Written and Directed by Jacob Vaughan
Duncan and Sarah aren’t getting any younger and they really should be thinking of starting a family. Certainly that’s what his mother, and her Indian toy boy are telling them – and the fertility doctor they hire without asking. However, Duncan has a stomach complaint that is overtaking his life and doctors are unable to diagnose why. The advice from his physician is to avoid stress in his life. Cue a sideways move at work to head up the sacking of a large number of staff.
He goes to see a hypnotist – played to perfection by Swedish actor Peter Stormare. Here’s where Bad Milo is revealed – a vengeful alter ego who resides in Duncan’s arsehole. To which disbelieving Stormare exclaims: “Big fat babies come out of tiny vaginas.” Anyone that crosses Duncan or makes his life difficult is going to get it from Milo. He’s a vicious little swine that there is no doubt. Co-workers and the fertility doctor are the first to go. You will want to hide your eyes from a rather gruesome penis biting moment. Police reports say an animal is responsible. A hilarious headline pops up on a TV screen: “Raccoon? Or Serial Killer?”
The Hypnotist gets Duncan to learn to love his Milo and that gives them time to learn more about what is troubling Duncan. Cue his lifelong absentee Dad, played by prolific scene-stealer Stephen Root. Ken Marino does a great job as Duncan. Especially given some of his best moments are spent either passing or receiving Milo through his butt. Bad Milo is a smart, dark comedy horror. At times it feels like the team of Arrested Development has got in on the genre act – such are the dysfunctionalities of the people who surround the lives of the married couple at the heart of the drama. This bizarre premise genuinely resolves itself in the end too – no one will see that coming.
THE HARVEST (USA)
Directed by John McNaughton
Written by Stephen Lancelotti
The main details of this film are best left unsaid. To reveal them would destroy the viewing pleasure of not one, but two brilliantly staged plot twists.
Skilled doctor Katherine (Samantha Morton) and her put upon husband Richard (Michael Shannon) are labouring through a loveless marriage entirely occupied by the demands of their dying son Andy (Charlie Tahan). Their world is thrown into a spin by the arrival of thirteen year old Maryanne (Natasha Calis) to the neighbourhood. Lost in this perfect suburbia she investigates the surrounding woodland and stumbles on Andy laid up in bed. There’s an instant connection and this lonely sick child becomes her first friend – surprisingly, for a boy of twelve, he announces she is his first friend too – a first significant clue and only spoiler in this review.
Katherine politely pushes Maryanne out of Andy’s life and when that doesn’t work implores her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Lesley Lyles) that it won’t be good for either of them if a relationship blossoms. She’s a precocious, determined kid and doesn’t give in that easy. Taking more and more chances to be with Andy she uncovers what’s really going on at Andy’s house.
It’s a taut, brooding film that manages to root modern America in some sort of dark fairy tale world that’s reminiscent of Brothers Grimm. The joy of the plot reveals are built on A Grade performances. Tahan and Calis, for a pair so young, seem to carry the film with ease. Calis in particular shows a range of emotions that belie her tender years. She was recommended to Naughton by Kyra Sedgewick after she had acted alongside her in The Possession(2012). Morton is over the top as the twisted layers of this big bad wolf mother character are uncovered until there’s nothing else for her to show but anger and rage. She not only controls Andy’s life, but Richard as well. Shannon, by stark contrast, is understated and measured as the submissive partner. Structurally speaking it’s like The Martyrs. In so much that it has you believing it is one film for half the movie and then turns into something much more terrifying than anything you would have imagined when you see Katherine saving a child’s life in A & E.
WHITE SETTLERS (UK)
Directed by Simeon Halligan
Written by Ian Fenton
Yuppie couple Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Ed (Lee Williams) are tired of their expensive English city lives and decide to check out an old farmhouse on the Scottish Borders. The property is a steal and – even though the estate agent has offloaded the unsavoury Scotland vs England history of the place – they snap it up. The happy couple move in three months later and before their first evening has matured, their fuse blows and men wearing rubber pig masks lay siege to the property.
