Wednesday, 28 October 2015

24 Hours of Terror: A Halloween Horrorthon

Halloween is every horror nerd's favourite holiday. It's a great excuse for us all to spend a day indulging in horror movies. With this post I thought I would take the concept of a day of horror to its (il)logical conclusion and suggest a full 24 hours (1440 minutes) of horror movies you can watch in order to entirely devote your day to the darkest corners of cinema.

I've got it down to the minute, so you'll either want to have a kettle set up and sandwiches on standby or, perhaps a better idea, split the films over a couple of days, which you can do this year given that Halloween itself falls on a Saturday.
Fight For Your Life
The films I've chosen here aren't all easy to get hold of, but I want you to be able to see them, so I've gone for the underseen, the underrated... and one modern classic, rather than total obscurities. I've also stuck entirely to films that I have seen, so I can know that each of the 16 films I'm suggesting is one that I would recommend as, at the very least, a good film (nothing less than 7/10 on our blood droplet scale). That doesn't mean they're all masterpieces, but the ones that aren't are certainly great entertainments.

I'm not going to suggest an order. The list encompasses slasher flicks, serial killers, ghosts, zombies, home invasion, giallo, vampires and more besides. I'll leave you to decide how you wish to order them should you want to watch the whole programme (let me know if you do, I'd be intrigued to find out how it works for you). So, without further ado, let's look very briefly at each of the films, in alphabetical order.

The Black Panther (1977, 98 Mins)
Extremely realistic and utterly chilling serial killer film from the UK. Based on a real case, it charts how Donald Neilson progressed from burglary to spur of the moments murders, to a meticulously planned and brutal kidnapping. I wonder whether the makers of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Roberto Succo saw it.

Closet Land (1991, 92 Mins)
Set entirely in a single room, this two hander is an escalating interrogation by government official Alan Rickman of Madeline Stowe, who plays a children's author suspected of inserting seditious material into her latest story. A tense and deeply uncomfortable film with great performances from Rickman and the often underrated Stowe.

Closet Land
Cold Comfort (1989, 90 Mins)
Skip the recently released Awaiting and see this, which deals in many of the same ideas, instead. Maury Chaykin plays a trucker who takes an unconscious accident victim (Paul Gross) home. Initially Chaykin and his daughter (Margaret Langrick) take care of him, but it soon becomes clear that he is a prisoner, intended as a gift for the daughter. An intense and convincing piece of psychological horror, with great performances.

Don't Torture a Duckling (1975, 105 Mins)
It's only relatively recently that Lucio Fulci has been given his dues as a filmmaker. This, for me, might be his very best film. It's a disquieting Giallo that sees an entire town become suspicious and fearful when children begin to be murdered. The mystery is reasonably well told, but the mood is what's striking, be it in the mob violence that results in a brutal chain whipping scene or Barbara Bouchet's unsettlingly sexualised performance.

Fight For Your Life (1977, 85 Mins)
Home invasion films were something of a staple of the Video Nasties list, this may not be the most violent, but it's certainly the most difficult to watch. A gang of escaped convicts, led by virulently racist Jesse Lee Cain (William Sanderson) take a middle class black family hostage and proceed to intimidate and torture them, until they fight back. The narrative is standard stuff, but it's strikingly acted and the politics still resonate.

Killer's Moon (1978, 92 Mins)
A very odd British proto-slasher finds a group of teenage girls stranded at a hotel closed for the winter, on what happens to be the night that a group of murderers on a new drug therapy that asks them to indulge their every fantasy escapes a local asylum. It doesn't end prettily. There are some great ideas here and the actors playing the killers are fantastic. This ought to be a cult classic.

Lair of the White Worm (1989, 93 Mins)
This is the 'worst' film I'm recommending. It's an outrageously camp Bram Stoker adaptation with Amanda Donohoe as a seductive woman who turns out to be some sort of snake/vampire/monster. Director Ken Russell, typically, turns everything up to 11. By any usual standards it's rubbish, but it's also tremendous fun.

Lake Mungo (2008, 87 Mins)
I'm no fan of either ghost movies or found footage, but this Australian film manages to do both effectively. By framing itself as a TV documentary, Lake Mungo lends an extra layer of verisimilitude to its question of whether or not probable murder victim Alice has been haunting her family home. The acting maintains the real world illusion and the chills up your spine work even on multiple viewings. By the way, stay for the end credits.

Martyrs (2008, 99 Mins)
The modern classic. I can't imagine programming a day of horror (for adults) without this film. It hits so many buttons for me, as well as being one of the great examples of several different horror subgenres, the way it invites us to reevaluate the genre and our relationship to its characters continues to fascinate. It's also fucking terrifying.

Popcorn (1991, 86 Mins)
Jill Schoelen is a sadly underrated scream queen and, outside of The Stepfather ('87), this is her best horror role. She plays one of a student film society who screen a rare horror film to raise money, of course it turns out that the killer from the film isn't dead, is at the screening and is after Schoelen. It's hokey stuff, but a lot of fun.

