Tuesday 26 April 2011

Review : Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale ( 2010 )

When an archaeological dig uncovers a long hidden secret beneath the Korvatunturi mountains, and children begin disappearing, a young boy begins to suspect that Santa Claus may be real, and truly does know who's been naughty and who's been nice. And the real Santa doesn't look too kindly on those who are naughty...

More and more it seems we have to turn to foreign filmmakers to get our fix as genre fans. The west hits it out the park on occasion, but what seems to missing is that real spark of ingenuity. That truly independent spirit. Its found these days in the dark dramas from the East, or the Gallic blood drenched nightmares of the French. It seems we're falling behind for the most part when it comes to blazing new trails in horror, and that's a shame. But fuck, at least there are people out there pushing all the buttons our homegrown directors seem so afraid to push. We need works like RARE EXPORTS to remind us why we fell in love with the genre in the first place, and goddamn it, to give us hope! This time, its down to Finnish director, Jalmari Helander to show us how shits done right.

I was lucky enough to catch RARE EXPORTS on its very short run in my home city of Glasgow. The theatre was practically empty, yet everyone who was lucky enough to be 'in the know' about this film came out with smiles from ear to ear. Its most definitely a crowd pleaser.

EXPORTS is a short, sharp blast of old school horror, blended perfectly with the sort of 'kids in peril' films many of us grew up loving in the 80's. Its got a wholly original concept, a cast of characters as memorable as they are authentic, beautiful scenery and a villain that genuinely will send chills down your spine. Its also a bona fide seasonal treat, and I believe it will be looked at in retrospect as a classic of the festive season.

Don't let the films rating deter you. Yes, its a mostly bloodless affair, but what it lacks in gore and mayhem it makes up for in atmosphere and dread. The tension in this film is palpable, and yet the whole thing manages to have a breezy innocence about it that's irresistible to both horror fans AND Christmas movie fans. Will this ever find its way into the hearts of the masses and be played on loop over the holidays? Most likely not. Its far too dark an adventure for that. But it WILL find its audience. A horror film this unique in both concept and execution is a very rare thing. And it should be celebrated.

Performances are pitch perfect as well. Our two main characters being a father and son, living a harsh existence in the Korvatunturi mountains of Finland. They're plight is one that will surely win you over. The son, fearing for his very life as the creeping realisation comes upon him that Santa Claus may very well be real, and not at all like the coco-cola version we're all so used to.  Onni Tommilla, as young Pietari, holds his own against the more experienced performers that surround him. He carries the film with ease, and his growth over the story is very well played out. From terrified victim, (check out the bear traps at the foot of the chimney),  to pint sized action hero all within a brisk 84 minute run time. And his father, played brilliantly by Jorma Tommilla, (relation?), has an equally satisfying story arc, which I wont divulge here. Suffice to say there is death, fear and dread here, but theres also hope and gentility. And yes, when all is said and done it IS a Christmas movie, and a damned good one at that.

The movies one downside for many will be the directors choice to keep a certain image from the audience, one which you'll find yourself on the edge of your seat waiting to see. For me this worked, just as it has in many savvy films before it. After all, theres nothing more terrifying than your own imagination, ESPECIALLY if your a seasoned horror fanatic.

RARE EXPORTS succeeds where so many lesser Christmas horrors fail. Its at once a genuinely scary experience and a heartwarming tale of hope and faith around the winter season. Don't miss it.

8.5 Naked Pensioners out of 10

(Authors note: Be sure to check out the directors original shorts online.  I'd wait till after viewing the film itself so as to avoid spoilers. Just a heads up, folks)

Monday 18 April 2011

Review : I Saw the Devil (2010)

"Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you"
Friedrich Nietzsche

When a secret service agents wife and unborn child are brutally slain in an act of sickening violence, he begins a campaign of torment upon the man responsible; a serial killer with absolutely no bounds. Yet as he rains down hurt after hurt on the man who destroyed his life, he risks becoming just the thing he seeks to annihilate.

I SAW THE DEVIL is the sixth full length feature film from Korean director, Jee-woon Kim, the man responsible for the critically acclaimed A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. Here he spreads his black wings in seriously impressive fashion. Creating a film that truly lives up to its rather brilliant title. Where as TWO SISTERS was all subtlety and nuance, DEVIL is a firestorm of violence, heartbreak and hopelessness. Its also for my money the most entertaining, exciting and damned near perfect film of the year.

