Thursday 30 January 2014

Rain Dog (2013)

Director: Jordan Wippell
Actors: Shayne McKean, Robert Sullivan, Jake Bowtell, Sam Bowtell, Trish and Paul Kenny, Lewis Wetherbee and Andy Polwarth
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
It isn't particularly surprising to find that Recipe for Love was made by a high school student, however capably made it was. Rain Dog is a different creature entirely: it's a blistering black and white drama about a boxer searching for redemption and it aims high enough to prompt comparisons with serious filmmakers. Like its central character, the film carries quite a punch. It was made by Jordan Wippell, a young Australian who apparently flew out to support this film's selection for the High School Shorts set at last year's Phoenix Film Festival. Sadly I missed all this, but Wippell certainly made his presence felt and he'll be back in 2014 to study at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe. Like Gwyneth Christoffel, who's already started there, I'm eager to see how he affects the films that will come out of UAT over the next few years. I've only seen two of his films thus far, the other being his very different entry into the ABCs of Death 2 competition, M is for Miscellaneous, but both are outstanding.

It's far easier to list the many things that Wippell did right here than to track down some of the things he did wrong. The soundtrack is the first clear success, a dark and brooding electric guitar that sounds like it'll bring a storm in its wake and it does indeed. It's far more modern than the agreeably old school title card that suggests a film noir; the film is shot in black and white and uses expressionistic lighting, but feels newer than a picture from the forties. The title itself is a memorable one, though this doesn't reference Rain Dogs, the equally memorable Tom Waits song; nobody in this film dances with the Rose of Tralee. Instead, our unnamed lost man works through a brutal dance card, taking spins with neglect, starvation and eventually destiny, as an unwanted child who finds his way onto the streets where he joins a gang to survive. It's another man who gets to dance with Death though, after this child, now a vicious adult, beats him up and leaves him in a coma. This victim powerfully bookends the film.
It takes only four hours for this thug to be picked up and he's soon given fifteen years at Her Majesty's pleasure. He's inside when we first see him, pounding a punching bag in slow motion. Wippell uses this technique a lot in Rain Dog and, while it's an easy one to overdo, it always seems appropriate here, as the film has a poetic flow. We hear this boxer before we see him, though the voice and body belong to two different people; the boxer is Shayne McKean but his narration is by Robert Sullivan. McKean looks the part, an imposing presence who seems dangerous, especially in slow motion and aided by beautiful transitions. Yet it's Sullivan who instils him with depth, sounding utterly perfect for this: a worn, broken, textured voice, surely one of experience. It's achingly full of regret and latent realisation, as you might imagine, but it's also full of lost chances. He stumbles over more complex musings as if he's struggling for the words, believably for a character who has presumably had little formal education.

Put together, they're a creature to be reckoned with, but of course the film firmly puts the reckoning in their hands. This man has done what he's done and he's had fifteen years to come to terms with why. I appreciated how thoughtfully the character was created; he's clearly not a good guy but he's trying to figure out how not to be a bad guy. He doesn't expect our sympathy, but he's sincere enough to gain a little. He wants to find a way to redeem himself but he's unable to do so. The scene where he tries is one of the most powerful in the film, where we know everything that's said and done even with nothing to hear except that wild, swirling guitar. He's merely there, the calm within a storm that's been a long time bottled up and waiting to erupt, but it's telling that for once he isn't the storm itself. The choices Wippell made in constructing this slice of dark poetry are astoundingly mature for such a young man. I plan to work through the rest of his output online while eagerly awaiting what he'll create at UAT.

Rain Dog can be viewed online for free at YouTube.

Recipe for Love (2012)

Director: Gwyneth Christoffel
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
It's impossible to see everything at the Phoenix Film Festival and I wasn't able to get to the High School Shorts selection this year. I realised in November just what I'd missed when I saw Jordan Wippell's Rain Dog at the University of Advancing Technology's annual digital video festival. Also represented at both events was filmmaker Gwyneth Christoffel, as Recipe for Love played the former and A Purrfect Pair the latter. While both were high school students when they made the films selected for Phoenix, Christoffel is now studying at UAT and Wippell will be in 2014. What surprises me here isn't that UAT has snagged another couple of talented filmmakers, but that their work is rather unlike what UAT has become known for over the last few years. The best recent UAT films, like Fallout, Covet and Red Sand, not to mention their viral Star Wars Bohemian Rhapsody video or the hilarious Flight of the Melvin, tend to be action or sci-fi with powerful effects. Even a drama like Screaming in Silence benefitted from its effects work.

By comparison, at least from what I've seen thus far, Wippell and Christoffel have completely different styles and I'm fascinated to see how they will influence UAT's output over the next few years. Gwyneth Christoffel in particular is light years away from the sort of films I mentioned, focusing instead on cute animations that quickly conjure up smiles from the audience and maintain them long after their credits roll. More sentimental viewers will ooh and aah frequently, even though the progression of their stories is completely obvious from moment one. A Purrfect Pair saw a cat and dog falling in love at the Claws & Paws Animal Clinic; Recipe for Love follows an anthropomorphic cupcake who doesn't want to be alone any more, so finds a novel way to meet a soulmate. Clearly neither is based on a videogame franchise and it really doesn't matter. They're cute and cuddly bundles of animated joy that are surely impossible to dislike. We don't need to be Japanese schoolgirls to want to hug them.
If their greatest success is their ability to make any day a good one, their greatest failure is in providing some sort of depth to proceedings. However there are little details in both films that leap out to suggest that depth may well be on the way in future films. A Purrfect Pair could be interpreted as a counter to Dr Peter Venkman's hypothesis that cats and dogs living together would be accompanied by mass hysteria as a 'disaster of biblical proportions'. Recipe for Love is even more of a plea for tolerance, with what has to be a multiracial cupcake relationship. I wonder if the Production Code would have allowed such overt miscegenation! Surely such behaviour would lead to a disaster of biblical proportions with cats and dogs living together and... Clearly our pink heroine's dream of companionship is merely piqued by seeing the salt and pepper shaker couple, but is enforced by watching a glass of milk and a cookie holding hands. This scene could easily have become pornographic, but Christoffel keeps it safely PG.

If I recall correctly, A Purrfect Pair was made using standard animation techniques, but Recipe for Love uses stop motion. Not all the lighting is pristine, but that's a minor concern. We watch our cupcake run through the script with a sense of style, which is a surprising amount for a creation of pipecleaners and plasticine, and the animator's hands are neatly out of frame throughout. Some of the set ups required imagination to succeed and Christoffel thankfully delivered, like the oven shot, conquered with a piece of red string, and the electric hand mixer scene, which is turned into a hilarious rodeo performance. I was smiling throughout the picture anyway but it was here that I laughed out loud. Clearly going splat wouldn't have been the right ending for the tone, but I learned with this film that cupcakes don't bruise. That may save my life someday. We're given precisely the right ending for the tone, naturally, as clear and inevitable as it was from the outset. This is hardly essential stuff but it's delightful nonetheless.

Recipe for Love can be viewed for free at YouTube.

