Category Archives: Film Reviews

Death Spa 1989

I understand that there is a never ending desire for a good idea in Hollywood. And that that good idea will hopefully sell tickets by the bucketful. This is why an article in the New Yorker can become a A-List feature or a dance trend can become the next Step Up or Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Even a silly face on a phone text can be turned into The Emoji Movie. This must have been going through some deranged producer’s mind when they figured that the keep-fit trend of the early eighties needed some kind of filmic representation. They came up with Perfect. It was not perfect. John Travolta starred as a Rolling Stone journalist investigating Jamie Lee Curtis’ perfect gym addicted body. The film producers whispered in their stars’ ears the word ¨Oscar¨ but the only awards they went on to get that year were a bunch of Raspberries. Travolta didn’t act for another four years.

So after that folly it really is flummoxing as to why, oh indeed why, someone thought that what people really wanted to see,  after not giving a monkey’s about a big budget health freak studio movie, was a horror movie set in a gym where the building itself was the killer. This wasn´t even still at a time when keep-fit was particularly popular. Even 1985‘s Perfect was considered jumping on a bandwagon that had long since left (Jane Fonda’s incredibly successful workout tapes came out in 1981).

I don’t know why this is even bothering me. The film is called Death Spa. It is already doomed to an eternity of ridiculousness.

The film (for it is indeed a film, with a beginning, middle and end) begins with a crane shot of the gym in question. As the camera tilts down on the gaudy neon sign that reads Perfect Body Health Spa a number of the letters explode making it now read “d    eath Spa”. Amazing. A couple of things immediately spring to mind. Firstly, if we’re talking exploding neon signs and cameras on cranes then the film obviously had more money to spend than it undoubtedly deserved. And secondly, this gag is as clever as the film is ever going to get.

In fact Death Spa is quite well shot. Okay that´s not true. It’s been photographed with some thought. Unfortunately all those thoughts are terrible ones. The eighties did like its bright and garish colours and this movie embraces the yellows, pinks and royal blues with aplomb, especially with the excessive use of colour gels to light every scene in the most eye-gouging way possible. When computer rooms aren´t being lit like Margaret Thatcher’s knickers we are subjected to extensive dance scenes. Men in leg warmers and tiny tight shorts prance and leap about like they are auditioning for The Kids of Fame. Everyone gurns at the camera as if they are in a pop promo for Duran Duran rather than a horror movie. The opening, er, I’m going to call it a set piece but that´s being generous,  has the bouffant haired Laura dancing around the gym. She kicks and spins seemingly for the camera crew (she’s looking directly at the camera throughout) although she’s meant to be alone there. Once this musical number reaches its climax Laura jumps into the steam room, which is an odd thing to do after a sweaty work out,  and is promptly burnt to near death by chlorine sprayed out of the ceiling.

You better get used to this because their is a lot of death by spray in Death Spa. Whether its the sauna, showers or just a rouge hot water pipe people will die horribly and repetitively from this deadly health club. Mostly women, usually naked.

After Laura’s near fatal assault, two cops show up to investigate what the hell is going on. A woman was nearly killed from the burns she received and the best these police can come up with is this:

Sargent Stone: Does this suggest anything to you, Lieutenant?
Lieutenant Fletcher: Yes. I’ll have to ask my wife to start smoking in bed.

Tumble-weeds from hell can’t even be bothered to blow past.

These police are particularly incompetent. When they first arrive the manager, understandably suspicious as neither of them dress like cops, asks to see their badges. The male cop tries to pull out hisbadge but it gets caught in his long detective style rain coat, that’s fine says the manager without it even seeing it, the other cop doesn’t even try to show hers.

Anyway the main problem is that these sleuths are the moat tragically inept police LA can offer. The case is thus: the health spa is fully automated and run by one of those fancy lights and bleeping computers that only existed in movies back in the eighties.  But then various staff and members are being mutilated and murdered by faults in the machine. But no, says David, the architect and wizz behind this mechanised body trainer, there is no way in hell the machine could ever make a mistake. It would have to be reprogrammed to do that and the only person who has the access and knowledge to do such a thing is David himself.  Ergo it must be David who is doing it. He’s basically admitted it in his opening scene. However the cops don’t buy it. He’s suspicious yes, and he is the brother of Michael the manager’s dead wife and blames him for her death and wants him to fail because of it. So he’s got motivation. Still not enough for the force, its too obvious.

