Friday, 16 November 2018

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2018: DAY FOUR

Day 3 brought the Celluloid Screams crowd spooky shenanigans by the sea, warped wishes from Mexico, Squad goals across the world, monsters in New Zealand, plus vigilante mobs and a camp counsellor cull in the good ol' U.S. of A. Where would Day 4 take us? You're about to find out...


LIFECHANGER



Let's go with the imdb summary on this one: "A murderous shapeshifter sets out on a blood-soaked mission to make things right with the woman he loves".

Apart from that, I feel I should avoid giving away any details about the plot of Lifechanger because it's best that you go into it knowing as little as possible. If you really want me to provide a lazy comparison, think of it as The Hidden with less gratuitous carnage, more interesting existential musings and a welcome, unexpectedly warm dash of romance added to the mix (if you think the latter will lessen the body count then don't panic, it really doesn't).

Drawn you in? Okay, now forget that it's anything like The Hidden. Lifechanger has an M.O. all of its own and a lot of intriguing questions to pose. I was told this might be a bit of a slow-burner but I was gripped instantly by the situation of the central character and wondered where it was going next - not always where I thought, it turned out.

As the focal point of the plot, Lora Burke is casting gold as the engaging, good-natured but emotionally damaged Laura. From the minute we meet her she's a person we identify and connect with and will come to care about very much, which amplifies any potential danger to her all the more.

In a festival packed with gems, Lifechanger ended up being my favourite movie of the four days. I'm going to spoil it no further. All I can do is urge you to see this movie. It's bloody great.


POSSUM



Philip (Sean Harris) is a troubled sort, carrying around a nightmarish hand puppet - the Possum of the title - in a leather case. Staying with in the run-down house which used to be his chidlhood home, traumatic memories begin to surface and his attempts to destroy the puppet come to nought. Meanwhile, a local child disappears and Philip is very high on the list of suspects...

Director Matthew Holness is known, by me at least, for Garth Marenghi's Darkplace but anyone going into Possum thinking that it shares some - indeed, almost any - of Darkplace's DNA is in for a bit of a shock. You will not be laughing at any point in this movie. It's more than likely you'll be sitting there with a sense of growing unease. You may want to leave the cinema entirely.

I've rarely seen a movie with such an unrelentingly oppressive and fetid atmosphere and the skill with which this is evoked is beyond question. Whether you want to experience this for 85 minutes is entirely up to you. The grime threatens to spill from the screen, some of the dialogue is mumbled, the relationship between Philip and his stepfather makes your skin crawl - this is testing stuff, deliberately so.

I left the screening unnerved and a little overwhelmed, not really sure what to make of the film. Since then, the more I think of Possum the more impressed I am at its performances - both Harris and Armstrong are outstanding - its atmosphere and its unwillingness to pander to the audience. You may be looking for the film to give you an easy out but it doesn't do so. Not once.

Recommended, but brace yourselves.


SUMMER OF '84



Teenage wannabe film-maker Davey (Graham Verchere) suspects that one of his neighbours is a serial killer and enlists the help of his friends in order to gather evidence but the closer they get to the truth the more they find themselves in danger...

On the surface, Summer Of '84 is a familiar coming of age story. Bunch of teenagers hanging out? Check. One of them's a lot cooler than the others? Check. Main character has a massive crush on an older girl? Check. It also taps into the rich vein of nostalgia as makers RKSS did in their previous Turbo Kid.

However, there's also something much, much darker at work here. The cool kid, it turns out, has a really dreadful home life. The town's parents don't seem particularly invested in the possibility they're living alongside a potential serial killer. And there's a truly nasty kicker waiting for the group of friends as they edge ever closer to solving the mystery.

Some may not enjoy the shocking, jet black turn the plot takes late on but I thought it fit the mood of the piece very well indeed. The movie opens by making a point about how even though a place may look perfect it's merely a façade which is concealing something abhorrent. Summer of '84's conclusion echoes its initial gambit and then some, closing with a genuine, unresolved sense of disquiet. Growing up can be a painful experience.

The only duff note? I thought that Nikki, the object of Davey's crush, was somewhat peripheral to the proceedings and a tad underwritten but apart from that Summer Of '84 is a suspenseful, accomplished piece of work.


PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH



When comic book aficionado Edgar (Thomas Lennon) heads to a convention where the 30th Anniversary of the "Toulon Murders" is being commemorated, all he wants to do is sell off the Toulon puppet he's acquired so that he can make some easy money. What he hadn't counted on was the puppets being re-animated by an unseen force, triggering a whole new murder spree...

Written by S.Craig Zahler, scribe of both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl In Cell Block 99, this foregoes the slow-burn of those but retains their gory sensibilities as utterly disposable characters are burned, decapitated, dismembered, slashed and stabbed in glorious colour. The special effects crew was definitely kept busy during this project.