Requiem (2006, 88 Mins)
Exorcism films are another subgenre I'm pretty tired of, but this German example, based rather more closely on the same case that inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is one of the best. The fear is all the more intense for the fact that the film remains totally grounded in the real. Everything here could be seen as a natural illness just easily as it could be framed as possession. Sandra Hüller's extraordinary and entirely sympathetic performance grounds it perfectly, and makes it scarier, because horror is always more unnerving when it happens to someone we care about.

See The Sea (1997, 52 Mins)
This may skirt closer to a psychological thriller, but throughout Francois Ozon's breakthrough short there is something worryingly off about Marina DeVan, as a drifter that new mother Sasha Hails allows to camp outside her house. It's a slow build, but the performances more than carry the film, and the shocking denouement is pure horror.

See The Sea
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, 101 Mins)
It seems that this much maligned and belated sequel is finally being reclaimed for the tremendous entertainment it is. While other Chainsaw sequels have tried (read 'failed') to recapture the grinding terror of the original, Tobe Hooper knew better, throwing it out for a gory parody. The effects are fantastic, Caroline Williams makes for a strong and feisty final girl and the off the wall tone and performances are often hilarious. As long as you don't expect this to be like the first film, it's great. And hey, how can you dislike a film with Dennis Hopper using two chainsaws to fight Leatherface?

The Ugly (1997, 90 Mins)
This New Zealand film has shades of The Silence of the Lambs in its framing device, as a psychiatrist interviews a serial killer in prison, a little Henry in its flashbacks of him growing up and becoming a killer and a stylised eye to draw them together. It's not the most original of films and the supporting performances can be a little too winkingly OTT, but the excellent leads, the clean design, the use of colour and the black blood that is so strikingly used all make it stand out.

Wasting Away (2007, 96 Mins)
An overlooked zombie comedy that approaches the zombie film from the perspective of the undead. When a group of friends are turned, they don't realise it. We see both how they perceive things (as if the world has gone crazy and they are the only normal people left) and the reality that they are now shambling corpses with a thirst for brains. The conceit seems thin, but it holds together and the jokes stay fresh, even if the cast don't.

So, there you have it, 24 hours of recommended horror. I hope at least a few are new to you. If you decide to include any or all of these in your Halloween weekend then please let us know how you get on, either in the comments or on Twitter @AOTDBlog or @24FPSUK.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Frightfest London 2015: Awaiting Review

Dir: Mark Murphy
For some time now, horror fans have been awaiting that serial killer film that will take the genre somewhere new, somewhere beyond the era of torture porn. The punchline to this setup is, sadly, not “and here it is”. Awaiting would like to be a tricky, twisty, little beast, but the direction of the story feels obvious from the get go. The individual beats are just as predictable as they unfold, largely because they are mostly taken from other, better, films.

As the film opens, Morris (Tony Curran) returns home and tells his 20 year old daughter Lauren (Diana Vickers) that the unconscious passenger in the front seat of his car is someone he found in a crashed car. They take Jake (Rupert Hill) into the house and when he comes round, insist he stay the night. As time wears on it becomes clear that the relationship between father and daughter is unusual at best, that Morris is not well balanced, and that Jake isn't going to be allowed to leave.

Awaiting starts reasonably promisingly. The first act has a low key menace thanks to the queasily too close relationship between Morris and Lauren, and both Tony Curran and Diana Vickers (a former X Factor star in only her second feature) play that dynamic well. The way Morris has infantilised Lauren in order to control her is hardly a new idea, but it is effectively executed. An even more chilling version of this dynamic comes into play in a scene set at 'Christmas' (which Morris and Lauren celebrate in September). Lauren comes down in her late Mother's dress, dolled up, and acts the part of her deceased parent, even kissing her father. It's the film's best scene, hinting at a perversity that could be interestingly built on, especially given how good Curran and Vickers are in the moment. Sadly, Mark Murphy throws this moment away. It's frustrating, because done right (as in Josephine Decker's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely), this dynamic can be intensely creepy and provocative, here it's a loose end, an abandoned idea to facilitate the plot.

Even in the decent first act, problems are apparent. Rupert Hill isn't especially well served by a screenplay that gives him little in the way of personality and some rather clunky and cliché dialogue, but where Curran and Vickers sometimes overcome the same issues, Hill's monotone performance can't. This is a problem because he is, in many ways, the film's 'final girl' figure, and the fact he's so dull makes him hard to root for.

In the second and third acts, Awaiting becomes ever less distinctive, setting in motion the wheels of the plot-o-matic, allowing it to clunk through its default torture porn setting. Murphy plunders other movies like a magpie on a shoplifting spree. You'll recognise bits of Mum and Dad, Saw, We Are What We Are and just about every backwoods and torture porn slasher of the past few years. There's nothing inherently wrong with being generic, genre exists because it works, but if you are going to be generic after so many films have gone before you, then your take on the genre had better either have something to add or stand alongside the absolute best of its kind. Neither of these things are true of Awaiting.