The heat is on and Sarah proves the more determined of the two heroes. McIntosh’s performance draws on the kind of kickass abilities that made her so great in The Woman. Chases in nearby woodlands and around the house are shot well, but the geography of the surrounding landscape isn’t ever established, so it’s hard to imagine, beyond the concept of remoteness, the absolute hopelessness of their situation. In addition, the whole film sits on the foundation of the estate agents exposition dump at the start. Themes of cultural identity that are alluded to between the English and the Scots are ignored from this point onwards. Consequently, there are no real twists or surprises. Suspense is limited to the simple thrill of will they or won’t they survive this ordeal. Despite an amoral denouement that jars the final moments – in some senses it echoes of Eden Lake – White Settlers is best viewed as a run of the mill home invasion movie.
STARRY EYES (USA)
Co-written/co-directed by Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer
Sarah (Alex Essoe) is an acting wannabe busting her gut in a low pay Hollywood diner. Her housemates are the same and while they’re all in it together, Sarah gives the impression she feels pushed outside the group. A speculative application for a horror film called ‘Silent Scream’ leads to an unorthodox audition to impress the casting agent. The camera lingers on a pentagram necklace, not that Sarah spots this warning sign. A call back leads to the casting couch with a creepy old guy trying to feel her up. Sarah flees to the bosom of her loser friends and begs for her diner job back.
A wild night on drugs sees her return to the old guy and succumb to his desire for sexual favours in exchange, she hopes, for advancement of her acting career. The pentagram motif appears for a second time – branded on the back of his hand. This is no audition, it’s a Faustian pact. When she awakes back at her apartment things can never be the same. First her appearance descends to that of a disease ravaged homeless bum and then comes the blood lust. Every single snide remark and conversation behind her back becomes motive for Sarah to kill her housemates – it’s a spectacularly brutal sequence that includes a particularly gruesome dumb bell scene.
Essoe carries the film well. It’s a simple tale of be careful what you wish for, but the outcome is no less surprising or disturbing. Kolsch and Widmyer satirical portrayal of an entitled, but frustrated generation is a neat side bar to Starry Eyes. Trapped in a shitty neighbourhood, hooked on the regular income of low pay work, they are waking up to the fact that fame isn’t coming and that script they plan to shoot isn’t really the middle finger to Hollywood they thought it would be. Sarah’s murderous escape plan from their dreamy prison and ascension into Hollywood’s satanic elite is the only way to ensure you get a seat at the table. Starry Eyes is a fantastical, modern day scary fable warning you that going that extra mile isn’t necessarily the path to success and glory.
SHOW PIECES (UK)
Directed by Mitch Jenkins
Written by Alan Moore
Show Pieces started out life as a series of three short films and an ongoing crowdfunding campaign to get them made: Act Of Faith, Jimmy’s End and His Heavy Heart. They are the creation of Alan Moore (The Watchmen, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, V For Vendetta) and long-time collaborator, and fellow Northamptonite Mitch Jenkins. When joined together, these short films become an interlocking, feature-length, trilogy that takes you to a new hellish place called Nighthampton.
Act Of Faith shows you the ultimate price you can pay for a deviant lifestyle. Then it’s Jimmy’s End as Jenkins and Moore take you to the place you end up when you’re bad via a lost, and then found, serial philanderer. In this instance it’s a working man’s club, stuck in what looks like a 1970s time warp populated by burlesque dancers, vindictive clowns and an enigmatic Alan Moore passing judgement – his face is painted gold, his hair and beard are white and he’s wearing the most glamorous, gold, stack heeled boots this side of a Slade concert during their peak. His Heavy Heart concludes proceedings and revels in dishing out the appropriate punishment to the hapless, yet ultimately guilty man.
The pacing of Show Pieces is seductive with a dark sense of humour permeating almost every frame. The interdependent stories evolve neatly into a bigger story through reveals that are craftily held back for as long as possible so the audience can enjoy building a jigsaw of understanding of the world of Nighthampton as much as the filmmakers themselves. To think this is just the start of much bigger transmedia project called The Show. A limited edition DVD box set of ‘Show Pieces’ will be available in October 2014 and will include two more short films to expand what has been premiered at Frightfest.
THE SLEEPING ROOM (UK)
Directed by John Shackleton
Written by John Shackleton, Ross Jamieson and Alex Chandon
Blue (Leila Mimmack) is a young prostitute working in Brighton. Her closest friend is Glenny (Chris Waller), a no hoper living out of a camper van. Her madam, Cynthia (Julie Graham), is doing her best to look out for Blue’s welfare. Whereas. tired-looking hardman Freddie (David Sibley), her pimp, is more concerned she keeps the money coming in. On the first job we see her attend to, she meets posh restoration expert Bill (Joseph Beattie), in a dust sheet covered apartment. He introduces her to the spooky delights of his mutoscope via a naughty piece of Victoriana silent movie. Shackleton enjoys taking us inside the machine to see the gears, cogs and grease. A mechanical motif of a bygone age he echoes via the open cage lift shaft that runs up the middle of Bill’s stairwell.
