Friday, 29 October 2010

What Possessed Them?

15 – 90mins – 2010
Story by: Michael R. Perry
Screenplay by: Michael R. Perry, Christopher B. Landon, Tom Pabst
Directed by: Tod Williams
Starring: Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Tim Clemens, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat


[SPOILERS] Last year’s Paranormal Activity was a monster hit in both respects of the phrase. Made on a miniscule budget in one location with a tiny crew and unknown actors, Oren Peli’s supernatural psychological horror was a genuinely distressing affair which left audience’s utterly petrified, without depicting anything more than a crumpled old photograph and a smashed picture frame. God, we’re such wimps!

Given the overwhelmingly positive word of mouth and humungous box office returns, a follow-up really was a no-brainer, even if Katie (Featherstone) and Micah’s (Sloat) story had rather abruptly come to a close. But this wouldn’t be Hollywood if they weren’t able to find some “ingenious” way to capitalise on their properties and squeeze as much money from the brand name as was (in)humanly possible.

So just twelve months later Paranormal Activity 2 takes a bow at the Halloween 2010 box office, although it’s technically a prequel to the original (a bug bear of mine given the numeric implication it is second in the sequence…), expanding upon Katie and Micah’s woes by introducing us to Katie’s sister, Kristi Rey (Grayden), whom we are already aware was plagued by a supernaturally paranoid upbringing.

Presented in an identical handheld/security cam style of “recovered” footage (again without titles or credits, adding a chilling sense of realism by not taking you out of the diegetic reality), this sequel documents the homecoming of Kristi and husband Dan’s (Boland) newborn son Hunter with snapshots of his first months, but the pace slows when the family’s house is broken into (or so they presume) and surveillance cameras are installed to catch any future culprits.

What the hidden cameras detect is far more disconcerting than a random ransacking, however, as pool cleaners miraculously elevate out of the water, Hunter’s baby mobile spins of its own accord, Dan’s teenage daughter Ali (Ephraim) is locked out of the house by a phantom gust of wind and the family’s German Shepard, Abby, is hospitalised after an attack from thin air.

Ali is in equal parts fascinated and freaked by their haunted house as she scours the internet for answers which only hint at the bigger picture, while events take an unsettling slide into the demonic when Kristi is violently dragged by the malevolent spirit into the cellar and re-emerges vacant and unresponsive but with a worryingly protective attitude towards her baby son…

Okay, I’ll admit it: Paranormal Activity 2 was, like its predecessor, a truly tense and jumpy horror. It freaked the hell out of me for hours afterwards; particularly Kristi’s unsettlingly possessed bawls. It was also a remarkably unifying film in that the audience I saw it with seemed to react in harmony with one another. Strangers from across the cinema were calling out in agreement when people screamed or laughed at a faux-thrill. Normally this behaviour would irritate the crap out of me, but in this case it just confirmed that this horror was a resounding and unparalleled success.

But – and this is the crux – as competent as the scares were, at the back of my mind was the niggling query: is this film really necessary? It was clever to interweave the narrative with the original story, granted, but the reasoning for inflicting the original film’s events upon sister Katie was a tad laboured to say the least.

Ultimately, however, this sequel didn’t bring anything new to the table, either: things go bump in the night, again, household appliances move, fall and turn themselves on, again, doors spring open without being pushed, again, a character consults – but ultimately ignores – a ouiji board, again, someone gets pulled forcibly through the house by their leg, again... But other than the family’s housekeeper burning incense and chanting, nobody makes an exerted effort to exorcise the baby-fixated blighter!

Disappointingly, nothing is made of the iconic trailer climax with Hunter visible in the mirror but not in his cot. Furthermore, nothing is made of the creepy message scrawled on the glass, and the often-used image of a hooded Kristi (or is it Katie? Irrelevant now) standing ominously in the nursery doorway is also nowhere to be seen in the film. All this intrigue and mystery came to nothing; a fantastically tantalising trailer which did its job in getting the fans talking, but was ultimately packed with a raft of red herrings...

