Friday, March 09, 2018

The Children (2008)

I'd seen this before but mind-bogglingly never reviewed it. I really enjoy The Children so was excited to see it pop up on (you guessed it) Shudder recently. Definitely getting my money's worth from that service so far!

This is written and directed by Tom Shankland, and is a gutsy little horror story of two families together for the Christmas and the new year holiday. Two sets of parents, four small children and one surly teen all together in a huge house in the English countryside when one by one the kids fall ill to a mysterious virus and become distant, (even more) badly behaved... and homicidal!

This film works well for three reasons:
  1. It keeps things simple
  2. The violent set-pieces chug along nicely once things turn sour
  3. It isn't afraid to boldly cross the line of basing a story on killer kids

The writing is solid - even if no one is shown as especially sympathetic! In fact one set of parents are particularly self-satisfied, boho-bullshit white middle class arseholes; with the obligatory passive-aggressive contest about whose kids are better/smarter, plus quiet competition over who is doing the better job at parenting. This all establishes a restrained tension in the house, even before things go seriously wrong.

The first act also perfectly captures (from my limited experience) the chaotic nature of children of a certain age. How, as adults, it's almost impossible to carry on a conversation without an interruption or scream/whine/cry for attention. The Children takes this very ordinary, real fact and plays with it: the natural naughtiness of kids takes on a sinister turn. Their normal boundary pushing involves more than just refusing to go to bed at a decent hour, it also has them picking up knives and slicing at the adults.

And let's not forget that the dynamic of kiddie killers is scary on a few levels. For one thing, the parents are going to take ages, if ever, to come around to the fact that they need to stop trying to protect, defend or reason with their offspring. They need to strike back against them, and that's often too little too late.

Then there's the repercussions of these horrors in the greater scheme of things: if this condition isn't widespread - which to be fair, in this film we're led to believe it is - anyone who manages to survive murderous children has probably had to take out a few in self defense. This is literally like a zombie movie, but the zombies are adorable little four-year-olds. So to make it out alive you must become one of the ultimate "evil" taboos yourself: a killer of children. It casts an interesting unpleasantness over the entire film, I think.

Shankland uses the young actors wisely, never making them do too much in the way of unnatural, "scary" acting (which can so easily come off as amusingly cheesy) instead choosing close-ups and quick, jarring cuts to make all the gruesome action make sense.

On top of all this, it looks stunning. Blood-splattered snow is rarely a miss, and like Last House On The Left (2009) there are some gorgeous tableau-like establishing shots in there.

It's streaming on Shudder at time of writing, but wherever or however you get your hands on it, I highly recommend that you do.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Kristy (2014)

I feel like sometimes the access to a location for a horror film has more weight to it than the actual plot. Like, they found out they could shoot on a college campus and then came up with an idea to suit the cool setting?

Kristy, directed by Olly Blackburn (who also did Donkey Punch) is similar to the vibe of You're Next or The Strangers, but it's not as well written. Instead of having the attacks be random acts of violence, there's an attempt, in an already pretty dated opening sequence involving the internet, passwords and messageboards (lol) to explain that this is some kind of cult where the members stalk and kill pretty young privileged girls in an effort to... symbolically kill God...?! Uh-huh. That face you are probably making right now is the face I made, too, and this was only about 4 mins into the movie, so I was braced for the worst.

The film takes place at a college over Thanksgiving weekend, where Justine (played with sleepy determination by Haley Bennett) is the only student spending the break on campus. While on a snack run to a local store, she's chosen as the next target by a masked, murderous gang. They keep calling her "Kristy", a code name for all of the cult's intended victims.

I'm going to put some of the blame on my being unable to fully concentrate on Kristy down to the fact I was watching it at midday. Watching horror films in broad, sunny daylight always feels out of place, right? But it wasn't all my poor timing; it was also that, aside from the climatic scene, this film just isn't all that good.

For one, a dog fucking dies, so that's a strike against it. How about we have a horror movie renaissance where that particular lazy, horrible narrative shortcut isn't used any more? Secondly, Justine as our lead and final girl survivor is tough to like, even if she is resourceful and strong. She's kind of one-note and dull as the back that carries the film.

The leader/controller of the gang (Ashley Greene) was a much more interesting character, and I would've been all over a film about her. Why she does this, what in her life brought her to a place of being in a killer cult? There are details about her that were deliberate choices, such as her painfully dry lips, multiple facial piercings and bad teeth. I want to know about her! That would be more interesting and original than another spin on a home invasion, where the victim grows from the experience and turns the tables. How many of those do we need, really??

IMDb recommends Bound To Vengeance at the bottom of its page for Kristy. Which kind of makes sense because I found that unremarkable, too. It also suggests The Den, which I never even made it through. So at least IMDb's algorithms are nailing it.

Steaming on Netflix now if you want to give it a whirl and prove me wrong!

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Open House (2018)

As I'm sure you've noticed, Netflix are going hell for leather on their Originals lately, but the past couple of horror movies I've watched from this collection have been a hit and a miss. The Ritual - which I hope to get around to reviewing soon! - was a great "friends lost in the forest" occult tale. The Open House... didn't seem to have a clear enough idea what it was.

The plot isn't the worst... Recently bereaved mother (Piercey Dalton) and son (Dylan Minnette, who you'll recognise* from Don't Breathe and 13 Reasons Why) temporarily relocate to a beautiful mountain cabin after their husband/father's tragic death. The only catch for staying there for free, is to make themselves scarce every Sunday for an open house.

