Dave Wain’s essential breakdown of this week’s cavalcade of straight-to-disc treats. Step inside the DTV Junkyard…
Frightfest seems to be utilised as a clever marketing tool by a few of the film companies, with a glut of FF-featured fare coming swiftly to DVD in the weeks that follow the Leicester Square based gathering. In general though, the first week in September seems to be having an identity crisis with the last week of October, as no fewer than EIGHT titles are gracing this week’s Junkyard.
We’ll begin in the Metropolitan Borough of Calderdale, or more specifically Halifax Market, which is where Dominic Brunt’s new film is set. Avoiding all mention of his past acting gig that gets predictably trotted out with every review of one of his two films, I’ll instead just mention the awesome Before Dawn, which, if you’re yet to catch it, is without doubt one of the finest British zombie films so far this century.
His newbie, BAIT, takes us into revenge territory, where Dawn (Joanne Mitchell) and Bex (Victoria Smurfit) spend their days dreaming of setting up their own upmarket café, but with the rejection of a loan from the local building society, it seems like a lofty ambition. An opportunity surfaces though with a local businessman, Jeremy (Jonathan Slinger), who offers the pair a helping hand in the form of a loan. Little do they know however, that by accepting his seemingly generous offer, they’re unleashing a maelstrom of violence and terror.
One of the impressive aspects of Bait is the way it has the ability to turn its tone on a sixpence; it playfully veers from a comical story of two friends with aspirations, to an all familiar portrait of the stifled aspirations of austerity Britain. In the second act, when the bleakness is turned up to eleven, it’s unrelenting power gives us some of most ghastly imagery that you’re likely to invite into your home this year. Smurfit and Mitchell are perfectly cast, although it’s Slinger who steals the show; a diminutive and reserved façade hides a starkly realistic propensity for violence that stays with you long after the end credits.
Sticking with the topic of revenge, we move onto BIG DRIVER, a very welcome Stephen King TV movie. Adapted from his Full Dark, No Stars collection of novellas which saw A Good Marriage also adapted for the screen earlier this year, this tale was surprisingly picked up by the Lifetime Channel. Fear not though fellow gore-hounds, there’s plenty of the red stuff to be found here as we find Tess Thorne (Mario Bello), a famous writer, making her way home from a book signing. Having been given the tip of a time-saving shortcut by one of her fans, some debris in the road forces her to pull over with a flat tyre. Stranded, and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, relief comes in the form of a truck driver who pulls over to assist, except it soon becomes clear that his intentions are decidedly malevolent.
The Danish filmmaker Mikael Salomon is no stranger to King’s work having shot a couple of Nightmares and Dreamscapes episodes as well as the, erm, *coughs*questionable reboot of Salem’s Lot with Rob Lowe. On scripting duty meanwhile is Richard Christian Matheson, a man with a quite fascinating resume that includes the awesomeness of Anthony Hickox’ Full Eclipse, and the car-crash celluloid of the Gene Hackman / Dan Aykroyd team-up, Loose Cannons. With its backwoods setting and the ubiquitous rape and revenge sequences, you’d be forgiven for releasing a weary sigh of minimal expection. However, such conventional tropes in the hands of King swiftly escalate to surprise and intrigue, and Big Driver is no exception. Perhaps lacking the dark and sinister tone of the source material, it’s still very cool to see the great man’s work adapted for the small screen; file this one on a par with Quicksilver Highway, far above Firestarter 2, yet a little way below The Tommyknockers.
What we need this week is a good revenge movie! Yup, you guessed it, two down and here’s another, JULIA! After suffering a brutal trauma, Julia Shames (Ashley C. Williams) falls prey to an unorthodox form of therapy which awakens her own true and holy violent nature, one that teaches her how not to be the victim, and instead transforms her into an empowered Angel of Vengeance.
