Thursday, May 23, 2013
La Petite Reine and Studio 37
Directed by Franck Khalfoun
I have a confession to make: as a horror aficionado for most of my remembered life I am at pains to divulge the sad fact that I have never viewed the original 1980’s slasher Maniac. Of course, I can summon the VHS video cover in my mind with vivid recollection (almost as gaudily as I remember the poster for David Cronenberg’s first film Rabid) - and yet for some obscure reason that eludes me I’ve never sat down and watched the film. Now, many years later as a grown adult I have been given that opportunity twofold: too not only immerse myself in Franck Kahalfoun’s astonishing new remake - but to take a nostalgic trip back in time to the 1980s that I should have taken years ago as a genre novice.
One thing needs to be stated immediately: this modern retelling of Maniac is shot almost entirely from Frank Zito’s POV ... you will see and hear Elijah Wood talking – you will watch his hand gestures and reflection in the mirror – but watching this film is like being at the controls of a macabre and voyeuristic video game. As a participating viewer, your first instinct is to recoil (do we really need an intimate view of up close and personal carnage?) However, one slowly acclimatizes after realizing this unique perspective is the most intriguing thing about the film. Not only is it a monumental achievement from a technical standpoint – but as a collective audience, we delve into a characters motivations through feeling and hearing ... a challenge that has not been hitherto attempted (to the best of my knowledge) in filmmaking before.
Just in case we forget what territory we’re in, the opening is classic slasher: the prey has been spotted and we can hear heavy breathing from a stalkers outlook, bringing to mind an adolescent Michael Myers about to visit one of his siblings. Some credits roll, and a musical score that is unmistakably 1980s comes into the fray ... a deft touch that pays considerable homage to its predecessor. After Frank’s first victim has been dispatched and scalped (a secret I don’t think I’m giving away), we are then escorted back to his mannequin-adorned lair – a dummy shop bequeathed by his promiscuous mother many years before. Although our retro music is still playing, Frank is soon web surfing internet dating sites, discovering in his hunting a smorgasbord of potential scalps to bring home and place atop his bald mannequins.
Nestled at the heart of the chase is Frank’s mental illness; his migraines and panic attacks; his overall malaise as though two separate individuals are competing for domination. There are also the Norman Bates mommy issues. As an actor, there is no doubt that Elijah Wood is a preconceived good guy - but here he pulls off the warring duality effortlessly ... almost with the same amount of creative pizzazz that a creature named Gollum once attained. With his previous foray into a dark psyche with Sin City, Elijah continues to step out of his comfort zone and challenge perceptions. Overall, I think this modern incarnation would be much impoverished without his casting.
Eager to share his mannequins (the regular art, away from fly-blown and decaying scalps), Frank comes into contact with French photographer Nora – a beautiful and savant young artist eager to collaborate and share her wares. It’s a different kind of relationship, one that could almost spell salvation for Frank. Almost. As the impending climax reaches a steady cohesion - one that will see a close friend of Nora’s hog-tied and butchered for her hide - Frank then becomes Nora’s unwitting counsellor, but cannot hold back his second self. It’s a final showdown, a gory splatterfest that takes place in bleak and deserted suburbia.
All of which is saying that none of this is for the faint of heart. Maniac – although a triumph in terms of a remake – is still peppered with enough disturbing moments to make one ruminate about the legitimacy of the slasher sub-genre in general. Fans of the original will be subtly appeased – after viewing the 1980 version not long after, I did notice more than a few artistic nods to William Lustig’s first film. And although I found that version to be somewhat lacklustre and sluggish, there are more than enough epic moments in this new reimagining to satisfy all and any devotees.
In reviews, the phrase ‘highly recommended’ is thrown around all too often. But if it’s applicable to any editorial perspective, I’m going to say that particular idiom is suited to Maniac more than any other film I’ve seen this year.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
The Pact – Film Review (2012)
Directed by Nicholas McCarthy
When seeking out rare gems – in this particular reviewer’s case independent horror films with a slice of sophistication – one never knows what a mixed bag they will find. With sometimes little to no information permeating the ether (and online rating systems seldom giving up their secrets), the hit or miss ratio can be much-maligned or something celebrated. In my personal opinion, a films overall anonymity is something to be lauded; its mere ambiguity can guarantee it a proper audience away from the rhetoric of others. The Pact (2012) is one such outing ... a small sleeper of quiet horror that far exceeded any expectations I may have garnered from it.
