Review: Dundead 2022

After a hiatus due to real life horror (the outbreak!), the Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) cult/horror festival returned to all its bloody glory. Running from the 28th April-1st May, four days with twelve films, it was a mix of new films, previews and premieres, along with their retro strand, which this year to honour the 100th anniversary of the classic vampire film Nosferatu was a selection of vampire films.

This was also the 1oth Dundead event, which saw Michael Coull take over as the events programmer replacing Chris O’Neill, although he was there, not only choosing one final film, but also to show his own short film.

If there was a theme among the new films that were shown, it was that they had stories and endings that did leave ambiguity among the audience, certainly with those I spoke with during the event. Personally, I’m a huge fan of endings like that.

THURSDAY – DAY 1

As always, the event opened with the Dundead quiz, which was great fun as always, especially the Nicolas Cage and the sound rounds. But after that, it was on to the films themselves.

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (2021)

The opening film was We’re All Going To The World’s Fair. It’s a terrific film, about a teenage girl who participates in an online game. After she joins however, her behaviour seems to change. But is it real? Or something else?

The film was the debut feature of Jane Schoenbrun, who, according to Michael Could during his introduction for the film, went through her own transition while making the film. In some ways perhaps, her transition is reflected in the behaviour of Casey (very well played by Anna Cobb in her debut). While she lives with her father (who we never see only hear at one point) we never see her with him or with any friends, instead coming over as a rather lonely girl who only finds comfort in watching footage of a woman who may be her mother. But as she takes part in the game and her behaviour changes, we are pondering if it is the game changing her or is she changing to get more views on her online channel?

Into the mix is a man called JLB, who contacts Casey offering to help her after becoming concerned with her comments and behaviour. But does he have his own agenda? Certainly by the film’s end, you are left wondering.

Schoenbrun asks some fascinating questions about online behaviour and also, I feel, takes a look at how it effects mental health. It also captures Casey’s loneliness very well indeed.

While the film does have one very good scare, it’s a more thoughtful, disturbing film than outright horror but one certainly worth watching.

Ganja & Hess (1973)

The first film of the vampire strand was 1973’s Ganja & Hess. It was made when there were several blaxplotation horror films were made, such as the Blacula films and Sugar Hill. In his introduction, Michael Coull stated that the producers of Ganja & Hess expected something like Blacula, but writer and director Bill Gunn wanted to tell a different, potentially more interesting story, adding a twist on the origin of the vampire here.

Dr. Hess Green is stabbed with a ceremonial dagger that turns him into a vampire. His attacker kills himself, but when his wife Ganja arrives to find out what happened to him, she begins a relationship with Hess, before finding out the truth.

It’s as much a film about that relationship as it is vampire film. It was pointed out during the introduction that the producers were unhappy with the finished film and had it cut down in length, but the version screened at Dundead was the complete one. It has good performances from Duane Jones (forever known as Ben in Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead) and Marlene Clark as the leads. It’s a well made, interesting film, a fascinating film of its time, but it did feel a little too long for me.

FRIDAY – DAY 2

Dashcam (2021)

Friday had two more films, starting with a preview screening of Dashcam, the new film from the team that made 2020’s lockdown horror Host. Dashcam was made with Blumhouse, themselves of course no stranger to the horror genre.

The film focuses on Annie Hardy (playing a version of herself) who has what may be considered extreme views on Covid, vaccines, masks and other issues. She has an online channel called BandCar, where she drives around making music. She’s arrived in the UK to see an old friend, but after rows with him and his partner, she steals his car and soon gets caught up in horrific events.

The opening of the film will divide audiences I think, as we meet Annie. To be honest, the opening of the film could leave you angry at her and as she is the main character that could effect how you react to the events that play out.

But, it has to be said, the events start strange, before frankly going insane. It’s quite possibly the wildest found footage film I’ve seen, but I did sit there with a grin on my face as I loved the scares, the gore and everything else.

I’m not sure how it will play when reduced in June, but for me, the team of Gemma Hurley, Rob Savage and Jed Shepherd have pulled of another terrific found footage horror film.

Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)

Interview With The Vampire is a film I saw back in 1994 during its cinema release. To be honest, at the time I found it a bit dull. Based on the novel by Anne Rice, who wrote the script for the film, it has the vampire Louis relating the story of his life, death and life as a vampire to the interviewer.

I had never felt the desire to revisit it. But with it being a part of Dundead, I decided to take a second look.

Looked at now, my opinion of the film has changed. I can’t say if my attitude to film has changed, or if it’s simply I’m older, but I thought it a better film this time round. Director Neil Jordan has made a lavish film, covering over 100 years, but wisely chooses to focus on the characters/vampires of the story. Tom Cruise is very good as Lestat (famously Rice was critical of him in the role before publicly recanting), with good support from Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas. However the film is stolen by a stunning performance from Kirsten Dunst as Claudia, a child turned into a vampire.