I wrote the above paragraphs a day or so after viewing Awaiting, and I stand by them, but they merely scratch the surface of how depressingly unoriginal this film really is. About a week after seeing Awaiting I stumbled on a 1989 Canadian film called Cold Comfort. To say that Mark Murphy has drawn inspiration from the film (which he has told us he may have done, unconsciously, having seen it when he was younger) is, in my view, to dramatically understate the issue. For its first two acts the setting, the plot, the characters and their relationships to each other and even a clutch of scenes seem to be extremely closely influenced by equivalent moments in Cold Comfort.

If the problem were merely that one or two scenes echoed Cold Comfort then I would have added it to the list of films mentioned above and moved on. The problem seems to run much deeper. For example Awaiting's best scene, the queasy Christmas meal, is echoed almost beat for beat from Cold Comfort. In Awaiting the scene is set at an inappropriately timed Christmas, in Cold Comfort the celebration is of the 'Lauren' character's birthday, with the film introducing a lot of ambiguity about exactly how old she is. In both films the young woman comes downstairs dolled up, wearing clothes that belonged to her deceased mother, and puts on a sexual performance (a striptease in Cold Comfort as opposed to Awaiting's kiss) for the benefit of her Father and the man he has kidnapped and is holding hostage. The way the story proceeds immediately after this scene is also only minimally different in Awaiting.

This is just one of many examples in the opening twenty minutes alone of scenes that seem to astonishingly closely echo Cold Comfort. The extreme closeness of both the narrative beats and the images of the two films continues through the second act, before they drift further apart as Awaiting moves into a much more visceral third act. Even here though, there are still scenes that resemble each other very closely. This is problematic not only because it accentuates Awaiting's myriad flaws, but because it makes it very hard to credit Mark Murphy with its few successes, as most of them come in the portions of the film most closely echoing Cold Comfort.

Awaiting's third act brings it's own problems though. In its final half hour it becomes a series of scenes that you imagine must surely be the film's nadir, yet they aren't. In one especially cliché moment, Curran wrecks his serial killer lair in a fit of slow motion rage. This is such a hackneyed device that for it to be effective you must do something very different (look at Philiip Seymour Hoffman's slow, deliberate, destruction of all the stuff that surrounds him in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), and simply shooting in slo mo doesn't really cut it. The character development, especially of Lauren, feels rather disjointed and there is one twist that, while a little bit surprising, is still ripped from yet several more better films. 

The film has two climactic sequences, both howlingly awful. First comes the exact ending you'd expect; a slow motion chase through the woods, complete with music that is desperate to convey some kind of epic gravitas on to the final conflict between our ineffectual hero and his ever less convincing antagonist. The clichés in the dialogue reach their ne-plus-ultra here, when Lauren actually says to Jake, in all seriousness, ”don't quit on me now”. My compliments to Diana Vickers for successfully keeping a straight face in that moment. Murphy manages to find an even less appropriate piece of music for what seems like the film's final coup de grace, then deliver a final confrontational beat so telegraphed and so hackneyed I was amazed that he didn't bother to in some way subvert it. And yet, the worst is still to come, in a coda that draws on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and We Are What We Are (nope, not setting yourself up to fail there at all) and provides one character with another instant personality transplant. It is terrible, and loses the film a grade point all by itself.

Whether you see Awaiting or not – and frankly I can't suggest that you do – the one thing I would recommend that you do is seek out Cold Comfort, which is a considerably better and more original film, with outstanding performances from Margaret Langrick and Maury Chaykin. Ultimately the best thing about Awaiting is that it gives me a chance to recommend a much better film that you've probably never seen.

Sam's score:

Steve's second opinion:

My initial reaction to Awaiting was somewhat more enthusiastic than that of my Afraid of the Dark colleague Sam Inglis.  My tolerance for hackneyed plots is stronger than his and as a result I often find myself inclined to be a lot more forgiving than he is of horror movies, a genre that is , after all, replete with over familiar concepts.

I settled down to watch Mark Murphy's sophomore horror effort and, being a fan of Tony Curran, found myself caught up in this tale of backwoods madness.  Curran makes for a serviceable maniac and, surprisingly, I found myself more than a little impressed by the performance of ex-X-Factor contestant Diana Vickers.

I was settling on a score of 6 out of 10.  Awaiting was no masterpiece but it made for a mostly entertaining, moderately engaging slice of psycho cinema even taking into consideration the timeworn plot, the various script issues and a truly awful ending.  Like I said…I’m forgiving.

But forgiveness is not limitless and as soon as I saw Cold Comfort it would be a bit of an understatement to say that I was surprised by the extent to which the similarities between the two movies stack up. Awaiting mirrors huge parts of Vic Sarin’s 1989 chiller to such a degree that it’s impossible to avoid decrying it as an act of, at times, slavish mimicry.

