Tag Archives: Shudder

Jessie’s Boys

Jessica Forever

by Hope Madden

Shudder’s latest premiere, the French film Jessica Forever, offers a scifi antidote to war films. This is a quietly absorbing genre piece concerned with the lives left to those who know nothing more than fighting for survival, those who must endure not only what battle has done to them, but what battle has encouraged them to do.

In an unnamed future, Jessica (Aomi Muyock, Love), collects and rehabilitates “orphans” — feral young men with nothing and no one. Left entirely on their own, they wreak bloody havoc on society and are hunted by government-controlled drones.

We open on one such young man, Kevin (Eddy Suiveng). He’s thrown himself through a pane of glass in what looks to be a recently abandoned home. As a heavily armed tactical unit descends on the premises, only to softly embrace the combatant, writers/directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel introduce the visual and tonal fluidity the film will emphasize throughout its running time.

The dystopian cinematic landscape is highly populated, but Jessica Forever manages to carve out a unique space.

Muyock’s enigmatic central figure, so quietly effecting, provides the film its compelling center of gravity. Around her orbits a loose family of young men, and as Poggi and Vinel weave in and out of their day-to-day, we’re tuned into the filmmakers’ primary interest.

Unlike so very many movies out there, it is not the glamour or danger of war that attracts these filmmakers. Instead, Jessica Forever focuses on the mental and emotional wreckage these young men carry around with them as they cling to each other and their varying ideas of family, home and normalcy.

Everything about the design of this low budget scifi poem is astonishing. Working with cinematographer Marine Atlan, who shot the pair’s short After School Knife Fight, Poggi and Vinel create and sustain a hypnotic mood.

An absurd beauty to some of the shots helps the filmmakers offset its deliberate pacing. The entire crew, sound design in particular, pulls their weight as well, and the cumulative effect moves this lightly plotted ensemble piece in daring directions.

Portrait of the Artist

Bliss

by Hope Madden

What does true art require of its maker? It’s an incredibly common theme in film (and books and sculpture and painting and any other kind of art) because, for an artist, it’s a common point of introspection. Why am I doing this, why aren’t I better than this, what would I give to be really great?

There’s such an underlying element of the diabolical and desperate in these questions that it’s only sensible so many horror flicks have sprung from this well. From Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood in ’59 to Sean Byrne’s Devil’s Candy in 2015, horror movies love to explore what we’re willing to become if only our art could be great.

Joe Begos returns to the concept with Bliss, an unrelenting attack on the senses that equates artistic obsession with addiction and monstrosity.

Frenetically paced and entirely reliant on Dora Madison’s impressive performance, Bliss works like a hypnotic pulse. Madison plays artist and malcontent Dezzy, who opens the film dodging her landlord, tooling LA in her convertible caddy and panicking. She can’t finish her latest piece, her agent wants to drop her, she’s about to lose her exhibit space.

Why isn’t her dealer answering the goddamn phone?

When she does catch up with him, he has something potent for her. She goes a little overboard and by the time she’s semi-conscious again, a house party is in full rage, the drugs, beat and sexy look from an old friend propelling Dezzy into a hypnotic night of excess and debauchery. But somewhere in the stew and slurry of the night, her painting starts to take shape.

It’s intriguing that the more minor the character, the more likable the performance. Begos seems not to want you to care about the lead or those closest to her, and that’s always an intriguing approach to a film.

The only real problem with Bliss is its lack of originality, but that’s a pretty big problem. Quick cuts and quicker tempo, nimble performances and concussive beat, like Gaspar Noe’s Climax, Bliss leaves you feeling worn out. But with little new to say, it mainly leaves you feeling more hung over than entertained.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Bb-YhK9x60

Shudder Premiere: The Dead Lands

Shudder launches a new series this week, The Dead Lands.

Ep 1: Tell the Dead I’m Coming

by Rachel Willis

For anyone who thinks the zombie genre has been thoroughly mined of ideas, you might be pleasantly surprised by the New Zealand horror drama, The Dead Lands.

The best thing about writer/creator Glenn Standing’s show is that it’s more than a tale of the dead coming back to life. Rooted in the indigenous Maori culture and religion of New Zealand, the setting is Aotearoa “in the time of the stories.” As the credits play, we’re shown the gorgeous natural splendor of this world while the camera rolls over scenic vistas.

