Horror Channel FrightFest 2016 – Britflicks’ Stuart Wright reports back from Day 2 with reviews of MERCY, FRANCESCA, FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET, ENCLOSURE, HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL, THE CHAMBER, POPULATION ZERO, LOST SOLACE, THE UNRAVELING, THE SIMILARS and PET.
Director Chris Sparling. Cast: James Wolk, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Tom Lipinski, Dan Ziskie, Michael Godere. USA
Two pairs of half brothers descend on their dying mother for perhaps the last time. Very soon into arrivals it’s clear that dad favours Ronnie and TJ, his real sons, over the step children Brad and Travis. What is more there’s a hefty inheritance at stake and all five of them harbour ambitions for getting as much as they can. As they sleep, they become embroiled in a home invasion that goes badly wrong and reveals a much bigger conspiracy for the family than who gets mom’s money.
The set up of the family is done really well. With very little information you understand a lot about the tensions that tore them apart over the decades. Dad in particular is a cold, stoic pragmatist of the highest order who takes advice from no one.
The story is told is two takes. There’s a home invasion that has Brad and Travis pitched against a handful of masked men – presumably Dad, Ronnie and TJ – guarding their mother. This makes for a huge misdirection by writer/director Chris Sparling. Your assumptions of what just happened will be entirely wrong. When Sparling replays the action you get to see how the home invasion really went down and how it spiralled out of control. By the end it is in a very different story universe motivated by the true provenance of the dying mother.
Mercy is best as it builds atmosphere for an ambitious, complicated thriller about hidden agendas and greed that is chock full of interesting characters. It is weakest once that becomes irrelevant and the mystery of the home invaders is known.
Director: Luciano Onetti. Cast: Raul Gederlini, Silvana Grippaldi, Gustavo Dallesandro, Luis Emilio Rodriguez. Argentina 2015.
Francesca is a stunning recreation of a seventies giallo. The finished look and grading alone make no attempt to look like a movie from the 21st century. Argentinean writer/director Luciano Onetti plays to the fanboys and girls expectations from the start. An anonymous pair of red leather gloved hands play the piano, soon after the opening credits, signalling the killer’s mysterious identity and what type of film this will be, if the lurid colouring hadn’t already given the game away. There’s hapless, hard boiled detectives always one step behind the murderer. The score plays a vital role in conveying and confusing your emotional response to the surreal, seductive and violent imagery. For example the incongruous use of disco funk music when a bound woman is stabbed in the face is both visceral and upbeat.
Francesca is like cinema historians have found the exact ingredients to what makes a giallo so compelling and made a contemporary film that would slot into the back catalogue without raising an eyebrow.
If you raced to leave during the end credits you missed Onetti’s terrifying post-script where a masked woman, handcuffed to a bed is teased and toyed with by whoever inherited the red gloves and the switchblade.
FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET
Director: Alastair Orr. Cast: Sharni Vinson, Carlyn Burchell, Steve John Ward, Zino Ventura. South Africa 2016. 90 mins.
You’re Next’s Sharni Vinson is Hazel, one of a gang of four planning to kidnap rich kid Katherine (Carlyn Burchell). Motivated by the diamond bounty they’ll get as ransom, they are blind to the warning signs until it is too late. You see their victim is possessed by a demon looking for more souls to consume so that it may walk the earth in our world.
Here’s the rub. Kidnapping is serious. Kidnappers are bad people. Trying to generate empathy for a gang of kidnappers is a tough storytelling challenge. Add into that mix trying to explain why and what a demon needs to do to escape hell, and the tale become unnecessarily convoluted.
Fortunately, ‘From A House On Willow Street’ does have great looking set pieces. They showcase beautifully the fantastic visual effects of George Webster and computer generated wizardry of Derik van den Berg. Equally, Director Alastair Orr delivers a few frights and confidently captures the mania and fear well in key moments, but taken together they don’t serve to ramp up the overall tension.
