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Much Better Than Expected
This hurts to say Eli Roth is no longer a 'go-to' name for me in horror. Ouch. Go back a decade ago and I didn't think that possible. I was present when he brought Cabin Fever (2002) to Toronto and again in 2005 when he introduced his Canadian audience to Hostel. I met Eli a few times since and I think his knowledge and enthusiasm for horror is outstanding.
But since 2007, Eli has focused himself more on acting (Inglorious Basterds) and producing (The Last Exorcism). Since then, the quality of the projects that bear his name on the film's one sheet has been sub-par. The Man With the Iron Fists (2012), The Last Exorcism II (2013) and The Sacrament (2013) were all throwaway entries on an ever expanding filmography. And don't even get us started on Netflix's timewaster series Hemlock Grove.
So when I saw the DVD cover for Clown with Eli Roth's name above the title, it was hardly the seven letters in the actor/producer's name that had me walking out of the market with the disc under my forearm.
Clown has an intriguing premise. A demon possesses a clown suit and morphs anyone who dons the outfit into killer that preys particularly, yet not exclusively, on children. Andy Powers plays Kent, the unlucky son-of-a-bitch that adorns the found garment to appease his son Jack who is awaiting a cancelled clown at his backyard birthday party. But after applying the suit and make-up, Kent finds the outfit impossible to remove. He also finds an increasing appetite that is appeased when a child is devoured while straying from his campgrounds.
Kent attempts to remove himself from his family life and seclude himself to where he may be a lesser threat to those around him. But as the demon begins to take hold, Kent's cravings for violence extended outside his given will and even the help of someone who has history with the suit, Karlsson played by the always reliable Peter Stormare, might not be enough to help stop the demon's rampage on the youth of his stalked community.
I was intrigued by the idea behind Christopher D. Ford and Jon Watts' screenplay and the idea did feel fresh and at times inspired. Jon Watts does double duty behind the camera and executes the fine line of dealing with a serial killer of children with diplomacy. But it's the diplomacy that grounds the film from really taking flight. Unfortunately, the kills are largely off-screen with only the bloody after affects represented after the deed is completed. I am sure this was done to keep censors edit happy but if the gore was to match say, Eli Roth's Hostel II, in this format, we might be talking about Clown being the horror movie to see if 2015. A particular chapter where our morphing demon ends up at a ChuckeCheese was a particular waste of a fantastic opportunity to showcase unmuted violence in an extraordinary setting.
Still, Clown was an above average horror film for its ilk. It follows some of the horror film handbook 'To Do's' that are as aggravating as they are accepted, but there is enough freshness and commitment to the overall goal to keep Clown's head above the recommendation waters.
And now back to Mr. Roth. Although Clown is hardly Silence of the Lambs it does provide a definite upswing on the Roth career chart that was beginning to resemble my investments circa 2009. Let's hope the momentum continues and I can update the first sentence of this review in short time.
The Voices (2014)
Great Dark Comedy
Jerry is your typical next door neighbor type. That is, if you next door neighbor hears voices through his two pets which lead him to homicidal tendencies. Like I said your typical next door neighbor type.
Played with simplistic precision by actor Ryan Reynolds, Jerry is not without issues stemming from his youth. Via flashbacks we learn of an encounter with his mother that has seemingly scarred Jerry into his adult life. Still, with the help of prescription drugs via his psychiatrist (played by Academy Award nominee Jackie Weaver), Jerry is able to adapt as best he can into society and has recently acquired work at a local factory where he falls for co-workers Fiona (Gemma Arterton) and soon later, Lisa (Anna Kendrick).
Unfortunately, the two women thrust into Jerry's lives have no inclination that Jerry has psychotic snaps and routinely talks to his two pets a cat named Mr. Whiskers and a dog named Bosco. Any pet owner will confess that talking to their pets is not uncommon, but Jerry's pets talk back and give him advice particularly on how to act with his new friends. It is Mr. Whiskers that is the homicidal voice of the two. The foul mouthed feline encourages Jerry to act violently after an accident leaves Fiona dead in a remote area of forest and upon advice from his four pawed pet, Jerry dismembers the body leaving the head in his refrigerator. The severed head also talks to Jerry and it's longing for companionship amongst the milk and dairy products of the top shelf prompt Jerry to further his homicidal instincts which lead to some dark comic moments that are saturated with a solemn sadness.