But it IS him! He barely even tries to hide it. He even pops round to see the now blind Laura to torment her whilst Michael is out. Okay yes, he is possessed by his dead sister Catherine (who is also his twin, natch*) who is probably more into the killing than he is, but there’s no red herring here. David is the murderer.

Talking of blind Laura there is an amazing sex scene involving her and Michael. And when I say amazing I mean awful. Michael has just brought her back to his gaff after the hospital and her eyes are bandaged with the hugest pads you can imagine and she is clearly in some pain. So to cheer her up Michael decides to cook her some asparagus and slowly dangle it into her mouth in the same way Mickey Rourke got Kim Basinger all hot and bothered with those jalapeños and honey in 9 1/2 Weeks. Its even lit all sexy like. But LAURA IS BLIND. She’s almost certainly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and even if she isn’t,  she has dirty great big bandages covering her eyes. No Asparagus,  no matter how well cooked it is,  can be a turn on when youve just been blinded with chlorine by an insane killer steam room.

Add to that as she can’t see her other senses have probably been heightened so her urine is going to smell even more disgusting than normal after eating asparagus. Also Michael makes multiple comments about how good she looks and nice it is to see her. Rub it in that she´s blind why don´t you,  you mullet-headed monster.

Anyway, more gym related death ensues. One woman who walks around the place in her bra and knickers (I belong to the Easy Gym on Oxford Street and it may be called easy but I have never seen a woman walking around in her underwear there) finds her self in a dark corner of the spa and is garrotted by a pipe of some nature. A chap is split in two by a computerised chest expander and I´m not even sure what you need the computer for in that scenario. Then a member looks in a mirror and the mirror cracks then explodes blowing her up in the process. None of these deaths makes any sense but its all topped by what happens to Lieutenant Fletcher with the police badge problem.

Towards the end of the film the weird shit really hits the fan. After multiple deaths, instead of closing the gym down to find out what is going on or just close it down for good for health and safety reasons, Michael decides instead to hold a great big party. Obviously the doors lock themselves Carrie-style and the whole place goes up in flames taking as many people as it can with it. Meanwhile David and/or Catherine is wandering around like a ghost or a Psycho wannabe (its never made clear which) dealing out dumb death left, right and centre. Poor old Fletcher gets it the worse. The walk in freezer behind the bar bursts open and icy air sucks the unsuspecting copper in. You´d think this would be a good thing as everyone else is burning to death in the inferno outside. However no. Fletcher is attacked by frozen kippers which leap at him and tear his throat out.

I know the old saying goes that no one sets out to make a bad movie but really? At what point do you not realise that killing one of your main characters with a frozen fish is a terrible idea?

Fortunately, the cast are well up to this nonsense. The actor playing Michael it seems was cast because he used to actually BE a manager of a health spa, rather than, say, an actor. There´s a dreadful English man who brings shame to our entire nation with his performance, and evil Catherine was so bad that they had to redub her with someone else´s voice. Obviously the dubbing is shockingly out of sync.

The most famous cast member at the time was Merritt Butrick who played Captain Kirk´s son in Star Trek´s 2 and 3. When that´s the biggest star you can muster you can tell that you´re script sucks even without having to read the title. Even Butrick is pretty lousy in it but then he was close to death when the film was being made (the poor guy died of AIDS in March of 1989) so maybe he had his mind on things other than whether he was possessed by his evil dead twin sister or not.

The script doesn´t help anyone at all with some risible dialogue like:

¨I´ve known some real pricks but you´re the king. Take it as a compliment.¨ I´m not sure Daniel Day-Lewis could make that line work.