Surprise, surprise, the actual film’s conclusion was left open for more (and given the opening weekend gross, it is looking more and more likely), but I just hope that Paranormal Activity doesn’t become the new Saw with a new, ever-diminishing entry every Halloween. There are only so many times that an invisible enemy can freak out a cinema full of punters by dropping a pan from a kitchen rack before the paranormal becomes predictably normal.

In a CR@B Shell: Just as frightening as the original, if hardly breaking any new ground in expanding upon Katie and Micah’s story. A sleepless night will follow, but please, Paramount , don’t make a third…

Monday, 25 October 2010

Working Raves and Night

15 – 81mins – 2010
Story by: Evan Charnov
Screenplay by: Evan Charnov and Hans Rodionoff
Directed by: Dario Piana
Starring: Corey Feldman, Taint Phoenix, Jamison Newlander, Casey B. Dolan, Seb Castang, Stephen van Niekerk, Joe Vaz, Felix Mosse, Matthew Dylan Roberts, Porteus Xandau Steenkamp


Some 21 years after Kiefer Sutherland headlined Joel Schumacher's vampire/rock/punk classic, 2008 saw the release of Lost Boys: The Tribe. More an updated retread of the iconic original than an all-new story, this belated sequel met with mixed reviews, with many pouring scorn on a film which would dare slander the brilliance of the 1987 touchstone. Personally, I never had a problem with The Tribe, although any film starring The O.C. hottie Autumn Reeser is looked on favourably by this smitten CR@B.

Disgruntled fanboys aside, clearly The Tribe brought in enough moolah for the producers to recognise they had a serious cash cow on their hands, and it was inevitable that another instalment would soon follow. That instalment is Lost Boys: The Thirst, once more bypassing the big screen and released straight to home platforms in time for Halloween 2010. Umm... Yay?

Lifelong vampire hunter and comic book collector Edgar Frog (Feldman) not only returns for a third (s)take, but returns to the fore once more after standing on The Tribe's periphery, with Mr. Feldman signing up as Executive Producer, too. Clearly Corey feels strongly about the future of the franchise which not only launched but sustained his career through the deathly quiet lows, and he even had a creative hand in The Thirst's conception. With such enthusiasm at its core, quite how this threequel turned out to be one of the most ludicrous disappointments I have ever seen is beyond me...

It started so promisingly, too: the film looks great and has plenty of scope. It doesn't skimp on action or locations and even on flaw-enhancing Blu-ray the production values are surprisingly first rate. However, it all too quickly becomes clear that The Thirst is more comedy than horror, with everyone overacting like wide-eyed amateurs and delivering a rut of appallingly cringeworthy one-liners. Alas, Feldman is prime suspect with his nye-unbearable gravelly drawl making Christen Bale's Batman sound like Prince on helium, while Edgar dryly delivers such witticisms as “Vinyl still shreds” after slicing a vamp's neck with a snapped record.

The Lost Boys never took itself all too seriously, granted, but The Thirst ramps up the yacks to an embarrassing extreme where you almost question whether you're watching a spoof. Cheesy, self aware and supposedly satirical digs at Twilight-alike vampire romance novels, reality TV and social networking don't exactly help matters, with sour trailer tramp Edgar begrudgingly partnered with pompous faux-lebrity Lars van Goetz (van Niekerk) to hunt for author Gwen Lieber's (Phoenix) lost brother Peter (Mosse).

Plum-mouthed Gwen believes youngster Peter has been lured by vampires while at a rave in Ibiza, with DJ X (Castang) and his fanged lackey's distributing the blood of the alpha vampire masked as viles of the eponymous “drug” The Thirst to create a following of subservient half vampires who also know how to have a freakin' good time. Coincidently, DJ X's illegal party is on its way to the sunny beach town of San Cazador, meaning Edgar and his rag-tag cohorts don't have far to go to mash some monsters.

There are plenty of references and callbacks to absent characters from the original film – including an emotional graveyard tribute to recently departed Corey Haim – with director Piana incorporating vital 1987 scenes to great sentimental effect, especially given other Frog brother Alan's (Newlander) hallowed return to the series this time around. Alas, grown up Feldman and Newlander's obvious exhilaration and over-egged banter just comes across as desperate after over a decade in a career nadir.

