The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

★★★★

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The Girl with All the Gifts PosterDirector: Colm McCarthy

Release Date: September 23rd, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close

Kids are taking over the world. Well, the worlds of pop culture and weighty entertainment. If it’s not a bunch of Spielbergian curiousos charming viewers eight times over in Stranger Things, it’s Jacob Tremblay comfortably matching his demonstrably more experienced counterparts with a powerhouse performance in Room. Today Sennia Nanua joins the not-so-Mickey-Mouse-Club, her turn as a next generation zombie-human in The Girl with All the Gifts at once endearing and domineering. And even a little amusing. That’s quite the trifecta.

Colm McCarthy brings M.R. Carey’s (credited as Mike Carey) mid-apocalyptic world to the silver screen, a world severely stunted by some sort of biological doomsday. Carey’s novel of the same name garnered much praise, which, when coupled alongside his extensive comic book writing portfolio, suggests he is doing something right. The penman may yet want to consider a screenwriting career if this is his default standard. He presents Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a child with fleshy cravings and the ability to interact as normal. When we first meet her she is hidden away in some sort of military base with many of her kind — her ‘classmates’ — and a selection of adult soldiers, scientists, and teachers. It’s not initially clear what the purpose of the locale is: a zone of Freudian experimentation usurping social and ethical norms, or a shelter from the horrors outside?

We quickly learn it is a bit of both, though the striking image of children wearing orange jumpsuits and strapped to wheelchairs feeds the former narrative (these sequences are probably not unintentionally dissimilar in a visual sense to familiar scenes in A Clockwork Orange). That it soon becomes clear said treatment is decidedly less harsh than what is going on elsewhere ought to give you an indication of the type of material we are dealing with. I hesitate to reveal more of the initial plot; not because doing so would spoil the film but because piecing together the early moral dilemmas as they play out on-screen is both a challenging and rewarding experience. Needless to say the setting soon changes and The Girl with All the Gifts transforms into a Monsters-esque road trip.

But back to Melanie, the film’s central presence. She is essentially a blank slate, or a dry sponge for lack of a better description, in that she desires knowledge as well as body parts and absorbs information with incredible endurance. Her favourite teacher is Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a sort of Miss Honey figure who brightens up their bleak bunker home inhabited otherwise by those who refer to the children as “abortions” and treat them with contempt bred, perhaps understandably, from wariness. This attitude prevails throughout the film to varying degrees, some characters afraid but sympathetic, others driven solely by the scientific possibilities the zom-kids present. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is one of the latter, a medical professional who sees Melanie not as a human being but as a resource and a pathway to a potential cure. “They present as children, you know my opinion on that,” she insists. Emphasis on “present”.

Close excels as a pseudo-antagonist, stirring intentions born out of necessity rather than anything particularly sinister. Caldwell only dons the antagonist role because Carey’s writing characterises Melanie not as a resource but as an innocent child, his characterisation authenticated by Nanua’s poise. We feel compelled to side with Melanie because we can relate to her kindness and her appearance. Caldwell feels compelled to do her duty as a scientist in an endangered world running out of scientific solutions, which isn’t evil per se. Whenever zombies are involved comparisons with The Walking Dead are inevitable, but whereas that show has adopted a broadly romanticised us-versus-them approach, this feels more arduous, moral implications blurrier. It’s interesting precisely because there is no clear answer.

This world has seen the worst and now exists in a state of post-shock where terror no longer marinates. Now is the time for practicality, a mindset embodied by Caldwell: without hesitation she investigates the contents of a pram being pushed by a ‘hungry’ — an actual zombie, brainless — not put off by danger but rather spurred on by “gathering data, which is part of [her] mission statement”. Justineau, meanwhile, is clearly more concerned about the welfare of Melanie than her own, apparently consigned to whatever fate lies ahead. Arterton has the emotional burden to carry, her frequently exhausted expression not a consequence of physical exertion (she is more than capable in the field) but of her problematic attachment to Melanie.

The piece hits some of the usual genre beats but does so with enough quality to sustain a level of intrigue. We’ve witnessed the basic premise play out in films such as 28 Days Later and World War Z and, just like in those films, military personnel have a hand in proceedings here. What separates The Girl with All the Gifts from the pack, though, is its almost subliminal tone of humour. It’s an understated lightheartedness that feels genuine in a broken society already acclimatised to its brokenness. At one point Melanie, having just fed on some animals, blood tattooed onto her face, jovially reveals she is no longer hungry and the others can only look on in a collective state of horrified discombobulation. Paddy Considine’s Sgt. Eddie Parks benefits most from the humorous touch, able to escape an incoming hard-man caricature and develop into a rounded figure.