Reynolds relishes the role (side note: how can Reynolds continue to look like he is fresh out of high school?) with the entire premise landing on his shoulders. Play it too much like Van Wilder and the film falls into groan-worthy territory. Play it too serious and the film would be an uneven mix of Patrick Bateman meeting Milo & Otis. But Reynolds hits his target and the direction of Marjane Satrapi allows the film to enter zones of discomfort but brings things back to the heart of Jerry which is conflicted and terribly confused.
There are not enough dark comedies surrounding head chopping serial killers so The Voices was a treat outside of the mediocrity that crams our viewing schedule. Funny, charming, bloody and sad all wrapped up in one sickly bow.
Stylish but Sluggish
In my 5 decades of enjoying film I thought that I had seen every genre possible. Musicals, horror, horror musicals, foreign films, cult films and independent all. I thought all my bases were covered. But as I sat at the Bell Lightbox Theatre for a screening of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I was quick to realize that this was the first Iranian black and white vampire film to hit my filmography resume.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night comes courtesy of writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour who took her 2011 short of the same name and stretched it into a feature film. A Girl Walks Home at Night focuses on a young music-loving female vampire (Sheila Vand) who stalks the streets of Bad City casually picking her prey. On a collision course to intersect story lines is Arash (Arash Marandi), a young man with a prized car who spends his days caring for his heroin addicted father (Marshall Manesh). Arash and our vampire antagonist first meet after she feasts on a local drug dealer, Saeed (Dominic Rains). Saeed supplied Arash's father with the drugs that kept him incapacitated and the family debt results in Saeed leaving with Arash's cherished car. When Arash heads to Saeed's home in an attempt to reclaim his vehicle he finds Saeed bloodied and dead with a briefcase full of drugs and money left untouched on the table. Arash takes the briefcase and the new found fortune commences a character arc that will eventually lead Arash to meeting the vampire girl under a street lamp after a costume party.
The two leads spark up an unlikely relationship with the girl hiding her vampire-ism from Arash as the non-sexual bond between the two intensifies. But when Arash's father becomes a victim, things become complicated and life-altering decisions are made in its wake.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is soft horror. Shot in glorious black and white there are some scenes of blood and a few seconds of violence, but the film is primarily rooted in the characters and Ana Lily Amipour masterfully weaves the tale through familiar ground without losing to the temptations of stereotypical checklist horror positions. The overall body count is low and there is no abundance of secondary characters and sub-plots to deviate from the original story.
Amipour uses a wide range of music from multiple genres which fit seamlessly into the story as if she was tutored on the importance of music in film by Quentin Tarantino. Some exceptional lighting used for shading and shadows made A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night an intriguing watch but not necessarily an important one. The film is slow. Maybe too slow. And the characters are interesting but not involving. We appreciated the style, but wished for there to be more meat on the bone to keep us from having to focus on the lighting and music to pull A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night from meritocracy. Style took the film as far as it could but the lack of anything truly original kept us from wanting anything more once the screen finally faded to black.
Let Us Prey (2014)
Nice Surprise Hit of the Festival
When director Brian O'Malley introduced his new film, Let Us Prey, via a prerecording in front of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival he informed us that his intention was to make a timeless horror classic. To accomplish this, he set on out to deliver a film that could not be dated (watching Let Us Prey ten years from now and there is nothing in the fashion, look or feel of the film that would immediately reference 2014) and that had a synthesizer styled score reminiscent of the great John Carpenter films of the 1970's and 80's. Check and check.
Let Us Prey stars Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) as Six, a mysterious drifter who is hit by a vehicle driven by Caesar (Brian Vernel) on a quiet town road. Casear is immediately taken into custody by first-day-on-the-job Constable Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh), but Cunningham's Six character cryptically disappears. It is while at the police station we are introduced to the remainder of the cast which includes a Sargent, two Constables that are lustfully engaged, a wife beating prisoner and a doctor who is called to assist when Six suddenly appears at the front door of the station.
The veteran Constables and Sargent do not immediately warm up to the by-the-book newbie in Rachel, but their personal feelings towards her routine are quickly swept to the side once Six begins to instigate mayhem in the prison taking over the minds and souls of all those with a dark past to hide. And this is when the fun really starts.
Each character shows a history of violence in their backstories from the simple (hit and run) to the extreme (mass murderer) and when a prior transgression is revealed, Six is there to ensure their life pays for their wrongdoing.
With a backdrop of a fantastic musical score (as promised) there are fights, shootings, beatings, murders and attempted murders as things at the station escalate quickly and deadly for all those involved.
Cunningham is a standout and plays the mysterious Six with devilish glee. The film hinges on Cunningham's character and the well-trained thespian delivers the goods with a Clint Eastwood cool. Pollyanna McIntosh is equal to the task as the freshman fish-out-of-water new Constable. She is equally beautiful and tough and McIntosh walks this line with the ease of a veteran.