Or when Catherine floats into the computer room the staff member guarding it is turned on when she takes off her dressing gown to reveal a very unrevealing nightie. ¨Mmm…¨ he says. ¨Nice arms¨.

Catherine is not impressed by this compliment and sucks his face off.

Don´t be fooled into thinking this is some wild gorefest though, a lot of the killings are difficult to see and poorly executed anyway, often hidden by bad wigs. The final shot is of a bloody and mangled dime-store wigged Catherine lying on the floor of the gym swearing revenge before her one remaining eyeball,  that is clearly a ping pong ball, explodes all over the lino.

Look, to be honest apart from all the endlessly stupid deaths, fire and David/Catherine´s nice arms this actually looked like it was quite a good party. There was an endless supply of booze, lots of people, all in leotards and if you liked terrible bass-slapping eighties music then you were laughing. More importantly Dawn of the Dead´s Ken Foree was there and I bet he could tell a story or two.

That party looked ace. And I bet it was more fun to film than it was to watch Death Spa. Despite what fun it sounds like above, it took me five goes to get through it all. I suffered through Death Spa so you don’t have to. And I don’t feel any healthier for it.

*I’m always seeing this “natch” word and had no idea what it meant. I looked it up, natch is short for naturally. I will never use it again.

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Orphan 2009

Somehow I had managed to not only miss Orphan upon its release (and the years since)  but also know nothing about it other than the twist at the end that some bastard told me at the time. For some reason killer children movies never get me banging at the door of the local multiplex on opening night. The idea just doesn´t excite me. But I really should change my prejudice against them because from The Exorcist to The Omen to Children of the Corn to Who Would Kill A Child? they are almost always a laugh-riot in a malicious and wicked kind of way. Orphan is no exception.

The main thing I failed to realise about this film is that it has one hell of a quality cast. The adopting father and mother are played by Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga both of whom are top quality thespians. Farmiga especially is an acting tour-de-force who probably gives awards worthy performances whilst she’s brushing her teeth in the morning. In 2009 when Orphan came out Farmiga was Oscar nominated for her stand out role in Up In The Air and rightly so. This does beg the question though: what the hell is she doing in this trash?

And trash Orphan is. But don’t let that put you off because its entertaining from start to finish trash. Well maybe not the start. Its a little slow to begin with and its like the film makers knew it. It is almost twenty minutes in before Farmiga and Sarsgaard reach the orphanage. Before that there is a lot of back story which, whilst helpful for developing the characters and exposing their weaknesses to be exploited later on, rob the story of its energy. As if to compensate for this there are  jump scares which don’t fit in at all with the narrative: for example Farmiga is looking in the mirror and then Sarsgaard appears behind her, there is a loud orchestral burst of shock music… Why? No one is being stalked, haunted or threatened yet?

Not to worry, the moment Isabelle Fuhrman appears as creepy old-fashioned (literally, she wears fashion from the 19th century) child Esther the story picks up and gets on with itself. Esther may charm her dumb adoptive parents initially but she doesn’t waste much time before breaking a potential bully´s leg, beating someone to death with the sharp end of a hammer and threatening to cut her new brother´s bollocks off. In fact Farmiga and Sarsgaard’s natural children take about five minutes to work out that something is awry with Evil Esther. Farmiga gets suspicious not long after later but poor old sap Sarsgaard never works it out until about a second before it´s too late.

Peter Sarsgaard’s character is surely one of the stupidest in cinematic history. For the first hour his entire character is thus: I’m super, super horny, why don’t we have sex? There is nothing else to him at all. Farmiga is upset about a nightmare she had about her still born child. Her husband’s answer? Why don’t we hump? He’s talking to one of the local soccer mums who needs “a hand with a heavy chair” – sexy times! Farmiga thinks that Esther might be disturbed – let’s have sex in the kitchen where our new adopted child, who is fucked up anyway, can walk in on us doing it doggy style against the centre island. “Come on Vera, it will be exciting. For fuck´s sake Peter, stop thinking with your pecker. After all this it’s a blessed relief when he rejects Esther’s incredibly uncomfortable moves on him.