Almost everything I enjoyed about Awaiting before I watched the superior Cold Comfort has been sullied by the extraordinary parallels between the former and the latter.  To be clear…I'm not talking about inspiration.  There are scenes here that follow almost beat for beat scenes from Cold Comfort to such a degree that is very difficult to accept that it could be down to some kind of unconscious influence.

Examples abound and besides the scene mentioned by Sam in his review (the 'birthday' celebration) there's another where the protagonist attempts an escape only to suffer a leg injury when he steps into an animal trap.  This scene does not simply echo its counterpart in Cold Comfort but in terms of pacing, dialogue and camera angles is practically its twin.  But it's not only the big moments that feel familiar there are many smaller echoes scattered throughout.  Watching Cold Comfort in the wake of Sam suggesting I do so often felt like an episode of deja vu.

I've racked my brain in an effort to think of another movie that has lifted quite so much of its plot and script uncredited from another film and while there are certainly many examples of films that draw inspiration from works that have gone before I've failed entirely to think of any that do so quite as blatantly or with such regularity.  There's so much of Cold Comfort's DNA in Mark Murphy's movie that if they married each other it would qualify as incest.  As a result I've downgraded my score to a 3 out of 10.  Awaiting is a movie that is creatively bankrupt and like Sam I recommend tracking down Cold Comfort which is a real under the radar gem.

Steve's Score:

Monday, 31 August 2015

Frightfest London 2015: Landmine Goes Click review

Dir: Levan Bakhia
Landmine Goes Click is one of those films that I am torn on reviewing. On the one hand, I want to spread the word and hopefully get more of you than might otherwise do so to watch it. On the other hand, I can't talk about the things that most make me want to recommend it, because you absolutely mustn't know about them going in, or the film will be robbed of at least some of its desired and powerfully delivered effect.

The film opens with three friends – Chris (Sterling Knight), Alicia (Spencer Locke) and Daniel (Dean Geyer) – on a walking holiday in Georgia. Alicia and Daniel are getting married, and Chris is acting as best man, but Chris and Alicia are debating whether they should tell Daniel that, once, some time back, they slept together. The point turns out to be moot. When Chris steps on a landmine it seems to be an accident, but in fact it is Daniel's revenge. He leaves Alicia and Chris to try to save themselves. Eventually, potential help arrives in the form of Ilya (Kote Tolordava), but he increasingly treats his offers of assistance as a sick game.

That summary only takes us up to the second act, which plays out Ilya's games. Initially it seems that the drama is abbreviated, reaching a crescendo about 70 minutes in, but it's thereafter that Landmine Goes Click becomes a somewhat different film, going from being from a solid and engaging genre workout to become something more disturbing and more impactful. And I can't talk about it.

For much of its running time, Landmine Goes Click trades on stillness. Chris can't move, if he shifts his weight incorrectly he might detonate the landmine, killing or maiming himself and most likely Alicia in the process. This necessity is frightening on its own for a while, but Levan Bakhia knows that he can't trade on the same threat without variation for long, and he manages to explore more elements of the film's enforced stillness as it goes on. Once Ilya arrives there is the constant and growing threat that something he does – starting out by insulting him and Alicia before moving on to assaulting Alicia in escalating ways – will make Chris move. More remarkably, given that the film's first hour is set entirely in open spaces, this stillness allows Bakhia to find a claustrophobia that only increases the tension.

The series of events starts out extreme and only becomes more so as the first two acts run on, so it's surprising, and largely thanks to strong performances from the three central actors, that the main thing that strains credulity here is the extremity and imagination of Daniel's vengeance. Once you accept that, the rest of the film flows with a nightmarish logic from point A to B. 

The performances all have to evolve, but none more so than Sterling Knight's. Chris starts off as a pretty typical guy in his mid-twenties. He fucked up royally with his friend's girlfriend, but he wants to come clean, to do the most right thing left to him. Once he's trapped on that landmine, Knight's performance coils like a spring, but that energy can't be released or it will destroy him and, perhaps more importantly, the person he loves. The annoyance he feels with Ilya may even start out a little rude (if understandable in the  stress of the moment), but the invective he spits at the man who is supposed to 'help' them not only becomes more appropriate, the impotence of it becomes ever more upsetting. This builds to an horrendous moment when you can't help but place yourself in Chris' shoes, watching, helpless to do anything, as the worst of Ilya's assaults on Alicia plays out.

Spencer Locke has the film's weakest part, and one of its most problematic. At times, Landmine Goes Click seems to want to visit the worst punishment on women for things that were either partly or entirely the fault of men. This doesn't entirely take away from the film's other qualities, but I did find it a queasy reality at times, whether it's an intended message or not. This said, Locke is excellent as Alicia, desperate to help her friend, to the point that she will degrade herself in painful ways for the chance of a chance to give Chris better odds. What she and Knight bring most powerfully to the film is a sense of their characters responding naturally to being stuck in a nightmarish moment, an effective contrast against Kote Tolordava's broader performance.