‘From A House On Willow Street’ should be Hazel’s story, but she can’t be at the hideout and the Willow street address finding out why Katherine’s parents aren’t answering their phone. Consequently, the film takes a rest to allow Hazel (and the audience) to catch up on what the other gang members have discovered via two video tape recordings: Katherine talking to camera about the horrible history of the house and the failed exorcism of Katherine. These exposition dumps, while interesting, are excessive and sadly drain the film of much of its mystery and horror thereafter.
Director: Patrick Rea. Cast: Fiona Dourif, Jake Busey, Kevin Ryan, Rob Bouton, Michelle Mills. USA.
Photograpaher Dana (Fiona Dourif) and paramedic Charles (Kevin Ryan) celebrate their second wedding anniversary with a camping trip to a remote Texan woods. Prior to leaving she masks her morning sickness and on the journey a subsequent chat about the possibility of children is quickly shut down – one or both of them is in denial about the state of their relationship. Their splendid isolation is spoiled by the close proximity of a raucous hunting party. Peace comes when the hunters are massacred in mere seconds and sole survivor Sean (Jake Busey), is saved Charles.
The film’s action shrinks down from the wide open great outdoors to an intense battle of wills in the claustrophobic tent as Busey’s mischievous conversation morphs into the legend his grandma told him when he was a kid. His supporting role stands out as he flits between crazy eyed redneck and love lost husband who misses the wife who disappeared in these woods.
Once the beast is clearly known to be something more powerful and deadly than a bear, Enclosure becomes a suspenseful waiting game of fight or flight as the truth about Sean’s missing family and Dana’s secret pregnancy becomes the reason the pair of them are trapped by supernatural forces of nature that haunt the woods. Coming here was no accident. As Sean tells Dana: “She didn’t choose these woods, they chose her.”
HOSTAGE TO THE DEVIL
Director: Marty Stalker. With: Richard O’Leary, Ralph Sarchie, John Zaffis, Art Bell, Pope John Paul II. UK
The name of this documentary is taken from a 1976 book. It was a reaction to correct William Friedkin’s inaccurate portrayal of exorcisms and the work of an exorcist. The author is Malachi Martin, an Irishman who had trained as a Jesuit Priest in the sixties before leaving the order and moving to the USA. The book sold over a million copies and still sells to this day. Who was Malachi Martin? That’s the question director Marty Stalker tries to answer. A mixture of archive footage and audio coupled with the testimonies of trusted allies and a few foes paint a picture of man who people wanted to be with and a religion tearing itself apart via modernisation.
Retired Detective and demonologist Ralph Sarchie (author of Deliver Us From Evil, now a biopic starring Eric Bana as Sarchie), and former CIA agent Robert Marro attest most strongly to great work Martin was doing in his selfless pursuit of ridding the world of evil. Whereas former Time Magazine journalist and Jesuit Priest Robert Blair Kaiser is far less impressed with him – facts revealed during the documentary spell out why.
The story that Stalker plots from the evidence he finds coalesces around Martin’s final exorcism and subsequent untimely death in 1999. An event Martin predicted saying he’d maybe upset Old Nick a bit too much this time.
Hostage To The Devil is a compelling documentary and much more than just one man’s story. As a by product of Martin’s showmanship and beliefs it also charts the late 20th century rise and fall of the Catholic Church along the way.
Stalker’s film is masterful and authoritative. Occasionally it maybe a bit bias towards believers, but you have to remind yourself who HTTD is about – Malachi Marrtin. So much is revealed, yet so much more is left unanswered. Take your theological debates to bar area please.
Director: Ben Parker. Cast: Charlotte Salt, Johannes Kuhnke, Christian Hillborg, Elliot Levey, James McArdle. UK.
