Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Filmic Frighteners - The Conjuring (15)

There's something horrible happening in my house.
The Gist: Considered by some a modern classic, 2013's The Conjuring re-opens a dark case file of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators made famous through the notorious Amityville haunting. Here they come to the aid of the Perrons - a mom and dad with five daughters, the whole familial bunch reeling from inexplicable and frightening events in the Rhode Island farmhouse to which they have recently moved. Initial supernatural harassment gradually escalates into full-scale demonic assault at a level the Warrens have never before witnessed, and which may be beyond their ability to counter. In fact it may even put them at risk along with the Perrons.
The Juice: The Conjuring revisits age-old horror ideas and tropes, but makes them fresh, delivering the scares with real craftsmanship. (It's small wonder, director James Wan having graduated through the schools of Saw and Insidious to create something largely dependent on atmosphere.) Set in 1971 the story has a strong period feel - beige wallpaper and big collars shot through a sepia filter - that gives it added authenticity. The house is full of cavernous spaces and slamming doors, littered with creepy artefacts and under attack from kamikaze pigeons. Menace builds gradually, however, the camera doing much of the work along with practical effects (and no obvious CGI to bring us out of the exquisitely crafted moment). The Warrens, albeit assured in their field, come with enough psychological baggage to make them seem vulnerable. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play them with conviction, while Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston round out a heavy-punching adult cast as the Perron parents. They, plus the utterly invested child actors, bring gravity to this Amityville-style fright-fest, never letting it spin off into daftness like it might so easily have done. (It helps immeasurably that characters actually switch on lights when they can, rather than fumbling inanely around in the dark. With some exceptions.)
The Judgement: 8/10. A splendidly made reinvention of the ghost/possession movie - suspenseful with expert pacing and well-judged fright moments, and culminating in breathtaking levels of mayhem. It doesn't break any new storytelling ground, but it retells its old tale with likeable protagonists and crowd-spooking aplomb. As for the modern classic part? Possibly... but let's give that judgement a little more time.
Personal Fear Factor: Less scared than just plain old-school entertained. This one's perfect for a fun Halloween night.

Filmic Frighteners - Sinister (15)

You can never explain something like this. And if you were able to, the odds are you wouldn't much care for the answer.
The Gist: Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a struggling true-crime writer, who moves himself and his family into a house where a horrific quadruple-murder took place. (Of course he omits to tell them the grim truth about their new dwelling.) In the attic he discovers a super 8 home-movie collection detailing similar crimes to the one he's researching for his new book. As he becomes obsessed by his investigation into the recordings, he wrestles with a terrifying suspicion - that the source of the killings may be more sinister (and less human) than anything he had previously imagined.
The Juice:Made back in 2012, Sinister is a nasty variant on the haunted house tale, with the found footage in the attic providing the worst of the nasty. The opening shot is truly unsettling, and it's not the only moment of genuine horror. Ethan Hawke brings weight to the central role in a performance that digs deep into fear and obsession; the fact that we stick with his steadily more harrowed viewpoint bodes nothing good. There's well-played drama between him and his long-suffering wife (Juliet Rylance), while interactions with an eager police deputy (James Ransone) supply a welcome element of humanity and understated humour. Director Scott Derrickson gradually mimics the style of the super 8 footage in the rest of the movie, as though Ellison's world is being infected by what he uncovered on film. 
The Judgement: 7/10. Sinister is at its most effective in the character-driven scenes and when Ethan Hawke is absorbing all the ghastly celluloid imagery in a darkened attic. The creeping-around-the-house-at-3am stuff, when the supernatural aspects become more explicit, didn't work quite so well - at least for me. But the performances carry it, along with some macabre ideas nicely executed on screen. And as a story it proves to have the courage of its mean-spirited convictions.
Personal Fear Factor: The paranormal aspect was ultimately too daft to trouble me much, but the found footage scenes chilled, one of them delivering a real moment of shock. And the ending... okay, I'll give them the ending. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Film Review - Bohemian Rhapsody (12A)