(in the above picture Vera Farmiga is clearly upset whilst Peter Sarsgaard is using her vulnerability to try to take her roughly from behind. You will be pleased to hear he fails)

When Sarsgaard does finally do something other than try to get laid it’s all the wrong thing. Farmiga starts expressing first some doubts and then outright hatred of Esther, so her husband, without question, takes the weird kid he’s known for three weeks side EVERY SINGLE TIME. Never mind the fact that a nun from the orphanage is murdered at the end of their road, thirty seconds after expressing grave concerns about Esther’s history and sanity. And never mind that his children are clearly in abject fear of their new sister. Dad’s on Team Esther all the way. Obviously Esther is manipulating him, but even then you think he would at least try to entertain the notion that his wife might be correct. Instead he makes Farmiga see to her shrink, threatens to leave her and take the kids, and finally gets her sedated and locked up in a hospital.

Everything Sarsgaard’s character does is wrong and foolish, and only makes matters ten times worse for himself and his family. If there is a moral to this story (other than don’t adopt weird kids from Russia who dress like a Victorian´s nightmare) then it is thus: husbands, listen to your wives, they are always right.

Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther defies her young age by clearly having a whale of a time being revolting, and maybe that is they key as to why all of the cast signed up to this barmy film in the first place. There is never any doubt, for the audience at least, that Esther is a bad, bad kid and director Jaume Collet-Serra gets huge mileage out of her villainy. Of course a small, murderous child is, in theory, no real threat to a grown adult. But the dedication of Farmiga, Sarsgaard, the marvellous C.C.H. Pounder (as the nun) and the child actors that makes Orphan a lot more entertaining than it really ought to be. Maybe that´s why Farmiga and Sarsgaard worked on this after all, the fun factor was just too hard to resist.

You´ll have fun watching it too. Just don´t let anyone tell you the end. Bastard…

Happy Death Day 2017

The eighties brought about the high concept movie with such nonsense as Schwarzenegger and Delete Vito as Twins or Eddie Murphy saving the world and The Golden Child or Tom Cruise making a Cocktail* ( obviously the stakes varied wildly from concept to concept). A lot of these films don’t stand up to much critical evaluation nowadays because as the idea was so strong, the film makers didn’t feel that you needed a proper script to back up their amazing selling point. The best example of this is probably Look Who’s Talking. It’s high concept was a baby can talk and sounds like an old man, well, Bruce Willis which is the same thing. Oh, how we laughed when washed up has-been John Travolta (but soon to return to mega stardom before becoming a washed up old has-been again) shared a joke about a woman’s breasts with said baby – “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” “Mmm…” replied Baby Willis, “lunch”. This was before we realised that this was the only joke in the entire movie.

The ultimate high concept movie surely had to be Groundhog Day: Bill Murray is destined to repeat the same day over and over again until he learns some life lessons. The difference between this high concept movie and the rest of them was that the script bothered to not only fully exploit it’s terrific idea to the full, but also add enough heart and soul to the proceedings that it became an instant classic. It’s no wonder it never got ripped off or repeated much. It was so perfect the first time round there was no point in trying to better it.

Jump forward twenty odd years later where nothing is sacred any more and there have now been three additional versions of Groundhog Day: a sci-fi blockbuster (Edge of Tomorrow) a Netflix comedy with a man always waking up naked (Naked, shite) and a slasher movie from Blumhouse… which is surprisingly not shite. In fact its really rather good…

Things, seemingly, do not start well. You know one of the classic tropes of the slasher is the cheerleader archetypal bitch character whom all the girls hate and all the guys want to hate but also fancy? Yeah well she is the lead character, bizarrely names Tree and played with gumption by Jessica Rothe. No one wants to watch a movie where that kind of character is the one you’re meant to support. Tree, waking up in bed with a hangover and a sweet lad called Carter that she treats like a piece of dirt on someone else’s shoe, is not some one you will like.