I may have found it dull way back, but thought now it was a compelling film.

But both then and now, I do think it is camp as hell!

Saturday – Day 3

After two days, with two films each, Saturday had 4 films on offer, with more vampire films as well as a documentary(?) and folk horror.

Nosferatu (1922)

Is there anything left to say about Nosferatu? 100 years old in 2022 and still one of the creepiest horror films ever made. Freely adapted from Stoker’s Dracula, something that Stoker’s widow took exception to and wanted the film destroyed, which it almost was, may have been one of the first silent films I ever saw. The version shown at Dundead was a restored one, that, unless I’m misremembering, had scenes in it that I don’t recall ever seeing before. But even if not and still the same film I’ve always seen or not, F.W. Murnau’s classic film is a masterpiece and in Max Schreck’s unsettling Cound Orlok has one of films greatest vampires.

Straight To VHS (2021)

Straight To VHS is a curious film. It’s billed as a documentary, about a filmmaker obsessed with a film he watched, trying to find out about the filmmaker only to be met with mystery after mystery both with its making and the enigma of its director.

The film is in three chapters as we seen numerous talking heads, other filmmakers and such talking about the film and the way it was made. There is a mystery as to why no one involved with the making of the film wants to talk publicly about it. It sounds like a compelling story, but in the second chapter it becomes a more conventional film or takes the appearance of one, before a final chapter that doesn’t really add anything to what we had seen to this point.

Manuel Lamas, the director of the film in question, called Act Of Violence In A Young Journalist and the director of Straight To VHS only have the one director’s credit each. It’s as if both are part of a wider mystery, but one that might have been more compelling than the film here.

Upurga (2021)

People go out to the woods. Bad things happen.

As a basic story, it’s turned up many, many times over the years in films. What makes this Latvian folk-horror film stand out, is that while there are touchstones such as Southern Comfort, or Deliverance or even the Wrong Turn films that film might be influenced by, it twists its story in some very intriguing ways indeed. Without giving anything away, it also does something you don’t see often in a horror film, which was a genuine surprise.

Director Ugis Olte has made a creepy folk-horror film, one I liked it a great deal.

Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Like Interview With The Vampire, I hadn’t seen Vampire’s Kiss since I saw it way, way back. I think it was on VHS. Again, like Interview… I didn’t like it. But thinking back on the film, it may have been the first time I saw the full on ‘Nicolas Cage’ performance.

Rewatching the film and despite great work from Jennifer Beals as vampire Rachel, Maria Conchita Alonso as his secretary Alva, Elizabeth Ashley as his psychiatrist and Kasi Lemmons as his on/off again girlfriend, the sheer power of Cage as Peter Loew, an executive who becomes convinced he’s a vampire blows everyone else off screen.

The film is written by Joseph Minion and directed by Robert Bierman and has a tone it quite can’t match up. The comedic aspect works very well indeed. But there are a few more serious moments, that don’t sit well with that tone.

As a vampire film, it’s an oddity, certainly of its time, but worth watching for a full on Cage performance.

*Quick note: Both Interview With The Vampire and Vampire’s Kiss were screened in 35mm. Screenings in this format are becoming rarer sadly, which is a shame as they both looked wonderful on film.*

Before the screening of Vampire’s Kiss, the former programmer of Dundead, Chris O’Neil, said his farewells. Vampire’s Kiss was his selection for this event, but before it we saw a short called Dreams Can’t Hurt You, an experimental film that played around with footage from a notorious horror, Nightmares In A Damaged Brain, going forward and backwards. It is well put it together, and a great, fun short.

Sunday – Day 3

The final day of Dundead brought more Vampires, a domestic ghost story and a genuine surprise.

The Vampire Doll (1970)

The Vampire Doll is a Japanese horror film, one that was inspired by the success both Hammer Horror and Roger Corman with his Poe inspired films. Unlike those films however, The Vampire Doll was sent in present day. It also has influences from other sources too, but to reveal those would give away too much I feel. Like Ganja & Hess, it is a different take on the vampire story, but one I liked very well indeed.

The film was directed by Michio Yamamoto, who had worked with the great Akira Kurosawa in the past and you can see that, both in the look of certain shots and also in one blood soaked shot.

I hadn’t seen The Vampire Doll before, which is part of a loose trilogy apparently, but after seeing it, I will have to check them out too.

I liked this a lot.

Ultrasound (2021)

I never watch trailers when attending film festivals or events. I like to go in blind or know as little as possible before seeing the films being shown. But sometimes, the festival or event will show a trailer or two of the films they show. In the case of Ultrasound, the DCA did screen the film’s trailer but if anything it made the film more intriguing.