You're a legend, Fred.
Five days on from Bohemian Rhapsody's UK release two distinct reactions to the film are apparent. There are those who deem it to be a frustratingly superficial biopic of the rock-band Queen, one that glosses over the more complex and decadent aspects of lead singer Freddie Mercury's life. Then there are others who embrace what the makers clearly intended it to be - a warm-hearted crowd-pleaser that revels in the band as a creative force, with emphasis on its charismatic frontman. It seems I'm in the latter group. I went to see it on the day of its release and - while acknowledging some of its detractors' points - I had an undeniably great time. 
Plot-wise the film is standard, charting Queen's stellar ascent, while providing a degree of insight into the lead singer's turbulent private and inner lives. It kicks off around the time young Farrokh Bulsara (living with his immigrant Parsi family in Middlesex) meets lead guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor and cheekily invites himself into their band Smile. The evolution of Smile into Queen and Farrokh into magnetic stage performer Freddie is charted swiftly, as is the vocalist's relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin - the woman who would end up being his closest lifelong friend. But there are tensions too. Mercury's conflict regarding his sexuality throws his personal life into turmoil, while excess and ego put him at odds with his own musical colleagues.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a big, brash entertainment that unashamedly hits all the highlights of Queen's career - from the creation of the movie's title song to the band's triumphant Live Aid performance in 1985. With Dexter Fletcher having replaced Bryan Singer as director partway through the shoot, it still manages to be a slick and seamless piece of filmmaking, at its most thrilling during the dynamic on-stage sequences. There's an easy and often funny sense of camaraderie between the Queen members, although the others are really only sketched - May for all his iconic guitar sound is the calm voice of reason, Taylor the womaniser, bassist John Deacon the quiet endearing one. Meanwhile the band's lawyer Jim 'Miama' Beach, played with scene-stealing deadpan humour by Tom Hollander, becoming a kind of fifth member. 
But this show belongs without argument to American actor Rami Malek as Mercury. Best known for his role as an introverted computer genius in TV's Mr Robot, Malek physically and vocally transforms himself into the singer. When he struts about the stage wielding his mike-stand and hyping up the crowd, it feels less an impersonation and more a channeling of the actual Freddie - intoxicating and joyous like the real deal. He convinces as the character elsewhere too. His wrangles with his band-mates nicely convey the clash between middle-class student rockers and this flamboyant working-class immigrant. And the scenes with Mary (Sing Street's Lucy Boynton) are heartfelt and at times painfully sad. If the script only hints at Mercury's isolation and at his fear once HIV becomes a part of his life, Malek's performance does much to convey the rest.
The production's pursuit of a family-friendly 12A rating admittedly means that much of Freddie's crazy lifestyle is only alluded to. And while the film does convey the tragedy of his illness and early passing, it foregoes much of his AIDS battle in favour of a victorious concert ending. (For a music biopic with real guts and grime see Control, the superb but guttingly bleak portrait of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.) Bohemian Rhapsody never pretends to be anything more than a celebration of the man and the band - a music-heavy reminder of what a potent combination they were, whatever the personal conflicts of their lead singer.
Think of the movie like a greatest hits compilation, stripped of lesser-known album tracks. It's a bold, commercial overview of Queen, a colourful introduction to the outrageous force of nature called Freddie Mercury and the virtuosity of his musical family. Perfect for a generation who didn't experience them first time around, and easy nostalgia for those of us who did. It's not gritty. It's not challenging. But taken on its own terms it's still massively entertaining.
Gut Reaction: Kind of aware that is wasn't digging deep, but swept along with it too much to care. It made me laugh, it made me miss Fred and it damn well rocked me.

