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Latest from Terry Mulcahy

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FrightFest The 13th: The Final Day

28 Aug, 2012 Posted in: Festivals, FrightFest, Opinion, Review

Terry Mulcahy rounds up the last day of the 13th ever FrightFest, the UK’s annual horror and fantasy film festival at the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square

It’s been a more jam-packed FrightFest than ever before, as the sea of pale faces and sleepy eyes in the Empire Cinema attested. The final evening saw the UK premiere of Chained by Jennifer Chambers Lynch (yes, that Lynch family) but there was also the world premiere of British thriller Tower Block and the European premiere of Sam Raimi’s The Posession. The latter is a film whose advertising has flooded viral and mainstream channels to the point of almost turning potential fans off, so this was a golden opportunity to win back the hard core. However, before any of that, Lynch took the stage to explain that her dark thriller was “about real monsters… and how they’re made”.

Chained

If you were a filmmaker and your dad were David Lynch, that would probably be as tough as it were fortuitous. I understand that, to strike out on her own, Jennifer Lynch has had to make bold statements and that to compare her work to her father’s is unfair (and lazy). But if that’s the case, perhaps she shouldn’t have made a film that centres so squarely on overbearing paternal influence. It’s a little on the nose – but that’s exactly where she’s gone with Chained, a story about a young boy kidnapped by a serial killer and forced to become a part of his world. Eamon Farren, as the young man forced into servitude by the monstrous, lisping Bob (Vincent D’Onofrio), is compelling enough as a fragile, gentle potential killer-in-training, but the script is dire. Bobbing lazily along from aphorism to illogical twist and, save for a few swipes at the myth of the perfect American upbringing (a perverse game of baseball with stones, an “umbilical” chain), there’s almost a total lack of artistry. Chained shows none of the bitter sparkle Lynch demonstrated with Boxing Helena or Surveillance. And no, none of David’s eye for subversion is present here either, although his specter looms drearily overhead.

The Possession

Calling his movie ‘The Possession’ was an audacious move on the part of director Ole Bornedal. If the suggestion is that this is the possession movie, then having Sam Raimi’s name attached to the project (as producer – don’t get too excited) was probably a good start. Unfortunately Bornedal, writer/director of 1997’s fabulously creepy Nightwatch, has dredged up a real turkey in this tale of a young girl and her dilly-dallying with a Jewish demon. After purchasing a mysterious box in a yard sale for his daughter, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as recently divorced father Clyde, is in for one hell of a week. Kyra Sedgwick as his ex-wife frumps about and provides the requisite skepticism, whilst Morgan is fine as the beleaguered patriarch.

Unfortunately this is as bland as any demon-in-my-daughter film you’ll have seen before and essentially follows shockingly close to the plot of – you guessed it, The Exorcist. All of that might be excusable if Bornedal hadn’t skipped out on genuine scares in favour of hand-wringing, icy glares and lots and lots of screaming. If the lurid poster and sneaky viral marketing led you to believe that Raimi’s fabulous Drag Me To Hell might be a close relative, you’ll be disappointed. It plays, just as you’d expect, on fears of one’s own children and their secret world but also on the dichotomy of suburban America’s fear of/need for religion. It’s not likely to trouble your sleeping self much, either; a job which Sinister, screened yesterday, is more than happy to take on.

Tower Block

“This is the best screening this film will ever have” states writer James Moran before the world premiere of his suspense thriller, directed by James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson. Without any prior knowledge of what to expect, the audience were exactly the kind of virgin eyes for which his nasty little enigma of a film was intended. And it was excellent.

The top-floor residents of Serenity Towers, a tower block ready for demolition, are the final few waiting to be rehoused. But on one otherwise average morning they find themselves trapped in their homes by a mysterious sniper… and that’s just the beginning. An opening sequence involving some, unfortunately, all too familiar violence in an urban tower block is a deliberate attempt at wrong-footing expectations, and a clever setup. It would be unfair to say more but, despite its relative simplicity, Tower Block packs a punch that is best experienced fresh.

Despite not being a comedy there’s a clever, witty script full of genuine laughs from Moran that acts as a nice companion piece to his other film screened at FrightFest – Cockneys vs Zombies. However by comparison Tower Block, well, towers over the other. It’s a scary suspense-thriller with a natty slice of social commentary wedged between the unbearably tense set-pieces. Crucially it’s also very, very exciting thanks to Nunn and Thompson wisely playing up the insanity and claustrophobia of the tall, thin wedge of hell that Serenity Towers has become. Full of delicious little surprises, this was the perfect film to close the festival with: it demonstrates British filmmaking that is on a par with that generated by Hollywood, but which taps into a deep vein of homegrown anxiety. And yes, it closed the festival with a bang.