Monday 27 January 2014

Nine Miles Down (2009)

Director: Anthony Waller
Stars: Adrian Paul and Kate Nauta
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
When I ask actors to pick two films from their filmographies for me to review, they usually come up with one immediately and then think before picking the second. That's how it was with Tiffany Shepis and it's how it was with Adrian Paul at DarkCon 2014 too; he plucked The Breed quickly out of his subconscious but pondered carefully before adding Nine Miles Down. I hadn't even heard of this one, but it's a worthy follow up to The Breed in a number of ways. It's another surprising film made from another surprising script and it was also shot in Budapest, though it couldn't have looked any more different; originally set in the Australian outback, the story was eventually shifted to the Sahara desert. It feels utterly different too. Instead of a wildly diverse international cast, we rarely see anyone except Paul or his co-star, Kate Nauta. Gone are the visual stylings, to be replaced by a workmanlike installation with very little to liven it up except the tone, which is introspective, hallucinogenic and agreeably claustrophobic.

The concept couldn't be more simple. Paul plays a security expert called Thomas Jackman, more usually known as Jack. He's tasked by his bosses at GNE to look into what happened to the folk who leased the Jebel Afra Drill Site from them in the remote deserts of northern Africa. Formerly used to drill for natural gas, Prof Borman and his team were interested instead in 'a vast geological anomaly' that had appeared on images a full nine miles below the surface. Simply put, they want to drill into it and see what comes out and they do so, but things don't go so well and communications are lost. Jack discovers that the 25 members of Prof Borman's team are either dead or missing, all except one woman who appears out of nowhere fifteen minutes into the film. She's Dr Jenny Christiansen, or JC, initials that presage the more religious aspect of the story, one backed up by a sound recording from nine miles down that might just be the screams of the tormented. Could Prof Borman have actually discovered the literal Hell?

The primary reason that Nine Miles Down is so successful is that it refuses to provide any answers. This could easily have become a message movie, but writers Everett De Roche and Anthony Waller refuse to go there, instead choosing to set up the characters as avatars for our own judgement. Initially, we're set up to see the religious angle, because that's what Prof Borman and his team apparently saw before they even made it to the desert. Jack finds a desk full of pertinent books: Dante's Inferno, The Arabian Nights and Huxley's The Devils of Loudon. There's also a religious encyclopaedia, opened to a highlighted entry on Umal Duwayce, described as 'a Middle Eastern version of the succubus'. Prof Borman's men believed what they were reading, it would seem, because they went so far as to sacrifice a jackal in an obviously religious ritual and use its blood to paint protective verses on the walls. For those who can't read Arabic, there's also a large 'Save Yourselves' daubed in blood on a corridor wall.
So we and Jack are conditioned to see what will come from a religious perspective, but we're also set up to see a more rational explanation. Nature is clearly unforgiving in this environment, with howling winds accompanying Jack's arrival. One key scene has him investigate a banging noise, to find that it's merely a screen banging against a door that has been propped shut with a chair; the door bursts open in front of Jack and the wind rushes into the facility. Everything in the scene is clearly and obviously explainable but we're already conditioned to hear tormented human voices in the wind and so is Jack. It's no wonder that as time passes, he starts to believe that perhaps there's something going on here beyond what we might deem rational, that the vast geological anomaly nine miles under the desert is something more than a vast geological anomaly and that Prof Borman's drillbit released someone or something who may be stalking the site, such as a demonic succubus highlighted in an encylopaedia.

And, of course, this is where JC comes in. For the first fifteen minutes we've clearly identified with Jack, because he's the only living character at the facility and, of course, because he's played by Adrian Paul, who's always the hero. Every other character we've seen is either somewhere else (like Kat, Jack's cute Aussie contact back at GNE), a recording (Prof Borman) or dead (a couple of Borman's team members wrapped up in makeshift bodybags). What we know of the Jebel Afra Drill Site and the desert around it thus far is what we've seen through Jack's eyes and, while it remains wrapped in mystery, one thing is crystal clear: it's far from a hospitable place. So when Dr Christiansen jogs in out of the desert as if she was just strolling through the park, we can't help but be a little suspicious. Jack asks the questions we would ask, of course. How come she isn't in any of Borman's team photos? Wasn't his expedition male only? Why is her name not on the team roster?

Of course, there's another unspoken question in the back of both Jack's mind and ours: is JC really Umal Duwayce? If this was a horror movie, that would be easy: of course she'd be Umal Duwayce. However it isn't a horror movie; it's a psychological thriller that doesn't play it that simply. JC becomes our secular voice of reason, remaining calm throughout proceedings to find rational explanations for the mysteries and provide answers to all the questions that arise. Jack, on the other hand, becomes the voice of faith, belief and possibility, who wants to trust those answers and believe those explanations but can't quite manage to do so because there are religious and supernatural takes that remain stubbornly consistent. How we read the story is fundamentally going to depend on which voice we listen to. The film could be seen from either perspective, but clearly we have to choose between them, a task which is not made easier by having us see JC through Jack's eyes and Jack through JC's.
Here's where things get neatly crazy and the crew come into their own. Adrian Paul and Kate Nauta do good work, strangely alternating their tone as the film runs on. Initially Paul grounds the film and Nauta lets our imaginations run wild, but later the roles switch. Nauta becomes the grounding as Paul explores psychological torment. The more overt effects are kept sparse but they're highly effective for the most part. One particularly freaky scene has Jack reflected in a pair of mirrors to create an endless effect, but his reflection is different, horrifying. Initially, it seems poor because the evil reflection has cheesy make up and doesn't hold the gun to his head in remotely the same way. Yet it escalates subtly to a stunning end and the same could be said of many of the psychological setups we're given. Transformations are also rarely single step, to keep us on the hop. Often we see the fantasy, then cut to a version with both fantasy and reality cleverly combined, then cut once more to reality.

Perhaps the most effective technical component is the editing, courtesy of Jamie Trevill. Many of these scenes are edited feverishly for effect, with cuts coming at rapid pace, not to conjure up some sense of style or to show us something new, but to disorient us so that we feel something of what Jack is feeling. While the characters are effectively equivalent, merely representing different philosophies, Jack is kept the lead throughout and we're clearly meant to see the conflict of those philosophies more through his experiences than JC's. This is successful, though I'm convinced that it would have been even more so had the focus been more equally distributed between the two characters. Paul does surprisingly well in a particularly challenging role but Nauta, who I knew only from a very different part in Transporter 2, is even better. She's not a prolific actress, as she's also a singer and model, but hopefully I'll get to see her in another challenging role before I catch up with Avalanche Sharks.

Watching The Breed and Nine Miles Down as a double bill highlights that I should be paying attention to what Adrian Paul is doing too. He's not the greatest actor in the world, but he's apparently very willing to challenge himself with difficult roles. Sure, he was outshone by his leading lady in both of these films (not to mention by the title characters in Eyeborgs), but he did interesting work in interesting material each time. While there are conventional elements in all three of these pictures, none of them are really conventional movies, even if they could each be vaguely categorised as action. Eyeborgs was ahead of its time and manages to say a lot with only a little. The Breed stands unique amongst vampire pictures as a real exploration of racial integration. Nine Miles Down is the best of the three, a searing journey to one man's psychological Hell, if not to the literal one. Put together they suggest that Paul's career is a more interesting one than we might expect, something backed up by his panels at DarkCon.

