Wednesday, 28 October 2009

CS - Friday: Lake Mungo & Trick 'R Treat

Lake Mungo

Year: 2008
Director: Joel Anderson
Writer: Joel Anderson
Starring: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe & Talia Zucker

Lake Mungo kicked off the Celluloid Screams festival, and what a start. It's a (fictional) documentary that charts a family's grief after the loss of it's teenage daughter who drowns in the local dam. After finding her body and burying her, the family witness a series of bizarre and inexplicable events that lead them to believe that her spirit is still among them.

What sounds on paper like quite a cheesy horror film is actually more of a slow-burning drama that is creepy and has it's share of frights but is also surprisingly touching and intelligent. The story takes some very interesting turns as it progresses, which jar at first, but as events unfold it all makes sense.

It really is an impressively controlled affair, especially coming from a first-time writer/director, and is possibly one of the most effective uses of the pseudo-documentary format that I've come across (bar Spinal Tap, but that's a whole other type of film). It doesn't do anything half-baked like District 9 which gives up on the documentary format half way through, or like Cloverfield which is way too glossy to feel like 'lost footage'. Lake Mungo uses a classic documentary format, i.e. talking heads mixed with primary sources and classily shot location footage after the event, and sticks to it, which makes the story feel truly real and truly personal. The believable performances help cement this too.

I really hope this gets a proper release (nothing is listed in the UK on IMDB) as this is mature, dramatic horror that deserves to be seen.


Trick 'R Treat

Year: 2008
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writer: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Anna Paquin, Brian Cox & Dylan Baker

Trick 'R Treat takes the traditional horror anthology format and gives it an Altman style interwoven story treatment. This is no wordy, improvisational drama though, Trick 'R Treat is purely made for fun and thrills, which it delivers admirably.

It contains 4 plot-lines concerning various Halloween 'rules', one shows what happens when a couple blow out their jack-o-lanterns out before midnight, another uncovers a school principle's secret life as a serial killer, a twenty-something virgin hopes to find love, and a group of teenagers play pranks around a supposedly haunted quarry.

As I mentioned before this isn't a film that needs to be taken seriously. It reminded me of the Hollywood horror films of the 80's and early 90's, films that aren't all that scary but have enough jolts and gore mixed in with a healthy dose of humour to create an enjoyable Halloween cinema experience. The structure works very well too, and the stories actually flow together quite seamlessly, keeping the pace up and never letting the film sag.

All in all it's perfect late night fodder and it's out on DVD now I think, so well worth tracking down. It's a shame it didn't get a cinema release though, as it's a thoroughly enjoyable film.


More reviews from Celluloid Screams 2009:
Saturday Part 1

Saturday Part 2

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Celluloid Screams Film Festival

Last weekend I attended 'Celluloid Screams', a newly formed horror film festival at Sheffield's Showroom Cinema. I had a great time sitting through 13 top-class horror films, many of which were British premiere screenings, and I'd thoroughly recommend the festival to genre fans if it's repeated again next year.

Watching 13 films in one weekend is great for my film review blog of course, but that's a lot of work for someone who does this in his spare time. So, what I plan on doing is over the next few days doing some brief bulk reviews of all the films I caught at the weekend, covering a day per page (or maybe 2 for Saturday, when 7 films were screened!). So keep an eye out over the next week or so for some bumper content.

To whet your appetite, here is the full list of films that I caught at the festival:

Lake Mungo
Trick 'R Treat
Coffin Rock
Yoroi: Samurai Zombie
I Sell the Dead
Paranormal Activity
The Burning
Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl
The House of the Devil

The write-ups for each day are now available:
Saturday Part 1

Saturday Part 2

Sunday, 11 October 2009


Year: 2009
Directors: Pete Docter & Bob Peterson
Writers: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson & Thomas McCarthy

I feel sorry for Pixar. The level of expectation that builds before the release of their films is so ridiculously high that I don't see how the writers and directors sleep at night. Yet again and again, without fail they churn out family entertainment that is miles ahead of the competition. OK so Cars is no masterpiece, but compare it to anything other than the rest of Pixar's output and it's still very good.

