Saturday, June 29, 2019

Cherry Tree Lane (2010)

Not NW10...

This is an English movie, even if one variation of the artwork clearly shows an American-style house and a white picket fence. It's actually set in North West London, and was written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams (another of his horror outings was darkly comic The Cottage).

That's... better...?

Cherry Tree Lane reminded me of both Funny Games and Eden Lake, and though it's neither as cerebral as the former nor as devastating as the latter, it still manages to be pretty riveting and successfully create tension with "only" a mostly one-room setting and a lot of dialogue. 

It never truly reaches heights of being scary (or at least, it didn't for me) but home invasion is always going to be unsettling... and here the invaders are not dramatic, masked, silent ghouls of unknown motive; they are loud kids with bad attitudes, little empathy, and when it comes to leader Rian (Jumayn Hunter, who actually starred in Eden Lake also) a real streak of cruelty.

The plot couldn't get much simpler; married couple Christine and Mike (Rachael Blake and Tom Butcher) settle down for an evening in - if I had one complaint, it was that the setting up of their dislike for one another was done so painstakingly, we were led to believe something would happen later to explain this, but it doesn't - and while they're eating dinner, a group of teens ring the doorbell and push their way into the house, taking the pair hostage. They say they want to speak to Sebastian, Christine and Mike's son. He's due home within the hour and they're going to wait. They assault Mike to subdue him and tie both up with gaffer tape.

What follows is a slow, stressful climb in unease as time passes, tempers fray and cruelties heighten. Much is done with off-screen violence, using the classic "we'll just have you hear what's happening and imagining far worse than we could ever show/afford to show" to great effect. Screaming and thumping reverberate through the house on a couple of occasions, and it makes up the nastier moments of the film as both the audience and other characters grimace and think about what's happening.

Even though this is a white middle-class couple up against working class kids, it never particularly feels like A Statement On Class. Honestly it feels more straightforward than that. It feels real in the sense that you can imagine Sebastian (whom we wait the entire runtime to see and barely catch a real glimpse of, a touch that I liked) is a mouthy little shit who acts like he's a big deal and got caught saying the wrong thing about the wrong person. I have known people like this - I think we all have. 

As nasty as Cherry Tree Lane gets, it never feels over the top. There are also some stand-out singular moments and shot compositions; watching one of the gang browse the DVD shelf in slow motion, tossing them aside, and the appearance of Christine in the foreground towards the end.

This one was a bit of a grower, but ultimately it left me feeling satisfied that I'd checked it out. I've been feeling pretty uninspired by horror movies of late... or locked into a perpetual scroll of streaming services through fear of wasting time on something shitty. There's so much shit out there! This piqued my interest - the clincher being it runs less than 90mins - and I'm glad it did. Oh, and anyone remember UNKLE? They did the music!

Cherry Tree Lane is currently streaming on Tubi! Honestly, Tubi is making me re-evaluate some life choices. It's free, their catalogue is MASSIVE and even if you have to wade through some crap, they have gems hidden in there too. 

I'd recommend giving this a spin if you want a short, sharp, English take on home invasion.*

*I feel I ought to say, however, CW: sexual assault. It's handled without exploitation, or lingering on the abuse like many movies tend to, but heads up that it happens here. 

Monday, June 03, 2019

Brightburn (2019)

Brightburn is clunky with exposition, light on character development, and even if jump scares catch me out occasionally, they still make me roll my eyes... but this movie is still hugely fun and worth your time.

While never reaching heights of what I'd call a "great" horror movie, it has enough wallop where it counts; notably with its gore and willingness to go further than you're probably expecting it to.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Ritual (2017)

I fancied watching this again recently, and I'm really glad I did. Spoilers incoming!

Based on a novel by Adam Nevill, directed by David Bruckner (who co-wrote and directed Amateur Night in V/H/S and The Accident in Southbound) this Netflix movie takes us deep into dark Swedish forests with a group of friends.

Dom, Luke, Phil and Hutch.

Tension exists between these men, as we find out that Luke (Rafe Spall) carries a heavy burden of guilt for not stepping in during a violent attack which opens the film. The knowledge they all have of Luke essentially standing by as their friend Robert (Paul Reid) was killed hangs heavily over the beginning of their trip. We see Luke wake from a nightmare about the murder, and throughout our time with him images ripple through his reality of the trauma from that night.

These scenes are some of my favourites, as imagination and reality/fabricated building interior and forest mesh so effortlessly and organically together. It's incredibly impressive and extremely disconcerting. It reads very much like something out of a dream, where details and settings bleed together in a singular landscape.

On the night Rob died the lads were trying to decide where to go on holiday together, and now, six months later they find themselves hiking as a tribute to him (as he'd originally suggested it). Hutch (Robert James-Collier) is clearly the most comfortable in the outdoors, with the others joining through a sense of sad duty. These are middle-class affluent types, paying £200 for their hiking boots but neglecting to break them in before the trip. They are kind of out of their depth before they even set foot in the forest.

The turning point of events comes after Dom (Sam Troughton) gets hurt, and they make the decision to take a short-cut back to their lodge. Rather than staying out in the open, they realise with reluctance that entering the dense forest is the quickest way back.

What's up? Are you scared of the woods?

It's dark, damp, and visibility is low through the arrow-straight trees. Luke repeatedly thinks he sees a glimpse of something moving in the distance and tensions increase as pain and exhaustion take hold. Everything changes after their first night in the forest. Breaking into an abandoned cabin during a storm, they wake the following morning, nerves shredded from terrifying nightmares and sleepwalking. 