Sunday 26 January 2014

The Breed (2001)

Director: Michael Oblowitz
Stars: Adrian Paul, Bokeem Woodbine and Bai Ling
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I was surprised to find how little I'd seen from Adrian Paul's filmography, outside the Highlander series, at least. I'd seen early films like The Owl and Love Potion No 9, and I'd reviewed Eyeborgs, which I was screening at the DarkCon 2014 film festival. Other than that, the only title I had under my belt was The Breed, which turned out to be one of the pair that Paul selected for me to review. It's easy to see why it came so quickly to mind for him, as it's an unusual picture with a international feel. Directed by a South African, Michael Oblowitz, who had become associated with the No Wave movement in New York, it was shot in Hungary, where it took full advantage of the crumbling Budapest architecture. Paul, a Londoner playing a Polish Jew, starred alongside Harlem born Bokeem Woodbine and Chinese actress Bai Ling, as well as a number of experienced local actors, such as Péter Halász and István Göz, who rarely appear in English language productions. This admirable diversity is surely one reason why it feels unusual.

The most obvious reason is that it's a drama masquerading in genre clothing. Outwardly, it's a vampire movie, one full of recognisable names from vampire mythology, from Graf Orlock to Lucy Westenra via a coroner called Bathory, but it never tries to tell the usual sort of vampire story. The undead we're shown in The Breed are highly reminiscent of what we're used to seeing, with long lifespans, fast regeneration and an immunity to human diseases. Sunlight is a 'minor irritation' so they wear dark glasses. However, they're not depicted in the usual ways. For a start, these vampires have come out, so to speak, to the human race and declared their existence and willingness to just get along. They describe themselves as an 'evolutionary mutation', which means that they're simply different. Sure, they subsist on blood, but they've created a synthetic version that means that they don't have to sink fangs into necks any more. They can even be the good guys, fighting to save humanity rather than to destroy it or feed from it.

The Breed was released in 2001, at which point this sort of concept was rather original, at least in the world of film. The closest comparisons can be found in literature, which had been playing with this idea since at least 1993 with Guilty Pleasures, the first of Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books. By 2001, she was up to book ten and her series had morphed from contemporary urban fantasy into lycanthropic erotica, neither tone remotely like The Breed. There are more obvious connections to the Southern Vampire mysteries of Charlaine Harris, such as the use of a worldwide vampire database, but that series was brand new at this point; Dead After Dark, the first volume, reached shelves a mere two months before this film was released. By 2008, when it was adapted into True Blood, named for the sort of blood substitute that remains nameless here, The Breed had been forgotten to the degree that an entirely unrelated 2005 film of the same name had usurped any attention it might have retained.
And that's sad, because this one had quite a lot to say, echoing but going beyond the sort of story that might have seemed reminiscent to Anita Blake readers and telegraph what would soon come for fans of Sookie Stackhouse. The idea, of course, is that not everyone in the vampire community was for coming out to mankind. Some of them still ache for the old days when the blood was real, and one is apparently making his point bloodily known with a string of corpses. So begins a set of battles, with good guys and bad guys on both the human and vampire sides. On the latter, there's the town of Serenity, founded by Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Cross, a 16th century Lithuanian vampire who became the architect of integration between humans and vampires; his nemesis is Vladimir de Torquemada West, half a century older but looking much younger and more annoyingly hip. On the human side, the NSA (no, not that one) is led by men who fear coexistence, like Arthur Calmet and his deputy, John Seward.

We watch all these characters, forming or fighting their new reality, but we follow a couple of players a little lower down the totem pole: Steve Grant and Aaron Gray, cops who become partners in the search for the rogue vampire killing young ladies as a political statement. Woodbine plays Grant, the far more traditional half of the partnership, phrased as a film noir detective. He wears a raincoat and he's quick with his gun, but he's also black, surely a deliberate choice for a story so integrally tied to race issues, albeit ones that have little to do with skin colour. Paul is far less conventional as Gray, a vampire cop. He's one of Cross's lieutenants, with a pencil moustache, pallid skin tone and eastern European accent, and he understands racism all too well, as a Polish Jew who lost his family to Hitler's persecution. He was turned into a vampire while still clutching their frozen corpses, and the havoc he wreaked against the Nazis was with the yellow star very obvious on his coat throughout.

I should emphasise that while there's forties iconography everywhere, from both film noir investigations and World War II horrors, this isn't a period piece. We're never given a timeframe, just flashbacks to tell us when we're after. We're clearly not in the present, though, unless it's an alternate present with visual influence from Orwellian nightmare, Soviet propaganda and analogue technology. Think Terry Gilliam's Brazil, but with racism replacing bureaucracy and vampires serving as the oppressed minority. Perhaps to give some prominence to a vampire aesthetic beyond Nosferatu chromedomes, Bai Ling is gifted with a host of outrageous outfits, the sort that you wouldn't expect to ever see worn off the catwalk, and she leads the characters into fetish territory at the Pravda club, as modern gothic as her crumbling mansion is old gothic. Clearly there's a deliberate aim towards synergy of very different styles and it's refreshing to see something so ambitious, but sadly it's not entirely successful.
Grant is more grounded than Gray because he's given a more familiar aesthetic to work with; he's just a forties detective pounding the street looking for a killer. The flipside is that Paul has more flexibility than Woodbine in building his character, because it's rooted more in imagination than in a set visual style. He was able to pull from war movies, vampire movies, cop movies and whatever else he could find to build something new. I felt that what he ended up with was a mixed bag, better on the vampire side than the cop side; the moustache also made him too effeminate. Bai Ling proved far more successful at conjuring up something exotic, but then she's never found that much of a problem and this was a full seven years after The Crow. Halász and Göz are solid but stereotypical old school vampires. The annoying characters play support: John Durbin hams it up as a sadomasochistic nightclub owner, Zen Gesner is embarrassing as the flamboyant West and William Hootkins channels Robert Morley as another vampire lieutenant.

In many ways, the actors are unable to assert their dominance over the visuals. Even Bai Ling becomes just another visual delight in her love scene, because she's surrounded by gothic architecture, darkness and rose petals. Some scenes impress for their visual style, even when they're less successful generally; there's a crucial action scene late in the movie where I completely lost track of who was fighting who or who was on whose side, but I enjoyed it anyway because of its emotional grounding and the way it let a few actors run wild with their vampire characters. They get surprisingly little opportunity to do that here as Grant remains the action hero for the most part, even when others ought to have dominated in such scenes. There are scenes here that show off vampire powers in spectacular fashion, but they're early in the film and feature the killer; the heroes are generally kept far more subdued, perhaps in an attempt to humanise them. It's hard to be the oppressed minority when you're kicking ass and taking names.