FrightFest The 13th: Day 4

27 Aug, 2012 Posted in: Festivals, FrightFest, Opinion, Review

To regular FrightFesters there’s a few constants, year in year out. There’s pretty much always going to be at least one vampire movie, there’ll be short films that run the gamut from heartfelt to all-out, certifiable insanity, and then there’s the quiz. Andy Nyman’s Quiz From Hell has become legend in the three short years it’s been a part of the festival. It’s notoriously tricky, silly and for the hardcore only – and it’s a perfect break from the grisly goings-on elsewhere. Today everything from that above list made an appearance along with a huge amount of buzz surrounding Film4’s own Berberian Sound Studio (we’re not going to review it, because we might be just a little bit biased but, we couldn’t help giving it a quick mention). But before that heady mix of psychedelia and psychos could unfold there was the World Premiere of Anglo-American vampire thriller, The Thompsons.

The Thompsons

There are some sequels that take the heart out of their predecessor, and then there are those that rip that heart right out, dance around with it and run gaily off into the sunset. That’s not always a bad thing and, thankfully, it’s true of Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores’ barmy The Thompsons; a sequel to the well-received indie-vampire-family-drama The Hamiltons. This time around the titular family are on the lam, finding themselves seeking shelter in the quaint English countryside after offing one too many of their fellow Americans. From the confines of a wooden box, middle brother Francis relates the rather jumbled tale of how the whole clan got into such a pickle – and any of the former film’s subtlety is buried along with him. It’s a little obnoxious to weave a relatively straightforward tale in such a curly-wurly manner, and there’s some atrociously corny dialogue to go with it but it all plays rather well into the batshit crazy soap-opera regardless. It’s actually rather spirited and sexy, recalling the likes of True Blood, although it can’t muster the polysexual anarchy of the latter nor is it remotely original, but it is a bit of toothy fun.

The Horror Channel Short Film Showcase

The short films offered each year, and curated by The Horror Channel, have become legend. With the need to squeeze the shocks, splatter and psychosis into so short a space, they can be some of the most memorable and affecting films at the festival. There’s a huge amount of variety on offer this year, from the disgusting DIY abortion of Evrim Ersoy’s Tokophobia to the mock-schlock of Metal Creepers (an homage to the dark gods of metal and the crappy effects of 70’s exploitation cinema). The grisly acts merely hinted at in the artful, troubling Un Jour Sang by Steven Pravong were especially troubling but the standout film had to be Geoffrey Cowper’s Gargols! (Snails!) A paean to the little guy who never seems to get the girl, it sees three friends overcoming unrequited love at a Spanish music festival – and a really big snail. It’s very silly, has (knowingly) dodgy CGI and more heart than most feature-length offerings, and it certainly found the right audience in FrightFest.

Sleep Tight (Mientras duermes)

A man wakes in the early morning, next to a a sleeping woman. He leaves quietly to avoid waking her and begins his day by brushing his teeth. Everything seems pretty humdrum, but why is there only one toothbrush in the bathroom? The creeping sense that something isn’t quite right is just one thing that director Jaume Balagueró (of [REC] fame) has got so right in his suspense thriller Sleep Tight. Once it becomes clear that chirpy Clara (the oh-so sunny and adaptable Marta Etura) has no idea about these nocturnal snuggle-sessions the hairs are already raised. But this is no story of simple sexual obsession, and nothing is quite as one might expect. Luis Tosar as the creeping, peeping César is perfectly unnerving and Sleep Tight pitches into rather original territory with a tale as clever and touching as it is unbearably cruel. The tension is quite astounding during a few key scenes; notably one involving a very awkward, accidental menage a trois, and the ending is perhaps the nastiest slice of revenge since Se7en (although very different indeed). If you like to be unsettled, and need a potent reminder to set the latch before bed, this was one of the best (and nastiest) surprises of the festival so far.

Sinister

“From the producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious” screams the poster for Sinister, a supernatural shocker starring Ethan Hawke. Usually this would suggest “you liked these movies? See another one by someone who likes your money” – however here it more or less approp-iates Sinister’s tone. And sinister it is, in that woken-up in-the-night, cold-sweat, put-the-light-on way. It seems initially to be boilerplate stuff; a true-crime novelist (Hawke) and his family move into a home where a grisly murder took place, but it has all the best parts of Insidious and none of the “Meatloaf music video from the 80’s” third-act meltdown. Once a box of home videos that amount to a snuff film festival – each featuring a horrifying presence – shows up, all bets are off.

Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has almost got the formula down to a tee, with some fantastically effective jump scares, a great score and knowing jabs at audience expectations. He does allow the film to stray a little at times, overreaching when the scares are spectacular enough confined to simple haunted-house hokum, but Sinister is still absolutely terrifying in its best moments. Hawke is a great lead, jittery and fragile, he’s fleshed out just enough but is still given some aggravatingly bad decisions that threaten to turn audiences away when they’re needed most. It’s not the whole package but, as popcorn-horror goes, this is the kind to ruin bedtime for a good few nights yet.

With that in mind, I left the bustle of Leicester Square, with the solid intention to fight off those inner demons and get a little sleep. It wasn’t to be easy though, the day left some seriously weird subconcious concepts to wrestle with – “a dangerously aroused goblin” from Berberian Sound Studio, a vampire in a sex sling, snails sliming-up Barcelona’s skyline and Ethan Hawke in a very sensible cardigan. Here’s hoping the final day can top all of that.

Film4 FrightFest Review: Cockneys vs Zombies

25 Aug, 2012 Posted in: Festivals, FrightFest, Opinion, Review

A rag-tag group of cockneys bungle a bank heist and must race against time to rescue their grandfather and his friends from a care home when they find themselves in the midst of a full-on Zombie epidemic.

A group of bumbling twenty-somethings are staggering through a zombie-decimated London, cracking wise and being self-defamating in that curiously British way – ‘ang abaht love! Haven’t we seen this before? If this all sounds a little like Sean Of The Dead, it’s because writer/director team James Moran and Matthias Hoene’s Cockneys vs Zombies owes a great debt to the former, yet stands rather small in its shadow.

Siblings Andy and Ray, and their vivacious cousin Katy (played with aplomb by Harry Treadaway, Rasmus Hardiker and Michelle Ryan respectively) don’t seem especially surprised when the dead begin to walk. This allows for plenty of knowing quips (“you have to shoot them in the head… Everyone knows that!”) but complacency is the killer – even in a “zomedy” – and it sucks a lot of potential energy from the premise. Credit goes to the cast of the OAP care home, led by the legendary Alan Ford on fine “geezer” form, for providing most of the off-kilter humour whilst Moran’s gag-laden script seems almost perversely eager to appeal to fans of the undead.

Ricocheting from set-piece to set-piece with varying success, and taking cues from 2009’s Zombieland, there’s a madcap irreverence to seeing Richard Briers in a slow Zimmer frame chase sequence or Honor Blackman bludgeoning a zombie with a hammer. It’s just that nothing here feels particularly new. With less energy than one of Mother Brown’s knees-ups but some genuine laughs and crackpot charm, Cockneys vs Zombies is more missed-opportunity than full-on misfire.

Film4 FrightFest The 13th: Opening Night

24 Aug, 2012 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion, Review

Anniversaries are a pretty big deal in horror. Jason spent most of the year looking forward to his summer trip to Crystal Lake, Michael made sure that Haddonfield was rid of the babysitter menace every October, and Freddy… well Freddy was just happy that anyone still cared. But the point is that from Bloody Birthdays to Black Christmases, horror loves to mark the occasion. And this year for Film4 FrightFest, Film4’s annual trauma-thon, it’s the big one: FrightFest The 13th.

Thirteen years on from the festival’s humble beginnings, its spectacular growth (expanding from The Prince Charles Cinema to taking over The Empire Leicester Square) is overshadowed only by the enthusiasm of its four organizers: Ian Rattray, Alan Jones, Paul McEvoy and Greg Day. Four men with a grisly mission, their love for the genre is apparent in the glee with which they preface each film on-stage. But it’s more than just a gimmick, the biggest lineup of stars yet (including horror legend Dario Argento), more films than ever before and the fantastic inclusion of a ‘Rediscovery Screen’ to air remastered classics and overlooked modern gems. It’s a year for the fans.

Bearing that in mind, the festival opened with a great little pre-recorded promo that saw Ian taking less than kindly to a mobile phone user in the auditorium (a running joke throughout the festival), before swiftly dispatching him with a samurai sword. The audience erupted with appreciation; it was the perfect start to an evening, which began proper with the world premiere of FrightFest favourite Paul Hyett’s (effects work on The Descent, The Woman In Black) debut film in the director’s chair: The Seasoning House.

The Seasoning House

Angel, a traumatized deaf-mute teenager, oversees the captive workers in a Balkan brothel. However, when the men who killed her family arrive for an evening of revelry, she enacts a violent and shocking revenge.

