Welcome to our Warped Perspective!

Hello, Happy New Year, and welcome to our new project, Warped Perspective…

For those of you who have followed us over from our previous site, Brutal as Hell, then you may already see how and why we’ve chosen the new site name. Truth be told, it was co-founder and co-editor Ben Bussey who came up with it very early on in the process of finding a new name which we felt encapsulated what we already do (and what we’re planning to do here). On several occasions, over the many years that our team has now been writing together, we’ve jokingly said that Brutal as Hell should rightly be re-named ‘Contrary as Fuck’ – because it’s often felt as if we’re at odds with so many consensus opinions on genre film: not through deliberately being bloody-minded, but because first and foremost we’ve always approached our writing from our point of view as fans, not in anyone’s pay or employ, not trying to shower directors with hyperbole to get their attention and certainly not being motivated by the (for some) tantalising prospect of cover quotes or bogus thumbs-ups for diluted or downright dishonest opinions. Our perspective has always been very much our own; once Ben had come up with the now-current title, we felt it was a good fit. But there’s more to it than that…

Continue reading “Welcome to our Warped Perspective!”

Horror in Short: Remnants (2016)

 

remnants-promo-poster-final-768x1024Unless something else just sneaks under the wire over the next couple of weeks, it seems this could be my final Horror in Short feature for the current site. Huh. It feels like only yesterday that I decided it was high time we spent more time championing these often brilliant, inventive and grossly-underrated cinematic projects; and now here we are, years down the line, many films covered, and as usual, I was right. Happier still, today’s likely last short film – Remnants – is a stylish, well-paced offering which is clearly aware of its horror heritage, but has something pleasantly smart and knowing to say in a mere fifteen minutes. Take a look for yourselves, folks, before you read the review which follows…

Why do I think this works so well as a short film? Well, I was impressed by how director David Ugarte gives us an immediate sense of character via actors Terrance Roundtree and Hugh McCrau Jr; it’s achieved with a light touch, primarily thanks to natural dialogue (something lost on so many filmmakers). The early conversation between these two homicide detectives, who are en route to a crime scene, allows you to feel that these really are two men who know each other well, and also establishes that Ugarte feels confident enough to drop some humour into the mix in places too, both in what’s said and what’s shown (the final shot of the ‘demon’ against a backdrop of Instagram-worthy lines about love and happiness hanging on the wall definitely made me smile).

There’s also some nice technical prowess here. I liked the use of practical make-up FX, something which I know is a deal-maker-or-breaker for many genre fans but hey – it showcases a set of skills we might not get to enjoy otherwise, and it does make a difference to how a project comes across. Here, the film manages to switch between its initial realism and then scenes which deftly build dread and suspense – lots of the initial investigative work could make the audience feel as involved as our protagonists as we peer under furniture via the camera, just like they do. And then, maintaining a pace which works very well, extra tension builds as possible otherworldly influences steadily creep into the narrative – which they do without feeling tacked on… Continue reading “Horror in Short: Remnants (2016)”

DVD Review: Mai-Chan’s Daily Life (2014)

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Japanese cinema has a proud tradition of body horror and over the past ten years or so, the Sushi Typhoon phenomenon alone has given us a whole host of flying limbs and mad mutations which are lots of fun to watch. For many of us, films of this ilk have pretty much set the bar for what’s possible to do on screen, with each subsequent movie going one step further – nothing is too silly or extreme. Lest we forget, though, Japan also boasts an equally proud heritage of kink, and in Mai-Chan’s Daily Life, the two have become one. A fetish film coupled with body horror? The result is nothing if not memorable…
Based, as you might have guessed, on an adult manga (which features in the opening and closing credits, as a nice nod to the source material) Mai-Chan’s Daily Life starts with a young woman, Miyako, who is seeking employment. She gets invited for an interview to begin work as a live-in maid at an isolated estate on the outskirts of Tokyo. There’s another maid already incumbent, the cute Mai of the film’s title – whose role it is to show Miyako the ropes. Still, given that the interview involved stripping off ‘to get measured’, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the job is not exactly conventional. The girls have to dress up as cats to eat their meals off the floor, for example, and they must keep the torture chamber immaculately clean. Their employers – Mr and Mrs Kaede – are indeed a pair of perverts, but they’re enabled to go that little bit further in their pursuits by the fact that Mai seems to have the supernatural ability to regenerate, whatever is done to her. So the Kaedes routinely gouge out her eyes, hack off her digits, and then simply wait for it all to grow back. And, when Miyako sees them doing this, it isn’t long until she’s getting off on the hi-jinks as well. Continue reading “DVD Review: Mai-Chan’s Daily Life (2014)”

Celluloid Screams 2016 Review: The Devil’s Candy (2015)

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By Keri O’Shea

I’d been wondering what had happened to director Sean Byrne since his brilliant debut feature The Loved Ones assured audiences that you could still weave an effective, horrific and ultimately heartwarming story out of elements which – on the surface – seem tried-and-tested. Incredibly, it’s been seven years since that film was made, so when I heard that Byrne had penned and directed a heavy-metal-infused occult horror, I was certainly interested. The resulting film – The Devil’s Candy – is a very different animal to its predecessor in many respects, although there is some overlap too, in so far as the newer film also shows a family unit pulled apart by a malign outsider influence.

devilscandypThe Hellman family (a very metal surname, excepting the fact that most of us probably associate it with mayonnaise) consists of artist father Jesse, mother Astrid and twelve year old Zooey, who has inherited her dad’s love of heavy music. Trying to make a living as a painter is hard going – so when the family finds a larger home in their native Texas which comes at an absolute steal, they decide to go for it; it has more space for dad to paint, a large roaming-size bedroom for their pre-teen daughter, oh, and a history of death. We as audience members already know of a tragedy which happened at the house; a middle-aged man, Ray, who had a history of psychiatric care, was tormented by supernatural voices which seem to emanate from the very walls of the house, and apparently tried to find solace via loudly playing chords on an electric guitar. Naturally, this form of self-help didn’t go down well with his elderly parents – whose attempts to remonstrate with him ended badly. Still, the real estate guy is honest about this episode, and the new family decide that it doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things. A bargain is a bargain.