Logan Wallace: Have you ever thought about how, like, weird open houses are?
Naomi Wallace: What?
Logan Wallace: I mean, you give your keys to someone you hardly know, they stand in one room and welcome in a bunch of complete strangers, and those people just roam around the house. And the realtor doesn't check the house when it's done, right? They just... turn the lights off and go?

I feel like this was basically the pitch for this film.

And it looks great. There's pretty, atmospheric woods and streams close by. Inside the house and despite its huge size, there's still a sense of claustrophobia and tension, where shots are often made teasingly wide with room for someone or something else to appear. There are tense, slow pans toward doorways, as if it's us creeping around the house, either being stalked or doing the stalking.

It sounds good too, with a suitably sting-filled and moody score. From a visuals and "general vibe" point of view, The Open House works.

But here comes the "but"... for what amounts to a home invasion movie, there's so much thrown at us (the big deal made about Logan wearing glasses! A friendly/over friendly local! The neighbour who may or may not have Alzheimer's! The plumber! The estate agents! The mysterious death of the father!) so many details and red herrings that when the reveal finally does come, it feels too small to be satisfying.

This is streaming on Netflix now (obviously. Though I'd recommend The Ritual more).

*Does anyone else have that thing where you can't rest until you remember where you recognise an actor from? I have it SO bad and it's a curse!

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Stuff (1985)

I've never really given much thought to The Stuff, but this artwork gave me a flashback to seeing its VHS cover as a child and feeling repulsed and fascinated - a vibe I still chase to this day, within the genre!

Anyway, The Stuff, written and directed by Larry Cohen, is a satirical, campy, if slightly untidy B movie sci-fi/horror/comedy.

The "stuff" in question is a mysterious creamy dessert that's taken America by storm. The pink and purple signature colours and neon are seen everywhere: billboards, delivery trucks, street vendors... as well as sexy TV commercials and its claim of "Enough is never enough!".

A few people are rightly convinced that something sinister is going on, though. We have David 'Mo' Rutherford (Michael Moriarty), an industrial espionage expert hired to find out about this enigmatic product; Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), an advertising executive who up until now has been peddling it to the masses; 'Chocolate Chip' Charlie (Garrett Morris), the face of another once-popular snack whose business got swallowed by the Stuff grabbing so much market share; and a young boy by the name of Jason (Scott Bloom) distrustful of the creamy goo after witnessing it moving around his fridge on its own, then being forced to run away from home when his parents and brother (played by his real brother: they both have crazily striking blue/green eyes!) all go nuts and try to attack him.

At one point Jason comes home to find all other food in the house tossed in the rubbish, and his mother serving a huge dish of Stuff to the family, in a bizarre take on a family dinner. 

Where did this delicious and dangerous treat come from, though? We're never told. The closest we get is in the opening scene, with an old geezer finding it oozing up from a hole in the ground. He tastes it(!) and decides that it's delicious enough to sell. Then it's back to present day (in 1985) with the immersion of the dessert into everyday culture and Stuff-induced mind-control of the population well underway.

We follow the aforementioned group of level heads as they travel around trying to uncover what the Stuff actually is, and then attempting to get the word out about its dangers. Their adventures even have them crossing paths with Paul Sorvino, chewing the scenery up as a military dude.

Effects are either goo or body-horror based, taking the form of practical (upside down and miniature sets, crazy fake heads, and just plain ol' pumping the stuff into and through things) and CGI (now laughably dated looking green screen). There are some inconsistencies with exactly how the Stuff affects a human body; sometimes people appear to bleed it when attacked, and others appear to be empty vessels after the alien pudding has left them. This isn't the worst thing in the world (this is a B movie after all) but it's a bit confusing.

I'm pretty sure I used to conflate this and The Blob, for obvious reasons, and it's not unlike it, of course. But the 1980's Blob brings nastier gore and a sense of its substance being actually dangerous. The Stuff, despite clearly turning people into zombies and occasionally (and far too seldom) oozing its way out of bodies, never really feels like a palpable threat in the moment. Everyone is obsessed with the it, but ultimately the tide turns in public opinion and we're even shown riots against it, by the end of the movie?! It got one thing right: humans are fucking fickle.

The slightly chaotic plot seems to be the result of edits made from the original cut. Formerly longer than its now 87min runtime, edits were demanded to help with pacing. And help the pacing it did... only, it sacrificed anything the film ever had in the way of the art of crafting a story. Whereas presumably the longer cut fleshed out character decisions and actions, this version bounces speedily from one sequence to another with no time to lose!

According to Cohen the studio still wasn't too happy with the finished film, despite the cuts:
"New World wanted a straight-up horror film, and, in retrospect, The Stuff had more comedic aspects to it than the executives were perhaps expecting. They thought they were going to get a flat-out horror movie with a lot of gore and scares, and we made a film that was more satirical and had a lot of humour and commentary in it."

He's right, this definitely plays as a silly satire with occasional nasty moments, rather than an all-out "let the bodies hit the floor" horror movie. And that's cool! It's perhaps better viewed in company rather than alone, as it's so nonsensical it'll have you exclaiming out loud as it all plays out. Even the score sounds like it would be more at home on a chirpy Spielberg movie than this.

Streaming on Shudder at time of writing. Watch while eating something creamy!