Friday, 28 March 2014

Damned by Dawn - review

2009 (Australia)

Contains spoilers.

It would feel a bit mean to be too critical of this earnest, atmospheric horror indie. The build-up is strong, the acting half decent, especially the girls, and the narrative interesting and reasonably coherent if one doesn't think too hard about it. All in all, writer and director Brett Anstey has fashioned a competent little horror story with an original hook and has demonstrated enough talent in his directorial abilities, to warrant future larger budgets. Unfortunately where it does kind of fall apart is exactly due to said lack of experience, finance and perhaps lack of confidence in the good old low budget mantra, to keep things tight and that less is sometimes more. There's a little too much forced exposition at times, the story is strong but does end up rambling, losing its plausibility, and the brilliantly built up, evocative and subtle atmosphere and effects does head a bit too much into b-movie territory where ambition should have been tempered.

Claire (Renee Willner) with her boyfriend Paul (Danny Alder) has returned to the old family farmstead after receiving a mysterious old urn through the post and has learnt from her old da' (Peter Stratford) and younger sister Jen (Taryn Eva) that Nana's not well. Now, it's hard to pick who's most to blame for the events that unfold that evening as Nana (Dawn Klingberg) takes her final breath. On the one hand Claire does push the Banshee that appears, to herald her passing, off the balcony impaling her and thus committing her family to death and eternal damnation. But on the other hand Nana has had nearly seventy years to prepare for the events that would unfold and has done a damn fine job of not getting everyone up to speed. Either way; a curse on the O'Neills line means that on their passing, a Banshee will appear, wail quite a bit and everyone should leave her alone. What they shouldn't do, under any circumstances, at all, absolutely not, is interfere, accost her, or say, push her off a balcony. Ooops.

The Banshee, or "woman of the sídhe" or "woman of the fairy mounds", is a female spirit seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the underworld (thanks wiki). With bloodshot eyes from crying out for centuries the 'keener' or fairy woman, according to Irish legend, appears in a white gown to lament (Irish: to wail) the passing of one the six great Gaelic families, of which the O'Neills is one. Played by Bridget Neval she's mysterious and frightening, her wail unearthly and harrowing and her appearance is haunting and coherent. Like many films that begin with an old legend the writer / director soon decides to deviate from folklore however, and that's probably where the film starts to also deviate from plausibility and starts trying a tad too hard.

I've now read quite a bit about Banshee's (at least two articles) and everything so far fits. The thing is, and I do understand the need for artistic embellishment in film making, I've not really found much reference to an army of the undead being awoken and her going on a blood fuelled rampage should her wail be disturbed. After being re-killed the undead spirits she summons from the ground are skeletal which is ok, as I can go with the fact they've been buried a long time. They all also seem to have scythes to wield which again I guess is fair enough, as they were probably farm hands. The thing I couldn't really get behind though, was the fact they were flying. It's jarring, a bit daft looking, and it's made considerably worse with the poor CG and effects that make them about as coherent and cohesive as a brick in a yogurt. Admittedly they're not that much more artificial looking than the bonies in Warm Bodies or even the zompires in I Am Legend but they're so jarring in a film full of subtlety and nuance that they come very close to breaking the whole illusion on their own.

Zombies? They're reanimated skeletal remains under the control of the Banshee so probably not in any strict sense. Paul however, back as a staggering cockroach infested corpse out for revenge most definitely is, in a revenant kind of way anyway. The sister too makes a return, albeit extremely briefly, gurgling blood in a zombie way and even the grandmother makes a reappearance as a possessed Evil Dead / Exorcist potty-mouthed cantankerous old hag (though she may have been like this before she was damned). There's lots of ideas and it all looks good and helps the film entertain but if I'm honest it feels a bit thrown together as if with twenty minutes to fill they weren't quite sure how to deliver the shocks they'd been building towards.

I liked Damned by Dawn. I actually watched it twice, and even enjoyed it more the second time. It's competent, has some great build up and scares and an interesting premise that's well played around well with. The plot does meander and lose its way somewhat, but the central story arch does get back on point and it does hold interest. Anstey certainly has an eye for suspense and build up if not necessarily the ability to deliver on it. Constant corner of the eye, shadow, snapshot imagery and the subtle and clever use of sound deliver a truly spooky experience and I found myself often cowering behind a cushion or momentarily bereft of skin, and if he could have kept to what he undoubtedly does best all would have been well. The thing is, ultimately when it comes to delivering on all evocative teasing, the big action scenes feel tragically forced, immodest and even a little incongruous. They never not deliver; it's just things never feel quite right. Would I recommend it? Sure, why not? You'll be promoting low budget horror production and you'll be in for a well-produced jumpy hour and a half's fun; just brace yourself for hover-zombies, 5/10.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Shivers (Orgy of the Blood Parasites / They Came from Within) - review

1975 (Canada)

Contains spoilers.

