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:

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