Tolordava is also very good, if a little too nakedly menacing a little too early in the day. However, you get a sense, later confirmed, that there is a reason for this. In a performance that goes to progressively nastier places, Tolordava makes Ilya's progression from cruel joker to something much more lastingly damaging one that is credible step by step.

It's difficult to talk about much of Landmine Goes Click beyond the basic setup and shape of the first two acts, which is a shame, because it is the third act that shifts it from a solidly effective, sometimes nasty, genre piece to something that punches much harder and will leave you sitting slack-jawed at the end of the film. Suffice to say that the film shifts locations and genres. It remains in a single space - this one naturally, rather than artificially, enclosed - but shifts both the power dynamics and the performances. Sterling Knight, suddenly more playful, is exceptional in this section, and the film's final shot rests disturbingly on him.

I'd like to tell you more, but trust me, you'll thank me for not doing so. Let's talk about it in the comments after you've seen the film.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Frightfest London2015: AfterDeath Review

Dir: Gez Medinger, Robin Schmidt
Ask most people and they'll tell you that the most profound question asked by a typical horror film is 'how's the next character going to die?' Sometimes they're right, but it would do the genre a major disservice to think that was all it ever had on its mind. AfterDeath, as you might imagine from the title, deals in some pretty big ideas, but it does so in a small scale way that pulls you in to the situation as much as it does the films questions and proposed answers.

As the film opens Robyn (Miranda Raison) washes up on a deserted beach. Written in the sand are the words “Even the good are damned” and all she can see is a lighthouse and a small cabin. In the cabin Robyn finds Seb (Sam Keeley), Patricia (Elarica Gallacher), Livvy (Lorna Nickson Brown) and Onie (Daniella Kertesz). The others inform Robyn that she, like them, is dead. Stuck in a limbo of sorts, Robyn tries to get the group to figure out why they are trapped together and how they can escape, potentially through Onie, who keeps vanishing and reappearing.

AfterDeath sets its pieces quickly. Characters are drawn in short order, if a little sketchily - Seb's a Jack the lad type, Robyn the constant manager, etc - but the film does find time to deepen these characterisations (with one exception) as events begin to unfold. To begin with things seem a little by the numbers; characters trapped in a room, having to figure out how they're connected between occasional attacks by something that seems, initially, like a pretty standard issue movie ghost. Once the characters begin to figure out what's going on though, things get interesting fast.

The film engages with ideas of heaven and hell, of sin and exactly what that might mean. We first see this through a game of truth or dare in which the cabin's occupants reveal bad things they have done that might have sent them to what they have come to believe is hell. For a while the film threatens to go off the rails here, as it begins to paint Seb as a pretty black and white bastard, but the contrast between his sin and that of the women in the cabin is thrown into sharp relief by this choice. It's not the film at its most subtle, but it does work. From here, the characters' world begins to shrink ever further, but as it does the questions and ideas expand, up to a truly haunting idea that, for a certain section of any audience, is among the most frightening concepts possible. It would be criminal to go into that idea here, but trust me that line, perhaps 15 minutes from the film's end, is worth the price of admission by itself.

As the film's ideas become larger and wilder, the performances keep it grounded. Sam Keeley suffers in the second half of the film from having a more broadly drawn character than the women, but his horror at the last demon attack he has to endure is very well played and makes an horrific but outlandish moment land with real impact. The matter of fact way that the characters deal with their situation, even as it grows more extreme, draws you in to the cabin and invites you to examine yourself as the characters do themselves. There's little showy going on in the acting, instead the focus is put on making the emotions as solidly real as the situation is supernatural.

All four of the film's female leads deliver excellent performances, with each getting their own particularly resonant moments towards the end. Elarica Gallacher's performance as the outwardly confident Patricia is especially effective when she later reveals deep insecurity, in a scene that is emotional and echoes in the rest of the film. Another particularly strong moment comes right at the end as Livvy, who has seemed a rather unfocused character, finds purpose and resolve at the most important moment possible, it's an affecting moment from Lorna Nickson Brown, and one that builds on the emotion of her last scene with Onie. These last moments are also some of the best of Miranda Raison's performance, as a huge conflict (and a key twist) play out silently. None of this is to say that the performances aren't effective throughout, but they build, as the film does, to this crescendo.

There is a slight Cabin In The Woods feel to AfterDeath, but with none of that film's winking, often rather smug, tone. Instead directors Gez Medinger and Robin Schmidt and writer Andrew Ellard keep the focus on the ideas. Medinger and Schmidt, for their part, keep the film visually interesting despite the limited settings they have to work with. They find some memorably nightmarish imagery too, especially when the light from the lighthouse illuminates the cabin. They have also managed to marshal, on what must have been a small budget, CGI that is effective, well used, and often genuinely creepy and unnerving.