The story goes a bit off the rails towards the end as some of the character's revealed background stories and subsequent actions are a bit 'out there'. But it is a means to an end to heighten the violence and give the audience the good time expected from the action/horror intention.
Let Us Prey was a surprise delight and the perfect way to begin winding down the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. It was violent and fun and the ending opened the door to a multitude of possibilities and, hopefully, sequels.
Brilliant. Thought-provoking mind bending brilliance.
Coming under the radar and screening on Tuesday night as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival schedule, Predestination stars Ethan Hawke (Sinister) in a film that caught us off guard and sent us home with the reality of just witnessing one of the best films of the year.
Ethan Hawke plays a character without name who is a time-travelling agent for a secret agency that uses their ability to transport to specific dates as an opportunity to stop crime. Hawkes character (known as The Bartender) is on the tail end of his career. And on his final assignment, he is tasked with stopping the "Fizzle Bomber", a terrorist that exploded a bomb in New York City in 1975 that killed over 11,000 citizens. The bartender had a chance to stop the bomber once before but failed and now after a recuperating after his final jump, he jumps from 1960's through the 70's, 80's and 90's to achieve his final objective.
The time travel machine used to jump is basic and brilliant in its simplicity a violin case where the adjustment of the numbered and lettered locking mechanism determines the date to which one will travel. It is during an early jump that Hawkes character finds himself in the 1960's acting as a bartender in a small dive bar. It's here where he meets the character played by Sarah Snook (again, no name is given for the character just the description "The Unmarried Mother"). The two main characters begin a conversation that is part Tarantino part Mamet in its delivery and genius. The Unmarried Mother begins to weave a tale so unbelievable that it's mesmerizing to hear it unravel. The bartender does not seem as overly surprised at the details and at the conclusion of the anguishing story, he offers the Unmarried Mother an opportunity to go back in time to face the person which caused her such grief.
The time jump of the two characters sets the timeline path for a story that goes in directions that will be completely unseen. By the time the Unmarried Mother meets her oppressor and the Bartender confronts the Fizzle Bomber the directing duo of the of Spierig Brothers (Peter and Michael) have laid out a complex plot of intersecting stories best described as a "snake eating its own tail." Ethan Hawke has worked with the Spierig Brothers before with 2009's Daybreakers which this reviewer thought was a well above average tale of vampires in a futuristic world. But with Predestination the collaborative efforts of the brothers and Hawke have created a brilliant time travel science fiction film that betters Rian Johnson's Looper in its vision and execution.
Predestination is a movie where washroom breaks are not recommended. Every detail of the story circles back to the wonderful final reveal. It's a film that commands attention and then rewards the viewer for the courtesy.
When the year finally comes to a close, we will have screened over 200 films released in 2014. Predestination is sure to be on our list of Top 10 when the tallies are constructed.
Open Windows (2014)
Complex and demanding attention
Our little Frodo is becoming quite the horror icon. Actor Elijah Wood might always be first associated with his role as the hobbit in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his dabbles in the horror genre should not be overlooked. After playing a serial killer in 2012's Maniac remake, Wood has also lent his talents to the thriller Grand Piano, the indie horror Cooties and presently as lead in Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows.
Spanish director Vigalondo is best known for his brilliant Timecrimes (2007) and it has been 6 (too) long years since his last feature. With Open Windows, Vigalondo casts Elijah Wood as Nick Chambers who wins a contest to have dinner with his favorite celebrity, Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). But when Jill seemingly cancels the date, a mysterious man by the name of Chord (Neil Maskell) contacts Nick and offers promises and ideas on how Nick salvage his trip to Austin and get close to his idol. Nick is too naïve to realize he is being used as a pawn in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game that is seen entirely through technology devices such as computers and camera screens. Nick follows Chord's orders and questions motives in necessary situations. But when Nick gets involved so deep that walking away from Chord's demands would lead to incarceration or worse, Nick has to devise his own plan to save both himself and Jill from the villains maniacal plans.
Open Windows is a complex thriller that demands your attention from start to finish. Answers to questions posed by the enigma of a plot are not spoon fed to the audience and those that go to movies to see talking transformer cars wreak havoc on our cities will be challenged to keep up with the overlapping story developments on display in Open Windows.
With the entire movie having been presented through the eyes of camera lenses and computer screens, Open Windows offers as unique a filmmaking experience you can find this year. With multiple windows opened on a screen there are plenty of things to watch and catch as things unfold and we can't imagine the complexity of post-production putting the pieces together.
