Monday, 20 April 2015

The Herd

Dir. Melanie Light

The Herd is an unshirkingly brutal, vegan-minded short which serves as a chilling metaphor for the inhumane treatment of cattle at the hands of the dairy industry.

Hundreds of millions of these sentient creatures suffer and die every year as their bodies are treated like machines. Forcefully impregnated so they produce milk, they are pumped full of growth hormones to produce unnaturally large quantities of milk, and antibiotics to combat constant mastitis infections. When they are no longer able to lactate, they are destroyed.

The Herd substitutes women for cattle and subjects them to the same horrendous processes as the average dairy cow as it delves into the everyday horrors of the dairy industry…

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

See No Evil 2

Dirs. Jen & Sylvia Soska

Slasher films are infamous for instigating a seemingly unending chain of sequels. Cynically speaking, slasher sequels are generally inferior titles that simply rehash the plot of the original in a desperate bid to capitalise on its success. Speaking as the owner of various slasher franchise boxsets, a few sequels can surpass expectations and actually enhance the impact of the original, fleshing out characters, exploring back stories and expanding mythos.

Of all the slasher films you’d expect to spawn a sequel - and a rather belated one at that - See No Evil (2006) probably wouldn’t be high on your list. A conventional, if rather unremarkable affair, it featured WWE star Kane (Glen Jacobs) as a reclusive psychopath brutally murdering a group of delinquents who, as part of their community service, are sent to clean up the old abandoned hotel he resides in. While commercially successful, it was essentially a re-run of old slasher conventions, grimed up with an urban setting, juvenile delinquents and Kane making a bid to become a new slasher icon. While it didn’t particularly warrant a sequel, it got one. And a pretty decent one at that, with a surprisingly good cast (Katherine Isabelle! Kaj Erik-Erikson! Danielle Harris!) and effective direction courtesy of the Soska sisters.

See No Evil 2 might stick closely to the slasher formula, as its pretty teens are violently dispatched by a hulking psychopath in a sprawling underground morgue staffed by a graveyard shift skeleton crew (Erik-Erikson and Harris), but with the Soska sisters at the helm, at least it has fun while doing so. Sadly, the Soskas weren’t responsible for writing the script - which lacks their unique panache - but they were able to revise it and convince the producers to let them tweak a few aspects. As such, they play around with conventional gender roles, throw in a few twists - adding some oddball charm and dark humour - and lead us to a surprisingly bleak denouement with unexpected pathos. While things are fairly lighthearted to begin with - cheeky references to American Mary and grim foreshadowing abound as the camera lingers on various medical instruments throughout the opening credits - as soon as the stalking and slashing commences, the Soskas prove utterly astute in ratcheting up tension, particularly during a number of taut chase sequences, and maintaining a suitably stark and creepy atmosphere.

Unlike many of its kind, See No Evil 2 is a slasher sequel with a group of rather likeable characters the audience is inclined to root for, particularly Kaj Erik-Erikson as Seth, the aforementioned Katherine Isabelle, who delivers a particularly gonzo, highly strung performance and is one of best things about the film, and the ever reliable Danielle Harris, who can by now do this sort of thing without even thinking. As Jacob Goodnight, Kane proves to be a formidable antagonist with all the makings of a classic slasher villain, right down to his stiflingly religious upbringing (explored through various flashbacks) - which taps into that old moral conservatism slashers are famed for - and his startlingly violent crusade to cleanse society of the ‘morally corrupt’ who, in this case, are a group of friends gathered at a morgue for a surprise birthday party.

With echoes of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, See No Evil 2 picks up immediately after the events of the previous film, the same night in fact, and its murderous villain is similarly revived in a morgue, setting the scene for a brutal killing spree. Unlike the aforementioned slasher sequels however, the remainder of See No Evil 2 actually plays out in this creepy setting and it doesn’t just serve as a prelude to the villain making his way back to a favoured stomping ground, a la Haddonfield or Crystal Lake. It’s a seriously creepy backdrop and, with its shadowy, labyrinthine hallways, is milked for all it's worth to enhance the atmosphere.