So far, so good and the family move in; only thing is, it’s not long before the strange voices and visions which plagued the last incumbent start to bother Jesse, too. Perhaps a lifetime’s experience of a musical genre associated with the devil has given him some coping strategies – he doesn’t seem to go off the rails to the same extent as Ray, but the influence of the house soon begins to creep in to his art, until the benign butterfly-themed canvas he had been commissioned to finish starts to look like something by Joe Coleman. Oh, and more worryingly, there seem to be links between what he’s painting, and What Ray Does Next: the previous inhabitant isn’t in jail, after all, and is continuing to act as the voices command him, soon linking the tormented children emerging on the canvas with real-life acts of violence. But whose voice is behind these acts?

I think the first thing which this film does well is also one of its most understated components, and it’s something both Ben and I commented on after the screening – what with him about to move house, and me having bought a house and moved this year. The Devil’s Candy is a pointed reminder of just how vulnerable we can actually be when moving into a house which is ostensibly now ‘ours’. The film shows that Ray still considers the Hellman house to be his home; he turns up, demands entry, and interacts with the new family. More than that, he still has a key and lets himself in – turning up in Zooey’s bedroom one night for a scene which is decidedly creepy. When it comes to it, how many of us change the locks when we move house? I’ve moved eleven times and I’ve never done it, even though now I come to think of it, I did actually once wake up to find one of my crook landlord’s workmen in my bedroom (oh hey, thanks for unearthing that one, Mr. Byrne). It’s a simple enough plot device in the film, but it works very well and actually, a lot of the ensuing horror hinges upon this one element.

Byrne and his actors have also given us a family unit which we can care about, too: without sentimentality, or masses of explanatory dialogue, we can believe in and like this unorthodox bunch of characters. I spent a large part of the time thinking Jesse was being acted by Matthew McConaughey (there IS a likeness there with Rust Cohle) so my apologies to Ethan Embry, who has had a long and varied career to date, but hasn’t done a great deal in the way of horror movies before this. He carries the film skilfully, balancing the tormented artist shtick well against his performance as a dedicated, loving father. Mother Shiri Appleby is equally put through her paces by some of the film’s more gruelling moments, whilst Zooey (Kiara Glasco, who has already notched up a performance in a Cronenberg film) is believably sharp and vulnerable by turns. Then there’s Ray himself (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a bold piece of casting because, to external appearances, he looks a little vulnerable, too. This film would have been a very different experience had Byrne cast some angular, wild-eyed individual to play a straightforward villain, and a less confident director probably would have done this. As it stands, Taylor Vince can be ambiguous, an important capacity in slowly building the sense of supernatural threat – which itself throws a possible curveball at the end…

I only have one minor quibble with what is otherwise an interesting and well-made film – and that refers to something which several filmmakers seem to have found impossible to resist when delving into the world of heavy metal as a source of storyline. The Devil’s Candy has a couple of moments, but one in particular where it can’t resist playing an element for laughs; it’s a pretty hefty tonal shift at a key moment, and one which doesn’t rest too comfortably with what’s come before it. Interestingly, the moment itself is emblazoned on the poster art for the film; I’d have tried to avoid the whole rawk cliche, personally, as it’s not needed to take the film anywhere: The Devil’s Candy is a very different type of film to splatter parodies such as Deathgasm – and so it should be allowed to be.

Overall, however, this is a well-crafted horror film, another example of Sean Byrne taking some familiar components of the genre and recombining them into a decent, pacy and often innovative story. Whilst it doesn’t have the pure visceral glee of The Loved Ones, it’s proof positive that Byrne is willing to explore the genre in a series of different ways, and I sincerely hope that he doesn’t take another seven years to show us what else he can do.

Celluloid Screams 2016 Review: What We Become (2015)

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By Keri O’Shea

There seems to be a minor trend in modern horror (and posssibly other genres, though I see less of those) for starting the narrative of a film at around three quarters of the way through the arc you’ll eventually get to see in full. I noticed the same thing about the very last thing I reviewed – Don’t Breathe – in which the very first scene shows us one of the key characters in a heck of a lot of trouble at the hands of another. Structuring the film like this takes a lot of the surprise elements away from the audience; we’re positioned as knowing bystanders, already clued in that things are going to go badly wrong, and left only to observe the finer details. This is evidence, perhaps, of the way in which horror fans have become rather jaded, no longer expected to be carried along by a straightforward linear plot because we’ll have seen it a million times before – but even if I’m extrapolating way too much here, I think it’s fair to say that showing most of your hand of cards before the game has really started is a risky strategy, and one which demands careful work.

wwbpThis brings me to What We Become (2015), a film which is oddly enough not the first Danish zombie film I’ve ever seen, giving the lie to the trivia section of its IMDb page, but oddly enough, it labours under a lot of the same issues that I talked about five years ago when I reviewed its predecessor, Opstandelsen (‘Resurrection’). I don’t feel customarily coy about calling this a zombie film or worrying too hard about spoilers, either, as even aside from the three-quarters-along start point, our key family’s little girl is plastered all over the publicity materials – looking decidedly bloodthirsty and infectious. So, with the possibility of big surprises receding by the second, the film’s opening scenes (distraught mother, nursing suspiciously ill little girl on her lap, as all people seem to do in films when someone gets infected in this way) quickly give way to a step back in time, and we meet the family in happier days: there’s the slightly wet dad, Dino (Troels Lyby), the domestic martyr, mother Pernille (Mille Dinesen), the floppy-haired teenage son Gustav (Benjamin Engell) and the little angel from the poster, Maj (Ella Solgaard). All seems reasonably normal: Gustav is rebelling in a very low-key way, though gets cheered up by the arrival of a cute new neighbour; his dad is trying and failing to reach out to him, Pernille is doing ALL the work around the house, tuh, and Maj spends most of her time petting her pet rabbit, which (spoiler alert) doesn’t go full Holy Grail at any point.