To say anything about the plot would do the film an injustice. It’s a very well thought out Sci-Fi thriller that takes its time and reveals its story in clever ways indeed.

Written by Conor Stechschulte and directed by Rob Schroeder, it’s an impressive debut feature from both, which is very well acted by a cast of, to me at least, unknown actors.

If Nosferatu was the best of the vampire films shown at Dundead, Ultrasound was, for me, the best of the new films.

Mlungu Wam (Good Madam) (2021)

There are times when a film focuses on the wrong part of the story. Such was the case with Good Madam. The story of a mother who moves into the house her estranged mother lives in, with her own daughter, it could be considered a domestic drama/ghost story. But whereas the ghost/horror aspect didn’t work for me, as a domestic drama I thought it a very compelling one.

The performances from the cast are good. In a rare move, due to the improvised dialogue in the film, the entire cast are credited as co-writers of the film, alongside director Jenna Cato Bass. She also directs the film well too.

It’s worth watching for the performances and the drama, less so for the horror for me.

Blade (1998)

The final film of Dundead was a screening of Blade, a film nearly 25 years old. And yet looks (aside from a few of the visual effects) like a film made much more recently. The director, Stephen Norrington, has made a superb action superhero horror film, with more emphasis on the action than horror. It’s written by David S. Goyer, who has written or co-written many superhero films over the years, including Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It’s a fast paced film, with some moments of humour to offset the brilliantly staged action.

Wesley Snipes is terrific as Blade with good support from Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson and N’Bushe Wright.

It’s not a Marvel film exactly, certainly not part of the MCU (about to get a new Blade in the form of Mahershala Ali), but it is without doubt one of the best films to feature a Marvel character.

And with the credits rolling, Dundead came to an end. It was another good event, getting the chance to inteact with other fans, to talk about the films and also, thanks to the Jute Bar, a great place for coffee and cake!

With thanks to the staff of the DCA/Jute Bar and especially Michael Coull for programming the event, I look forward to the next one.

Short Story: The Road

It was time.
As he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, David Parker knew it was time. He’d been putting it off and putting it off, but now, the day before he left for university, he knew this was maybe the last chance to confront that unease.

He couldn’t recall exactly when or how it had started, but the thought had been there for years. The road. What was it that bothered him about that road?

David looked at the clock. It had gone just passed 10AM. His parents were off to work and this afternoon he was meeting his friends, those like him heading to colleges and universities around the country, meeting them for one final party. Some he knew he’d likely see again. Others, deep down, he knew he’d likely wouldn’t. Such was life.

He’d already said his goodbyes to Lia, the girl from school he’d been dating. He had loved her, he knew that. But they had both known it was likely their relationship was over. They hadn’t said it was, but she was heading to London to study, while he was going to Edinburgh. A long distance relationship would struggle with such a long road between them.

Road.

That word again. Since he had decided to confront it, the word had become stuck in his thoughts. As he headed to the shower, he reflected what he knew about it. It wasn’t a long stretch of road, about a quarter of a mile of a longer stretch. It ran from the junction of Bridge Street, where he lived and ended up at another junction near a graveyard. It had trees on either side, where he’d seen deer and other animals in there from time to time. Occasionally people too. The road itself wasn’t wide enough for more than one car, but there was a place where one could stop to let someone going the other way through. The whole road ran for maybe two miles, but it was that tree lined quarter that
made him uneasy. Sure, he had walked it with friends, cycled down it, driven it while learning to drive or when in the car with his parents and nothing bad had happened. No maniac with an axe, no dangerous animals, nothing at all.

But the feeling of uneasiness never went away.

As he dressed after the shower, he looked out the window. It was a bright day, looking very warm. Pulling on jeans and a t-shirt, slipping his walking shoes on, preferring wearing them to trainers, he grabbed his phone and a light jacket, just in case.

Making breakfast, his mind wandered to the road again. He’d gone into the town’s heritage centre, looking into its history and while there had been reports of robberies and deaths on that road, there was nothing eventful in over one hundred years.

So why did it bother him so much?

On his final meeting with Lia before she’d left, he had finally mentioned his unease about that road. Lia had smiled, god how he loved her smile, before saying ‘it was something from your childhood maybe?’

Maybe Lia was right. He had never mentioned his unease to his parents, but perhaps there was a memory or event from when he was a child he’d forgotten, something his parents never talked about.

But either way, today he’d confront that unease head on.

Taking his mountain bike, he set off. There was a slight chill in the air and although he wasn’t wearing it, he was glad he’d brought the jacket with him. He would likely need it when he got to his destination.

There were no cars on the road in either direction as he made his way. But as he got closer to the stretch of road, he noticed it. There were no sounds. No animals, no vehicles, not even the wind in the trees. It was a silence that for a moment, made him pause, to consider turning round and heading home. But he kept going.