The script was by Christos N Gage and Ruth C Fletcher, the earliest writing credit for either of them and that's telling. There's a lot of ambition in play here, an eagerness both to create a world that had never been seen on screen before and to endow it with depth and meaning; Gage and Fletcher met all those challenges and provided Oblowitz and his crew with something substantial enough to be adorned with so much visual style. Unfortunately they're more successful with the big picture than with some of the smaller ones, leaving it in the strange situation where its grand themes are discussed often in serious literature about vampire cinema but it can't find a place among the classics. In other words, it's talked about a lot more than it's seen and it sounds a lot better in discussion than it actually plays in viewing. This also means that when people see it, they tend to regard it lower than it fairly deserves. It's better than its IMDb rating suggests, but not so much as it could have been in more experienced hands.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Helsing (2014)

Director: Ryan Johnston
Stars: Patrick Morrison, Anthony Napodano, Desiree (Rey) Srinivas, Jing Song and Liz Garcia
When Helsing launched at Coffee Cartel in Tempe just before Hallowe'en last year, it felt like it had been around forever. It had run a highly visible Kickstarter campaign, which I'd researched ahead of a 4th July radio interview with director Ryan Johnston and a few of his crew. I particularly remember a video that accompanied the Kickstarter, not merely because it was a strong and coherent piece but because it was also longer than I expected; Art of War Pictures shot more footage to use in fundraising than end up in many Kickstarted shorts. Surprisingly, as I discovered at the launch, that footage didn't even make it into the final product, ending up as a sort of prequel to the action in the main short. If Johnston's goal of turning Helsing into a fully fledged web series pan out, the teaser ought to kick off season one. Certainly I'm for that approach as I'd love to see more; the twenty minutes of Helsing play very well, but they're a mere glimpse into this world, one which could easily allow a lot more glimpses.
As the title suggests, this is yet another film about Dr Abraham Van Helsing. The weakest aspect is the knowledge that we've seen this character played a hundred times before by a hundred different actors, which inevitably means that this short becomes film #101 and originality isn't particularly likely. The strongest aspect may be that we quickly discover that we've never quite seen him like this before, thus prompting us to open our eyes to whatever else Johnston and his team plan to show us. Patrick Morrison plays Van Helsing rather like he's in a spaghetti western: a jaded anti-hero covered in dust and stinking of liquor. He looks good for someone who's been dead for centuries but hasn't stopped moving yet; the uneasy relationship between Van Helsing and his 'curse of immortality' ought to be played up however the story ends up expanding. He keeps the role serious and straight, even as Anthony Napodano adds comic relief as Luke, his unwanted and very green priest sidekick. Luke gets the real story arc here too.
While this unlikely pair of vampire hunters are the bedrock of the film, and would remain so throughout any expansion, they're far from being its flash. Once they find their way into a dilapidated building that was amazingly built as a set, our eyes are quickly distracted by a couple of ladies who I've never seen look better than they do here. The first is Jing Song, as an unnamed vampire girl that Luke finds crying in a corner, and she does a surprising amount with her role. She's a heady combination of throwaway bloodsucker, playfully innocent minx and magnetic vampire seductress, always commanding our eyes even when drenched in blood, scarred by holy water and hindered by horrible teeth. She successfully changes tone on a dime, highlighting why she's so in demand locally at the moment. Desiree Srinivas has an easier job on her hands as Moria, with only two tones to master: the teasing, confident vampire elder in her elegant coiffure and corset, and the witch in a magnificent Mark Greenawalt paint job.
Both these ladies do astounding work here, stealing every shot and every scene from the male leads, but they're supported wonderfully. Their costumes are notable, their make up is highly effective and an excellent use of sound means that they remain the focus even when they're not on screen. The effects work supports them too, especially Srinivas, because Moria's talents lend themselves to clever digital manipulation and lead to a number of setpieces. The most memorable shots in the film revolve around her; one in particular reminds me of an astounding shot in a guilty pleasure from the thirties that took me years to figure out. Eventually I learned that the grand reveal of the witch in Sh! The Octopus was done with light sensitive make up, so that she could just move forward and a change of filter revealed the horrible truth. I'm sure there's digital work in play here too, as Moria walks out of the light to reveal all that gorgeous Mark Greenawalt bodypaint, but the result is similarly effective.

Beyond the reuse of an old character, the worst thing that Helsing does is end. At twenty minutes, this isn't remotely long enough, not least because the plot revolves around a search for Dracula, who won't show up until a much later episode. The web series idea may work well, with Van Helsing following lead after lead in his quest for his nemesis, while we learn more about him and Luke learns more about the war against vampires. It would play well as a feature too, this segment playing early on in the running time but not quite at the beginning. It's flexible enough to work in many other forms though: as a TV series, with longer and more substantial episodes than a web format would allow; as a novel or comic book series. Perhaps this is because what we're given here is so emphatically just a slice, a powerful one to be sure, but a small enough one that we can't even fathom how big the story really is. Here's to hoping that we get to see more of it soon.

The Wishing Skull (2013)

Director: Ben Juhl
Stars: Dylan Wickstrom, Marissa del Prado, Kasey Kempton, Ben Juhl and Terri Juhl

I was very happy when writer/director Ben Juhl allowed me to screen his short film, The Wishing Skull, at the mini-film festival I programmed at DarkCon 2014. DarkCon is a small local convention with a vague focus on the punked genres, so The Wishing Skull qualified on more than one front, carrying steampunk and dieselpunk elements, all in a contemporary setting. I've seen a few of Juhl's short films and he aims for his own aesthetic, adding in whatever feels right at the time rather than slavishly adhering to the rules of one subgenre or another. For instance, the title character in Mr Gun is clearly a steampunk creation, played with gusto by Tommy Mack, but the film itself isn't, with Jose Rosete emphasising the brooding tone. This isn't pure either, but punks of a few different persuasions ought to get a kick out of the visual styles on offer: dieselpunks will adore the hot rod at the outset, which deserves its own short film, and steampunks are likely to drool at the title gadget, which has this one.

The former brings the latter to antiques dealer Kemp Steadman as the story begins. It's a magnificent device known as the Trollop Skull, an amalgam of clockwork and human bone that's important enough to be referenced on Wikipedia. Steadman has a buyer who's willing to drop thirty grand on it, but he's thorough enough to do his research first, so we discover some of its enticing history too. It was created by Chester Trollop, a 19th century roboticist who worked with hydron energy, then went mad when his daughter Mary, a dabbler in the occult, was mysteriously murdered. Steadman discovers with a turn of a key that the skull is also a magic lantern, its twin eyes able to project a sepia image of Mary, one that, rather astoundingly, converses with him. Anyone who isn't sold on this film from that setup alone is a man without a soul; Steadman is completely sold, to the degree that he allows Mary to promise him a wish, if only he can answer a single question: who killed her.
This one is a strong improvement over Mr Gun and A Dead Man's Money, both interesting films that had problems. This could perhaps have been tightened a little at points and Steadman could certainly have been a more sophisticated character, but everything falls into place. The story hooks us from the outset and the titular device makes it irresistible. The acting is capable, if not seamless, with Marissa del Prado an enticing young lady for Steadman to fall for, literally. The neatly ethnic soundtrack by Kevin Macleod works subtly too and there's a great deal of worthy attention to detail. Steadman's research looks solid with a believable Wikipedia page and I love the pear logo on the back of his laptop. The effects work is particularly strong too, not only with the Trollop Skull but also with the magic lantern's magic, Juhl and DP Jared Moschcau conjuring up a little bit of antique wonderland. The next short from Dirt Capsule Films will be Heart Pumping Oil, whose stills look awesome. After this success, it's eagerly anticipated.

