The Sacrament (2014)


The Sacrament PosterDirector: Ti West

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Release Date: June 6th, 2014 (US limited); June 8th, 2014 (UK)

Starring: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz

The horror genre’s latest aficionado Ti West is back with another vibrant take on spook-ville. The director employs a seemingly ever present found footage style that gives his film an engaging intimacy, but that ultimately struggles to uphold much legitimacy. West is an intriguing prospect, someone who will doubtless see his name hurtling towards the annals of scary cinema before long. The filmmaker’s outings are always at least partially efficient and that is once again the case here. It’s not that The Sacrament is half cooked — the movie is better than that — rather, what opens promisingly soon flounders at the mercy of the found footage Kool-Aid and never quite musters the strength to bounce back.

Under the topical guise of VICE, reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) joins cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg) and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as they venture to the home of a mysterious cult hoping to find the latter’s missing sister. Upon arrival, the trio discover apparent serenity embodied wholly by said sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) whose sparky demeanour is overflowing with positivity. The group soon wander into an air of uncertainty and, unsurprisingly, all is not quite as it seems.

It should come as no surprise to viewers that West’s film is accomplished in a technical sense. The director knows how to work with mood and setting and here he combines the two with deft touch, even if the overall outcome is not completely satisfying. The Sacrament looks good, which is no mean feat given the gritty and sometimes turbulent parameters set out by the found footage genre. Those who have previously seen West’s segment in V/H/S will already be privy to his work alongside the eternal shaky cam — his Second Honeymoon narrative was arguably the best of a mediocre bunch — and that experience has paid off for the most part.

Where The Sacrament struggles is not in technical execution but instead when caught in the limited web of its shooting style. Sure, the simplicity surrounding found footage inherently induces a somewhat unlimited scope. Yet the genre has never really ascended beyond those conventions set out by The Blair Witch Project. Contrivance is abound and the usual questions rear their aching heads. Why are they still filming? Where does the second camera come from, and why wasn’t it used up until the point of necessity?

West and company attempt to get around these issues by inducing an added layer of realism. Something that gives off a more justifiable air. Our characters adopt the increasingly popular VICE tag, one supposed to lure us into a false sense of authenticity. It doesn’t really. The adoption of a company banner that we know of as genuine, in a film that we know for sure is fake, strikes as rather misguided. Events not caught on camera are textually narrated and the time occasionally flares up on screen in a documentary slant, by which point we’re calling out for a normal horror outing and not another flagrant attempt at pseudo-realism.

The shooting style can — and probably does — draw attention away from scares. Regardless, for a solid 50 minutes this is quite unnerving. The filmmakers successfully manipulate an obviously eclectic tone, one that is really quite odd. Sam and cameraman Jake, who we follow around for the most part, conduct everyday discussions with the cult residents when we’re instead expecting some form of kookiness. The landscape is usual and calm when it shouldn’t be and thus there manifests an offset nature, a decentralising vibe that is suitably unsettling.

The introduction of Father, the cult leader, also signals a swift switch away from normality. Played squirmingly well by Gene Jones, Father is eerily charismatic and utterly captivating. (“Everything just got caught up in this weird energy, I couldn’t think straight… he had a way about him”, recoils interviewer Jake). The man prescribes a nonchalant edginess, as if he is disconnected from those around him and too focused on the tainted greater good; the way he replies to Jake, his drawling laugh, that knowing grin — we are well aware that he’s up to no good but the residents are lost in his gaze. It is certainly not an inspired narrative, but Jones’ scenery-chewing execution is simply so fun to watch.

When we’re not enraptured by Father’s spell — he almost ventures into Scooby-Doo villain territory with his preemptive warnings (“You boys have a nice evening…”) — West shifts focus away from the haunting atmosphere to one fuelled by social commentary. Though in other hands this manoeuvre could be troubled by indulgence, West manages the informative titbits well without ever lecturing his audience. He’s an intelligent guy and gets his points across without condescension, choosing to single out our over reliance on technology and inability to be self-preserving.