For those seeking the usual zombie fare, The Girl with All the Gifts has you covered. It’s as bloody and gory and gnarly as it is thought-provoking. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score spans the mood spectrum, incurring a feeling of discomfort with invasive brass entries. I was reminded of Shutter Island’s brooding soundtrack. With air raid sirens fulfilling the threat-based requirements, the sounds of trees swishing harmoniously and birds gently humming reflect the film’s thoughtful mantra. Nature, too, is character, sparse streets having been attacked by overgrown greenery, turning South East England into Pripyat, Ukraine. McCarthy’s film makes brilliant use of its £4 million production budget, and is well worth the price of admission.

The Girl with All the Gifts - Sennia Nanua

Images credit: IMP AwardsThe Guardian

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Blair Witch (2016)

★★

Blair Witch PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: 15th September, 2016 (UK); 16th September, 2016 (US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry

Netflix, for all of its cultural zeitgeist curating — yes, Stranger Things is wonderful and, yes, we should ramble on about it forever (or at least until the next new series hits in a few weeks) — is at its best when fulfilling the promise of its roots. In other words, when it functions as a library of untapped gems. I watched one of those gems a few weeks ago, a found footage film with a science fiction setting and horror proclivities, and a good one at that. Aside from strong performances and an increasingly eerie atmosphere, Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report champions a found footage style that minimises the head-spinning amateur wobbliness we often have to endure, but which also maintains the unsettling sense of privacy invasion that found footage, at its best, should enact. Europa Report, released in 2013, struggled to find a theatrical audience.

Yet, here we are. Another found footage horror release towing the subgenre line, another mainstream commodity (though surprisingly not another box office victory). Filmmaking team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have cultivated, certainly in my eyes, an admirable reputation for undercutting genre tropes and flavouring their films with semi-satire. You’re Next isn’t perfect but it does throw bombs at horror clichés with amusing success. Even better, The Guest upholds taut thriller tendencies as it encourages us to revel in the villainy of its not-so-cookie-cutter lead. Therefore it is odd that Blair Witch, the duo’s newest offering, often falls so far by the witty, intelligent wayside.

We’ll start with the story: a group of nice-looking adventurers with age on their side travelling somewhere they shouldn’t because they reckon it is a good idea when everyone sat in the screening room and standing in the foyer knows it isn’t. The GallowsAs Above, So Below. Area 51. That sort of thing. Blair Witch sees the brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue head to the forests of Maryland in search of his missing sister whom he reckons is still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is joined by documentarian pal Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).

The film revisits the final moments of The Blair Witch Project at the beginning, instantly alerting us to the grainy aesthetic of the original horror; in fact, one of this instalment’s redeeming features is its occasional use of an old camcorder to document events, a visual reminder of what came before. Elsewhere, the film uses up-to-date high-definition technology including earpieces embedded with mini cameras and a drone to shoot from above (the drone is never used to its full potential, barely fluttering above the forest foliage). Very little happens for half an hour, the characters merely learning how to work their equipment before heading to their destination. Although this isn’t time spent particularly interestingly, these minutes do at least paint those on-screen in a fairly genial light. James and Lisa are particularly amiable, neither pushy nor arrogant, both a far cry from genre caricatures.

It’s not until we the reach the Burkittsville creep-land that things begin to take a turn for the haphazard. The group arrange to meet with a couple wielding knowledge of the area in the hope that they will lead them to their desired location and then depart. But of course Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), indiscreetly hiding their collective kookiness, want to stick around as part of the deal. Because every scary excursion has to accommodate someone (or some people in this instance) willing to spout his/her supernatural inclinations at every opportunity. I should also note that by this point we’ve already heard one member of the party poke fun at the idea Heather is still alive. And shortly thereafter, another member of the party injures her foot. Which effectively means no running from The Bad Stuff.