Soon after they’ve slept together Blue is haunted by the masked figure from the film and, in doing so, reveals to Bill a two-way mirror – a window on The Sleeping Room. Blue learns from Cynthia that where Bill lives used to be an old brothel. Blue and Bill strike up an awkward relationship that sees her go back repeatedly against the threats of Freddie. All the while a dark, ghostly drama takes shape involving the tragic past of the former brothel, the possession of Bill and the motives for a double murder committed by Blue’s mother.
A slight gripe would be some key information is given to Blue via lengthy conversations with others. One character, Jimmy Whipps, appears just for this purpose. Apart from physical confrontations, the only real inconvenience is the local library’s lack of digital archives of newspapers. Regardless, The Sleeping Room is an accomplished directorial debut from Shackleton. It’s a slow burner that relies on brooding atmospherics and a growing sense of dread fuelled by throw backs to the darkside of the Victorian seaside resort’s long forgotten history. Shot out of season there’s a rainy, end of the road feeling that permeates Blue’s search for answers and the need to escape the chains of her past, Bill’s alter ego and ultimately from this town for good.
ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE (USA)
Directed and written by Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson
All Cheerleaders Die is a remake of the 2001 comedy horror that McKee and Silvertsonmade during the late nineties as they taught themselves how to make movies through making a movie. The 2014 version has a bigger budget and both McKee and Silvertson’s expertise is through the roof in comparison to their inaugural effort. This is the first McKee film at Frightfest since The Woman in 2011. While that Jack Ketchum collaboration was a tough old watch at times, ‘All Cheerleaders Die’ is a much more fun affair on the surface. Although be warned, the faces may look like they’ve walked off Beverley Hills 90210, but these beautiful people are not here to give you belly laughs – a dark hearted satire definitely beats hard at ‘All Cheerleaders Die’s core. Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is the hero in this ensemble cast ably supported by her witch wannabe friend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee).
Maddy infiltrates the cheerleader team and when retribution after a party ends in tragedy the film takes a turn for the supernatural via Leena’s heeling stones. The undead Cheerleaders wake up the next day feeling not much worse than if they’d had too much beer, but soon discover they’re not who or what they used to be.
There’s some nice touches to the application of Leena’s imperfect occult powers such as: two sisters inexplicably being resurrected in each other’s bodies. From here on in the cheerleaders embark on a path of vengeance and bully-boy Terry is their main target. As the body count rises McKee and Silvertson hold onto what is a very unique high concept horror comedy, peppered with gore and violence, while employing wonderful, entertaining characterisation that has nods to high school movies, Heathers, Pump Up the Volume and Mean Girls.
THE MIRROR (UK)
Written and directed by Ed Boase
Flatmates Jemma & Matt and gooseberry Steve are the stars of this microbudget found footage movie. They’re using their home to enter a competition where they stand to win £1m if they can prove supernatural phenomena. The reason they’re entering is that Matt has bought a mirror off eBay that is believed to be haunted and they aim to film it occurring. Paranormal Activity is a clear influence. There are fixed and handheld cameras as part of the set up to capture the potential entity – so this is rarely headache inducing. Often the screen is filled with very little, but because of the crazy stuff that you’ve already seen you’re unsettled enough to wonder what’s next or what’s around that corner. The only real troubling development in the first half of the film is Matt has rekindled his childhood habit of sleepwalking. Increasingly his nocturnal behaviour gets more erratic until he’s completely possessed and leaves the apartment, armed with a butcher’s knife. He stalks a lone woman – thankfully she has a pepper spray to snap him out of his stupor. The knife in the outstretched hand does look like it came from a video game rather than cinema.
This is a perennial challenge for any found film – limiting shots to the cameras the cast operate or carry does inevitably limit how interesting things look to the viewer. However, that is countered by only casting three people for such a contained location. It’s a clever move because the dynamics of their relationships with each other are quickly understood and we can get on with experiencing the mystery of the mirror. Jemma and Steve end up forming an alliance to protect themselves from Matt. Throughout Steve, played by Nate Fallows, is the most engaging character. His role as joker in the pack wanting to be scared ensures Fallows has good reasons to express himself before the situation takes its turn for the worse. When the evil emanating from the mirror makes its final play there is no escape and the descent to absolute disaster is swift and final. The story telling is a little slow and waiting for something to happen doesn’t always garner suspense, just impatience. Otherwise there are some interesting ideas at play here.