Two sisters lie at the heart of this tale after their abusive mother has passed away. Back in her childhood home and putting final touches on the funeral, Nicole calls Annie in an attempt to have her sister present for the occasion. With memories of mistreatment still sharp, Nicole initially refuses ... but makes the jaunt down anyway after Nicole seemingly vanishes from the face of the earth. Once returned, it isn’t long before Annie begins to feel the first supernatural overtones (smashed photographs and moved objects, among other things), leading her to believe Nicole’s disappearance is somehow related to the house or a presence within it. Soon after her cousin Liz succumbs to the same fate, and the audience is then treated to sublime poltergeist activity with Annie at the heart of the melee. Distraught, she flees to the local police – only to have her story rebuked. Returning to the house with a local officer and seeking revelation, Annie soon learns that her sister and cousin – although lost - could be a lot closer than anybody realizes...
Earlier I mentioned The Pact was ‘quiet’ horror – and it’s a more than adequate word to describe this film. Choosing slow moving interior shots of a suburban house, director Nicholas McCarthy gives the audience an ominous impression of the mundane by transforming simple things like a small closet space into a place of dread. The musical score is heated and tense (silent when it needs to be), but ratcheted up with rusty violins and subtle piano during moments of suspense. There are some introductions early on - an example would be a jaded cop entering the picture – where as viewers we anticipate a slide into the formulaic ... but hidden around every corner is a small surprise, almost like the chapters of a novella. A tight celluloid experience notwithstanding, one cannot help but wonder how such a tale would fare within the confines of a book. For all its dark ambition, the plot structure still feels like something lifted from literature.
During the course of Annie’s sleuthing (an investigation that includes consulting a blind psychic), our young Gillian Anderson look-a-like comes to learn of a hidden room in the heart of her childhood home. It is here that the story reaches a hybrid of real world horror sparring with the supernatural in perfect duality. There is an amiable twist – one that I didn’t see coming – and a balanced quota of restrained jump moments that are effective without going overboard. With her cell phone pinpointing strange locations and photographs of dead women pointing the way, Annie soon learns of a serial killer known simply as ‘Judas’. Like the hidden room in her house, this enigmatic figure is much closer than she can possibly realize ... a redemptive secret hidden in plain sight.
I know there are many out there who would construe The Pact as being somewhat unremarkable; however, with budget limitations and no major theatrical release this was never going to get the attention it deserved. With tight performances, stylish direction techniques, and imagery that is short-lived but containing unadulterated horror, The Pact will eventually go down as a small classic in the genres independent pantheon.
Note: Due to The Pact’s success, a sequel has been announced. Unfortunately the original writer and director will not be at the helm.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Many years ago I composed a review for the Australian writer Will Elliot – who, having astonished readers worldwide with his debut novel The Pilo Family Circus – had now released his sophomore effort, the first book in a fantasy trilogy entitled Pilgrims. Parts of the review read:
I think there comes a time in the speculative writer’s life where they think: now is the time to do my ‘otherworld’ book. Be it another realm, dimension, or simply ‘world’ that sits adjacent to this one – it seems ingrained that this accomplished to serve as a kind of Magnum Opus or literary Jupiter to dwarf all other works in the writer’s pantheon.
As the author of two previous full-length novels, Troy Barnes has decided to largely shift gears and tackle the aforementioned above – to bring a motley cast of characters from our own familiar world and transport them kicking and screaming into an invented one. It’s an ambitious task – especially within the confines of a stand-alone alone novel. There is an arrangement of a mythology to set up; but not only that – the writer must play by its rules and keep them check.
Although no central protagonist opens this tale, this seems to be the story of young Zach. After a night of revelry with his friends: Rayne, Shaun, Amy, and Taylor retire at home together. Upon waking not only do these individuals find themselves in a different world – their entire house has been transported with them to the edge of a cliff. At first this land is somewhat mundane ... it could be an exotic region of earth. But as they make their way down the mountain they find a bleak austerity to the realm devoid of life but potent in its nullity. Soon, it isn’t long before the landscape begins to feel like the afterlife ... one more akin to Hell.
Troy’s prose is simple yet steady. Holding its own you can see the hallmarks of other writers that the author may not necessarily read now ... but instead grew up with. There’s an undeniable Australian/world dichotomy – one that is refreshingly welcome. But there is also a level of the juvenile (not uncommon with only a third book), and pages riddled with adverbs that the editor should have scalped away clean. Divided up into short and choppy chapters heralded into steady parts ... it’s a technique that ultimately pays dividends over the course of nearly 400 pages. In short, it keeps you turning them.