True, the writers have been brave in pushing The Lost Boys in a new direction here – The Thirst is an original story which homages the past while also looking to the future – but it's a big risk with such a popular property which simply doesn't pay off: the modern-infusion of drug/rave culture just brings back bad memories of concert shots from Queen of the Damned and that much derided scene from The Matrix Reloaded, while the reworking of iconic rock track “Cry Little Sister” squeezed into two high-octane acts evokes a smile which not even an entire film full of techno beats and glow sticks can match.

There are just too many laughable flaws which make you lose interest in the horror at this vampire flick's core. For instance: van Goetz is hired to help save Peter from the undead, but he's so stubbornly certain that they don't exist that even when he and his ever-present cameraman Lars (Vaz) discover Peter sedated and chained up in the underground lair that he walks away, stating it's “too early” in this “roleplaying game” to rescue the teen before he's kicked some emo goth ass first. Y'know, for the camera...

Without ruining the climax for anyone brave enough to sit through the meagre 81 minute run time, my jaw hit the floor in utter disbelief at the frog-jumping, franchise-destroying epilogue tease which is ripped straight out of Lesbian Vampire Killers (seriously) and leaves you wondering exactly what the hell the creative minds being The Thirst were smoking (or drinking)... Watch this dire joke at your peril: The Lost Boys will never be the same again.

In a CR@B Shell: This third entry in the revived vamp-chise looks fang-tastic but lets itself down as soon as any of the dire cast utter a word of the pun-laden script. A lame mockery to the original's legacy which definitely won't leave you thirsting for more.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Blu-ray Nasty

18 – 87mins – 1981
Written by: Sami Raimi
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, Theresa Tilly


I have been on something of a horror movie binge of late. Given the time of year, it is somewhat apt that I should be viewing as many schlocky scare-fests as possible. But as easy as it would seem to splash around the claret and the prosthetic limbs and proclaim “THIS IS THE SCARIEST FILM OF ALL TIME!!!”, many modern genre flicks just come across as humorous rather than horrific. Sometimes, dear Hollywood, less is more.

One classic example where this adage is definitely not the case, however, is Sam Raimi’s seminal video nasty The Evil Dead. Approaching 30 years old, the restored and remastered recent Blu-ray release (out just in time for October 31st – coincidence much?!) gave me a perfect excuse to finally check out this iconic landmark in extreme X-rated entertainment.

And please indulge me with this outpouring prior to the review proper, but ohmygoodgod what a furious, fun and freaky thrill ride this monster of a movie is! Why did it take me 26 years to finally watch this? How had I not sought this out sooner? How quickly can I get hold of Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness?!

Admittedly the film’s plot, by today’s jaded standards, sounds rather corny and contrived: a group of college students head to a mountain retreat for a weekend of sex, drugs and rollicking laughter, only to inadvertently unleash hell on earth when they discover the flesh-lined Book of the Dead and listen to the recorded research tapes they find in the isolated cabin’s cellar; freeing a horde of supernatural beasts by replaying the demonic incantations therein.
It really is the simplest of set-ups, but from the moment cynical sketcher Cheryl (Sandweiss) is lured into the forest and brutally raped by the trees (yep, you read that correctly), you know you’re in for an insanely intense and shamelessly excessive hour and a half. The five students – bar Bruce Campbell’s cult-hero everyman Ash – are one-by-one possessed by the so-called Kandarian demons and go on psychotic rampages in an attempt to spook then infest their mortal pals.

Just when you think you’ve seen enough maniacal madcappery to last you a month of Halloween’s, Sam Raimi takes things a step (or stone staircase) further – from obliterated bodies still quivering on the floor to eye gouging, beheading, fire poker impaling and hands being chewed from their arms – but all with a wickedly black sense of humour. I found myself roaring with laughter just as often as I was wincing at the frenzied imagery.