LIFE AFTER BETH (USA)
Written and directed by Jeff Baena
Zach is mourning the death of his girlfriend Beth. That is until he spots her roaming about her parents’ home. Her dad wants to believe it is a resurrection – they don’t like Zach’s suggestion she might be a zombie. Sting in the tail is that Beth doesn’t actually remember she has died. Spending time with her makes Zach fall in love with her all over again – all those things he never said to her he now gets to say. The only noticeable difference is she lives in the attic space and relaxes by listening to smooth jazz.
Aubrey Plaza who plays Beth is very true to her TV role in Parks & Recreation, shouty and brattish. The descent to rotting zombie sees these mannerisms become increasingly exaggerated. A nice touch is the notion that the living dead can act perfectly normal but their real time memory is almost useless. The evolution of Beth is matched with a smattering of other walking dead cropping up in Zach’s life. One night he returns home to find his elder brother and parents freaking out in the presence of his long time dead grandpa.
Life After Beth is very similar to the French film and TV drama The Returned. In fact the provenance of the zombie outbreak is never explained or alluded to – it just is. And the smooth jazz motif works really well as a signifier that you’re in the presence of the undead. It’s a gently funny and affectionate film that exploits the heart broken, mourning teenager to the max. You could remove all traces of zombies from ‘Life After Beth’ and it would still function as a traditional American indie comedy. It’s hardly surprising given the comedic pedigree in the cast: the unmistakeable John C Reilly, Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Cheryl Hines and My Two Dads‘ Paul Reiser.
‘Life After Beth’ is refreshing because there are no mad panic scenes with surviving characters overrun by the undead. Nor is there any suggestion that the spectre of an apocalypse looming. The zombies don’t roam the earth constantly on the lookout for living specimens to gnaw on. ‘Life After Beth’ is a positive new spin on the zombie flick with a little romance and plenty of wit thrown in for good measure.
Duke Mitchell Film Club presents… ‘Coherence’
Written and directed by James Ward Byrkit
Warning! (Read – cop out disclaimer). This review is not going to make complete sense. Only watching Coherence will truly convey how intellectually stimulating and cerebrally satisfying this film is from start through to finish.
Miller’s Comet is coming and the atmosphere on Earth is making people jumpy. iPhones screens cracking for no apparent reason is an early sign this isn’t an ordinary night. For eight friends enjoying a suburban dinner party, the long night sees their real lives, jarred by this astronomical anomaly, confronted with multiple, alternative realities of themselves. It should’ve been completely confusing and it had no right to give you an ending to savour, but it did.
The setting is contained. The cast are civilised, aspirant middle class people in their forties. This is a great choice as they don’t ever overreact in the early stages. Instead they set about solving this mystery like it’s a corporate team building exercise. Their performances are very natural. It seems, given the many fade to black cuts, that much of the dialogue was improvised. With the convoluted nature of the story that unfolds this is some achievement.
It all starts when the power is cut. Two of the dinner party guests go out to investigate the only house in the area that still has lights on. When they return one has a cut head and doesn’t want to talk about what he’s seen. The other has a security box that contains a table tennis paddle and photographs of them all with numbers written on the back. It sets in motion a series of mind-bending discoveries that defies all logic. And the more they push for answers the less sense it all makes until this Bermuda Triangle like madness begins to feed on itself as characters not only see, but fight with their alternative self from parallel reality.
Part sci-fi headfuck/part relationship drama, Coherence uses quantum physics theory, the lay person can comprehend (if you’re paying attention), to create a series of actions and reactions that expose a rip in the fabric of space and time as you know it. Clever just got cleverer.
THE BABADOOK (Aus)
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother. Her son, Samuel (Noaj Wiseman), is sleep deprived, troubled by monsters he fears live under his bed and odd. Dangerous behaviour at school sees him suspended, but that’s just the surface. The real dark cloud that hangs over both parent and child is the chilling fact that husband/father died in a car crash while taking Amelia to hospital to deliver Samuel. The kid is out of control and if she could speak to a counsellor she’d no doubt admit that it is getting increasingly hard to love this living reminder of her ingrained guilt and unshakeable sense of loss.