There are spooky campfire tales, noises in the night, Wicker-Man-esque stick symbols, and folks wandering off alone. The inclusion of so many blatant tropes would be fine if the film then countered with either some brazen self-awareness (like in You’re Next), or at the very least a handful of genuine scares. But it’s not scary, in part because the camera contorts too violently in moments of would-be tension, disorientating us — yes — but never affording us the chance to engage with or understand what is happening on-screen. And I don’t think there is an awful lot of self-aware hilarity going on either. When the proverbial hits the fan, Lisa et al. appear much too freaked out for any of streaks of amusement to stick. I suppose the actors do offer the infrequent helping of light relief (Scott’s reaction to an infected cut), but in truth there is nothing for us to be momentarily relieved from.

The best scene actually involves said cut and, you guessed it, an unhealthy serving of oozetastic body-horror. Kudos to the prop masters and makeup artists for provoking legitimate yelps of disgust (at least that’s how the scene played with most of the audience in my screening). Elsewhere, a tree-climbing sequence places Foley workers in the foreground, branches creaking and murmuring to delightful effect, part of an OTT noise-fest that would make Toby Jones proud.

As the story advances, Blair Witch adopts more of a monster movie mantra, distinguishing itself from the paranormal tensions of its predecessor. We see glimpses of the creature, removing the disconcerting veil of uncertainty that covered the original and boosted its chilling potential. The ingredients fail to click, or maybe they just aren’t strong enough. Any potshotting nods, instances where the filmmakers look to knowingly nudge their well-versed audience, translate poorly. Besides, the film’s overabundant use of familiar genre commands would almost certainly render satirical swipes moot (see Deadpool). Wingard and Barrett will doubtless be back with something devilishly sweeter. This one just irks because it is a sequel to the prototypical found footage horror, the one that reinvented the game for better or worse, and it is timidly generic.

Blair Witch - Valorie Curry

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

★★★★

The Conjuring 2 PosterDirector: James Wan

Release Date: June 10th, 2016 (US); June 13th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

At one point in The Conjuring 2, Patrick Wilson — as Ed Warren, paranormal investigator — attempts to play an Elvis track on an old record player that he immediately discovers isn’t working. The record player belongs to the Hodgson family, mother and four children. Wilson notices an acoustic guitar upright in the corner of the room, left behind by a cheating husband and father, and opts to give the instrument a whirl. He plays “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, his Elvis twang in full effect, and the children join in soon enough. Mum sobs a little; it’s her moment of reprieve. Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) cries too, envisioning a peaceful life with her husband, free from their hazardous occupation. It is such a sweet moment, quite possibly the sweetest of the year. And it occurs slap-bang in the middle of a horror movie.

I have long considered horror the genre most reliant on aid from other genres. Not because an exclusively scary movie can’t be successful in and of itself, but because it often takes added resonance for a scary movie to make that leap towards all-time great. The Conjuring 2 is not an all-time great. It is very good though, partially because director James Wan knows how to handle his surroundings (he’s been there before) and partially because those surroundings host reliable human drama. Just like in The Conjuring (a film I have seen again since this review and enjoyed a lot more), the sense of eeriness we feel as we watch holds more weight because we actually care about the characters on-screen. That’s good acting, good tone management, and good filmmaking.

Having exorcised demons aplenty, the Warrens decide it’s time to give up the ghost and focus on their own family. That is, until the Enfield case makes itself known: Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and her offspring quartet, Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley), and Billy (Benjamin Haigh), are haunted by a spirit with historical ties to their flagging council house. At the request of the Church, the Warrens travel to England to observe from a distance, though we all know how that usually goes. It is worth noting that the decision to utilise a fairly unknown secondary cast, likely for budgetary reasons, proves a good one as it grounds those characters in a more believable reality. Since we don’t recognise any of the Hodgsons — Esposito’s role as Margaret is her first ever acting gig — it is much easier to get behind them as your average working class family.