The Wishing Skull can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Escape (2010)

Director: Andrés Rosende
Stars: Lydia Aquino, Alfred De Quesada, Berto Colón and Ivana Horonic
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Escape, a capably made picture from a company called WIT or Whatever It Takes, is one of those films that is weighed down by its metaphor and its message. With no background for us to explore to find a moral compass, we're given two sets of people who must therefore be seen as good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are the ones driving around at night in pickup trucks with bright searchlights to help them shoot the good guys with crossbows. The good guys are the ones running as fast as they can to remain alive. Well, maybe not alive, but in one piece at least. There are two other clear observations that we can't fail to make from the opening minute and one of them is that the good guys are fanged. Usually, vampires avoiding the rising sun aren't the good guys, but we can vaguely buy it here because, hey, at least they don't sparkle. The other observation is that these vampires are Latinos who speak Spanish, while the hunters are Caucasian and speak English. Here's where the metaphor jumps in to say hi.

This short film isn't badly written but it struggles with this metaphor because it refuses to allow us to delve any deeper than the surface. We're effectively told to trust the angle from which the story is told and there's nothing here that allows us to deviate from that without acquiring a vaguely guilty feeling about doing so; it's never good for a message movie to play for guilt because it can backfire so easily. Fortunately Lydia Aquino, the lead actress, gets a story arc that almost makes up for it. She's a Latino vampire called Alicia, who makes it safely to to a building with Guillermo, her significant other of some description. Already there is Martin, who is doing as well as can be imagined with a couple of arrows in him. They spend their time bemoaning their lot and arguing about what they should do next, until their pursuers catch up with them and it all becomes real again. Guillermo wants to leave the country; Alicia sees it as their home and refuses to yield to oppression. You can see where this metaphor is going.
It never really comes out to state that cornered vampires tearing the throats out of people with stakes is somehow morally equivalent to illegal immigrants taking a stand against racism, but it does feel like that's what Andrés Rosende, the director and co-writer, took here. It all works much better as a drama than a message. It's good to see Spanish speaking vampires in an American film, as it's been rare even with an early start like 1931's Drácula, Universal's Spanish language version with Carlos Villarías as the Count, shot at night on the same sets that Béla Lugosi was shooting on during the day. The differences in Alicia's and Guillermo's reactions to these circumstances are explored well and Alicia's character has a fairly believable progression within a short amount of time. With the metaphor toned way down, this could play well as the beginning of a feature, one where the opening credits and title screen arrive as this ends, to be followed by a bigger, better story, which would bring needed background and depth.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Cell Phone Psycho (2010)

Director: David S White
Star: Billy Slaughter
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I can't argue too much with a picture made by a production company named Evil Penguin Films. That's awesome and their logo is just as cool. If this surreal homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, made in the form of a public service announcement, is anything to go by, they're surely fun people to hang with. I'd say that even before seeing their other short on Vimeo, Marigny Bywater Ladies Tea Auxiliary Sunday Demolition Society, which surely confirms it. Cell Phone Psycho is another of those shorts designed to kick off short film selections at film festivals. I'm sure that's where the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival would have put it too, if only Zombiefication hadn't landed the slot first. There can be only one, right? Well, this one's versatile enough, and short enough at only three and a half minutes, to meet the need and it even ends with a neat breaking of the fourth wall that would warrant a smile even on the hundredth viewing. If it lost thirty seconds more in the middle, it would be blissful.

The star is Billy Slaughter, an unfortunate name for an actor given the circumstances. The concept is to have him watch a movie in a theatre, while simultaneously doing all the things that we all hate people doing when they're watching movies in theatres. You know, like leaving his mobile phone on, answering it during the movie and chatting through the whole thing. He throws out spoilers and even has the gall to tell his fellow moviegoers to shh. To emphasise that this is a PSA, there are text overlays to show us where we're going, but they need to combine with the title to really highlight where we're really going. It's the shower scene, of course, because 'WE WILL FIND YOU' and the Evil Penguin folk do so in surreal magnificence. Movie fans will deconstruct this scene in their heads to check off all the shots that mimic the original, subverted neatly of course, and probably miss what else is on show. That's why theatres should play this before every screening, so we can catch it all through repetition.
I'm not sure precisely what the rest of the cast are supposed to be, beyond people who find people who run through the litany of movie faux pas. The credits call them the Noisician Coalition and their website describes them as 'a loosely confederated alliance of very loud people, including, but not limited to, The Krewe of Joyful Noise, The Buttonmen, The Big NONO, The Spasmodic Marching All-Stars, Vermillion Lies and other shadowy organizations about whom little, if anything, is known.' They're what New Orleans is all about and they must liven up those 430 party days a year that they celebrate in the Big Easy. Their costumes are awesome, an unholy hybrid of marching band, steampunk and Día de los Muertos, along with half a dozen other fashion trends neatly subverted into something wildly original. They should be cloned and paid to accompany this PSA before every screening at every theatre in the country. It won't be tough. They're from New Orleans; we can pay them in beads, right?

Cell Phone Psycho can be watched for free at Vimeo.

Red Umbrella (2010)

Directors: Andri Cung and Edward Gunawan
Stars: Atiqah Hasiholan, Rio Dewanto and Zubir Mustaqim
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
The most obvious flaw that Red Umbrella has is that it's entirely predictable to anyone who's watched more than a couple of Asian horror movies. To be fair, it's probably entirely predictable to anyone else watching too, but fortunately it's constructed with panache, so it's little hardship to watch through the story one more time. It's also played out entirely as a drama without a single effect. While judicious use of an effect or two might have enhanced the film technically, it would have rendered it even more of a cliché. Playing it straight and keeping it down to ten minutes means that it becomes something like the taxi ride we see: safe and reliable. It shows up in the middle of a horror shorts selection, something that could easily be equated to the bad side of town, draws us in until we realise where we're going, lets us out safely at the end with a decent memory of the ride, then stays with us, at least for a little while, to fade away into the graveyard of memories until another film comes along with the same story.