Two things got me interested in this film way back during production. One was the director and the other was one of the two men who carry the film. The endlessly brilliant Min-sik Choi. I was first introduced to Choi in the cult classic OLDBOY, and have loved his work ever since. Hes a guy who pulls no punches in his performances, and his screen presence is formidable. In I SAW THE DEVIL , he reaches new highs, (or lows), in his scathing performance as a morally bankrupt, utterly despicable killer, Kyung-chul. The things this bastard gets up to in this film will sicken you, and yet he remains human. Disgustingly so. He never feels like a movie villain. He simply seems real. This animal could live right around the corner, and his acts are, sadly, very much based in reality. He is the jet black demonic yang to Byung-hun Lee's yin. As Kim-Soo Hyeon, a secret service agent who's looking to the future with hope and joy until his world is brutally torn asunder. Lee's performance is equally impressive. His calm restrained demeanor hides a torrent of hatred and hurt inside him, which he cannot control, nor wants to. His driving force becomes vengeance, and jesus, does he lay it on heavy.

Both wonderful leads are surrounded by a pitch perfect cast who flesh the whole sordid, sickening world out very convincingly. A standout being Gook-hwan Jeon, as Kim-Soo's father in law. His portrayal of parent grieving the loss of his daughter is beautifully played. His relationship with his son in law is strengthened by mutual despair, but he also works within the piece as a counterpoint to Kim-Soo's unending hunger for vengeance. Unlike his son in law, his moral compass remains intact. Where is the point when teh quest for honor becomes one of shame? What is the nature of justice and who has the right to decide on it? Can an act of vengeance ever lead to any real form of redemtion? Its this sort of inherent intelligence that helps I SAW THE DEVIL soar way above the pack. Its a very stark study of grief and loss and its effects on the human psyche and soul, that just happens to be played out in a world full of violence, confusion and injustice.

AND in I SAW THE DEVIL, the violence comes fast and hard. Within a few minutes of the stark, creepy opening credits, you find yourself thrown in at the deep end, and you never get to come up for air for the entire two and a half hour running time. Its like a roller coaster ride through hell. And damn, is it a tough watch. The violence here is very much grounded in reality. Its painful, unflinching and it always comes with a consequence. I was particularly disturbed by the discovery of mutilated boody of Kim-soo's wife. I wont go into detail but its deeply haunting and feels incredibly real. People go through this sort of nightmare all the time in our societies. And seeing it visually realized so authentically really done a number on me. From that point on I found myself screaming for revenge, just as Kim-Soo does. And THAT is fine directing. Your placed in the mindset of our 'hero', and willing him on to make Kyung's life a living hell. Your with him all the way. The director knows that the catharisis wont be complete unless the audience is fully complicit, and has set about creating a fearless work of cinema that never shies away from showing atrocities on both sides. You may find yourself questioning how far YOU would go to reclaim justice for those you love. That the crazy as fuck Kyung seems to relish this battle of wits and human tolerance only serves to deepen the conflict, and enhance the murky waters of its ultimate message.

It should be said though that there is no glamorising of either violence or revenge in I SAW THE DEVIL. Quite the opposite. The main thrust of the message here is the dynamic between good and evil, and how someones goodness can be eroded in the face of the worlds horrors. And the message is very well realised. Its not a gore movie. You'll have seen far more violent films, but like the amazing INSIDE, they rarely FEEL more violent. I wont go into the myriad ways the human body is subjected to torment here, but its the sheer relentless realism of it all that cuts so deep.  The violence is deplorable, but thats the whole point. There is great evil on display here, and its fucking chilling.

Now it may sound as though I SAW THE DEVIL is perhaps too tough to sit through, and this is where I think its true genius lies. Its a hard as hell movie, but when its all over and done and the final devestating image is burned into your mind, you'll be wishing it hadn't ended. Rarely will you see a film that blends stunningly choreographed mixed martial arts fight scenes with gut churning gore, real dramatic weight, thought provoking substance and yes, even some very funny, if extremely dark moments. Its a perfectly realized film and hits every single mark it aims for dead on. The leads are incredible, the script is brilliant, the soundtrack is on point and the direction flawless. The film just flies by.