The peaceful atmosphere is destroyed as the credits end and the camera focuses on a bloody wahaika. A scene of carnage unfolds, and we’re introduced to Waka Nuku Rau (Te Kohe Tuhaka), a person “more monster than man.” As the narrative opens, we learn this monstrous man may be the only hope for restoring the balance between the living and the dead. When Waka is barred from entering the afterlife, he returns to earth to seek honor to atone for his many crimes.

The opening episode of The Dead Lands is a bit clunky. There’s a lot to set up in the space of 44 minutes. The pacing stumbles as much of the focus of this episode is devoted to helping the audience understand what has gone wrong in Aotearoa. The veil between the living and dead is falling away, and the dead seek to harm the living. Why this is happening is the heart of show’s mystery.   

However, the weaker elements are far overshadowed by the stronger moments and the promise of what’s to come. Waka is a thoroughly engrossing character. Unfortunately, we’re only given a glimpse of his morally repugnant past. Perhaps his history will be explored in future episodes, but when Waka runs into Mehe (Darneen Christian), a woman seeking his help, he comes across as a curmudgeon rather than someone to be feared.

Though Waka has an agenda behind his agreement to help Mehe, he never seems untrustworthy. He’s a character easy to like when, based on what we’ve been told, he should be someone who makes us question our own moral compass.

As Mehe, Christian is a bit stiff compared to the charismatic Tuhaka, but their relationship has the potential to grow into something truly captivating to watch.

There is more than enough intrigue to attract viewers to this show and keep them interested.

Ep 2: The Sins of the Fathers

by Rachel Willis

Where the first episode tends to drag, the second episode of The Dead Lands opens in a sprint. Beginning with a human sacrifice, new characters are introduced: villains both living and dead, members of Mehe’s tribe who might not be trustworthy, and others who might have the answers Waka and Mehe seek.

The mystery of who “broke the world” becomes the central focus in this episode, though many thrilling scenes are devoted to the politics of Mehe’s tribe.

After an attack on her tribe in Tell the Dead I’m Coming, her brother, Rangi, and the rest of the tribe sought refuge with their uncle, a powerful shaman who might have insight into what has caused the imbalance between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Though their uncle welcomes them with open arms, there is something sinister afoot. Mehe is suspicious, and in this episode, Darneen Christian better embodies her character.

While Waka still has his mission, Mehe is given her own hero’s journey to complete. By giving our two main characters their own challenges and desires, the opposite nature of the characters is heightened. Waka is a man who cares for no one, while Mehe is devoted to the well-being of her tribe.

Despite their opposite natures, the chemistry between the two flourishes as Waka’s connection to Mehe deepens. Though Waka professes to dislike her, it’s clear she’s the closest human connection he’s ever had. There are even a few comedic moments shared between the two, and those liven the otherwise tense atmosphere.      

Though still plagued by a few missteps, particularly some strange cinematography choices, the second episode successfully builds upon the first. With The Sins of the Fathers, the show has found its footing. 

Pokémon? No.

Nekrotronic  

by Christie Robb

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a cute accent will make even the silliest sentiment 20 percent more charming. So, it’s fortunate that the dialogue in Kiah Roache-Turner’s action/comedy/horror is mostly delivered in appealing Australian accents. Otherwise it’s a bit of a mess.

A take on cell phone addiction, Nekrotronic asks the question, “What if demons got online and created a knock-off of Pokémon Go to steal our souls?”

Thankfully, Howard, a sanitation engineer/orphan, discovers he’s the descendant of generations of necromancers (nekromancers?) with demon-fighting superpowers, now upgraded with what look like coaxial cable ports in the backs of their heads. Years ago, his necromancer parents split up when mom, Finnegan, was turned to the dark side. Howard’s dad hid him with muggles before being murdered by his ex.

Ben O’Toole delivers a decent performance in Howard. He’s equally able to pull off his silly X-Men-style superhero suit and deliver the occasional bit of banter that reminds us that the movie is supposed to be part comedy. His chemistry with his tragically underused sidekick Rangi (Epine Bob Savea) is probably the best part of the film. Too bad it’s mostly in the first 18 minutes.

After the initial setup, Nekrotronic often seems to forget the comedic slant and leans heavily into the action. The special effects and fight sequences are acceptable. But there are no stakes. What is Finnegan going to do with the power of the souls she devours through the cell phone game? Use the power to get more souls. Why? To what purpose? Unclear. What does Howard stand to lose? Little. He already seems to hate his foster family and his job. He’s not invested in random strangers. His BF Rangi might take a hit, but Howard’s powers can sorta mitigate that.