This is the world of Ever - a world a little reminiscent, perhaps, of King’s Mid-World in its particulars. Carnage comes very quickly, and you wonder how many will be left by the mid-point. In their wanderings, the intrepid group are joined by the amiable darkling Titch, a kind of elfin half-breed whose race were decimated decades previous. Titch then becomes central to the story as the group encounter soul-feeding Gremlins and a town entirely inhabited by a wicked band of men I’ve seldom encountered in fiction before. It’s a well mapped and thought out world – you can tell Troy knows it well. But if I could lament one thing it would be its ultimate lack of colour: as the group travel down the road known as the Shadow Line we get the sense that more monsters are required on this journey.
Overall, this is a book I enjoyed my time with. Although you’ll find nothing overtly new in the inventions, I found the characters to be its central sticking point. Other writers would do well to follow Troy’s example here – he’s taken his crew and given them such well rounded life you’ll feel an intimate connection. And taken as a whole, it far exceeds his previous two novels. When you have a novelist who is only improving with each successive stroke of the pen, you have a novelist you can ultimately invest in.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
A 2011 movie that piqued my curiosity for two reasons: first, the somewhat retro advertising poster that raises many questions: is this a homage to an eighties horror milieu? Or do we have something like a modern slasher in the offing? At a glance it evokes the VHS imagery of a bygone era ... or perhaps (for some) the artwork is reminiscent of their favourite small press horror book. Secondly, I was drawn immediately to the director we have at the helm: Anthony DiBlasi – a name that people with more than a passing curiosity in Clive Barker’s recent celluloid adaptations will be familiar with. Not only did Anthony direct the amiable interpretation of 2009’s Dread, he served as an executive producer to both Book of Blood and The Midnight Meat Train. Personally, I would have liked to see Anthony continue his independent foray into Clive Barker’s territory. His films - although sovereign in nature and nowhere near the mainstream - contained a genuine feeling for Clive’s material. While commanding small budgets (as was the case with Dread), we still found a production as slick and unnerving as anything released by a major studio. This time around, Anthony has chosen something more conventional in the trappings. With an interesting script featuring a prolific spiritual community and an Oscar winner in tow, all the ingredients were there to make a strong horror film.
Lily Morel (Kelen Coleman) is a pre-school teacher – a gifted one, having not let the obstacle of being deaf waylay her ambitions. Her younger sister Michelle lies at the forefront of her world, but tragedy strikes when Michelle is killed by a motorist, terminating the pair’s long-term plans to begin a new life in Paris. Seeking solitude to both grieve and work on her paintings, Lily takes up residence in Florida’s ‘Cassadaga’ – a community of fringe artists and mediums. Welcomed into this spiritualist camp by ageing artist Claire (Louise Fletcher) and a local single father, Lily sets about teaching again. And although she begins to forge new relationships, memories of Michelle are still sharp enough for her to visit one of the local psychics in an attempt to placate her warring emotions and (perhaps) make contact with her sister again. It’s a palaver that ultimately leads to a group séance – one that grabs the attention of a different entity altogether: the ghost of a murdered woman who also resided in Cassadaga.
At times, it’s a confusing mish-mash of genres. On one hand we have the elegant simplicity of a ‘ghost story’ – the trusted formula made famous by tales such as Matherson’s Stir of Echoes. (Whereby our protagonist is charged with a mission attempting to solve the mystery and identify a killer). On the other the audience is subjected to another ambiguity altogether – the serial killer at the heart of it all. Known as the ‘Geppetto’ killer, we are given only brief snatches of this tortuous being and his past through an incoherent series of flashbacks. Confusion aside, the Geppetto is a truly nasty creation; a monster woodcarver fashioned by a zealous mother who hacks off the limbs of females to produce personal ‘marionettes’. Assailed by visions of his crimes, Lily is aided in her sleuthing by single father Mike, a relationship that soon blossoms into romance but in the end becomes mindless filler as their tryst ends abruptly. With the climax looming - and the two becoming closer to unshrouding the mystery - the character of Mike is unceremoniously pulled ... almost as though his role were hastily written out of the script. Solo, it then falls to Lily to unmask Geppetto before he begins his carvings afresh.
Despite the problems here (and there are a myriad of them), we must not forget this is an independent film. And for such a small picture those involved have made up for the tribulations much like they did on Anthony’s other projects – that is, accept some of uneven script shortcomings by imbuing other areas of the production with a professional sheen. In the case of Cassadaga, these entail the general performances (especially Kelen Coleman’s) and some disturbing imagery. Most notable is the overall use of suspense. For these reasons alone, Cassadaga is more than adequate for a Saturday Night matinee.