Then as he turned the corner, onto that piece of road, he stopped. It looked like it always did, a piece of road lined with trees on both sides. He glanced at both sides as he dismounted. Pushing the bike at his side, he began to walk the road.

David looked up at the trees that towered over him. They’d been there long before and would be there long after he was gone.They were completely still. But as he walked, he began to suspect that as he looked at them, the trees were looking back at him.

The light chill he’d felt leaving the house seemed to be getting worse as he walked along. He pulled his jacket on. It was as he did, he heard something.

Something from behind him. Something that he felt was getting closer.

He looked behind him. There was nothing there. Just the corner. A corner that seemed much further away than he thought it should be. David tried to push down that unease, which seemed to be turning into something else. He was becoming afraid. He wanted to get the hell out of there.

He looked forward again, about to get back on the mountain bike, when he saw it. A figure. From where he stood, he couldn’t tell if it was a male or female. What he did know was that the figure was just standing there.

In the middle of the road.

Whoever it was made no attempt to walk towards or away from him, instead stood there. Like one of the trees.

David, not taking his eyes of the figure despite that fear growing steadily inside him, reached into his pocket, getting his cell phone. He would take a picture, to show somehow that his fear of here was real.

As he activated the camera mode, he raised the phone up…

The figure was gone.

David frowned. There’s no way they could have disappeared of the road without him seeing, even into the trees. There was not enough time.

He lowered the camera. He didn’t understand how…

The figure was there. Only closer.

‘Fuck this’ David almost shouted and got onto his mountain bike and turned to head back home.

The figure was in front of him. Still closer.

He looked quickly both ways. The figure was in both directions. Each time closer.

The fear that had been building took over. David began pedalling towards the figure that was between him and the corner. He was going to get passed them and get the hell out of here. The road could keep its hold over him, in his memory but he was done now.

As he cycled towards the corner, the figure stood unmoving. As he moved wide to avoid it, he stole a glance at its face.

His eyes went wide as he let out a scream. He couldn’t take his eyes of the figure as he passed it and was still looking towards it and didn’t see or hear the van that came round the corner…

It was too late by the time the police and ambulance arrived. The death was ruled an accident. According to the van driver, he’d turned the corner and the cyclist was on the wrong side of the road and he couldn’t avoid him.

As the police officer looked at the scene, knowing one of his colleagues would be telling the devastated parents of their son David’s death, he couldn’t help but wonder what it was that made him take the corner on the wrong side of the road. He’d seen the footage captured on the van’s dashcam. The driver had no chance to avoid him. The footage had also seen the fear in the teen’s eyes.

What caused such fear?

He glanced at the road and the trees as if they could offer an explanation to what they had witnessed.

The trees stood, silent and unmoving.

Somehow, that made him uneasy.

Review: Lake Mungo (2008)

A ‘documentary’ about the tragic death of Alice Palmer, who drowns in a lake and the mysterious events that occurred after…

Lake Mungo was made in 2008. I have to admit, I didn’t come across it until much, much later. It first came across my radar when I saw it turning up on lists of the scariest films ever made, or best found footage films. Curiosity got the better of me and eventually had the chance to see it.

I am so glad I did.

The film is the only film made (to date) by Joel Anderson, who wrote and directed the film. He seemed to turn his back on filmmaking after this, though according to the IMDB he did work as a script editor for a recent series on Netflix and is credited as an executive producer on a new horror film currently in pre-production.

As I mentioned, the film is done in the style of a documentary, focusing on the events after Alice drowned and we see interviews with her parents and brothers, friends and such as they talk about her and the pain in the family, then on the events that happen later, which were shot by her brother Matthew and others which might suggest Alice has somehow returned. As secrets are uncovered, more mystery grows, that all lead up to a school trip Alice took to Lake Mungo months before her death.

I won’t say more about the plot and reveals, but the footage we see, including one of the best horror moments I’ve ever seen, does chill you. That the film has the style of a documentary plays into that well, with the consequence that because the interview parts convince, adding to the realism, making the recorded scenes even more chilling.

If Lake Mungo had just been about its chills and scares, on that level it delivers. But the film has so much more to say, about grief, loss and dealing with it. Again, I don’t want to reveal to much, but the film doesn’t just scare you, it is very moving indeed.

The cast headed by Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe and Talia Zucker as the Palmers are terrific. The footage is convincing, the ‘documentary’ parts, have some haunting imagery power themselves. In some ways, even though a different thing totally, it did recall the feeling I had with Peter Weir’s classic, Picnic At Hanging Rock.

During the end credits, some images from the film are repeated, in a new light, as are lines of dialogue at various points during the film. As a consequence of events in the film, they are a final gut punch in not only one of the best found footage films ever, but also in a film that will not only scare you, but will leave you heartbroken and quietly devastated.

