Category Archives: Creature Feature

The Mummy 2017

When it came to the studios realising that they needed to jump on this shared universe franchise nonsense or die on their respective asses, you have to give Universal credit for thinking they could do with their roster of monsters what Marvel/Disney have done with their superheroes. Or maybe they thought “hang on one goddam minute! We’ve done this before: House of Frankenstein mixed up most of the classic Universal monsters along with House of Dracula and a few Abbot and Costellos meet ups thrown in for good measure. We’re old hands at this shared universe malarkey, all we need is a big star, a similar action approach to horror as the last three mummy movies and an inexperienced director without a strong vision: we are laughing.”

 

Clearly no one is laughing now.

 

In and of itself The Mummy is a perfectly fine summer blockbuster, there’s lots of interesting and well staged action, Tom Cruise, as usual, gives it his all and there’s plenty of cgi. If this was, in fact, a semi reboot of the Brendan Fraser movies but with more greys and blues then it might be just about acceptable. However, this would suggest that The Mummy movies only live in their own Mummy bubble… but they do not. They are part of a long and rich storytelling mythology that cannot be ignored for the sake of the next action scene. The Mummy itself is a walking cadaver that is exacting revenge on those who would break its curse: it is a monster from a horror story not a fun family franchise. This film seems to have forgotten that this is what the story of the Mummy is meant to be. It’s far too busy trying to bombard us with the next stunt or effect to tell us a proper, scary (but still thrilling) tale.

 

That’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s moments. There is some great imagery. When the tomb of the mummy is first discovered the giant stone head looking up from the pit looks suitably ominous. The returning victims of the mummy pop and crackle their bones as they shuffle towards Tom and co, looking all withered, horrifying and pretty cool. And the action is well mounted, especially the early scene in the plane, spinning around with our heroes bouncing around the inside at zero gravity. It’s shame that moment was shown everywhere before the film came out, it’s the highlight of the movie.

However there are a number of major problems outside the technical brilliance on display. First and foremost, and it pains me to say the obvious, but the script is just nowhere near good enough. Between the action scenes poor Annabelle Wallis is forced to give pages and pages of exposition which stop the film dead. This dreary dialogue is often describing ancient legends we the audience have already seen earlier, and (as a clear sign of behind the scenes problems in the editing suite) we are forced to watch again. Other bits of the script are so clearly lifted from other films it’s kind of embarrassing.  The always great Jake Johnson is (spoiler) forced into the undead best friend role from An American Werewolf in London. The Mummy herself sucks the lifeforce from her victims in a clear homage/rip off of, well….Lifeforce. I’m never going to be one to complain about reminding people about the glorious cinematic experience that is Lifeforce but to do it so blatantly in a tentpole summer blockbuster reeks of either laziness on the writer’s part or poor judgment.

 

Which brings us to Alex Kurtzman, the director and one of the many writers of The Mummy. The guy clearly knows a thing or two about how to write a successful blockbuster movie, so there’s no way I’m going to criticise him for that, however I’m not sure him or many of the team had a very strong grasp on what a modern Mummy movie should be about. Of course updating the concept to contemporary times is a given but the rest of the film keeps the whole mummy mythos too simplistic and shallow. The Mummy herself, gamely played by Sofia Boutella, wants to sacrifice someone to release the god Set so she can stand by his side or marry him or what? We know nothing more than that. The poor mummy here is so shallowly written that I started thinking that the monster in the 1999 version was the epitome of intricate character development. At least he had a tragic love story as well as all his mummy stuff.

 

Making a massive budget Hollywood movie is a daunting task nowadays and there are so many balls to juggle when trying to get the film to the (not) silver screen for it’s release date. It just confuses me why the studios keep on hiring inexperienced directors to do this. To be fair to Kurtzman I think he handles the action set pieces well and the film looks pretty and modern if a little grey but this is all for nought if we don’t engage with the characters. And I think the director has to take some blame for this if his inexperience with directing actors has an affect on how involved we are with them, and hence how involved we are with the story.  Of course Cruise, Wallis, Johnson and Russell Crowe (as Doctor Jekyll) are all more than capable of bringing their acting skills to any set but it takes a good director to bring them together and bounce off each other with proper chemistry. Cruise and Wallis try for the old cliche you’re-the-most-obnoxious-man-I’ve-ever-met routine but sparks don’t fly. The lacklustre dialogue doesn’t help here of course. Sadly the climactic emotional pay off also falls flat mostly because the characters don’t seem real or even real with each other.