Elijah Wood continues to show his versatility and although Sasha Grey does nothing to convince us that she is the next Meryl Streep she isn't a distraction either. Some of the other voice overs are less convincing in their conveyance of stress or urgency but again, the plot is thick enough that hanging on such trivial sidebars is a futile adventure.
Open Windows ends up being a two-viewing necessity. You might not understand everything or follow all plot points on the first go. But upon a repeat viewing, I am sure that Open Windows will serve itself as an adult and taut thriller that zig zags in unexpected directions until the curtains close.
Easy to chew, hard to swallow
Zombies, zombies, zombies. They're everywhere. The Walking Dead is the highest rated television program. My Netflix queue and DVD wait list is saturated with zombie genre features. And as far as I can tell from the parents to which I converse about this year's Halloween, zombies seem to be a costume of choice for the zealous trick-or-treaters.
Excuse the expression, but the genre has been done to death. Walking zombies, running zombies, brain eating zombies, flesh eating zombies doesn't seem to matter what exact type of undead human hunting beings they are anymore. And I am simply bored of the buggers.
Then along comes a title such as Zombeavers. Yes, Zombeavers. Simply put, zombie beavers. The idea had me intrigued. And where I would normally pass on a zombie screening or roll my eyes before the first kill, this comedy/horror had me charmed.
Screening at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, director Jordan Rubin pre-taped an intro giving us a glimpse into the mind that helped write this zombie abortion. Rubin informed the audience that he had previously worked a comedy club in Toronto and that quickly helped set the stage for the feature this was a film that was not going to take itself seriously. Not one bit.
As Zombeavers start, we get the uninspired reason behind the zomification of the semi-aquatic rodent. A steel barrel of a toxic chemical is thrust from truck and lands in the water where it travels down the rapids until it is punctured while washed up on a beaver's dam.
Cut then to our characters. They have names, but who cares. Their job is to provide bits of jibber-jabber dialogue and show some tits and ass until such time as the story can work a coherent way for the zombeavers to attack the homo sapiens whether on land or in the water.
Of course, the zombeaver attacks are of Corman quality. There is some charm in seeing hand puppets and the odd animatronic in place of the all too common CGI effects and it's the Muppet Show simplicity that leads to most of Zombeavers' charisma.
When the zombeavers are not front and centre and the film relies on its character development it struggles to keep things interesting. More of the humor misses the target than hits the bullseye and the characters are largely stereotypical following the footsteps of stereotypical horror film victims. We did like certain visuals such as the Whack-a-Beaver scene and a particular distraction used by the humans to aide in their attempt to rescue themselves from a lake water raft drew some good responses from the audience. Unfortunately most of the humor derived from the dialogue seemed lost on the ripe hip screeners in attendance.
I would suggest that Zombeavers is a film best viewed with a large accepting audience. Much like Monster Brawl, if pitted armrest to armrest with a packed house the overall reactions may help bridge the moments where you just might not happen to click with what is happening on screen. We found ourselves in such a boat a few times during Zombeavers. And although we may not have fully bought in or enjoyed it as much as the tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness of Sharknado, the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Død snø 2 (2014)
Better than the stellar original
Dead Snow (2009) was one of the best no, change that 'is' the best zombie film of the past decade. Sorry World War Z. Move over Zombieland and 28 Whatever Later. For pure fun, entertainment, blood and guts balls to the wall fury, Dead Snow is at the top of the peak.
Yet I was concerned regarding its sequel, Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. The first film was so original and enthralling that I was afraid a follow-up might dilute the sensation if it didn't live up to the heightened expectations.
I needn't have worried.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead is an all-out blast showcasing returning director Tommy Wirkola at the top of his game. In Red vs. Dead, we heard back to where the original film left off. Martin (Vegar Hoel) is the sole survivor of a group of friends that vacationed in a mountain cabin when a troop of Nazi zombies rise from the snowy landscape for some blood soaked fun. Part 2 sees survivor Martin in a hospital where an error has resulted in his arm being replaced with the arm of Nazi leader Coloney Herzog (Ørjan Gamst). The new limb comes with unforeseen powers and strength which will help Martin and the group of American zombie killers he teams up with for round 2 with the SS Undead. The American geeks that answer the call are a welcome addition as Red vs. Dead is filled with plenty of English leaving us to soak in the gore on the screen without a subtitled distraction.