Put simply, it’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen.

Rating: ***** out of 5

Review: The McPherson Tape (1989)

In 1983, a family has gathered to celebrate the 5th birthday of the daughter of one of them. One family member is recording everything on camera. But as strange things happen outside, he keeps filming…

I love found footage films. Admittedly they often make no sense, why would you keep filming when being attacked by ghosts, monsters, aliens and such? I’m of the opinion that in a similar situation, the camera is dropped and I’m outta there!

But as a subgenre of horror there have been many great films. There also, it has to be said, a number of bad ones too.

The McPherson Tape was released in 1989. On the 101 Films/AGFA cover it is called the ‘The world’s first found footage horror movie.’ I think 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust may disagree on that. But it is certainly an influential film in the subgenre.

As is often the case in a film like this, the first act of the film introduces the family members and any issues between them, in a way like any family. But then, after seeing strange lights, the brothers go to investigate and set in motion the rest of the film.

The film is written and directed by Dean Alioto. His writing regarding the issues between the family and then how the story develops is good for the most part. He also plays the part of Michael, the one using the camera throughout, which makes sense, allowing him to get the shots he wants.

The performances from the cast are interesting. I use that word, as with the exception of Tommy Giavocchini the rest of the cast didn’t make another film. One the one hand that adds the the ‘mystery of what happened to the family’ (similar to what The Blair Witch Project did with its actors). Another plus is that while the performances vary from okay to weak, in some ways that adds to the feel of the film, that of a film of a normal family caught up in extraordinary events, which makes their reactions more believable in a way.

The film doesn’t resort to a big ending, instead going for something deliberately low key. This may have been due to the low budget (Alioto would go on to do a bigger budgeted remake of sorts, Alien Abduction: Incident In Lake County in 1998), but the ending here works well and if anything is one of the creepiest endings to any found footage film.

The McPherson Tape (also known as U.F.O Abduction has a run time listed as 66 minutes. It might seem a slight running time, but remember the scary laptop horror film, Host runs to only 57 minutes. The McPherson Tape may not be as scary as Host, or any number of found footage horror films, but it is a creepy film in its own way.

And certainly a very influential one.

Rating: ***1/2 out of 5

Review: Studio 666 (2022)

Looking for inspiration for ther tenth album, the rock band Foo Fighters move into an old house to record it, a house where years before members of another rock band, Dream Widow, were killed by one of their members…

Upon hearing that the Foo Fighters had made a horror film, I admit my first reaction was that would be some kind of comedic film, where the band ambles through the story, with no real stakes involved.

Boy was I in for a surprise.

Yes, there are comedic moments in the film, but there is no doubt, this is a horror film. It’s written by Rebecca Hughes and Jeff Buhler, the later of whom has written a few horror films in the past, such as 2019’s Pet Semetary, based on a story by Dave Grohl, the band’s frontman.

The plot can loosely be considered a rock music version of The Evil Dead. But what makes it work is that the band members, while not the best actors, throw themselves totally into their roles.

As for the other actors, Whitney Cummings as their neighbour is great and there are cameos from Jenna Ortega (with the new Scream, X and this perhaps becoming the next horror ‘scream queen’), Will Forte, Kerry Kung (from the band Slayer), John Carpenter (who along with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies provide the opening theme for the film) and a terrific one from Lionel Ritchie.

The film is directed by BJ McDonnell who directed Hatchet III and has worked on other horror films, such as The Conjuring 3 and Malignant. He knows how to make the film work, staging some truly inventive and bloody death scenes for various band members.

If there is an issue with the film I do think it is too long. You could perhaps cut fifteen minutes or so from the film and it would have still have worked well.

But despite that, Studio 666 is a lot of bloody fun. I’m sure there are any number of easter eggs to be found by fans of the bad. But even if you are not a fan, I am not though I do like some of their songs, for horror fans there is plenty to enjoy.

Well worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2 out of 5

Review: The Cellar (2022)

Shortly after moving into a new house, their teenage daughter goes missing after entering the cellar. As her mother investigates what happened, she uncovers that the house and the previous owner hid dark secrets…

There is a poster for this film online, that you can find if you search for it. Normally I would post it at the beginning of the review. I’m not as I think one of the best things about this film, is knowing very little as possible and I feel that poster reveals too much.

The Cellar is written and directed by Brendan Muldowney and has its origins in a short he made back in 2004, called The Ten Steps. It’s a chilling short with a hell of an ending. I don’t know if Muldowney made it with a view to getting The Cellar made at the time or if he chose to revisit that short when making this film, but The Ten Steps still holds up brilliantly and in some ways plays better than the similar scene in this film.