 

I know that a studio employing an inexperienced director like Kurtzman means he doesn’t have the clout to get his own way so they can pull the creative strings but this has backfired here with no clear idea of what the film should be other than the start of a bunch of other movies.

 

Saying all that I still enjoyed The Mummy a lot. It is a slick, well made movie even if the cracks are fairly visible (too many flashbacks and I think three voice overs – always a bad sign). I do love a big budget horror movie even if it is an unsuccessful one. It may have been more of an action movie than a scary one but they gave it a shot. I’m just not sure that you can remake all the old Universal monster movies and actionise  them as much as they have done. It didn’t work with Dracula Untold, it didn’t work with The Wolfmam and sure as hell didn’t work with Van Helsing. Adding the shared universe business right from the start is, with an extremely clunky mid section which slows the story down to a full stop, also not going to work.

 

Okay I’m watching this after the film has flopped stateside so have the benefit of hindsight, however it’s a shock that Kurtzman and co couldn’t see what a miscalculation they were making when they were in the script stages: there was an interview with Kurtzman way, way before the film went into production and he gave away most of the pitch. Even then people (and when I say people I mean angry internet nerds) thought it was a horrible idea. Not even oh-well-i-might-be-wrong-let’s-wait-and-see type reaction but a general  this is awful moan from the collective geek world.

Oh Well…you live and you learn. Hopefully Universal will, for their next Dark Universe film, remember that the monsters are from horror movies. Mix it up a bit sure, but just know what your story is at its core. Or just rip off Lifeforce again if that’s too much effort.

 

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Creepshow 1982

If you think about it it’s almost bizarre to think that Creepshow even exists. It’s five stories and a wrap around tale all by at-his-peak Stephen King, it’s directed by George A. Romero at his most confident, King stars in it, as does his son, Joe Hill. There’s also a host of great actors: Hal Holbrook, Ed Harris, Adrienne Barbeau, E. G. Marshall, Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen when he was still a straight actor. It’s also got Tom Savini and his amazing practical effects at his most creative and playful. It’s basically a beautiful gift to horror fans. How is this even a thing?

Creepshow starts as a weird reflection of my own childhood. A horror obsessed kid has his favourite comic, the EC inspired Creepshow, thrown out by his father who doesn’t want any such filth in his house. Back when I was a child my father also had a fanny fit about the first issue of Fangoria magazine I’d bought. How could I have such vileness and depravity in his house? He threw it out and told me I was to never buy that magazine again. Much like the kid, played by Joe Hill, in Creepshow I decided that my father had no moral authority over me so fetched it out of the bin. Unlike the kid I didn’t decide to kill my father with a voodoo doll, even though I might have thought about it at the time. Instead I just got my mum to order me a monthly subscription and covered my bedroom walls with the “Scream Greats” pull out posters which came with each issue. Dad never mentioned Fangoria again.

The first story proper is probably the weakest story of the five, which is a good thing as the only way is up after that! “Father’s Day” concerns the returning corpse of a family tyrant desperate for his cake. Sure it’s got some early work from Ed Harris but the walking corpse make-up is decidedly rubbery and there is some truly terrifying disco dancing. The comic book styling is immediately apparent though. Romero freezes shots, turns them into comic panels and slides them along as a transition into the next scene. The lighting in moments of horror will flip to primary colours and action graphics will swirl out from behind characters as they look on in shock. It’s a little bit clunky and old fashioned nowadays with modern technology being able to do so much better and easier, but it’s also incredibly charming and, to this old horror comic fan, strangely comforting.