The film does a reasonable job of setting up the characters here – our main family, plus their neighbours – and this is something it maintains quite well throughout. We get some sense of simmering low-level tensions, but all in all the family unit is represented as settled and normal, with enough time taken to establish their general believability. It soon all goes wrong, though, as we have always known it would: a strange strain of flu arrives in the area, initiating a crackdown which sees people confined to their homes by gun-toting HAZMAT special agents who shrink-wrap the houses (!) and threaten to kill anyone who tries to escape, or indeed asks questions. The family are reduced to watching the TV to find out what is going on, but they clearly aren’t being told everything, and the strain of living on the food and water rations doled out to them by the HAZMAT guys is soon unbearable.

Because that’s what this film is, for the most part – an exercise in claustrophobia, with a family stuck cheek-by-jowl with one another for the forseeable future. And for all the pomp of the opening scene, the pace of the film trickles away beneath the weight of all this …waiting. I’ve already said that What We Become is a zombie film, and yeah, it is, but even this aspect is held off for a long time, keeping the pay-off we all know is coming to the minimum. If this film is about anything, it’s about how people can be manipulated and isolated by societal powers whose authority we tend to trust. (I do not see this film, as other reviewers have done, as a commentary on the migrant crisis, by the way. Perhaps I’m wrong, but then not everything’s symbolic.) Eventually, of course, we get back to the opener, and then we proceed onwards until the film’s close; there are the usual developments, the usual silly decisions and the usual shambling dead laying siege to the living, with no deviations from a plot-line which most of us have seen a hundred times.

I suppose this is my biggest bugbear with this film. It sticks rigidly to a formula, and yes, whilst elements are neatly in place, with decent performances, some good camera work and a number of effective scenes, one might ask – why make a film which is so achingly familiar? Had no other films of this kind ever been made – no imperiled families, no groups of people holed up in houses, no corrupt, cruel officials, no mystery viruses, no bogus healthcare, no symptoms which kill then resurrect, no peckish corpses – then What We Become would be an excellent example of a horror film. As it stands, it simply blends in. Either writer/director Bo Mikkelsen has seen every zombie film and wanted to make an homage of his own for his first feature, or else he’s seen very few and isn’t aware of the raft of similarities here, or just maybe it’s easy to get funding together for a good old zombie movie, but in any case – the sheer lack of distinguishing features here damages the overall competence of this film, which is a shame.

DVD Review: Shelley (2016)

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By Keri O’Shea

As a willing outsider to parenthood, it’s not too much of a reach for me to see the whole thing rather as some very fine horror movies have seen it – as something alienating, pervasive and often irrational. Having children is something most people sign up to eventually, or often yearn to if they can’t, and then ask repeatedly if you’re going to sign up, too. Being a parent confers status, but it also shifts a person’s priorities completely; it’s one hell of a fork in the road. As for pregnancy and childbirth itself, it may have stopped killing women (in the West) in the numbers it once did, but it still walks hand in hand with invasive medical procedures, pain and discomfort, lethargy, sickness, physical damage and of course, mental health issues. All of this is, of course, ‘worth it’ and, as I’m regularly assured, I’m just one of those awful childless women who doesn’t understand – but, hey, even if mainstream culture is still reticent on the dark side to raising a child, then horror cinema has long embraced it, both squirming at the physical aspects of pregnancy and holding a mirror to the life-subverting aspects of bringing up baby too. Rosemary’s Baby, a classic of this kind for good reason, positions Rosemary’s pregnancy as something quietly monstrous, sapping her strength and then her autonomy as she’s manipulated and sedated in turn. She is given one opportunity for revenge and reassertion of self, but instead capitulates to her maternal instincts. Other films look more closely at the role of the baby itself, such as Grace (2009), which pushes the draining physical demands made by a newborn into more grotesque, if understated body-horror territory – again, pushing the mother away from her friends and family, her instincts compelling her to nurture her child at all costs to her.

This brings us to Shelley (2016), a film with similar subject matter and some similar developments to the above, but which – on reflection – is more subtle and ambiguous, defying any neat summary, yet one of those rare films which dares the disapproval of all of those folks crying out for neat summaries.

shelleyThe film begins with a young Romanian woman, Elena (Cosmina Stratan) being driven to her new place of work, where she’ll be acting as housekeeper and assisting Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who is recuperating after an illness. Louise and her husband Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) live an isolated and largely self-sufficient life on their small Swedish estate: there’s no running water, no electricity (the New-Agey Louise seems to actively fear it) but the married couple seem fine with their no-mod-cons existence, and the house’s environs are indisputably serene and beautiful.

Elena and Louise begin to bond – first, via conversations about Elena’s little boy, Nicu, whom Louise asks after. Elena explains that he’s living with her parents back home while she works to save money for them both. It soon transpires that Louise has suffered miscarriages and the ensuing complications led to her womb being removed; this is clearly a subject which causes her profound pain. Off the back of this frankness, a warm, believable friendship between the couple and their employee soon follows. Elena teases them for their unusual lifestyles, they tease her back, and it seems as though the presence of somebody new has added some fresh energy to their home.

One evening, Louise asks Elena if she would consider surrogacy for her and Kaspar. Their payment for this, she explains, could enable Elena to go home to her son far sooner, and secure the apartment she wants for them both. After careful thought – and a mother’s desire to do right by her little boy – Elena accepts, and the reception of this news by her hosts is genuinely sweet. The implantation of Louise’s egg and Kaspar’s sperm is successful and Elena’s pregnancy progresses – but soon, she begins to suffer nightmares, then minor adverse symptoms which worsen. Louise, seeming genuinely alarmed, is worried about her, though medics assure them both that the baby is fine: however, Elena is convinced that something is wrong and begins pleading to leave.