The movie mashes up Matrix, Tron and Ghostbusters and sets it to a half-hearted attempt at a Tarantino soundtrack. But there’s no focus or originality in the result.

The weakest part of the movie is probably Monica Bellucci’s Finnegan. Possessing a gorgeous Italian accent, her delivery proves the exception to the accent-makes-it-better maxim. She struggles to enunciate the juvenile, expletive-laden dialogue that comes much more naturally from the other characters. It feels like when your manager researches slang on Urban Dictionary and pulls the results out in the conference room to seem relevant. It’s cringy and off-putting.

In the end, Nekrotronic delivers a little bit of everything, but it not enough of the right things.

Flightless Bird

Bluebird in My Heart

by Brandon Thomas

“There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out, but I’m too tough for him. I say, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you.”

As I often do before starting to write a review, I went to Google and typed in the title of the movie. I’m typically looking for behind the scenes info about the film at hand, but this time something different stood out: the above opening to Charles Bukowski’s poem Bluebird

The connection between A Bluebird in My Heart and Bukowski’s poem is tenuous. One might be inclined to link the hard drinking, womaning poet with the film’s protagonist. 

That would be giving it more thought than the filmmakers did.

Danny (A Hijacking’s Roland Moeller) has recently been paroled from prison. A chance meeting affords Danny the opportunity to live in a small hotel in exchange for some carpentry work. Danny strikes up a somewhat reluctant friendship with Clara (Lola Le Lann), the hotel manager’s daughter. When a savage act of violence is carried out on his new friend, Danny is torn between enacting revenge or keeping his head down as a new parolee. 

A Bluebird in My Heart is the kind of basic revenge story that we’ve seen dozens of times before. Basic can be good when offering up memorable performances or a few plot twists and turns. Bluebird has none of that. This is a film that’s set on checking off all of the standard boxes that come with a revenge plot.

First time director Jeremie Guez struggles to make Danny and Clara’s relationship the heart of the film. The problem is that we’re never truly allowed to get to know these two people. Danny is defined by his past incarceration, while Clara’s story is characterized by a father who is currently behind bars. Their characters, and their relationship, is entirely superficial.

This pointed focus on Danny leaves the villains largely faceless. After whiffing the relationship between Danny and Clara, some outstanding villains might have freshened things up a bit. That doesn’t happen. What we get are the typical indistinguishable bad guys in black leather coats and sloppily shaved heads. These guys barely register as a threat.

Cinematographer Dimitri Karakatsanis does at least manage to make the film look outstanding. The urban setting forgoes the typical colorless drab and instead takes full advantage of early morning and evening light. Even the inside of the cheap hotel is bathed in shadow and warm blue light. The entire film has an inviting visual appeal.

Despite having some outstanding visuals, A Bluebird in My Heart still only offers a rehash of many of the same tired revenge flicks from the last decade.


Last Action Hero

Re:Born

by Rachel Willis

How does one kill a ghost?

That’s the question at the heart of the mystery in director Yûji Shimomura’s martial arts thriller, Re:Born.

The film opens with teams of soldiers hunting a target. When the mission becomes compromised, their commander orders them to fall back.

But something is hunting these soldiers, dispatching them with skillful ease, moving in and out of shadows with inhuman speed. We’re given little information about the situation, immediately catching us off-guard as we try to keep up with what’s happening before our eyes.

The film crafts a fine balance between what we know and what we’re unsure of. Just as more pieces of the puzzle fall into place, new questions arise, forcing us to pay attention. When we meet main character, Toshiro (Tak Sakaguchi), we’re sufficiently intrigued. Who is this man, and how does he connect to the opening sequence?  

Toshiro cares for his niece, Sachi, portrayed by the utterly adorable Yura Kondo. Their relationship is interesting, as Sachi showers her uncle with effusive affection while he holds himself back. He’s not cold, but he’s detached. Toshiro’s brother, Kenji (Takumi Saitoh), adds another layer of mystery to the story.

As the movie unfolds, the tension builds. A group of men and women are hunting Toshiro. He does his best to shield his niece from these sinister agents, but it’s a web of danger that encroaches into his daily life. Backstory is layered on backstory, but the film manages to reveal more of the mystery surrounding Toshiro without added confusion. We’re never given all the answers, but that’s a good thing. Remove all the mystery, and you’re left with little to ponder.

