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

Drinking Buddies (2013)

★★★

Drinking Buddies PosterDirector: Joe Swanberg

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US limited); November 1st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick

If I knew anything about alcohol, I’d compare Drinking Buddies to an ice cold brew: refreshing and momentarily absolving, but certainly nothing impactful in the long run. Guzzle too much and you’ll wake up with a dizzied demeanour, clutching at the faint straws of last night’s antics. You probably wouldn’t want to indulge these characters for too long either, else their credible charm will devolve into a more septic annoyance. Director Joe Swanberg finds an amiable balance though and subsequently delivers a film that is controlled despite its obvious air of improvisation. But much like that 11th beer, Drinking Buddies just doesn’t feel necessary. There is a gaping plot contrivance, one that’s really difficult to ignore.

As co-workers at a Chicago-based brewery, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) spend more time with each other than they do their respective partners. The duo even manage to squeeze evening bar gallivants alongside other staffers into their laid back schedules. A double date weekend away ushers in a few new home truths — at least one more than we’re already aware of — whilst also cementing the obvious, that these two should be a couple.

So why aren’t they? Drinking Buddies calmly shuffles along for 90 minutes and for at least 85 of those we ponder that exact sentiment. The notion promoting Kate and Luke as a terminally separate item is quite unbelievable, so much so that the amour scales eventually bowl over into absurdity. At its heart the film is a ‘will they, won’t they?’ story that seems destined for a conclusion within reach but beyond common sense. Kate and Luke are both drinkers, they’re both jokers, both laid back. The two even work at the same craft brewery. Better still, the duo’s respective partners are more suited to a relationship with each other as opposed to their current situation. Anna Kendrick is Jill, who likes to hike and muse over philosophical idioms. She’s not much of a bevy merchant. Inconspicuously, neither is Kate’s boyfriend Chris.

The plot, though straightforward and immersive enough, struggles to overcome the grandiose fabrication staring it right in the face. We spent far too much time frustrated, pleading with the characters to face the overt facts. Not frustrated in an enticing manner, rather, gratingly so. It is a shame because Swanberg — who also wrote, edited and co-produced — drives home a genuine sense of believability when it comes to his characters. We recognise the people and we like them, but their situation is borderline nonsense.

There is an impetus to improvise and, for the most part, a justifiable one. Although proceedings occasionally teeter down an overly spontaneous route where natural is irritatingly substituted in favour of awkward (a conversation during a mundane forest hike, for example) this mantra that puts the ball in the actors’ court is a welcome one. The indie tint is prevalent and actually very agreeable; visually, Drinking Buddies manifests as cosy if not at all flashy. Nor should it be flashy. The filmmaker squeezes a lot out of his $500,000 budget by tending towards simplicity, a decision that also coalesces neatly with Swanberg’s attempts to enforce purity.

Much of what is happening hinges on the talents of Drinking Buddies‘ cast and they universally deliver. Olivia Wilde leads as Kate, constantly dawning shades in order to convince us she is hungover. Kate could easily be unlikeable — she is sort of clingy and relentlessly fails to take control of situations — but Wilde’s effortless allure grants her unlimited lives. Stepping away from the wrestling ring for a moment, Jake Johnson turns up as the other half of the film’s dynamic duo, Luke. Johnson has a slightly easier job than Wilde but delivers wholesomely nonetheless; Jake is cool (he has a beard) and eternally collected. The flick is at its most mobile when these two share the screen, their chemistry constantly sizzling. Anna Kendrick is also thrown in at the deep end — Jill is the character who is sort of ruining what inevitably would be a picturesque relationship. Yet, we still get along with her. Kendrick’s stock is on a rapid ascent and it is clear why.

Simmering irrepressibly beneath the love quadrangle is alcoholism, a damning and serious issue. Though the tone fluctuates between frothy romance and light wit, the subject of alcoholism subconsciously rears every so often — it would, at the end of the day this is a piece about people working with drink and drinking after work — and Swanberg handles it well. He has to. Kate is definitely the serial gulp offender and it is consequently unsurprising that her personal life is the one falling apart. The director aptly manages said topic by raising awareness without stumbling into burdensome territory.

There is no avoiding the almost fatal error in Drinking Buddies’ narrative. The film’s strive to be authentic butts heads with its stubbornness when it comes to characters’ romantic tendencies. Put that to one side though, and Joe Swanberg’s light-hearted indierrific outing will certainly quench your thirst.

Drinking Buddies - Olivia Wilde & Jake Johnson

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Magnolia Pictures

You’re Next (2013)

★★★

You're Next PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US); August 28th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Ti West

You’re Next is like a chocolate pizza: it’s propped up by two flavoursome ingredients, each one carrying a tenancy to be tasty without the other, but ultimately the hybrid doesn’t quite mesh together. And that’s not the only problem, given the pizza is also undercooked. Perhaps I ought to digress from food-related similes and start making sense. Adam Wingard takes scares and humour and crunches them together without unconditional success, in an attempt to make a witty horror film. He’s a smart director with a knack for the genre, which is why the creative funny parts work so well. But as he winks at us with satirical gags and rule bending, Wingard also slips in a helping of bewildered frights. The result is quite a confused outing, but it’s not without merit.