The film could have began to flounder at this stage, painting the rest of its plot in foot-high letters and adding a pentagram at the end for good measure (as is conventional). By the time half of the film had passed, I found myself hoping against hope that this wouldn’t be the case, and thankfully it isn’t: to do so would have rendered the slow, meticulous build-up of atmosphere null and void. Shelley isn’t an exercise in clear exposition, and its mood is not generated to lure viewers into a false sense of security before a change of tack. What it does superbly it does oh-so quietly, and it maintains this approach throughout.

Things are shown to be out of kilter – quite aside from the mesmeric, deeply-unsettling sound design courtesy of Martin Dirkov – in unassuming ways. The clean Scandinavian interiors have flies crawling in cupboards; Louise swigs from a bottle of red wine, all the while extolling the virtues of clean living; there’s something faintly hollow about the quiet happiness on offer. Also the way the narrative skips – from Elena’s warm agreement to being a surrogate through to a cold, functional medical procedure, for instance, lends the film an episodic, dream-like quality which can feel exclusionary and unsettling. We are led to feel exactly as Elena (with whom we spend the most time as a character) must feel. The ‘good news’ of her pregnancy reinvigorates Louise and Kaspar’s sex life; as they grow closer, more intimate, the person facilitating it all is shut out even more. Elena’s nightmares may be just that, or they may be supernatural, but unquestionable is her loneliness, and as pregnancy weakens her physically, she begins to recede as a person. Louise seems genuinely alarmed by her surrogate’s condition, but attempts to help her strip Elena of even more autonomy. She’s given ‘healing treatments’ she didn’t ask for, given nutritious food which doesn’t match what she chooses to eat, and is grilled on her behaviour. Louise is no monster (Kaspar, however, grows ever more absent) but it’s impossible not to feel sorry for this poor girl, in a strange country, away from her family, growing increasingly vulnerable as her pregnancy – or is that Louise’s pregnancy? – develops.

One of the brief downsides to this character-centred approach is that little is truly made of the sylvan setting; the press release mentioned the house being a significant presence in the film, for instance, but on balance I disagree. Where these people live is relevant in terms of their isolation, and of course Elena’s distance from home, but otherwise, people’s internal worlds seem more developed and are given far more attention on-screen. Still, the rare skill invoked by first-time feature (!) director Ali Abbasi weaves a complex tale, and leaves us with questions which I feel could definitely be rewarded by repeat viewings. Is Shelley pre-partum psychosis writ large? Is it a parable on human exploitation? Is it about the all-consuming effects of maternity, or is there – is there – something more otherworldly behind it? These things I don’t know, but the film is better, not worse for it. It’ll be too quiet, too arty for some, and any answers it provides are inconclusive, but I’ve never before seen a film which marries the idea of starting a family to such an utter sense of dread, and as such I think it’s a unique and defiant piece of work.

Shelley will be released on DVD and download on the 10th October, 2016.

DVD Review: The Last King (2016)

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By Keri O’Shea

I hope that I’m not doing the film being reviewed a disservice to immediately mention Game of Thrones here, but it sees that the success of the latter is now so huge that there’s a large battle-shaped void in our viewing when the latter disappears from our screens for another year, and more than a few eager souls ready to fill it. Now, whilst medieval epic The Last King doesn’t have any fantastical elements like giants or dragons, it certainly boasts a lot of the aesthetics and themes which make GoT the indisputable smash banger that it is, from hails of arrows to loyalty in the face of political power-play. And then of course there’s one of GoT’s key actors (Kristofer Hivju) in a key role here, playing a Torstein rather than a Tormund, but essentially reprising the blunt, good-hearted man of action which has made his name worldwide.

last-kingWhere the film parts ways with the aforementioned series, however, is in its real-life historical basis. The director of The Last King, Nils Gaup, made a Viking-themed film titled Pathfinder in the 1980s (a film I love, though I take issue with some of the characterisation). Well, his most recent feature is far more firmly anchored in realism, though coming from that intersection between myth and history which usually arises with a good yarn. Coming post-Viking Age, the film is set in Norway in the year 1204. Although Norway has been Christianised by this point, as elsewhere in Europe the whole ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ gambit has been ignored in favour of factionalism and brutal attempts to seize power; Norway is divided into small kingdoms, with the East Norwegian/Danish alliance, the Baglers, vying for control over the independent West. Fearing imminent invasion, the king sends some of his loyal Birkebeiners to escort his illegitimate baby son Håkon Håkonson – and the baby’s mother – to safety, ahead of the invading army. Illegitimate or not, the boy is in line to the throne, and will be killed if he’s discovered and identified. However, what seems initially to be a successful mission is thwarted by traitors in the king’s camp, who see the two friends – Torstein and Skjervald (Lilyhammer’s Jakob Oftebro) – taking the child to safety. Skjervald is followed and information as to little Håkonson’s whereabouts is brutally extracted from his young family. There’s our coming vengeance angle, then – but can the Birkebeiners prevent an overthrow of power which seems to come as much from within the country as without? Life at court is just as fraught with risk and duplicitious goings-on…

Firstly, and in common with a rather different Norwegian film that I reviewed lately (The Wave) this film is an absolute visual feast. Maybe I’m biased by my long-standing love of Scandinavia scenery, but quite honestly, who could look at places like this and not feel something? The bleak, beautiful and truly-inclement conditions on display look fantastic and Gaup gets that, even giving the Northern Lights a bit of screentime. Sure, all the skiing was a bit of a surprise, but of course it makes perfect sense in a country completely snowbound for many months of the year, and in fact it’s funny that the Wildlings never thought of it. In keeping with this brutal, yet Sublime landscape, life as depicted in The Last King is itself brutal – though on a workable and smaller scale, with no vast armies pitted against vast armies here, rather a believable number of men in the fight. Whilst the film isn’t awash with blood and grue, either, it certainly makes the point that bloodshed was a matter-of-fact process, where women and children are not let off the hook (Hollywood would have had the girls throwing the men around like matchsticks at some point; Gaup does not).