Three US black ops, led by Charlotte Salt (The Hoarder, How To Grow Your Own) dupe a civilian mini-submarine pilot, Johannes Kuhke (Force Majeure) to take them on a mission beneath the Yellow Sea off the coast of North Korea. Their mission is classified, but as they dive deeper and deeper Kuhke tries to assert his authority over his guests. The more he pushes, the more danger he realises he has allowed himself to be put in – they’re drawing data off a sunken USA craft and blowing it up before the technology gets into the wrong hands. The mission is completed with ease but the cost is high – the submersible is left wedged upside down at the bottom of ocean, one of Salt’s team is sure to die soon and the other is trying to bully his way to gaining control of the situation. Kuhke keeps his head and collaborative working relationship grows with Salt
The production design and attention to detail makes for a powerful cinematic experience. Writer/director Ben Parker and his Director of Photography Ben Prichard strain every possibility out of the close up to put the film squarely in your face like all the characters would be enduring in such a confined space. It’s choppy and manic during the disastrous and confrontational moments, but there’s time and room for stillness too. When Kuhke bandages Salt’s hand it acts as genuine breather for the cast and audience alike before the final push. All the while James Dean Bradfield’s (Manic Street Preachers) grungy, atmospheric music sets the right tone throughout.
It’s slow getting to first disaster stage, but once the jeopardy reaches near fatal and hope is lost, tempers flare to increase the danger even further. The cloak and dagger mystery is pushed to one side. In it place emerges an intense and claustrophobic survival thriller 200m below the surface.
Directors: Adam Levins With: Julian T. Pinder. Canada/USA.
Population Zero is a gripping, and incredibly convincing mockumentary about a bizarre schism in American legislation and a triple murder. It turns out that in one small area of Yellowstone National Park, where three men were killed, crimes cannot be punished in a United States Court of Law.
In addition to being a mystery/crime thriller, Population Zero is political too. Fracking and the impact it has on local residents are telling sub plots in a film about hidden agendas. The performances are stellar. In particular, the filmmaker himself, played by real life documentarian Julian Pinder. Equally, Adam Levins pulls the narrative strings as he expertly uses the vast landscape to dramatise how Pinder finds himself in way above his head.
Much like Christopher MacBride’s The Conspiracy (2012) the documentary genre is aped so meticulously you may want to check Population Zero is a work of fiction after the credits roll. Ultimately, Levin’s latest (after 2015’s Estranged) is a stark reminder that any dire consequences from discovering the truth are only ever known when it’s too late.
By Callum Shepherd
Director: Chris Scheuerman. Cast: Andrew Jenkins, Melissa Roxburgh, Leah Gibson, Charlie Kerr, Michael Kopsa. USA.
The press release summary is a hell of hook: “A psychopath who has never felt empathy or guilt tries a new drug which forces him to confront his morality”. Sadly the psychopath in question, Spence (Andrew Jenkins, Supernatural) is more a narcissist womaniser whose a bit rude to strangers. The story then escalates to a botched murder plot than panders to his desire to make money. However, Lost Solace spends a bit too long going through the motions of repeating the opening sequence of Spence’s MO: seduce, gain trust, rob something valuable and disappear without a trace. He meets Azaria (Melissa Roxburgh, Star Trek Beyond) and takes advantage of her mourning the death of her mother to quickly get his feet under the table and living in her multi-million dollar home. The fly in Spence’s ointment is the mentally troubled brother Jory (Charlie Kerr, Grave Encounters). He sees through Spence – takes a psycho to know a psycho. He offers him a $10m share in his inheritance if Spence kills his domineering father. In the throws of this murderous act the special drug takes it effect on Spence – more than an hour in – the promise of the premise kicks in, but it’s too late. For all the wonderful dream-like imagery and sequences used to depict the changing machinations of his confused mind, and the introduction of conflict with the neuroscientist researcher are too little, too late to bolster the whole other story of Spence the high end grifter.
Director: Thomas Jakobsen. Cast: Jimbo Barnett, James C. Burns, Rachel Clentworth, Jack Crumbine, Zack Gold. USA.