It is a shame that the final act falters. Rather than capitalising on the creepy mood, the film turns towards gross out gore and action-influenced sequences. A prerogative that was previously guided by admirable restraint is quickly caught up in an unnecessary need to get things done, and therefore the subsequent end result is too generic to be impactful. An attempt at a shock-fest appears to infiltrate proceedings; it’s almost as if the outing substitutes Ti West for producer Eli Roth.

The Sacrament never quite usurps the constraints laid out by its choreography — in truth the genre is becoming increasingly stale. Despite this, and notwithstanding its blanket conclusion, the film is a superbly delivered piece. AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz should be noted for their ever welcoming screen presences in a movie that is really quite hair-raising for an hour.

The Sacrament - AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures, Magnolia Home Entertainment

Grave Encounters (2011)


Grave Encounters PosterDirector: The Vicious Brothers

Release Date: September 9th, 2011 (US); April 20th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Horror

Starring: Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko

We are abruptly informed that “what you’re about to see is not a horror movie”. Well, it is. At least it’s meant to be. Grave Encounters is so utterly infatuated by the genre, by appeasing the masses, that it sacrifices integrity for indiscreetness. Checklists at the ready: haunted asylum, moving wheelchairs, amateur crack team. It is all here. The Vicious Brothers have made a bad film, one that seeps with obvious happenings and undeniably familiar events. But they haven’t made a boring film. What Grave Encounters lacks in spontaneity it makes up for in irrational, occasionally eerie and often humorous sequences.

As far as ghost investigations go, the Grave Encounters team aren’t having much luck. When they seek out and pitch up at a desolate mental hospital, the group led by presenter Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) are quite willing to manipulate matters for additional shock value. Then increasingly strange occurrences rear, leading Lance and company to the stark realisation that they’ve landed in a location not to messed with.

Grave Encounters is many things. Ordinary. Ambling. Almost entirely lacking in scares. Truth be told, the first thirty minutes play out as a comedy, an embellishment laden on the film precisely due to one thing it ain’t: tactful. As upcoming events are foreshadowed, it feels like we’ve bought a ticket for the latest horror movie walk through; from a quick reminder of how dark it gets at night to the singling out of a window that peculiarly opens by itself, everything reeks of internal uncertainty and external panic on the filmmakers’ part. And it gets worse — before our not-so-beloved reality honchos begin their quote/unquote official investigation, somebody showing them around the asylum points out the service tunnels. (“It’s like a maze down here, you could easily get lost”). Paranormal terrors are set up in a similar vein to glass bottles, or targets, poised and waiting to be smashed.

Don’t worry about having to clean the subsequent shard-like mess. Even though The Vicious Brothers — who wrote and directed the picture — plainly relay their scare tactics, the film struggles to follow through. Sheer obviousness is an issue. We know what to expect because the horror has already been hinted at, and it’s not as if said horror is intuitive enough to overcome our expectations. The camera often peers down corridors for periods of time hoping to conjure up something of a creepy atmosphere. These moments are better but remain held down by a prevailing lack of authenticity emanating from an amateurish presentation, both within the film’s context and outwith its boundaries.

For instance, at the start a producer played by Ben Wilkinson, who is never present during the investigation, informs us that the content we are about to view hasn’t been tampered with in any way, apart from some editing to alleviate time constraints. Why, then, are behind-the-curtain sections left in? A car interrupting host Lance Preston’s introduction to the episode, or the team’s unrelated small talk upon meeting a historian. These are nagging issues that hardly amount to a fatal whole, but they are indicative of the filmmakers’ complacency. Attempts to induce realism are trodden on by a flawed premise. Just as events seem to be gaining some sort of momentum, such as the aforementioned shots settling on eerie corridors, this complacency once again crops up. Grave Encounters is scariest in silence and, though it owes more to REC than originality, the ending is quite unsettling. It simmers with hair-raising solemnity. Elsewhere, there is far too much shouting.