As with most sequels, the action needs to be ramped up a notch and Wirkola ensures that Dead Snow 2 cannot be cut into a PG-13 television event. The script also ensures a higher body count by bringing the action beyond the Norwegian Alps and into town below with ferocious intensity.
The violence in Dead Snow 2 is equally pleasing for gore hounds as it is comical with bodies being ripped and torn in every possible direction to the glee of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival audience that relished every frame.
Vegar Hoel's Martin has become a character full of humor and depth that we love to cheer in his maniacal outbursts of homicidal zombie killing. And the new American cast members play to their country's stereotypes allowing for plenty of comedy that hits in all the right places allowing audiences to laugh heartedly between shout-outs for great kills.
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead does what I didn't think was possible. It bettered the original in almost every way. And the genre loving audience at TADFF ate it up like zombie at an All-You-Can-Eat-Human-Buffet.
Now let's make this a trilogy!
Suburban Gothic (2014)
Idea Just Doesn't Click On All Cylinders
In 2012, I came across the hidden gem Excision. Directed by Richard Bates Jr., Excision was the type of film that horror fans love to find a title that they knew nothing about starring a bunch of people that we never heard of that, upon screening, was much much better than the throwaway DVD we expected.
Excision didn't have us pacing the halls awaiting the next Richard Bates Jr. effort, but it did have us stand notice when his new project, Suburban Gothic was announced as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival schedule.
With a successful and fairly well received film in his rearview mirror, Bates Jr. was able to gather together a cast of more familiar faces for his sophomore effort. Enter Matthew Gray Gubler (Criminal Minds), Kate Dennings (Thor), Ray Wise, John Waters and Jeffrey Combs the later three very entrenched in horror history.
Suburban Gothic follows the life of Raymond (Gubler). A bit of a loser and an awkward one at that a "freak" as his counsellor calls him - Raymond lives at home with his parents (Barbara Niven and Ray Wise) as his college degree does little to assist in securing employment.
One thing that Raymond is good at is summoning spirits and interacting with the paranormal. This talent catches the eye of paranormal obsessed goth Becca (Kat Dennings), a bartender that believes Raymond's sightings are a gift and the two will team up to fight an evil that has encroached the town.
Suburban Gothic is a whole bunch of things. It's a comedy, a horror, a supernatural thriller and a wannabe cult classic. The cast is well suited with no actor going outside a true comfort zone. Gubler has played the geek many times before as has Dennings playing the sarcastic muse as has Ray Wise playing an overbearing father with great lines and John Waters playing a gay freak. Been there, done that.
Suburban Gothic wants to be a The Frighteners, a Ghostbusters, an Odd Thomas and a Supernatural all rolled into one. But the effort doesn't reach the potential. It's like a car that runs but doesn't click into the right gear when accelerating. Everyone tries their best and there are some great lines in the film (John Waters' scene with Dennings and Gubler is absolutely fabulous) but everything doesn't click together like Lego blocks and instead of a David Lynchian Gothic Mullholland Drive the result is more of a Brundlefly.
Worthy Mix of Comedy and Thrills
The 9th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival opened last evening with a sell-out crowd on hand for the screening of Housebound, a New Zealand horror film that takes on the tried-and-tested genre device of the haunted house.
Morgana O'Reilly plays Kylie Bucknell, a troubled young woman who is sentenced by the local courts to home detention after a failed ATM robbery and is ordered to house arrest under the care of her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata). Miriam is a bit of a nutbag who is convinced that their home is haunted. The rebellious Kylie is less than convinced. That is until she begins to see and hear strange things around the house that prompt Kylie's inner-Nancy Drew as a murder mystery slowly unfolds.
Housebound is a thriller comedy that focuses more on the comedy than it does the intensity. Rima Te Waita's Miriam gets most of the laughs as a mild-mannered everyday mom that channels thoughts of Edith Bunker as she stumbles through the events of the film. Security officer and self-anointed ghost hunter Amos (Glen-Paul Waru) also assists in the deliberate tickling of the audience's funny bone as he teams with Kylie for an unlikely duo that were a Scooby snack eating dog away from being the New Zealand Mystery Inc.
Writer/director Gerard Johnstone makes his feature film debut with Housebound and proves he can deliver the goods on a multiple genre platform to please most audiences.
Housebound may be a bit uneven as it switched from ghost story to violent cat-and-mouse murder solving, but it has just enough of everything to ensure that audiences are provided with valued entertainment. We may not have truly appreciated the plot veering into People Under the Stairs direction, but Johnstone keeps everything from falling under the weight of the ridiculousness of the events and the Toronto After Dark Film Festival crowd laughed and cheered in all the right places.