Paul Hyett is already a go-to guy for gore-effects, so it’s unsurprising that his directorial debut The Seasoning House is a grisly affair – yet his tale of abuse during the Balkan conflict is still shockingly violent. Angel’s daily grind is carefully observed with a grim focus on her chores, granting them a hollow, ritualistic air. As Hyett forces his camera to snake through the tight corridors of the filthy tenement in which most of the film is spent, viewers are dragged into Angel’s filthy existence. Played with haunting disenchantment by newcomer Rosie Day, Angel is the antithesis of the ‘final girl’; slipping through wall-grates in a manner which echoes the eerie demonisation of female bodies in films like The Ring, her eyes are glazed with misery.

The rape-revenge sub-genre is a woefully saturated one, and entries tend to vary in their level of misogyny but rarely do they have much in the way of artistry. Aside from a misguided girl-on-girl knife fight The Seasoning House avoids the usual anti-feminist trappings and with its artfully scripted chase and fight scenes and a score that rattles with glacial mandolins, it almost achieves the impossible: justifying its own ultra-violence. Hyett keeps direction tight as the suspense builds towards Angel’s inevitably gruesome revenge, but seems to lose control in the film’s rather silly final act. Villain Sean Pertwee’s wavering Eastern-European accent, the extremely disturbing sexual violence and its real-world basis all conspire to quash the film’s initial intentions and it probes less than it does disgust.

Sundance London review: Safety Not Guaranteed

30 Apr, 2012 Posted in: Festivals, Review

An unusual classified ad posted by a man looking for a partner in time-travel sends Aubrey Plaza on a strange trip in this charming indie-comedy, writes Terry Mulcahy, reporting from Sundance London

Safety Not Guaranteed by director: Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly

Safety Not Guaranteed, director: Colin Trevorrow, screenwriter: Derek Connolly, 2011, 85 min, 12A/12

Fans of TV’s Parks And Recreation might have a hard time imagining Aubrey Plaza – she of the perpetual sour toned cynicism – as the lead in a romantic comedy. Thankfully she’s not; but Safety Not Guaranteed is both a comedy and surprisingly romantic in the most unexpected of ways.

First conceived when a weird classified ad was aired on Jay Leno’s TV show, seeking a partner in time-travel. The film tossed and turned until writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow settled on a script. What eventually emerged was a “what if” look at what might have happened if the poster’s ad had never gone viral, pulling a journalist and his two weird interns into a deadpan adventure. It’s a will-they won’t-they, is-he-crazy-or-not mystery woven through a story about broken people desperate for a partner in crime.

If that sounds horrendously twee, don’t worry – it actually isn’t; what gives the film its pulling power is Connolly’s refusal to let his characters slip into insipid indie-tropes. Even when the film indulges in a little wide-eyed wonder, Plaza is on hand with half-shuttered eyes to keep it all deliciously Daria-dry. In a role written especially for her, Plaza does more than just reprise the dour outcast she’s made famous, and there’s a side to her that we haven’t before. If the delicacy with which she manages to marry cynicism and whimsy can be repeated elsewhere she’s got quite the career ahead of her. Tethered to a performance from Mark Duplass as the paranoid ad-poster, they’re an unlikely couple in an improbable scenario, and it’s wonderful to watch. It’s certainly saying something when a campfire serenade is magical and not corny.

Unfortunately the film isn’t just off-kilter, but also a little off-balance, with more time devoted to Plaza’s story than to fellow intern Arnau (an awkward post-college virgin) and her editor Jeff (Jake M. Johnson on fine form as drunken-chauvinist-with-a-heart). This wouldn’t be a problem if their stories weren’t so hinged on the film’s central theme of being a loner, but as is, it starts to lose focus; or as Johnson’s character says “I’m not sure what the story is about anymore”. However, the ending does just about squish these disparate strands together in time and it’s hard not to be charmed by a finale so daringly indulgent.

Ultimately, a ridiculously likeable cast and a smart script mask a few hiccups – safety’s not guaranteed, but scorn, wit and surprises are. Heartwarming stuff, it warrants a trip back in time just to see it again.

Interview embedded from Sundance Official Channel

by Terry Mulcahy

Terry has been a correspondent for Film4.com since August 2011. He started out as Film4's eyes and ears during the Film4 FrightFest 2011 event. Since then he has been a regular contributor for the FrightFest e-Magazine, reviewing fantasy and sci-fi films and also editing an obituaries column. He has also written features for compendium-of-women-in-music magazine Wears The Trousers. The film character he most identifies with is Alvy Singer from Annie Hall.

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