The second story, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” is, by some margin, the silliest story here. Basically a one hander about a simple farmer who is infected and mutated by some florescent green meteoroid space plant, I can never work out if Stephen King as the farmer is it’s biggest asset or it’s biggest problem. To say King plays it broadly is something of an understatement. With his face in full gurning-simpleton mode and speaking more like a cartoon than a real human being, King is about as far away from a proper actor as you can get. And yet there is still something tragic and weirdly heartfelt about Jordy Verrill as he remembers his life full of mistakes and imagines what it could be. Also the eleven year old me loved King in this so maybe this is one aimed at the kiddies, even if it does end with (spoiler) Verrill blowing his mossy head off with a shotgun.

“Something To Tide You Over” treads the familiar ground of revenge from beyond the grave. So familiar in fact partly because we just had this two stories ago in “Father’s Day”. However this story is much tighter and filled with incident. It helps that the two stars, Ted Danson and Leslie Nelson both known for their excellent comedic acting, take the story so seriously. Nelson is the angry older husband getting revenge on his wife and her lover by burying them in the sand and watching them drown in TV as the tide comes in. He is a cold hearted son of a bitch. His motivation has nothing to do with love or heartbreak, he only sees his wife as his property that Danson has the cheek to try and take. Danson goes through a range of emotions from cool, above it all boy-lover to a man begging for his life as he’s literally up to his neck in it. The scenes where Danson and Gaylen Ross have the tide coming in and the water splashes over them are particularly effective as, no matter how many safety regulations they had in place, the actors must have genuinely been half drowned for the sake of this creepy little tale. I also love the soggy, water logged zombies at the end, with their puffy blue skin all covered in seaweed. They are kind of ridiculous looking but so much fun with their waterlogged voices and dark green blood pouring down their faces.

And that’s what is so great about Creepshow. Yes it is dealing with murder, revenge, the undead and weird monsters but it’s done not so much as as a comedy but with its slippery black tongue planted firmly in its rotting cheek. Horror here is not trying to scare you but delight with its bizarre, fast paced and wonderfully macabre little tales.

“The Crate” is the perfect example of this. The story is simplicity itself: a university Dean finds an old crate which contains some ancient beast brought back from a find two hundred years previously and dumped in a cellar*. The creature munches his way through some of the faculty before another professor realises this might be the perfect way to get rid of his nagging, spiteful wife. The monster itself is a fur ball throwback to a cross between a yeti and a particularly mean Muppet. It could almost be endearing (on set the crew loved it so much they gave it the nickname Fluffy) if it wasn’t so vicious and bloody in its attacks. It tears through throats like they were butter and drags the corpses away to be eaten whole in the comfort of his crate. Then there are the performances. Hal Holbrook is so perfect as the educated man imagining violent deaths for his wife. He is down trodden but surprisingly calculating when push comes to shove (literally, he shoves his wife into the crate). Adrianne Barbeau, as always, is superb as his mean, drunk, belittling spouse. She is so different from Holbrook that you wonder how he could have ended up with her, and yet despite that you can see how he was attracted to her – she IS fun, her differences must have been appealing once upon a time. However you are totally on Holbrook’s side by the time he decides she should be Fluffy’s main course. This is the great thing about Creepshow, it can take the idea of a husband wanting to kill his wife and make it hugely entertaining.

The final story, ¨They’re Creeping Up On You¨ is the”greatest story here and also a showcase of Romeroś direction at its very best. E. G. Marshall goes for broke as a neurotic millionaire locked away in his hygienic ivory tower, under attack by an infestation of cockroaches. It is one actor in a white room and little else, but you learn everything you need to know about this contemporary Scrooge. you learn how he relishes in people’s misery, how his business deals are all the better if someone else suffers (hmmm…. where have heard that before?), and the abject terror he has with anything that is in the slightest bit unclean. The realisation he has that the muesli he has been eating contains more than just raisins is the most horrific moment here and that’s before the cockroaches start pouring out of every orifice.

This last story always freaked me out enough as a child. So much so that I would stop the tape before getting to it. Not sure I know why this was. Maybe it was the idea of all those bugs waiting for me in the bed or the thought of finding cockroaches in my Ready Brek. Maybe the story was too dark for my young mind.

Not so nowadays, this last story in particular but Creepshow in general is just great. Go on, show it to your kids, creep them out a little.