We know we're in Indonesia because the sign on the top of Mohammad Raza's vehicle reads 'TAKSI' not 'TAXI'; I think every Indonesian movie I've seen features a taksi in it somewhere. He's nearing the end of his shift, clearly knackered, and his wife is pressuring him by phone to come home. On his way through Cawang, though, he stops for a young lady who flags him down in the dark. She's under a red umbrella, even though it isn't raining out, and something tells him to take her home to Bintaro, even though it's not on his way. They talk about the usual things, like whether she has a boyfriend and how dangerous it is for young ladies to wait for a taksi alone in bad neighbourhoods like Cawang. Even if she's not worried about local hoodlums, what about ghosts? And on we go until we get to Bintaro, which frankly doesn't look any more safe than Cawang, and we're given, along with Raza, the explanation of the story that we figured out long ago merely by reading between the lines.
I liked the story of Payung Merah or Red Umbrella, even though it offered no surprises. Most movies that tell an oft retold story are annoying precisely because they're so familiar, but this one feels more like an old friend stopped by for ten minutes. Perhaps it's because Atiqah Hasiholan is so inherently likeable as the girl with the red umbrella, or because Rio Dewanto manages to find his character so capably and so immediately. If she's the sort of customer taksi drivers want to pick up, he's the sort of ride girls want to flag down. The camera is hardly ambitious, given that almost the entire piece takes place inside a taksi on the road, but it picks up a lot of colour; we absorb the neighbourhood's flavour through its reflection in Raza's face. There's little opportunity for anything clever, the story kept moving along through some efficient editing and through Dewanto's voice. We become his passengers too, tired but comfortable, in an agreeable state because of his chatter, patiently listening to an old story told yet again.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Bugbaby (2010)

Director: Rebecca Lorenne
Stars: Lara Fisher, Jared Martzell, Mink Stole
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
It's utterly obvious that co-producers Rebecca Lorenne (who also directed) and Dan Spurgeon (who also wrote the script) are fans of John Waters. Casting Mink Stole as a busybody adoption agency prude is a giveaway, but the darkly comedic tone, kitsch fifties Americana setting and 'adventurous' approach to mass murder are quintessential Waters too. Add in throwaway references to flipper babies, Communism and dialogue such as, 'People like you make me sick!' and you might be surprised to see anyone else's name on Bugbaby. However, Waters isn't the only influence; Peter Jackson's Braindead is another film that springs to mind. It was set in the same era, albeit on the other side of the world from Baltimore, in which most Waters pictures are set, but simultaneously being far more polite and far more bloody. The title character, the mostly unseen MacGuffin of the piece, is Samson, a six week old baby who reminded me in many ways of Selwyn, the bizarre zombie baby in Braindead.

Whatever their influences, Lorenne and Spurgeon conjured up a delicious slice of fifties apple pie with a thoroughly average couple whose baby is anything but. We discover that fact before the the memorable title reaches the screen in just as memorable a fashion, captured with great timing right before six week old Sammy grabs Mrs Johnson's cat as a pre-dinner snack. There are plenty of hints here as to how odd Sammy is, hints which continue throughout the movie even though the title gives it all away. He's less of a baby and more of a bug. His parents, the Gregorys, aren't even convinced he's human, though Mrs Tottifot from the adoption agency, has a lot more tolerance (or blind devotion to all children). They've invited her over because things are getting a little out of hand, but of course we ain't seen nothin' yet. Out of hand is a mild euphemism for where things end up, in delightfully horrible fashion. If Mink Stole says, 'It's positively disgusting!' you just know that it's going to be hilariously wrong.

Bugbaby won the Best Horror Short award at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, though it's not as strong as that might suggest. It was a weaker year for horror shorts, though conversely it was a strong one indeed for horror features. The chief joys are in the setting, which gets increasingly surreal, and in the dialogue, which remains blissfully happy throughout, regardless what calamities descend on the Gregory house. These are well fleshed out, the pastel colours and little background details a solid grounding for the insanity that erupts. However we don't see much of Sammy, just hints here and there with a few Sammycam shots from his compound eyes, and there's only a modicum of mangling. Would a few gallons of gore have hurt the film? I doubt it, especially with filmmakers this capable to put them to good use. I also wanted to know what happened next. There's surely a full feature in the next ninety minutes, but it has to play out in our head. We can fever dream, right?

Cold Sore (2010)

Director: Matt Bird
Stars: Saskia Burmeister, Henry Nixon and Peter McAllum
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
Another Aussie movie, Cold Sore is more consistent than I Rot, it has a more agreeably off feel and it's more likely to stay with you. Then again, this was one of the films I saw a couple of times back in 2011 but, less than three years later, I couldn't quite remember how it went until it got there. It's the story of a boy and a girl who meet at a party and the cold sores that both acquire there during a brief snogging session. She's Jenna, who sits on her own, looking completely out of place; he's Guy, who has a lot more confidence, so hones in on her in a neat piece of cinematography. She points out that she's waiting for someone; he adds that he's been stood up by a friend. And so he buys a couple of mojitos, which I now realise were always everywhere in movies and I just didn't realise it until I saw Burn Notice, and they're all set for a night of it. What doesn't happen is what we might expect, because Guy bails on her after a friend calls him at the party. That's a little odd but hey, maybe he's taking it slow... no, it's a little odd.

What does happen is the title. Jenna wakes up in the morning, next to a mostly empty glass of wine and someone else's name badge, with a cold sore on her top lip. We know that this is going to have some serious meaning and Jenna seems to think so too, going to the doctor to have tests run. Perhaps she's just overly sensitive to anything medical, given that she has some weird scars on her body and there's a wheelchair in her apartment. Guy rings, of course, and she puts him off until Friday, to give it a chance to heal up, but when he arrives, he has one too. Dr Darvas rings with the results at a most inappropriate moment, but it's the results themselves that explain where we're going. Or at least we think so. The end of Cold Sore is a neatly powerful one that benefits from the slow buildup and hints at misdirection. This is one of those scenarios that might just invade our dreams and turn them into nightmares because it's never overt, it moves gradually like a creeping thing into our minds where it eventually festers cleverly.

I liked the performances by Saskia Burmeister and Henry Nixon, as well as Jared Underwood's capable score which draws them along. I'm less impressed by the film's pacing; while the dénouement deserves a slow build to deliver its shivers, what it gets isn't as consistently grown as it could have been. I wished less that the film would have been shorter (at eighteen minutes, it's a longer piece than usually makes it into horror shorts selections at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival) and more that the first fifteen would have built more emphatically. As it is, there are a few slow points where little happens and which could have been harnessed to build the tone; perhaps writer/director Matt Bird intended them to. He's aware that the tone is the film's bedrock, but I wanted it to be heightened far more dramatically, through a stronger sound design or a quirkier visual aesthetic, something notable to haul Cold Sore out of the everyday before it lets us in on its odd little secret. I liked this film but it could have been more.

Monday 6 January 2014

Last Seen on Dolores Street (2010)

Directrix: Devi Snively
Stars: Cynthia Dane, Roxie Schaller, Circus-Szalewski, Eileen Grubba, Ken Dusek Jr and Max Roush
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I enjoyed Devi Snively's 2011 horror comedy Trippin' and was delighted to see a quote from my review on the cover of the 2-disc DVD set alongside another from the indefatigable Jim McLennan, the scholar and gentleman behind Trash City. I was even more impressed by Snively herself, who came out with her cast for the Trippin' screening at Fear Fest 3. Beyond being a clearly capable film director, surely a good thing given that she now teaches the subject, she's a thoroughly grounded one, as professional a young lady as I've met. I'm not sure why it took me this long to catch up with one of her short films, as it's just as solid, albeit not very long. I mean, sure, it's a short film, but it's a really short short film, running only just over three and a half minutes, including credits; yet it never feels rushed. It's a twist movie, as so many short shorts are, and there's not much time to do anything except set up the story and then hit us with the twist. Luckily for us, Snively and her crew do both really well.