Outbreaks of violence are matched against far slower sequences, in which we’re invited to understand the key protagonists and their motivations. These are, by and large, plausible and engaging, although on occasion the film feels a little like Two Men and a Baby (or perhaps due to the large amount of scenes shared by the baby himself, Jonathan Oskar Dahlgren, a little like Willow – two films where the baby feels like a person rather than a prop). This is largely Hivju’s and Oftebro’s film, although all of the supporting cast are good; the villains here are a little one-dimensional, something the director decided on in Pathfinder, too, but as a force to be reckoned with they’re more than adequate, if not equally as fleshed-out as the good guys. In fact, only some bizarre oversights with dubbing (a lullaby clearly not coming from the supposed singer; a baby crying when the bairn is in shot and looking perfectly happy) threaten the overall competent handling of all of the elements in play.

Fair enough, nearly all of these historical action films share obligatory elements (like the wafty female vocals on the credits or the aforementioned vengeance plot-line) but The Last King is a worthwhile entrant into the genre. It has its roots in a period of history I’ll confess I don’t know well, but it crafts a decent, accessible tale and supplies an abundance of equally decent performances and settings. Plus, let’s be honest: any more Kristofer Hivju hurtling around in furs brandishing weaponry can’t be a bad thing, now can it?

The Last King is available from 3rd October 2016.

DVD Review: The Evil In Us (2016)

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By Keri O’Shea

You know, it’s funny. I’ve spent around fifteen years writing about horror cinema – for a variety of audience sizes from one upwards – but in all that time I’ve never been for a wild weekend in a remote cabin, and nor do I know anyone who has. Perhaps it’s just not a British thing, but were anyone to use the opening gambit of oh-so-many of these films as any sort of indicator of reality, then you’d think a cabin break was some sort of rite of passage; everyone just seems to do it, everyone’s distant relative apparently has a little place in the woods, and there are far more cabins than castles in modern horror. Anyway, considering that The Evil In Us proudly proclaims its pedigree as “Cabin Fever meets Evil Dead”, then we’re already at cabin x cabin, even before the opening credits roll.

evil-in-us-box-setWhen they do, what we see is a fairly robust and stylish set of visuals – based on first impressions, presumably there’s at least some cash and some clue behind this project, as shown by the prettily-shot woman bathing in (and, for want of a better expression, gargling with) blood. Furthermore, there’s an early surprise when we seem to start with urban horror, as police discover a gruesome scene within the confines of an otherwise normal apartment block in Seattle. Still, this turns out to be a parallel plot line: as a detective tries to get to the bottom of what happened in the apartment, an expected group of twentysomethings are indeed getting ready to head into the boonies for a 4th July party. A few unnecessary lines of dialogue tell us that there is limited cellphone signal at the cabin they’re staying in, and as ever I’m unclear on whether this group of old schoolfriends are meant to be hateable or relatable, but feeling called upon to ponder this now seems as ubiquitous a part of cabin-based horror, for me, as the bikinis and the weak bottled beers.

It seems, though, that the events back in Seattle and the party animals in the woods are somehow linked. Key to this is a mystery narcotic, a bag of which has made its way out of the city with the gang of friends; the supplier of this narcotic evidently has plans for those who fall under its influence, and there’s an as-yet unknown reason for wanting to make the people who take it increasingly paranoid, angry and aggressive.

The Evil In Us isn’t a badly-made film, and the shooting style suits the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere as, one by one, friends fall under the influence of the drug. There’s a fair amount of ambition here in terms of combining several tried-and-tested elements from horror films we may know well, and attempting to link scenes in the cabin to something wider that is going on outside of this situation is a decent idea in terms of adding interest. This does mean that first-time feature director Jason William Lee has to navigate some choppy waters, though; filmmakers have long struggled with filming drug trips, and they’ve often struggled with the ratcheting tension you’d expect from…well, from a bunch of young people losing their minds in a confined space, and there’s no exception to that here, even if it was brave to try and incorporate so much. Ultimately, it’s not the reversion-to-yelling or the drug use scenes which do the film the most harm, however: rather, it’s towards the film’s close. By this point, The Evil In Us is a zombie film by any other name rather than anything really akin to The Crazies or Blue Sunshine, with the same aesthetics and behaviour on display as we’ve seen in any number of other films in the zombie genre.

And as for the ‘big reveal’ of what has been going on, that emerges only in the closing parts of the film, and as such feels very much tacked on for some heavy-handed social commentary. Had there been more of a consistent approach to this political element, then this could have added a much more interesting dimension overall. Seeing the film hailed as ‘a message for our time’ is, I think, overstating it somewhat, unless you want to go fully ‘meta-‘ and comment on how the film’s flailing aggression and conspiracy theory elements give you a sense of deja-vu which is currently being echoed by our global political picture…

The Evil In Us will be released by Studiocanal on 10th October 2016.

Film Review: Don’t Breathe (2016)

By Keri O’Shea

If ever you felt cordially invited to loathe a set of characters within the first few minutes of a film, then Don’t Breathe seems to offer it; we’re shown, from the outset, a group of three young housebreakers who use their ill-begotten insider info to get in to well-to-do homes, take as many expensive personal items as they can carry and then flee, though not without deliberately breaking a few things and pissing on the floor. This, combined with the fact that the film elects to use for its very first scene some stark evidence that all is not going to go well for these people, would seem to suggest that Don’t Breathe is rather too ready to offer these thieves up as human sacrifices, and that the film will be the same sort of exercise in futile cruelty as the chronically-pointless Evil Dead remake.