Where Are the Women?: Like A Star is Born this is set in the blokey world of rock. But Boynton is given space to move us as the platonic love of Mercury's life.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. The jokey bits are funny, the dramatic bits are poignant and the music-making is sublime. A hugely enjoyable night at the movies.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Film Review - Bad Times at the El Royale (15)

Shit happens. Get the whiskey.
'Oddity' was the word used by one UK film critic to describe both July release Hotel Artemis and this more recent arrival. Both times the word was applied in a negative sense, as though a project's refusal to be categorised neatly is a bad thing. Well if 'oddity' means consistently surprising, then Bad Times at the El Royale is certifiably odd. It's also intriguing, funny, violent, shocking, philosophical, soulful and more moving at points than you might ever expect (just one of those many surprises).
What to tell without giving too much away? The setting is late '60s, the titular hotel a once-impressive, now failing establishment that straddles the California-Nevada State-line (you can book a room in either state). As a location it's full of secrets, much like the scattering of guests who show up. There's Father Daniel Flynn (a sandpaper-voiced Jeff Bridges), who bumps into struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) in the parking lot. Add to them talkative vacuum-cleaner salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (John Hamm of Mad Men fame), closely followed by a taciturn hippy (50 Shades' Dakota Johnson), who won't even sign her own name in the register. The only employee on premises is the eager-to-please Miles (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill). The gang's almost all there. 
But what is the truth behind the El Royale? Who are its guests in reality and what is the purpose of each for being there? And - most importantly - what will be the consequences of their lives intersecting? The answers come in a slow, enticing drip-feed that is never predictable and often devilishly delicious.
Right from the movie's opening sequence - a superbly staged piece of jump-cut storytelling - it had me hooked. The colour scheme is rich, right down to the thick red line that divides the hotel in half, and the central location itself is a masterpiece of faded grandeur. From its jukebox emanates a stream of period classics to fuel the drama. As for the characters - they move into place like chessboard pieces, each given room to breathe and develop, gradually revealing what lies hidden. Writer/director Drew Goddard has developed his skill as a tale-spinner through episodes of Lost and cunning horror movie The Cabin in the WoodsHe brings it all to bear here in a puzzle-box story that takes its time, but ultimately keeps on giving - through pithy dialogue and breath-taking twists.
He's aided all the way by his uniformly strong cast. The seasoned players are great - kudos once more to Bridges in a character turn to relish - while the younger crew like Johnson and Pullman really get to show their mettle. Brit newcomer Erivo provides heart and soul as Darlene, and just wait for the arrival of the Avengers' own Chris Hemsworth in a performance that proves him one of the most charismatic screen actors around today. 
There's undeniably a lot of Quentin Tarantino in Bad Times - a claustrophobic central location, a non-linear timeline sliced into chapters, a narrative peppered with flashbacks, those sweet tunes - yet there's also much that's all Goddard's own. Take the location's wonderful weirdness (reminders once more of Hotel Artemisand a crafty use of time and place to provide whole layers of subtext. There's also a genuine sense of depth, dire consequences to each violent act and characters for whom you end up caring more than you'd anticipated. As I mentioned, surprises. 
For all I've said, I hope I've said little. The El Royale is a place best visited with the most blurry of expectations. Pack a suitcase, keep your wits about you, and get ready to check out at a moment's notice. But don't think for a second it'll be easy to leave...
Gut Reaction: Moments of laughter, shock, suspense and revelation - 'righhhht - so that's what that's about!'

Where Are the Women?: Great stuff from the two I've name-checked, plus from youngster Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising; here she's better, because Bad Times is better).

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. A ambitious and brilliant conundrum, the pieces of which fit together in hugely satisfying fashion. Don't expect neat answers to every last question though. A little lingering mystery can be a very good thing.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Filmic Frighteners - Halloween 2018 (18)