The Warrens are roped into another paranormal investigation then, despite grievances. Lorraine has been struggling with the mental anguish brought on by her gift (she can see stuff) while Ed, though less pained physically, seems a bit fed up with the mainstream denial (we see this during a televised debate during which he sports a mean Wolverine hairdo). To his relief, England appears united in its belief that something spooky is going on in Enfield. One newspaper refers to the Hodgson home as “The House of Strange Happenings”. And the Warrens’ begrudging return to the fold becomes truly worthwhile when they meet their clients, a genuinely nice family due a break. Newcomer Esposito, playing the eldest, relays that same attitude of care for her brothers and sister as Emily Browning did in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The siblings can’t afford to argue because they can’t afford anything. The closest thing we get to a squabble lasts mere moments and is over food. As well as poltergeists, they are up against a social climate preempting Thatcher’s Britain (the film is set in 1977, a few years prior to her Prime Ministerial venture, but it might as well be set in the early 80s). Thatcher herself even appears on television at one point. Although Wan and co-writers Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, and David Johnson mightn’t have meant it, their movie does act as a symbolic decrying of the former leader’s era in government. Here we have a family isolated and afraid, troubled by a domineering force they themselves can’t touch, with no prospect of homegrown assistance. Their house, walls flaking and furniture dank, recalls The Babadook, another family drama disguised as horror. By contrast, the Warrens’ stateside residence is bright and sunny. A home.

Wan recycles a few elements from The Conjuring: the blunt, yellow text that opens the film, perversely serenaded by a malefic male chorus, is a stylistic consistency that works. The haunted house plot is a tad worn out, but when your central pairing are based on real people who often conducted haunted house visits, that’s a tough one to get around. For the most part any sense of tired repetition is painted over by the development we get character-wise. I’m not saying this is in the same ballpark as a Linklater sprawl or something of that ilk, not by a long shot, but it is a treat to watch well-rounded characters bear the weight of horror. Wan welcomes classic genre tropes, utilising Ouija boards and creepy toys as scare MacGuffins. It’s not really about how the characters use these artefacts but instead the emotional fallout of said usage.

Don Burgess delivers behind the camera, exuding initiative and variation. A jarring, jilted effect during an early séance sets the visual tone and justifies the sort of terror described shortly thereafter as “diabolical”. Later, we become part of the horror as the camera swoops around characters and spirits, flirting with disorientation. Sometimes it hovers above those below like an apparition. Perhaps it doesn’t add texture to the narrative, but Burgess’ work is different enough that it should engage viewers accustomed to the conventional. The cinematographer excels during quieter moments, when we expect a jump scare but instead witness unsettling portraits depicting faces that become unpredictable silhouettes in the dark. Wan and Burgess develop an eerie atmosphere that demands noise as silent scenes are unbearable — a Demon Nun sequence in the Warren household, or the odd actions of a firetruck toy back in Enfield.

It’s not perfect. There is a character arc that veers too near The Exorcist and a character, played by Franka Potente, who is drawn as thinly as can be. At over two hours the movie is too long to sustain its fairly straightforward story, which means the buildup to significant happenings is stretched beyond its narrative limit. The Warrens don’t start their investigation until at least an hour in, for instance, and we do miss the purposeful presence of both Farmiga and Wilson for large chunks of that hour. In fairness, the filmmakers are not doing nothing — they’re spending that time developing the plight of the Hodgsons. It’s just that there is sense of halted momentum, albeit momentarily.

Delighted with the financial prosperity yielded by their Annabelle doll spin-off (an incredible $257 million from a measly $6.5 million budget), Warner Bros. have announced the growth of another cinematic branch centred on the Demon Nun entity that haunts this instalment. Though efficient enough, Annabelle failed to match its elder’s genre know-how. The Nun is certainly a scarier visual prospect and a film based on it will undoubtedly rake in the cash, but I think The Conjuring series is at its best as it is here: more interested in its human characters, grounded by the performances of its human actors, and served admirably by its human director.

The Conjuring 2 - Nun

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

The Gallows (2015)

The Gallows PosterDirector: Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing

Release Date: July 10th, 2015 (US); July 17th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford

Remember the days when movie titles made use of inanimate objects and animals to induce a sense of clinical creep? The Birds. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Alien. Those are probably bad examples given chain saw massacres are far from inanimate and aliens aren’t technically animals, but the point is The Gallows could have been one of those movies with a creepy title backed up by creepier content. It’s not, as it transpires, and that becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly.

We’re back in the found footage dimension — you know, the black abyss of modern horror — and in the company of cameraman Ryan (he’s really a high school footballer but for the purposes of this film he’s also a cameraman), his girlfriend Cassidy, pal Reese, and Reese’s crush Pfeifer. The foursome find themselves locked in school after dark and, unsurprisingly, are drawn into a sinister game of cat and mouse opposite the ghost of tragic history. Moral of the story? School finishes at 3:30 pm.