The otherworldly make-up is as outrageously cheesy and unsubtle as the action, with the possessed “deadites” looking like face-painted kids after a birthday party food fight, and a stop-motion climax does expose the film’s age in these overtly smooth high definition times, but the attention to detail and Raimi’s budget-restricted dedication to throw everything and the cellar’s film projector at the audience is simply inspirational and must be marvelled at to be believed.

The Evil Dead is certainly not for the easily scared, queasy or offended (I did mention the tree rape, right…?), but against your better judgement you’ll find yourself utterly engrossed in the vile chaos, if only to find out how far they’ll take things next. As Raimi’s first feature film, this is an amazingly proficient accomplishment with the auteur maintaining a persist level of tension and showing off a slew of effective directorial techniques (particularly the P.O.V. presence of the roaming spirits). And to think, the best is yet to come (and no, I don’t mean Spiderman 3…).

In a CR@B Shell: Sure, some of the effects have dated, but even in 2010 The Evil Dead still can’t be beaten as a rip-roaring, gross-out hullabalooza. Relentless frights and frivolity juxtapose wildly in this absurd controversy-touter which really must be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Beyond Barrow

18 – 92mins – 2010
Screenplay by: Steve Niles and Ben Katai
Based upon the graphic novel by: Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
Directed by: Ben Katai
Starring: Kiele Sanchez, Rhys Coiro, Mia Kirshner, Harold Perrineau, Doira Baird, Ben Cotton, Troy Ruptash


Back in 2007, David Slade’s big screen adaptation of graphic novel sensation 30 Days of Night assured its position as not only my favourite film of that year, but as one of my favourite films of all time. The feral portrayal of the vampire clan descending upon the isolated Alaskan community of Barrow as the sun descended for the eponymous duration left me as chilled as the terrified characters hiding in the snow-steeped settlement.

When a sequel was announced – based upon the franchise’s second comic installment and once again co-written by creator Steve Niles – there was no doubt in my mind that this was a must see follow-up, and my enthusiasm wasn’t even dampened when it became clear that this was to be a direct-to-video offering with the original’s only surviving character – Sherriff’s wife Stella Oleson – being played by a different actress.

I will state right from the off that Dark Days does not reach the same heights as its gloriously unreserved predecessor – perhaps due to a smaller budget and a less original concept – although it does do a sufficient job of expanding the in-story universe and not resting on 30 Days’s laurels, for which it must be commended.

For starters, flashbacks aside, we are no longer in decimated Barrow, but following grieving Stella (Sanchez) as she tours America in a futile attempt to convince the world of the fanged horrors hiding in the shadows. Her only support comes in the form of mysterious tip-offs from a correspondent called Dane (Cotton), that is until she joins forces with three likewise vamp-aggrieved victims and they set out to bring down the bloodsucking network by taking out the big bad vampire queen Lilith (Kirshner).

Kiele Lost Sanchez is an adequately tight-lipped replacement for “busy” Melissa George, while Kirshner does what she can with limited characterisation but buckets of style. Unfortunately it diminishes the effect of the animalistic sun-shy hordes when they are merely doing someone else’s bidding, and when Lilith’s attacking skills are eventually put to the test, it is hard to believe that she demanded such respect among her fearsome kind.

I enjoyed the crossovers and call backs to the original film – the vampire hunters board an Arctic-bound ship on course to carry out an analogous attack; Agent Norris (Ruptash) is a “bug eater” desperate to be turned, much like the locked-up lackey in Barrow – while a shocking revelation breathes life into the vampire mythos and leads to a surprising twist in the tale, but in other areas Dark Days falls somewhat short.

The human team of Paul (Coiro), Amber (Baird) and Todd (Perrineau) are one dimensional to the extreme, and for supposedly skilled hunters their “plan” of breaking in to the vampire’s tunnel lair armed with guns – despite admitting bullets only slow the undead down – and a torch (!!) is shoddy to the extreme, while a sex scene seemed totally out of step with Stella’s emotional stance and appeared to only be included to spice up the rating and make Paul more relevant to the story.