He killed my friends and now he's back to finish what he started, with me.
1978's Halloween is a stripped-down horror legend. Not only did it help establish an entire genre, it's a terrific film in its own right - a sustained exercise in tension of which Alfred Hitchcock would be proud. The 2018 movie, which goes by the same unembellished title, bypasses numerous (often really lame) sequels and connects directly to the original. It asks two simple but intriguing questions - how might Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis' survivor of the 1978 massacre) have coped longterm with the trauma she experienced, and how would she respond if her attacker, Michael Myers, came back? The answers it provides are pretty damn satisfying.
Forty years have passed since Myers' kill-spree on Halloween night in the rural town of Haddonfield, Illinois. He's spent the intervening time incarcerated in a high-security psychiatric facility, while Laurie has become mired in paranoia - training her family in self-defence and alienating them all in the process. Now living alone in a house she has turned into a fortress, she awaits what she sees as this Boogeyman's inevitable return. And when Michael is transferred to a different facility one day before Halloween (that's some hella ill-judged timing on the part of the prison authorities), he seizes his opportunity to break out. The old home town is unprepared for his onslaught, aside - that is - from his one-time victim. 
The new Halloween benefits hugely from its identity as a straight sequel, and from the involvement of original writer/director John Carpenter. On top of his advisory role he's written the soundtrack, revisiting the musical motifs that helped make the fall of 1978 so chilling. The DNA between the two movies is apparent elsewhere - like in the presence of an obsessive psychiatrist taking over from Donald Pleasance's frankly nutty Dr Loomis, and in a portrayal of an evil that borders on the supernatural. There's a weird symbiotic connection between Michael and Laurie; he's a blank and inscrutable kind of bad, driven to pick up where he left off, while she's equally defined by him - seeking a closure that can only come by ending him herself. It's a complex and twisted relationship emphasised by the subverting of several iconic Halloween shots, each of which will have fans grinning
That's not to overstate the movie as anything particularly meaningful. It's a big glossy thrill-ride, Michael wreaking a trail of gory devastation that contrasts with the original's visual restraint and slow-burn suspense. There are taut scenes and effective scares for sure - the opening prison sequence is gripping in its originality and Michael's quest for Laurie includes some truly jarring encounters. But whatever its connections with 1978 this is ultimately a film with a different vibe, one defined as much by vengeance as victimhood. 
In that regard Curtis walks off impressively with the film. Her ageing Laurie is a force of nature - damaged but defiant, and a fierce protector of those she loves. A strong family dynamic exists at the story's core, with Judy Greer and Andi Matichak as Laurie's daughter and grand-daughter respectively, both struggling with the reality of Michael's return. There's a stalk/slash element for sure, but this is more a lead-up to all out war. And while the psychopath is as single-minded as ever, the distinction between hunter and prey is not quite so clear as before.
Halloween isn't an unmitigated success; its plotting proves messy at points, with some threads being inadequately explored. Not can it sustain the original's unforgiving sense of dread. (Seriously, what can?) But it still manages to be true to the story's roots, while developing the hapless 'scream queen' into a contemporary heroine. And it provides lots of bloody good fun (the literal kind) along the way. With four decades of slasher teen movies having developed, poached from and parodied the first Halloween, kudos to this successor for advancing the story of Laurie and Michael on its own terms - and for giving it back its edge.
Gut Reaction: At its best it had me enthralled like the first one. And I was never less than fully entertained. 

Where Are the Women?: It's a matriarchal family affair. But how much 'Strode' do the younger generations of women have in them?

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Finally a worthy sequel to the Carpenter classic. It only took forty years - but maybe temporal distance was required for a truly interesting Halloween follow-up.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Filmic Frighteners - It Follows (15)

It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.
The Gist: Jay, a teenage girl in rural Michigan, has a sexual encounter with a guy, after which she is told she has contracted a kind of curse. She will be followed relentlessly to the death by an entity that can take on any appearance, including that of someone she might know. The only way to pass on the curse is to have sex with someone else, problem being that the pursuer can kill its way back through the chain of those who have slept together. Taking her sister and a group of friends into her confidence, she tries to work out how 'it' might be defeated...
The Juice: Released in 2014 It Follows became an indy horror phenomenon and a breakout hit for writer/director David Robert Mitchell. It's a genuinely creep-inducing concept, establishing a slow-burn paranoia early on that never goes away. The movie draws strongly on Halloween as an influence with its autumnal backdrops, the mysterious absence of adults (take that as teens wrapped up in their own world), old horror movies playing on TV and of course the theme of relentless pursuit. There's similar use of widescreen too - though much less darkness - with potential manifestations of 'it' strolling into the periphery of your vision. The film has its own unique quality, however - that of a misty waking nightmare (the lush synth score lulls you into false security at points) - and is much more concerned with the lives and inter-relationships of its teen protagonists along with the consequences of their sexual choices. 
The Judgement: 8/10. While not perfect (the dialogue can be frustratingly mumbly at points and some of the decision-making is as inexplicable as in any slasher movie) this is beautifully made film with a devious central twist on the classic stalk-and-slay horror movie and its targeting of sexually active teens. It's a twist that's cleverly explored right through to the end. The story is layered and ambiguous throughout, and the climactic confrontation with whatever is as inventive as it is gripping. Definitely worth a place in your horror collection.
Personal Fear Factor: There are some disturbing images, but this is more about clammy fear than blood-spillage. It didn't have my heart thumping, but it did make me shudder at points.