Unrestrained by anything approaching good taste, this is a complete and utter riot for anyone who isn't looking to be offended. If you are looking to be offended, it's a veritable smorgasbord of points about which to complain. Case in point: the sequence in which Edgar's pal Markowitz battles with a "Hitler baby" doll, leading to a hilarious pay off accompanied by a line which brought the Celluloid house down.

There's plenty of exploitation cred in the cast too, with Michael Paré as a detective, Barbara Crampton as an ex-cop-turned-expert Toulon murder tour guide and Udo Kier as Toulon himself. The final moment of The Littlest Reich is totally in keeping with the generally off-kilter nature of the piece. Obviously I'm not going to give it away but what I will say is that you'll find it frustrating or an absolute hoot, depending on your point of view.


CAM



Webcam performer Alice (Madeline Brewer), who's looking to increase her popularity with a series of increasingly sensational web shows as her online persona Lola, suddenly finds her channel locked out and hijacked by a doppelganger who appears to want to push the envelope even further. Can Alice get her channel, her followers and her life back?

Cam is an intriguing ghost in the machine tale given real depth and authenticity courtesy of a brilliant screenplay by Isa Mazzei which shines a sympathetic and fascinating light on the lives of the web performers and, like any workplace, the politics which exist the industry (watch for Samantha Robinson from "The Love Witch" on particularly pithy form in a supporting role). The writing crackles with truth, whether it's the ongoing competition to be the most popular girl on the webcam world or the quieter, poignant moments showing Alice's attempts to keep the details of her real job from her family.

In the main role(s), Brewer is exceptional: smart, sassy, savvy but also with a convincing streak of vulnerability which she tries to keep hidden most of the time. The movie doesn't slip into demonising all of the guys who enjoy the webcam shows either although it makes many salient points that, as in all walks of life, there are some weirdos out there and some men who get off on the control of women. It happens and the movie deals with it in an assured way.

Cam is an excellent exploration of the complex dynamic between the webcam stars and their followers, delivering its high-tech horror with humour and heart.


SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS BY PASSING THROUGH THE GATEWAY CHOSEN BY THE HOLY STORSH



Closing the festival with a movie bearing the snappy title above, "Storsh" (as I will refer to it from now on) is the tale of a couple (Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington) who move to LA and snap up an apartment which is suspiciously cheap to rent. They soon find that this is because a cult leader (played by Taika Waititi) committed suicide in their bathtub, encouraging his followers to break into the property in order to follow their leader through said gateway of the title by killing themselves in said tub.

The potentially dark material here is expertly skirted by dialling up the comedy and pushing the absurdity of the situation for all its worth. Micucci's aspirational go-getter and Huntington's slacker make for an engaging double act and it's pleasing how the initial view of Storsh himself - he must have been some sort of crackpot - begins to give way to "hmm, maybe there is something in what he was saying".

The frequent suicide attempts are a great excuse to feature talented comedy performers in cameo roles (Maria Bamford and Mark McKinney* to name but two) and although a procession of cultists attempting to do themselves in doesn't sound like an especially enjoyable evening of cinema entertainment, the execution - maybe I should have chosen a better word there - will more than like make you smile, maybe even laugh quite a few times.

Surprisingly sweet given the subject matter, Storsh is more delicately dark comedy than hard-driving horror but it will appeal to fans of the genre. The laughs dry up a little towards the end but that doesn't spoil what's gone before. Considering there's quite a lot of death in this movie it's a charming, offbeat yarn with an almost constant stream of chuckles. Give it a go, it's rather lovely in its own strange way.




EPILOGUE

And that, as they say, was that. The 10th Edition of Celluloid Screams delivered another strong line-up of films - quite possibly its strongest yet. I know I say that every year but I can always make a case for it. It gets bigger, it gets better, the Celluloid Screams family grows every year and the social side of the festival is just as important and enjoyable as the films being shown.


To everyone I met in person for the first time this year, it was great to finally get to chat. To the returnees who still speak to me, it's great to catch up. To those who I got to know in the festival's infancy and continue to annoy every single year, I apologise for the ramblings and occasional rants. You people are the best.

Of course, I can't close without thanking those behind the festival who spend a huge amount of time seeking out films and making sure that the extended weekend ran like clockwork - or made it appear it was running like clockwork even if it wasn't. When it looks effortless you know it really isn't.

So, a huge, heartfelt thank you to Rob Nevitt, Polly Allen, Lucy Swift, Clare Platton and the rest of this absolutely amazing team. You always knock it right out of the park and I'm in it for as long as you are. It's always a highlight of my year and I'm sure Celluloid Screams 2019 will somehow be even more awesome.

And to anyone who was trapped in the bar during my end of festival karaoke performance, I'm really sorry. Probably a good time to also apologise to Nena for mangling the German language. It won't happen again.