However, as a short it is very creepy. The question for The Cellar though is how to expand the idea into a feature film? Adapting shorts into films doesn’t always work. While I enjoyed 2013’s Mama, I wasn’t so keen on 2016’s feature length version of Light’s Out.

The Cellar falls between these films. I mentioned how the way The Ten Steps plays out and again while it is done well and still chills, it’s not as good here. However, it’s what follows that makes the film work. As the police begin to suspect Ellie has simply run off and will return, her mother Keira begins to think that the cellar holds the key and the more she uncovers about the house and its creator, she realises something dark is down there.

To say anything more I think would reveal too much. As I said, the poster hints to what it is, but when the reveal comes in the film it works well indeed. By taking his time, Muldowney creates a building sense of dread that leads to a powerful, haunting ending that I was impressed with indeed.

The cast are good, lead by Elisha Cuthbert as Keira, with good support from Eion Macken as her husband Brian, Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady as their son Steven and Abby Fitz as Ellie.

While there are a couple of jump scares, it’s to Muldowney’s credit that he doesn’t resort to a film full of them, instead going for that building sense of dread. And that ending.

I was impressed with The Cellar. I found it to be a good film indeed, expanding the short in interesting ways indeed. It was the final film shown at 2022’s Glasgow FrightFest event and as a late night horror, works very well indeed.

Well worth seeing. As is the short, The Ten Steps.

Rating: ***1/2 out of 5

Review: X (2022)

Set in 1979, a van carrying a group of young people arrive at a remote farm, where they plan on making a sex film, something the old couple who own the farm are unaware they are making…

A van of young people, a remote house. You just know that with a setting like that, it will not end well and from the opening of the film, we know it won’t. The film opens with the police arriving at the farm, where there are bodies all over the place. The film then goes back twenty four hours to tell the story of what happened.

X is written and directed by Ti West. His 2009 film The House Of The Devil is a very creepy film indeed. However, aside from his segment in The ABC’s Of Death, I’ve not seen much of his work since. That is something I need to rectify.

His writing for the film is spot on. The script creates interesting characters, not the cliches you may expect normally. While the film does invoke the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it is not beholden the the normal set up you would expect. The first half of the film gives all the characters time to breathe, to develop, so that in the second half when the bloody (and I do mean BLOODY!) carnage begins you do care what happens to all the characters. There’s also a dig at the right wing in America as the old couple spend there time watching a hell and brimstone type preacher on the TV talking about the sin and evil of this world, that leads to a rather clever moment at the end.

The key to this, is in part how West subverts genre cliches. There’s a terrific scene in the film where the filmmakers are talking about attitudes to sex and porn, how they see it as acting and the sex in a film and love are completely different things. There is also a nod, to a degree, about the film itself as they talk about film and how sometimes, such as Psycho, the film can start out as one thing, then head off in a different direction to what is expected. While we know at the beginning how where the film will head, how it gets there is cleverly set up and done.

West directs the film brilliantly, staging some truly tense moments, the stand out being an early one involving one of the characters and an alligator. When the violence happens it is brilliantly staged and plays out very well in some unexpected ways too perhaps. The scenes of the porn film that are shot and we see are well done too.

The cast are terrific. Mia Goth plays the lead Maxine who wants to be a star. There are terrific turns from Brittany Snow (who I didn’t recognise at all), Martin Henderson, Kid Cudi, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure and Jenna Ortega who is Lorraine, a relatively shy woman there to help behind the scenes on the film, but who then finds herself wanting to be in it.

There is a lot to like in X. It’s funny, bloody and revels in it. It’s a slasher film that knows the types of film it is riffing on, but isn’t too knowing or clever about it. Brilliantly written, acted and directed, it’s a lot of fun, squirm inducing at times and I watched with a smile on my face throughout.

Well worth seeing indeed.

Rating: **** out of 5

NOTE: There is a post credit scene.

Netflix Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

The almost deserted town of Harlow is where friends plan to reinvest and bring the town back to life. However, they soon discover that one resident has a man staying with her, one who has hidden away for almost 50 years….

Over the years since Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel unleashed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on the world, its reputation has grown. It’s undoubtedly a horror classic, a film that may well be the most intense, relentless horror film ever made.

In 1986, Hooper made the sequel, one I saw a very long time ago. To be honest, I can’t recall that much about it. But after this we got another seven films, ones trying to continue from Part 2, others being their own thing, we got a remake, a prequel to that, a 3D version and an origin of sorts for Leatherface. There was even a film made in 2000 called All American Massacre, directed by William Tony Hooper (Tobe’s son) that seemingly has never been released. Trying to follow any sort of chronological strand is, likely to be impossible. Of the films made, I did see the remake, the prequel, the 3D one and Leatherface. All these films are by all accounts of varying quality. Of the ones I’ve seen, I have to be honest, I wasn’t impressed with any of them apart from the original classic.