Grave Encounters would be significantly less entertaining minus its cast of cartoon characters who constantly indulge in gleeful idiocy. Lance, played by Sean Rogerson, is terrible. Our lead is the amateur biting off more than he can chew. The presenter pays an unassuming gardener to make something spooky up, and we’re resultantly left to ponder which is funnier: the caretaker’s nonchalant reaction to Lance’s request or the notion that, when push comes to shove, anyone would actually believe the local grass-cutter. During his Emmy award winning comedic exploits, Lance also decides to hire an overly eccentric, dark sunglasses wearing medium who emphatically gasps upon entering each room. (Incidentally, the ‘medium’ is probably a better gardener than he is spirit converser).

Rogerson’s persona is just one of a band of stupid characters who make stupid decisions for stupid reasons, and they each know of their dumbness. (“I know this sounds really stupid, but…”). We’ve reached a point in horror where lunacy has become the norm, an unfortunate feature that for the most part is something we must roll with to at least attain some level of enjoyment. It’s disheartening but it’s also reality — not an exclusive one, thankfully. We can’t take any of what is going on throughout Grave Encounters with a modicum of seriousness because there is hardly an ounce of existing tension and the characters are clichéd numpties. Believing in them is out of question, as is empathising with their plight.

Grave Encounters is so wrapped up in its attempts to appease the mass audience that the film misguidedly ventures down a shadowy corridor of ‘been there done that’. The Vicious Brothers’ piece might momentarily tickle a few horror cravings for those attracted by towards a shallow scare, but even that is debatable. The occasional influx of genuine terror hurts more because it signifies unfulfilled potential.

Perhaps it is best not to fret, and to simply giggle along with the absurdness.

Grave Encounters - Rogerson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Fanpop

Images copyright (©): Tribeca Film Festival

The Borderlands (2013)


The Borderlands PosterDirector: Elliot Goldner

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (UK Frightfest)

Genre: Horror; Mystery

Starring: Gordon Kennedy, Robin Hill, Aidan McArdle

Elliot Goldner brings a heap of diligence to his directorial debut. The Borderlands is the Brit’s first venture behind the camera, the outing a horror flick that opts for patience over pillaging. Goldner manages the atmosphere well and his film builds to a genuinely creepy crescendo as a result. But the ingredients aren’t all that original, nor are they universally receptive. It is tough to root for obnoxious characters and tougher still to engage in such a familiar situation; we slot into the misty West Country, our time split between a haunted church and flaming sheep. Persevere, though, and be rewarded.

Having been summoned by the local priest, Vatican paranormal investigators Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Mark (Aidan McArdle) find themselves trying to disprove a plethora of mysterious happenings. They are joined by Gray (Robin Hill) who, despite being non-religious, sees more weight in the ghostly declarations than his colleagues. That is until what is perceived to be coincidental gradually grows stranger.

The first thing to note is The Borderlands’ lack of originality. This is no spectacular deviation from the horror norm, certainly not in terms of character or overarching story. Candles moving without provocation, noises emanating from walls, a rural location. The characters too, divided by scepticism and belief, are more or less conventional. Deacon, portrayed fairly well by Gordon Kennedy, is the moody Scot bearing a mysterious secret that is no doubt disquietingly aligned to the current job. He won’t share it though, and instead we must succumb to generic small talk that does nothing for the characters. Discussions enveloped in weird histories sort of add to the film’s simmering tension but retread old ground in content.