AfterDeath's ideas aren't new as topics in horror, indeed a couple of films have, over the past few years, even more successfully explored some similar metaphysical concepts, but Ellard's screenplay separates itself and discusses and engages with these ideas from a different angle. It's a refreshingly intelligent piece of writing, matched by strong performances and direction. Oh and it has the best last line I've heard for some time.

Frightfest London 2015: Sun Choke Review

Dir: Ben Cresciman
Sun Choke is a film as striking as its title (which may be the most evocative of this year's Frightfest). It plays its twists close to the chest, never quite giving up all of its mysteries. Some of the rabbits that director Ben Cresciman pulls from his hat are not unexpected, but it's hard to mind all that much as he pulls together stylish visuals and two outstanding central performances.

We first meet Janie (Sarah Hagan, who you'll likely recognise as one of the 'Potentials' from season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and should seek out in the outstanding Jess + Moss) as she is going through, apparently for the umpteenth time, a series of psychological tests administered by Irma (legendary scream queen Barbara Crampton), who seems to be part unconventional therapist, part stepmother. Janie appears to be recovering from a trauma that resulted in violence, but is doing well, so well that she is allowed out of the house for the first time in a year. On her first trip out Janie sees Savannah (Sarah Malakul Lane), and becomes obsessed. 

Cresciman never lets us see clearly what Janie did little to land herself under apparent house arrest. There are flashes of a violent scene, but whether we can even be sure that it was real, either in detail or in broader terms, is very much up for debate, even given where the film goes in its third act. It would be easy to see Janie as an equivalent of the 'children' in Dogtooth; imprisoned in a world partly of their making, partly moulded for them from the outside, in this case the battle for us as an audience seems to be unpicking which aspects of Jamie's world are driven by her problems, perhaps even her psychosis, and which have been drummed in to her.

These ideas and questions come through strongly in the performances of Sarah Hagan and Barbara Crampton. Crampton's icily withdrawn nurse/surrogate parent is different from anything I've seen her do before. Irma insists to Janie that she loves and is trying to do the best for her, but she never seems more detached, more passionless, than in these moments. The question of why this is always remains fraught; answers perhaps glimpsed in brief, often overexposed, flashbacks, but when we see Janie essentially being tortured for staying out past her curfew, it's easy to imagine that these flashbacks are not real, or at least not the full story.

Of course Janie is hardly blameless. Hagan is also detached in her performance, but she strikes a different register than Crampton; not icy but longing. Janie clearly longs to be less detached, something we see in the way she fixates on what appears to be an entirely random woman, among the first people she sees on her first trip outside the house in a year. These sequences become increasingly tense as Janie seems to become ever more fixated and unhinged. Most chilling is a sequence in which Janie breaks in to Savannah's house and takes a shower, allowing Savannah to realise someone has been there. Little happens, but it's fingernails down the blackboard tense. Hagan is remarkable in these scenes, even in their most extreme and calculated moments of violence, she puts Janie's sadness front and centre, making us feel a perverse level of sympathy for her, even as the film enters its third act.

The third act is where Sara Malakul Lane's Savannah becomes more than a beautiful prop for Janie to desire, in ways that are perhaps not what you would first assume unless, like me, you are a fan of a certain tawdry but well acted early 90's thriller. Savannah's lack of development in the early part of the film is one of its weaker aspects, but Lane makes for an effective and sympathetic damsel in distress and, with her doll like prettiness, a credible object of Janie's instant desire. Beyond the role's exposing nature though, she's not especially stretched. On the other hand, Hagan's shift from a withdrawn but sympathetic character to a silently steely one (perhaps taking on some of Irma's attributes) is well handled by the actress and only makes her performance more intensely creepy. With the build and the payoff, Cresciman manages to achieve an intriguing mix of the scary and the sad, which gives Sun Choke a tone that sets it apart from its influences.

The film marks out Sarah Hagan as a fearless performer of great promise, hers is one of the best performances by a lead actress this year. Sun Choke also proves again that Barbara Crampton always had more to offer than being the decorative scream queen. I'm glad she's getting to show that now. This isn't a flawless film, but it is never less than gripping and the central performances transcend its few weaker moments. It will be interesting to see where Ben Cresciman goes from here.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Frightfest London 2015: Levan Bakhia Interview

Landmine Goes Click pretty much sums up why festivals are important.  It's the discovery of movies like this that makes sitting through the occasional dreary, unoriginal snorefest worth it.  I'm going to say very little about this movie except that if you saw  director Levan Bakhia's last feature, the enjoyable 247°F, you could be forgiven for expecting something of similar quality here.  You would be very wrong.  Landmine Goes Click for most of it's runtime delivers an excruciating exercise in escalating tension before delivering one of the most powerful final acts I've seen in recent years.  Just in case I've not been clear.  DO NOT MISS THIS MOVIE.  Without further's the interview.

AOTD: Tell us a little bit about your experience shooting 'Landmine Goes Click'. How many days did you shoot for? Did the script change at all during the shoot? Were there any unexpected challenges or did it all go smoothly?

