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Kantemir (2015) / D: Ben Samuels / 81m

Cast: Robert Englund, Diane Cary, Daniel Gadi, Justine Griffiths, Alanna Janell, Stuart Stone, Sean Derry

John Larousse (Englund) is an actor whose career has bottomed out thanks to being an alcoholic. Given the chance to start afresh, he travels to an out of the way country estate where he and a group of actors have been assembled to work on a play. The director, Nicholas (Gadi), is secretive about the play’s content, only revealing that it’s an historical piece and that the characters are involved in a doomed romance. As the rehearsals begin, each actor starts to display the traits of their character, and they often refer to each other by their character names. Only John seems to be aware of the strange transformation that the cast is undergoing, and when he discovers that one of them has been killed, the reluctance of the others to believe him is further undermined by their increasing commitment to the play, and Nicholas’s strange hold over all of them…

If Kantemir has anything going for it, it’s Englund’s performance (though even he struggles with some of the cliché-ridden dialogue dreamed up by co-writers Mark Garbett and Ralph Glenn Howard). Englund is the glue that keeps the movie from coming unravelled altogether, which is something that’s needed, as the script, and Samuels’ sloppy direction, conspire to obscure just what kind of movie it is. On the one hand it’s a horror movie, but at times it’s also a mystery and a thriller, and an historical romance, and at a stretch, a psychological drama. What it isn’t is coherent or able to connect any two scenes to each other without making it seem as if another one has been cut from between them. Englund’s experience carries him through – just – but otherwise the performances are awkward, mannered, and unconvincing. The back story that explains it all doesn’t make any sense either, which further undermines the movie’s credibility, and John Rosario’s gloomy cinematography ensures the movie isn’t attractive to look at either. It’s not entirely a chore to sit through, but any rewards are minimal, and even then, very hard to find.

Rating: 4/10 – with its patchwork screenplay and ill-considered scenario, Kantemir is the kind of low budget horror that gets made hundreds of times each year – and which provides evidence (if it were really needed) that they shouldn’t be made in the first place; admittedly, it’s hard to come up with something truly original in the horror field, and this may be an attempt to do that, but the vast gulf between idea and execution is displayed here a little too obviously for the movie’s own good.

 

February (2015) / D: Oz Perkins / 94m

aka The Blackcoat’s Daughter; The Devil’s Daughter

Cast: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, James Remar, Lauren Holly, Greg Ellwand, Elana Krausz, Heather Tod Mitchell, Peter James Howarth

It’s February at the Bromford School for girls, a Catholic establishment preparing to see its pupils and staff head off for winter break. Two students however – Kat (Shipka) and Rose (Boynton) – remain behind at the school thanks to their parents being unable to collect them on the allotted day. Kat is a freshman, prone to staring off into the distance and behaving oddly. Rose is a senior who has just found out she’s pregnant; the school head has also asked her to chaperone Kat during the break (though two nuns are there as well). Meanwhile, a young woman named Joan (Roberts) has left a psychiatric hospital some distance away; at a bus station she meets and accepts a lift from Bill (Remar), a good Samaritan who reveals in time that she reminds him of his daughter, who died nine years before. He and his wife, Linda (Holly), are travelling to Bromford to lay flowers on her grave. Kat’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, and Rose begins to fear for her safety, something that is given credence when the headmaster (Howarth) returns to the school and makes a horrifying discovery…

Although it suffers from issues with pacing, and the story it tells borders on being uncomfortably slight, February is a lean and atmospheric chiller from the fertile mind of its writer/director. Perkins has an offbeat dramatic sensibility, and it’s as a writer that he’s most effective – see Removal (2010) and The Girl in the Photographs (2015) for further evidence. Here, what you see isn’t necessarily what you can believe, as the narrative weaves in and out in a non-linear fashion that keeps the viewer from fully understanding just what’s going on and why. The performances, particularly Shipka’s, are accomplished, and they ensure that the mystery is maintained for as long as possible. Perkins also throws in themes relating to grief and personal responsibility, but  is unable to make certain scenes as effective as they could be, mostly due to their being stretched beyond any real benefit. The wintry locations add to the sense of unease, and the way in which the movie escalates the level of violence and horror towards the end is persuasive as well. Some viewers may find the movie’s first hour somewhat difficult to get through, but if they stick around, they’ll find that perseverance is its own reward.

Rating: 7/10 – not entirely successful, but doing more than enough to warrant the casual viewer’s attention, February is a deceptively effective horror thriller that takes its time and doesn’t give away all its secrets at once; too many longueurs hamper the movie’s pace and rhythm, but the material is strong enough to offset these faults and provide a pervasive sense of menace that is handled astutely and in appropriately cool fashion.

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