WICKED WITCHES is a prime example of how to nail an opening scene, as the film’s protagonist, Mark (Duncan Casey), is introduced flawlessly without even saying a word. Mark’s marriage has just imploded for reasons which are never fully explained and, in my opinion, don’t need to be. The quiet devastation that Casey conveys as he removes Mark’s wedding ring and throws it away is captivating enough. In need of a place to stay, he finds a room for rent at an old farm which was the site of many parties during his school years; one of his old mates, Ian (Justin Marosa), is even living there now! How perfect! While viewers will immediately notice Ian is super creepy, Mark is simply happy to see a familiar face during this tough time.
I liked this initial premise as it’s basically a twist on Get Out where the lead not only has more reasons to let their guard down, but is simultaneously dealing with a recent emotional hardship. As a result, it’s easier to understand why Mark takes longer to recognise Ian’s behaviour and keeps staying at the farm in spite of it. Besides, there’s other weird stuff happening anyway, for instance, the women Mark sees around town are all blank-faced and silent yet seem to be watching him carefully. Meanwhile, he constantly has nightmares of being chased through woods by demonic women. As I mentioned above, there are few horror tropes more satisfying than watching tension slowly build around an oblivious character, particularly when set to an ominous, Stranger Things-esque score as heard here.
However, things quickly go downhill for Mark and the film when a group of his other mates arrive at the farm to relive their youth with drinks, drugs and dancing. Ian brings the mysterious women who are soon revealed to be demons or witches or ... something? Seriously, that’s how much backstory WICKED WITCHES gives to its eponymous characters; we don’t even find out how their supernatural powers work, let alone their origins. Regardless, any tension or semblance of plot devolve into mindless, distractingly cheap-looking gore as the partygoers are slaughtered. In fact, I swear an extra literally puts their arm inside of their shirt to simulate it being ripped off. Given the Pickerings clearly lacked the budget or technical proficiency to employ convincing VFX, the decision to have these gory sequences comprise almost the entire second half of the film is baffling. I was left with the impression that at this point, WICKED WITCHES stopped being a horror film and started being one about how women are evil creatures seeking to control and destroy men.
Although I originally believed the depiction of Mark’s divorce had been limited to his perspective to maintain pacing, it feels more deliberate and vindictive based on his subsequent encounters with women. In case his recurring nightmares were too subtle, the only line spoken by a female character throughout WICKED WITCHES (a character who, by the way, remains unnamed) emphasises that they have been out to get him all along: “we’ve missed you, Mark”. Even if this misogynistic message was somehow not the intended interpretation of the film, it’s unacceptable and the direct result of the Pickerings’ script leaving out too many details. After a slow but not discouraging first half, it still amazes me that WICKED WITCHES was ultimately botched to such a degree. There will surely be horror fans out there who can get something out of its adherence to tropes, but it’s hard to imagine many viewers will be left satisfied by it.
2018 | DIR: FULVIO SESTITO | STARRING: RYAN CARNES, JORDAN HINSON, CLAUDE DUHAMEL, DON STARK, MARTIN SENSMEIER, MILTON CHEE, PETER STORMARE, DEE WALLACE | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
As far as Chris is concerned it’s complete bunkum, so he sets off with his camera operator, Brent (Claude Duhamel) to the heartland of UFO believers; a convention somewhere near Roswell, New Mexico. Here he meets Emily Reed (Jordan Hinson) who claims that every seven years since her seventh birthday, aliens have come for her and spirited her away for experiments before returning her to Earth (it’s as though an outer-space Michael Apted is making an extra-terrestrial version of 7 Up). Of course, Emily is about to have her 28th birthday, so Chris decides to tag along, despite her initial poor impression of him, and record what happens.