LB: Best way to describe the experience of shooting our film is to check the playlist on my personal youtube channel, where we made episodes at every stage (link).

One of the most interesting and different aspect of this production was that we were pulling off very long takes.  70% of the shots are more than 5-6 minutes, and sometimes we had to do it 5-6 times.   And it was not rehearsed, we were improvising.

Actors knew what their objectives were, and they were free to do what they wanted.  I did not block their movement, I gave them total freedom.  But in order for this to work, there was a very unique experience of me working with cinematographer, Vigen Vartanov.  I worked with him as with an actor.  Instead of blocking the camera move, I would give the same kind of objective to him as well.  So basically, he was performing together with actor, he did not know what would happen, he had to reflect on what was happening.  He would have objectives like to be interested, or insulting, or sometime he would even have an objective to lead actors movement.  It's complicated to explain, filmmakers can take this approach and see for themselves how it works.

I love working with actors, that is my favorite part of directing.  So combining cinematography with acting was very special experience.

As for the script, well, biggest part of it was improvised.  I mean, we had a script, and I would ask actors that we are running certain pages, but I wanted them not to stop until I would say so, and then I would push them to the parts where they did not memorise the text, and approximately 50% of the takes in final edit are those parts.  Some lasted for minutes of unprepared improvisation.  I like improvisation.  But of course the script was always there as an outline.

AOTD. It saddened me to read that Kote Tolordava, who delivers an astonishing performance in the role of the villain of the piece, passed away recently. He was a mostly terrifying, sometimes hilarious and utterly unpredictable presence in the movie. I also understand that he was a great friend of yours. What made you think of him for Ilya and were there any qualities he brought to the role that surprised you?

LB: I met him on audition of Landmine Goes Click, and we became very close friends.  You see, when an actor has to perform what he had to perform, you really need to open up with them, he really needed to have full trust in what was he about to do.  He was very realistic in everything he did, he was "in the moment" all the time.  You see, even if your question started about him passing away, I avoid thinking about it.  This is a tragedy, I planned to have him in many films, he wanted to show himself to hollywood as well.  He was very famous in Georgia, but his talents are far bigger than that.  I think he had a chance to come to Hollywood and give himself to better project.  I'm sure he would surprise everyone on auditions.  Ehh, it's sad that I have to talk about him as someone who has passed away.  God bless him wherever he is. 

I don't know what made me think about him as Ilya.  I think it just clicked when I saw him on audition.  He was just right.  I knew it.

AOTD: Sterling Knight and Spencer Locke both give excellent performances that evolve over the course of the film. Can you tell us a bit about how you cast the American parts in the movie, and what work you did with them in preparation?

LB: Casting happened over skype, long distance.  It really makes it harder, but you see, you know when the actor is right by just speaking to them.  I wish I was there in person, but today's technologies give you all the tools you need. The fact that the actors perform so well confirms that theory.  I think both are great, I think Dean Geyer is great as well. 

As for preparation, I had the actors arrive to Georgia only a week before the shoot, and we did rehearsals.  I realised that we did not have time to prepare for the role more, so I trusted the instinct of all of us.  The situation helped, because in the story they are tourists and they really were tourists in Georgia.  So then we followed the story.

AOTD: Shooting the rape scene in the movie surely must have been an uncomfortable, emotional, possibly traumatic experience not only for Spencer but also for Kote as her assailant. What was the vibe like on the set that day and did it impact on your directorial approach with the actors?

LB: It was much more than I could have imagined.  I will never forget, when we did the first take, as Ilya's character did not even start the rape, he was dragging Alicia and screaming and yelling, being violent preparing for his act.  It was as uncomfortable as real assault.  We see violence in the movies, we don't even consider what it can be in real life.

When you are present at that moment, your body responds to it in a very stressful way.  I can't even imagine what actors can feel.

As for my approach, nothing changes.  I did the rape scenes exactly the same way I approached other scenes.  I think that should not matter, you aim for realistic results.  It's just that, you need to show actors that you are there for them.  You need to show that on any scene, but this kind of scene require more attention.  Actors need to know how it works out.  They can become cautious, if you don't show support, and if they lose trust in you.

AOTD: Your screenwriter is Adrian Colussi whose previous work has been in lightweight TV comedy. It would be a massive understatement to say Landmine Goes Click represents a departure. Can you tell us a little bit about how the script landed in your hands and what input, if any, you had?

LB: I met Adrian at workshop with Judith Weston in LA.  We became friends.  He is a very special guy, a great collaborator and high class professional.  We write together.  I mean he does the writing, but we come up with the story together. 

Adrian is Canadian.  I live in Georgia.  The country Georgia, not the state.  And my company has invited Adrian to Georgia to write scripts for our projects.  He has arrived for 3 months, but stayed in Georgia for over a year.  He even got married to a Georgian girl.   That's how we wrote the script for Landmine Goes Click.  We teach each other a lot, I think we are a great team.  I think I am not going to do anything without him, if he will feel like this too of course.  We do the story together, and then he does the screenplay.  

AOTD: You have chosen to go down the route of self-distribution. What prompted that decision and how is it working out for you?

LB: That really is a long story.  But I started a blog which is where your readers can see the whole story.  I think filmmakers will benefit from joining the conversation there.  But the simple idea is that, indie filmmakers I think need to convert into indie distributors, because that is the era that we are entering. 

AOTD: Sounds like something worth encouraging. 'Landmine Goes Click' played the Fantasporto Festival earlier this year with you in attendance where it won the Audience Jury Award and was nominated for best film. What was that experience like and, other than the accolades, did you gain anything valuable from attending he festival as a film-maker?

LB: Fantasporto was the first festival Landmine Goes Click played.  Actually, it was first festival that i have attended as a filmmaker in selection.  I did not know what to expect, especially the award.  Later our film was awarded on second festival, Fantafestival as well, and now I hope for more wins, it feels good, but at Fantasporto I did not know what would it feel like to be awarded.  And it felt great.

I met other filmmakers, that was the most important part.  I became friends with some of them.  I think being part of something is important, not the win, despite of how it feels, that is not a goal.  Sharing with other filmmakers is what it is all about.

AOTD: The final act of the movie and especially the closing scene really shook me up. Without spoilers can you explain to what extent was the ending instrumental in your wanting to make this movie and what kind of reaction did it get from the audience at Fantasporto?

LB: The closing scene is what this film is about for me.  You see, Landmine Goes Click falls under the genre of rape & revenge.  This is exploitation genre.  It exploits the desire of the audience to punish the villain for the sin he has committed.  The audience is so drawn to this revenge, in movies like "I spit on your grave",  they enjoy horrible tortures performed on the screen.  And I think this is not right.  I wanted to slap the audience for that. 

That's how the audience at Fantasporto, and any other audience reacts to it.  They don't like to be slapped, but I think it reminds them, that they are human.  I hope it does. 

AOTD: I noticed that your name is attached to an upcoming movie called 'She, Who Killed Us All' which will see you work again with your '247°F' co-director Beqa Jguburia. The poster and the tagline alone have me interested. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?

LB: I don't know if that project is still happening to be honest.  And at the same time, I think I will have something much more interesting to offer the audience.  I recently had anxiety issues, it opened up whole new world to me.  World of stress and recovery, world of fear and calm, world of wisdom and ignorance.  Hence, my upcoming project is going to be about that. 

AOTD: Are there any directors whose work you particularly respect and who have had an influence on your approach to film-making?

LB: I respect all great films, and don't like to admire particular filmmakers.  I like to have my mind free from authorities, in filmmaking and in life.  I want to have myself free even from my own "past self", who was fascinated by a certain film in past.  I want it to leave that impression right there, in past as I watched it and then let it go.  I think that is the only way to lead your creativity, and actually live your life. 

But Birdman was the film I could not get out of my head since I watched it.  Can't wait for the new film coming from Iñárritu, but I don't think this is forever.  I will not call that influence.

AOTD: Landmine Goes Click is screening at Frightfest in London next month. Do you have a message for the audience?

LB: Yes.  I want to hear your opinion, please be active, vote, review on your favorite site.  That's how you can support us, the filmmakers.  And thanks for watching my film.  Hope to be there with you.

AOTD: Just want to finish by thanking you for taking the time to answer my questions.  Hope you enjoy Frightfest if you make it.  I know that Frightfest is going to enjoy Landmine Goes Click.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

List of Shame: A Project

The List of Shame project serves two purposes.  1. It forces me to make an effort to see a selection of horror movies that I have thus far, somehow, avoided.  2. It hopefully ensures that I get at least a couple of new reviews up on this blog a month because, let's face it, I've been somewhat lazy of late.

The criteria I adopted in making this list was fairly flexible and I do intend to add to the list over time.  Suggestions of any under the radar gems would be very welcome.  The films currently listed are horror movies which are considered classics or in some way are infamous and which, given my love of this particular genre of cinema, I really should have seen by now. It is my intention to, on a weekly or fortnightly basis, select at random one move from my List of Shame to review.

The inclusion of any movie on this particular list should be considered less a commentary on how good the movie is likely to be but should instead be taken as an indication of some degree of importance in the history of horror cinema. Some I have included for personal reasons, some because they were targeted by the BBFC in the UK during the video nasties debacle and some because they have been recommended by others. Many have deliberately been included simply because of their controversial nature. I'm setting out to challenge myself and hoping that I will be surprised, entertained and sometimes shocked along the way.

I should also mention that I have shamelessly stolen this idea from Sam Inglis who is the guy behind the 24 Frames Per Second movie review blog.  If you are unfamiliar with his writing I would strongly recommend heading over to and checking it out immediately.  He's one of the reasons I ever started writing about movies.

My List of Shame can be found over at Letterboxd by following this link or by casting your eyes over the lurid image below.