Dave Wain’s essential breakdown of this week’s cavalcade of straight-to-disc treats. Step inside the DTV Junkyard…
One thing that’s predictably absent from the DVD cover of WITHIN is ‘From the director of Lesbian Vampire Killers’, presumably because it’s taken the British-born helmer, Phil Claydon, the best part of eight years to shake free from the shackles of what James Corden himself described as “a pile of shit”.
I say eight years, but something tells me that Within carries more than just a thin layer of dust from sitting in the depths of Warner Brothers sparsely populated DTV vault. It was nearly four years ago when the trade press reported that Claydon had been signed up by New Line to step behind the camera on what was originally called Crawlspace. Shot the following Spring, Warner’s seem to be taking a leaf out of the Blumhouse bible for handling direct-to-video titles, by leaving them to rot for a little while before shunting them out upon an unsuspecting public with little or no fanfare.
Perhaps a Warner Exec cast his eye upon the disgruntled IMDb user who after watching on pay per view cable back in November, decided that “For the first time ever, I’m going to ask DirecTV for my money back”. Either way, it’s a little disheartening to see the studio who a decade ago launched Warner Premiere for the sole purpose of capitalizing on the lucrative DTV market, reduced to pinching their collective noses at the distribution of direct-to-video features.
The storyline to Within offers little in the way of genre-bending originality, as we follow a widower, his daughter and recently aquired wife as they begin a new chapter in their lives when they move into a peaceful suburban neighbourhood. But, as strange things begin to happen around them, it becomes clear that something about their seemingly perfect home isn’t right. As they learn about the disturbing secrets of their new abode, they risk becoming the next chapter in its horrifying history.
Starring Michael Vartan, a man whose name appears on the cover in such an oversized font, I feel it’s remiss of me to not know who he is, Within is far better in practice than it is in principle. Erin Moriarty delivers an eye-catching central performance of cool credibility in the face of total absurdity, as the movie segues from an opening half of eerie subtlety into a veritable orgy of what-the-fuck-ery, that will no doubt leave logic dependent horror fans aghast.
Written by Gary Dauberman, who has the dubious accolade of not one, but two DTV’ers shuffled out onto UK shores by Warner’s this week (Wolves at the Door being the exceedingly forgettable other), he’s best known for hitting pay dirt with The Conjuring (2013) spin-off Annabelle (2014), which gives you some idea of the tone that Within skirts around.
Prone to moments of ridiculousness, and eliciting intensive periods of head-shaking and chin-scratching, it’s the perfect antidote to po-faced post-horror (as The Guardian would say), complete with a satisfying denouement that should send shivers down the spine of even the most begrudging blood junkie.
The growth of the World Wide Web over the last two decades has provided us with an impressively varied array of pornography, but such a plethora of carnal delights has been a decidedly mixed blessing with regard to DTV. In the wake of the box office success of films like 9 ½ Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), the knock-on effect to the trend-riding direct-to-video market was to harness the public’s affection for such neo-noir naughtiness. Thus began an unparalleled period of saxophone-led shenanigans which lasted from 1990 before a refractory period at the end of the decade that seemed to spend the death knell for rental ribaldry, with the ease of access to online perversity widespread.
In recent years though, there’s been a muscle twitch of reinvigoration to the limp and lifeless Flesh Noir genre, as myself and writing life-partner Matty Budrewicz have termed it. Movies like The Boy Next Door (2015), Knock Knock (2015) and When the Bough Breaks (2016) have all tipped their hat to this forgotten period of filmmaking, but it’s undoubtedly the ass-smacking popularity of the Fifty Shades series, that’s hinted to filmmakers that the erotic thriller is primed for a second wind.
The notion then that this hint has been taken up in the UK by perennial also-rans Left Films, comes as somewhat of a shock. The production history of DARKER SHADES OF ELISE goes back a couple of years to 2015 when it was originally shot, but never completed. “It was called The Domino Effect” director Jamie Weston informed me this week, “Left Films just wanted to make it from scratch again with a bigger budget, so they asked me if I could direct it. I must admit I never saw the previous version.”
Scripted by Shannon Holiday, it uses the Fifty Shades conceit of being structured around a sexually promiscuous guy who’s keen to prey on an inhibited woman in a stale marriage in order to awaken all of her repressed sexual feelings. In this case we meet Elise (Becca Hirani) whose passionless marriage to businessman Rick (Tommy Viles) catches the eye of photographer Felix (Arron Blake), who lures her into a series of salacious encounters until Elise begins to grow uneasy with where this path of debauchery is headed. Unfortunately, Felix doesn’t take too kindly to being spurned, and thus begins a deadly game of obsession and terror.
Peppered with the occasional moments of cringe, not least with the anti-eroticism of a British man offering verbal during sexual intercourse – “Go harder on her! Go on!” like he’s a punter watching a racehorse gallop into third. Meanwhile, the idea of a sexually powerful male guiding a meek little lady into increasingly prurient situations may have you casually checking IMDb to see that this wasn’t made forty years ago; hell, even in the nineties it was more often than not about the all-conquering power of the femme fatale, BUT, credit where it’s due to Darker Shades of Elise, there’s still a lot to recommend about it.
Utilizing high-end locations and a degree of artistic freedom, Elise belies the amount of money that this British DTV’er cost. The cast of relative unknowns do a very impressive job in potentially the most difficult of genres to get right, but with Weston already being au fait with his lead actress, it obviously aided the realism of the picture immeasurably. “Becca is really easy to work with” admits the young director, “After shooting my debut feature to look quite commercial, I was keen to take a more art house path with Elise. Lots of movement, improvisation, natural light and just toy with audience expectations a little bit.”
Indeed he does, as far from being the Fifty Shades cash-in that Left Film’s box art alludes to, just where Darker Shades of Elise ends up is a pleasing, if bloody resolution to a feature that genuinely offers something unique among an endless parade of comic book movies and phoned-in low budget horror flicks.
Within and Darker Shades of Elise were released to UK DVD on the 24th July 2017
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