What follows is a series of strange and ominous encounters, firstly with Bill (Don Stark) the overly friendly (not fooling us for a minute!) convention organiser, and then with the slightly kooky Lucille (a great little cameo from Dee Wallace) who has in her possession what she claims to be an alien artefact. Then, when Chris and Brent are out on a lonely desert road at night their car hits something (or did something hit their car?). When they pull over to check it out, Brent thinks he sees aliens coming for them, but Chris is still not convinced. It’s a good, scary moment as Brent tries to get the hell out of there while Chris tries to stay firm in his scepticism. Of course, the audience is not in much doubt about what we think they saw, but this is a film where not everything is as it seems, and maybe there’s a trick or two up Sestito’s sleeve that we haven’t guessed.
This is a well made and tight little film that for most of its narrative keeps us engaged and, to a certain extent, curious to know what will happen next. Sestito directs with confidence and restraint and the screenplay by Marc Porterfield and Thomas Warren (from a story by Sestito, Warren and Rebecca Berrih) is well paced and full of interesting characters. Despite Chris and Emily being on opposite sides of the alien abduction debate, there’s a sweet little romance that slowly builds between them and as we get closer to Emily’s 28th birthday we can see that Chris is concerned for her even if he doesn’t quite believe her story. There’s a bit of a strange and unnecessary tangent late in the day when Emily leads Chris and Brent to a local Native American leader, John Greatbear (Milton Chee) who conducts a peyote ceremony that gives the filmmakers the opportunity for some hallucinatory effects but not much in the way of narrative progress. This scene stalls the story for a bit, but fortunately, things get back on track before too long and we find ourselves in a good place again in time for the climax. I don’t want to give away what happens next, suffice to say there’s a big change of gear and the film opens up to some great production design and art direction by Kino Scialabba and Traci Hays respectively.
Carnes and Hinson are good together as the two main characters on opposing sides of the central premise and the rest of the cast are uniformly strong with the highlights being the brief appearances by the three more seasoned actors – Don Stark, Peter Stormare and the ubiquitous Dee Wallace. But rest assured, they don’t overwhelm the younger actors. Instead they provide a strong underpinning for the more youthful, fresh-faced performances that make up the bulk of the movie.
Beyond the Sky is both an entertaining, enjoyable ride through some of the quirky landscape of UFO culture and a sweet little romance where our heroes have to face a few challenges that are (excuse the terrible pun) out of this world.
BEYOND THE SKY is released on DVD via Eagle Entertainment on 11/09/2019.
The second great idea is that a mystical stone has fallen to Earth from space; a stone that has the power to transport those in grief back in time to the moment they lost a loved one and to offer them the opportunity to save their life. But caveat emptor, this power comes with tricky little ‘monkey’s paw’ kind of twist.
Of course, these two ideas converge in the muddled narrative of SILENCIO and that’s where things start to fall apart.
In the aftermath of the missile crash in the Zone of Silence, Research Scientist, James (John Noble) and his assistant Peter (Nic Jackman) are trying to recover the cobalt 57 when they stumble across the strange space stone and carry it back to their lab for tests. Weighed down by grief over the death of his daughter, her husband and his two granddaughters, James accidently touches the stone and is instantly transported back to the scene of the roadside accident that took his family’s lives where he manages to save one of the two granddaughters.
Ten years later, that granddaughter, Ana (Melina Matthews) is a Psychologist and single mother with a young son, Felix (Ian Garcia Monterrubio). One day, a regular patient, Daniel (Michel Chauvet) tells Ana that he is in communication with the dead; specifically, her sister Lisa (Lucy Paez) and that she has a message about the space stone. Meanwhile, Grandfather James is in some kind of non-specific brain sleep, but never fear, ghostly Lisa knows how to revive him, which is just as well, because nefarious forces have hired a young thug (Hoze Meléndez) to strong-arm James in order to get hold of the stone. It seems everyone wants that stone, including Peter (now played by Rupert Graves) who is still a friend of the family. And that’s just the set up!