 

Attack on Titan: Part 1 2015

 

Fandom is a funny old thing. When some part of culture is taken into people’s hearts, they become obsessive about the minutiae, and for its creators it can become a rock: how it is originally presented is how it should always be, never changing. Woe betide anyone who tries to mess with that formula, even if it is the original creator. This is what happened to George Lucia when he tried to do something different with the Star Wars prequels: the fans hated and rejected them.* Fandom demanded more of the same, not something else. It’s why The Force Awakens was so widely embraced even when Lucas wasn’t involved in it anymore.

Attack on Titan is a more recent example of the rigidity of fandom. The original Manga comic was successful enough to speed into production a wildly adored 22 part anime. Fully of crazy ass imagery (literally, you see a lot of monsters’ asses in this), interesting characters and a strong, original story you could see why people loved it so much. Then along came the live action movie and they had taken a long, sprawling sci-fi horror epic and mashed it down into two brief, expensive and shallow features.

And the fans turned their wrath upon these titans. They fucking hated these films. And I don’t mean just a little bit. Reviews across the board were rabid with foaming spittle of hatred. The liberties taken with the story, how characters had been merged into one, other characters had changed completely and big chunks of the plot had disappeared all together. Apparently Attack on Titan Part 1 was the the worst steaming pile of monster shit ever created.

Or, in fact,  not.

So I watched, or sat through depending on how you look at it, the seemingly never ending anime and what grabbed me at the time was how much of it there was. There was too much talk, too many flashbacks, too many characters. What there wasn’t was enough action. The first episode opened strongly with the titans’ spectacular initial massacre but after that there were long, long, long episodes of training, chat, infighting and more training. Also there were way too many characters that served no purpose. I could see what people liked about it, but I was not a fan. So it seems the movie version was made for me, because it cut out all the waffle and just left the good stuff. And I loved this.

As anime often is, Attack on Titan is set some time in a post apocalyptic future. The last of humanity lives inside within several massive walls, protected from giants who previously all but decimated humankind a hundred years before. Now a bunch of teens travel to the wall for a laugh, they barely even believe the titans exist. By a massive coincidence the beasts choose this exact moment to break though the outer wall and attack the good folk on the outer part of the city, basically where all the farmers and poor people live. Two years later the teens have joined the army in an effort to fight back against the titans and restore the outer wall.

The best part of Attack on Titan is the design of the titans themselves. They are essentially a bunch of very large naked people, but they have such weird, simple faces with wide apart eyes and big toothy smiles that are almost like giant, happy toddlers who just want to put things in their mouths, like all toddlers do. Unfortunately they want to put a lot of humans in their mouths. There is one scene where a bunch of titans tear open the roof of a church and munch down on the awaiting congregation like a box of chocolates. Its sounds silly, and in many ways it is, but these monsters with their grinning faces and gurgling noises are so creepy that when they appear, often silently despite their size, they are genuinely chilling. Also they are really well realised from the comic/cartoon to the screen. Being Japanese they have gone for the classic Godzilla route by having human actors stomping over miniature cities rather than cgi. The naked human form is not easy to digitally recreate with all the money in the world and as Japanese film makers have pretty much perfected this technique nowadays, the monster effects are pretty effective. It is especially exciting when the tiny human characters are fighting them by flying around their giant forms on cool gas powered grabbling hooks.

Okay, the characters are certainly a bit on the light side, and being a little over an hour and a half long you think they could have had time for a bit more development. However the action is so exciting that when there is a slow bit in the middle whilst characters ARE developed it feels like the momentum of the film is grinding to a halt. Also despite all my complaints about too much training in the anime, maybe a little but here would have at least introducedus to the characters properly or shown us how the weapons the humans have to fight back with work. Instead, for example, we get an explination of the grabbling hoof from a flashback to training IN THE MIDDLE OF A FIGHT SCENE. This just seems like sloppy story telling or studio interference.