Not a shot is wasted, with some gorgeous composition of frame, much of it reminiscent of old films noir, even though it's shot in colour. The old time feel is enhanced by the fact that there's only a single line of dialogue throughout the entire picture. 'Do you have anybody?' the vet asks our unnamed leading lady, after he puts her dog to sleep. She's credited as Cyn and we can see from her tag that the dog's name is Eileen, as is the lady whose face adorns the missing poster outside the vet's surgery. The lowlife who follows Cyn as she walks off into the night is Kenny and... well, you'll need to watch the film to figure out where everything goes. I mention all the names because they're also the names of the actors who flesh out the roles. Cyn is played by Cynthia Dane and Kenny by Ken Dusek Jr. Even the vet, Dr Szalewski, is played by Circus-Szalewski. The reason is that it's apparently a very personal film for Snively, who spent a year in Los Angeles and apparently didn't have a particularly great time of it.
In interviews she has said that she 'got mired amidst the bottom feeders and carelessly lost my soul', a viable synopsis for a film noir if ever I've heard one. She adds that 'luckily it grew back,' but for a while, long enough to shoot this film at least, she clearly felt like she was one of the myriad victims of forties cinema. Fortunately she dreamed of being the femme fatale, so this story grew out of her experiences and into a cute and hopefully cathartic little short. It was received well, playing a whole string of horror festivals, including the International Horror & Sci-Fi Festival here in Phoenix in 2011. Visiting it now tells me that I've waited far too long to catch up with Snively's short work and suggests that I should get on with it and track them down. At least that shouldn't be much of a chore, given that this film, along with six others, which include such gloriously titled shorts as Confederate Zombie Massacre and I Spit on Eli Roth, are on disc two of that DVD set. You know, the one with an Apocalypse Later quote on the front.

Sunday 5 January 2014

I Rot (2010)

Director: Josef J Weber
Stars: Terry Rogers, Georgii Speakman, Adam Tuominen, Kate Englefield and James Edwards
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I first read the title for this Australian horror short as iRot, so expected some sort of rotten Apple spoof commercial. It's really I Rot and I'm still not sure exactly why, because what we're given is a corporate drama that uses zombiefication as a metaphor for everything negative about human nature, where all that might fester inside unseen instead festers outside with the assistance of make up effects and CGI flies. It's set at Perfect Touch Cosmetics, a multinational with offices in London, Paris and Tokyo and a boss from Hell called Peter Waterman. He looks like an ass from the first moment we see him and he underlines it as we follow him through the Perfect Touch building on the way to his office. He insults a young lady who shares his lift ride, apparently because she had the audacity to smile at him, and then fires another he passes merely because he doesn't like her cheap perfume. With each negative deed and thought, his external appearance gradually becomes a mirror of his internal state.

With Waterman such an obvious candidate for the character we're going to love to hate, who's going to show up that's sympathetic? Well, the supporting four are just as bad, in fact they're junior versions of Pete, two male and two female. They're all ruthless brown nosed climbers of the corporate ladder and they're eager to figure out what's going to happen in the upcoming restructure or, more accurately, to manipulate how they're going to benefit from it. He invites them to dinner at his place that night, and... well, let's just say that he has more experience being ruthless than they do. The cool curved dagger in his briefcase suggests how far he might be willing to go to hold on to his spot at the top. And, if you're wondering who you might want to root for in this short, I'll confirm that the answer is nobody, at least nobody important enough to be given a name. The two girls at the beginning seemed nice; if it takes wearing cheap perfume to piss off an obnoxious boss, I should have tried it a year or so back.

This is a horror film because Pete rots through most of it. What's notable is that he's the only one who ever brings it up. None of the asskissers do, even though they're clearly nasty pieces of work who have ample opportunity. It's all just metaphorical, an outward visual of what Waterman feels inside. It works as a general concept but I'm not sure what writer/director Josef J Weber aimed at. Was it just negativity in general or a more overt target like eighties style yuppiedom? Was it a specific feeling like jealousy or fear of being replaced? Surely there's a reason that Pete rots while Deacon, Kashia, Dana or Aysh don't, at least one that goes beyond it being his film. The idea seems good, however elusive its details, but I'd have preferred a sympathetic character somewhere to provide us engagement, even a supporting one like a long suffering wife or secretary. Without one, this runs long and slips away from us. There may be a great movie somewhere in this concept but, unfortunately, I Rot is only a fair one.

Zombiefication (2010)

Director: Stefan Lukacs
Stars: Lauren Cooke, Alexander T T Mueller, Lee Oscar Kirchberger and Ursula Weichhart
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
This Austrian short is almost the definitive way to open a set of horror shorts at a film festival, as indeed it did at both FearCon IV and the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival here in Phoenix in 2011. It's a faux infomercial that spoofs the spiel that we get from stewardesses at the beginning of flights. Instead of the dangers that might befall us at thirty thousand feet, this entry in the fictional but desirable Total Security Safety Films series addresses the threat of zombies. In the theatre. Yeah, this explains how to identify the living dead in the seats around you and what you can do about it if you find them. I wonder how many people who saw this in theatres really checked under their seats to see if they'd been left a chainsaw or baseball bat, you know, just in case. The catch, of course, is that it's a one joke movie, so while it can't fail to raise a smile on first viewing and prompt theatre owners to sign it up to precede all future screenings, it doesn't stand up to too many repeat viewings.

Beyond the strong idea and the perfect choice of backing muzak, what makes it work so well is the lady who presents these instructions to us. She's Lauren Cooke, credited as a flight-attendant, even though that's just the inspiration for her presentation, and she looks and sounds precisely as she should, never losing her composure even in the face of rather serious adversity. IMDb suggests that she was dubbed by Claudia Kottal, who isn't credited at the end of the film; if that's true she did an amazingly seamless job. Whoever the voice does belong to, it's the only one we hear throughout, suggesting that this is an Australian rather than an Austrian film. The script, written by director Stefan Lukacs, is agreeably funny, if inevitably predictable, and the effects work, always a key factor in any zombie flick, is strong, except for the obvious contact lenses. Cooke aside, it's really not the sort of picture that has opportunities for actors, but David Wurawa and Markus Scholze (I presume) make their presence known as living dead.

The downside is that the piece is slow and sedate, the approach inevitably forcing proceedings to stay safe and free of tension. It's not as internally consistent as it could be, possibly because it deliberately plays for laughs, whatever they might cost the script. I wonder how much better this could have been had Lukacs put the consistency first, with its reanimated corpses there but safely restrained, and built the laughs out of that. Instead he stays relatively close to the flight model, going so far as to translate some parts of the stewardess spiel almost intact, with merely the threat changed to fit. 'Please watch carefully,' she tells us, 'even if you've been a regular victim of zombiefication.' It seems a little unfair, though, to delve deeply into something that's clearly meant to raise a laugh and land the opening slot on horror short selections at festivals the world over. On that front it's a notable success, ensuring that people showing up late with popcorn find their seats pretty quickly, shut up and enjoy the show.