It’s a shame that writer/director Lorena Villarreal has stuffed so many competing elements into her screenplay. Not only do they ultimately cancel each other out in terms of their struggle for screen time, but the level of exposition required to explain the convoluted supernatural and extra-terrestrial forces at work defeat even seasoned actors like Noble and Graves. In the end, the battle of ideas is won by the space stone, rendering the whole Zone of Silence story (and, for that matter, the film’s title) redundant, but by then it’s too late to re-focus us enough into the time-travel-cheating-death narrative to make the film’s ending work. This confusion in the third act is exacerbated by a sudden burst of unexpected graphic violence which seems both unnecessary and out of character with the rest of the film. Again, this is a real shame, because it eclipses the very tantalising dilemma that Villarreal presents Ana with as the story reaches is climax. It’s a great twist that’s lost in the shuffle.
To their credit, Matthews, Noble, Chauvet and Graves make as much of a fist as they can with the material they’ve got to work with, but in the end, even strong performances can’t untangle the messiness of too many ideas and not enough direction.
This all probably sounds familiar in the post #MeToo, #TimesUp world, but this story happened well before Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were outed for their reprehensible behaviour towards women. The assaults in question took place between 1991 and 1993 but it’s probably a story you’ve never heard. Why is that? Well, that’s the question that Minh Collins sets out to answer in his documentary ROCKING THE COUCH.
The ‘couch’ in question is, of course, the ‘casting couch’ the meaning of which, in case we didn’t know, is explained to us by actress Kim Johnston Ulrich along with a little bit of history about the term and its use in old Hollywood (apparently it was first used in an article in Variety in 1937). But, unlike most of the women in this documentary, Kim’s not here to share her story of falling victim to Wallace Kaye. She’s here as the wife of a Casting Director to reassure us that her husband and the majority of male Casting Directors today don’t behave like Kaye, but are honourable respectful men. It’s a curious, seemingly redundant moment in the documentary, but it’s not the only one.
A substantial part of this film’s short running time (65 minutes) is devoted to material that, at best, is peripheral to the supposed thrust of the subject matter. We have ‘LA Criminal Defence Attorney’ Stephen G Rodriguez popping up every ten minutes or so to provide definitions of the relevant laws and terminology, and to make the distinction between sexual assault (which is a crime) and sexual harassment (which is not).
And if you’re wondering why we get so much focus on Rodriguez when he seems to have no connection to the Kaye case, then perhaps it’s explained when his name pops up in the credits as one of the film’s producers. Or there’s ‘actor/producer/writer Pritesh Shah who gets enough screentime to tell us that he’s been propositioned many times by aspiring actresses (some of them married!) who’ll do anything (anything!) to get into his next film. Of course, he never takes advantage, but the point that some women go looking for this treatment is made. And finally, there’s the decidedly strange inclusion of several spots devoted to an executive producer named Ikon Barenbolm (shot in a bar with a glass of wine in hand) who tells us, amongst other things, that some women make these kinds of accusations in order to gain notoriety or for revenge or for other reasons that have nothing to do with actual assaults. Perhaps these moments are there in the interests of balance, but to my eye they serve to do little more than undercut the genuine stories from the many courageous women who confront the cameras to reveal their distressing experiences to us.
Ostensibly, it’s these women’s stories that the film is meant to be about, inorder to expose the details of the Wallace Kaye case and ask why it didn’t garner more public outcry and galavanise Hollywood to act against this kind of professionalised sexual misconduct twenty-five years ago; why it took the Weinstein and Cosby cases to prompt some sort of positive action. Much of the blame is laid at the feet of the Screen Actors’ Guild for its reluctance to act or respond to the accusations made against Kaye and for the general industry disinterest in addressing the issue. But, in the end, Rocking the Couch doesn’t really offer much in the way of analysis or insight. Instead, what we’re offered are the often graphic testimonials of women who encountered this kind of sexually predatorial behaviour from Kaye and others, often illustrated with stock footage and recreations of intimate situations and scantily clad women that seem to undermine their stories with imagery that’s more titillating that informative.
This, combined with so much irrelevant, peripheral information and the inclusion of voices that suggest that some women might make this stuff up, brings nothing new to the table with regard to an important and very current social and political issue. Instead of adding to the argument, it takes advantage of it, using footage of both Weinstein and Cosby as a kind of springboard for its own benefit and, in doing so, misses the opportunity to bring some kind of benefit to the movement that would see these stories be more like that of Wallace Kaye – a thing of the past.