A beginning that is at best innocuous trundles over into annoying territory the longer our resident tech guy Gray is on screen. You’ll recognise him as the tech guy because the tech guy is always the offbeat one, harmlessly immature and progressively frustrating. Gray laughs at place names and rustles crisp packets in church. “Food, cleanliness and a little bit of naughty,” is one of his more egregious lines. And just on the off chance you missed all of that, we also see him also partaking in a lot of webcam installation. Robin Hill plays Gray without any real panache but the performance serves its purpose. They all do — Luke Neal is perhaps the most efficient as Father Crellick. The problem is that these people are not the most likeable bunch. Mark arrives later on and completes the undesirable investigative trio, he a bit of a bumbler who objects to almost anything. By the time the scary stuff arises, we don’t really care too much for anyone’s safety. (Though, admittedly, the film overcomes this issue in the end.)

After a fairly average, and arguably quite boring, opening half hour — one that occasionally plays out like a peculiarly mundane episode of Big Brother — Goldner amps up the menace. Shouting matches emerge sparingly but time is most often filled by a growing sense of risk. Patience is the film’s most effective employee; the director never panics despite a narrative that is somewhat uneventful, at least in horror terms. The creaky characters become less creaky because the film no longer wholesomely relies on their interactive antics. Dialogue that may have manifested as outlandish beforehand gains a degree of importance, particularly as the end nears. (“That’s nature for you Deacon, big stuff eating little stuff”). By the time the final sequence plays out we are just about glued to the screen in an ocular concoction of fear and intrigue. It is an ambiguous conclusion, but not an alienating one.

The Borderlands’ technical aspects deserve credit too. In between scenes, the camera likes to pull back and take in the spooky country surroundings, every so often reminding us of the characters’ vulnerability due to their presence in a relatively secluded area. A mountain looms in the background with grey, murky clouds swirling overhead relaying somewhat of a foreboding nod. The gloomy cinematography ushers forth a landscape that frequently becomes a character in and of itself. Goldner, who also wrote the piece, is savvy when it comes to his use of the found footage element. Cameras are mounted on walls and characters wear Google Glass-esque lens recorders, covering all bases. Subsequently, what we’re presented with is a hybrid of found footage and classic direction that works well.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, The Borderlands is a fairly short film. It squeezes as much horror juice and brooding anticipation out of its runtime as possible and does so without ever revealing too much. Held down by shaky characters and a largely unoriginal story, the outing — though admirable in its atmospheric quality — hinges on a strong conclusion. It delivers.

The Borderlands

Images credit: BBFC, Gallery Hip

Images copyright (©): Metrodome Distribution

V/H/S/2 (2013)


V/H/S/2 PosterDirectors: Various

Release Date: July 12th, 2013 (US limited) October 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Various

If 2012’s V/H/S failed to capture the adulation of those brave enough to tough it out, then there’s not much hope for this follow up. A film as uninspired as the title shepherding it suggests, V/H/S/2 has five opportunities to succeed yet, more often than not, chooses to beckon forth eternal disappointment through dullness. In fact, only via the purposeful mind of Gareth Evans does this horror outing really imbue a horrifying tingle. Otherwise, a terminal sense of ‘been there done that’ seeps from the screen, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking the segments in this piece are outtakes from the first film. Having been given a measly 20 minutes or so to showcase their talents, each of the seven directors (some segments are co-directed) ought to have vehemently lived by the mantra that denotes a maximisation of their minutes. Somebody inform the postal service because that memo certainly got lost in the mail.

Sewn together by a frame narrative identical both in execution and content to its visual sibling from the first film, V/H/S/2 relays four other slices of spook, apparently. To begin we see Clinical Trials, a ghost story that haunts viewers solely by way of its surprisingly lacklustre content. Next, A Ride in the Park combines the visceral sheen of The Walking Dead and District 9’s moral pickings, though would bite the proverbial hand off for either’s ingenuity. Safe Haven is the film’s saving grace, and there’s absolutely nothing safe nor graceful about Gareth Evans’ co-offering. Finally, extraterrestrials meet pyjamas in Alien Abduction Slumber Party, but this one just ain’t as fun as it should be.