There is a fine line between a great action movie and a good action movie. A great action movie understands the balance between fast-paced action sequences and slower moments that give the audience time to catch their breath. An action sequence that goes on too long starts to become wearying. This is the trap Re:Born falls into as one particularly long action sequence becomes tedious. However, it’s refreshing to watch choreographed fight sequences that rely very little on CG to enhance them. No matter how good CG gets, it will never replace the beauty of a well-orchestrated fight sequence between skilled actors.

Re:Born has many of the elements of a great action film. A captivating story and great actors make-up for the few flat moments. This is a film that asks you to pay attention and rewards you for doing so. 

Ticket for One

Nightmare Cinema

by Hope Madden

Horror short compilations can be tricky business. Mick Garris, far better known for being a horror fan than a horror filmmaker, collects a handful of new shorts for Nightmare Cinema.

As he did with Masters of Horror, a sometimes wonderful and generally competent cable program he produced in 2007, his latest effort pulls in the talents of a few of his pals.

The through-line “The Projectionist” ties the disparate group of shorts together as, one after another, individuals see their names on the lonely marquee of a single screen theater and wander in to sit alone in the dark and watch as their nightmare unspools, controlled by the man in the booth (Mickey Rourke—shirtless, natch).

Those nightmares boast the direction of Joe Dante (The Howling), Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead), David Slade (Hard Candy), Ryuhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train) and Garris himself.

Things open briskly with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods,” a slasher/SciFi mishmash with a bit of novelty hiding behind the mask of The Welder, the seemingly unkillable marauder stalking a group of good looking college kids in the woods.

What the short lacks in originality it mainly makes up for with humor, blood and an entirely unexplained basement full of corpses.

Important tangent: If you have not seen Brugues’s glorious 2011 caper Juan of the Dead, you should feel compelled to do so right now. Right now.

Dante’s “Mirare” plays like a particularly corporeal Twilight Zone, with a predictable outcome but a fairly wild journey.

Kitamura’s “Mashit” offers the most compelling visuals and nothing else. It’s just one more tired, lazy entry into the tedious “Catholicism is so bad” subgenre.

Slade’s “This Way to Egress” impresses. Feeling like a genuine nightmare with that same kind of illogical logic and terrifying vaguery that frustrates the dreamer, the short follows Helen (Elizabeth Reaser) through a moment of madness set in a doctor’s office that’s increasingly marred with filth and populated by disfigured janitors grunting through their endless cleanup.

A mysterious plot, Reaser’s wonderfully committed performance and some unsettling imagery combine to make this one the most intriguing of the shorts.

Garris’s own “Dead” completes the lineup with a bland “I see dead people” drama that collides with the framing “The Projectionist” to remind viewers that Garris is better at enjoying horror than he is at creating it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-lMGKO9MnQ

Misty Mountain Hop

Gwen

by Hope Madden

“Steal a sheep and they’ll take your hand. Steal a mountain and they’ll make you a lord.”

Writer/director William McGregor clarifies the source of real horror in his period chiller Gwen, premiering this week on Shudder.

The Witch, Hagazussa, The Wind – something in the air has horror filmmakers examining the choices facing women throughout our brutal, unforgiving history. McGregor’s addition to the collective reflection is as slow a boil as any of them – slower, maybe. And though his film casts a spell, the scary part is how well it tells the truth.

Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) is a teenaged farmer’s daughter in 19th century north Wales, where the value of real estate is quite a bit higher than the value of three female lives. Her father’s away at war and her mother (Maxine Peake, extraordinary) seems harder and more frantic by the day.

With her cherubic cheeks and school marm’s stare, Worthington-Cox does an excellent job of oscillating between taking on the maternal role and behaving like a child.

Peake, as ailing matriarch Elen, pits herself against everyone—often even her own daughter—in an attempt to protect her family and stand up for herself. The performance is bone chilling as well as heartbreaking. There is palpable longing in the relationship between Gwen and Elen, both of them desperate for an existence other than this, one where maternal love and nurturing were more than luxuries.

McGregor’s wisest instinct is in confining the story to Gwen’s point of view, her immediate perspective. Outside of two brief scenes, we see only what Gwen sees, hear only what Gwen hears. Even as she readies herself for adulthood, the world is a mystery to Gwen, and so it is a mystery to us. Very little makes sense as she sees it, and that perspective gives the entire film a menacing quality, a spookiness that shapes the narrative.