When it was announced they were making another film, it became apparent they were taking the route of 2018’s Halloween, by ignoring all of the films that had followed the original, instead being a direct follow-up. Story-wise too, there is a slight influence of the likes of John Wick (no, really) in that Leatherface has gone into hiding living a quiet life, only to return to violence when a tragedy occurs.

In some ways this is understandable. It means audiences don’t have to go through all the follow-up films to know everything going on. This is partly what made the Halloween film work so well.

But what also made Halloween work well, was bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie and crucially give her a storyline that works. Here, writer Chris Thomas Devlin, working from a story by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues brings back Sally Hardesty, the lone survivor from the original film…then completely waste the character.

Instead the focus is Dante and Melody who are behind the plans to invest in the town, along with Melody’s sister, Lila, who is the survivor of a school shooting and Ruth, Dante’s fiance. As characters, ones you are supposed to care about when the horror and violence begins, they are very poorly written.

In fact, they are so badly written that in first act, you have more sympathy for Leatherface than any of them. Of course as Leatherface goes on the rampage, that sympathy comes back to the others, but you still don’t care enough about them.

But if the film is badly written, the direction from David Blue Garcia isn’t too bad. He stages the violence and death scenes pretty good on the whole. It doesn’t skimp on the gore, as Leatherface cuts loose (literally!), especially when he attacks a bus full of potential investors, who rather than run at the sight of a masked man with a chainsaw, instead use their phones to live stream. It’s a well done set piece, though one that will have the audience eyerolling.

The cast, consisting of Elsie Fisher, Sarah Yarkin, Jacob Latimore, Alice Krige and Olwen Fouere aren’t bad, doing their best with the poorly written characters. Mark Burnham makes an effective Leatherface too.

But the overall feel of the film is that lacks something, that spark to really bring it to life. The run time is listed (on the IMDB as 81 minutes and yet it feels longer. The ending goes on too long, but whereas the original as intense and relentless with the horror in its last act, here, the ending does feel long. They end was predictable, although the post-credit scene was a nice little moment, though it brings up more questions than answers.

I mentioned I’d only enjoyed the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre film. Sadly there is nothing in this new film to elevate it above any of the films that followed in its wake.

Disappointing.

Rating ** out of 5

Review: Scream (2022)

After her sister Tara is attacked by someone in a ghostface mask, Sam Carpenter returns to Woodsboro to find help and discovers the attack is linked to the original series of murders 25 years earlier…

When it came out in 1997, Scream gave the slasher movie a huge shot in the arm, balancing humour and the violence in a film that not only knew the tropes for this kind of film, but also knew that the audience knew the rules. As a consequence, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven came up with a film that had fun playing around with those rules.

There were a series of sequels, up until 2011’s Scream 4, all directed by Wes Craven with Williamson returning for the sequel and Part 4, with Ehren Kruger writing Part 3. While all were well directed by Craven, story-wise they were of mixed quality, the third being the worst for me, they all touched on film and horror trends to various degrees.

This new film, actually the fifth film but like 2018’s Halloween reverting to calling itself Scream, it too touches those similar trends, in this case what they call a ‘requel’, a film that revisits an earlier film in a series, usually the first, but takes the story in a way that leaves previous films out of the story. Unlike Halloween, which ignored all the sequels, instead being a sequel to Carpenter’s original, this Scream film acknowledges the previous films, but ties its story directly to the original.

It also addresses the characters of the original, or the s0-called legacy characters. Often in a film series the character from the original film never return, or turn up in a cameo in one of the later films. With the first four films focusing on Sidney, Gale and Dewey, it was always going to happen that they would return, but the question is how and in what manner?

It would be easy to inadvertently give away too much of the story, so I will say no more than I did on the beginning of the review in that regard. What I can say however, is that as a film, I was sadly disappointed with it.

While the writing standard may vary throughout the first four films, what made them work was the late, great Wes Craven’s sense of playfulness. He balanced the moments of humour and violence very well indeed and also created some truly scary sequences, the opening of the first film with Drew Barrymore, is an all time horror classic.

Here however, writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick and directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett can’t get that balance right. It’s a more serious film that the previous ones. That would be fine but the story sadly does turn into a rehash of the first one. The opening scene borrows heavily from the originals classic opening and the ending does the same. It also feels like the death scenes are more brutal and in a way sadistic than in the previous films. However, the film does make some interesting points on fandom and their expectations and demands.

It also can’t balance the new characters with the ‘legacy’ ones. As a consequence, while Sidney (Neve Campbell) and Gale (Courtney Cox) return, they are more extended cameos rather than really being meaningful to the whole story. Only Dewy (David Arquette) really gets a lot of screen time here. I understand that, the film has to introduce the new characters, but by focusing on them, the film wastes the returning ones.