Fortunately, just like all of these mean girls in horror movies it isn’t long before she is dispatched by a masked killer. Phew. But then she wakes up again with the hangover and and again with sweet Carter. The day plays out much the same and,  whilst avoiding the previous grisly fate, it ain´t long before she buys the big one again. Hey, we’ve all seen Groundhog Day, you know the drill.

What makes Happy Death Day work so well is threefold – well apart from being excellently shot, directed and edited, which almost goes without saying with a Blumhouse production – they really know how to stretch a meagre budget. Anyway…

1) The who done it? mystery is surprisingly compelling. So even if you were to think that there were one too many “days” (and you’d be mad to as each death is often a surprise and certainly a joy… if you can call death joyful) then the question as to who the hell is murdering Tree over and over is a good one. Unusually I managed to guess who it was and I’m usually as thick as a pig about such things. May (who is far smarter than me) on the other hand didn’t see it coming at all so I was just lucky I guess.

2) It’s a funny, and fun film. Let’s face it, the idea of waking up on the same day again and again is prime comedy material and Happy Death Day knows this (unlike Naked sadly). So there are a lot of moments for Tree can exploit her knowledge for comedy effect. Also Tree may be a nasty piece of work but by heck she’s a funny nasty piece of work.

3) The characters, whilst often being clichés (the sweet dude, the gay jock and of course our bitchy heroine) are really well defined and performed.  Carter, played by Israel Boussard, really is a sweet, charming guy who Tree is lucky to have met. And Tree herself is just the best. Sure we hate her nasty persona in a Barbie body at the beginning of the film, but she grows as a human being as her repeated days progress, to the point where by the end she’s become the final girl you want to win, to beat the baby-masked psycho.

I think it was director George Roy Hill (who made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid amongst others) who said that ¨if you have a good script and a good cast then the film virtually makes itself.¨** Now that is in no way to diminish director Christopher Landon or any of the rest of the crew but the three points above do fall directly under Hill’s quote. Sure Happy Death Day has taken the Groundhog Day template, but it has run with it using slasher tropes to create a fun and thrilling  horror screenplay with a cast and characters you can support and get behind, even if you do find yourself rooting for someone called Tree…

* Cocktail was, weirdly, was one of my later mother’s two favourite films. The other was Pretty In Pink because she had a rather big crush on Andrew McCarthy. I never found out if she also fancied Tom Cruise. Or maybe I did and blocked it out.

** I can´t find that quote anywhere so I might have made it up.

47 Meters Down 2017

I´d better admit right from the get go that for about eleven years I had a recurring dream where I was being eaten alive by a shark. Sometimes this varied to an alligator but the upshot is that I get very worked up about big water-based monsters trying to eat people. I recently came back from my honeymoon in New Orleans with the even more fabulous than ever May and whilst I was out there, for a brief moment, I thought not only were my dreams coming true (ie marrying May) but that my nightmares were to. You see we went on a boat trip down the bayou and I was, for one brief moment, convinced I was going to be eaten by a local ´gator. As it turned out it was too late in the year for most Alligator´s who had given up and gone into hibernation. The only ones we saw would have barely made a couple of handbags let alone be large enough to fit a grown man like myself inside their bellies.

Anyway, what I am saying is that I am the perfect audience for shark/alligator/piranha* movies so I was well up for a bit of underwater monster munching. Unfortunately 47 Meters Down is not well up for delivering the thrills I was looking for. For a while it looked like it could but then someone clearly decided that things were going too well so thought ¨fuck it, lets just ruin this shark flick!¨ and lobbed a head-slappingly awful ending onto it.

Okay let´s mix up our large animals and get the elephant in the room out of the way. I admire anyone who wants to make a stab at a decent shark movie because Jaws is a thing that happened. That movie, apart from creating the modern blockbuster, apart from being an incredible bit of entertainment and apart from being a showcase to three of the greatest male performances inside a small boat, is also the be all and all in shark movies. I know there was a glut of rip-offs following its success (with everything from killer whales to octopuses to barracudas for all that is holy) but really why did they bother? (okay for the money). Jaws was perfect as it was, everything else was always going to be inferior.