Certainly if you thought The Witch lacked action, or Hagazussa explained too little, Gwen may be frustrating. Which does not make it any less exceptional as a film.

Though the filmmaker builds atmospheric dread that leads to a stunning climax, it’s a stretch to call Gwen horror. McGregor’s direction calls to mind gothic thrillers—ghosts and isolation, women slowly going mad—all elements he eerily amplifies sonically with whispering winds, crackling lightning, and a distant howl or shriek. The way he lenses Gwen’s surroundings, smoke and mist giving way to mine-ravaged hillsides, conjures similar bleakness.

But the story itself is a socially conscious drama brimming with despair and outrage.

Muted Fury

The Furies

by Brandon Thomas

Horror and social commentary are synonymous with one another. Fifty years ago, Night of the Living Dead tapped into America’s anxiety about the Vietnam War. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead used the zombie apocalypse to attack consumerism. More recently, Jordan Peele’s Get Out looked to horror to comment on race in America. These are all top-shelf examples of horror tackling social issues. 

Of course, not everyone can be George Romero or Jordan Peele. The new Shudder exclusive, The Furies—screening as part of Australia’s Monster Fest in October before its release in Australian cinemas from November 7—is a stark example of that.

After being kidnapped right off the street, Kayla wakes up in a coffin-sized box somewhere in the Australian outback. Before she can get her bearings, she finds herself hunted by someone wearing a horrific mask. As Kayla makes her way through this hellscape of murder to find a friend, she and the other hunted girls start to succumb to their form of savagery.

The Furies starts strong with a visually impressive prologue. Director Tony D’Aquino gets everything on the screen – from production design to some top-notch gore effects. Visually, the movie is a feast. 

Content-wise?

It’s a tonally confused mess.

There’s a weak attempt at commenting on women’s treatment in horror. When these characters aren’t being hunted down by armed slashers, they’re assigned another one of these ghouls as a protector. On paper this sounds like a novel idea: “Women are either fodder or in need of protection in these movies!” Unfortunately, D’Aquino never does anything more than set those ideas up.

Complicating things more is the way these women are written as merely paper-thin caricatures. They run, scream and die. Rinse, repeat. Kayla’s journey of “discovery” has the depth of a red Solo cup. Instead of looking inward at her own darkness and allowing that to come through in the performance, the movie settles for wearing a dark hoodie and saying tough things while handling a taser.

The messy ideas continue into the movie’s overall tone. The horror elements are strong, but there are also some half-realized sci-fi threads peppered about. Instead of exploring these nuggets in any meaningful way, D’Aquino treats them like the first episode of a network series to be explored later.

Despite some impressive visual sleight of hand with excellent cinematography and practical gore effects, The Furies can’t overcome the inherent shallowness of its story and execution. 


Hell to Pay

Hell House LLC 3: Lake of Fire

by Brandon Thomas

I’m an easy mark for found footage movies.

When done well, their use of unseen horror gets under my skin like no other kind of scary movie. There’s a heart-pounding anticipation prevalent in these movies that tends to hit everything I find terrifying.

Of course, this reaction comes with good found footage movies. Does Hell House LLC 3: Lake of Fire rank up there with the greats? 

Yeah… not so much.

Right before its demolition, Russell Wynn (Gabriel Chytry) swoops in to buy the infamous Abaddon Hotel. He’s young, showy, rich… and full of potentially bad ideas, such as using the hotel as the venue for his popular interactive show, “Insomniac.” Along for the ride is a journalist and her camera crew, a handful of actors for the show, and Russell’s dedicated, but ultimately naive, staff.

The original Hell House LLC delivered a budget-friendly, but fun, offering into the found footage canon. The filmmakers weren’t reinventing the wheel, but they understood what they could produce with the premise and money available to them. Director Stephen Cognetti’s knowledge of how to make basic scares work lifted the film to a higher level. 

The slow-building of dread is a staple in this genre. It’s what gets the audience to squirm well before the proverbial shit hits the fan. Hell House LLC 3 peaks early with its scares and doesn’t quite finds its footing again. The climax ends up being more chaotic than scary with conveniently placed camerawork being substituted for well-placed frights. 

The film truly stumbles by relying too heavily on the installments that came before. There’s far too much time spent building a mythology that brings in characters from the other two movies. As a result, Hell House LLC 3 never gets to work as a singular piece of filmmaking.  

Outside of a few clever scares, this third installment in the Hell House LLC series never manages to rise above being a middling effort.