Jee-woon Kim has proven himself a master of the genre here, and I'll be following all his work very closely from this day onward. For those who can handle this sort of material, its one of the very best you ll ever see. Its a fearless study of unthinkable evil and a tale of justice, revenge and redemption.(or lack thereof),  played out on an epic scale. You literally cant miss this film. I SAW THE DEVIL is a modern masterpiece that dares to explore the darkest reaches of the human soul, and gazing into the abyss has rarely been as hypnotic or riveting.

10 Sliced Tendons out of 10

Sunday 17 April 2011

Review : Mask Maker (2011)

A young couple purchase a house at what seems a real bargain, but as they begin the long process of fixing up the property, the houses dark and violent history reawakens, and this history like to brandish an axe, create masks and generally fuck up everyones day.

MASK MAKER was something of crapshoot for me. I knew nothing about it going in, hadn't read a synopsis, nor was I familiar with the director, writer or any of the actors. I'd saw the cover art and it looked pretty sweet. As they say never judge a book by its cover, or a DVD for that matter. At the time of writing, there was no IMDB page for the film, (which is really strange as almost every cheap and cheerless flick you can think of has a page, even if only created by the film maker themselves). So, I figured I'd brave the film. Hell, its barely 90 minutes and I hadn't got shit all else to do, so in I jumped.

MASK MAKER falls very firmly into the slasher sub genre. Its an old school body count flick with little room for SCREAM style self awareness or smarts. A film about a bunch of kids who end up in a place they shouldn't be, when they should damn well know better. Then said kids take every opportunity to get themselves sliced, diced, beheaded and impaled, by a masked maniac with a seriously shitty attitude. Stop me if you've heard this before.

There is little to be said about MASK MAKER that doesn't involve either comparing it to other, better films of its type, or simply outright labelling it a rip-off. The slasher sub genre is certainly one which feeds on itself. Almost all the flicks since the original BLACK XMAS and HALLOWEEN have followed the same formula; and while its a very tired formula, its still a great deal of fun when done right.  They get a really bad rap at times, and are loved and hated in equal measure, but there have been some genuinely brilliant films made within the slashers strictures. but there have been some genuinely brilliant films made within its strictures. The two films I mentioned are bona fide classics, and who can resist FRIDAY THE 13TH or THE BURNING, SCREAM or NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Fuck, I even love MADMAN. Gimme a slasher flick and few beers and I'm a chilled puppy. All I ask is that the setting is right, the gore level is high and the kids getting slaughtered are somewhat tolerable. Its not much to ask, is it? Yet sometimes a slasher can be SO derivative, SO devoid of anything even resembling originality, that its better just being left to die a quiet death in a corner. MASK MAKER is one such film.

Why the venom, you ask? How about the fact that the killer is deformed, has mommy issues and has an amazing ability to stroll casually behind his sprinting prey and always catch them? How about the fact the the masks he makes are made of the faces of his victims? Ring any bells? Yup, basically this guy,  I've forgotten his name already), is the result of Leatherface fucking Jason Voorhees. Hell, theres even a scene where the female lead dresses AS HIS MOTHER to confuse him and save the life of her dipshit boyfriend. Now that's just as sorry as hell. I mean, why bother watching when you already have TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and FRIDAY 13TH in your DVD collection? Whats the fucking point? I should note too that shooting an over the shoulder shot  of your killer standing around doing jack shit doesn't make you John Carpenter. Being JOHN CARPENTER makes you John Carpenter! There is absolutely nothing fresh here.

The pace is off too for a film of this type. The first half drags on but it does pick up considerably in the second half when the shit hits the fan. Its too little too late though, and the kills aren't really that much of a payoff. The effects are fine, and for the most part they're in-shot which lessens the sour taste a little; but they don't have that over the top quality we're used to from our masked madmen. When compared to a flick like LAID TO REST or MANIAC, it just doesn't impress. A number of kills happen off screen too. A huge no-no in my book when dealing with a body count flick.