When Samuel chooses Babadook from his bookshelf for bedtime reading, an evil spirit is set free and so begins a supernatural battle for the mother’s sanity and her child. Davis’s performance takes you to the very edge as the haunting villain Babadook circles her frayed mind and exposes all of her vulnerabilities and suppressed anger towards Samuel. A key reason she is able to climb to such heights of madness is because of what seven year old Wiseman is able to convey to the audience. One minute he’s mum’s rock – think Home Alone resourcefulness with autism. The next moment he’s a whimpering mess and then he’s an uncontrollable devil child driving mum to despair. So much range and complexity of character belies his tender years.
Jennifer Kent‘s script is the real winner. It’s lean, builds to suspense filled scares, never really lets you get a firm grip of reality once Babadook is released and gives nothing away until it really has to. The audience really has to work for their supper as Kent is one step ahead of you throughout. Helped in no small part by the imaginative directorial choices she makes. The social realism of Amelia and Samuel’s life as it crumbles before our very eyes in the first half of the movie is in stark contrast to the claustrophobic fairy tale nightmare that Babadook draws them into – all within the confines of the family home. This is only her first feature film, but on this evidence, Kent demonstrates she’s a new horror voice to be excited about.
I SURVIVED A ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (NZ)
Written and directed by Guy Pigden
Recent film graduate, Wesley, gets his first job as a runner on a zombie flick and the set turns into a real zombie outbreak in this comedy horror. I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is a film about making a film. Two reversals of expectation that bookend the film, and play with breaking the fourth wall, are the best moments by far. Sandwiched between these two clever reveals is a buckets of blood cheesefest that neither adds nor takes away from the huge list of comedy zombie movies already out there. You’re not meant to take this type of film seriously, but with cost of production dropping annually, the market is flooded. Therefore, it’s getting harder to maintain a sense of humour because the novelty factor doesn’t exist. Troma alone have been pumping this stuff out since the late seventies.
So what do we get in ‘I Survived A Zombie Holocaust’? There’s the sex siren played by All Cheerleaders Die (2014) star Reanin Johannink. Her perfect breasts are almost a plot point and mesmerize men. There’s a beefcake leading man who projects his manliness in order to hide his homosexuality – really? Best of this bad bunch of horror clichés is the mad scientist – he’s a method actor who is always in character. So when the real zombies attack, his screams of “zombies are coming” are roundly ignored.
But this was never meant to be about characters. It’s all about the zombie kills. The food whisker face-off, the axe splitting a head and so on is what fans of schlocky horror will enjoy and expect. These are done exceptionally well and most of the main gore and blood spilling moments are staged effects – CGI is barely present. A lot of love for horror films from VHSs golden age went into making this film and gorehounds wanting eighties style laughs/splatter as body parts get severed or eaten are in for a treat.
The Duke Mitchell Film Party
Presented by Evrim Ersoy and Alex Kidd this late night gathering was for the Frightfest Wide Awake Club. Awash with film making talent and friends of Duke Mitchell the tone for this bonkers fringe event was obscurities and exclusives.
First up was Death Waltz Records boss, Spencer Hickman. He treated us to a promo video from AOR band .357 Lover and their song about the film Event Horizon– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttVaQ-qnm98. We were encouraged to cheer each time a characters name was sung.
Each interlude involved the special guest drinking some whiskey and challenge with a audience member – quiz question, filmic pose or top trumps were the ones this giddy reviewer remembers.
Frightfest’s Paul McElvoy treated us a trailer for the ludicrously OTT 1980 rock opera The Apple – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uix3tbov65o. Adam Green, fresh from his Digging Up The Marrow Premiere, stopped by to give us an advance preview of his Halloween short two months before its official release. Jessica Cameron (Truth Or Dare) presented a teaser trailer for a Charles Manson docudrama and Sean Hogan gave us six minutes from his 2000AD documentary.
There was so much more to see and frivolity to enjoy. Special mention must go to the host, Evrim Ersoy. His boundless energy terrified and enthralled anyone within his eyeline and ensured the atmosphere was fun, fun, fun. A thrilling alternative to a late movie – here’s hoping they are invited back in 2016.
Duke Mitchell Film Club has been around for a number of years – check out their forthcoming events on their website.