However, these are probably just problems for real fans of the originals. If you’ve watch the TV show with adoration, or delved into the original manga then you might too be foaming at the bit with the movie version. And that’s fair enough, lord knows I’ve got annoyed at updates of my own favourites over the years. (I’m looking at you A Nightmare On Elm Street remake – or at least I would be if I could remember ANYTHING about you). However, if you want an action packed horror movie with some of the freakiest monsters this side of a Clive Barker novel, or just have a general fear of small children, then check out Attack on Titan Part 1.

And probably part 2 I guess… although I’ve not watched that yet. Maybe it will just infuriate me for not being the same as part 1, which, as you can tell, I am a fan oF.

 

*they also hated them because they were badly plotted with poor dialogue, stilted acting and an over reliance on digital effects but lets not go down that rabbit hole eh?

Kong: Skull Island 2017

The giant monster movie is a tricky dilemma for Hollywood. On the one hand there is a sizeable audience who really want to see large creatures beating the crap out of each other, smack down flying machines like they are flies and swallow humans like tiny, salty snacks. On the other it seems like there is a limit to how many people will turn up for this kind of entertainment. Godzilla, King Kong, Pacific Rim and now Kong: Skull Island all seem to reach around the half a billion dollar mark and then peter out at the box office. Considering how expensive it is to make a movie about a big ape, lizard or robot this is a problem for Hollywood execs. Clearly they want to make these big spectacles (as they have since the original King Kong) but too much money spent will not make a profit for them. These are, after all, just fun b-movies, albeit very expensive ones.

So Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers clearly have a plan in mind with 2014’s Godzilla and now Kong: Skull Island. Its a shared universe plan (obviously in this day and age) and I guess the thinking is if we can make so much money with Godzilla and then so much more with Kong, then put the two together and we’ll have an Avengers-style hit on our hands.

Well that may be. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to capture the public’s imagination the way the Marvel characters have but I am really glad they are trying. Any horror fan worth their salt should ALWAYS welcome the sight of a beast the size of a tower block trying to snap the jaw bone of another monster, and Kong: Skull Island certainly delivers those mega thrills.

It’s not all about the money though. First and foremost a giant monster movie has to engage and entertain us. This can’t be done with the monsters alone. You will always have to have human characters you can relate to. Godzilla tried really, really hard with that and failed, maybe because there was TOO MUCH character work (on some pretty bland characters as well). Kong goes the opposite way – there are loads of really interesting characters who we hardly get to know at all.

Maybe its because the characters are played by such charismatic actors – Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Riley, Tobey Kebbell, John Goodman, John Ortiz… and many more – but despite the fact you really don’t know much more than their jobs (not even that in some cases: I have no idea what Tian Jing was doing there) you are still rooting for them. Personally I would have had less characters with a little bit more time for them to breath and develop, but then, hey, I didn’t make this film. Also things race on at such a cracking pace there is little time for anyone to become anything more than “my dad gave me this lighter before he got killed in World War 2”.

I wonder if Peter Jackson’s King Kong had anything to do with the pacing of Kong: Skull Island. As beautiful and occasionally magical that film was, the one thing everyone will say about it (and I mean EVERYONE, apart from I guess Peter Jackson) is that it is way, way too long. The plot of the original King Kong was told in a solid 100 minutes and that felt about right. The 1976 remake is well over two hours and felt like it was stretching things. Jackson’s 2005 version is over three hours (200 minutes in the Director’s Cut) and there just isn’t enough story to fill it up, so it goes on and on with minor characters getting whole arcs (and aren’t even in the final act of the film) and scenes lasting for what seem like a week. Perhaps Kong: Skull Island listened to the complaints and kept things as brisk as possible, maybe at the expense of the human interest if not at the expense of the action.

Because what action it is. Kong this time round is a big old bruiser of a monkey. He’s rough-haired and scarred, reminding me more of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler than some love sick ape of old. Okay so he has a little bit of a moment with Brie Larson (though it is more mutual admiration than anything cross breedingly weird like other versions) but most of the time he is just being old, and moody, but kind at heart, and really ready for a fight. He doesn’t have any moments of soppiness, just the odd inquisitive look at these puny humans, before getting back the job at hand, which is mostly beating seventeen types of shit out of these really ugly (and well designed) lizards called the skullcrawlers.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of the lovely but how-the-hell-did-he-go-from-that-to-this Kings of Summer, kicks everything up to a mad cacophony of colours and imagery, taking liberally from Apocalypse Now with slow motion shots of helicopters swooping over the jungle and Kong silhouetted against the sinking sun, but also keeping the action clear and understandable (even as the edits fly by).