If you'd asked me whether this film would have made my zombie blog a couple of years ago I'd emphatically responded with a no. I'd feasted on the diet of rotting flesh supplied in abundance by Romero then maintained as a familiar western trope and was fully invested that dead meant dead. Today? I've come to embrace the notion that deadness is so much more than not having a pulse and being a great home for maggots; that the fundamental attribute of zombie is loss of will, of self, of control. That the concept is fluid and necessarily ambiguous and can be reasonably applied to all manner of people and situations where a new almost external hunger drives the host to behave in a way that's less than who they authentically are.

In 1975 a young Canadian film maker with a penchant for body dysfunction, infection, parasites and the blurring of psychological with physical released his first feature film with partial funding from the Canadian Government. David Cronenberg's Shivers (aka Orgy of the Blood Parasites, aka They Came from Within, aka Frissons) was met with a mixed reception but also announced to the world the arrival of a daring and exciting young film making talent who wasn't afraid to challenge taboos or court the controversial.

Shivers is an exciting film full of avant-garde ideas, striking and disturbing images and real depth, yet the premise on the surface sounds simple and almost laughably b-movie. The brilliant yet disturbed Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin), has had an epiphany or total psychotic break down, depending on how you look at it, and has utilised his years researching parasites to cure mankind of its swing from flesh and instinct to rationality by introducing a cleverly engineered foreign organism into the wild.

The film begins with the brutal and disturbing scene of Dr. Hobbes attacking and overpowering his teenage concubine, stripping her, then slicing her open to pour (Hollywood) acid on her internals before taking his own life. The act seems malicious yet we learn it's the actions of a desperate man who has come to realise the parasite he has let loose actually does it's job too well turning them into sex crazed monsters and he needs to kill it before it spreads. This is cinema though, so of course he's too late.

Despite no corpses pulling themselves from the earth Shivers has all the hall marks of a zombie film. There's ground zero, there's the slow but exponential spread; there's confusion, screaming, violence and in the end total pandemonium and inescapable hopelessness. The parasite, a combination of venereal disease and aphrodisiac, on symbiotic infection consumes the host with an insatiable psychosis to procreate so that it can itself procreate. Those infected lose that which made them who they are, and are now for all intents and purposes mindless zombies driven by forces not of their own will. They retain their memories and knowledge, but that which stops from them acting against increasing physical and moral degeneration has gone. Sexual coercion turns into rape, rape turns into attacks, attacks turn into murder and cannibalism as the new hosts give in to deeper and darker primal desire, free from all conscience and societal consequence. Under Cronenberg's control the journey is dark, disturbing and utterly compelling. Never is it farce or amateurish but always tight, tense and intelligent.

Stylish, sumptuously crafted and always provocative and interesting. Characters have depth, relationships are complicated and dialogue is well crafted. There isn't a central story as such; Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), the tower block's locum, his work colleague and lover Nurse Forsythe ( Lynn Lowry) and the accompanying ensemble are there to ensure the story is told and things are revealed at the right pace. There's no real heroes or villains and it doesn't matter. The narrative is the degeneration of the people of the tower and it's brilliantly realised. For a first time director with no real insight into how films were made Shivers is full of iconic imagery (the bath scene alone is timeless) and expertly crafted nuance and subtlety. Gritty, sophisticated, compelling and a triumphant début, 8/10.


Monday, 3 March 2014

(Stephen King's) Pet Sematary - review

1989 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

Picture yourself: the pragmatic rational doctor, trained in science to deal with fact and quantifiable truth. There's a chance your darling daughter's little fuzzball won't wake up from being anaesthetised? She needs to know. Now, picture you've brought your young family from Chicago to live next to the world's most dangerous un-family friendly road, complete with nearby cemetery chock full of all of the loyal waggy-tailed, whisp-whiskered and bushy-eyed companions that'd even dared to recognise its existence.