Jeb’s team of new writers provides the story with a good balance of character types that we’re pretty sure (given the title) won’t all make it to the closing credits. There’s Raven (Persia White) a successful young adult fiction writer who has a touch of the ‘goth’ about her and on whom Jeb has a slightly obsessive crush. There’s Jeb’s old buddy Clark (Demitri Goritsas) who’s a bit of a hack and is dealing with both a drinking problem and marital troubles. In the ‘hunky pin up boy’ category, there’s Billy (Christopher Wolfe) who doesn’t seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer, and there’s Natalie (Caitlin Gerard) the privileged self-centred daughter of a network bigwig. And bringing up the rear is the sweet and motherly Joan (Melinda Lee).
We know from the outset that Jeb is a little unhinged, but the extent of his weirdness quickly escalates as he progressively plants cameras around the house to satisfy his voyeuristic intents and when he gets a call from the producer types that they’re losing confidence in his ability to deliver what they want, Jeb goes off the deep end. And it’s here that, for me, the film starts to go off the rails (or amps up into hysterical mayhem, depending upon your tastes).
Up until the half-way point, Matthew Ward’s screenplay has a taut and compelling tension to it with just the right amount of quirk to make us feel like we’re watching something more than a run-of-the-mill cabin-in-the-woods type of thriller. Peterson is compelling on screen and, in the first two acts, manages to elicit some sympathy to go along with our general abhorrence of his character. Likewise, the rest of the ensemble find genuinely interesting journeys through the screenplay and the direction from Ward and Justyn Ah Chong makes great use of the multi- level house and the multi-cam voyeuristic surveillance to keep us on our toes if not on the edge of our seats. For me, the last really enjoyable moments in this film are those that we get when Jeb goes home to his religiously fanatical mother, a nicely unbalanced performance from Sondra Kerr Blake whose television pedigree goes back to the sixties and the seventies with roles in shows like Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Mission Impossible, The Rockford Files and more. But then the gory violent stuff takes over and we find ourselves in a more meat-and-potatoes killing spree as Jeb decides to make a different movie with a bit more bite than Amy and the Aliens.
What we lose from this point until the end is that cleverer underlying understated threat that sits beneath almost every scene in acts one and two, replaced by more obvious and predictable fare in the third act. We also lose our connection with the great idea that these creative minds are here to crack the nut of the failing ratings for their cartoon series. The opportunity to tie the horror of the story’s end into some unexpected, bizarrely successful outcome for the show is completely missed. Having said all that, the end isn’t actually bad, it’s just not as enjoyable as the set up, so if you can live with the disappointment of its more mundane predictability, then the first half or so of the movie is well worth your time.
It’s interesting to note that American Killing started life with the title Wichita (the reference is unclear to me) for a 2016 release at the Santa Fe Film Festival but is about to resurface with its new name and a new release on DVD.
There is a plot to AVENGEMENT but it's altogether a little too mundane to highlight in much detail but the gist is that Adkins is an ex-boxer who gets himself into a spot of bother with local kingpin Craig Fairbrass (always nice to see the square-jawed one on screen) and ends up in the shovel and pick but comes out looking for bones to grind to make his bread. There's no elaborate heist, no convoluted plans, it all feels working-class. Homely, even. The action happens in your local pub, not a Wall Street penthouse. It happens in underpasses, not in elaborate villas on the Mexi-Cali border. Imagine Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrells meets Ken Loach. Kinda.
So, then, if the plot is a little rote what is it exactly that seperates what appears - from the outside anyway- to be just another British gangster piece peppered with flamboyant slang and grotesque claret-spilling? Well, mostly it's Adkins. With his gold-plated chompers, his scarred-up face and shaved head, let alone the catastrophe he wrecks on his victims, he has to work hard to get our sympathies on-side, but that's exactly what he does.