Of the new characters, Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) get enough development. The rest of the new characters, don;t really get that much screentime and as a consequence, you don’t really care if they are killed or not.

The cast are good in their roles and its not badly directed, but the spark, the playfulness that Wes Craven brought to the series is not here. Instead, by rehashing aspects of the original, it just reminds you of what this film is missing.

And what is misses over everything else, is Wes Craven.

Sadly, this new Scream film is nothing to Scream about.

Rating: ** out of 5

Review: Friday The 13th (1980)

As a group of counselors prepare Camp Crystal Lake for reopening, despite its past notoriety, a mysterious killer is picking them off one by one…

The origins of the slasher movie can go back many years. Hitchcock’s Psycho is often cited as an influence, as is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom both from 1960. To think that two of the greatest filmmakers of all time were involved in the birth of the slasher film is extraordinary in itself and then throw into the mix Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Indians, later filmed as And Then There Were None has the idea of bringing a group of people to a remote location and then a killer picks them off. Truly auspicious origins indeed. And this is before you get to the likes of Mario Bava’s Blood And Black Lace or A Bay Of Blood, British film The Haunted House Of Horror to name three. All have an influence of their own.

Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) brought a lot of the ideas of what makes up a slasher film together in a chilling film; an unseen killer, a group of sorority girls in their house and some brutal murders all set around a specific date, here Christmas. There are some that would consider it the first slasher film.

And then there is John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Much like Black Christmas, it is set around a specific date, as a masked killer stalks three girls babysitting. Carpenter stripped out everything from the story he didn’t need and came up with a truly scary film indeed. The murders are brutal, but not the focus as he and co-writer Debra Hill create characters you care about.

It’s success did not go unnoticed. But if Halloween was the film that sparked a boom in this type of film, the film that perhaps was the biggest influence on what followed was Friday The 13th.

In his book Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman pointed out that a film of this type was cheap to make. Take a group of (mostly) unknown actors to a remote or isolated location, sometimes have a director and older star, both past their prime and away you go. If you look at the casts of those slasher films, Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander and even Tom Hanks appeared in them to varying degrees.

Friday The 13th, has the cast of unknowns, with the possible exception at the time of Kevin Bacon, who had been in the previous year’s Animal House. It’s interesting watching it again how after the title comes up on screen, the first credit after isn’t any of the actors, but the director of photography Barry Abrams. It’s understandable as he is the key to the film. We do see a lot of shots from the killer’s point of view as they move around the camp watching and stalking the counselors and they are done very well indeed. Everyone starts somewhere I guess.

Of the cast, while Kevin Bacon is the most well known, the performances from them all are pretty good. Betsy Palmer gets top billing, even though she only appears in the final act, but is very good as is Adrienne King as Alice, who becomes, as the film progresses, the final girl.

Victor Miller’s script (which was worked on by an uncredited Ron Kurtz) sets up its story with a flashback, before moving to the present day. IT sets the tone early, with an unseen killer attacking two counselors in the pre-credit scene. It then slows down to introduce the characters while also beginning the murder spree. The film also does a well in hiding the killer’s identity until they turn up in the final act. Up until then, the killer could be anyone, even one of the counselors. Of course, when they do, it is glaringly obvious.

At the time of making the film, Sean S. Cunningham was perhaps best known as the producer of Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left. Needing a hit, he took on the project. He directs the film well, giving the characters and story time to breathe balancing this aspect with the death scenes. The only misstep perhaps being the motorcycle cop who turns up for, frankly, no apparent reason. That said, the film does end with a nod to another classic horror, Carrie, which would in turn set up the sequels to come, even if Cunningham and others that it was a stupid way to go.

Tom Savini did the special effects for the film. He has a reputation of of often directing the sequences where the effects will appear himself. I don’t know if he did that here but his effects are impressively done indeed. Even today they are still good.

Henry Manfredini’s score is very good, creating the “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma” which would appear throughout the films that followed.

Friday The 13th was released in 1980 and was a huge success. In its wake many films along similar lines would follow; Slumber Party Massacre, Prom Night, Terror Train, He Knows Your Alone to name a few, all to varying degrees of success. They continue making them right up to this day, with the Scream films, the superb Freaky, even a recent reworking of Black Christmas.

As for Friday The 13th, it spawned a series of films up to 2001’s Jason X (Jason in space!). We also have had a remake of the first one in 2009, though it took elements of the first three films and a Freddy vs. Jason film in 2003. Some are highly thought of by fans, others less so.

Of the films that sparked or influenced the slasher film boom, Friday The 13th is not even close to being the best one. But of the films that followed in its wake and success, it perhaps had more influence than the films that it was inspired by itself.

And looked at now, it still holds up very well.