Thursday, March 27, 2014

Open Grave

There is an old school plot device that occasionally works well: protagonist wakes up in the aftermath of a serious crime with no memory of how they arrived there ... and (sometimes) cannot recall their very identity. This sets up an interesting premise: is the newly awakened person a victim of the crime or its perpetrator? Will they recall their identity in a blaze of revelation or will recollection take place over the course of the story? 

Such is the case in the opening frames of Open Grave: a brutal and harrowing scene involving District 9’s Shartlo Copley awakening in a wilderness pit chock full of dead bodies in various stages of decomposistion. Above, a storm is raging – and our main man does not recall who he is or how he arrived. After escaping the ossuary, our John Doe comes into even more mystery: a mansion full of five other occupants (a mute girl, a German, and three other Americans) – all of whom are just as ignorant. Though each individual discovers an identification card, trust levels are frayed to nonexistent and the group will duel in a desperate game to piece together the enigma. 

And the mystery? In addition to the charnel pit, the entire backwoods property is surrounded by human beings in the throes of Rigor Mortis – some of them stapled to trees with barbed-wire; others perishing by additional agonies. And during it all, our strangers are slowly recalling in flashback snippets what came before: a viral outbreak of some kind? Were medical experiments performed on the compound? Were each of them friend or foe? This is the second act, and it is here the traits of all involved begin to shine: superb direction, masterful editing, and a chilling, appropriate score. Though Shartlo Copley’s South African accent at times tries to bleed in, he still manages to hold his ground for the most part and give a performance where it’s hard to envisage anybody else taking the lead.   

Despite a somewhat slow build up to the finale, we have here a refreshingly original set-up. It’s bleak (the tone gaudy and liquorice stained), and it’s suspenseful. Most of all the film is leagues ahead of director Gonzalo L√≥pez-Gallego’s previous Hollywood effort Apollo 18. With Gonzalo now setting up impressive fiefdom in the science fiction and horror genre, the only downside here was Open Grave receiving little to no theatrical attention.   

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Banshee Chapter

During the cold war, an intelligence branch of the United States government known as the CIA became heavily engaged in programs dedicated to mind and thought control – the largest of which is now universally known as MKUltra.
In this secret project, the US government used normal citizens – habitually without the individuals consent – to test a wide range of psychotropic drugs ... in particular LSD. Though the authoritarian experiments here were frightening enough in and of themselves, even more alarming is the never documented human cost: the men and woman who vanished into the ether suffering psychosis, delusions, insanity, and everything in between. Just what stories will the general public never know? What waking visions and nightmares were some of these people privy to?  

With such a rich store of historical data here up for grabs, it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to mine it fictitiously on screen. Not only has first time director Blair Erikson done just that, he has taken the above elements and fused them with a score of other motif’s including HP Lovecraft (in particular his story The Beyond); experimental radio broadcasting, and real life characters fictionalized for the purpose of storytelling. On paper this seems like a heady mix – one that could ultimately implode. But Banshee Chapter comes equipped with just enough unique sophistication and snatches of brilliance that at times you'll will be left reeling.

Make no mistake; this is a ‘footage’ film. But ‘found footage’ has, thankfully, been left off the menu. What we have instead is a kind of a hybrid excursion inter-spliced with genuinely creepy stock recordings of real and fictionalized MKULtra experiments.

Present day, and James Hirsch has decided to take an old school MKULtra concoction himself ... and film proceedings. With his friend at the camera’s helm, it isn’t long before a sinister radio-broadcast takes up a chorus – along with an all pervading malaise that something altogether alien is just outside the door and homing in on James’s thoughts. After James’s mysterious disappearance, it then falls to his old college friend Anne to pick up the pieces. A present day reporter, Anne remains at the crux of the narrative – guided by a desire not only to find James but to unravel some of the evidence acquired.

And it’s this evidence that leads her to counter culture writer Thomas Blackburn – a fictitious rendering of author Hunter S Thompson. Though at first Blackburn’s character feels somewhat unnecessary – if only because of the real life writers ardent worship – a viewer will slowly acclimatize: Hunter S Thompson, for all his eccentricity, was a man deeply rooted in the milieu on offer: CIA investigations, hippy subculture, and a deep seeded paranoia of authority. After ingesting the drug herself, Thomas and Anne are led on a pursuit for answers ... a chase where monsters from another realm are always peeking just around the corner.

While some might be turned off by the low budget, we have at our core here a film made with great care. Not only are effective jump scares prevalent, but there is a whole elusive quality to proceedings that was such a pertinent part of Lovecraft’s work. The monsters – though intangible – haunt the narrative through subtle images and a radio broadcast that will occupy your dreams. Throw in the ‘true life factor’ and we have a film that will eventually go on to become a cult classic.