Saturday 4 January 2014

Antisocial (2013)

Director: Cody Calahan
Stars: Michelle Maylett, Cody Ray Thompson, Adam Christie, Ana Alic, Romaine Waite and Ry Barrett
The Japanese have a habit of jumping on the latest technological trend and spinning a dark urban horror story around it. Director Cody Calahan, who also co-wrote Antisocial with Chad Archibald, is a Canadian but he does exactly the same thing here. In spades. In fact, he spends so much time exploring the tech that today's youth takes as utterly routine that he almost forgets that he's making a horror movie. Sure, there's a horror framework: there's a global infection killing billions, while a small group of college kids are trapped inside a house fighting for survival. Sure, there's a great horror scene, as a young lady who has succumbed to the infection illuminates the Christmas lights that bind her, attacks a former friend like a vicious animal, only to be hauled back and thrown into a stairwell to die a second death hanging from her bindings. Sure, there are neatly unusual creature effects and hints at Japanese trendsetters, but it isn't the horror that drives the piece, it's the tech every time, what it is and what it means.

We're deluged with it early on, to the point that entire generations are surely going to be confused. The focus is Samantha Rezner, a young alienated college student. She rings her boyfriend, Dan Hamilton, on her smartphone, only to get his voicemail. Moments later, an alert pops up to highlight that he's posting to a social network site, the Social Redroom. So she hauls out her laptop to check it out, only to find that a chick with a sexy avatar had an amazing time with him last night. Almost before we can read her post, Dan invites Sam to a video chat. He's apparently at a friend's house, surrounded by people in states of undress, distracted enough that he's texting someone while he talks to her. Sam wants him to meet her in person. Dan suggests that they should take a break and, sure enough, the next alert to hit her cell is his relationship status change, from taken to single. Her response is to delete the Social Redroom app entirely. All this unfolds in only two and a half minutes, a dizzying thing for anyone over 25.

And this is actually really important. Youngsters, who populate almost the entire film, will be wondering why she used a laptop at all, rather than just using the app on her phone, or why she typed out the url in full instead of using a bookmark. Older generations are going to ignore the details, read through the whole thing and realise that Sam is pregnant, especially given her reactions to other things around her, like the sight of blood. Yet it's this distraction that's key. The modern ADD generation could get caught up by this story, as they've grown up grokking this sort of omnipresent technology, which surrounds them and comforts them. To them, this story may have substance that may resonate uncomfortably enough for them to get a disturbing kick out of the thing, but I doubt it. It doesn't do much that's new on the horror front. However, anyone old enough to remember dialup, rotary phones or pagers will be automatically distanced and will probably find the whole thing fundamentally stupid.
Where Antisocial may have most value is with the people in between, young enough to understand the various technological concepts in play but old enough to not be owned by them. This is because it's far more of a commentary on our relationship to technology than it is a zombie apocalypse movie. Sam is the most important focus, partly because she's the most, and arguably the only, fleshed out character in the entire film, but also partly because she relies the least on technology. She constantly appears to be the odd one out because she can step away from the always connected world that her peers live in and she actually seems to like doing that. Even before we realise what's driving the end of the world, we're already sure that everyone is doomed except her, if only because of pattern recognition: one of these things is not like the others, right? Apply that to the story after, say, a quarter of an hour, and you'll be able to write the rest of the script pretty accurately.

Michelle Mylett is effective as Sam, even though the fundamentals of her character mean that she has to underplay it for most of the film. Her job here is to highlight the way out, not by doing things (except one rather enjoyably icky thing during the finalé) but by not doing them. Everyone else does them and that's why they're doomed. She doesn't, much, which is why she survives. Her real story begins as the film ends, in what could easily become a very different sequel indeed, one that would be hugely more accessible to a wide audience. This entire picture could be neatly summarised in the opening text and then we'd watch pregnant Sam kick ass for an hour and a half in the ashes of the world. I'd watch that movie, for sure. Unfortunately this isn't that movie, it's merely the opening text brought to life and it's far from the same thing. Mylett, earning her first IMDb credit here, is the biggest human reason that it works as well as it does, but she's clearly subservient to the commentary.

I wondered a lot during the first half of the film if Calahan had forgotten anything to throw in to boost that commentary. His characters are all generic and broadly drawn: Steve McDonald, the token black guy; Kaitlin Cosgrove, his blonde girlfriend; Jed Erickson, the joker; and Mark Archibald, the nice guy. The actors do their jobs but there's nothing much for them to do because they're so transparent. It's what Calahan gives them to play with that we're focused on throughout: Steve films Kaitlin on his phone because she wants to make a sex tape, while Jed can't stop watching a webcam show, the one that backed the opening credits with freaky effect. This is a clever inclusion that really underlines the story; it's a fundamentally insubstantial piece of fluff, just two girls talking about what clothes they've just bought, but then one brutally murders the other in cold blood because she's infected. She comes back to the camera to tell the world and can't turn off the connection. It goes viral, pun intended.
In many ways, this is Dawn of the Dead: The Next Generation. Just as Romero updated his zombies to riff on consumerism, having them mindlessly congregate at the mall because of herd instinct, Calahan updates the concept to the digital age. These characters aren't consumers, they're creators, even if its meaningless content. They're people who live on social networks; they're the YouTube generation. Calahan sets up a few expected scenes but then deflates them. Should Mark and his friends let Chad into the house, given that he's bleeding from the nose and ears and so must be infected? A decade ago, they'd open the door and soon regret it. Here they mull for a moment then leave him to die, then check the media to see what's happening. Almost every zombie movie I've seen includes characters watching the TV for news, but in this one, that's all they do. Even with the zombie apocalypse unfolding outside, they watch it online. These folk would go to a live gig and watch it through their recording iPhones.

There are great ironies here that many won't notice; they'll surely fly far over the heads of anyone who tweets their lunch or feels drawn to check in on Facebook every time they visit the bathroom. Most of them can't be explored here because that would spoil the ending, but I can point out that for a script that revolves so clearly around internet addiction and the concept of trust in the digital age, I found it frankly hilarious to see how it all went down. I can safely highlight a minor moment though that shows up during the glorious death scene I mentioned at the beginning of this review. The infected character thrown into the stairwell at the end of Christmas lights apparently held on to her phone throughout her brief zombie phase. It drops to the floor below her as she dies afresh. It's only a brief shot, but I couldn't help but see the manifesto of the characters we watch, and by extension the entire generation it aims to caricature. You can have her cellphone only if you pry it from her cold, dead hands...

I liked Antisocial but I probably fit in that middle demographic; anyone older than me is going to find it stupid, while anyone younger may not get it. It wouldn't surprise me to find this generally derided, but with an aware audience consistently defending it on merits that the rest don't see. There are homages here to other horror movies; there's a live exorcism online that looks rather reminiscent of Linda Blair's footage shot on webcam and the name of the social network is very telling. Redroom! Redroom! There are neatly impressionistic audiovisual montage sequences that go beyond the usual, mostly by adding sound triggers alongside the usual video ones. The agreeably icky creature effects are superbly done, though they're rarely used and mostly disguised as hallucinations; they're icky, black and neatly alive. Perhaps the most likely common ground is going to be the score, Steph Copeland's first, which shines. It's a pulsing electronic piece, but not in the usual ways. It may be all that spans the generations.