As a Soska sisters' film it’s not quite in the same league as their previous titles, particularly American Mary, but its an interesting slasher sequel that’s a cut above its predecessor and further evidence (if any was needed) that the Soskas are emerging as two of genre cinema's most interesting filmmakers. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

What We Do in the Shadows

Dirs. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

A documentary crew follows the bemusing exploits of a group of house-sharing vampires in this charming, oddly heart-warming comedy-horror from New Zealanders Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement.

From arguing over the cleaning rota and attempting to gain entry to the most hip and happening nightspots, to deciding what should be done about the dead vampire hunter in the basement, the utter banality of the situations the misfits find themselves in, renders their attempts to integrate with the outside world infectiously humorous.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review.

And remember, "We're werewolves, not swearwolves!" 

Saturday, 28 March 2015

In Conversation with Disasterpeace

It Follows is the insidiously creepy tale of a young woman who becomes the target of a relentless supernatural stalker after she has sex with her boyfriend. The intensely atmospheric electronic score - courtesy of San Francisco-based Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace - is one of the most distinctive horror scores in recent memory, and was described by one critic as sounding “as if [John] Carpenter had Trent Reznor around to score Halloween back in 1978.”

Rich very kindly took the time to have a chat with me about, amongst other things, composing the score for It Follows, video games, horror films, musical influences, Adventure Time and more.

Head over to Paracinema to read the interview and listen to some of the creepy score. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Devil's Advocates Presents 'Suspiria'

Devil's Advocates is a book series devoted to exploring the classics of horror cinema. Contributors to Devil's Advocates come from the worlds of academia, journalism and fiction, but all have one thing in common: a passion for the horror film and for sharing that passion.

Each instalment delves into a specific horror film, exploring everything from its conception to its impact on genre cinema and wider popular culture. Titles thus far include Let the Right One In by Anne Billson, Witchfinder General by Ian Cooper, SAW by Benjamin Poole, The Descent by James Marriott and Carrie by Neil Mitchell.

Excitingly, a forthcoming addition to the series will peer into Dario Argento’s occult classic, Suspiria. Author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. Her other books include Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2013). Here’s what Alexandra says about Suspiria and what we can expect from her forthcoming book…

As one of the most globally recognisable instances of 20th century Eurohorror, Dario Argento's Suspiria (1976) is poetic, chaotic, and intriguing. The cult reputation of Argento's baroque nightmare is reflected in the critical praise it continues to receive almost 40 years after its original release, and it appears regularly on lists of the greatest horror films ever. For fans and critics alike, Suspiria is as mesmerising as it is impenetrable: the impact of Argento's notorious disinterest in matters of plot and characterisation combines with Suspiria's aggressive stylistic hyperactivity to render it a movie that needs to be experienced through the body as much as through emotion or the intellect. For its many fans, Suspiria is synonymous with European horror more broadly, and Argento himself is by far the most famous of all the Italian horror directors. If there was any doubt of his status as one of the great horror auteurs, Argento's international reputation was solidified well beyond the realms of cult fandom in the 1990s with retrospectives at both the American Museum of the Moving Image and the British Film Institute. This book considers the complex ways that Argento weaves together light, sound and cinema history to construct one of the most breathtaking horror movies of all time, a film as fascinating as it is ultimately unfathomable.  

You can pre-order a copy here, and keep up to date with Alexandra here. For further information on Devil’s Advocates, go here

Monday, 16 March 2015

Starry Eyes

Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Starry Eyes is a powerful, deeply unsettling rumination on the cost of fame and stardom and the monstrous things desperately ambitious people are prepared to do in order to obtain it.

Unfurling as a blood-dark character study, the narrative follows Sarah (Alexandra Essoe), a young, eager-to-prove-herself Hollywood actress whose encounter with a sinister production company sends her reeling downwards into a harrowing maelstrom of despair, madness, diabolism and body-horror, as she attempts to make her dreams of fame a reality. At any cost.