A common problem with the found footage design is it tends to hinder character development because it limits how we literally see those on-screen, often from the same angle and same perspective, while hiding the person behind the camera. As such, the characterisation here is pretty sub-standard: “Hey Reese, can I borrow your blouse?” are some of the first words Ryan says to his mate after a dodgy drama rehearsal (Reese has decided the most effective route to Pfeifer’s heart is playing opposite her in their school theatre production). It’s a bland, easy introduction to a bland, easy set of students and one not at all aided by the rest of the football team’s boyish insults that follow.

This is the stereotypical, grating, douchey high school behaviour Richard Linklater mercifully avoided in Everybody Wants Some!! and the sort of behaviour that serves only to undermine any care we have for those on-screen. Even the drama students are unbearably caricature: geek attributes maximised, ‘dorky’ glasses abound, lead actress buoyed by more positive energy than the Sun. The film has only been on for around 10 minutes by this point but even by the 70th minute the same broad strokes are stifling people. At least in this version of high school the drama geeks manage to dish out some prank revenge on the football douches.

The actors use their own first names because it’s all real and they are not really actors. (On a serious note, aren’t we past the point of trying to pretend this found footage stuff is in any way authentic?) Their performances are fine, though Ryan — the guy hauling the camera around — oscillates between high-pitched wailing and incomprehensible whispering a little too often. Another thing that’s odd: the play that the students are rehearsing is a rerun of the same one that killed a child many years prior, and given people still seem traumatised by that event, why even do a rerun? Sure, it’s the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. But wouldn’t a memorial service have sufficed? It’s especially grisly when you consider the child died via accidental hanging.

Regardless, it’s an inevitable part of the plot therefore you’re left hoping for something to differentiate the film from the usual genre pack. Writer-director duo Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing dabble in the superstitions (“Break a leg”) of stage performing without reinventing them, or at the very least provoking any new connotations — maybe by not having the characters angrily coax the dead or leave an injured mate behind. Everything goes belly-up: open doors become locked (apart from the large brick one with an eerie cross engraved on it); the group start blaming each other amid ensuing relationship drama; the gallows’ noose, previously removed from its perch by Ryan, saunters back up there unassisted.

Of course, the school does bear windows that the group could break open and escape out of at any moment. The dialogue and situational development are both so poor you wonder whether the filmmakers are actually embarking down a purposefully satirical route — for instance, at the start of the movie Ryan discovers a damaged door primed for after-dark entry. See, Reese needs to destroy the play’s set because it is the only way he can get out of a would-be terrible performance. The only way. A performance, incidentally, that he agreed to deliver because he fancies Pfeifer and it is the only way Reese can initiate a relationship between the pair. The only way. That’s high school for you.

There are a handful of quiet-quiet-bang moments that give us a fright, but these are frights without substance. You won’t remember any of them because none of them hold any weight: they aren’t emotionally or audibly or visually scary (that’s not true: there is one suitably unsettling visual during a red-tinted scene that revisits the hauntingly quiet manoeuvres of the Babadook). But otherwise the attempted scares encourage a human reaction as natural as visiting the toilet during a three-hour Tarantino film.

Look, this is cheap horror, and worse, cheap found footage horror, made for popcorn audiences searching for an easy cinemagoing escape. I don’t doubt the people involved in the process put in a lot of hard work and effort, and perhaps for some of them The Gallows conveyed genuine promise. But it should be held to the same standard as the best outings, films like The Blair Witch Project, and there simply is no comparison. It’s another case of dollar bills over quality. Lo and behold, The Gallows made $43 million — so who cares?

The Gallows - Cassidy Gifford

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

★★★★

10 Cloverfield Lane PosterDirector: Dan Trachtenberg

Release Date: March 11th, 2016 (US); March 18th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Horror; Mystery

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

There’s a great deal to admire about a film that chooses a path and sticks to it in spite of executive-level switcherooing. 10 Cloverfield Lane only discovered its Cloverfield bloodline midway through development, a potentially hazardous move that would have rendered many other outings spineless, but sweeping conviction shines through here. The path Dan Trachtenberg confidently guides his movie down is laden with rich slabs of character identity. So rich, in fact, that it’s probable you’ll forget about the Cloverfield connection after 15 minutes (I did) and instead enjoy a simple thriller with tantalising — and, crucially, natural — twists and turns, its three pro-cum-antagonists each carrying the weight of intrigue.