I definitely didn’t detest Dark Days, indeed it seemed quite polished for a non-theatrical release, but my hopes were far too high after the inspired original and no sequel could have lived up to that in my mind. There are flashes of class (look out for the symmetry between two vital scenes) and plenty of brutal violence and excessive gore to keep the sadists happy, but all too often Ben Katai’s sequel is submerged in a cavern of cliché and clambers out looking far too familiar.

In a CR@B Shell: Dark, dank but not dismal, Dark Days is an above average budget-conscious effort, retaining 30 Days of Night’s atmosphere without retelling a replica story. Pity the characterisation wasn’t sharper as your empathy may evaporate to ash.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Coffin Fit

Cine Review: BURIED
15 – 94mins – 2010
Written by: Chris Sparling
Directed by: Rodrigo Cortés
Starring: Ryan Reynolds


[SPOILERS] After a summer of spectacle stuffed, CGI crammed, bloated blockbusters, what a breath of fresh air this little Spanish/Australian film is: one actor, one minuscule set, one almighty twist, gallons of tension and not a jot of artificial light or computer gimmickry. Maybe it's true what the Oulipian's say: sometimes the best results are bred from the tightest restrictions – and Buried is, quite literally, the epitome of restricted expression.

Ryan Reynolds is utterly superb as American truck driver Paul Conroy, a working class family man whose convoy is attacked while delivering appliances in Iraq. He awakens gagged and bound in the pitch black of a wooden coffin with only a zippo lighter and a mobile phone with intermittent signal. This will be his – and our – prison for the next hour and a half as the camera tracks awkwardly but skillfully around the claustrophobic location. The only contact we have with the outside world are the voices we hear on the other end of Paul's mobile phone.

Cynics may have considered funnyman Reynolds to be something of a risk as the sole actor in a ambitious and dramatic film, the success of which rests solely on his lightweight shoulders. Thankfully he more than delivers a genuine and affecting performance loaded with gravitas as an anxiety-ridden everyman in a nightmarishly terrifying abnormal situation.

Your blood will escalate and your heart will be in your mouth as Paul's desperate dial-outs for help reach many a frustrating dead end: his family's answer machine, an unhelpful 911 operator (Anne Lockhart), inhumane employer Alan Davenport (Stephen Tobolowsky) and protocol-following kidnap specialist Dan Brenner (Robert Paterson – no, not him), all the while receiving chilling phone demands from his terrorist captor (Jose Luis Garcia Perez).

The clock is ticking and the air is running out in this real-time thriller as Paul begs Dan to pay his captor's $1 million ransom demand by 9pm and release him from his underground hell. The darkness is terrifying as time passes with just the sound of Paul's intense breathing as a soundtrack: tension mounts to a heart pounding crescendo as futility sets in and options dwindle.

Writer Chris Sparling and director Rodrigo Cortés's tribute to Hitchcockian concepts is clarified with a familiarly dynamic title sequence, but Buried is an aspiring success in its own right which will stay with you long after the air runs out.

In a CR@B Shell: Sparling, Cortés and Reynolds squeeze the maximum tension from the smallest of set-ups. Buried is a masterclass in suspense which plunges us six feet under for 94 tense, uneasy but powerful minutes.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Mirth of the Living Dead

15 – 100mins – 2003
Written by: Michael and Peter Spierig
Directed by: Michael and Peter Spierig
Starring: Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dirk Hunter, Emma Randall, Noel Sheridan, Gaynor Wensley, Eleanor Stillman, Robyn Moore

Meteor showers, acid rain, a zombie uprising, killer fish, ghostly apparitions and alien abductions – you certainly can’t accuse the Spierig brother’s first feature of being uneventful. But anyone – myself included – watching this wild Australian horror in the wake of their 2009 breakthrough hit Daybreakers should not be expecting a tonally analogous ride. Pity, then, that Anchor Bay recently repackaged the film with a misleadingly dour cover...

Whereas the twin auteur’s future-set vampire apocalypse was a furiously severe and sombre horror, 2003’s Undead is a madcap tongue-in-cheek affair which packs as many laughs as gloriously embellished deaths into its 100 zany minutes. Strictly speaking it’s not a parody, although Michael and Peter do little to disguise their “splatstick” influences: this is essentially The Evil Dead (1981) mating with Bad Taste (1987) in George A. Romero’s cellar.