At the risk of sounding unexpectedly highbrow, there’s a recent Icelandic film you may have seen called Of Horses & Men – if you haven’t, seek it out – as it’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of cinema you’ll likely to see. Not to wander off on too much of a tangent, but Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson, the cinematographer from that movie chose, bizarrely, to make Julia his first English language assignment, and he brings lush European sensibilities to a project which ordinarily may have just sunk into a sea of R&R mediocrity.
It’s a brooding film, built on self-empowerment, and while it does bring to mind Steven R. Monroe’s never-ending I Spit on Your Grave series (the third is pending), it’s thankfully several levels above that tiresome beast. Haughty proclamations aside though, there’s still plenty to offer a grimace of displeasure towards, most notably the pacing which sags at a number of intervals, as well as a few of the supporting roles which never come close to matching a quite stupendous lead performance from Ashley C. Williams.
Although we’ve drank the well of revenge dry for this week at DTV Junkyard, I can though quite neatly finish Part One off by taking us back to where we started, in Yorkshire, for Mark Murphy’s grizzly thriller, AWAITING. Indeed, the setting is the Moors where Morris (Tony Curran) is a breakdown recovery driver with psychotic tendencies. When his daughter Lauren (Diana Vickers) grows close to one of his victims, Jake (Rupert Hill), it throws Morris’ carefully managed status quo into chaos and carnage.
Us Brits don’t really venture into the realm of backwoods horror, though when we do, we do it well, such as Alex Chandon’s Inbred, set coincidentally in the same county. With Awaiting, it’s initially quite hard not to judge it as a desperate homage to its superior ancestors across the Atlantic; given time though, it grows into a sick little puppy very capable of standing on its own four paws. There’s a really grim aspect to Murphy’s film, one that reminds me a little of Herschell Gordon Lewis; incest, mental fragility, and the celebration of Christmas at the wrong time of year. Lauren’s naivety is endearing, while Morris is an intensely unlikable badass; all of which leaves Jake, who I struggled to feel any kind of empathy for, on account of him being a snotty, expensively-suited dildo. If you put those character flaws to one side though, there’s a really good little Brit-flick here, begging for discovery.
Have I ever mentioned how much I hate cover quotes? Over the course of the last thirty-five weeks, I reckon the chances of me conveying that will have been pretty high. Editor’s LOVE cover quotes of course; the opportunity for their publication to grace the sleeve of a film that will find its way into supermarkets and other retail establishments is too good to refuse, so much so that embellishment is frequently the order of the day. Anyway, I digress, such compliment enhancement is certainly NOT the case with EDEN LODGE, to which an unnamed correspondent of Scream: The Horror Magazine calls the “best British horror this year”. No sirree bub! They’ve probably just misprinted the sleeve, missing out the word 32nd. “The 32nd best British horror this year”. Perfect. Far more accurate.
Anyway, such frivolous lambasting of our printed friends is doing little for the analysis of the film at hand. As author MJ Simpson noted on his site, Eden Lodge was actually shot three years ago, with a cast and crew screening the following fall – so why the delay? Well, I don’t think the quality has put off any potential investors. It’s certainly a film that ranks above many of the British bottom-shelfers that have passed through the Junkyard this year.
A young married couple, along with their new born baby, retreat to the idyllic English countryside in an attempt to repair their fractured relationship. However, things rapidly take a turn for the worse when their car breaks down and they are forced to spend the night at a remote bed and breakfast known as Eden Lodge. At first, the place looks and feels like paradise, but their peaceful weekend quickly turns to terror when they realise that the people they meet are being killed one by one.
One thing Eden Lodge has going for it is an awesome pre-credits scene which sees a pair of hikers, Nancy Craven and Laurie Carpenter (geddit!), trying to get to their stopover. Some quality practical FX which segues into a killer title sequence ultimately hits a height for which the only way is down. A classic whodunit at heart, Andreas Prodromou’s film just becomes plodding and predictable, with a littering of red herrings giving way to a reveal that sadly epitomises the film – predictable and a little flat.