We have Howard (John Goodman), the overseer, aka the one who owns the bunker within which the film takes place and who calls the shots accordingly. Then there is the convert, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), already booked into Howard’s hotel by the time we arrive. And finally, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She’s the sceptic. You can tell because her red nail polish wears away with stress. Michelle doesn’t call ahead as much as awaken in Howard’s bunker having felt the brunt of a pummelling car accident, one that catches both her and us off guard, a proper assault on the solar plexus.

Escape hangs over proceedings. The film opens with Michelle, who has the appearance of someone desperately trying to escape something — a relationship, perhaps, and probably life in general (odd titbit: Bradley Cooper voices her pleading boyfriend, relegated to a phone call). Bear McCreary’s ominous score plays as Michelle frantically scrambles around her flat looking for road booze and as she departs, keys shunned on the table, that drone grows in intensity. It aids a tone that suggests trouble; via car radio, we hear of widespread power outages. Shortly thereafter, Trachtenberg unveils imagery that reflects an air of claustrophobia: the rusty chain clamping Michelle to the wall in Howard’s bunker, for instance, or the large iron door reinforcing her isolation.

Winstead plays the terrified, suspicious type so well, her eyes often wide and bulging. She is vulnerable, clearly, and yet full of defiant craft — there’s more than a touch of stellar horror heroine going on here. Goodman, meanwhile, juggles sanity and insanity with incredible credibility. He breathes heavily, panting almost, as if he’s about to explode in a fit of rage or is recuperating from a previous outburst. The less said about his character’s motives the better, though Goodman’s soon-to-be iconic introduction ought to be noted: the camera tentatively navigates around Howard’s hulking figure before unveiling his menacing face from a low angle, further feeding our anxieties.

Who is this man and what does he want? Those questions fuel the film’s allure as it cagily probes away at answers. Early on, Howard bemoans humanity’s lack of preparation, that we talk a good game from afar and then panic when true disaster hits. “Crazy is building your ark after the flood has already come.” The flood on this occasion is a nuclear attack, according to Howard (frequent power surges bolster his end-of-days argument). Turns out this is a man who has proactively prepared for disaster by building a sturdy bunker. Maybe he’s not the freak, but we are. His musings start to make sense.

On the flip side, “Surviving Doomsday” books line the shelves of his shelter and you begin to wonder if the whole scenario is a deluded madman’s ruse. There is a false home-sweet-home aesthetic, plants that are surely fake, and a fictional kitchen window. Trachtenberg and cinematographer Jeff Cutter concoct a terrifically creepy malaise through framing — more than once, Howard appears to creep up on Michelle and Emmett while the pair are mid-conversation. There is nowhere to hide. Feelings of paranoia and mistrust battle with hints of Stockholm syndrome. These themes recall an episode of Lost starring Henry Ian Cusick and Clancy Brown where the former struggles to unravel the latter’s bunker-based theories.

But deep-seated worry does not have a stranglehold on the piece. Penned by a trio of writers — Whiplash director Damien Chazelle apparently revamped much of Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken’s initial plot and character work — the screenplay includes moments of wry comedy that don’t try to detract from the disconcerting situation, but instead lighten the mood just enough to afford the film a more digestible front. Often it’s Gallagher Jr. who is tasked with making quips and he obliges with assured charm, as opposed to the purposefully awkward charm the actor evoked in The Newsroom. Even McCreary’s brooding score takes a break: “I Think We’re Alone Now” plays over a montage of momentary serenity. It’s splendid song-weaving.

The title “10 Cloverfield Lane” may suggest otherwise but this is a character drama first and foremost, tinged with high-concept thrills that complement splashings of sci-fi and horror. The people on-screen share a complex dynamic, an alluring one built around secrecy and regret and revelation. You think you know where it’s all going and then Howard whips out a Pretty in Pink VHS (he seems like a VHS kinda guy). You get so drawn in by the chess game that any Cloverfield associations become somewhat irrelevant, which, I suppose, is a real credit to both the idea and its execution. For the first time in a long time, I left the screening wanting more. Wanting a sequel. Imagine that!