You can therefore be certain that you won’t be able to keep a straight face as the townsfolk of fishing community Berkeley start developing a taste for brain matter and a spiky extraterrestrial barricade quarantines the human survivors alongside their undead neighbours. Mungo McKay camps it up as the eccentric outsider Marion who is never short of a gun or twelve, leading the shabby mortal resistance against the torrents of supernatural activity.

Just when you think Undead can’t possibly get any wackier, the Spierig brothers throw in another comic book nemesis for our wearied protagonists to battle, bludgeon and behead. It’s all farcically over the top and riotous fun, but the busy plot does begin to feel rather scattershot in its approach, as if a multitude of genre elements are being shoehorned in just for the sake of it.

Nevertheless, anyone who fancies a chortle at a pair of bodiless legs stumbling aimlessly in search of a torso is in for a treat: Undead is unquestionably a tour de force of carnage and comedy. Lamentably, as the credits rolled I was left with a prevailing sense of frustration, trying desperately to work out how the haphazard plot strands pulled together to reach such a crazy conclusion. Perhaps I was paying too much attention…?

In a CR@B Shell: More farcical than frightening, Undead is a hyperbolic homage to old school horror comedy which is best watched in a braindead, booze-addled state.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Wideboys versus Lost Boys

18 – 89mins – 2010
Based on an idea by: Garry Charles and Steve Lawson

Story by: Steve Lawson, Nick Onsloe, Jonathon Sothcott
Screenplay by: Ben Shilito
Directed by: Steve Lawson
Starring: Craig Fairbrass, Billy Murray, Dexter Fletcher, Lisa McAllister, Steven Berkoff, Jason Flemying, Danny Midwinter, Ricky Grover


It's a novel idea for a genre mash-up, I'll give the horde of contributing writers that: Cockney gangsters take on Romanian vampires in the battle for a gentleman's club built on cursed land. Fist fights, firearms, funbags and fangs – it could have been a feast of frightening and frenzied fury. Shame, then, that Dead Cert is a disjointed and occasionally unfocused affair which at times verges on the dull. A case of too many cooks maul the broth, perhaps...?

On the opening night of his new East End club, Paradise, small time gangster Freddie Frankham (Craig Faibrass) gets an unexpected offer from an uninvited guest, Eastern European Dante Livienko (Billy Murray): if Freddie's brother – bare fist brawler Dennis (Danny Midwinter) – can beat Dante's Romanian heavyweight (Dave Legeno), Frankham will scoop £3million, but if Dennis loses, Freddie will lose Paradise...

Such promise – especially with an 18 rating – but we barely get a flash of fang for the first 45 minutes. Whereas this surprise supernatural reveal worked wonders in From Dusk Til Dawn (1995), director Steve Lawson's long game approach just comes across as painfully slow to get going. Furthermore, when the ironically renamed club Inferno finally explodes into a deadly bloodbath, the shift in gear feels distinctly contrasting in tone.

Steven Berkoff plays the clichéd “madman” whose rabid warnings of death to all who cross the legendary “Wolf” go unheeded until the club is painted claret. The film's backstory - which stretches across the globe and dates back 500 years (even Jack the Ripper is dragged into the mix) - is so convoluted that it requires a double page essay in the booklet to help explain things, despite the Wolf/Livienko mystery being painfully obvious.

At a lean 89 minutes it just feels like Dead Cert ends far too soon, squandering its elaborate mythology by tying everything up quick-smart with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from go-to working man Danny Dyer. Lawson instead seems far more interested in CGI blood splatters and an orgy of vamp/gangster (vampster?) head-to-head scraps than a satisfying narrative.

It doesn't help that Billy Murray is an incredibly weak central villain, much less Romanian vampire. True, he is meant to be more deadly than his distinguished appearance suggests, but I am so used to seeing him as an honourable copper on The Bill that it is seriously hard to fear him as an imposing figure. When Freddie questions Livienko's lack of an Eastern European accent you can't help but think “miscasting cover-up”.