Its not all bad though. There are a few saving graces here. Its nice to see cameos from Treat Williams and Micheal Berryman. Those two cats are always worth watching. And the lead actress (Nikki Deloach), carries the film really well. Her performance is sweet, natural and very endearing. Also, it doesn't hurt that shes smoking hot. A shame then that the majority of the cast surrounding her are dick shrivellingly annoying. Its the cliche crew we all know and hate. They're all here. The dickhead jock type who somehow always gets laid, the slutty broad who's had more STD's than Sasha Grey, the sensitive boyfriend who for some unspoken reason hangs out with all these assholes. All here. It says a lot that the final girl can still manage to make all this bearable. I really hope she finds more work. She has potential to burn.

It also has a pretty strong soundtrack, although at times it feels a little to 'epic' for such a lowbrow film. It does its job and helps add some much needed gravitas, Maybe that's too strong a word....lets just say it makes it less shitty.

MASK MAKER is unfortunately not going to set the horror world on fire. Its killer is instantly forgettable, being that he's simply a mash up of two already iconic and wonderful characters, and the whole enterprise is derivative in the extreme. It could be mildly entertaining if your new to the genre or willing to turn your brain all the way off and pop a few beers open; but even then, you'll most likely find yourself eyeballing your DVD collection, looking for a superior slasher experience.

Watch for the lead actress or don't watch at all. Life's too short for pointless carbon copy horror like this.

3 Rip-Off Villains out of 10

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Review : Damned by Dawn (2009)

A girl returns to her family homestead with her boyfriend in tow, and on her first night back she inadvertently interferes with the families curse, unleashing the banshee. As a violent thunderstorm rages, she and her kin must survive the night or face eternal torment at the blood stained hands of the Banshee.

DAMNED BY DAWN is a hard film to review. It's a DTV low budget affair made by a first time director and writer, and as a horror fan I'm always up for giving a chance to up and coming artists. They deserve a break, and despite everyone and their grandad owning a digital camera these days, it still takes a great deal of work and passion to pull together a film, no matter how small the scale. Yet one thing horror fans have is passion, by the bucket load. That's why of all the genres out there you'll always find that the vast majority of truly independent films are made in our beloved genre. The reason? These kids aren't making these films solely to strike it rich, (though I'm sure like the rest of us they wouldn't say 'no' to a few quid in the bank), or make a name for themselves. Those reasons are there, sure, but the main reason I feel so many of these films get made is that these filmmakers cant damned well help themselves. Horrors in their blood. They love it with a purity and they want to be a part of its long and illustrious legacy, any which way they can. Its hard to hate on a film made by the same people you'd happily share a pint or ten with.

Indie horror is most definitely an acquired taste, and films in this bracket have to be measured on their own terms. They range from literally unwatchable to very occasionally minor masterpieces. DAMNED BY DAWN falls somewhere in between. Its got a lot going for it, and a lot going against it. Let me explain.

DAMNED is a very strange beast. Its a film of big ideas rendered ineffective by too many constraints. The story itself is pretty neat, (its not often we get a horror flick dealing with the banshee myth), yet very muddled. We get the initial set up as the grandmother on her deathbed gives us the obligatory 'creepy legend' monologue, and it seems like plain sailing, but as the story goes on you find yourself getting confused as to why exactly these events are occurring. But in a film like this that's really no great shakes, as the story takes second place to mood and atmosphere. And its here that DAMNED works its hardest.

The entire film from the opening shot until the very end is wreathed in a thick fog that covers everything. Its a nice touch and its what attracted me to this little flick in the first place. Give me a thunderstorm, crashing lightning and eerie fog and to hell with the story, acting or anything else. I'm sold, its a done deal. But that's not the case here.

The directors vision is clearly influenced a great deal by the original and legendary EVIL DEAD, going as far as stealing many camera shots and set-ups along the way, (never mind the title, a very obvious riff on EVIL DEAD 2). This isn't a bad thing in and of itself. The film is visually quite a treat. Alongside EVIL DEAD'S foggy forestry, it brings to mind Hammers early works. And I'm just fine with that. That's why its so hard to review this one. Almost every exterior shot had me smiling. I appreciated the work that was put into it, and I really understood the aesthetic behind it. I just couldn't give it my love. The reason why? The dreaded CGI. Its everywhere. At some points the fog is authentic, but many times its clearly cheap CG, and theres nothing removes me from a film quicker than shitty CG, especially when it comes to horror. Its a visually pleasing film, but there is always that disconnect. Its a shame. And its a problem I'm sure a larger budget would have minimised.