I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case: Fede Alvarez’s more recent venture is a far superior film to Evil Dead, and although he almost can’t help himself but to initially signpost plot devices in a way which suggests he fears the audience are idiots, he soon surpasses this (or at least forgets about it,) providing a tightly-wound home invasion movie which has very few flaws.

dont-breathe-posterOur gang of miscreants – the straightforwardly-loathsome wannabe gangster Money (Daniel Zovatto), his girlfriend and single mother Rocky (Jane Levy) and the guy whose dad conveniently runs a home security firm and thus enables the whole thing, Alex (Dylan Minnette) – have been doing their research, and they’ve happened upon a job that they believe could be the last they ever need to do. Turns out, in a barely-populated area of their city of Detroit, there’s a house possibly filled to the brim with compensation awarded to an elderly veteran after the death of his only daughter in a road accident. Although they’re not certain the money is in there, they convince Alex to bring the keys anyway; discovering that the man (Stephen Lang) is blind gives them some slight pause, but hey, filthy lucre drives them onwards – and we know from one of those klaxon plot development moments that Rocky in particular isn’t simply cruel, she’s desperate, and needs the money to start a new life with her little girl.

All of this rattles along at a good pace, and again, although Alvarez didn’t need to more or less shout at us ‘Hey guys! Look! Household tools!’ or ‘Looky! I’m zooming in on the weapon here, so you know where it is later, okay?’ the interior of the house, where the greatest part of the film takes place, is used to good effect. It’s reminiscent of the ‘old dark house’ idea – a space which conceals more than it reveals, with a wealth of liminal space as well as many dangers for those not in the know. But perhaps what Don’t Breathe excels at is its representation of ‘the man’ who inhabits this space.

The intruders are at first very assured, and to counterbalance this, the man is portrayed as very vulnerable, a father in mourning, and someone with a quality-of-life-limiting disability. We first see him in bed, after all, listening to old videos of his daughter as a child – and if there are any difficulties in finding empathy for the three amigos, then the first scenes with Lang make it seem much more clear to find it for him. In a few deft moves however, the man is no longer simply frail, which is testament to Lang’s excellent performance here; as the housebreakers begin to make their inevitable mistakes, he switches to being a much more ambiguous figure before, ultimately, going beyond this understandable resourcefulness as someone still capable of defending his home, turning increasingly violent and fixated. At his furthest reaches as a character, the man becomes almost supernatural, his damaged eyes made to appear monstrous on-screen, and his abilities to feel his way around in the dark setting him above the young intruders in terms of physical threat. All of this keeps the film fresh and interesting; as the cat-and-mouse turns more grisly, inter-character relationships are entertainingly fluid.

I suspect perhaps that Alvarez was somewhat drunk on the capacity for the film to allow for such dramatic shifts, or else as a modern horror director he felt honour-bound to weave just one more commonplace sub-genre into the narrative, but quite honestly – there’s one plot lurch here which is just not needed, and which catapults ‘the man’ out of the realms of ambiguity and into far more sinister terrain. Of course I’m not going to name and shame it, but it seems to me that this entire sequence needed to hit the cutting room floor, not least because it showcases some notions about human fertility and family planning which are almost charming in their naivety. (Thought speaking of naive – I thought that during this particular scene, the man was making a cup of tea with milk he couldn’t tell was off because, duh, he’s blind! When you see the film, and you’ll know the bit I mean, think of that, and also the fact that I’d be happy to believe a dangerous individual would pause to make a brew halfway through proceedings. The truth of this scene is only scarcely less unlikely, mind.)

Alvarez is, really speaking, a new kid on the block in the horror scene; this is only his second feature after all. Sure, I wasn’t a fan of his first one, but if Evil Dead has done anything beyond itself, then it seems at least to have allowed him to let loose with a story of his own here, albeit one which draws influence from existing films. But drawing influence from existing films is fine, it’s a world away from a re-do, and you can see here that he’s developing his own, rapid-fire, well-realised style. It’s all very encouraging, and Don’t Breathe is a huge step up. If Alvarez can just learn to trust us a little more, as well as remembering that you needn’t crowd your story with material which is too jarring, then I think we could see better and better, equally-entertaining films ahead. I certainly hope that’s the case.

Don’t Breathe is on general release now.

DVD Review: The Wave (2015)

the-wave-CopyA lot of the films we cover on the site relate to the great ‘what if?’, the playing out of fantastical scenarios, some more realistic, many supernatural and many fairly impossible if not utterly so – but a genre we rarely get asked to cover is the disaster movie. It’s strange that so very few good disaster movies cross our paths, really, because if we’re fascinated with ‘what ifs’, then surely there’s plenty of horror and drama to derive from the ‘not ifs, whens’. This is the precise set-up for The Wave (aka Bølgen), a Norwegian-language disaster film which starts with some real-life footage of a twentieth-century rockslide which obliterated a Norwegian village called Geiranger. We’re told that this kind of rockslide will inevitably happen again in future, and that a site called the Åkernes Crevice is at especial risk of further widening, which when – not if – it does, will send a massive amount of debris into the fjord beneath, creating a tsunami likely to wipe out all of the picturesque homes on the fjord’s shores. It’s something you can’t help but bear in mind as you watch the film unfold, and whilst The Wave carries with it some tried-and-tested disaster movie plot devices, it’s already one step up in terms of engagement. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Wave (2015)”

Blu-ray Review: The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971)

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By Keri O’Shea

When is a giallo not a giallo? Sure, the cinematic tradition is expected to deliver crime drama as per the print publications which gave us the term ‘giallo’ in the first place, but the expectation is also there of a certain aesthetic on our screens, usually invoking sexuality as well as criminality; perhaps a good giallo understands that the lurid set-pieces are just as important as the crime itself, or at least, that a certain amount of spectacle will compensate for the often nonsensical solutions to those mysteries meant to form the heart of the plot.

