Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fifty Angry Men [Review: Circle]

Fifty people awake to find they are standing on glowing red spots in a circle in a dark room. They quickly learn that they are playing a deadly game – every few minutes one person is killed instantly by a shock from the hemisphere in the centre, their body then dragged out into the darkness by unseen forces. If they step off their circles they also die. It takes them a few rounds, and a few deaths, to understand that while they cannot prevent the scheduled rounds, they can choose who dies in each round.

Circle is a literal, minimalist version of the balloon debate – if the balloon is losing altitude and you can’t all survive, who gets chucked out of the balloon and how do you persuade others to do the chucking. The starting fifty are diverse enough to (loosely) represent all of humanity. As the players learn how to vote for each other, alliances and dividing lines appear around age, race, gender, sexuality, politics and profession. Players try to use this to their advantage, but if they seem too manipulative then other players may turn on them next.

This is a low-budget, one-room, concept movie – The Hunger Games meets Exam meets Cube (links are to my reviews of these films) with a dash of Lord of the Flies and a twist of Twelve Angry Men. While the scenario is contrived, even compared to other one-room movies, the writers and directors, Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, have hit on a simple but effective concept which builds tension over and over again, and the script stands up well covering a lot of ground.

The main expense for this film was probably the cast of fifty actors - all unknown but certainly up to the job, so the conflict is believable. There's a lot of death, it's sudden and brutal although not too bloody, and while some deaths are shown directly many are communicated through reaction shots. The ending isn't easily predictable, and left me with a lot to think about. The film could be a metaphor for political extremism, media bias or the rise of prejudice in general, and of course it's even more relevant in the age of Reality TV.

Two important questions are left unanswered: when does the board game version come out, and how many batteries will it require?

To disambiguate, this is low-budget movie Circle (2015) – not the movie of Dave Eggers’ internet parody novel The Circle (2017).

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Snarl And The World Snarls With You [Review: The Snarling]

A film crew set up in a quiet village and start making their zombie movie, to the amusement of the locals - but a series of gory murders, committed during the full moon, draws the interest of the local police.

The Snarling was first screened at Horror-On-Sea in 2016 and has been brought back for a new screening in 2018 by popular demand. It's a well written, well produced comedy horror in the vein of Shaun of the Dead - light on gore, although there are some bloody moments, and heavy on jokes. The script features many colourful and funny characters amongst the film crew, the locals and the police - the fool archetype recurs in all three groups and there's a constant stream of jokes based on misunderstandings that is just to my taste. There are also plenty of visual gags including some extremely witty editing choices. Laurence Saunders stands out for playing two very different comedy characters - Greg, the male diva actor, and Les, the village fool who happens to be his doppelganger. Director Pablo Reybould also appears in the film as a food-obsessed police chief.

Horror-on-Sea features films made by passionate, creative filmmakers and from what I've seen the focus is definitely on films that are enjoyable to watch as opposed to professionally produced. However The Snarling is both and as such deserves wider recognition and circulation, perhaps a theatrical release - it could definitely hold its own against Shaun.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Get Out While You Can [Review: Escape Room]

Four friends sign up for an escape room challenge - an hour to find the clues and unlock the door. The scenario of this particular escape room is creepy - dim lighting, cracked walls covered in mysterious documents and clues, and a mysterious hooded figure at one end of the room, attached to a very short chain. However, as if all of the existing d├ęcor wasn't creepy enough, the curator has recently added a skull-shaped chest, ignoring warnings that it might contain something deeply evil, and failing to warn the players of this. What if one of them turned out to be allergic to evil forces? There'd be grounds for a refund at least. And maybe, just maybe, if you have locked four strangers into a room with an evil entity in a box, this might be a bad time to leave your escape room building altogether and go for a sulk.

Hard-core escapologists may enjoy films such as Cube, Exam or the Saw series - you may find this film a little lightweight, it's definitely on the easy setting. On the off-chance you might actually watch this modest but passable film, I'll avoid further spoilers. However I will take a tip from another blogger, Big D, and analyse the poster/DVD cover a little.

Not bad? Pretty dramatic, nice logo.

Now I'll take you through some elements of the poster.

The chained-up double door with the windows and the scratch marks - never appears in the movie. Looks to me like hospital or laboratory doors, and the movie is not set in either.

The scratch marks on the door suggest that someone is trapped in the room for days or weeks - but the movie takes place over the space of an hour or two. It's common for real-life escape rooms to have a time limit of an hour.

There's a young woman kneeling on the floor, covered by blood, and screaming from pain, terror or both. Without giving too much away, this is true to the film.

There's a creepy fellow standing by the right edge of the poster looking creepy. Again, does feature in the film.

Most interestingly, there are three huge circular saws in the picture, set into gaps in the floor suggesting that they may be able to move along them. They look pretty deadly, the kind of thing Jigsaw might dream up in the Saw movies - in other words a deliberate trap intended to kill players who failed a test of some kind. The film does not feature any circular saws at all, and no similar deliberately designed killer traps - the threat comes from the evil entity that has unknowingly been introduced to the puzzle room.

So I'd just like to say thank you to the cover artist for completely obscuring the actual content of this movie, no doubt deliberately to preserve its precious few moments of genuine horror and suspense unspoiled.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good [Review: Witches Brew]

A ghostbusting team consisting of a TV presenter (director Eileen Daly), a medium and a defrocked priest investigate a demon-infested castle - and their innermost desires. The mysteriously aged proprietor and his two succubus nieces give the ghostbusters the runaround while they search for a way to lift the curse. I say they... the duty falls mainly on Eileen as her two male co-ghosthunters are smitten with the nieces and unable to concentrate on the job. However when all seems lost the team benefit from the help of a passing demon-hunter and her remarkable iPhone app.

