In recent years, the legend of Lizzie Borden has spawned a number of movies, and even a TV series, but it seems this endless fascination with the gruesome murders of her father Andrew and stepmother Abby, and Lizzie herself, has yet to be satiated. Now we have another variation on the classic tale, but one that posits the idea of a lesbian relationship between Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and the Bordens’ maid, Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), something that the author Ed McBain explored in his 1984 novel, Lizzie. True or not, writer Bryce Kass and director Craig William Mcneill appear to have created an atmospheric, and agitated movie that relies on deep rooted passions and a feverish sense of increasing dread in order to relay the events leading up to and following on from the events of 4 August 1892. Sevigny is a great choice for the troubled (and troubling) Lizzie, while Stewart, taking another step further away from the mainstream, looks to be just as good. The only proviso? The depiction of Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) as unremittingly horrible. Whereas the rest of the movie seems to be inhabiting psychological horror territory, his performance appears to be straight out of the Grand Guignol Book of Movie Villains. Still, trailers can be deceptive – and definitely not to be trusted, most of the time – but if this trailer is anything to go by, this might be more intriguing, and unnerving, than expected… and that final shot is undeniably chilling.
D: Juan Carlos Medina / 109m
Cast: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, María Valverde, Eddie Marsan, Henry Goodman, Morgan Watkins
A music hall comedian and musical theatre actor. A Prussian-born philosopher. An English novelist. And an aspiring playwright. All four of them men, and all four suspected of being the infamous Limehouse Golem, a murderer whose latest outrage has claimed the lives of an entire family and their maid. Which of these four men – Dan Leno (Booth), Karl Marx (Goodman), George Gissing (Watkins), and John Cree (Reid) – is the crazed, psychopathic killer, and why?
It’s a measure of the confidence that screenwriter Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem) has in the material that she keeps this central conceit ticking along for so long, because if you stopped to think about it for more than a cursory second, then said conceit would crumble to dust before your eyes. Ackroyd may have presented his story in better ways on the page, but Goldman is hampered by the requirements of a movie interpretation, and the scenes where the murders are re-enacted from the viewpoint of each suspect in turn leads to some very awkward moments indeed. The sight of Karl Marx – a bushy bearded Goodman – acting violently makes for one of the most inappropriately amusing murder scenes in recent cinema history. And the same can be said of Gissing’s turn behind the knife. Leno fares slightly better but that’s mostly thanks to Booth’s florid turn as the theatrical maestro, while Cree, this movie’s Most Likely does mentally unbalanced with too much glee to be even considered as the Golem. So with each of the suspects lacking that certain murderous je ne sais quoi, what’s a mystery thriller meant to do?
The answer is to focus instead on Cree’s wife, Lizzie (Cooke), a member of Leno’s troupe, and soon on trial for poisoning her husband. Cree’s death doesn’t immediately rule him out of being the Golem, but it does prompt Inspector John Kildare (Nighy) to attempt to kill two birds with one stone: to prove that Cree was the Golem, and in doing so, provide his wife with a motive for killing him that would make her a heroine and see her avoid the gallows. Aided by Constable George Flood (Mays), Kildare follows a clue left by the Golem at a murder scene to the British Library and a book by Thomas de Quincey that contains a diary written by the Golem within its pages. With only the four men mentioned above having had access to the book on the day of its last entry, Kildare sets about obtaining samples of the men’s handwriting in an effort to eliminate/incriminate them. Leno, Marx and Gissing are soon ruled out, but Cree’s death remains an obstacle to the truth: before he died he burnt all his personal papers.
With all this investigative work going on, and grisly accountings of the murders punctuating the narrative to boot, the movie recounts Lizzie’s life from sexually abused pre-teen to orphan to theatrical protegé to music hall star. It feels like a soap opera tale given a grim Victorian veneer, and takes up too much of the movie’s run time. For long stretches it’s Lizzie’s back story at the forefront of the material, and the search for the Golem is left feeling as if it’s been relegated to second place, a position that doesn’t feel right for the story or the overall structure. Allied with a number of scenes that see Kildare visiting Lizzie in prison and reassuring her all will be well, the mystery elements are forced to take a back seat as Kildare pursues his twin aims, all of which is likely to lead some viewers into construing that his visits are indicative of some burgeoning romance (Kildare is conscientious it’s true, but nothing fully explains his obsessive determination to save Lizzie from certain death). But wait, Kildare isn’t “interested” in women, he follows another persuasion, a detail the script brings up every now and then in a misguided attempt at adding depth to the character, and which only prompts Flood to reveal his own “interests” in a scene that is as awkwardly written as it is played out.
Lizzie’s theatrical experiences are used as a backdrop for the rise of the Golem, and there are plenty of clues dropped along the way as to the murderer’s identity (fans of this sort of thing will have no problem working out the whodunnit aspect of things). Along the way there are also several music hall interludes, and back stage confrontations, that help to throw suspicion on Leno and Cree respectively, but in an effort to stretch the material even further, there are minor sub-plots that add little to the larger storyline, and by the time the murderer’s identity is revealed, a certain amount of ennui has settled in as scenes are recycled or repeated without adding anything new or relevant to the proceedings. Even the murders themselves, touted as grisly and shocking, prove unambitious in their execution (excuse the pun), and a number of incidental deaths prove equally uninspired (and more than a little predictable).
That said, there are some good performances to be had, with Nighy putting aside all the tics and pauses that usually make up one of his portrayals (and subbing for a too ill to take part Alan Rickman), while Booth (who just keeps getting better and better) is on formidable form as Leno, imbuing the character with a melancholy nature off stage that is at odds with his more ebullient and public persona on stage. Marsan is good value as always as a senior member of Leno’s troupe, Reid plays the anger-driven Cree with a fierce passion, but Mays looks out of place, and Cooke does her best with a role that should be more sympathetic than it actually is, and which suffers from having too much attention focused on it. Medina organises everything in a frustratingly direct manner, with too many scenes and developments lacking the necessary impact, and though he has fine support from the likes of cinematographer Simon Dennis, production designer Grant Montgomery, and costume designer Claire Anderson, it’s not enough for the movie to look good when it doesn’t always feel right.
Rating: 6/10 – a mixed bag overall, The Limehouse Golem captures the squalid nature of the Victorian era with aplomb and sets up its central storyline well, but dials down on the melodrama and the lurid nature of the Golem’s activities; perfectly acceptable then in a “what to watch on a Sunday evening” kind of way, but not quite as formidable in its approach as it needed to be.
D: Billy O’Brien / 103m
Cast: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Christina Baldwin, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Lucile Lawton, Anna Sundberg, Raymond Brandstrom, Michael Paul Levin
Welcome to the small US town of Clayton where the mutilated remains of one of the townsfolk ends up at the Cleaver-run funeral home. It’s actually the second such corpse to end up there, but the owner, April Cleaver (Fraser), isn’t too happy about the boost in business – given the circumstances. The same can’t be said for her son, John (Records), who views (literally) the bodies with a kind of excitement. Which isn’t surprising, as John has been recently diagnosed as a sociopath.
John ticks all the boxes for incipient sociopathy: bedwetting, pyromania and animal cruelty, but he’s self-aware and has a set of rules that he follows in order that he doesn’t act out on his violent impulses. He has a friend, Max (Brandstrom), that he hangs out with and does “normal” stuff, and he has a liking for a girl who lives across the road, Brooke (Lawton) (though he doesn’t know how to approach her, or talk to her even when she speaks to him). Aside from his mother, his aunt Margaret (Baldwin), and older sister Lauren (Sundberg), the only other people he interacts with are his therapist, Dr Neblin (Geary), and the elderly couple across the street, the Crowleys (Lloyd, Noah).