bloodstained dvdThe Bloodstained Butterfly starts off with some understanding of this: a beautiful French student is found, dead, in the woods – wearing the bloodstained butterfly of the title around her neck, we assume (and the follow-up scene is of course of some amorous lovers, thus splicing death with sex, as is traditional.) Clearly there’s a maniac at large, or we wouldn’t be watching this story – but the heavy rain at the time of the killing has watched away the forensic evidence, and the killer managed to evade the dragnet which attempts to close in as soon as the alarm is raised. All that’s known about him, at this point, is that he’s clad in a beige raincoat. The hunt is on. Or, rather, we then see a slow succession of lab processes and meticulous ‘going over the evidence’ in order to close in on the possible culprit. When a witness comes forward to say she knows who the killer is, the case takes a turn: it seems, then, that the girl’s lover, a TV presenter, was the man responsible. Others corroborate, and soon the erstwhile TV star, Allesandro Marchi, is hauled into court on seemingly damning evidence of his involvement. Things are, however, rarely this straightforward. As the case is debated – at length – other factors are revealed, and it seems that Marchi might not be the maniac after all. A philanderer, yes, but perhaps not the murderer…

Considering the gaudiness of the title, this is a rather drab film beyond the initial impact of the opening scenes, which is certainly not something I expected. The rain, the mud, the dull clothes, the grey rooms and buildings, the largely understated dialogue, and the sense that the plot is being prolonged by a kind of mad attention to realistic criminal law did little to engage me as a viewer. The film’s tendency to go over and over footage from earlier on in the proceedings as the court considers it is, frankly, bloody boring too, and although it might be deemed necessary, it looks suspiciously like filler.

Perhaps this is the wrong term to use when describing a genre of films which almost always feature grisly murders, but The Bloodstained Butterfly just isn’t as much fun as you’d expect from even a passing awareness of its peer group. I mean, it’s nicely shot from a technical level, with a variety of locations, angles, shooting styles and the like, and there’s ever the possibility that it’s been misrepresented, somewhere along the line, which will often lead to disappointment – but there simply isn’t enough going on here, and when the film tries to add interest by delving into slightly more fantastical content, or even more salacious content, it jars. When you work so hard to go with realism, then you can’t really do much else. In fact, I felt so beaten down with the courtroom proceedings, that I found it quite difficult to get a handle on any of the characters thereafter – a shame, really, as there are some interesting cast members here (such as Salon Kitty’s Helmut Berger).

Whilst there are some elements here which can be applauded – the soundtrack is interesting, the time-capsule effect is abundant, the cinematography shows some skill, and above all there are attempts to render a gripping crime drama – I wouldn’t automatically peg this one as an obvious choice for a remaster and re-release by Arrow, as much as they’ve done a decent job on it. Still, if you’re a completist who loves vintage Italiana, then have at it, and take note of the fact that there are a few extras on offer too – namely an audio commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman, new interviews with Helmut Berger, Evelyn Stewart and Lorella de Luca – who speaks about her husband, director Duccio Tessari. There’s the usual gamut of trailers and still images, too.

The Bloodstained Butterfly will be released by Arrow Video on 22nd August, 2016.

Blu-Ray Review: Female Prisoner Scorpion – The Complete Collection

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By Keri O’Shea

Imagine a sequence of films, emanating from Japan over forty years ago, which melded – literally – riotously strong female characters with insurrection, violence, sexuality and even the odd dash of social commentary. ‘Women in prison’ films (for the most part) like no other, the Female Convict movies (or ‘Female Prisoner’, in the translation being used by Arrow) are completely unique in 70s cult cinema – a well-crafted, artistic foray into the genre which soon superseded it, with the various films looking one minute like an arthouse project, the next a pure exploitation venture, and the next, something Sergio Leone would have been proud to call his own. Ambitious, beautifully well-made – but only available piecemeal until now, in a handful of releases in the US and Europe over the past ten to fifteen years, give or take. Perhaps in part because lead actress Meiko Kaji has resurfaced in cult film consciousness via her influence on, and singing on (!) in Kill Bill (say what you like about Quentin Tarantino, but he has introduced a lot of people to interesting films via his own fandom and references in his work) and of course thanks to the efforts of Arrow, who have already released some of Meiko’s early work, such as Blind Woman’s Curse, an appetite has developed for these films to be released in one definitive version – which, with this four-film box set, Arrow have delivered.

Because of the extraordinary type of these movies, made during a frenetic period of activity between just 1972-74, I’m going to avoid a lengthy review of each. For one thing, with four films in all, this would turn into a fairly lengthy, probably tedious read. Instead, save for a quick discussion of the barest details of each movie, I’m going to explain why these films are more than worthy of your time, in the hopes that if you haven’t encountered these films, you will. Slight bias? You betcha. These films are an absolute feast.

The first film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972) quickly introduces us to Matsu, sometimes Nami (Meiko), a notorious convict making an attempted escape alongside one companion – the only person in the prison she seems to not disregard or loathe completely. This attempt fails and Matsu is punished horribly, spending a large share of the film hogtied…and utterly, utterly silent, whatever is being done to her. The corrupt cop who fitted her up is still worried about the implacable Matsu, however, and wants her assassinated inside the prison. Matsu fights for survival, a victim of unprecedented brutality by the guards, still quietly driven by her own desire for revenge – and the circumstances which arise from her treatment allows a few changes to take place…

Made later the same year, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) has many of the same plot devices, with Matsu now being openly referred to by her nickname – ‘Sasori’ (Scorpion) – and when we meet again, she has spent a whole year in isolation. She gets a short reprieve due to the arrival of an official who wishes to see all the inmates, and she of course takes her chances to escape again – though not before her rage and indignity is increased sevenfold by a ‘correctional’ rape. Alongside a new clutch of, in my opinion, a more fearsome group of convicts, including the incomparable Ôba, they and Sasori flee across and incredibly beautiful, if desolate landscape, back to civilisation – where the havoc of their lives and that which brought them to their current state turns out to be a deeply unsettling prospect for those they encounter, be they pursuing wardens, those once close to them, or members of the public.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973) is the first film to differ from the ‘women in prison’ genre, turning instead into something of a yakuza thriller, with the renegade Sasori trying to live incognito, albeit that the opening scene rather blows her cover in a spectacularly grisly and almost comic way. This, our first protracted glimpse of life beyond the jailhouse walls, lacks the pace of the first two films, but the by-now characteristic flashes of ultraviolence and exploitation still link arms effectively with artistic shots and content. Another interesting aspect of the film is in its glimpses of urban sprawl and poverty, factors which eventually justify Nami’s ongoing and quenchless pursuit of vengeance for wrongs.