Witches Brew, screened at Horror-on-Sea 2018, is a movie that will infect you with its joy even as it challenges you with its rough edges.

Some directors and producers are so obsessed with perfection that they edit, re-edit and re-release their movies again and again in search of that ultimate, overproduced director's cut. Not Daly. Mistakes and mis-takes are seen throughout the movie - light and sound change from scene to scene, body-hair prostheses fall off the cast. This is not carelessness or ignorance. It's not satire. It's simply two fingers up to the perfection-obsessed zombie filmmakers (Prooooductioooon vaaaaaluuuuues...) - Daly makes the sense of fun her star - she could cut the mis-takes out but it's much more enjoyable to keep them in. 

Witches Brew is a loveable movie in its own right. Also, without being a direct parody it somehow brings back pleasant memories of The Rocky Horror Show, the original Wicker Man, and curiously the ancient TV series Rentaghost. I can't explain this, and I don't need to.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Director's Cut [Review: Egomaniac]

Struggling horror-movie obsessed filmmaker Catherine Sweeney has a dream - to bring to life her Warm Bodies-style zombie romcom. She has the idea, now all she needs is a script, a cast, a producer, funding, a crew and a camera. Her first taste of reality comes when she draws the attention of a big player willing to come on board as executive producer and provide seven-figure funding - as long as she can write a talking dog into the script.

Egomaniac, screened at Horror-On-Sea 2018, is a bittersweet black comedy about the experience of compromising to get the movie made - with a particular emphasis on the treatment of women in the industry. It was made in 2016 but with the Hollywood scandals breaking in the past few months it's deeply relevant right now, and perhaps can serve as a reminder that far from being the clean, happy alternative to Hollywood, the indie world is the Wild West of moviemaking.

Catherine Sweeney, played by the real-life director Kate Shenton, carries the film with an intense performance. The script is outstanding - the characters Catherine comes up against in her Kafkaesque journey, inside and outside of her head, are hilariously and disturbingly seedy, and I particularly liked the conceit of Catherine arguing with her imagined characters in her head. When she finally snaps it's completely believable and she takes the audience with her to the murderous conclusion.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Horrid Henry [Festival Report: Horror-On-Sea]

I spent Saturday at the Horror-On-Sea Film Festival in Southend-On-Sea*, Essex. I will review the features I saw (Egomaniac, Witches Brew, The Snarling) in separate posts but wanted to share some lessons about the horror movie zeitgeist gleaned from this festival.

1. It's not about horror any more. It's all about comedy horror now. Shaun Of The Dead changed everything.

2. It's not about zombie movies any more. It's all about films about filmmakers making zombie movies now.

3. It's as good a time as any to stick two fingers up to production values and just make movies that entertain.

4. The future of indie filmmaking is in good hands, proven by the premiere of a short horror film directed by a ten year old with a (literally) killer twist.

5. Finally! Someone else understands the nightmarish, Lovecraftian plastic tentacled horror that is Henry Hoover.

Horror-On-Sea is a fun, friendly festival for those of the horror persuasion. Movies are clearly selected simply for being enjoyable to watch rather than on any mainstream criteria - production values are random, there's not a Hollywood name in sight and everything is funny or at least fun. The features are topped with a well-chosen shorts programme, including a quadrilogy of animations from my erstwhile collaborator Molly Brown (those in the know will have caught my brief voice-over in Attack Of The Killer Eels From Mars) as well as horrors based around such naturally creepy concepts as the baby monitor, a chihuahua and Henry.

It was also great to attend filmmaker Pat Higgins workshop on fear in cinema - a rambling, autobiographical journey through fear and phobia which somehow managed to teach without teaching, plus a round of Consequences leading to the greatest horror film pitch of all time, all presented in the form of an Atmosfear-style 80s video board game.


*Southend-On-Sea is not on the sea, by the sea, at the sea, or juxtaposed to or even near the sea in any way shape or form. The only sea in Southend-On-Sea is the ConspiraSea that puts out a constant stream of marine propaganda keeping the Southenders in blissful ignorance of the truth of their estuaryside existence. Any who accidentally discover the truth by, for example, looking across the river and seeing the bank that is clearly visible on the other side, receive a mysterious invitation: "Congratulations, Southender #22358-33761. You're going to the pier!"

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Snoke And Mirrors [Review: The Last Jedi]

Picking up where The Force Awakens ends, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) but must persuade him to return to help the rebellion. The First Order, under the command of the mysterious Snoke and his subordinates Kylo Ren and General Hux are closing in on the rebel fleet. Providing any more synopsis would be a spoiler - and nobody wants that.

The Last Jedi is directed by Rian Johnson but J.J. Abrams is still the executive director and there is still evidence of his influence - not least the in-jokes that reference the original trilogy and the legends that surround it. To give one example that is only a minor spoiler, it's quite well known that R2-D2's electronic sound is based on actual dialogue, and that much of that original dialogue was filthy. In this film R2-D2 is reprimanded for using inappropriate language in a holy location.

However the film feels a little more gentle than The Force Awakens, despite the intense battles at the start and end, and more spiritual. Midichlorians are not mentioned and the mystical side of the Force is emphasised, not unlike Hope and Empire. We also get to see some completely new sides of the Force, even if one of these is taken wholesale from Harry Potter. And there are one or two scenes that carry surprising emotional weight, on a par with the most memorable scenes from the original trilogy. The writing is good, and questions are answered - but not the ones I was expecting. Performances from the newcomers (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver) are matched by the awesome return of Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. There are some things called Porgs, and BB-8 still steals scenes left right and centre.

The Last Jedi is enjoyable for many reasons, but particularly for the comedy aspects. Visually all of the Star Wars films are strong and The Last Jedi is no exception. It's not another Empire Strikes Back but definitely one of the better present-day films.