Even forty odd years later Jaws is still the number one big water monster movie, so if you want to do another one you better do something different.

So that is exactly what writer/director Johannes Roberts has done. We follow two sisters (Mandy Moore and Claire Holt) on their trip down Mexico way where they end up in a shark cage to get a few thrills from seeing our razor toothed friends close up. Things go horribly wrong when the cable holding their cage snaps and they plummet a title-making 47 Meters Down to the bottom of the ocean. Here they are running out of air and surrounded by sharks. Its a great premise if handled well. And handled well it is. Roberts wisely keeps the action firmly with the two girls, any attempt by the boating crew to rescue them is kept agonisingly vague and distant. The upshot of this is that despite the vastness of the sea we as an audience feel incredibly claustrophobic – the action is kept close up and is clearly shot under water adding to the authenticity. Although the proceeding events are small – trying to contact the surface, getting fresh air – we are in such a macrocosm of two people trying to survive that every action is incredibly intense.

It helps that the two girls are very likeable. Moore in particular excels at coming across as very, very frightened of the situation she is in (and that´s before she even puts her wet suit on) and as she gets more and more fearful so do we. It also helps that they are suited up with very large face masks so we can see their faces properly. If they had been wearing the classic goggles and mouth piece  most divers wear we wouldn´t have been able to see the fear in their eyes, let alone be able to say anything.

47 Meters Down, up to a point, is very tightly made. The sharks are kept to a minimum although their presence is always  felt out in the darkness. When they do show up they look great and more realistic than say last years The Shallows, certainly more realistic than Bruce from Jaws, but I guess that´s a given. Keeping the action deep under water and close to the actors adds to the danger and threat and kept me on the edge of my seat. In fact I was just thinking that this might be a great shark movie when it all went horribly, horribly wrong…

Look, I´m not the film maker here. I didn´t write the story or get out to Mexico (or a swimming pool or whatever) to shoot the damn thing. But surely, SURELY, someone must have looked at the ending and gone – guys what are you doing??!!?

Film making is a funny old game. I was working on a feature myself a few years ago and the script (by someone else) was by and large a pretty fine piece of work. However the ending was dreadful to the point of being almost none existent. Try as I might I could not get anyone to see this. They were all so caught up in how to make the film that they didn´t stop to think about whether what they were making was any good.

Is this what happened here? I don´t know**, but I went from ¨Yes!!¨ to literally chucking one of my new Christmas slippers at the screen. Skip the next paragraph if you don´t want to know what happens because I am gonna rant and rave like a loon and spoilers be damned.

So (last SPOLIER chance)… Mandy Moore manages to rescue her sister from the clutches of doom and swim the pair of them up to the surface. It is a nail-biting moment as they surface and are tantalisingly close to the boat when more sharks attack. Fortunately by this point Moore is in big sister protection mode and gouges the main shark´s eyeball out. Its a great, but small, victory. Back on the boat everything seems just fine, I mean there´s a lot of blood but it looks like our girls will survive… but then Moore starts tripping out and we realise she hasn´t done anything for the last half hour but is in fact still at the bottom of the ocean. She´s been hallucinating the whole rescue. Essentially it was all a dream. Its the hokiest load of old shit there is in the story telling cliché bible.  So this means what? The last half hour was a dream so it was basically a waste of time? A waste of time for the audience certainly. Sure, some might say that its not just an only-a-dream  moment it was a rug pull for the viewer, so it was good after all. Okay, maybe but this has already been done exactly the same in the far superior The Descent and that was pretty annoying too. Why Roberts? Why did you do this? Oh well…

Anyway, there you go. I guess you could stop the film at about 85 minutes in and it would be perfectly fine, good even. Or you could just not bother 47 Meters Down at all and just watch Jaws again. Good idea I reckon.

*I´ve never actually had a piranha based nightmare but I didn´t want to leave the poor little fellas out. They have a hard enough time as it is, what with all those poor teeth and dreadful dental insurance.