With the departure at this point of director Shunya Itô, I feel that the series could easily have wound to a close. However, there was one more part yet to come: Female Prisoner Scorpion #701: Grudge Song (1974). Here, the character of Sasori probably undergoes the biggest changes to date, saying more (which breaks a spell, of sorts) and committing a range of crimes which seem to show her as amoral or even immoral, rather than an agent of justice – which she has plausibly been until this point. Still, the symbolism is there for the asking, and the ongoing theme of police brutality is given free rein here. There are many strengths in the film, and so to an extent to call it the weakest of the four is not to damn it too much with faint praise. Considering the issues of a directorial swap mid-way through a series, this is still an accomplished movie which looks brilliant.

So, how to sum this set of films up…

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Under the incredibly skilled hand of director Shunya Itô – who was at the helm for the first three of the films, before handing over to Yasuharu Hasebe for Grudge Song (himself a talented fella who had previously directed Meiko Kaji in the Stray Cat Rock films, though had a rather different style) – these movies are the very embodiment of the ‘broiling pot’ which encapsulates so many women in prison films, all frustrated sexuality, rivalry, high emotions and violence as an ever-present force. But – and with the greatest of respect to the many WIP films which have all of those elements and use them very well – it’s never, ever been handled in such a painterly, exploratory way as the Female Prisoner Scorpion films.

These films certainly use exploitation elements, and don’t shy away from what can be described in no other way than reprehensible plot lines – rape, beatings, psychological torment, humiliation – but these interludes are balanced against an almost delicate understanding of colour, camera angle, choreography and photography – particularly, I feel, in the first two films. And it all works together so seamlessly. For example, in the second film: a hijacked vehicle scene permits some catharsis for the women, straight after the passengers – men who had fought in World War II – have finished boasting of their rapes of Chinese women. The tables are turned, the men are being singularly tormented for the women’s pleasure, and yet ten seconds later, Sasori, simply looking out of the window as they pass through a tunnel, is transported into a dreamscape – one where primary colours light tableaux of the women’s initial crimes being performed, and act as foreshadowing, showing her internal life in a very different way than her largely mute, if still completely striking, performance (she actually speaks just a handful of words during this entire film, and none until almost the close, without missing a beat in terms of strong characterisation.)

These are, throughout, very physical women, demonic instead of demure, where scenes of their prostration (such as rape) make the men look endlessly like clowns and caricatures, but simply send the women inwards – where they wait, Sasori and the others, ready to explode into violence. Meiko Kaji is, throughout the first three films, almost otherworldly. Indeed, the trials this actress went through for the part (such as being drenched with freezing water in the second film – warm water would have created steam and destroyed the effect, see) combine with her taciturn, cold presence and make her seem more like a supernatural force than a woman. Yet for all her single-minded cruelty, it’s impossible (for me at least) not to like her a great deal, perhaps Grudge Song notwithstanding. It all works, perhaps also because of the expected fragility of such a petite young woman, particularly in the Japanese culture of the day.

And as for Japan, whilst the films don’t hammer home any political messages per se, you may be pleasantly surprised to pick up on some of the layers of symbolism therein: the Japanese flag becomes a dab of blood on occasions, or forms the backdrop to a hurled blade in the first movie; the women in the prison rose garden in the first film accidentally give themselves Geisha-painted lips as they discuss their frustrated sex drives; there are teasing references to Japanese kabuki theatre or traditional music throughout the films. So – this all leads us to one of the most iconic Japanese actresses ever to grace our screens, in a unique and strongly-drawn role, amongst a whole host of agents of feminine strength and cruelty, filmed by visually-creative artists who have made films sharp enough to accommodate a whole wealth of styles and subtle symbols, too.

scorpion arrow boxThe Arrow release is, as I have suggested, the definitive deal, containing all of the films in their entirety: the prints look good, though the third film retains a rather grainy veneer, and the audio is solid throughout. This all brings me, however, to a rare smattering of criticisms. Firstly – the main cover art for this is rather lacklustre. No personal disrespect intended towards the artist, but this isn’t the usual calibre for an Arrow release, neither clearly in keeping with the manga style to my eye (which I dislike actually, but would tie in with the films’ origins) nor showing the draftsmanship I’ve come to expect. It surely takes some doing to make Meiko Kaji look ugly. Sorry. However, I haven’t seen the fold-outs or other materials, so these may be another story altogether.

Then we come to the now obligatory plethora of extras on the discs, and I’ll be the first to admit my heart tends to sink when I get a review disc packed with ‘special features’ because for the most part, I find special features rather unnecessary and laboursome. Were I not reviewing the release, I’d very likely not watch them at all; a quick straw poll on Twitter shows that many people disagree with me, mind you, but this is my own proviso for what follows. So, here, we have the usual trailers and chapters, some interesting input, such as from the art director Tadayuki Kuwana and director Shunya Itô, but also something called ‘appreciations’, half an hour or so apiece, which mean fans/critics talking you back through the film you’ve just seen – something I can’t see the point of, honestly. It would have been amazing to have had some new footage with Meiko Kaji, but sadly this hasn’t come to pass; ultimately I would say that, of all the special features, it’s the archive extras which lend the greatest insight, which suggests to me that the rush to add one’s own extras to a remastered release may reflect more what viewers expect than what they want, and extras may now also be a key consideration to justify the purchase price, when the films chosen for release should justify that in and of themselves.

Happily, here, the films do justify it in spades, and I have no hesitation in recommending these movies. They really are extraordinary pieces of work and you will not find their like anywhere else.

Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection will be released as a limited edition by Arrow Video on August 8th 2016.