Filmic Frighteners - Ghost Stories (15)

It's funny, isn't it? How it's always the last key that unlocks everything.
The Gist: Ghost Stories stars Andy Nyman as Professor Phillip Goodman, a professional skeptic who debunks supposed manifestations of the supernatural for his TV show 'Psychic Frauds'. His greatest challenge arises when he comes into possession of three files, detailing disturbing paranormal cases as yet unsolved. The files bring him into contact with a guarded nightwatchman (Paul Whitehouse), a deeply troubled teen (Alex Lawther) and an aloof businessman (Martin Freeman). As he investigates each of their bizarre stories, he becomes more unsettled regarding unresolved issues in his own life. Haunting, it transpires, comes in many forms...
The Juice: Adapted by Nyman and director Jeremy Dyson from their own successful stage play, Ghost Stories is an artfully crafted modern take on the British anthology horror film. Nyman is great as the cocksure skeptic steadily having his rationalism challenged and his nerves jangled along with us. The other leads provide sterling support, with special credit due to Lawther's supremely jittery performance as the traumatised teen. Each of the three main segments has a distinctive visual style to match its classic location - and abandoned asylum, dense woodlands, an austere modern mansion - while all three use lighting and eerie soundscapes as much as easy jump scares to build the atmosphere of dread. There's a nice seam of dark humour as well, which dissipates as the story twists its way into a whole other kind of horror experience.
The Judgement: 7.5/10. Always intriguing and frequently ingenious, this is a film that trades in gradual creeping fear, though one section does have a riot with some retro monster-movie shocks.  The direction it takes is divisive - a unarguably clever post-modern diversion that risks undermining what has gone before. That aside it's a Pandora's box of subtly wicked delights and a fine piece of modern Brit horror cinema.
Personal Fear Factor: Chilled at points and rather horrified at the end, though ultimately I preferred the film's old-school 'house of horror' sections.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Filmic Frighteners - Halloween 1978 (18)

It's Halloween. Everyone's entitled to one good scare.
I first watched Halloween as a teenager on a little portable television in my room late at night. To this day it remains one of my most memorable horror-viewing experiences. Here was a really exquisite kind of fear - Hitchcockian tension supercharged with slasher-movie adrenalin, all beautifully framed by John Carpenter's lens. Not that I was thinking about it in those terms back then - I was just staring at the screen, scared witless.
I watched it again last night (first time in over a decade), in preparation for my viewing of the newly released Halloween 2018. My viewing companion, I should say, found much of it pretty laughable. This was due to the clunkiness of some performances, the occasional absence of plot logic and the dumbass behaviour of the teens about to be slaughtered. While not the first slasher film to hit cinemas in the '70s, Halloween certainly became the template - so crammed was it with tropes that have been recycled many times since. That includes the TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) factor, e.g. when a characters walks undefended into the house from which she heard the screaming, rather than - you know - lying low and calling the police.
I take all my movie-buddy's points - Halloween has dated somewhat, due to all the post-modern fun poked at the genre (not least by the Scream franchise). And yet it unarguably a classic. I love it as much as ever I did, and not, I might add, with some irony-tinged sense of nostalgia. The film still conjures up a genuine sense of fear every time I watch it and I now can tell you precisely why. Let me go into blokey list-mode to do so...