Michael is a recovering heroin addict who just fell off the wagon…. again Presumably because he’s too stressed saving for a wedding he can’t afford and worrying about the baby that’s due in a few months. With his fiance’s blessing his four best friends stage a kidnap intervention and force him on a camping trip – a replacement for bachelor party he never turned up too. Suspicious movements in the near distant trees during the first night scare him but the others don’t seem so concerned. That’s because only he knows that 24 hours earlier he was stealing thousands of dollars from a very dangerous man. The next night one of Michael’s friends is found dead in the car and the battery is disconnected. Next day they go on the run and one by one they’re chased and picked off by an unseen killer until there’s only Michael left. What and why this is happening are revealed soon after.
The young, unknown cast convinces as a bunch of lifelong friends without relying on clunky asides. More specifically, Director Thomas Jacobsen and screenwriter Justin Monroe waste little time establishing key character traits. For example the introduction of Michael is so unusual, even handed and moves the story on apace. Waking up at a house party Michael comforts a young woman freaking out on LSD, He pulls a blanket from a bad dude asleep on the sofa and covers her with it. This Good Samaritan move puts temptation his way because beneath it is the bag of money
In short, The Unreaveling is clever, fast-paced, action packed thriller.
Director: Isaac Ezban. Cast: Luis Alberti, Carmen Beato, Fernando Becerril, Humberto Busto, Cassandra Ciangherotti. Mexico.
The Similars is Mexican writer/director Isaac Ezban’s second feature film. The action is contained to a bus station waiting room on the outskirts of Mexico City. It’s 1968 and one hell of a rainy night. So much so that scheduled journeys are being cancelled as a result of the bad weather. This is driving bearded father to be, Ulises, to distraction – his wife is giving birth in a city hospital and he naturally wants to be with her. He takes his anger out on the bored Station Manager who doesn’t rise to it – what can he do about the torrential downpour. But The Similiars is not about their conflict.
Ezban rapidly introduces a slew of new characters to this situation: an eight month pregnant woman, dissident student, a mother and her sick son, and a toilet attendant. From here the straight story of being trapped by rain takes a turn for the absurd when, with a heavy nod to The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, all the characters faces begin to inexplicably morph into Ulises – the appearance of a heavy beard on the female toilet attendant is the 1st big clue. The identity crisis and ridiculousness of the outcome go hand in hand with the fun of watching – wondering where will it end up. When it reaches its (own) logical conclusion The Similars will make sense, but you’ll have navigated a film that resembles an expanded production of Waiting For Godot on acid crossed with Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich to get to that resolution. What more could you want from a bonkers, existential, sci-fi set in the late-sixties.
Director: Carles Torrens. Cast: Dominic Monaghan, Ksenia Solo, Jennette McCurdy, Nathan Parsons, Gary J. Tunnicliffe. USA/Spain.
Pet features Lord of Rings/Lost’s Dominic Monaghan as Seth a minimum wage drone eeking out an existence at a dog pound. He bumps into the beautiful Holly (Ksenia Solo, Black Swan) on the bus ride home and soon develops what appears to be a rekindling of a 20 years dormant schoolboy crush into an unhealthy obsession. He goes to her workplace. Asks her out. He sends her flowers. She rejects him. Things escalate. He stalks her. Finds out where she lives, kidnaps her and locks her in a cage in the forgotten basement of his workplace. So far, so expected. Seth’s experience of disciplining dogs through defining boundaries is what he puts into practice with Holly. However, dogs are not sentient beings and what follows is the inverse of the Stockholm Syndrome – feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping by a victim towards a captor. In so much that everything you presumed about the loner weirdo Seth and the woman he takes for his own will be wrong. Monaghan is convincing as the character you load all your prejudices and dislike on. The more he tells Holly he’s doing it for her, not him, the more he cements the audience’s opposition to him. Simultaneously, Solo is nuanced and complex as the victim who grows in power and flips her victim status on its head without being set free.
Director Carles Torrens’ Pet is a clever, unpredictable psychological thriller. Thanks to Jeremy Slater’s tight script, it continually drops reversal of expectation bombs each time you think you’ve got a handle on where the story is heading.
Originally published Britflicks