There is a palpable feeling of a dark presence infiltrating their minds as they slept, pushing its way into their deepest fears. The most alarming awakening is from Phil (Arsher Ali) who is found naked in a "praying" position in front of a terrifying headless totem.

No one, especially Phil, is ever the same after that night. Arsher Ali doesn't have an awful lot to do aside from this, unfortunately, but he gives a haunting performance as someone who can't process or escape the fear of his ordeal. Phil is shell-shocked and violated.

Similar to the "lost in the woods" idea, the stripping back of anything our characters have -  in this case: possessions, unity, sanity - is not a unique narrative approach, but in capable hands, it's so effective. The lads start with the latest gear, and end with nothing, having lost tents, party members, and a full grip on what the fuck is even going on. With a steady hand, The Ritual peels back to the terrified primal core of these characters.

The creature reveal is what solidifies the success of this movie for me. This beast is a "Jötunn", an ancient god worshiped by villagers and offered sacrifices of unsuspecting visitors to the area (their possessions dot the landscape, nature claiming them in varying degrees). In turn, the locals are granted unnaturally long lives. The things we do for eternity, eh? I did find it interesting that none of the villagers seem particularly happy, however. Their lot appears more duty and fear-fueled than actively wanting to be eternally stuck in this existence.

The design of the Jötunn is stunning, even in full view it's difficult to comprehend as it seems compromised of human and beast body parts, as well as having aspects of the forest, too. It feels profane in a way that both captivates and repels.

As Luke attempts to escape his fate of being trapped forever, this showstopping moment is captured:

If he had lost his mind then and there, who could have blamed him?

As the third act draws to a close, the warm tones of a burning village give way to a landscape bathed in dawn light. In the far distance we see a car on a road. Luke is returning to civilisation and leaving old gods behind. At least physically. He was chosen because his "pain was great" - is his pain gone, by the end? I doubt it. If anything it's deeper, along with his guilt. His primal scream at the creature stuck at its forest's edge certainly hints at a lifetime of nightmares to come. 

This movie would pair well with Blair Witch for a night's viewing, as I think they'd complement one another for a "we're lost in the woods and we're f*cked!" double bill. Tents and trees by torchlight; distant, gigantic sounds you can't identify... That kind of fear pre-dates almost everything, it's woven into our lizard brains.

The Ritual is streaming on Netflix now. I appreciated the abrupt, not-necessarily-sad but definitely not happy ending (see also: Calibre). Beautiful landscapes, old gods and flawed humans - what's not to love? Very tempted to pick up the book and see how the two compare.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Us (2019)


We're Americans.

Hi! So I know I don't tend to review new stuff. This is because I feel a weird kind of self-imposed pressure for having an opinion that's somewhat topical...! Buuut I wanted to get some thoughts down about Us. This kind of starting writing itself without me making a conscious decision. So here we are :)

Okay firstly, let's talk about this fact from the IMDb trivia page:
Jordan Peele gave the cast ten horror films to watch so they would have "a shared language" when filming: Dead Again (1991), The Shining (1980), The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Birds (1963), Funny Games (1997), Martyrs (2008), Let the Right One In (2008), and The Sixth Sense (1999).

This list does two things: reminds me that I need to see Dead Again, again, (it was a taped off the TV favourite of mine, back in the day) and it gives some clue as to the calibre of storytelling and overall atmosphere that Us was reaching for - and in my opinion, succeeds in capturing.

And honestly, those film choices simply make my horror/thriller nerd heart happy. Pun intended: Peele is clearly one of us.

I'll say no more other than what's already out there with regards to plot: the Wilson family are on holiday when doppelgängers of themselves wearing red overalls invade their summer home, intent on forcing them to take part in some kind of ritual called "the untethering".

This film just kept turning down avenues I wasn't expecting and, as ever, that's truly the best way to experience it.

Worthy of mention though are the performances from the central four: Lupita Nyong'o as Adelaide, Winston Duke as dad Gabe, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as their children, Zora and Jason. 

Instantaneously I believed in this family dynamic and all their superbly drawn little idiosyncrasies. From Winston's amusingly (and adorably) feckless father-figure, eliciting eye rolls; Wright Joseph's bored teen; Evan Alex as the "weird" little brother still into masks and magic tricks, and finally the force that is Nyong'o, whose performances are quite simply fantastic.

Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker also star as the delightfully loathsome bougie family "friends", the Tylers. They have twin teen daughters, to further the doubling/doppelgänger weirdness. Moss doesn't have much to do, but that's fine; she has a tonne of fun as Kitty Tyler, a sloppy WASP who clearly can't stand her husband or kids. The later scenes with this family are a great blend of humour and violence.

The more Us unfolded, the more I loved it. And yes, okay, I guessed a beat or two, but that didn't stop any of the gut-punch-like enjoyment as this peeled back to a story that is both brutally simple and simply brutal.

There's nothing like a shattering final shot in a horror movie, so enjoy this one while never being able to hear "Les Fleurs" the same way again.

And join me, won't you, in obsessing over the "untethered" mix of "I Got 5 On It"...

Us is in theatres now and hopefully smashing records and expectations all over the place. I recommend you go and see it, and then go see it again ✄✄✄

Argh, there's so much I haven't covered here! Partly through fear of spoilers, plus the need to sit with some of the epic themes or see this film again to fully be able to process it all. I may do a follow-up post exploring things a bit more - or at least giving links to further reading from voices better placed to comment than mine.

Bonus Jo-went-to-sleep-thinking-about-this content: