Happy Halloween – Scary Stuff!

Seeing as it’s Halloween, and I look like the ghost of Keele Formal Ball 1992 (I’ve recycled the outfit I wore to it  – Elsa Lancaster-style. Only I’m at least two stone heavier than when I was eighteen. Seeing as ghosts are meant to be less substantial, I’m letting ghosts down big time…) I thought it would be appropriate to bring you a guest post from Gingernuts of Horror’s very own Jim Mcleod. After all, the horror genre was as much Mary Shelley’s “hideous progeny” as science fiction on that stormy night she sat telling tales of electrified flesh brought back to life, as Percy Byshe Shelley and Lord Byron listened,  at Byron’s Lake Geneva villa almost two hundred years ago.

So here are two awesome reviews and some spooky trailers for you.  Follow title links to see trailers. Take it away, Jim!

Open Grave

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There seems to be a new trend emerging over the past few months with regards to horror films. It may well be that I have just become more discerning as to what films I watch, or it may well be that there are just more intelligent films out there that are not aimed at pre-pubescent teenage boys. Open Grave is one of these new breeds of horror film.

When Jon wakes up in a giant pit filled with dead and decaying corpses, he soon realises that he has no memory. Not just to why he ended up in the pit, he has no memories, of who is, where he came from. Hell, he can’t even remember who is mother is.

With some help, he gets out of this hellish pit and he finds himself in the company of a group of people who, like him, have no memory. Stuck in an old farmhouse in the middle of huge forest with no knowledge of anything we follow this band of characters on a journey of discovery that is littered with the rotting corpses of shocking secrets.

To say much more about the film’s plot would be to give too much away. Open Grave is one of those films that works best when you go in knowing nothing. Rest assured the filmmakers don’t leave you waiting too long before they start providing the answers. By the time you reach a rather shocking and brutal scene involving a barbed wire fence you’ll pretty much know where the story is going and where it sits within the horror genre.

In terms of its place Open Grave is a welcome addition to the genre. It’s not often that you get a wholly original film in this particular brand of horror. The writer and director made a wise decision in keeping these elements of the film a step back from the main narrative thrust of the movie, which is the characters discovering who they are, and how they react to their new-found knowledge.

One of the reasons for this may have been due to the budgetary constraints of the film. This is a low budget film, however with this in mind Open Grave is a great-looking film. Rather than wasting lots of cash on your typical money shots, the budget has been spent on ensuring the film has a gritty feel to it. There is a real satisfying tone to feel to the film. The dirt and blood splatters on the cast is satisfyingly grimy. You can also tell that a decent amount of the budget was spent on one of the final shots, a wonderful wide angled shot of the landscape which has a real “Oh my God” feel to it.

When your budget is small, you have to make sure that the script and actors are good enough to carry the film. For the most par,t both work really well. There are some fine performances from the cast, in particular Sharlto Copley’s performance is outstanding. He is quickly becoming one of my favourite actors. His performance is an excellent mix of bewilderment, anger, and frustration.

Josie Ho’s performance as the mute, Brown Eyes, is also very good, she brings a real sense of fear and uncertainty to her character.

As for the script, in the main it works very well. Plots involving amnesia can be somewhat clichéd and predictable, however the clever plot idea of making everyone an amnesic ensures that this doesn’t happen. Where the script falls down is in the middle section, which felt just a little bit too long and at times felt devoid of either action or plot development. The use of partial and broken flashbacks is handled well, and ensures that the viewers are still left wondering as to who if any of the characters are the bad guys.

One scene in particular really grated: without giving too much away it involved a car that suddenly wouldn’t start, even though it was running two minutes earlier. This reliance of age-old clichés is not needed, especially when the rest of the film makes such an effort to be original.

Open Grave is one of those films whose ending is going to get a lot of people very angry. It’s certainly brave, and tonally fits in perfectly with the dark, bleak and oppressive feel of the rest of film.   It’s been a long time since a small piece of paper has had me screaming NO!! at the television screen. Don’t come here looking for a happy ending or a film full of nice tidy resolutions.

 Open Grave, despite a slightly flabby middle, and that really annoying scene with the car, is an assured film. It’s a film that doesn’t treat the viewer as a mindless idiot, you actually have to pay attention as the story unfolds. It’s not a mindless rollercoaster of a film. The horror comes not from silly jump scares, but from a slow and steady realisation of their gravity of their situation and from some strong performances. If you are fed up with the same old horror film then Open Grave is the film for you. From the opening scene with the sounds of bones and ligaments cracking back into place, to the film’s resolution Open Grave is worthy of your time.

 Tree House

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With some films there is perfect a time and place to watch them.  A time of the year that just adds to the viewing pleasure. Treehouse is a film that is just begging to be watched now.  This backwoods horror/thriller is full of atmospheric shots of misty covered woods, with of autumn’s golden rays piercing through the cloying mist.  It elicits a true sense of Halloween dread in the viewer.

The plot of Treehouse is a basic one, some thing or someone is kidnapping the kids in a typical sleepy small American town.  You know the sort of town where everyone knows your name.  Where every street is populated with Mom and Pop stores. So when a couple of kids go missing and a curfew is placed over the sleepy town, it’s only traditional and inevitable that two kids decide to break the curfew for a chance of some late night nookie.

However as is want to happen in these sort of films their plans don’t quite end up the way they want to.  Left high and dry by their dates the two brothers decide to let off some fireworks, since it’s well known that all American teenagers are always packing fireworks and cherry bombs.  When they let of one of their rockets they discover a large tree house high up in one of the ancient trees, and as teenage boys are want to do they just have to climb up and investigate.  Bad move, boys, as this is going to be a night that you will never forget.
There is a lot to love in Treehouse; from the above synopsis it may seem that this is your typical Hollywood soulless stalk and slash film that is so beloved of mindless film producers.  And for the most part this film stays well clear of this tired and boring concept. The leads are not your typical high school Adonises, and there are no perky cheerleaders waiting for them in the woods.  It’s refreshing to watch a horror film with teenage leads that doesn’t have you waiting for the tedious bra and boobie shot.  The natural awkwardness of the two male leads adds a nice depth to the film.  In particular  J. Michael Trautmann’s performance of Killian is exceptional.  He has a wonderfully expressive face. From the browbeaten and bullied kid at the start of the film to the hero at the end of the film, Trautmann’s portrayal and development of Killian’s character is assured and well played helped by some inspired facial expressions.  This is his film, and as a lead he more than admirably carries it off.  He is helped with a great if albeit small cast of supporting actors. Daniel Fredrick is good as his brother, and Dana Melanie is excellent as the scared and emotionally battered Elizabeth.

In some ways this is a film of two parts, a brilliant and tense first act that plays out as an atmospheric siege film and a slightly less appealing final act which slips into survival horror mode, and somehow loses some of the charm and impact built up during the first hour of the film.

The director wisely keeps everyone guessing during the first hour or so of the film, we, as well as the cast have no clue as to the nature of the menace.  Tension is built up through the excellent use of cinematography, film score and sound effects.   In particular a scene involving a conversation on a two way radio will have you biting your nails.

There are some brilliant camera shots in the film and when combined with a sublime score give the scenes set in the woods an almost dream like quality.  Flashbacks are often an overused cliché in films, and while watching the film there was a sense of why are we seeing these?  However by the time that the final frame finishes, the reason for these are made clear.  They are all part of Killian’s journey and transformation.

For the first sixty minutes or so Treehouse is a tremendously tense and atmospheric thriller, it’s only in the final third that the director fumbles the ball.

The film shifts from a siege mode to survival mode, the nature of the “monsters” is revealed, in a way I wish the director would have been a little bit braver as to who and what has been haunting the woods.  In particular

SPOILER ALERT

The fact that one of the brothers had a loping limp really grated; why does every backwoods family have member who has a limp?  At least they weren’t all inbred simpleton mutants like those found in the despicable Wrong Turn films.  The biggest problem with this part of the film is the way in which it feels rushed.  These aren’t your typical hard to kill hillbillies, they go down quick and fast, perhaps too fast.  In a slightly twisted way it would have good to have more of their personalities in the film.  There is a brilliant shot of one of the brothers after he attacks Elizabeth, which shows a chilling disdain and nonchalance for his victim.  A few more shots like this would have really lifted this final act.

As for the film’s ending I can see that really annoying a lot of viewers, personally I think it’s a brave and inspired ending.  It’s the point at which Killian’s journey and development comes to fruition.  His story is over we don’t need to see anymore.

Treehouse overall is a solid film, one that starts out extremely well   only to be hampered by a weaker final act.  But don’t let this put you off, despite this Treehouse is still head and shoulders above the vast majority of big budget horror films.


Thanks, Jim! Both films are out on DVD and digital platforms now. And Head on over to Ginger Nuts of Horror for an awesome competition to win a copy of another Signature Film offering – Debug –  a sci-fi horror set in space with a killer AI.

It’s always hard to review a film that at heart is a decent film, but one that suffers from many of the problems associated with films of this type.  Debug falls into this category.  There is a really good film desperate to burst out from the trappings of clichés, poor budget and some really crazy and at times annoying plot points.

Welcome to the future, where a team of intrepid salvage workers go around rescuing old ships from cold vacuum of space.  Unlike most salvage teams, this motley crew is not made up of tired space weary salvage operatives so beloved by the genre, as seen in such classics such as Alien and Event Horizon, two films that this film cheekily riffs on.  What we have here is a team made up of criminal cyber hackers, forced into doing this sort of thing to lessen their sentences.

What seems to be a routine mission quickly turns into a fight for survival against a psychotic artificial intelligence as if there is any other kind. Trapped on the ship the only way for our heroes to survive is to defeat the rather oddly named IAm.

 

Thankfully this team doesn’t take too long for the action to start, and for the most part the action, death scenes and the acting are of decent quality.  Let’s be clear here: this is a low-budget film, and for that it can be forgiven for a lot of things.  This isn’t a stellar cast of respected actors. For the most part these are relatively unknowns who manage to hold their own during the film.  The main problem with the cast lies in the portrayal of IAm by Jason Momoa.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what makes this a cheese fest, it’s either the costume he wears or it’s the really appalling hairstyle he sports for the role.  These combined with a performance that is more pantomime dame than evil AI, robs IAm of any real menace.

The film also suffers from some problems faced by most films of this type.  For example, wouldn’t it be nice to have an AI that isn’t a psycho?  The film would have worked better if they had to face a run of mill monster, or a crazed lone member of the ship’s crew.  And why, why do the designers of these interstellar spacecraft have to put the safety switch for the AI in the most inaccessible of all places.  Have these designers and programmers never watched a science fiction film?  If I were building a spaceship with an AI, I’d have an override button every three feet.

It may seem that this film really isn’t worth your time or money based on what has been said above.  And I could forgive you for thinking this, however after watching this film I got the impression that the filmmakers were doing something that a lot of modern filmmakers fail to do.  They actually tried to make a good film.  I get the feeling that with a bit more experience and a better budget, they are capable of making a really good film.  Despite the obvious flaws this was still an entertaining film, helped with some neat Lawnmower Man touches and some nice death scenes.

Debug may not be original, it may not even be that well made, but it is still a decent way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Sent in to deep space as punishment for computer-based crimes, six young hackers are attempting to debug the computer systems of a massive derelict space freighter. While they struggle to clear out the viruses, the team fall prey to the ship’s vengeful artificial intelligence, a programme that would literally kill to be human. As the fractious team is forced to match wits with this rogue programme, they discover that the ship holds a deadly secret – and a fate far worse than death.
See more here.

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About Donna Scott

Chair of the BSFA since June 2013. Prior to this I was Awards Administrator, taking over that role from Claire Briarley in 2008. I am officially Donna Bond since getting married in May 2013, but continue to write and perform under my previous name, Donna Scott. My short fiction stories have been published in various anthologies and magazines, and I was winner of the inaugural Short Cuts at the MAC in 2005. As a comedian, I have performed all over the UK. Comedy has also given me the opportunity to perform alongside big names like Sarah Millican and Jasper Carrott! As a poet, I've also performed all over the place, including lots of science fiction conventions, and sometimes my poetry and comedy get kind of mixed up. I was the first official Bard of Northampton, it's true. I've got a tankard that says so... I love being a part of the BSFA - I've always been a devourer of books and being part of this association has enabled me to explore some great science fiction classics - and classics of the future, that I might otherwise have not heard about. I've met some lovely people with an enthusiasm for the genre, made firm friends, and got to meet some of my favourite writers, too! As a writer, I also have to say that FOCUS is the best magazine for writers I've ever come across - and as a member I get that for free. Who wouldn't want to be a part of this?

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