Really things race by so fast that it shouldn’t really work at all, but Kong is a loveable fella and between him, the great cast and fantastic monster fighting action its hard not to be engaged and swept up with it all. It make monster movie making look easy, even when it clearly isn’t. Its only afterwards that you realise this is all as shallow as biscuits, but what the hell – you’ve had a good time.

So let’s get the monkey and the lizard together as soon as possible please, and quick, before the money men realise what they’re doing.

 

The Terminator 1984

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If you forget all the increasingly desperate sequels and get back to what the original Terminator was all about you will see at its core it is a horror movie. Right from the opening moments when we see bolts of lightning bursting out of nowhere on a deserted city street we are in horror territory. It’s like something out of a Frankenstein movie with that storm and then the monster-like Arnold Schwarznegger standing up out of the gloom. Moments later he is killing punks (including the, so sadly, late Bill Paxton) and murdering women on their doorsteps.

The Terminator is, as pointed out in the movie, nothing more than a killing machine. He has no personality, no sympathy, nothing – all he wants to do is kill. He is like a robotic version of Jason Voorhees. However, despite all this, somehow, he DOES have a personality – its why Arnold became such a superstar – and also why they kept on making Terminator movies and couldn’t make them without him. Even the future-set Terminator Salvation has a CG Terminator because he is so iconic. Making a Terminator without THE terminator would be like making a Superman movie but only concentrating on little Jimmy Olsen.

What is it that makes The Terminator such a fantastic movie monster? It certainly is his violent relentless: he has an understanding of guns that would make a grown American weep “.45 long slide, with laser sighting…, phased plasma rifle in the 40 watt range.” “Hey, just what you see pal”) and is happy to dish out the death without hesitation. But he is also hilarious even if he doesn’t mean to be. “Hey buddy, you got a dead cat in there?” a caretaker asks, standing at The Terminator’s apartment door. It takes a moment for the machine to select the correct response before replying with an insult the caretaker accepts with a shrug and moves on: “Fuck you Asshole”.

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Even the much repeated, mostly by Arnold over the years, “I’ll be back” is actually a line before the punchline. When The Terminator isn’t allowed into the police station to see/kill Sarah Connor, he responds with that line before actually coming BACK in the form of a car that he drives straight through the police desk.

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The Terminator and the cyborg itself are also pretty gory. From tearing open his arm to plucking out his damaged eyeball (with flies feeding off his rotting flesh) the body horror imagery is classic genre fair. It was partly because make up effects came on leaps and bounds during the eighties, but also because film makers were fascinated by body horror at that time (and it would reach some kind of zenith two years later with Cronenberg’s The Fly).

Then of course James Cameron shoots these effects and more on an impossibly small budget. He manages to create a whole future post-apocalyptic world which seems like one long never ending nightmare, along with all the different forms of killing machines. Sure some of the models and back projections don’t hold up quite so well in this modern Hi Def world but it’s not just about making everything perfect here. There is a roughness to The Terminator which doesn’t distract from the world building but somehow make it more real. James Cameron’s imagination and creativity is so fierce that how could this film NOT succeed?

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Well, if the lead characters The Terminator was up against had been bland nobodies then that is would be one way the film could have failed. But no, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Michael Bean as Kyle Reese are beautifully tragic lovers. When Terminator Genysis came out and the facsimiles of Connor and Reese met in some higgildy-piggildy alternative reality, Reece told Connor that he time travelled because he “thought you were kinda pretty.” Hmph… if ever somebody did not GET what makes this romance so special then it was the makers of Terminator Genysis…

“I came across time for you Sarah” Kyle Reese proclaims. He sacrificed his life, his world and his future, not for the fight against the machines and not because of his loyalty to John Connor. He did something no one else had ever done in the history of humanity and travelled back in time because he loved a woman with all of his heart.

It’s no wonder Sarah nails him on the spot.