As far as family get-togethers go, the Davison clan aren’t having much luck. It’s mum and dad’s wedding anniversary therefore the whole crew have been invited over to celebrate. Erin (Sharni Vinson) tags along with her boyfriend Crispian (AJ Bowen), the latter hoping not to be outshined by his more successful kin this time. During dinner and an all too familiar serving of familial squabbling, a rouge arrow zips through the window. Chaos ensues. The Davisons are under attack.

Wingard casts his mate AJ Bowen in the main role opposite the fetching Aussie import Sharni Vinson. Bro points, eh? That’s unfair, because Bowen is actually fairly good at the personally insulted son and brother shtick, but it’s his in-movie partner who exits to the loudest ovation. Vinson is effortlessly charming and likeable, traits not always compatible with female leads in horror outings. Yet it’s her steely determination that convinces most of all; Vinson wears an air of intriguing mystique that coats her character in a bit more depth than is usually on display in these ventures. You’re Next isn’t just one of those ordinarily drab slasher flicks hell-bent on counting change over quality though. Captain Wingard is too canny for that.

The signs are plain to see from the get-go. Mother Aubrey Davison, on medication of course, exemplifies the OTT caricature of paranoia as she squeals and weeps her way through intruder anxiety. Others follow suit; from Joe Swanberg’s older brother Drake channelling his inner-Phil Dunphy (if the Modern Family keepsake was a douche), to the bubbly and seemingly spoilt Aimee played by Amy Seimetz. It’s the haunted house, the home invasion, the slasher. But it’s also the family dramedy wrapped in horror and, whilst the horror part flounders, Wingard’s amusing take on tribal bickering within a horror context truly succeeds. Erin epitomises the antithesis of both a drama-contained girlfriend and a scary movie chick. She’s the organiser, someone whose forward movements give her centre stage rather than a background stint. In way she’s us, shouting at every horror cliché there’s ever been. (Don’t go down to the basement, always carry a weapon, keep the windows boarded.) At one point Erin is informed, “I’ve never seen you act like this before”. “It’s a unique situation,” she replies, the interaction an indication of dissolving horror commonalities.

In some ways the film is a challenge to audiences, asking us to alter our perception and re-evaluate our willingness to accept and chew on genre staleness. A speech towards the end is a backhanded slap directed at those who gorge in genericism, who subsequently ignore the inventive pieces. Wingard has a palpable gripe. His first three films before this one — You’re Next is actually a 2011 piece — were all met with critical success, but aren’t at all well known. Home Sick? Pop Skull? A Horrible Way to Die? I’m certainly lost at sea. It’s time to rise from whatever rut we’re in and consider the hidden gems. Indeed, if they’re as perceptive as this ruby, Wingard has a point.

Unfortunately You’re Next falls flat on its morally-imbued face at times. It’s not scary yet it’s absolutely trying to be. The first attack scene around the dinner table wants desperately to be pulsating but ends up being too over-egged. We’re supposed to become enraptured in the immediacy of a horrifying ambush at home — shaky cam in full flow, drumming music beating emphatically, screams piercing — but it’s all too obvious. Comedy horror can work. An American Werewolf in London, for example, is as humorous as it is nerve-jangling. Here, exists a convolution of aim and execution. Wingard’s aim is valiant and he executes it with fifty percent triumph. The other half, the horror, is out of place. A case of the ‘quiet, quiet, quiet… BANG’ syndrome frequents proceedings. As characters are mercilessly slain we’re left in a state of flux: is this part of the satire, or a genuine attempt to frighten? Apparently the latter.

Having said that, the scare attempts do inevitably shower us with some moments of hearty gruesomeness. The film strikes as being a relative of Berberian Sound Studio, its audio effects as squelchy and excessive as they come. At some points the actors are quite literally swimming in pools of tomato-ey blood and guts. Throat slicing takes prominence, letting the soon-to-be deceased discover a cruel twist of fate in their final moment. It’s likely that the filmmakers are making a point about exorbitant amounts of red unfairly equating to disproportionate amounts of green. (That’s cash, as opposed to hash).

You’re Next fails to scare us because it leads us to believe that conventional horror simply isn’t scary. It’s a shame then that this falls on the conventional side of things when it’s not being astutely satirical. But Adam Wingard does a lot right and, even though his film mixes an incompatible broth too much, too often, it’s intelligent enough to warrant serious consideration. Who knows, this might even be the inaugural step in a new, smarter horror movement.

Maybe not.