For me, this expectation affects my first viewing of a Pixar film too though, as with any film with a sizeable amount of hype. To fully assess a film with this much baggage behind it I'm of the opinion that you should see it at least a second time so that all expectations are gone. Luckily for me, with Up I was able to do that. I actually first saw the film a few months ago (at Glastonbury randomly enough), so now it's out on general release and my film review site is up and running I can finally get around to letting everyone know what I think.

Up is a great film. After first watching it in a sweaty tent, sat on the grass after a weekend of little sleep and no showers, I thought it was very good, but it didn't quite grab me. This must have been the circumstances or the hype though because on second viewing I loved it.

Much like Wall-E, Up has a fantastic first half-hour that makes you fall in love with the film instantly. I don't want to over-hype it like several other reviewers have, but the montage sequence early on in the film is a wonderful piece of filmmaking, not in a flashy or groundbreaking way, but in terms of economical storytelling. Without giving too much away it basically tells an almost lifelong back-story that sets up the premise for the whole film as well as immediately establishing the emotional core and getting us to truly feel for the characters after only 5 minutes and no dialogue.

Again, like Wall-E though, the second half of the film does struggle to recapture the warmth of the opening. The film has quite a shift in tone once there's a change of location, and what begins as a touching and semi-realistic drama becomes more of a family adventure in the Disney vein. It still works very well though, and on second viewing the shift wasn't as distracting as before. You really have to suspend your disbelief at several points in the film, as logic is totally thrown out of the window. Being a Disney/Pixar film, looking for realism and logic is missing the point a bit though. That said, although the film gets a bit silly at times, it still draws you back to the characters with some subtly touching moments.

I first saw the film in 3D, which was an odd experience to critique. On one hand it was brilliant because for the first time it didn't detract from the film at all, it felt more seamless than I'd previously experienced. But in saying that, if I didn't really notice the difference in watching it in 3D, what's the point? After watching it again in 2D I think the 3D did add a bit of depth obviously and the digital projection had richer colours, but it didn't make it a better film. Speaking of rich colours, some of the imagery as the house floats in the sky is beautiful and it's a very pretty film, not noticeably stylish or original, just classically beautiful.

Up is a real delight, and it holds it's head up high with the rest of Pixar's output. It threatens to get a bit Disneyfied at times and some silly moments almost derail the tender story at the heart of it all, but as family films go this is a fine achievement as is expected from the genius' at Pixar. No pressure guys, but keep it up.


Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Year: 1985
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Sam Raimi, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Starring: Reed Birney, Sheree J. Wilson, Bruce Campbell, Brion James & Paul L. Smith

Yes you read that correctly - this film was directed by Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Spiderman etc.) and co-written alongside the Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men, Fargo etc.). And yes it was released not long after Evil Dead or Blood Simple too, yet I can imagine a large number of you are thinking, 'why have I never heard of this film, and why haven't I seen it?!'

There's a simple answer, and that's because it's really not very good. This seems unthinkable coming after the two classic debut features that the filmmakers released only a year or two previously, but it happened. Reading into the background of the film last night after watching it told a story more interesting than the one I had just sat through. Basically, after the success of Evil Dead, Raimi was approached by Columbia Pictures and given a deal to make a studio picture. He decided to make Crimewave (aka The XYZ Murders), a project he'd been working on with co-producer Bruce Campbell and the Coen Brothers who were at the time trying to distribute Blood Simple. The studio however, as is often the case, took over the project which Raimi and Campbell were struggling to keep a handle on - they were used to making films on their own time and money so couldn't to get to grips with the schedules and restraints of the Hollywood system. They also insisted on recasting the film, kicking original star Campbell into a minor role. In the end the film was torn to bits in post-production by the studio and Raimi and Campbell have since disowned the film.

A much better-told account of this story can be found here:

Anyway, back to the film itself. As I mentioned earlier, the plot is fairly weak; a man that runs a security firm alongside his partner, learns that this seedy fellow is planning on selling the company under his feet. He decides the only way to save his business is to get the man killed. He hires a couple of deranged exterminators to do the job and things get totally out of control as the bodies pile up and our protagonists, a young, ill-fitting couple, get drawn in somehow. This is all framed by the hero being led to death row for all the murders that occured.

Seeing the plot written out like that, it almost sounds like the makings of a quirky Coen Brothers classic piece of neo-noir, but believe me it doesn't end up that way. The film is a real mess and clearly the studio had their scissors out at some point. Scenes just seem to happen rather than flow together and little of it makes sense at all.