For all this Britsh horror's flaws, I was impressed by how the undead were not simply demonised blood-hungry husks when they reawaken: Ricky 'Orrible Grover is so devastated by his new existence that he stakes himself, while – SPOILER ALERT! – Dennis retains brain damage in the afterlife from his fatal final fight. Sadly, the minute the neck-biters open their mouths they sound like Stephen Hawking on autotune and all suspense evaporates.

In a CR@B Shell: With such a mouthwatering Underworld-meets-Underworld concept, it's a shame that Dead Cert is such a boring clash of hardcore genres. Things liven up in the second half, but the mythology suffers at the fangs of hyperbolic gore.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Prison Monkeys

15 – 96mins – 2010
Screenplay by: Paul Scheuring
Based on the novel “Black Box” by Mario Giordano, and the film
Das Experiment (2001)
Directed by: Paul Scheuring
Starring: Adrien Brody, Forest Whitaker, Cam Gigandet, Clifton Collins Jnr., Ethan Cohn, Damien Leake, Travis Fimmel, David Banner, Fisher Stevens and Maggie Grace


Eight years ago now, whilst I was away studying at university, a housemate of mine introduced me to a German film called Das Experiment (2001). He promised me that I would be utterly engrossed yet equally appalled by the psychological terrorism employed by the characters – a group of strangers being paid to take part in the titular study – and it would really make me question the term “humanity”. He wasn't wrong.

Almost a decade later and Hollywood has belatedly done what Hollywood does best (ahem) and remade a foreign language film which never needed to be remade, drafting in big name stars (Adrien Brody, Forest Whitaker) and well known faces (Maggie Lost Grace, Cam The O.C. Gigandet, Fisher Short Circuit Stevens) to show their range in this cruel and gritty prison observation gone very, very wrong.

That being said, as the credits rolled on The Experiment, I was just as riled up and exasperated by the narrative as I was in my dorm room back in 2002: this adaptation loses none of its potency in the translation as the designated “guards” – among them mild-mannered Christian mummy's boy Barris (Whitaker) – see the power of authority go straight to their heads as their treatment of the “inmates” – including recently unemployed carer Travis (Brody) – spirals into sadism.

It may seem incredulous that within 48 hours of the proposed 14 day study civility starts to crack as the guards enjoy their temporary authority a little too much, believing they can get away with whatever the hell they like providing the revered red light doesn't turn on and indicate that big brother is unhappy, but The Experiment bares a horrifically close resemblance to the real life 1971 Stanford prison experiment, itself likewise aborted just six days into a two week trial: this shit actually happened, people!

My initial reaction was that it seemed remiss of writer/director Paul Scheuring to not reveal study leader Archaleta's (Stevens) reasons for delaying the cancellation of his controversial research, especially after bullying and cruelty is asserted upon the “prisoners”; but in hindsight the director made the correct choice, plunging us too into the mock penal environment, forever looking to the red light for guidance.

Whether in German or English, The Experiment is a tortuous and difficult watch, there's no denying that. You'll pick your side and you'll question everything as common decency gets dunked down the toilet and your sense of guilt is shoved into solitary confinement all in the name of a $14,000 paycheck. Is it true what they say: are we all just animals in suits who will turn feral the minute law is placed in our greedy paws?

In a CR@B Shell: As psychotic as it is psychological, The Experiment is a brutally shocking Lord of the Flies for grown-ups. It will enrage and upset your moral code, but you won't be able to look away.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Creed Corrupts

18 – 100mins – 2009
Written by: J. Blakeson
Directed by: J. Blakeson
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Eddie Marsan, Martin Compston

From oily Bond Girl to country slapper, via guardian Goddess and Persian Princess, it's been quite a breakthrough couple of years for Kent-born actress Gemma Arterton, so it was intriguing to see the A-lister who would be Tamara Drewe in a gritty and low key indie thriller – especially one which demanded her to be gagged and tied up for ninety percent of the shoot.

