Monday 21 July 2014

Malediction (2007)

Director: Kevin R Phipps
Stars: Eric Parks, Mike DeCamp, Catherine Urbanek, Catherine Pilafis and Alexi Melvin
According to IMDb, Kevin R Phipps is most widely regarded for being the director of Grief, even though it hasn't been released yet. Certainly it's one of the most keenly anticipated local features for many years, given the great cast and trailer, not to mention the parties Rangelo Productions have put on; someone is doing something very right in the publicity department. What's ironic is that while Phipps is highlighted as being known for directing a feature that nobody's even seen yet, it won't be his first. In and amongst the various pictures that he's worked on under various different hats, there was another feature, 2007's Malediction. Why he isn't more widely regarded for directing a feature that's been released, played two festivals, the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival and the Phoenix Fear Fest, and won the Audience Favourite award at the latter, is a good question, but IMDb doesn't even list it. Then again, it's only been reviewed once, by Jim McLennan at Trash City, which uncoincidentally runs Fear Fest.

Features that show up early in careers tend to be problematic and this one is no different, but it's still an agreeable picture. The seams are obvious from moment one, at least once we find ourselves in daylight. The opening credits sequence is actually pretty strong, with an enticing use of sound to sucker us in. It's when that wraps up and we're shown two young adults, for want of a better phrase, paintballing a house for revenge, that those seams enforce their presence. The resolution isn't particularly great and there's a whole lot of interlacing going on. There's too much light and the sound needs work. However Sam Tolson points the camera in all the right directions, often from angles you wouldn't expect to see on a movie like this, and moves it in ways that prompt us to wonder if Malediction isn't going to be a much better picture than it technically warrants. What's more, the editing from Phipps himself backs it up, so it's much more likely to be the equipment that's lacking than the people wielding it.

The actors are clearly not experienced either so, while Eric Parks and Mike DeCamp are believably cast as decent kids with a rebellious streak, they can't draw us into the characters, instead coming off as decent kids with a rebellious streak playing decent kids with a rebellious streak. They try to be tough, especially in front of girls, but we can't resist wanting to give them a hug. Parks is Jason Cooke, a stubborn young man who's externalising strength after suffering at the hands of his father, now replaced by a nicer guy who's easier to say no to in increasingly lame ways. It's Jason's movie, however much he initially seems to be the quiet guy walking firmly in his more outgoing friend's shadow. That's Van Gerlach, DeCamp's character, who's taller, easier going and better at talking people into doing things that they probably shouldn't be doing. The thing that they shouldn't be doing that we're here to see is something that Jason drives though, albeit for no apparent reason. Maybe it's just something he has to do to take control back.
What we're here to see is #1229, a neighbourhood house newly vacated by a family who had only just moved in. Little Rodney says the place is haunted, so Jason takes Van and their maybe girlfriends, Sarah and Emily, in through a window that night for a closer look. The script, written by Bill Barnes and Kevin Hankins, unfolds slowly and, as delivered by inexperienced actors, often in awkward fashion, but it's here that the film gifts us with a pair of neat horror moments, both of them ambitious for a film whose budget is notable more for what it doesn't have than what it does and both of them successful. First is a camera movement, which shows up as the score finds a memorable Italian horror chord; simply watching a door, it pulls back through Jason's legs to rise ominously behind him, tentatively peek over his shoulder and be ready for him to turn his head and show his profile. The other is a transition, which kicks in after he walks through that door and somehow finds himself elsewhere, with a girl rising to cough blood in his face.

Of course, whenever a movie does something really right, it often turns right round and counters it with something rather wrong. This one throws out a plot convenience, as Jason's reaction to the girl involves him elbowing a hole in the wall, in the precise spot that covers a videotape covered in dried blood, and then follows it up with what Jim McLennan appropriately described as clumsiness. It's a long time since I was sixteen, or however old these kids are supposed to be, but I know for a fact that sleep would not be priority one on my agenda if I'd just discovered a bloody videotape walled up in a haunted house. Screw sleep, I'd be throwing that tape on the very moment I got home! The catch is that if Jason had done that, almost exactly half an hour in, he'd have disposed of the need to work through the next two thirds of the movie because all his questions would have been answered, even the ones he hasn't got round to asking yet. Such a promising film deserved better than these two down points.

With the answers tantalisingly close but ignored for the sake of making this a feature rather than a long short film, we get to explore the supernatural angle that has been hinted at a few times. Sarah woke up early in the film imagining that she was covered in blood, perhaps in a similar way to Jason imagining a girl coughing blood on him; we've already visited a supposedly haunted house, so we know we're going to see freaky things; and rumour suggests Mrs Delarosa at school is a witch and not only because weird questions are her favourite kind. She's into psychometry, which means she can touch an object to pull history from it, a talent that's been useful when she's lent it to police investigations. Laura Durant is the only actor I recognised in this cast and she's a cut above the rest as Mrs Delarosa, with a neat sense of humour that Jason fails to grasp. Asking her about the house, she gives him a book, Communicating with the Beyond. 'It's been looking for a new owner,' she tells him. 'I believe it's you.'
Once grounded, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the rest of the plot, which carries very little in the way of surprises. The only thing that really surprised me was how sidelined Van became as things ran on; while Mike DeCamp grins far too much to be the lead, he's the one kid with charisma. While Van rarely does anything to move things along and the story continually angles towards Jason, it's DeCamp who grabs our attention whenever he's on screen. Parks struggles to keep our attention as Jason, though he does get better as his character is given more to actually do and DeCamp's scenestealing antics are sidelined, but he has to work at it. He's better in his more respectful scenes, but he gets increasingly annoying whenever Jason decides to get pissy, as he often does. Catherine Urbanek isn't bad as Sarah, whose role is also built up as the film runs on, but she's very much in the same category as Parks rather than DeCamp: decent when she's the focus of attention but unfortunately unable to be that too often.

The progression is capable enough and the effects work by Gabriel Espinoza is solid but we can't forget the videotape; it's clearly the key to it all but it's annoyingly ignored. Instead we get to wander through the usual scenes, wondering less about what they'll achieve and more about when they'll give up clawing at clues and let us sit down and watch the frickin' tape. A more experienced cast in a more aware script might be able to distract us, but this isn't that movie. The leads are the kids, who have trouble holding our attention, especially when DeCamp gets sidelined; the adults are firmly relegated to supporting roles, serving to move things along at key points rather than bring in any sense of character. Mrs Delarosa is by far the most substantial and Durant is one of the saving graces of the second and third acts. Perhaps less known for her actual acting than for the resources she's provided to the local acting community over the last decade, she's still given life to a number of interesting characters, this being a worthy addition.

As if to highlight that there's a decent film ready to erupt from the stifled script and stifled performances of Malediction, it comes good at the end. The finalé is by far the best part of the picture, even if it's less about what happens and more about how it goes down; when we finally reach the point where we figure out what happened in #1229, Phipps hits us with it from a number of perspectives all at once, a powerful way to wrap up a promising but generally unfulfilling film. It underlines that there was a lot of vision here, sadly far more than could ever have been brought to life by the resources they had to work with, whether human or mechanical. Clearly this is a beginning film, one to set people on the road to bigger and better things. I'm not too surprised to find that the actors did little, if anything, else, while Phipps went on to far more substantial budgets, but I'm surprised to not find Sam Tolson's name on anything else; maybe it's a pseudonym. Now, when will IMDb let this festival award winner be added to allow due credit?

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