Or will it?


*Full disclosure - I'm a massive fan of The Kids In The Hall. "I'M CRUSHING YOUR HEAD!!!"

Friday, 9 November 2018

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2018: DAY THREE

Relationship revelations, giallo goings-on in gay porn and celluloid carnage featured in Day Two. Here's what happened over the course of Day Three...

THE CRESCENT



Affter a death in the family, Beth (Danika Vandersteen) takes her son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) to her mother's beachfront house in the hope that the change of location will help with the healing process. Do you think it will? This is a horror movie after all and it becomes obvious that something is clearly not right. Is it the house, is the somewhat odd local population or is it something else?

A slow burner - the spooky stuff doesn't really begin to kick in until about 45 minutes have passed - it's clear that The Crescent is playing its cards very close to its chest and isn't going to reveal its hand in any kind of sudden, grand gesture. Even the end of the movie is open to several interpretations and if you're the sort of person who wants a explanation for all of the weirdness then you might be frustrated at where this ultimately goes (or doesn't go).

This is the kind of movie where it's entirely possible to just sit back and soak up the atmosphere - and I really enjoyed doing so - but I appreciate that this may not be enough for everyone. Vandersteen is excellent in the lead role and Graves is amazing. He's the focus of the movie for an unexpectedly large amount of time and he's never less than totally convincing so bravo, young sir.

The Crescent offsets its somewhat languid pace with its fine performances, arty visuals and agreeably tuned sense of creeping dread. There's much to admire but I was also struck by the thought that it would have also made a breathtaking short.


TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID



After her mother is kidnapped by a drug cartel, 10-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) falls in with the streetwise El Shine (Juan Ramón López) and his gang of orphans. Given three wishes, Estrella looks to use them for good but with a tide of violence threatening to engulf the city and a vicious drug lord in pursuit of the children those wishes don't quite have the consequences she'd expected...

An undoubted highlight of the festival, Issa López's film may invite comparisons to the work of Guillermo Del Toro but the fantasy elements in Tigers Are Not Afraid are not as pronounced and are never allowed to overwhelm the grimy, terrifying reality of the situation portrayed here.

An early sequence in which a class of kids press themselves to the floor as a gunfight rages on the streets outside is a masterclass in unbearable tension and unseen terror, setting out the movie's stall with consummate skill. You'll have few chances to breathe easily over the 83-minute running time and at the end of it all you may want to take a few quiet moments to appreciate fully this extraordinary movie. 

The performances of the child actors are nothing short of astonishing and they carry the movie with a confidence and magnetism which belies their years. The urban setting is a fascinating one, with rooftops, abandoned buildings and the darkest recesses of the city being played for both their magic and squalor. The scares are skilfully played, the emotional journey devastating.

A beautiful, brutal piece of cinema, this is essential viewing.


WOLFMAN'S GOT NARDS



Who remembers The Monster Squad? I certainly do. However, it appears as though many people out there don't, or at least didn't. André Gower's documentary traces the making of the film, its subsequent - and thoroughly undeserved - tanking at the box office, and its unexpected resurrection as an ever-growing bunch of fans championed the film (and continue to do so).

With contributions from the film-makers and the fans, Wolfman's Got Nards expertly balances anecdotes relating to the shooting of the original movie itself with a variety of vignettes featuring those for whom the 1987 monster mash holds a special place in their heart.

The subject matter would be more than interesting enough to work as a documentary on its own but where Wolfman's Got Nards truly scores is the unexpected emotional punch it packs, whether it's Fred Dekker musing with no little candour on the piece of work which severely damaged his career following its failure at the box office or the heartwarming stories of TMS' legion of fans both young and old.André

It's also pleasing to catch up with the Squad's cast as we follow them on a tour of the US (and beyond) to screenings of the film and their joy at being a part of what's clearly becoming a phenomenon genuinely comes across - they seem such a nice bunch I was left feeling glad that the world finally caught up and realised their horror film is not only terrific but appeals to all age groups. That's something worth celebrating.

Ultimately, it's a story of family (both that of The Monster Squad's cast/crew and the wider horror community), a tale of an injustice being righted - as the movie finally began to gain the traction which had eluded it for so long - and a timely reminder of just how bloody good The Monster Squad is. It fully deserves to be loved by an entirely new generation of viewers and Wolfman's Got Nards is the perfect companion piece.

Oh, by the way, I mentioned that the cast seemed such a nice bunch in an earlier paragraph. Well, André Gower - the director of Wolfman's Got Nards and Sean in The Monster Squad - was in attendance at Celluloid Screams and I don't really know how to break the news to you but...yes, he's a cool, smart, funny guy who happens to have been in a great horror movie and has now made a great documentary. Damn you, André.