Head over to Exquisite Terror to read my full review. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

13th Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards

The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award nominations have just been announced. Now in their thirteenth year, the awards honour ‘the best in classic horror research, creativity and film preservation.’ Much to my surprise and delight, I’ve been nominated (for a second time) for an award in the Best Article category. The article, 'Family Man' (a look at Tobe Hooper’s meaty representations of the family unit in all its deadly, dysfunctional and dynamic forms), was published in issue 20 of Diabolique Magazine in March/April, 2014.

If you feel like it, please vote for me. You can vote for as many or as few nominees/categories as you like.

Check out all the nominees here.

Please also consider voting for these fine folks; then just copy and paste the below into an email to Remember to include your name to ensure your vote counts. Polls close at midnight on Sunday 19th April. Good luck, everyone!

11. BEST BOOK OF 2014 - SUBVERSIVE HORROR CINEMA: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, by Jon Towlson (McFarland, softcover, 256 pages, $45). Brings insight and social analysis to films rare and familiar.

12. BEST MAGAZINE OF 2014 - Paracinema

13. BEST ARTICLE (Please select two; one will win) – ‘Family Man’ by James Gracey, DIABOLIQUE #20. How the films of Tobe Hooper disrupted the traditional film family.

Please also consider voting for ‘Lady Impunity’ by Max Weinstein, DIABOLIQUE #22. The blood-filled legacy of the life of Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

15. BEST ALL-AROUND ISSUE – DIABOLIQUE #22: Dark side of feminine horror, from Carmilla to childbirth to Bathory.

17. BEST COVER - DIABOLIQUE #22 by Robert Aragon.

It Follows

Dir. David Robert Mitchell

Like one, that on a lonesome road 
Doth walk in fear and dread, 
And having once turned round, walks on, 
And turns no more his head; 
Because he knows a frightful fiend 
Doth close behind him tread - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

After Jay (Maika Monroe) and her boyfriend have sex, he tells her that he has passed a curse onto her and now something will begin to follow her. And when it catches up with her, it will kill her. Sure enough, she begins to experience an inescapable feeling that someone, or something, is after her…

It Follows is an insidiously creepy, yet beautifully produced shocker, moments of which will haunt you for some time afterwards. Blurring the line between sex and death, it taps into some very dark and primal fears indeed - abandonment, betrayal of loved ones, social ostracism. Most obviously it mines that very specific fear of being pursued so relentlessly by something unknowable, harmful and unreasoning; that unshakable fear that someone or something is creeping up behind you, getting closer and closer, until you can’t resist the urge and must turn and look… It also entrenches itself in the logic of grim and bloody fairy tales in which innocent youngsters are abandoned by parental figures to survive and figure out the ways of the world alone as they’re pursued by unspeakable evils salivating to do them harm.

The atmosphere of slow-mounting dread is evident from the beginning as a panicky opening scene immediately pulls us into the story and forcibly submerges us, breathless with tension, until a shock climax of horrifyingly grotesque imagery reveals what happens when the follower catches up to the followed. We never see what the girl is running from, only that she is terrified enough to run helplessly, half-dressed past her own father on the way to her car in an attempt to escape ‘something’ that gives the impression of being very close. Adding to the odd, ominous feeling throughout is the fact that much of the action takes place in daylight hours, and in places one would expect to find relative safety when being followed by someone or something unknown - buildings bustling with people, bland suburban streets at early dusk as neighbours arrive home from work or take the groceries out of their cars. It's this mix of mundane and otherworldly that imbues It Follows with much of its effectiveness.

Many horror films feature unsettling subtexts regarding sexuality and sexual angst - just look at the sex equals death conservatism of the majority of 80's slashers. This forms the core of It Follows. A sexual act instigates untold terror when a curse is passed between lovers, and there’s a fascinating subtext concerning the dangers of casual sex and STDs and the increasingly harrowing effects they can have in today’s culture of cyber-bullying, sexual assaults going ‘viral’, victim-blaming tabloids and sexual shaming on social media platforms. Mitchell’s script carefully lingers on the moral implications of the situation as Jay agonises over whether or not she can bring herself to pass on her predicament to someone else. Her boyfriend assures her she’ll have no problems doing so as she’s ‘so pretty.’