Arterton certainly has a rough ole' time of it as the eponymous victim Alice, bundled into the back of a van and locked away in a makeshift bedroom-come-prison by partners in crime Danny (Martin Compston) and the older and more proficient Vic (Eddie Sherlock Holmes Marsan). No other characters are introduced for the remainder of the film, as the nervy youngster Danny follows meticulous plotter Vic's lead in making calls to demand a ransom and checking up on their distressed captive.

Although the violence isn't tenaciously intense it is at times downright harrowing (particularly when Arterton is cut out of her clothes or made to urinate in a jug, shackled to the bed throughout), with all three players delivering steely performances which you truly believe in.

Sparse and contained though the action may be, The Disappearance of Alice Creed is deceptive in its scope, with the plot constantly evolving as backstory reveals throw up left field twists which cast the characters and their bleak situation into remarkable new light.

That first time auteur J. Blakeson adeptly manages such convolutions without the script feeling forcibly constructed or expositionary is miraculous. For instance, we learn that Danny has been in prison, but we are not sure for what crimes; we are told that Alice hates her multi-millionaire father, but we never discover what aggravated her resentment; while cold-blooded kidnap expert Vic largely remains a mystery until desperation sets in.

Fundamentally, the details are insignificant to the scenario and would only dilute the potency of the mystery (even the location of the flat holding cell is never revealed): characterisation is key here, and Blakeson's effectively drawn out exploration of his limited cast's complex relationships leads to a properly nailbiting spider's web of a thriller.

In a CR@B Shell: Low in key but high in trepidation, writer/director J. Blakeson's debut feature is an impressively executed three way powerplay which intrigues as persistently as it disturbs.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Sick Insect

18 – 88mins – 2009
Written by: Tom Six
Directed by: Tom Six
Starring: Dieter Laser, Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Akihiro Kitamura, Andreas Leupold, Peter Blackenstein, Rene de Wit, Bernd Kostrau


It's impossible to not know what to expect from a film called The Human Centipede. If the hype and controversy hadn't spoken for it, the title tells you everything you need to know – this ain't no moralising Disney fairytale. And yet, fully prepared and watching with sadistic anticipation, I still felt my stomach turning as deranged German doc Heiter (Dieter Laser) presented an acetate-aided lecture on his conjoined-creature-concept to his three drugged, bound and struggling subjects in this controversial Danish horror.

Blood aside, other than a couple of scalpel slices to a kneecap and the dissection of an arse, you don't see a great deal of gore in First Sequence. In fact, once stranded American's Lindsay (Ashley) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) are sewn ass-to-mouth, ass-to-mouth with kidnapped Japanese tourist Katsuro (Akhiro Kitamura), bandages cover up most of the scars. But it's the sheer thought of the perverse conceit which freaks you out – especially when centi-lead Katsuro can no longer hold his bowels...

Yep, there's some pitch black humour sewn into the body horror here – particularly the blatantly obviously photoshopped pic of Doctor Heiter's treasured “Three Hound” – but if you can't look beyond the revolting central idea, then you won't be in stitches (guffaw) for fear of spewing. Indeed, I felt queezy just catching glimpses of the maaaaaaaaaaaad surgeon's Siamese-themed “art”.

First time writer/director Tom Six's plot is somewhat on the lean side – as if he felt the shock of his twisted creation would carry a 90minute feature – but what The Human Centipede lacks in development it more than makes up for in tension. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, as the futility of the victim's situation never lessens and the clinically bright presentation and abundance of medical jargon lends the torture porn an uncomfortably realistic edge.

Dieter Laser is a camp delight as the psychotic genius with a god complex and far too much hospital equipment in his basement, and even though the bratty American girls are hard to take seriously as they argue in the woods at the start of the film, you have to appreciate how game the actresses are tackling a script that constantly searches for all new cinematic lows. It's a shame there is no subtext to add weight to the wackiness, but if you're looking for the ultimate chill ride, The Human Centipede is your vehicle.

In a CR@B Shell: On the one hand (or knee) The Human Centipede is an abhorrent and disagreeable controversy with a paper thin plot, but on the other it totally delivers as an uncompromising and excruciating body horror B-movie. I just don't know if I'll be able to stomach 2011's Full Sequence...