1. The Central Premise. It's simple and it's effective. A little kid - Michael Myers - kills his older sister on Halloween night, presumably because she's just had sex with her boyfriend and he doesn't much like the idea. He's sweet-faced with a chillingly blank stare. Exactly fifteen years later Michael escapes from the psychiatric institution where he's been incarcerated and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield to reenact his murderous onslaught - with interest. What is living behind his eyes, insists his psychiatrist (a near-demented Donald Pleasence) is 'purely and simply evil'. Simplistic stuff for sure, but it provides the Halloween 'Boogeyman' with a real drivenness, bordering on the demonic. 
2. The Look. Michael swaps his institutional uniform for overalls (taken from a mechanic who really won't be needing them anymore) and dons the most creepy-ass Halloween mask in cinema history. The overalls give him a functional air - he's going on one very workmanlike killing spree after all - and the mask (an actual William Shatner mask with the eye-sockets cut out) is expressionless and terrifying.
3. The Creepy Holiday Setting. With an original working title of 'The Babysitter Murders', the story ended up being grounded in all the fun seasonal trappings of October 31st, starting with the grinning jack-o-lantern of the opening credits. Classic '50s horror movies play on TV screens throughout the film, while local little'uns go trick-or-treating, a neat contrast with the genuinely sinister events playing out.
4. The Budget. Halloween was made independently and has a grainy quality far from the gloss of other more recent slashers. The absence of polish makes it feel more real, whatever dopey decisions the targeted teens make. Everything about Haddonfield is dowdy and ordinary - a believably mundane setting for some insane events.
5. The Camera. Low-budget films depend on each shot getting it right and boy does Cameron get it right here. Low-angles provide buildings with a tangible sense of menace, long-shots give away just enough detail to unsettle. And point-of-view tracking shots instil real panic, like when our heroine approaches the house where all her friends have been murdered. Every time I watch that scene I remember how I felt the first time - willing her not to go in. The script may have its deficiencies, but the actual telling of the story is sublime. 
6. Widescreen. Carpenter used the perfect screen ratio for the film. Why is it so effective? Because widescreen leaves lots of scope for danger to lurk around the edges of the frame - and this is a film all about what's lurking in the dark.
7. Shadow. Speaking of dark, this is a movie that uses light and shadow to superbly scary effect. Sometimes it's just damn beautiful side-by-side with terrifying. The first time I watched, I had a sense that I didn't need to worry too much while it was still day, but felt steadily more on edge as night closed in. Then once darkness fell, Michael blended. His overalls provided camouflage, but then that mask (see 2) would loom out of the murky recesses (see 6) and the effect was truly chilling.
8. Stuff Not Happening. There are a lot of moments in the movie when 'stuff', i.e. the next killer attack, resolutely fails to occur. Using a commendable degree of patience it makes you wait, ratcheting up the tension to near-intolerable levels. Nor does it rely on jump-scares (it uses them sparingly at best), allowing some moments of dread to play out before your eyes with a dreadful calm. It's a terrific lesson for film-makers - that stuff not happening can have as powerful an effect on the audience as when it does.
9. Scream Queen. Jamie-Lee Curtis is likeable Laurie Strode - cerebral A-student who dutifully babysits her kiddie charges while her friends are fooling around with their boyfriends. She cuts loose with her lungs in the story's latter stages, when the night goes very wrong for her - and contrasts others' ropey acting with one very convincing portrayal of fear, shock and trauma. Along with her more dubious choices she does demonstrate some decent survival instincts, however, hence being around for the 2018 sequel. 
10. Music. Carpenter created the score and revolutionised his own movie in the process. It's not just the opening credits theme with its general sense of foreboding, it's also the slower mounting-sense-of-dread theme as characters edge towards their doom, and the eerie little synth motif when Michael is stalking around a house, and the staccato piano accompanied by a rapid high-pitched discordant ching-ching-ching when peril is imminent. Chills me to - the - bone every time I hear it. A wonderfully stripped-down, fiendishly effective score and some of the best horror music ever written. 
There. I hadn't aimed at ten, but they came to me easily and I could probably add a few more. The film has its moments of daftness for sure (I didn't even mention how the younger cast members are way too old to pass as teenagers), but in my book all that's good about it renders those aspects not worth mentioning. Treat yourself. Hollow out a pumpkin, carve a malevolent face into it, illuminate it from within using a fat candle and sit back to watch John Carpenter's masterpiece all over again. Happy Halloween, 1978-style.
Ed's Verdict: 9/10. It's bona fide horror genius.