CG is also used for the ghouls on display here. Other than the Banshee herself, we get a pretty nifty selection of undead, pissed of relatives that are out for the cursed families blood, (and guts), I gotta say I was really impressed by these critters. They re more like wraiths than the usual undead lumbering zombie you see in these sort of films. They drift around ominously bearing scythes and hungry for a spot of cleaving, and hell, I dug them. Sure the CG used on these bad boys was pretty lame to, but again, the VISION was there. A shot that comes to mind has a car hurtling down a country road as hordes of these things float by overhead.  Its a really ambitious shot and I could appreciate it for what the director was trying to do.

Where they really dropped the ball was with the main protagonist herself, the banshee. This characters design was all wrong. Top to bottom. Shes less 'dreaded harbinger of doom', more ' annoying punk goth chick', and her wail, (that's right kids, banshee's wail), was on many occasions clearly a looped sound sample. Instead of the desired effect of creeping me out, it made me want to rip my ears off and flush them down the toilet. Shes the only non-CG bad guy, and I kinda wished they'd left her out altogether. As bad as the CG was, at last those ghouls look original.

DAMNED BY DAWN is a valiant attempt at filmaking by some ambitious horror fans who deserve a little credit. Its got vision, and it knows what it wants to do. It just hasn't got the budget or the wit to do it. Its not scary in the slightest, (other than those cool wraiths drifting around in the fog), but its well paced, and holds your attention. Don't rush out to see it, but if you come across it and get a chance to view it for free, give it a chance. Theres a lot of far worse DTV flicks out there.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Review : Nine Dead ( 2010 )

I had planned to review the incredible, I SAW THE DEVIL, this morning. But after the first two films I reviewed turned out both to be surprisingly brilliant, I thought I'd lower the tone a little.

Last night, nursing a hangover garnered from the weekends shameful exploits , I decided the only cure for my pain would be a horror double bill and some Earl Grey. NINE DEAD was the second of my choices. The first being TUCKER & DALE Vs EVIL, (a gem of a film that I'll review later), and the second being this pile of shite.
Whats to say about NINE DEAD? Well, here's the basic premise and you can make of it what you will. Nine strangers with only the broadest of personality traits and an amazing ability to make any line they utter sound laughable, wake up chained to individual poles in a dimly lit dungeon style crib. Some masked dickhead introduces himself and tells them they have to work out why they re all there, and every ten minutes that passes as they try to work it out, he'll pop in and shoot one of these ass clowns in the head, putting the audience out of the misery of having to witness their high school level performances. He could have just killed them all first time round and saved himself and all of us a good hour and a half that we ain't ever getting back. When on their deathbeds people talk about wishing for only one more hour enjoying this world, Its films like this that pop into their memory and send them hurtling into the ever-after with a sour fucking look on their face.
If the premise sounds familiar, well, that's because it is. You've seen this film a thousand times, and done a thousand times better. Its SAW 101, yet another bottom of the barrel rip off, feeding the modern audiences love of torture based horror and twisty turny mysteries.
The problem here is that there isn't any torture and the twists are telegraphed a mile away, (never mind the fact that by the time anything is revealed, you couldn't give a flying fuck what its all about anyway). This type of film has been plaguing bargain bins the world over since SAW became a massive sleeper hit. Its success and the success of its sequels sealed every true horror fans fate. For every genuinely intelligent and well observed sub genre piece, (I'm thinking EXAM), we get two or three of these shitpiles.
The only saving grace to be found here is in some of the performances being so utterly piss poor they can be pretty funny. The most enjoyable ones being that of a pedophile, (gay amazingly enough) and an Italian guy, who just happens to be a mafia drug smuggler or some shit. No cliches in this film, folks....
You may be surprised to find two familiar faces in here. One who is a fine actor, and one who's Mellisa Joan Hart. You remember her, right? She played a teenage witch on some Disney Channel show about a 100 years ago. How she carried a TV show is anyones guess; shes annoying as hell here, and hasn't even got the 'so bad its fun' factor of our pedo/mafia pals.
The other actor of note is only revealed at the very end, and then promptly gets fucking killed after three lines of dialogue. Good use of your best hand there, guys. LOST fans will recognise him, and wonder what in the sweet fuck hes doing here, just as I did.
Theres nothing I can really say to recommend this film. As DTV flicks go, its too mundane to be truly awful, (and therefore fun), and its so lacking in originality, suspense and, (very important for this sub-genre), gore that theres little here for even the most forgiving indie horror fan. As for me, my head hurts and Ive took up enough of my time revisiting NINE DEATHS. Go hunt down EXAM and avoid this film like the fucking plague.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Review : Hobo with a Shotgun ( 2011 )