If you have a few minutes more than an hour to spare, I’d recommend taking a look at BODY, from Dan Berk and Robert Oslen. Clocking in at sixty seven minutes minus credits, it adheres to the Fessenden rule of success; that being, when the genius of Larry is present, it’s very unlikely to be anything but a truly enjoyable viewing experience. The setting is Christmas, where we find Holly (Helen Rogers), Cali (Alexandra Turshen) and Mel (Lauren Molina) bored to the point of insanity. “C’mon! Let’s not go to sleep at 9:30 on a Friday night!”, so to cure their ills they take a drive which leads them to Cali’s uncles house, who happens to be away on holiday. Taking advantage of the opulent surroundings, and doing their best to empty his well-stocked alcohol supplies, it becomes apparent that Cali has brought them there under a false pretence; the house doesn’t belong to her uncle, and they’re about to be embroiled in a grisly murder of their own doing.
Well-paced and snappily written, this is an excellent tale of desperate quandaries and exposed morality. The three girls here are fantastic; naturalistic, attractive and compelling, they retain a degree of normality that’s in contrast to the tiresome plastic coated façade that pepper the majority of our beloved genre movies. Props to Fessenden too, who, as predicted, rounds this tidy little gem off with his own brand of lovable craggy-faced weariness.
Researching the folks behind FINAL GIRL, a cursory glance through Tyler Shields portfolio on his website highlights just what a remarkable eye he has for a striking image. Translating such an undoubted ability to the screen however, has found him wanting; finely curated visuals there may be, but it’s ultimately a finished product that seems devoid of personality, substance and richness of tone.
A group of deranged teenage boys dress up in black-tie and ceremoniously lure girls into the woods to hunt and kill them for sport. But their latest victim, Veronica (Abigail Breslin), is an assassin-in-training, and she has chosen to turn the tables on these sick and twisted boys as her final test. After seeming like another east target, Veronica sets up the chase only to devastatingly reveal that she’s actually armed and knows how to defend herself.
“I’m training you for a very important job, Veronica” declares William (Wes Bentley), and that he is, but the problem is that the forthcoming narrative is laid bare inside the opening few minutes to such a degree that it reduces your interest in what lies ahead. I can drone on about how pretty it all looks, but that’s just not enough to generate even a modicum of interest in this. It’s so stilted, with an absence of any humour of warmth; “you know the best part about an ice cream cone? You can take it anywhere”. I had high hopes for this, perhaps more so because it had a genuinely killer concept that’s snuffed out by a severely misjudged execution.
I saw the ‘based on actual’ events caption come up at the start of THE PHOENIX INCIDENT and rolled my eyes in cynical fashion. You have to admit, it’s an all too familiar ploy to sell a movie. I do it myself in work when a customer is hesitant on a title. “Hey, it’s based on a true story you know?” I say enthusiastically, to which their eyes light up and they pluck it from my clammy hands in feverish anticipation. I digress, but five minutes into Keith Arem’s film, something struck me about the news footage. It seemed…. Real!
Indeed it was, as on March 13th 1997, a number of missing person cases were reported in Phoenix, Arizona, after thousands of people witnessed an unexplained series of lights in the night sky. Arem’s film chronicles the US military’s alleged engagement with extraterrestrial forces on the famous night of the Phoenix Lights. Using whistleblower testimony, recovered military footage and eyewitness accounts, his movie explores the shocking events surrounding what has rapidly become known as one of the largest governmental cover-ups in US history.
If, like me, you’re a nutzoid conspiracy theorist, then something like The Phoenix Incident will honey to the bee. Played out like a docudrama, at times it’s impossible to distinguish between reality and fiction, which combines to provide a disorientating and dizzying experience. The downside is that the final act does descend into slightly formulaic found footage territory, and with the directors video game experience on display, I did feel as though I should have an Xbox One controller in my hands. Negativity aside though, it’s still a very recommendable alien abduction flick, and one that will no doubt lead you to while away your evening on Google, straight after the end credits.