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Bone Tomahawk (2016)

★★★★★

Bone Tomahawk PosterDirector: S. Craig Zahler

Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); February 19th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Horror

Starring: Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins

Bone Tomahawk is an audible treat. Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has a movie sounded so raw and striking (Sicario might warrant a shout, in fairness). During the opening segment here, in which a pair of drifters execute a travelling party before stumbling upon an eerie burial ground, we learn about the 16 major veins that exist inside the human neck. “And you have to cut through ’em all,” claims scavenger Buddy (Sid Haig). David Arquette’s Purvis obliges and we hear every squeak, twist, and snap as he does so. It is cringe-inducing for all the right reasons and the perfect introduction to S. Craig Zahler’s unforgiving picture, a western thoroughly bludgeoned by despair and horror.

Sometime thereafter, Purvis turns up looking a bit worse for wear in Bright Hope, a small town with a population of 268 according to its welcome signpost. He runs into sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and earns a bullet in the leg, the first of many indications that Hunt favours blunt practicality over weak-mindedness. And so begins the sequence of events which send the sheriff, his well-meaning deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the egotistical John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) on a mission to rescue the latter’s kidnapped wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).

Foreshadowing and foreboding are wilfully employed by Zahler — replacing what could have been a more natural music-driven score, the howls of wolves (or worse) ominously serenade events early on and then manifest in threatening form later. It’s the ambiance of the west, or at least this incarnation of the west. “Oh boy, that smells good now that I know it’s not supposed to be tea,” Chicory muses, referring to corn chowder but also reflecting the film’s underbelly. See, though there are plenty of traditional western strands at play — the gruff sheriff who commands authority, the isolated community tormented by threat, plenty of horses — Bone Tomahawk sets its stall out with a difference.

Slowly paced scenes reflect the slower time period, when face-to-face interactions dominated and long distance journeys relied on animal willpower. Russell taps into this considered approach, employing words with authority; patience really is a virtue and in Hunt’s presence you get the sense patience will be rewarded. Comparisons with The Hateful Eight’s John Ruth are inevitable, though the pair have less in common than you might think. Composure, for one: Hunt’s detective-esque apprehension of Purvis is the product of gradual interrogation, whereas Ruth’s treatment of Daisy Domergue is often abrasive and erratic. It is a testament to the actor that he has managed to create such varied yet equally compelling characters from two very similar seeds.

The version of the 1890s we see on-screen is one characterised by manual labour. O’Dwyer is a worker, though his involvement in the job has been tempered by a nasty leg injury that continues to plague him during the group’s arduous trek. Wilson does his utmost to sell his character’s ongoing pain in a performance that values physicality over emotional depth, though that is not to say O’Dwyer is a bland protagonist. Quite the opposite, in fact: the persistence of his injury only serves to bolster his heroic tendencies, to the point that we believe in him as a viable saviour and not just a tag-along husband.

Such ponderous momentum affords these characters natural breathing space, and Fox’s Brooder benefits too. Brooder is perhaps the most intriguing of the main quartet, certainly the most mysterious — the camera often shows him isolated from his fellow pack. One moment he inspires anti-heroic Han Solo connotations, the next plain ignorance, and then there’s his penchant for wry humour: “I’ll probably beat you to the draw,” Brooder boasts before amusingly justifying said boast. This is the best Matthew Fox has been in years. It is also one of Richard Jenkins’ most endearing showings, a real triumph given the overarching strand of impersonal cruelty.

Zahler’s film takes up a somewhat conventional western face for much of its running time, though said face is masked by an uneasy mist. It would be best to avoid specific details, but I will note that proceedings take a turn for the sickeningly gory and genuinely unsettling. This genre mishmash works because terror and anxiety have always been woven into the genre. The mishmash refrains from stopping at abject fear too. This is also a film about how men are impacted by separation (O’Dwyer’s wife is missing, Hunt’s is worried at home, and Chicory’s deceased). As the group traverse further from civilisation and closer to potential doom, the score unveils a pained melancholy, manifesting almost as a sort of death soliloquy.

On a technical front, Bone Tomahawk is infallible. I’ve already lauded the sound quality and the production team maintain a similar level of excellence in their set creation and landscape scouting. It feels like the end of the 19th century; that retro gunslinging allure in full effect. We ride across mossy vistas and tiptoe through ghost valleys that bear some resemblance to those in The Return of the King. Presumably working with a low budget, those behind the lens have smartly utilised nature’s virtues and rustled up quite the canvass for exploration, fusing the harsh brutalities of No Country For Old Men with the pilgrimage proclivities of Slow West.