When I grow up I wanna be a HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN...

A wandering hobo hops off a train and enters Fuck City, a wretched hive of scum and villainy if ever there was one. Surrounded by violence, rape and corruption, our hobo hero purchases a shotgun, and sets about dispensing his own brand of justice..

Director and co-writer, Jason Eisener is one to watch closely. He knocks it out the park. If your looking for a bat shit crazy, gory as hell, utterly offensive and hilarious exploitation flick, look no further. HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN is the real deal, folks. Its a perfect storm of bad taste, brilliant performances and sheer lunacy that's irresistible to anyone with a taste for grindhouse cinema. From what I gather, it went down a storm at Cannes Film Festival, and its easy to see why. There will be those who find it unconscionable, of course, in fact certain scenes are tailor made to upset and offend the more conservative viewer, but why the hell are you guys watching anyway?! GONE WITH THE WIND may be more to your taste.

Grindhouse is a tough sub-genre to get right. Rodriquez's MACHETE pulled it off with aplomb last year, (Tarantino showed us how to fuck it up royally with DEATH PROOF in the not too distant past), but with HOBO its filthy beauty is taken to a whole new level. Its visionary in its abandon.

In HOBO, the legendary Rutger Hauer, is afforded a long overdue lead role. For genre fans this in itself is all sorts of brilliant. And as the titular pissed off hobo, he's a revelation. You'll care for him, feel his pain and sympathise with his plight. Hes a force for good. A simple man who just ain't taking the worlds shit anymore. His performance alone is reason enough to see this film. So often in the horror genre, especially when dealing with the dirge Hollywood churns out, your left feeling cold by the characters lack of depth, but with Hauer spitting out endlessly quotable dialogue while righteously slaughtering all comers. Your left in awe. How often do you enter an exploitation flick expecting to have tears in your eyes? Never, that's how fucking often! With HOBO you may well shed a few for the big mans plight. Somebody just buy the guy a fucking lawnmower already!
The characters Hauer's hobo trades bullets and blood with are a cavalcade of the weird and wonderful. From over the top 80's disco gangsters, a prostitute with a heart of gold, (and some very fresh death dealing techniques), to best of all, 'The Plague'; two armor clad hired assassins who pretty much defy description. The larger than life characters act as a perfect balance to Hauer's totally convincing lead. A film this excessive could easily spin wildly out of control, but thanks to Eisener savvy direction and Hauer's utter devotion to his heroic hobo, it never happens.Together they keep the whole wild trip just as grounded as this sort of film needs to be.

What you have here is a near perfect marriage of great writing, searing acting and brilliant directing. And HOBO looks incredible. Bordering at times on psychedelic. Its world is a neon lit hellscape where nothing is sacred and life is cheap, and it oozes sleaze. And yet there's moments of real heart. A simple written note left by the bedside speaks of real warmth.
As to the writing, its effortlessly funny and cool with it. Razor sharp, filthy and often poignant. Look to the scene where 'The Hobo' stands over all the newborn infants in a maternity ward, and waxes lyrical about what life will have in store for them. It'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Its instantly iconic and damn near poetic.

I could rant on for hours about the brilliant cinematography, totally authentic pulse pounding soundtrack, awesome levels of gore and depravity on display, and how hilarious the whole thing is, but I'm not going to. You know why? Because its a film with Rutger Hauer playing a hobo with a shotgun. And that's really all you need to know....

9.5 Hungover Hobo's out of 10

Saturday 2 April 2011