Such a pity that he does it with tramp shit all over his trousers. Yes, that’s another thing you will notice in the glory of Blu Ray. When Reece first arrives back in 1984 he steals a tramp’s pair of trousers. Police suddenly show up and shine their spotlight on him as he pulls the pants up. You can clearly see a big dark stain on the bum of the trousers. Throughout the rest of the film, despite managing to liberate a coat, t-shirt and cool high-top sneakers, Reece never changes his trousers. The upshot of all this is that not only did he have to fight the Terminator to the bitter end in kacky pants but he also managed to pull Sarah Connor smelling like tramp turd. If you’ve ever worked in Soho, London then you know that smell ain’t pretty. Still… that’s love for you.

The Terminator stands up as well now as it did in 1984. If you forget all of what came later (obviously we all love T2 but that feels much more like a proper sci fi action blockbuster) and get back to the core of what this incredible story was about then you will see a frightening, thrilling and completely riveting movie that works as brilliantly as a horror movie as it does a love story. Or a sci fi movie. Or an action movie…

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SiREN 2016

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SiREN is an extended version of the best story on the found footage anthology movie VHS, Amateur Night. I have no idea why it is called SiREN rather than just good old fashioned Siren unless the film makers have some investment in a capital letters company – something I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist. Maybe it is called SiREN to sound all modern and iPad-like in keeping with the found footage theme. If so then they’ve got it all wrong because the feature film version of the short abandons the found footage approach which is a blessed relief. Its almost as if they realised it is officially done as a sub-genre: it (kinda) started with The Blair Witch Project seventeen  years ago and ended with Blair Witch this year. Let’s move on shall we?

Director Gregg Bishop and writer David Bruckner seem to have. Amateur Night was a fairly simple but very effective little frightener involving a bunch of guys picking up a couple of girls, one of which turns out to be winged and fanged demon. Really there wasn’t much to it other than that. It also it added another dimension by dealing with sexual consent and alcohol which was kind of unpleasant before the siren reveals herself. Bishop and Bruckner could have quite easily expanded that to feature length but instead they change the story quite a lot, adding loads more ideas and characters, the upshot of which is one of the most fun horror movies of 2016.

The main change from the short is that now the guys aren’t just going out on a lad’s bender but it is in fact the main character’s stag party (actually maybe Amateur Night was a stag party but its hard to tell through all the garbled found footageness of it all). This helps set up the dynamic of the four friends and by extension what is at risk for the stag when the night takes a turn for the worse. Unusually for this kind of group in horror movies these four aren’t all dicks. Chase Williamson, from John Dies At The End and Beyond The Gates, as Jonah the stag, is a likeable everyman. Okay so his brother Mac as the best man is a bit of a n idiot but he’s clearly put himself under pressure to give the best stag party he can when he’s pretty incapable of anything very good in life. Jonah’s best friend Rand should obviously been the best man, he’s organised and kind to Jonah, but Mac’s ego is too fragile to cope with that idea. This leads Mac to end up dragging the gang to “the best party ever” (a whorehouse in the middle of a dark forest, hmm…) where everything goes to shit.

Okay so so far so we’ve seen it all before and obviously we’re going to meet the siren of Amateur Night, and the title here, but what makes SiREN the movie more interesting is that the brothel/party house they end up in is more than just a seedy sex den. It seems to have several other stories going on here that we’re not party to but add a richness to the main event that I wasn’t expecting. Each of the various rooms have something outrageous playing out: if the main characters were to go into any of them then we’d have a whole different story going on. The dude who invites them to this place is overheard saying “does that mean I can get her back?” so obviously he has his own plot that we are never are privy to either.

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We could easily just had a story about the SiREN eating everyone’s face off but instead we are given a much more interesting plot. The villain who runs this den of iniquity (Justin Welborn) has all kinds of various deal-with-the-devil side projects going on. He also has some bizarre ideas like causing pain to one character and then inserting the memory of that pain into someone else in order to make them suffer instead. He also uses this trick as some kind of interdimensional message service. Its kind of bonkers.

