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Elemental Horror

Evil_Dead_2013_BloodRain[Warning: this review contains some plot detail, though it doesn’t give away much more than the trailer]

While devotees of Sam Raimi’s 1982 classic might question the need for a remake (in much the way I do with Brian de Palma’s Carrie) there is plenty to admire in Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead (2013), an homage that reworks more than it copies, all the while maintaining the spirit of the original.

After a lurid prologue, the film begins as expected, with a group of young friends arriving at a secluded woodland cabin. It’s a reunion of sorts but also, in a new twist, a period of rehab for one of the characters who’s long been struggling with addiction. The exposition in this section is clunky, the characterisation negligible—but none of this really matters. Once the evil tome in the cellar is unearthed and its fatal incantation read aloud, the viewer is in for a superlative ride.

The film’s third act is one of bodily transformation and transgression where we witness most of the characters, possessed one-by-one, perform acts of almost sacrilegious violence upon others’ and more shockingly, their own bodies.
The young recovering addict attempts to purge her body of evil by taking a shower in boiling water. Another slices part of her own face off with a mirror shard. At the end of this act, there’s not much left of anybody; most of the players are dead or beyond redemption. The film seems to be approaching a logical end, yet there are surprises in store.

The fourth act sees an unexpected change of protagonist and the escalation of the horror to an elemental level. Blood rains from the sky. Lightning strikes. Flames fill the cabin. Chainsaws and doppelgängers are given free rein. Given what’s come before, none of this seems ridiculous or hyperbolic; the extremity of the third act demands the ante be upped in the fourth.

While there are films that pursue the gruesome mindlessly and gratuitously, there are those like this one that pile it on with an operatic intensity that’s exhilarating.  The star of this show is horror, pure and simple.

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Carrie – The Musical

Carrie program

Carrie program

On Friday I went with the friend I first saw Brian de Palma’s Carrie with in high school, to the Australian premiere of Carrie – The Musical. It did not disappoint!

Fans of the novel which propelled Stephen King to fame as well as de Palma’s iconic work will appreciate this intelligent and absorbing interpretation from independent music theatre company Squabbalogic. Playing in the intimate surrounds of Sydney’s Reginald Theatre (a little like your living room, if your living room had tiered seats and a small group of musicians tucked to one side), the production emphasises psychological story over horror spectacle. It’s tonally rather similar to those other musical tales of misfits, Hairspray and Grease, but never loses sight of Carrie’s much darker trajectory as a character. Hilary Cole is terrific in the lead role.

My retrospective review will appear in RealTime in early 2014. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend Squabbalogic’s production.

The Australian premiere season of Carrie – The Musical runs from November 13-30 at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney.

Carrie_ticket

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Patrick

Patrick_MarkHartley[This review was originally written for Filmink magazine]

The biggest challenge faced by anyone who makes a film about a comatose erotomaniac with psychokinetic powers, is that of maintaining a sense of urgency and dynamism when the chief antagonist remains in a persistent vegetative state. It’s a challenge Richard Franklin didn’t quite meet in his memorable yet not entirely satisfying 1978 thriller Patrick; this remake from Mark Hartley, however, ensures through expert manipulation of atmospheric horror that Patrick’s malevolent presence is palpable throughout. If anyone should know how to deploy horror effectively, it’s Hartley, director of documentary cinema histories Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010). His awareness of the devices of 1970s and early 80s genre cinema is very much on display here in his first fictional feature.

Though ostensibly set in the present, with incorporation of smartphones and social media, Patrick is in most respects a period piece, stylistically redolent of late 70s Argento in its reliance on Gothic spaces and Catholic paraphernalia, the exploitation of reflective surfaces and the frozen, rather fetishised quality of its death scenes. An extravagant score from Pino Donaggio (Don’t Look Now, Carrie) further enhances this retro quality, as does retention of some of the 1978 version’s florid dialogue. The original Patrick boasted Robert Helpmann and Julia Blake as the sinister Doctor Roget and Matron Cassidy; Charles Dance and Rachel Griffiths are worthy successors in Hartley’s version, while as Nurse Kathy Jacquard, the unfortunate object of Patrick’s affection, Sharni Vinson displays the sympathetic vitality that made her a such a memorable horror heroine in You’re Next (2011).

Hartley isn’t afraid to camp it up with lightning, mist and picturesque gloom, but he knows how to use these classically rather than as gratuitous clichés. Patrick is everything a remake should be: not a slavish copy, but a work which, through a deep appreciation of the original, forges its own identity.

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Sinister

SinisterThere are films which fizz with a malignant energy: Sinister (Scott Derrickson, 2012) is one of them. Its very narrative is spun around the idea of malevolent footage, in the form of a collection of horrific Super 8 home movies. These family vignettes transform inexorably into snuff films before the shocked gaze of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who stumbles across the cache in the course of researching a recent unsolved family murder.

As in the Ring films, the movies within this movie are imprinted with an indelible evil which will harm those who view them. Sinister heightens the audience’s dread by replaying the toxic fragments again and again, revealing a little more each time as Ellison rewinds and pauses in an attempt to discern an elusive killer. The deeper he delves, the more evil accretes. A hissing, throbbing, voodoo-inflected track sounds each time a film is played. This soundtrack complements and jars, its warped, upbeat fuzziness a fitting aural counterpart to the images onscreen. Together, these elements are responsible for Sinister‘s distinctive, abrasive texture—one of its defining features.