After the discovery of the second body, John starts to notice a mysterious man wandering around town and acting suspiciously. One day he follows the man, who bumps into Mr Crowley. Crowley is going ice fishing and the stranger invites himself along. John follows them out to a lake and watches as the stranger makes to stab the old man in the back. But John is astonished to see Crowley whirl round and using some kind of black, stick-like growth that shoots from his hand, kill the man instead. And then it gets weirder still…
What John sees causes him no end of confusion and indecision. But he’s also fascinated, impressed even on one level, and says nothing to anyone about what he’s seen. He begins to follow Crowley around town, until one afternoon the old man visits a barber’s. Once the other customers are gone, and the barber is distracted, Crowley locks the door and puts the Closed sign in the window. While he proceeds to kill the barber, John sets off the security alarm. Two policemen arrive, but when one of them discovers the barber’s body, Crowley kills both of them as well. Shocked, but also scared of putting anyone else in harm’s way, John decides that it’s down to him to do something about Crowley’s killing spree. But can he do it without betraying his own set of rules, and without giving in to the urges he manages to suppress?
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Dan Wells, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a dark comedy/drama that manages to work on several levels, and with a good deal of style and panache. Visually it’s a very dour, moody piece, even when Clayton is buried under a couple of feet of snow. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is an obvious asset, whether it’s capturing the look and feel of a small town teetering on the edge of hysteria, or reflecting on the dark emotions that drive both John and Mr Crowley. (It’s a banner year for Ryan, with Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey also lensed by him and due out.) As the movie progresses and the streets of Clayton become emptier and emptier, Ryan’s camerawork helps increase the sense of isolation experienced by the characters, and heightens the drama. For a relatively low budget movie, Ryan’s work is exemplary and helps elevate the somewhat uneven material.
This unevenness is due to the twists and turns of the story, some of which work perfectly – Crowley’s first on-screen kill – and some of which don’t – John’s mother being put in harm’s way near the end. In adapting Wells’s novel, O’Brien and co-screenwriter Christopher Hyde have rightly emphasised the struggle John has in keeping his impulses in check, but they’re less successful in examining and relating the reasons why he keeps Crowley’s secret to himself. He’s clearly appalled by both the fact of Crowley’s being a serial killer, and the manner in which he carries out his kills, and also that he’s been doing it for a very long time (there’s a nod to Lloyd’s role in the Back to the Future trilogy, as one of Crowley’s younger identities is called Emmett). This is at odds with his sociopathy, which is played with and included as and when the script requires it. Other emotional outbursts are also at odds with Dr Neblin’s diagnosis, and there’s even room for a last-minute joke to further call his condition into question.
Notions of sociopathy aside, John is a wholly sympathetic character that, strangely enough, audiences should be able to identify with. As a teenager, he has trouble fitting in, and as a protagonist he’s pro-active in ways that we’d like to think that we would be in a similar situation. As he and Crowley play their game of cat and mouse, it’s easy to root for him because even when he appears to have killed someone – a definite no-no according to the rules – John’s reaction is one of horror rather than indifference. What’s also very clever (and very cleverly handled) is the way in which Crowley is allowed to go from homicidal maniac to a character every bit as sympathetic as John, and with a compelling motive for his actions as well.
Threaded throughout the story are moments of rich, dark humour – John’s way of dealing with a bully, Max’s father being interviewed on TV while he’s part of an angry mob – and John’s family background is given its fair share of screen time, revealing greater depths to the characters than is usual. As the fractured family, Fraser is under-used as John’s mother, while Baldwin is the strong-willed yet fair aunt, and Sundberg pops in and out of the narrative to remind viewers that John isn’t the only one trying to figure out their place in life. As John, Records gives an intuitive, carefully modulated performance that matches the character’s feelings of paranoia, while Lloyd provides a perfect mix of pathos and menace as the neighbourly serial killer with an even darker secret.
O’Brien ensures the movie is never less than intriguing, and directs at an unhurried, deliberate pace which suits the material and gives the narrative room to breathe. He’s also able to ensure that when things get really weird, the viewer isn’t put off by these developments or left stranded in open disbelief (a likely occurrence if this was in the hands of a less confident director). And the denouement, when it arrives, is unexpectedly touching, a surprise that is pulled off with aplomb, and which makes the movie a much more rewarding experience than usual.
Rating: 8/10 – there’s much to admire about I Am Not a Serial Killer, from its familiar small town vibe to its potent murder scenes, and the many ways in which it manages to subvert those small town vibes in order to heighten the drama; Records and Lloyd make for great adversaries, the special effects in the movie are used sparingly and to good effect, and the whole thing is far more entertaining and enjoyable than its semi-morbid title would have you believe.
Ashes, Claudia Lee, Drama, Horror, India, Jeremy Sisto, Johannes Roberts, Kal Penn, Kenny Wormald, Murders, Nick Simon, Photographs, Review, Sarah Wayne Callies, Serial killer, Spearfish, Supernatural, Temple
The Girl in the Photographs (2015) / D: Nick Simon / 98m
Cast: Kal Penn, Claudia Lee, Kenny Wormald, Toby Hemingway, Luke Baines, Miranda Rae Mayo, Oliver Seitz, Autumn Kendrick, Mitch Pileggi
Colleen (Lee) is young, pretty, stuck in a dead-end job in her home town of Spearfish, and has a jerk of a boyfriend called Ben (Hemingway). Her dull, unexciting existence is eased by the discovery of a photograph that appears to show a murdered woman. She take it to the cops but with no clear evidence that the picture is real, it’s quickly dismissed as some kind of prank. But Colleen starts receiving more photographs, all similar in tone and content, and each one more disturbing than the last. News of the photographs finds its way onto the Internet and is seen by LA photographer Peter Hemmings (Penn). He’s the type of edgy photographer who likes to think his work is “out there”, and he’s affronted by the fact that these photographs have been taken by someone else; he’s also from Spearfish so adopts an even more personal interest.
When Hemmings arrives in Spearfish it isn’t long before he meets Colleen and wants her to be the focus of the photo shoot he’s planning. Colleen, having nothing better to do, agrees to take part, and she recieves an invite to a party where Hemmings is staying. Meanwhile, one of Colleen’s friends goes missing, and the photographs keep coming. As the party gets under way, the guests start ending up dead, and Colleen, along with Hemmings’ put-upon assistant, Chris (Wormald), find themselves trying to stay one step ahead of a killer who now seems content to come out of the shadows and create their own murderous “artistic” showcase.
The last movie that Wes Craven was involved with before his death in August 2015, The Girl in the Photographs is one that he may well have been pleased with, but perhaps with some reservations as well. It starts off with the roadside murder of a young woman, the first of many narrative decisions that stop the movie from being an intriguing murder mystery-cum-horror thriller. Instead this helps the movie nail its colours to the mast as another serial killer movie, albeit with a neat twist. Where it wins points for originality is the inclusion of celebrity photographer Peter Hemmings and his selfish attitude to everyone; he’s so obnoxious you don’t know whether to cheer him or not. Penn is terrific in the role, and the script wisely includes him as much as possible.