Keeping it's feet squarely on the ground by making AVENGEMENT feel home-grown it allows all the mayhem and the subsequent heart-string tuggy stuff seem more visceral, not least of all when it comes to Adkins growing thespian dexterity. Lumping all the credit on success squarely on Adkins doesn't give Johnson his dues though. Between his frightfully efficient penmanship of the script and his adept hand at building an action sequence he keeps things rattling along at quite the clip. Indeed, even though AVENGEMENT clocks in a super-lean 85-minutess it feels shorter still. More than that, however, Johnson knows that velocity alone does not a good movie make and he wisely buys time for Adkins to knead the dough of remorse and regret allowing the film to slow down and rise again when it's time to crack skulls. And before you read it again, yes, that is a bakery-themed metaphor.
All in all the ingredients are present, one or two efforts more in the calibre of AVENGEMENT and with any luck it'll throw Adkins and Johnson into the limelight, which is exactly where they should be. Now, Hollywood, stop messing around and sort it out.
A category 5 hurricane bears down on Florida with the entire state in evacuation mode. Fearing for her father, Hayley (Kaya Scodelario) ignores all warnings and drives beyond the road blocks to find him. He is trapped in his cellar with a broken leg and unbeknownst to her, he is surrounded by two enormous alligators. Now stranded together the father and daughter must outsmart an increasing number of vicious man-eaters as water levels rise and time is running out.
It is the familiar story that we've seen time and time again - whether it be people trapped in a supermarket with sharks (Bait) or tourists stuck on a boat surrounded by a crocodile (Rogue) – and yet while exploiting the rules CRAWL also ignores many, dishing up a terrifying 87-minutes of horror the likes of which have scarcely been seen since Jaws shocked us into submission over 40 years ago.
French director Alexandre Aja cements his place amongst the masters of horror with this latest creature feature, returning to the frivolity that he relished with Piranha 3D, while revelling in the riotous suspense that propelled him to fame in Haute Tension. He is fast becoming one of my favourite master-craftsmen and gives cause for celebration with each gnarly treat that he offers.
CRAWL immediately speaks to my love of classic sound-stage exterior set-ups, with the submerged neighbourhood being thrashed by gale force winds, torrential rain and raging waters. It is a glorious production design, which grants Aja complete control over his environment and allows for a larger than life backdrop of impending horror. With his story being mostly confined to the crawlspace beneath a house, he has crafted a terrifying tale of survival with little room to move.
Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper share top billing and give wholehearted performances under gruelling circumstances. Both of them understand the genre and what it takes to hold their audience by the throat. Their rapport is sincere, allowing them moments of dramatical depth during their desperate bid to overcome their prehistoric adversaries.
Director Aja refuses to keep his monsters hidden in the murky depths and he brings them to life with impressive CGI, augmented with practical design. His gators thrash, chomp and tear their way across the screen without pause, making for one of the year's most intense and thrilling movie-going experiences. Much can also be said for a music design that goes unnoticed, and I struggle to recall any of its cues. This is to the credit of Max Aruj and Steffen Thum, whose score is so integrated with the horror that it all blends into one horrific exercise of endurance.
See CRAWL on the big screen if you can, and hope for a large audience. To be in the clutch of a master is akin to being at the mercy of a rollercoaster. It is a scary, thrilling and entirely fun adventure of a movie that you will want to line up and ride again... and again!
Beginning with a wonderful animated opening sequence director Pamela B Green emphasises the significance of Guy-Blaché's story through a collage of filmmaking history. Green is a title-sequence animator by trade and she applies her craft with precision to rewind through the years, from today's big budget blockbusters back to the birth of Hollywood, the early years of Fort Lee and the birth of motion pictures. It is an effective and seemingly expensive introduction to her film, which then turns to talking heads from some of the industry's leading figures.
Alice Guy-Blaché was a pioneer and one of the first filmmakers to explore fiction and fantasy through celluloid. Working at the same time as the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès (amongst others) Guy-Blaché would turn over a staggering amount of films - exceeding 1000 - few of which survived (150 to be exact), and she made groundbreaking achievements that the history books attribute to men. She was the first female to own a major studio (The Solax Company), as well as being the first filmmaker to feature an entirely African American cast of players. Her achievements were insurmountable and informed cinema as we know it, and yet her place in history remains unknown to most.