Sinister uses shocks sparingly, depending more on a sense of creeping unease. Time often feels slowed down, as in the home movies, or during a lyrical sequence towards the end of the film where Ellison walks down his hallway, shadowed in turn by a number of dead children. While its monster is depicted perhaps a little too explicitly, the film is generally too assured to succumb to horror cliché. Reflecting the experience of its main character, played with conviction by Hawke, this is an intensely focused, almost claustrophobic film. There’s no escape from these images.

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A Night of Horror 2013: Crave

CraveThough I found myself a little unwell on the last weekend of Sydney’s annual horror film festival, I’m glad I summoned the strength to see Crave (2012), a thought-provoking thriller from the US directed by Charles de Lauzirika.

Initially taking on the guise of a laddish rom-com, Crave is a slippery film which lulls us into a false sense of security before pulling the rug from under our feet. Its protagonist, Aiden, is a crime scene photographer angry about the violence his work confronts him with, as well as his inability to effect change both universally and within his personal life.

This set-up might lead you to expect a dark drama about vigilantism, but Crave is more concerned with emotional immaturity and the dangers of over-indulging in fantasy. For this reason, its rom-com element, though a little protracted and irritating, is perversely appropriate. Aiden is in some ways a romantic comedy archetype, the essentially lovable but unlucky guy for whom we hope change is in store. It’s interesting to see the way in which the film subtly chips away at this archetype while still employing the narrative arc of the rom-com. Josh Lawson, a broadly appealing everyman with whom audiences empathise, was an intelligent choice for the lead role.  [Interestingly, the last time I saw Lawson was as the romantic lead in a bona fide romantic comedy, The Wedding Party (Australia, 2010), reviewed rather unfavourably for RealTime here.]

Lawson is supported by an impressive cast that includes fellow Australian Emma Lung, Ron Perlman and Edward Furlong, all of whom bring a degree of  dark complexity to their characters. However, in this film where romance, comedy and horror intersect in a manner more discomforting than entertaining, it’s the seemingly inoffensive Aiden who really confounds us, though the warning signs were there from the beginning.

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Notes from A Night Of Horror 2013: Thale

thaleAs I write, Sydney’s annual horror film festival, A Night of Horror, swings into its second week. It’s a thrill to be sampling some of the world’s newer and more unusual horror, and though I’ll only be watching a few films this time around, I’ll certainly share what I’ve been looking at.

The first feature to capture my imagination was Aleksander Nordaas’ Thale (Norway, 2012). As festival director Dean Bertram sees it, Scandinavian horror is just beginning to explode onto the global scene in a way similar to Japanese and Korean horror in the late 80s and 90s, with each culture bringing its own distinctively unsettling material to the genre table.

Thale takes as its inspiration the seductive huldra of Scandinavian folklore, a mysterious woodland figure with flowing hair and a tail who resembles both beautiful woman and wizened tree (from what I can gather). The film is notable for its assured cinematography, the arresting clarity of its images and its attention to visceral detail. Nordaas is adept at creating the sort of space, both physical and psychological, which hints at horrific happenings. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite follow through on this stylistic promise, with the result that the first part of the film lags and becomes repetitive. It’s difficult to sustain tension in an enclosed space with three characters, and Thale doesn’t possess the plot twists or dynamic characterisation to succeed in this respect (see The Devil’s Rock [2011] for a similarly low-budget film which does).

Still, like its fellow Norwegian film The Troll Hunter (2010), Thale knits together elements of horror and Norse mythology deftly, and it’s always exciting to see the horror genre extended into hitherto uncharted territory.

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Fever Pitch: Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever

Cabin Fever (2002): detail from film poster

Cabin Fever (2002): detail from film poster

I watched Eli Roth’s plague-ridden first feature over the Christmas period, when I was feeling a little poorly myself. This was possibly not a good idea. Though not as assured as Roth’s notorious second film Hostel (2005), Cabin Fever (2002) is tensely paced with an abundance of the sort of skin-crawling moments which testify to its creator’s grasp of the grosser end of the horror spectrum.

cabin_fever_

Roth knowingly launches his narrative with the familiar horror template so cleverly mocked in Cabin in the Woods, wherein a group of obnoxious young urbanites embark on a trip into the wilderness. There’s the alpha male, his sexually confident girlfriend and their friends: a more demure young woman, a more sensitive guy and the obligatory buffoon (played with superb jackassery by James DeBello). As per the rules, the group stop off at a local store where they rub various backward, creepy locals up the wrong way, before arriving at an isolated and suitably rustic destination. The scene is thus set for Bad Things to happen. Soon enough, misfortune appears in the festering form of a local hunter suffering from what looks to be a combination of ebola and rabies.

Much of what follows is visceral horror which resonates with the viewer in an excruciatingly personal way. Without elaborating, a scene in which one of the young protagonists shaves her legs had me wincing long after the film had ended. Cabin Fever excels in seizing upon a disgusting idea and carrying it through to its logical conclusion. You can see most of its shocks coming, yet this inevitability heightens the horror. It’s like knowing your worst fears are going to come true.

cabin_fever_bath

Cabin Fever might be rough around the edges, with underdone characters and patchy performances, but its creation of disgust and a sympathetic hyper-sensitivity within the viewer is second to none. Its revulsion clings to the memory in a way that the horrors of many similarly themed films do not.