You're Next - Baddie

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Icon Productions

The House of the Devil (2009)

★★★★

Director: Ti West

Release Date: October 30th, 2009 (US limited)

Genre: Horror

Starring: Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig

Ti West must have endured the most haunted of houses during his childhood, because only through first-hand experience can somebody gain, preserve and later paint such an enticing scary picture. Both a thematic precursor to his 2011 spook-gala The Innkeepers and a nostalgic nod to horror in general, The House of the Devil serves up a cauldron full of tension and idiosyncratic peculiarities. Framed within a B movie context where babysitters are in danger, wooden houses creak with undesirable exaggeration and a grainy glaze smoulders from the screen, the film embodies the work of a director smart enough to create a piece that stands out in its maturity whilst also retaining key horror tropes. West admirably holds back in an area where many others have succumbed to generic jump-scares and gore, instead teasing and withholding clarification before building to a timely, creepy crescendo. Paying homage to the haunted house flicks of the 70s and 80s, The House of the Devil concludes the greatest fear is that which cannot be explained, and sometimes the unexplainable thrives inside four walls.

Struggling for cash and trying to fend off a landlady breathing down her neck, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) throws her name in the babysitting hat. After an odd conversation or two over the phone, she accepts a job offer at short notice given the monetary incentive. Upon reaching her office for the night — a secluded manor hidden amongst the arching trees and a wispy fog — Samantha meets the voice on the other end of her phone calls, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), whose edgy nature reflects the pair’s recent kooky interactions. In fact, Mr. Ulman’s demeanour ain’t the only bizarre manifestation, and it looks like Samantha is in for a long night. Pizza, anybody?

Undoubtedly, The House of the Devil’s greatest strength is its restraint; both from divulging all of the answers immediately, and from rashly conceding to the genericism that has hampered the land of fright — or not — in recent years. Here, mystery shrouds all. Noises echo without a source. Light switches don’t exist in their usual spot on the wall. From the get-go, and even more so when goings-on reach the ill-fated haunted house, there extrinsically exists an offbeat ambiance. Ti West generates a tone that always promises an explosion of manic torment — we’re fully aware that things could kick-off at any moment — but one that relentlessly goads the viewer as tension creeps higher and higher. An inspired tactic, really.

Jeff Grace’s score drones one moment, as if signalling an inert-yet-eerie mundanity, before tingling the ears with sharp bursts that are of the genre but difficult to pinpoint. The cinematography too, relayed by Eliot Rockett, adds to an underlying sense of confusion as the camera stalks Samantha around the house, watching her, waiting for something to frighten; for a head to grace a mirror, or a silhouette to find the shadows, or a figure to appear from behind a door. Samantha often peers from windows and, as the camera pans backwards, we see her for the stranded victim that she is, unbeknown, trapped inside a house that evoked warnings signs way before the front door rattled its hinges to greet our protagonist.

West successfully bolsters this unwavering feeling of mystery and disorientation by suggesting a splatter-fest early on, and subsequently reshuffling the narrative towards the aforementioned suspense-fuelled happenings. Certainly, The House of the Devil avoids any universal horror trap holes, yet the film still reverberates B movie vibes that are welcomed rather than denounced. The premise hardly emits intuition, whereas the execution does entirely and therein lies the success. Characters find a place on the caricature spectrum and remain there throughout; the tall Mr. Ulman’s exasperated oddness contrasts his wife’s sheik, Gothic appearance — it’s not lost on the viewer that she ascends from the basement — and Samantha’s goofy friend Megan is seemingly only able to speak hokily (“How d’ya like them apples?”). Upon conclusion we are greeted by grimy yellow credits, though not before a series of exceedingly haunting flashing imagery. Off-putting in the hands of another, these familiar tropes work effectively here because they coincide with West’s unusually, expertly, tentative approach.

Though not as concise as the narrative, and also slightly constrained by common characters, the performances are solid. Leading the way as Samantha, Jocelin Donahue displays the type of defiant resolve towards the beginning that ends up getting you in trouble, before steadily warping into a paranoid employee. If only she’d listened to her mate Megan, played by Greta Gerwig, whose “it’s too good to be true” caution warrants observation. Gerwig doesn’t have an awful lot to do here, though going by her recent work there’s no questing the Californian’s acting prowess. The most enjoyable performance is evasive and intriguing, delivered by Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman. Noonan’s unassured motions are the source from which mystery and unusualness sprinkle, aided by his knack for not directly answering questions (“No, not exactly…”). Mary Woronov has little to do as Mrs. Ulman, and A. J. Bowen also makes a fruitless appearance, consolidating the problem that sees one character too many materialise. Listen out for the voice of Girls favourite Lena Dunham.

Ti West is purposeful in direction, creating an atmosphere of ascending dread and hopeless lunacy. His meticulous input sees fear spawn from peculiarity, so much so that even nuances such as the tallness of a stranger promotes creep, and this execution thrives alongside a grin-inducing B movie panache. The House of the Devil is an appreciative mishmash of horror; from haunted house to satanic ritual to psychological thriller, with a gloss of gore. Wait until the end too, for when that inevitable crescendo hits, there may yet be a surprise in store.