and lack of a decent editor) meant I simply couldn’t keep up, and haven’t read much of his work for some years.

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.

 

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.