All of the elements are furnished to oaky perfection but you could remove the lot — the charcoal landscapes, the wooden interiors, the deceptive humour — to leave just the four central characters, and you would still have something well worth two hours of your time. These marauders are wacky and layered. Zahler sticks to his guns even after the craziness takes off, winningly heralding the richness of his protagonists over shock value. A late, brief exchange between sheriff and deputy recalls the film’s intimate, considered mantra. In one moment, Bone Tomahawk cements its status as a future classic.

Bone Tomahawk - Russell, Fox, Jenkins, Wilson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): RLJ Entertainment

Man Crates: Horror Movie Survival Guide

Scream - Randy Meeks

There is a sequence in Wes Craven’s Scream where local horror buff Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) takes centre stage before a group of apparently in-the-know teenagers and explains to them the various rules of scary movie survival. “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie,” he exclaims with hilarious passion. Be a virgin. Don’t announce your imminent return. And damn it, everyone is a suspect!

Taking inspiration from the lovely people over at Man Crates, I reckon it’s time we shifted our collective focus away from the reactive and towards the proactive. Let’s stop worrying about who the killer is and start worrying about how to conquer said killer. A zombie apocalypse? Forget wearily looking around for fresh water, we ought to start stocking up on the good stuff now. Below is a list of must-have possessions, things everybody should own in the event of a horrifying disaster. Let’s not kid ourselves, in a few years The Walking Dead will probably be eligible to win Best Documentary Series at the Emmys.

You check out Man Crates’ numerous crate combos here — my personal favourite is the Retro Gamer edition. The crates are primarily aimed at guys (we’re notoriously indecisive when it comes to gift wish lists) though I reckon many women out there would be interested too. Crowbars at the ready.

The Walking Dead - Michonne

1 — Water (lots)

Given I’ve already mentioned it, this one shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Apparently us humans can only go around three days without water — unless you’re Frodo Baggins who, along with his mate Sam, went something like a week without H2O replenishment. Hoarding water is just common sense. You might even be able to recycle it too, though I’m certainly no expert.

2 — Michonne’s sword (and Michonne)

A weapon is essential, and you wouldn’t want to be lugging around a chainsaw all day and night. A gun would be excellent for a while but you would be snookered when the ammo runs out. I always fancied myself as a bit of an archer — on Skyrim, anyway — but arrows numbers would eventually diminish too. I reckon you’d want something long in length to avoid any close combat, and a Katana blade perfectly fits that bill. Perhaps it’d be best just to hire Michonne as your personal bodyguard.

3 — Notepad and pen(s)

You’d need something that would help pass the time in between any monster-evading exploits, and since technology requires power (which, presumably, would be difficult to garner in a world ravaged by villainous creatures), I reckon the old notepad and pen combo would do the trick. Us film fanatics could write. Arty folk could draw. Gamers could play noughts and crosses. Endless fun.

4 — Netflix

I know I said earlier technology would be a moot possession in an apocalyptic landscape, but who am I kidding? It’s 2015. Us Millennial lot can hardly survive a day wrapped up in bed without the wonders of Netflix. Chances are the big baddie at large — be it the Xenomorph from Alien, Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Ghostface him/herself — would end up addicted to Orange is the New Black anyway.

5 — Bear Grylls

He is basically humanity’s version of a pocketknife. Bear can hunt for food, he can seek out accessible shelter, create fire without equipment, built rafts to cross rivers etc. Even the world’s most powerful man, Barack Obama, trusts him (though according to the President, Bear’s culinary skills leave something to be desired). And besides, if you can’t survive a real life horror movie with a guy called “Bear” by your side, your survival chances were probably null upon arrival.

Bonus — Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility

This isn’t cheating, is it? You could sit peacefully, sword in tow, guzzling water, jotting down notes in between episodes of Twin Peaks, Bear Grylls camped by your side, and remain hidden from the atrocities of reality. I suppose if we are venturing down the magical route, Hermione’s Time-Turner would be a better option.

There you have it. Some words of advice, free of charge. What more can you ask? If you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

The Walking Dead - Walkers

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Dimension Films, AMC