Dave Wain’s essential breakdown of this week’s cavalcade of straight-to-disc treats. Step inside the DTV Junkyard…
Cwmgwrach, which translates as The Valley of the Witch, is a small Welsh Village outside the town of Port Talbot, which was the subject of a book by local author and retired milkman, Ian Currie. Speaking about his work, Currie states how “no-one knows where the name comes from, but it’s been used since at least the ninth century”. Certainly the symbol of the witch is prevalent throughout the sparsely populated hamlet; it adorns the shirts of the local rugby team, the uniform of one of the schools, and an eye-catching sign that welcomes you into the village, which is one of the first things we see in CONJURING THE DEAD, the latest film from Andrew Jones.
Kristen Matthews (Rachel Howell) is recently divorced, and seeking a break from her past life she decides to move to the Wales, and live in the house that she has been bequeathed by her recently deceased Aunt. As soon as she gets to Cwmgwrach there’s a pervading air of menace circling the place, be it from a doom-mongering villager that she nearly runs over, or from her new found friends Richard (Ross Williams) and Shannon Griffiths (Lisa Jay Jenkins) who confess to being white witches. As more days pass, Kristen begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable, and coupled with the parallel narrative of Detective Jim Eckhart (Lee Bane) investigating a spate of suicides, a malevolent force is at play it this town.
Retitled from Valley of the Witch, this entry in Jones’ canon is the first to get released out of the chronological order in which it was made. This went before the cameras back in November 2013, so I was a little apprehensive of seeing it based upon the broad steps forward that he’s taken with his last three pictures. Such concern though was allayed early on with this impressively constructed low-budgeter.
I noticed a great review of Jones’ A Haunting at the Rectory on IMDb where the dude said words to the effect of people just simply not being used to this style of horror filmmaking anymore. He said “it reminds me of the type of film that would have been made in the sixties or seventies”; a more fair assessment there is unlikely to be, as this really is horror for grown-ups, with distinct shades of a Pete Walker suburban nightmare, a la House of Whipcord or Frightmare.
Conjuring the Dead reunites Howell with Jones for the first time since she acted in his debut feature Teenage Wasteland in 2006. She’s excellent here, and brings a balanced, nuanced performance to the role of Kristen, while Bane, as always, shows that his craft is developing with every picture that he’s cast in. If there’s a negative in the film, it’s during a key moment for the character of Eckhart, where the accompanying music track just doesn’t fit with such a pivotal plot point. To me, Bobby Cole’s piano based score from the opening credits would have heightened the emotion of it, though having said that there’s little to fault in the picture with; Jones’ script, as always, is impeccably researched, which pays dividend in the credible tone of the film.
Speaking to Daily Dead about his new film ECHOES, director Nils Timm said the kind of things that make me all dewy-eyed with appreciation at what he wants to see in the genre; “I’m a big fan of psychological horror, of atmospheric pieces… old Polanski movies or Hitchcock, where there’s this building of horror rather than just the cheap thrills or blood spattering everywhere”. Bold words from the German-born filmmaker, but credit to him, he pretty much pulled it off.
Struggling with horrifying, sleep paralysis-induced visions, the rejection of the third draft of her screenplay makes young writer Anna (Kate French), retreat with her manager / boyfriend Paul (Steven Brand) into the desert. Holed up in his hideaway, a beautiful glass house in Joshua Tree, Paul is summoned away on business which leaves Anna in isolation at this idyllic location, with only a dog, Shadow, for company. Despite the calming environment, her sleep paralysis begins to escalate, and is accompanied by disturbing visions of shadowy figures. Is this a slow descent into madness, or is there something more rational to this outbreak of hysteria?
They may originate from opposing sides of the Atlantic, but this weeks’ first two films share a profound similarity in their desire to offer a slow-burning, character-based journey into the macabre. Most importantly, they’re successful in this quest. With Echoes, the accolades have to begin with Dre Nitze’s score. Delivering a subtle accompaniment to Anna’s solitude, he shows the finesse to switch seamlessly to an electro-infused cadence that instantly gets under your skin with a heightened level of tension.
It’s a gorgeous location, and Timm manages to make the most of it with some stunning cinematography, while still managing to crank up the tension in an ever-so-subtle manner. As with any horror movie that rejects the notion of conformity towards the usual tropes, it’ll be a marmite movie in genre circles. If you’re passionate about the classics though, and yearn for something artistically ambitious with a degree of ambiguity, then this visually arresting picture should undoubtedly appeal.
Specialising in DTV fare, I like to think I can see something good in almost every film of this ilk. Be it a performance, a specific scene, a score or a practical effect. There’s always something that enables me to keep any film on my Video Store shelves with the intention that in some way I can revisit it in the years to come, and perhaps offer a more mature analysis.
Having said that, maybe three or four times a year, there’s a film that offers no hope at all; an abortion of a movie, devoid of any worth whatsoever, and a blight upon all bottom shelves across the nation. This week, and for only the second time this year (101 Films Exorcism was the first), there is a film that fits that abhorrent description – A HAUNTING AT CYPRESS CREEK.
The story, if you’re interested, is a simple case of four girls who head to a cabin in the woods where all kinds of horrors ensue. The real horror though is the way this film was made and marketed. Pay a visit to the website of MGI Productions, run by Michael and Gerald Crum, the director and writer respectively. Note how they say how their story “pays homeage [sic] to many movies” which they go on to name, with “Evil dead remake and Itchy [sic] the Killer” among them! Check out how they also announce that their film has been retitled to Lake Fear, and present such a development with the artwork of completely the wrong film; instead showcasing David Doucette’s half-decent DTV entry from a few months back.
Such shoddy and poorly researched website work translates directly into the film, as from beginning to end it’s just a car crash of epic proportions. I’ll spare you from the exhaustive level of detail I feel compelled to write, and just highlight aspects like the dialogue, which feels like it was recorded with everyone locked in a phone booth. They say they want to pay homage to great horror films of the past, but when they do – such as an Evil Dead tape recorder moment – it seems less through reverence, and more through laziness. The paper thin characterisation fits perfectly with clichéd characters and an unintelligible script, which echoes the incomprehensible voice of the demon in the final third of the movie.
There’s actually a moment in the first few minutes where a metal track plays directly over two characters talking and completely drowns them out. If only they would have adopted this policy through the whole film and it may have been more bearable. In all seriousness though, if films were released in this country on merit, this would NEVER see the light of day. Sadly, the UK distributor – in this case it’s New Horizon – knows that by prefixing the title of ANYTHING with A Haunting at… will result in a favourable return. You have to wonder if they watched this prior to acquiring it, and if they did then the head of acquisitions needs to be fired, because the fact that crap like this is on our supermarket shelves and will sell about ten thousand units this week is a disgrace. It won’t be going anywhere near my DVD store. I couldn’t do that to people.