Narrated by Jodie Foster, featuring notable Hollywood figures such as Catherine Hardwicke, Julie Deply, Diablo Cody, Peter Farrelly, Peter Bogdonovich, Ben Kingsly and Gale Anne Hurd amongst the many, BE NATURAL emphasises the lack of acknowledgement within the industry and attempts to reeducate with an abundance of archival footage, family accounts and investigation. Like a classic Hollywood mystery, the documentary is thrilling, captivating and entirely compelling. Pamela B Green's enthusiasm is ever present, albeit a little self indulgent. She has not unearthed some massive scandal, as the gist of the narrative would have you believe, but rather she has picked up the pieces from where others left off and reassembled them into a coherent modern document... to maximum effect.
The amount of footage, including so many scenes from Guy-Blaché's films, is incredible and Green takes us on a journey towards restoration and preservation. The talking head guests share insight into Guy-Blaché's techniques to highlight how they have informed modern cinema, and the process of tracking down her descendants makes for an entertaining point of intrigue.
BE NATURAL is a must-see for all self-respecting cinephiles and ought to be shown to every film student throughout the world. The history of cinema is full of forgotten legacies and Alice Guy-Blaché's story is possibly the most important of them all, which in turn, makes Pamela B Green's film obligatory by default. See it.
Of course, Ash is an inveterate phone-recorder of moments like these, hence we have this footage to establish the central character tension of the movie. It’s a device that was used (more effectively I’d have to say) in Cloverfield (2008) allowing us to ‘witness’ backstory to characters that has a bearing on the ‘present day’ story.
In this film, present day is a year later. The brothers haven’t spoken in all that time. Mark’s business has failed, their parents have lost most of their money and Ash isn’t happy about that at all. Still, Mark is about to marry his girlfriend Stephanie (Olivia Vadnais) who’s arranged for Ash to meet with his estranged brother in a Madison coffee shop. Joining Ash is his wingman, Donny Donovan (Andrew Yackel) a wannabe youtube hero which means he’s wielding a video camera the whole time. And the last member of what will become our band of heroes, is intrepid online reporter Tessa Monroe (Jennifer Andrada) who’s in Madison to cover a protest which is quite quickly quelled by the appearance of tanks and soldiers in force. As Tessa tells her viewers, free speech is under threat in Madison and what happens in this small town could soon be the fate of the entire country.
It seems that writer/director Aaron Garrett wants to give us more than just an urbanised shoot-‘em-up here. He clearly has some genuine political and social points to make, using an exaggerated, fictional situation to offer a cautionary tale about how easily our freedoms and liberties can be crushed by a reactionary government backed up by a powerful military force. Underscoring his story is a group of characters who have a complex set of emotional entanglements and personal desires that make them more than just pawns in the running gun battles as they look for a way out of town. At times, it’s reminiscent of the first act of Red Dawn (1984) except that here the enemy is their own people. The low budget makes it difficult for Garrett to stage more impressive citizen protests or military responses which often leaves scenes felling a bit empty but, for the most part, the film makes do with what it’s got and the human stories at its heart allow us to forgive the shortcomings in its action sequences.
The dilemma of the found footage film is always how to piece together the random bits of shakey-cam imagery into a coherent narrative. For the large part, this is achieved by taking advantage of the ‘news reporter’ character and, of course, the ‘selfie-driven’ generation, although the constant image of characters with one hand raised to hold up phones or video cameras wears a bit thin after a while. There’s an additional perspective introduced later in the film when Garrett himself pops up as a kind of citizen-guerrilla-soldier who joins forces with our heroes. His bodycam brings a new and refreshing camera style to the mix.
The performances are mostly strong, especially Andrada as the reporter, Yackel as the chaotic and self-centred Donny Donovan and Garrett himself as Roland, the citizen soldier, and there’s an interesting twist towards the end than means the final scenes don’t quite go where we think they will. It’s an ambitious project on a number of levels and whilst it might not succeed at every turn, it has a good crack at injecting a bit of social and political conscience into what could have easily been just another humdrum action flick.