** I´ve just read an interview with the director. Apparently he had to fight for that ending. So there were people saying ¨hey Roberts, maybe we could do something a bit better¨ and he must have been ¨no! I have a vision. I have put my heart and soul into this and now I must burn it to the ground!¨

 

Super Dark Times 2017

2017 has certainly been the year of the nostalgic teenage horror movie. Stepehn King´s It and season 2 of Stranger Things have been the big hitters but now there is also Super Dark Times. It is more grounded in realism but it still captures the awful, perilous period of youth where childhood slips away to be replaced by adulthood and the threat of violence.

Unlike the other eighties based productions Super Dark Times is set in the 1990s. Gone are the hilarious clothes and fun movie references to Ghostbusters, instead nineties up state New York is a cold and bleak place to have your childhood. There are numerous references to the time and place – the teenagers wear baggy clothes, play crappy PC games like Minefield and everyone feels like they have been to Kurt Cobain´s stylist (not that he ever had one!) – but the only fun moment reflecting this is when one character talks about beating himself off to Jamie Leigh Curtis strip scene in the borderline misogynist True Lies.

Things start off still with a certain nostalgic gleam though – not for the cultural references but with the perfect way it captures wasted, and wasting, youth. Our main characters are Zach and Josh, two losers whose struggle with their lowly position at school but counter it with the strong friendship they have between them. The early part of the film is an absolute joy as we follow Zach and Josh and their hopes and dreams – which mostly amount to wanting to get laid of course. Even in these fun moments thoughthere is a desperate sadness about this. You can tell that something awful is going to happen, it is hiding just out of sight, but this is not an effects laden roller coaster ride but something much more tragic and real. These boys small lives, and how little experience they have in it, is perfectly reflected in a story one of them says about seeing a girl spill glue all over her hands: ¨Its the most erotic thing I´ve ever seen in my life¨ he says. Its funny but dreadfully sad: a short life of small events about to be turned upside down.

These films about youth really live or die by the casting. When Stranger Things first started people couldn´t believe how great the kid actors were in it, then Stephen King´s It knocked everyone sideways with the best ensemble of children since Stand By Me (admittedly with one of the children from Stranger Things but then he played Richie to perfection so no one was complaining). Picking up Super Dark Times I got to wondering if lightening could strike thrice but fortunately the cast here is great all round. This is especially true of Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan as the two leads. They come across as believable and awkward friends mulling about wasting their time, waiting for something to happen. They have a genuine chemistry which is sweet and likeable, well to start with anyway. At first they are just like children (although we´re talking a little older than the It/Stranger Things crowd) but when an event spirals out of control it is like you can see the sheen of innocence just drop off their faces. The rest of the cast is equally as good although when we first met Max Talisman as Daryl I wasn´t sure what he was doing – he hilariously shouts all his lines which is a little jarring to start with, compared to the quieter performances around him, but it perfectly suits his crazy character.

The film also looks fantastic. Partly due to the cold autumnal setting, it has a much more grounded feel to it, but that doesn´t mean that it isn´t beautiful. There is once scene in particular which is shot up a hill with the golden sun setting in the background. It isn´t a coincidence that its at this moment that the terrible main event occurs – the sun is setting on the day but also on their happy (ish) lives too. Even the aforementioned gluey hands moment looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Eli Born has done a terrific job here, let´s hope he goes far.

Clearly a personal project of the film makers (hopefully not totally autobiographical) Super Dark Times perfectly captures the mood and despair of misspent youth. Although the title almost suggests a fun romp the emphasis is mostly on the middle word, but don´t let that put you off. This is a beautifully made work which may be set in someone else´s past but is something we can relate to in our present.

 

Prevenge 2016

 

It’s hard out there for actors. I know we all think of the Hollywood stars swanning about in their luxury trailers with personal trainers as best mates, but that is a tiny decimal point of a percentage of thespians. The rest of them are caught in a relentless series of auditions, or no auditions and pressure to give up their dreams for a real job.