WELLINGTON PARANORMAL



Since their appearance in What We Do In The Shadows, you might have been wondering exactly what Wellington Police Department Officers O'Leary (Karen O'Leary) and Minogue (Mike Minogue) have been doing. Wonder no longer as we discover they're, er, still with the Wellington Police Department and they're about to be assigned to the brand new, ever so hush-hush Paranormal Unit which has been set up by their Sergeant (Maaka Pohatu).

Over the course of six episodes we follow O'Leary and Minogue in documentary style as their investigations bring them face to face with demons, aliens, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, zombies and, most terrifying of all, clowns. It's all part of the job as they work the focal point of supernatural occurrences that is New Zealand's capital city.

This series is scheduled to be broadcast in the UK in 2019 and I would urge you to catch it because I don't remember laughing this much at anything in a very long time. There's an innate understanding of classic horror monsters and tropes at play here and this is used to mine the proceedings for maximum comedy effect.

The Law of Averages (and episodic television) would suggest that, out of the the six episodes which form Season One, there'd be a duff one among the bunch. Not the case here as the quality is ridiculously, consistently high. Each investigation is packed with laugh out loud moments and across the instalments there are some nicely played running gags, particularly one concerning the security systems which, er, "protect" the access to Sergeant Maaka's "secret office".

Of course, this wouldn't work quite as well if the two leads weren't so engaging. O'Leary and Minogue as, er, O'Leary and Minogue are bloody hilarious and their deadpan double act is an absolute joy. Even their most mundane exchanges are loaded with comic smarts to the point where there's a risk you might miss the odd gag because you're still laughing at the previous one.

The two stars were also in attendance - in character - at the Celluloid Screams screening to introduce their series and to provide assurance on the safety precautions which had been taken to ensure our safety. They also managed to weave in a brilliant joke about something which had happened during the screening of Halloween a couple of nights earlier and Officer O'Leary was on hand to helpfully explain the cuts to black which signalled the ad breaks.

Possibly the most fun I've ever had at a cinema screening, this was three hours (including Q&A session) of pure delight and the experience of being in a packed auditorium laughing themselves silly over and over again is something that will stay with me for a very long time. What else can I say about Wellington Paranormal but "more please". And it looks like there may very well be more, which is great news.


ASSASSINATION NATION


When a local politician's salacious online details are hacked, the small town of Salem is abuzz with gossip. Things take a much worse turn when all of the town's dirty secrets are leaked, leading to local girl Lily (Odessa Young) finding herself at the centre of the subsequent witch hunt (well, that's what happens when you live in Salem) and ending up in a fight for her very survival along with three of her friends...

Beginning with the Universal ident, I was ready for this to deliver a studio-neutered vision of mob violence, soft-pedalled vigilante justice and multiplex-friendly "abhorrent" behaviour. Boy, was I wrong. Assassination Nation pulls very few punches in its two-hour attack on what a bunch of preening, privileged, pathetic little pricks human beings can be.

Apart from one overly theatrical flounce out of the cinema (dramatically pronouncing the film to be "an abomination" - yeah yeah, wanting attention much?), the feeling after the screening was that a large proportion of the Celluloid Screams audience found this a gripping, confrontational experience.

Boasting a quartet of teenage female characters that actually feel like smart, rounded people rather than a collection of wisecracks and angst which just sounded good to the writer, Assassination Nation builds nicely, wisely saving its full tilt into gory horror for its third act when the shit really hits the fan and everyone gives full vent to their inner keyboard warrior.

The potential ills of social media may be something of a soft target but this film deals with the subject in an adept, fearless way, mixing its terror and suspense with a deliciously dark dash of comedy. It's bold, it's brash and it's rather brilliant.


YOU MIGHT BE THE KILLER (CELLULOID SCREAMS SECRET FILM)



Camp counsellor Sam (Fran Kranz) calls his good friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) with a doozy of a quandary. He has sketchy memories of the previous few hours and now there are murder victims littering the place. Chuck's knowledge of horror movies will come into play as she and Sam attempt to piece together what's been going on because at first glance it seems as if Sam might be the killer. Well, it is in the title, after all.

A deconstructed slasher film which begins near the end and then spends its 90 minutes filling the gaps in the plot's timeline in ways which are frequently non-linear, this has a fair amount of fun with its premise and it's crammed with amusing nods to the all-too-familiar tropes of the camp counsellor carnage flick.

It's also fun to see Alyson Hannigan back in the genre and, although she spends the movie dispensing advice over a phone line while wandering the one location in which she works, her performance is one of the film's strengths. As the sweet but fiercely logical voice of reason, Chuck attempts to keep Sam on the rails as his situation goes from bad to worse.

In the final analysis, YMBTK doesn't turn out to anywhere near as groundbreaking as the early action may hint at but it's an amusing, gory, entertaining romp which didn't outstay its welcome and had me leaving cinema with a smile on my face. Which can't be a bad thing.