Undoubtedly, the least effective short is actually the one that plays most often. Tape 49, as it is known, is like that annoying bout of buffering that occasionally interrupts whichever film you’re watching on Netflix, increasingly fuelling frustration upon third, fourth and fifth rearing. Directed by Simon Barrett, the Whac-A-Mole invariably shines a light on Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his partner Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott), a pair of investigators doing some — wait for it — investigating into the disappearance of a college student. Upon reaching his last know location, a run-down and darkened house, the duo come across a series of televisions emitting static and ushering forth video tape viewing. Implemented as an anchor for the rest of the film, Tape 49 employs the exact same scare (or not) tactics as those seen in V/H/S, rendering the short exhaustingly ineffectual. Already, the remaining segments are at a disadvantage as they first must overcome the lingering cobwebs of Barrett’s effort, before advancing with their own agendas.

Admirably, Safe Haven complies in this regard. Malik (Oka Antara), news crew in tow, enters the residence of an unorthodox Indonesian Cult whose leader, the ‘father’ (Epy Kusnandar), has a severe ethics problem when it comes to the treatment of his followers. Inevitably, events suddenly go awry as the brainwashed group’s true intentions are revealed. Alongside Timo Tjahjanto, director Gareth Evans unleashes a tenacious bloodbath that supersedes every other piece of the V/H/S/2 puzzle. The directorial duo are productive in their utilisation of the found footage concept, generating an uncomfortable air of chaos through the style’s incorporation. Beginning fairly tepidly, you begin to worry that Safe Haven will conform to the generic inequalities of what has come before, but it’s not long before the horror short explodes (literally) into a viscous Jonestown rehash, carrying eerie imagery and brutal immediacy. This is what The Raid would look like if it was a horror movie: violent, relentless and utterly bonkers.

Adam Wingard’s Clinical Trials succeeds in conjuring up ghostly figures, but nothing else. Wingard was the overseer to V/H/S’s version of Tape 49, but his previous experience in the genre does nothing to aid proceedings here. The director also stars in his own segment, as a man who has chosen to take part in a social experiment that sees his sightless eye be replaced by a recording device. Upon returning home post-operation, the man is unceremoniously haunted by a ramshackle bunch of manifestations. Rather than coming across as an efficient stand-alone horror short, Clinical Trials plays more like the opening of Paranormal Activity 6. Though the eye-camera is a neat ploy in avoiding the often impractical continuous use of a handheld camera, there ain’t much to be seen through its lens. Jump-scares don’t frighten, nor do any of the creepily intended figures — conversely, one resembles the twin girls from The Shining, and another is unquestionably the overweight garden zombie from Shaun of the Dead. At one point, a woman shows up requesting a beer. Nope, me neither.

The remaining two slices of horror pie are equally average. Eduardo Sánchez of The Blair Witch Project teams with Gregg Hale and together they offer A Ride in the Park, or, The Walking Dead-lite. After trading dialogue more grotesque in its shallowness than any of the limb crunching about to occur (“You ride that bike more than you ride me”), a cyclist gets bitten by a zombie and subsequently becomes one. There are a couple of noteworthy elements to this piece: the directors’ twist on the found footage point of view, and an intentionally hilarious exchange of glances between a trio of undead — though, this humorous moment does jar with the tone of destitute dread set throughout the entire film. Jason Eisener’s Alien Slumber Party is comparable in delivery to A Ride in the Park, but rather than zombies attacking people, it’s aliens. While the creatures from outer-space do proceed broodingly, the segment is hampered by way of a retreat back to outdated scares through loud trumpeting noises and reddish-green flashing lights.

V/H/S sprung from the horror basements of talented pretenders to Craven, Lynch and Romero’s dark throne, and is a justified piece of cinema in that regard. Despite boasting a similarly talented array of budding directors, V/H/S/2 suffers from an overabundance in sameness. The effort is clearly there and, technically, most segments are delivered with verve. However, only the duo of Evans and Tjahjanto have something substantial to offer. Put simply, it’s not enough.

V/H/S/2 - Safe Haven