It must be even more galling to make a film (Sightseers) that is a critical hit, a commercial one (well… for Britain anyway) and everyone to say how amazing you are in it, only to find yourself back on the unemployment pile. This must be even worse if you are there because you have committed the cardinal sin of being a pregnant woman.

This is where, it seems, the great Alice Lowe found herself. By all accounts she couldn’t get a single role due to her pregnancy. I guess she, like everyone else, has to pay the bills. So pregnant or not, she needed some work, even more so if she’s having a baby. But with no work forthcoming she took the only logical step and wrote a film for herself to perform in. It’s much like when Sylvester Stallone took it into his own hands to make Rocky to star in, but instead of an uplifting working class guy makes good, in Prevenge we have heavily pregnant and probably bonkers woman gets revenge on the killers of the father of her child. Okay, unlike Rocky, Prevenge is far too leftfield to win any Oscars. But it is extremely good.

Lowe plays Ruth, a clearly disturbed and pregnant woman whose partner has died in a supposed climbing accident. Ruth believes that it was no accident at all, and that the rest of the group purposefully cut the rope that lead to his untimely death. The reason she believes this is because her unborn fetus is telling her so. A sweaty, creepy little voice talks to her from her swollen belly, directing her to exact this vengeance on its father’s murderers. Whilst Ruth is (probably) mad as a hatter – veering between unstably shaking and being a cold killer at a moment’s notice, she is also a great actor herself. She assumes various personalities to trap her victims before bloodily dispatching them. Each of these murders are like little vignettes. Lowe as Ruth becomes multiple characters created to gain the trust of her intended victims so she can isolate them before finishing them off. This technique of storytelling is incredibly clever in such a small, low budget movie: it keeps the story entertaining with each new character driving the plot moving forward. Most slasher movies that take the point of view of the murderer (rather than the victims) tend to be incredibly morbid and depressing affairs – Prevenge is quite the opposite. It’s frequently hilarious and never less than enjoyable, albeit in a tense and disturbing manner.

At the time of watching it I thought that the effects were pretty good for a low budget British production, especially the pregnant belly effect. But good god, that’s no effect! That’s Alice Lowe being eight months pregnant throughout the shoot. No wonder it looks so real, it is! Even more remarkable is the fact that Lowe also directed the film. Now I’ve directed a few shorts in my time and as brilliant and rewarding as it is, directing is also one of the most all consuming and stress inducing things a human can go through… except probably being pregnant. How Lowe managed this feat is beyond me. Even getting a coherent finished movie would be a big enough leap as it is, the fact that Prevenge is genuinely great is even more mind boggling.

A little bit of research into the making of the film shows that Lowe shot it over eight days with three extra days for pick ups. This is about the length of time Asylum spend on their tragic shark movies, but this is a whole different league. Lowe clearly worked within very defined rules to make her movie. As she is also the star she didn’t have to worry about getting her lead actor on set everyday. As the rest of the cast only appear for a few scenes at a time I guess she had each actor perform on each of the main days shoots (there are seven potential victims and a midwife) so she was able to get great character actors like Kate Dickie (Red Road, The Witch, Prometheus) as well as Gemma Whelan from Game of Thrones (in the funniest scene of the film). The different characters and locations give the film a bigger sense of scale than it really is. It’s also a lesson on how to make the most out of very limited resources. Most f all it’s an inspiration to all aspiring filmmakers.

It’s also a lot just a lot of fun. Lowe is such a likeable performer that even in her most disturbed moments you are rooting for her to get her prevenge (surely a word bound to enter the Oxford English Dictionary before the year is out). However with the creepy unborn baby talking to her from her belly (like a twisted version of the talking dog in Summer of Sam) the film manages to stride over the twin problems of being funny but also dark and bleak. As what we really are dealing with here is a character with a severely damaged personality (or multiple personalities?) it’s a miracle that Prevenge works on one level as a straight horror, let alone as a character piece, a comedy, a psychological thriller and more. It’s even more of a miracle that such a fine film could be made so quickly but so well under such circumstances. Let’s hope Lowe now gets plenty of work offers, pregnant or otherwise.

 

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.