Centre to all this though is the SiREN herself Lily, played by Hannah Fierman. She is a creepy and strangely alluring creation, which as siren is just what she should be. Its never fully explained if she is the same as the sirens of Greek mythology but her songs are haunting and mesmerising and Fierman’s off kilter way of saying “I really like you” makes you want to hug her and run away from her at the same time. We never found out what the ancient Greek Sirens did to the sailors who survived their ships smashing against the rocks in The Odyssey. You do here and its not pretty – keep that tail away from me!

SiRENS is a great bit of macabre entertainment, not scary as such (I don’t think horror always HAS to be scary, do you?) more of a horror action thriller with some rather unsettling moments. It is only let down by its limited budget which occasionally gets in the way of its ideas. Its certainly not let down by the creative team’s imaginations which are firing on all cylinders.

 

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The Shallows 2016

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The trouble with the one person survivor sub genre is there isn’t a hell of a lot you can say about it in a review without giving the game away. Robert Redford in All is Lost is all very well and good but the only thing of note in any of the reviews anyone can ever say is that he only says one word. I won’t tell you what that word is so there is some suspense there if you ever watch it, but I will say it rhymes with “luck” and it isn’t anything to do with ducks. At least Robert Redford had a boat, and Sandra Bullock had two space stations and various escape capsules in Gravity. In The Shallows Blake Lively has a rock, and a small one at that.

Surfing by herself at some obscure beach in Mexico (where her mother had been with her when she was in her womb) Blake inadvertently finds herself the prey of a great white shark after she accidentally gets too near to its feeding ground. As the tide goes out she finds herself trapped on a small rock that will sooner or later disappear when the tide comes back in. Simplicity itself.

Its understandable what most have drawn Lively to this project. This may be within the much maligned and rarely awarded horror genre but at least we have a rounded, self sufficient female character who doesn’t rely on men to save her. Horror is a funny old beast, on the one hand it will put women through some truly awful scenarios but on the flip side it gives us some of the most interesting and resourceful female characters in cinema.

These kind of films live or die on the ability of the lead actor. Fortunately Blake Lively has the charisma to pull it off. It helps she also looks like someone who’s been surfing all their lives, rather than, say, me who given a surf board looks like a drowning rat. Lively early on suffers a terrible bite and has to fix herself up. Fortunately we’ve been told that she’s a trainee doctor (damnit this girl can do it ALL) and can patch herself together. These scenes of survival are, weirdly enough, as compelling as when she’s battling against the great white. Maybe its because the wound looks so realistic, some of the best wound make up effects you’ll see.

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That’s not the only thing that looks good though. The camera work is absolutely astounding, especially the underwater footage when Lively is surfing the crest of a wave and we see the views from below – the wake in the water an almost abstract stream of patterns tearing across the silver screen. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano really have gone to town in making this one location as strikingly beautiful as possible from the underwater action to the stunning skylines. Also the cgi shark is top notch, his size and menace just shown enough to make him a threat and not a Sharknado joke or whatever that old shit is.

I’m not that keen on,  the admittedly super slick looking, phone call pop ups on screen that happen early on, but they at least they get the exposition across without too much hokey dialogue. For example, we get to find out Lively’s mother has died – a simple photo on Lively’s phone of her with a scarf covering her bald head. This kind of technology on screen thing is a bit distracting, especially considering the remoteness from the modern world of this location but its not a deal breaker.

Okay, anyone who makes a killer shark movie has to accept that they are never going to make a better one than Steven Spielberg’s original and best. Its just not possible. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t give it a go, sharks are such simple and single-minded creatures of death that they make for a fantastic visual villain. The Shallows is simplicity itself but its entertaining and fairly tense simplicity, and I still found myself punching the air here and there, although that might have been the fleas.

Someone who didn’t appreciate The Shallows quite as much as me was Phyllis the Pug who watched it intensely on my lap. She had no problem with a giant shark munching down on various Mexicans and a Hollywood starlet, but for some reason she got furious with a small seagull with a broken wing (which is stuck on the rock with Lively). This poor injured bird greatly infuriated Phyllis and she seemed to want it dead. I feel she was missing the point of the film, or maybe she knew better. Surely we’re not meant to be on the side of the shark?

 

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