However, the movie is on less surer ground when Hemmings isn’t around. The murders lack the kind of visceral intensity that the photographs point to, and the decision to reveal the villain’s identity by the halfway mark (after the movie spends a lot of time and energy hiding his face) allows much of the tension to dissipate, especially as the reason for the murders is none too complex. Director and co-writer (with Osgood Perkins and Robert Morast) Nick Simon shows that he’s learnt a thing or two from watching Craven’s ouevre, but the slow, deliberate, and rewarding pace of the first hour is abandoned in favour of the kind of stalk and slash routine we’ve seen way too many times before. The cast are likeable if not exactly memorable – Penn aside – though Lee is a sympathetic heroine, and the movie is enhanced by the contribution of veteran cinematographer Dean Cundey, who shot Halloween (1978) and all three Back to the Future movies. A little too nihilistic perhaps by the end but still something that Craven could, and probably would, have been proud of.
Rating: 6/10 – narrative muddles and tonal shifts aside, The Girl in the Photographs is a valiant attempt to do something different within the overstuffed serial killer sub-genere of horror movies; worth a watch though for Penn’s performance, and some subtle nods to several other horror movies that both Craven and Cundey have been involved with.
The Other Side of the Door (2016) / D: Johannes Roberts / 96m
Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Sofia Rosinsky, Logan Creran, Suchitra Pillai
Michael (Sisto) is an antiquities dealer who visits India a lot. He and his wife Maria (Callies) decide to make Mumbai their permanent home, and start a family. Six years later, the couple are struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of their young son, Oliver (Creran) in a car accident. They still have their daughter, Lucy (Rosinsky), but for Maria the pain of losing Oliver is too much and she tries to commit suicide. In the hospital, their housekeeper, Piki (Pillai), offers Maria a chance of speaking to Oliver one last time. All she has to do is travel to an abandoned temple in the woods near Piki’s home, spread Oliver’s ashes on the steps outside, and wait inside the temple with the door shut. The only proviso: she mustn’t open the door while Oliver’s spirit is there.
Of course, Maria opens the door, and soon strange, supernatural events are happening back at home. Lucy tells Maria that Oliver is back, but it soon transpires that Oliver isn’t the happy-go-lucky boy he was when he was alive. And when Piki realises what’s happened, she berates Maria for her foolishness. Oliver is a malicious spirit now, and will stop at nothing to avoid going back to where he came from. But there’s also another entity to contend with: the temple’s gatekeeper, a supernatural guardian who will also stop at nothing to retrieve Oliver’s soul. With Oliver targeting his sister, and Michael away a lot through work, Maria has to find a way of dealing with Oliver’s return, and the gatekeeper’s increasing presence.
A grim variation on The Monkey’s Paw, The Other Side of the Door wastes no time in getting its lead character to behave unbelievably and without even a first thought about what she’s doing, let alone a second one. When Maria has Oliver dug up in the middle of the night so she can burn his body for the ashes, you know that this is a movie that credibility forgot on its way to the multiplex. It’s the kind of horror movie that relies on a few jump scares, a series of strange occurrences (here all the plant and animal life, except for the family dog (for some reason), dies off due to the approach of the gatekeeper – though exactly why is a tough question to answer), and the occasional appearances of a group called the Aghori, Aboriginal-looking guardians of the dead who pop up menacingly from time to time but are there to do the same work as the gatekeeper (for some reason).
By the time the final showdown comes around, the characters have behaved too stupidly for anyone to care, and the final scene is entirely predictable. Roberts, who also co-wrote the movie with Ernest Riera, never quite grasps the idea that evil spirits disguised as children should look normal instead of covered in zombie makeup, and that long close ups of a children’s toy – for sinister effect – are only disturbing when you realise just how often they’ve been done before. As a result of these and other lacklustre decisions, both Callies and Sisto are left stranded, with Callies, whose post- The Walking Dead career is going from bad to worse – this is her third turkey in a row after Into the Storm (2014) and Pay the Ghost (2015) – unable to do anything more with a character who makes so many bad decisions that the audience will be rooting for Oliver or the gatekeeper – it doesn’t matter which – to take her with them to the other side of the door.
Rating: 4/10 – a movie that’s just plain tired in its structure and execution, and with plot developments you can see coming a mile off, The Other Side of the Door tries hard to be different with its Mumbai setting, but lets itself down by being so determinedly prosaic; it also fails to generate any genuine terror, and with the Aghori, creates a mythology that it never fully tries to explain.
D: Tyler Shields / 84m
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Wes Bentley, Alexander Ludwig, Logan Huffman, Cameron Bright, Reece Thompson, Emma Paetz
Following the death of her parents at a young age, Veronica (Breslin) grows up in the care of William (Bentley), who trains her to become an assassin. Years later as a teenager, she’s told about a group of four young men whose idea of fun is to take young women out into the woods and hunt them before killing them. The group is led by Jameson (Ludwig); at the diner where the four meet, Veronica attracts his attention and he insists she meet him there the following Saturday night. Before he meets her he picks up his friends, Shane (Bright), Nelson (Thompson) and Danny (Huffman).
The group take Veronica out to the woods where at first they play a game of truth or dare. When she mentions the name of their last victim, they start to become suspicious, and it leads to a dare called Die. Jameson explains that Veronica will be given a five-minute head start, and then she’ll be hunted down and killed. As she heads off into the woods they’re unaware that the tables will soon be turned on them, and the kind of prey you’re used to hunting will prove to be more than a match for all of them.
With so much unexplained or explored, Final Girl could well be the most frustrating movie of 2015. A degree of mystery is fine in any movie, but here it’s taken to extremes, with motivations, actions and the reasons for certain decisions left out altogether; all any viewer can hope for is that it all makes sense in the end. Sadly, thanks to Adam Prince’s poorly constructed screenplay, it doesn’t, and ends with a scene that adds preposterousness to an already ridiculous mix (the inclusion of some hallucinations doesn’t help either). We never learn why William takes Veronica under his wing, or why he trains her to be an assassin, or why the group do what they do, or how they’ve managed to kill twenty blonde young women and gotten away with it for so long in what appears to be a very small town.
The movie isn’t helped by a visual style that relies on spot lighting to make the woods look like a fairground (at night), and a wintry aesthetic that adds to the movie’s unappealing plot. With its Red Riding Hood overtones and cod-indie dialogue allied to a hunt sequence that is anything but a hunt sequence, the movie becomes buried under the weight of its ill-conceived storyline(s) and never manages to dig its way out. Breslin is miscast, while Bentley’s efforts to be taciturn and remote seem more of a reflection of his wondering why he agreed to take part, and Ludwig doesn’t even try to make his character anything more than cruelly manipulative (which only goes so far). Shields, making his first feature, is out of his depth, and unable to make more of the script’s shortcomings, leaving the viewer stranded with no lifeline to cling onto. By the movie’s end, all you can hope for is that there won’t be any more of Veronica’s “assignments” in the future.
Rating: 3/10 – to paraphrase a popular saying, “awful is as awful does”, and Final Girl is pretty awful; seriously underwritten, and with the barest connection to credibility, the movie tries to be a psychological thriller without having the remotest idea of how to combine the two elements and make them work.
Bill Paxton, Daniel Radcliffe, Devin Moore, Drama, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, GTA, Jack Thompson, Joe Dempsie, Murders, Owen Harris, Review, Rockstar, Sam Houser, Sex scene, True story, Video games
D: Owen Harris / 90m
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Bill Paxton, Joe Dempsie, Mark Weinman, Ian Keir Attard, Fiona Ramsay, Shannon Esra, Garion Dowds, Thabo Rametsi, Gideon Lombard
Following the release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, eighteen-year-old Devin Moore (Rametsi) is arrested for stealing a car. At the police station, he disarms an officer and shoots him dead. He kills two more officers before escaping in a police car. When he’s apprehended, a link emerges between his actions and Vice City: Moore has copied one of the scenarios in the game. This claims the attention of Florida lawyer Jack Thompson (Paxton), a fiercely moralistic man who feels that the makers of the game are complicit in Moore’s crimes. He travels to Alabama in order to represent the victims’ families in a civil suit against the makers, Rockstar Games.
Meanwhile, Sam Houser (Radcliffe), the British-born co-founder and president of Rockstar Games, has decided that their next release will be bigger, better and more realistic. Always looking to improve both the content and the format of their games, Houser pushes for a sex scene to be included in their next Grand Theft Auto release, even though his closest colleagues, including his brother Dan (Attard), and fixer Jamie King (Dempsie), aren’t convinced it’s a good idea. When Houser learns of Thompson’s civil suit he rails against the notion that Rockstar is any way responsible for Moore’s actions. While Thompson looks for evidence to support his assertion that violent video games can influence people into behaving violently themselves, Rockstar hires a firm of corporate lawyers to represent them. But Thompson’s enthusiasm for the case proves to be its downfall, and the judge throws it out.
Rockstar press ahead with the release of their next instalment, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but the inclusion of the sex scene proves problematical: if it’s included it will seriously effect the game’s potential sales. Houser bows to pressure from his close colleagues and orders the scene removed. The game is released and is a huge success, but a short time after, a modder (a person who modifies existing software or hardware) in Holland, Patrick Wildenborg (Lombard), finds the code for the sex scene hidden within the game. He renders the code into rudimentary animation and posts it on YouTube. When the post goes viral, and Rockstar are charged with misleading both their customers and the body that regulates the video game industry, it leads to a federal investigation, and gives Thompson a second chance to make Rockstar and other video game makers accountable for the content of their games.
Made for TV by the BBC, The Gamechangers sets out its stall right from the outset by stating that while it’s based on real events, scenes have been altered for dramatic effect. But while this seems entirely laudable, what it actually does is to make the viewer unsure if what they’re seeing is either next door to the truth or living in the next town. Certainly, Rockstar has disavowed the movie for containing a number of inaccuracies, and there are several moments where the likelihood of James Wood’s script being as factual as it should be are easily questioned, but what hurts the movie more than all this is the unfortunate way in which it takes the idea of violent video games causing impressionable game players to act out those violent fantasies, and does nothing with it.
What we’re left with is Thompson’s principled railings against the “filth” he sees in the games tempered with Houser’s insistence that they’re in no way to blame for Moore’s behaviour, and these confident outbursts are repeated over and over, as if the viewer would be unable to work out either hypothesis for themselves. Add a number of scenes designed to show both men’s commitment to their individual causes, and how their single-mindedness affects the people around them, the movie becomes less about issues of violence and more about what drives both Thompson and Houser to be so committed in their respective arenas. Alas, this isn’t as interesting or engaging as the movie thinks it is, and gives both Radcliffe and Paxton little room to provide well-rounded portrayals, or make much of the repetitive dialogue.
With the movie lacking focus, any drama feels either overdone or forced, particularly in the relationship between Houser and King, which becomes increasingly adversarial as the movie progresses, but seems based purely around King’s lack of time off. Harris seems unable to overcome these problems, and many scenes seem designed to pad out the running time, whether it’s another example of Houser’s dismissive attitude towards his staff, or Thompson’s unresolved anger at not being able to find the justice he’s seeking. By the time the viewer learns how the federal investigation pans out, and the result of an investigation into Thompson’s competence as a lawyer is revealed, the flatness of the drama is too apparent to make it compelling.
As a result, the performances range from the pedestrian to the merely satisfactory, with Radcliffe and Paxton both stranded by the script, and the supporting cast left to fend for themselves. Only Rametsi impresses, making Moore a blank-faced killer with no real conception of whether he’s living in the real world or the confines of a video game (Moore is still on Death Row awaiting execution by lethal injection). And despite occasional attempts to make the visuals more interesting, Gustav Danielsson’s cinematography is mostly perfunctory and uninspired, leaving no room for the movie to impress in other areas. There’s a decent movie to be made out of the events that followed Moore’s kill-spree, but this isn’t it.
Rating: 4/10 – an opportunity that’s been missed by a very wide margin indeed, The Gamechangers challenges the audience’s patience throughout, and never settles on which story it really wants to tell, Houser’s or Thompson’s; blandly made, and with an awkwardness that never resolves itself, potential viewers should lower their expectations before they start watching.
D: Dan Gilroy / 117m
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Kent Shocknek, Leah Fredkin
Louis “Lou” Bloom (Gyllenhaal) unemployed; to make ends meet he steals things and then sells them. When he sees a freelance film crew working at the scene of a car crash, he asks their boss, Joe Loder (Paxton) how they make a living from what they do. Loder tells him about selling the footage to the TV stations; this inspires Bloom to steal a racing bicycle and trade it for a radio scanner and a camcorder. Later that same night, Bloom gets in close at the scene of a carjacking and films the victim dying. This gets both Bloom and Loder moved on and they become rivals as a result. Bloom takes his footage to a local TV station where he meets morning news director Nina Romina (Russo) who not only buys the footage but encourages him as well.
Bloom hires an assistant, Rick Carey (Ahmed), and together they start visiting as many crime scenes as they can but even though Bloom has no compunction about manipulating the scenes to provide himself with better footage, Loder still beats him to several important stories. However, his work begins to be shown more and more, and he’s able to get better equipment. Knowing she can’t do without his footage, Bloom also blackmails Nina into having sex with him. When Loder beats him to a major plane crash story, it leads to Bloom sabotaging Loder’s van. When Loder crashes his van and is severely injured, it’s Bloom who gets the footage of his rival being loaded into an ambulance.
Later that night, Bloom and Carey arrive at the site of a home invasion. Leaving Carey outside to sound an alert when the police get there, Bloom sees the gunmen leaving and films them. Going inside the house he finds three dead bodies, all of whom he films. He gives Romina a copy that doesn’t include the gunmen, and the footage is shown, even though some of Nina’s colleagues feel it’s unethical. The police become involved and ask for Bloom’s footage but he gives them another edited version. Then, using the footage he’s held back, Bloom tracks down the gunmen and he and Carey follow them to a nearby restaurant. They tip off the police, but when they arrive, things don’t go quite as Bloom planned.
A mesmerising, audacious drama set against the backdrop of a Los Angeles that’s never looked so foreboding at night as it does here, Nightcrawler features a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and makes for a riveting viewing experience. It all hinges on writer/director Gilroy’s script, a fervid foray into the dark underbelly of daily news gathering that exposes the often desperate need for more and more “potent” material, and the betrayal of ethical concerns in the search for ratings. It’s a bravura piece, challenging and appalling in equal measure, and in the character of Louis Bloom, shows how little appreciation can be given to the feelings of others in the pursuit of fame (and presumably fortune).
Bloom is a grim-faced, skeletal-looking, fixed-eyed monster, oozing an unstable charm, flattering just enough to get his foot in the door, dismissive when someone can’t or won’t help him. He’s the upbeat loner whose interaction with others is continually designed to improve his lot in life, to make things better for him before anyone else. As charismatic as he seems, there’s a mania lurking close beneath the surface that serves as a warning to everyone around him. But Bloom is adept at reading others; he knows when and how to press their buttons, to manipulate them, or if necessary, threaten them into doing what he wants. And if threats don’t work, well, he’s not averse to making sure he still gets what he wants, anyway he can. He’s a ruthless, predatory menace.
As the amoral stringer, Gyllenhaal gives a super-charged performance that is easily his best yet, his gaunt physical appearance a perfect fit for the rapacious Bloom. Gyllenhaal makes him uncomfortable to watch, a creepy, unsettling presence wherever he goes, those big eyes of his hinting at madness and danger. Even when he’s silent he gives off a dispiriting air, as if even what he’s thinking (and no matter how banal) is somehow as poisonous to others as anything he could actually say. Gilroy has created one of the most defiantly unprincipled characters in movie history, and Gyllenhaal has seized his chance with undisguised relish. (It’s still a mystery that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for the role.) Working on what seems like nervous energy, Gyllenhaal paints a convincing portrait of a man willing to do anything in order to succeed, and whose sociopathy is frightening. In the aftermath of the police’s arrival at the restaurant, the true nature and extent of his emotional detachment is revealed – and Gyllenhaal makes it truly disturbing.
It’s one of many scenes that Gilroy artfully constructs that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat and which is anchored by Gyllenhaal’s impressive performance. As Bloom’s career blossoms, his amoral nature finds its mirror in Nina’s equally amoral disregard for conventional programming rules. In some ways she’s worse than Bloom, her lust for the material he provides as uncomfortable to watch as the ways in which he’ll procure it. When she sleeps with him the idea that she’s being blackmailed lacks currency; if anyone is being exploited it’s Bloom. Russo is superb in the role, giving ample expression to Nina’s vicious impropriety and matching Gyllenhaal for intensity. It’s been a long time since The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and while she’s made a couple of interesting movies in the meantime, she’s not had a role that is as challenging as this one, and it’s great to see her inhabit the part with such fierce intelligence.
In presenting such a couple of despicable characters (made for each other but otherwise doomed to be alone), Gilroy has taken a considerable risk in making a movie without a sympathetic main character. But such is the awfulness of Bloom (and Nina’s) behaviour, and so complicit do we become as an audience, that we can’t take our eyes off them. In the same way that Bloom produces highly upsetting footage and Nina watches it with barely disguised impatience, Gilroy engineers things so that we too are drawn inexorably into a world we would otherwise avoid. Just how far will Bloom go? Will he film anything that Nina won’t be put off by? How much further can they take all this? All questions that the audience feels compelled to discover the answers to.
As well as his talented cast – Ahmed and Paxton provide sterling support as Bloom’s naïve employee and experienced rival respectively – Gilroy has surrounded himself with a pretty talented crew. Bringing his script to life, the movie is beautifully shot by DoP Robert Elswit, the night-time scenes having a luminosity to them that makes L.A. a character in itself. In the editor’s chair is Gilroy’s fraternal twin brother, John Gilroy, who has assembled the material with such care and attention to the movie’s emotional moods that each scene has a resonance that exists both alone and in conjunction with other scenes (and to add to the charges of nepotism he’s also Russo’s brother-in-law). And there’s a marvellously evocative score by James Newton Howard that subtly underpins the action without overwhelming it.
Rating: 9/10 – with a riveting, powerful performance from Gyllenhaal at its centre, Nightcrawler is a nightmarish journey into the heart of one man’s personal darkness; formidable and emotionally rigorous, it’s also a movie that rewards with each successive viewing, and stays in the mind long after it’s ended.
D: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon / 86m
Cast: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Travis Tope, Joshua Leonard, Anthony Anderson, Ed Lauter, Denis O’Hare, Spencer Treat Clark
Texarkana, October 2013. At an outdoor screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the movie made in 1976 about the murders that took place in the town during the spring of 1946, Corey (Clark) realises that his girlfriend Jami (Timlin) isn’t enjoying the movie. They leave, and find somewhere else to park up. They soon find they’re not alone: a man with a burlap sack over his head and eyeholes cut out is standing in front of their car with a gun in his hand. He forces them out of the car. The man makes Corey lie face down on the ground before killing him with a knife. Jami escapes but not before the man tells her that he’s doing this for “Mary, and so that the town won’t forget her”.
In the days that follow, Jami tries to discover what the killer meant about “Mary”, and goes to the town’s newspaper archives to learn more about the murders in 1946. She meets Nick (Tope) who helps her find the material she’s looking for. She finds a suspect at the time whose son might be responsible for the new crimes and takes her findings to the police. Led by Texas Ranger, Captain J.D. Morales (Anderson), the investigating team – which also includes Chief Deputy Tillman (Cole), Sheriff Underwood (Lauter), and Deputy Foster (Leonard) – allow Jami to explain her theory but reveal that they’ve already explored that avenue and it leads to a dead end.
A double murder occurs and it becomes clear that the killer is replicating the original murders. Jami continues her own investigation and discovers that there was a death in 1946 that was considered to be a suicide but which may have been the Phantom Killer’s final victim. When she also discovers that the man’s wife was called Mary, she begins to piece together enough evidence to suggest that the man’s grandson is very likely the killer. Meanwhile, the murders continue, and Jami finds herself targeted once again, as she and Nick edge ever nearer to revealing the killer’s identity.
Less a remake of the original movie than a belated sequel – though it has elements of the former – The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an initially interesting, apparently well constructed movie that riffs on the events of 1946 while adding a modern day twist to proceedings that appears cleverer than it actually is.
The movie begins with a voiceover reminiscent of the 1976 movie, and offers a recap of the Phantom Killer’s exploits. It then states that the following events happened in Texarkana in 2013. With such an unnecessary claim made right from the start, the movie’s attempts at creating a companion piece to Charles B. Pierce’s cult classic are seriously hindered, as the credibility needed to make the movie work on the same level is quickly abandoned. It’s a shame, as the meta-movie that was intended shines through from time to time, dispelling the fug of contemporary horror movie clichés that the movie trots out with wearying persistence.
As a result the killings are less intense, eschewing the febrile pitch of the original for a more blood-soaked approach; it’s as if the makers didn’t trust their audience to remain interested unless they threw in a gory moment or two every ten minutes. This leads to unnecessarily silly moments such as when a woman jumps out of a motel room window and breaks her leg (you get a close-up shot of the bone sticking out) – and then makes it to a car and tries to get it started. To make matters worse, when the killer catches up with her and stabs her to death in the car, the windows are treated to the kind of blood spray that looks like it was achieved by ejecting it from a cannon.
Where the movie does score points for originality is when Jami and Nick focus on the original movie and the idea that, in putting his movie together, Charles B. Pierce may have come across evidence that he wasn’t able to either incorporate into his movie, or prove was relevant to the murders. With Pierce having passed away in 2010, they turn their attention to his son – also Charles – who still lives in Texarkana. Alas, this twist in the story is ruined by having Pierce Jr behave like an obsessive backwoods loon, rather than someone who’s just interested in what is a very beguiling mystery (he’s played by Denis O’Hare, but the real Pierce can be seen in the background of the bar where Tillman meets up with a local prostitute).
With the script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa proving so uneven despite a plethora of good intentions, and with Gomez-Rejon unable to raise the material above the level of a slasher movie, this dispenses with character development early on – Anderson’s laid-back Morales remains that way whatever happens – and reveals the killer’s identity in such a WTF? moment (as well as being lifted from another horror franchise) that the viewer will probably be picking their jaw up off the floor. The cast add little to the proceedings, with Timlin unable to dial down Jami’s insipid nature, or provide any energy in a role that the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis would have made their own in the first couple of scenes. Cole is wasted, as is Leonard and Cartwright (as Jami’s grandmother), while Lauter gets the odd line here and there, and Herrmann has a puzzling role as the local clergyman who’s dispensed with – by the plot, at least – halfway through.
As noted above, there are plenty of good intentions here but almost none of them are organised into a coherent, plausible whole. The accent on gore is a misstep, the whole revenge plot is never given the depth or sense of injustice it needs, and the whole scene at the gas station throws what little credibility the movie has managed to retain to the four winds and beyond. As a belated sequel it barely works, but as an example of a potentially clever remake it fails completely.
Rating: 4/10 – a clever premise undermined by sloppy plotting, weak characters and a lack of directorial control, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the less appealing horror movies of 2014; if watched on a double bill with the original, this should definitely be viewed first.
D: Charles B. Pierce / 89m
Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Cindy Butler, Christine Ellsworth, Earl E. Smith, Bud Davis
Texarkana, February 1946. As the inhabitants of the town continue to put the war behind them, a couple park up along the local lovers’ lane. They hear a noise outside the car and find themselves confronted by a man wearing a burlap sack over his head with eyeholes cut out (Davis). He rips out some of the engine wiring before shattering the driver’s window and dragging the man out of the car. He batters the man before turning his attention to the woman whom he assaults before leaving both of them for dead. They survive the attack but with so little to go on the police – led by Chief Sullivan (Citty) – are unable to make any headway in the case.
Three weeks later, another couple are attacked in their car. This time, their attacker shoots the man dead and assaults the woman before killing her too. A police officer, Deputy Ramsey (Prine), almost catches the killer but he makes good his escape. Yet again the police have no clues to help them catch the man, and with the citizens of Texarkana becoming ever more fearful, they call in the help of the Texas Rangers. Led by legendary Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Johnson), the investigation falls under his purview and he arranges for more police cars to patrol the streets, a curfew after dark, and a news blackout.
However, following a junior and high schools prom, a young couple park up in one of the town’s parks but nod off. When they wake they’re attacked by the man now known as the Phantom Killer. The man is shot and killed, while the woman (a trombonist in the high school band) is tied to a tree and murdered when the killer ties his knife to the end of her trombone and repeatedly stabs her as he “plays” it. With still no clues or evidence to reveal the killer’s identity, Morales becomes less sure they’ll catch him. When he kills a man by shooting him in the head through a window and tries to kill the man’s wife (who succeeds in getting to safety), it seems as if the trail will run cold yet again. However, a car fitting the description of the one that Ramsey saw the night of the first murders is reported abandoned. Morales and Ramsey follow a nearby path to an old quarry, and there they find the Phantom Killer…
Based on real events that took place in Texarkana between February and May 1946, and dubbed the Moonlight Murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown owes much to the drive-in features of the late Fifties and the Sixties, its independent, low budget feel so reminiscent of the movies from – and for – that period that it’s comforting to revisit such a lively era. With its ominous, scene-setting narration, effective recreation of post-war Texarkana, and silent killer, the movie has a quiet power in its killing scenes that makes them quite uncomfortable to watch. The sequence involving the trombone is the best example: in other hands, this could have been unintentionally funny, but Pierce focuses on the horror of the situation and keeps the Phantom Killer’s murderous intent at the forefront of things, his muffled breathing acting as a chilling counterpoint to the pleas of his victim.
All the attacks have an intensity about them that is hard to forget, and these often prolonged sequences are the movie’s strong suit; the movie also makes each successive event as terrifying as the one before. The decision to keep the killer from speaking is a wise one, and with his eyes staring out from his hood, the Phantom Killer’s implacable nature is never in doubt. He’s an early boogeyman, a proto-Michael Myers without the supernatural background. Never caught in real life, the movie posits its own (fictional) account of what might have happened, but it’s as credible as the idea that the police force would employ an officer as inept as patrolman Benson (Pierce).
For while The Town That Dreaded Sundown is incredibly gripping when the Phantom Killer is on screen, when he’s not we’re left with too many unsubtle, almost slapstick encounters with Benson and his inability to follow even the simplest of orders (and which leads to a Dukes of Hazzard-style car accident that feels like it was air-lifted in specially from the series). The character is very much a throwback to the type of comic relief that was prevalent in drive-in movies only a decade before, the kind of witless nincompoop who screws up continually but somehow retains his job and the goodwill of the people around him. Pierce is actually pretty good in the role, but it’s a jarring, unnecessary character, and while Benson may be there to lessen the horror of the murders, he’s on screen too often to be anything other than annoying.
Johnson is his usual gruff self, Morales’ increasing frustration at not being able to catch the killer tempered by his experience. It’s a great performance from Johnson, relaxed and yet coiled like a spring at the same time. The same, alas, can’t be said for Prine, who acts with all the stiffness of several planks of wood, and manages one or two decent line readings late on in the movie (just wait for any exchange over the police radio to see just how bad he is). The supporting cast are all fine without distinguishing themselves, though special mention should go to Davis, whose imposing presence precludes any hint of mercy that the killer may be susceptible to.
Pierce, a native of Texarkana, assembles the material with a fine eye for detail and as mentioned above, makes each attack so intense even the casual viewer will be transfixed. The script, by Earl E. Smith (who also appears as Dr Kress, the shrink who attempts to explain the killer’s motives), is mostly faithful to events as they happened, but anyone familiar with what really happened back then will be able to spot the necessary artistic licence used by Smith to tell the story in such a short running time. There’s some eerily atmospheric photography, especially at night, courtesy of James W. Roberson, and a robust score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava that underscores events with surprising panache. And anyone worried that the movie might be excessively gory will be pleasantly surprised as Pierce keeps the bloodletting to an onscreen minimum, choosing instead to focus on the fear and terror of the victims.
Rating: 7/10 – rough and uneven, but with a clear sense of the horror involved in the attacks/murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown has a ferocity that acts like a slap to the viewer’s face; a minor true crime classic, and since 2003, shown in Texarkana each year as part of a “Movies in the Park” mini-festival.
D: Paul Tarnopol / 88m
Cast: Danielle Dallacco, Angelica Boccella, Giovanni Roselli, Chris Lazzaro, Nicole Rutigliano, Ashley Mitchell, Christina Scaglione, Brenton Duplessie, Brett Azar, John Michael Hastie, Leonarda Bosch, Ron Jeremy
A group of friends – Teresa (Dallacco), Dina (Boccella), Joanne (Rutigliano), Valerie (Mitchell), and Gigi (Scaglione) – decide to head for the beach for the weekend but a double booking on the place where they’re meant to stay means they end up staying at Teresa’s Uncle Vito’s place on the edge of the Pine Barrens. They head for the beach anyway, and meet a group of guys – Tony (Roselli), Freddy (Lazzaro), Vinnie (Duplessie), Gino (Azar), and Joey (Hastie) – with similar ambitions for the weekend: to party hard and get laid. They all head back to Uncle Vito’s where they start to get to know each other better, but there’s a killer on the loose, and he’s hell bent on murdering them all.
Intended as a spoof horror – the spoof element being the characters who bear a strong resemblance to the characters in the TV show, Jersey Shore – Jersey Shore Massacre is an unsophisticated, deliberately awful parody of that particular show, as well as a fond tribute to various horror movies of the last twenty years (it’s nice to see both Friday the 13th and The Shining being alluded to… as well as many other horror classics). It makes fun of the show’s conventions, and boasts some unexpectedly funny one-liners as well as a further in-movie spoof entitled Fat Camp Massacre.
But poking fun at a bunch of narcissists will only get you so far, and so it goes here, with a cast who look and sound the part – with the exception of Dallacco who looks like she’s wandered in from another show entirely (one with an IQ requirement that’s in double figures) – but who are as annoying as their small screen counterparts. Having them killed off in ever more inventive ways goes some way to making the movie more palatable but it’s still riddled with casual sexism and even more casual attempts at acting.
Co-writer/director Tarnopol struggles with the set up and appears undecided as to whether his version of the Jersey Devil should be into torture porn or straight forward slaying, and there’s a shower murder that would have had Hitchcock shaking his head in dismay. All in all it’s as amateurish as you’d expect, and further proof that just because someone can make a movie, it doesn’t mean they should.
Rating: 3/10 – as bad as it sounds, and good intentions aside, the kind of spoof that works only if the original source isn’t already an example of self-parody; when the cast whine louder than the sander used on one victim, then it’s clear – if the title Jersey Shore Massacre hadn’t convinced anyone already – that this is low budget stuff and less than impressive.
D: Paul Tanter / 94m
Cast: Simon Phillips, Juliette Bennett, Will de Meo, Bradford West, Lucy Clements, Doug Bradley, Kellie Shirley, Peter Woodward
Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear. Really. It’s that bad. I mean, really bad. Sooooo bad.
And once again, it’s all down to THE SCRIPT. An awful… no, god-awful, unholy mess of a script that makes no effort to be coherent, has a passing acquaintance with competence, and contains some of the worst dialogue ever committed to celluloid. The sad thing about Shame the Devil is that the cast and crew are actually trying their best…and failing miserably.
The plot concerns the hunt for a serial killer who hooks his victims up to lie detectors and then asks them a series of questions that will cause them to be killed if they lie. The killer tells them, “The truth will set you free; tell the truth and shame the devil”. The first victim is a supermarket manager, the second a doctor (Woodward), and the third a priest. The police officer investigating the murders, Trent (Phillips) is suspended because he appears to be linked to the victims, and heads to New York to seek help from an old flame (Bennett) who is a profiler. But while he’s there, the murders continue…
Ten things that are wrong with Shame the Devil:
1 – Simon Phillips demonstrates every emotion required of his character by shouting.
2 – Writer/director Paul Tanter allows each actor to play their part independently of any other actor that might be in the same scene with them.
3 – The whole concept of the serial killer being one step ahead is made laughable by the circumstances surrounding the death of the first New York victim.
4 – Lucy Clements demonstrates every emotion required of her character by pouting.
5 – Despite jetting off to New York after being suspended, none of Trent’s superiors have any idea of where he is.
6 – Lines of dialogue are repeated by characters in a vain effort to reinforce the seriousness of the relevant situation.
7 – The photography by Haider Zafar is bland and uninspired.
8 – Writer/director Tanter and editor Richard Colton have no awareness of what makes a scene tense, thrilling, and/or dramatic.
9 – Doug Bradley, one of the few actors capable of injecting credibility into this kind of thing, is reduced to appearing in only one scene.
10 – The music is intrusive and fails to add any menace to the proceedings.
11 – There are moments of childish humour that even the Chuckle Brothers would have steered clear of (apologies to any non-UK readers for the reference).
I know, I know, that was eleven things but that just serves to illustrate how bad this movie really is: I could go on and on and on and on… But I won’t. Suffice it to say, Shame the Devil is an unmitigated disaster – poorly directed and acted, appallingly written, unimaginatively shot and edited, and completely unable to drag itself out of the mire of its own making. Even the nihilistic ending – though welcome by the time it arrives – is badly staged and requires more of Phillips as an actor than he has to give.
Rating: 1/10 – another car crash of a movie from the writer/director of the White Collar Hooligan movies, Shame the Devil founders from its opening scene and never quite breaks the surface; an amateurish, dismaying waste of everyone’s time and patience.
D: Chris Scheuerman / 16m
Cast: Taylor Hastings, Chris Donoghue, Aaron Baker, Edna Rojas, Beth Cantor, Anthony MacLean, Jordan Smith, Marianne Tikkanen
An intriguing short film from the New Image College of the Arts in Vancouver, 21/12/12 is set an hour before a mysterious event is due to bring about the end of the world. Various individuals’ lives collide and interconnect, and each tries to deal with what’s happening in different ways. One man tries to unburden himself by telling the woman he loves about two murders he committed, another gets himself shot while visiting an apartment to buy drugs, and the woman who shoots him finds herself stopping another man from jumping off their building. At the end, two women witness for themselves the mysterious event.
The question, What would you do if you only had an hour to live, is answered here in a variety of ways. The would-be suicide is reminded he doesn’t have to go to all the trouble when the event is bound to kill him anyway. A woman leaves her deluded boss – he wants to make last-minute transactions on the stock market to make himself a rich man when he dies – to find the woman she has been looking for for some time; it’s they who witness the mysterious event. And the woman who shoots the drug addict, goes out for some air.
A collection of untidy vignettes that vary in quality and significance, what stops 21/12/12 from being the small gem its writer/director/producer Scheuerman probably hoped for are its unexceptional characters, one-note for the most part, and matter-of-fact approach to the end of the world. Nobody displays any signs of panic or look upset, everybody is going about their business – the murderer aside – almost as if it were just another normal day in the big city. On the soundtrack there’s the sounds of rioting and looting, but again, the characters remain unaffected by it. If Scheuerman is saying that, even facing impending doom, people will remain self-centred and insular – even with the end of the world an hour away – then as an hypothesis he has a sound anthropological idea.
However, the dialogue is awkward and occasionally stilted, and not all the cast are as adept at coping with its idiosyncrasies as the rest. Two scenes, meant to be overtly dramatic, are undermined by the cast – and Scheuerman’s – inexperience. One is rushed, the other played more for laughs than it should be. The photography helps isolate the characters as they face the end, but the editing could have been a bit tighter: some scenes play out a little longer than necessary.
Rating: 5/10 – not bad for a college short film but 21/12/12 is worryingly vague about its intentions; a good idea that works intermittently and at the expense of a cohesive narrative.
D: Brett Simmons / 92m
Cast: C.J. Thomason, Stephen Lang, Michelle Pierce, Corbin Bleu, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Charles S. Dutton, Tauvia Dawn, Andy Favreau, Grayson Berry, Sabrina Gennarino
A modern-day adaptation of W.R. Jacobs’ classic horror tale, The Monkey’s Paw begins promisingly with a well-staged, condensed version of the original tale as seen through the eyes of Gillespie (Kelly) as a child. Years later, Gillespie is working as a supervisor at a factory. Also working there are pals Jake (Thomason) and Cobb (Lang). A mistake with an order gets Gillespie fired. Later that night, Jake and Cobb run into Gillespie at a local bar. He tells them about the monkey’s paw, and how it grants three wishes to whomever owns it; once the wishes are used, it can move on to another owner. Jake takes hold of the paw and makes a wish: that a car in the parking lot should be his. When Jake and Cobb leave, they look at the car and find the keys are in it. With Jake driving they go for a spin along some of the back roads. Swerving to avoid an alligator in the road, Jake loses control of the car and hits a tree; the impact sends Cobb through the windshield, killing him. In a panic, Jake wishes his friend was alive, then when it doesn’t work straight away, he flees the scene. After he’s gone, Cobb comes back to “life”.
So far, so good. Some real thought has been put into the set up, and the car crash is effectively staged. Cobb returns to “life” with some facial scarring, but otherwise, apart from some jerky movements, looks pretty normal. Jake throws away the paw in an abandoned building, and after a day or two brooding about what’s happened, tries to get on with his life. Until Cobb shows up, demanding that Jake use his third wish to bring Cobb and his estranged young son together again. Jake sees that Cobb’s return has made him dangerous and he refuses to do so. At this point, Cobb begins targeting the people Jake knows, including their boss Kevin (Favreau), his wife (and Jake’s ex-girlfriend Olivia (Pearce), Gillespie, and Jake’s brother and sister-in-law (Berry, Gennarino).
At this point, the movie starts to lose its way, opting for a Friday the 13th/slasher style approach as Cobb picks off Jake’s friends and family one by one. The previous slow-build of tension is left behind as Jake struggles to deal with what’s happening while at the same time trying to get back with Olivia. Motivations and logic are put aside as Cobb goes on an undetected killing spree, where the police, led by Detective Margolis (Dutton) are so far behind they might as well not be involved. Cobb kills with impunity time and again and seems able to vanish at will in-between times. Eventually, Jake retrieves the paw and there is a showdown at the home of Cobb’s estranged son.
The extended premise of The Monkey’s Paw, that those we bring back from the dead may want more from their new life than they could have had before, is an interesting one that could have been explored a lot further. Lang brings an initial pathos to his role, but it’s quickly put aside so he can become the script’s required psycho. (A mention here for how Cobb looks as the movie continues; aside from the facial scarring, he also shows more and more decay, courtesy of special makeup effects artist Emily Burka. It’s an intriguing look, which, if the movie had taken place over a longer period, would have added another layer to the character’s mental and physical decline.) Jake goes from cocky to desperate in the time to takes for Cobb to crash through the windscreen, and although Thomason – back in familiar territory after Simmons’ Husk (2011) – struggles to maintain a grip on the character as the movie goes on, he’s still a likeable presence on screen.
The script, by Macon Blair, as noted before has some interesting aspects in its first half hour, and if The Monkey’s Paw had retained this psychological approach, it may have turned out better. As it is, the movie suffers by lurching from one (admittedly) well-executed kill scene to the next, leaving the viewer in unnecessarily unoriginal waters and hoping for a better resolution (which doesn’t come). Simmons shows occasional flashes of creativity that bolster the script (the kill scenes), but ultimately he can’t get around the lack of imagination the script settles for.
Rating: 6/10 – there’s a better movie here than might have been expected but it’s severely let down by it’s need to fit in with an already overcrowded market; psychological horror movies are few and far between these days – this could have been one of them.
D: Francis Ford Coppola / 88m
Cast: Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning, Ben Chaplin, Joanne Whalley, David Paymer, Anthony Fusco, Alden Ehrenreich, Bruce A. Miroglio
Several years ago, Francis Ford Coppola announced he would be making only personal films, and since then we’ve had Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009), and now Twixt, ostensibly a horror movie but one that veers off down several different paths before its conclusion.
Hall Baltimore (Kilmer) is a moderately successful writer of witchcraft-themed horror novels. He’s also in a bit of a creative slump. While on a book tour, he finds himself in the small town of Swann Valley. He meets Sheriff Bobby LeGrange (Dern) who tells him about a mystery that involves a dead girl and a group of teens camped out across the lake. The girl is recently deceased, “obviously the victim of a serial killer”, according to LaGrange, and still in the sheriff’s office-cum-morgue with a stake through her heart. That night, Baltimore falls asleep and dreams of walking through town and out into the surrounding woods. There he meets V (Fanning), a young girl who looks drained of blood. They go to the Old Chickering Hotel where Baltimore learns that the bodies of twelve children are buried under the floor. This adds to the mystery, and when Baltimore wakes up he realises the answers to both his creative slump and the murder of the dead girl are to be found in his dreams.
To give a fuller description of the plot would take a while as Coppola, serving as writer, producer and director, piles layer upon layer of story onto the already overloaded plotting. There’s several appearances by Edgar Allan Poe (Chaplin) who helps Baltimore in his dreams but also provides some literary allusions to the main plot. There’s a sub-plot involving a seven-sided clock tower where each clock face tells a different time. The twelve children were the charge of Pastor Allan Floyd (Fusco); there’s a protracted sequence involving a Jim Jones-style massacre. LaGrange acts strangely throughout, at one point knocking Baltimore unconscious out of anger (but also as a handy device for getting him to the next dream sequence). Baltimore is also mourning the death of his teenage daughter, while fending off the financial needs of his wife Denise (Whalley). The teens across the river, led by Beaudelaire-quoting Flamingo (Ehrenreich), provide temporary relief from the increasing pretentiousness of all the other proceedings. Oh, and there’s a scene involving a Ouija board, and Baltimore fighting writer’s block by impersonating Marlon Brando (with a near-quote from Apocalypse Now) and James Mason amongst others, and an ending so abrupt you might wonder if you’ve nodded off and missed a few minutes.
From all this you could be forgiven for thinking that Twixt is a bit of a mess, and largely it is. Coppola has applied a kind of kitchen sink approach to the movie, and it would be a dedicated viewer – one prepared to watch it several times in fact – who could find a strict, coherent storyline that runs through the movie, and who could adequately explain the various diversions that Coppola includes. However, it’s unclear if Coppola himself knows exactly what’s going on, or why, and if he doesn’t, then the rest of us don’t stand a chance.
Visually, though, the movie is often stunning to look at, the initial dream sequences – at the Old Chickering hotel, Baltimore’s chat with Poe in the same location – all have a weird, surreal quality that suits the action that’s unfolding. The characters speak with a slight hollowness, and the colour scheme, all grey, metallic hues, looks wonderfully unsettling. This is where Twixt works best, in the dreamworld that Baltimore inhabits as often as he can. Coppola pulls out all the stops in these sequences, imbuing them with a sense of predatory menace that elevates them from perfunctory scenes of exposition to something more disquieting. Alas, the scenes in the real world lack any kind of sense or coherence, and as a result, bog down the movie unnecessarily.
The cast do their best under the circumstances, Kilmer injecting some humour when he can at the absurdity of LaGrange’s eccentricities, but otherwise going with the flow and committing to the script’s vagaries. Dern adds another oddball character to his repertoire, while Fanning plays the girl who may or may not have gotten away from the pastor (it’s never made clear) with an appropriate detachment. Chaplin copes well with some really dense, literary dialogue, and rest of the supporting cast do the best they can as well, particularly Miroglio as Deputy Arbus.
Ultimately, the best that can be said about Twixt is that it’s no better or worse than a lot of other horror movies made in the last five years, but definitely a step up visually. Coppola still knows how to construct a scene and have it play out – even if the internal logic is skewed – and he still has the confidence borne out of his many years as a director. He may not have made the best decision in working from his own script, and if truth be told, this may not be the best version of that script (some of the cast have apparently seen an earlier, different version), but despite the absurdities and the incoherent plot, Twixt still has enough going for it to make it worth watching, even if it’s just to say you have.
Rating: 6/10 – Coppola delivers what appears to be a train wreck of a movie, but on closer inspection, there’s still a few carriages on the track to rescue things; worth seeing for its hallucinogenic visuals and Kilmer back on form after too many low-budget thrillers.