Stay with me. A short while later, your young daughters most favourite little fur ball is smashed and crushed by the side of the road. Not a stretch I'll grant you, as what with the road, the cemetery; little Church's (short for Winston Churchill) road-kill ticket was assured from the start, but what would you do as said pragmatic father if you were feeling sad and guilty? I'd probably say agreeing to follow your crazy old neighbour (Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall) to an ancient native Indian (Micmac - though King made this up) burial ground in the hope it'll be resurrected isn't the first thing that would come to mind, but that's exactly what Dr Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) decides to do.

I want to get one thing clear, I did like Pet Sematary; it's just that for the great yarn Stephen King has undoubtedly weaved, there's just too many decisions like this that stand out as bafflingly naive and implausible, and too many events, mostly unfortunate, that stand out as excruciatingly easy to avoid. I mean, we all want the best for our children and would do anything to not see tear soaked little faces gazing back up at us, but it's one thing to make a bit of a fuss at the passing of the family moggy with an impromptu ceremony at the bottom ofthe garden followed by lemonade, and another to take a long trek in to the back of beyond with the hope ancient magic and superstition can perform a miracle.

On the one hand director Mary Lambert's adaptation of Stephen King's 1983 fantasy / horror novel played out pretty much as I expected. With the look and feel of a direct to TV dark drama that almost, other than for a long gratuitous shot of the head wound of a young student who gets hit by truck, felt tame and moderate enough to be pitched at the family audience. There's a dark secret path, mystical lights, the pet cemetery replete with bad spelling, a crazy old man with crazy tales and a family cat returned but not entirely 'right' with the hint of darkness and evil. It could easily have meandered a bit like this then ended with the cat asleep and at peace and the family taking on board the moral lesson that the natural cycle of life and death should be respected. I was, I'll admit, slightly bemused by the R rating at this point, but I really needn't have been.

Pet Sematary becomes a very dark and disturbing film very quickly. Despite the emphasis on the pets in the cemetery, Church's return is really just the warm up act for the turn of events that transpires when, despite the myriad of warning that the road IS REALLY FUCKING DANGEROUS, their young son manages for a second time to wander right into the path of a 60mph death truck that never for one second considers slowing despite the houses and people present.

As I've said, that Dr Creed yet again decides to ignore all the warnings is really a bit of an insult to the intelligence of the viewer but doesn't half make for a tense finale full of murder, bloodshed and genuine jumps. Gage, the returning spirit is a revenant with a capital V for vengeance. Despite being so young his return is accompanied by new found strength, knowledge, magic (for want of a better word), and a strong desire to sadistically murder and play with those he knew. The sweet little boy is gone, instead in full Evil Dead / Exorcist style we have a seeming insatiable demonic force, though it's never explicitly said, interested in using Gage's body to perform all manner of evil and the effect is stark and genuinely uncomfortable. They're resurrected and not reanimated as we get to see both cat and boy re-killed but they're definitely not back to full health either as they come back with the full appearance and odour they were buried with.

I'll mention a flashback to the previous person resurrected at the burial ground, where a young Timmy Baterman (Peter Stader) a returning veteran gets to stagger around extremely zombie like, striking, eating and groaning at neighbour and family alike; there's an insinuation this relative coherence could be down to how long they were dead before reburial but it's not explicit. I'll also mention Brad Greenquist as Victor Pascow the friendly ghost. Because Dr Creed tried to save him early in the film Pascow has taken himself to visiting the family to try and save them from their fate. It doesn't detract from proceedings and it's all acted well allowing for some memorable scenes and sequences; it's just I'm not really sure it adds much either. For all his screen time his actions are ultimately redundant and one can't help feeling slightly bemused by his whole inclusion as the credits roll.

Taken with a huge spoon of unquestioning acceptance Stephen King's Pet Sematary is a good horror tale in the best traditions of Tales from the Crypt or even Goosebumps. It's incongruous and divergent narrative is distracting but does play with some deeply disturbing ideas and some genuinely gruesome and gratuitous slashing and killing that while not quite up there with the surreal exploitative zombie nonsense coming out of Italy the decade before, still stands out. With a touch of The Exorcist, a touch of Evil Dead, and a touch of kids Saturday night horror it's a bit of a mixed bag but one with solid acting, solid production and one I actually rather enjoyed, probably more than I feel I should have done.

While it is quite hard to take something that seriously when you feel it could all have been easily avoided by merely putting up a fence, watching your kids when they're playing next to a road and choosing not to resurrected loved ones in ground deemed cursed and evil. Still, I'm well used to watching films firmly tongue in cheek these days, and definitely more lenient when there's undead death munchers involved. So let off the hook somewhat I'll recommended it, 7/10