Underpinning the fairy tale aspects is the almost complete absence of parental figures; Jay’s alcoholic mother is often glimpsed around the house, but she is never shown to engage with her daughters. It isn’t necessarily an unloving relationship they have, as Jay and her sister seem protective of her - they discuss how telling her about certain things is not an option, she just couldn’t handle it. They appear to accept her and her flaws. That her father is only depicted as a figure in a long-ago taken photo suggests that his absence - be it through death or divorce - may be the reason for their mother’s alcoholism. The film is peppered with little subtleties such as this, which makes for a rich and immersive experience. The fractured family unit speaks of how a younger generation has had to grow up fast and learn to survive with little guidance or instruction, with peers substituting for absent parent figures.

Distinct echoes of Cat People (1942) as Jay is menaced in a swimming pool by an unseen presence
Before it’s torn apart and rendered utterly terrifying, writer/director David Robert Mitchell creates a world instantly familiar in its reassuring mundanity, peopled by normal, likeable characters. The screenplay also takes time to concern itself with the romantic entanglements and fluctuating dynamics within the group of teenaged characters, thus helping to put flesh on their bones and urgency in their plight. A strange sadness, perhaps a lamentation of lost childhood, wafts throughout, as adolescent characters face unimaginable horrors just beyond, but oftentimes within their cosy, tree-lined suburban environs, as they emerge into adulthood and experience firsthand its myriad dangers and traumas. There’s something about the autumn that speaks of the malaise of years spent in beige-tinted suburbia, longing for life to begin and stuff to happen. Are we ever ready for when it does?

Mitchell creates a subtle mythology around the otherworldly stalker. We know that only those who are cursed can see it, and that the curse is passed from one individual to another by sexual intercourse. The only way to escape is to pass the curse along to someone else. In an effort to catch up to them, the follower takes on the guise of people its victims know and love, but we never find out what it is, where it came from or even how it came to being. For all we know, it’s an ageless, timeless thing that has just always been following marked individuals across the globe. The influence of Halloween seeps throughout It Follows and like John Carpenter (and indeed the likes of Jacques Tourneur, Val Lewton and Robert Wise before them), Mitchell knows that the less his audience know about this unrelenting pursuer, the more sinister it is, the more power it wields over us and the more terrified the we are of it. HP Lovecraft said it best when he wrote “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

We glimpse it in various forms - some genuinely unsettling - but the most terrifying thing about it is its sole intention: to violently destroy whoever it is following. Its purposeful, measured pace ratchets up the tension and Mitchell utilises wide angled shots - again reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween - to suggest the presence of something lurking in the shadowy periphery of the screen, watching, steadily approaching. Wraith-like camerawork enhances tension by gliding back and forth between the different viewpoints (and perceptions) of characters, and there’s an uneasy quietness to the composition of many shots. Danger isn’t heralded, it is gradually suggested.

As genuinely terrifying as it is, It Follows is also a film brimming with moments of exquisite, unselfconscious beauty. As mentioned, there are strong visual echoes of John Carpenter’s Halloween, with its quiet, suburban setting resplendent in the forlorn shades of autumn, and of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, with its ethereal, oddly dreamy atmosphere and frequently sun-dappled cinematography. Even the night scenes are lit with the familiar - and oddly comforting - orange glow of street lights. When things turn horrific and start to encroach upon this setting, the unsettling impact is undeniable. There is frequently striking imagery such as the girl sitting alone on a beach lit by her car headlights and the sprawling mass of blood in the swimming pool. The highly atmospheric score comes courtesy of Disasterpiece (Rich Vreeland) and segues between airy, Tangerine Dream-inspired prettiness, stark electronic drones which chill the back of the neck, and full-on panicked intensity.

A potent and near-perfect modern horror.