I should point out though that despite all of the film's problems, it is not without merit. There are several set-pieces that are incredibly imaginitive and stand out amongst the confusion. A chase involving dozens of multicoloured fake walls and a scene where one of the exterminators clashes with the wife of the security firm boss in particular stand out as clear examples of Raimi's talents. Bruce Campbell chews up the scenery in his small role too as Renaldo "the heal", and makes you wonder what the film would have been like with him in the lead role. Reed Birney tries his best, but doesn't have the charisma or comic timing to hold the reins in such a madcap film.

Speaking of madcap, this really is a very silly film. Made in obvious homage to The Three Stooges and The Looney Tunes, Crimewave attempts at every turn to capture the zany, fast-paced humour of a live-action cartoon, but rarely achieves it's goal. Most of the jokes fall flat on their face, and even though the film is wholly chaotic, it still manages to feel a bit slow - quite an achievement for an 80 minute film! On occasions you'll get into the mood of it all (namely in the sections mentioned previously), but the messiness of the structure and the poor lead performances just bring it crashing down again.

If you're a fan of Sam Raimi or the Coen's then I recommend you track down Crimewave and give it a try, but do approach it with caution and treat it purely as a curiosity, because it's a long way from Evil Dead and The Man Who Wasnt There.


Friday, 2 October 2009

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

Year: 1972
Director: Shunya Ito
Writers: Fumio Konami & Hiro Matsuda based on the comic by Tooru Shinohara
Starring: Meiko Kaji, Rie Yokoyama & Isao Natsuyagi

OK I'll get this out of the way - yes, it is a 'women in prison'/'pinky violence' film and yes it is as sleazy as you'd expect coming from these sub-genres. However in my defence it's a cult classic and many critics do consider it to have arthouse credentials. Plus it's my blog and I don't want to just review Hollywood tripe all the time!

Well that's my excuse for watching it out of the way.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is the first of a successful series of Female Prisoner films based on the manga by Tooru Shinohara, and stars cult favourite Meiko Kaji, star of Stray Cat Rock and the Lady Snowblood films. As is expected from an exploitation film made in Japan in the 70's, Female Prisoner is a violent and sleazy film that doesn't shy away from much. It's the sort of film that makes you want a shower after you've watched it. However, what sets it apart from a lot of the other smutty trash out there is the quality of the filmmaking. It's no Citizen Kane of course, but it presents violence that feels painful rather than just overly bloody, it has a memorable and powerful lead female performance, and it also has a visual style that at times is eye-popping. It also avoids a lot of the laughable dialogue contained in most films of this type by keeping the main character practically mute (apparently lead actress Kaji insisted on this as she felt the obscenities littering the original script cheapened the film). This creates a mysterious 'man-with-no-name' effect, upping the cool factor several times over as well as allowing the film to tell it's story more visually.

The plot is not one of Female Prisoner's strong points though; basically a woman, nicknamed Matsu, is cruely used by a police officer she once loved to frame a criminal gang, so she attempts to kill him and gets imprisoned. Through most of the film we watch as she suffers under the hands of the sadistic guards and fellow inmates. At the same time the police officer plants an assassin in the prison to kill her. The film builds to Matsu exacting revenge on those that have crossed her in a bloody climax.

As I mentioned before this is a genuinely brutal film. Some of the violence is tame by today's standards but the sexual nature of much of it and the relentless sadism of the guards makes it at times an uncomfortable watch. It isn't the extravagant, balletic violence of the kung-fu and samurai genres, these are grubby scenes of torture that repulse rather than entertain. It gives the film a disturbing edge, but sometimes you wonder why you're watching it. When Matsu turns the table on those responsible it does become more exciting rather than disturbing though and you can't help but root for her.

The style of the film was what impressed me most though. A bold use of colours help bring the film alive and are a signifier of the film's comic book roots. There is little thought towards naturalism, the film is full of theatrical spotlights and unnatural greens and reds that as well as look good, help prevent the relentless violence from getting too real. Revolving sets and disorientating camera angles are also incorporated to great effect, notably in a brilliant flashback sequence where we learn why Matsu is in prison.

Of course, being a 'women in prison' movie the film is full of gratuitous nudity and violence, so won't be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're a fan of exploitation films and you can stomach it, this is definitely worth watching.