Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Last Exorcism

Year: 2010
Director: Daniel Stamm
Screenplay: Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Ashley Bell
Running Time: 99 minutes
Genre: Horror, supernatural, mockumentary

Summary: In present day Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Fabian) is an evangelical preacher who is beginning to lose his faith. He has also performed a number of exorcisms, despite not believing in demonic possession or in any benefits of exorcism itself. Deciding to quit, Marcus invites a documentary film crew, consisting of producer/director Iris Reisen (Bahr) and cameraman Daniel Moskowitz (Adam Grimes), to record his last exorcism in order to expose exorcism as a fraud. He responds to a letter from a devout farmer, Louis Sweetzer (Herthum) who believes that his sixteen year old daughter Nell (Bell) is possessed. Travelling to the remote Sweetzer farm, Marcus performs his usual fake ritual, complete with special effects. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is not the end of the matter as Nell's condition worsens and Marcus comes to believe that they may be dealing with real dark forces.

Opinions: This movie is shot in a kind of "mockumentary" style similar to films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2007) and Paranormal Activity (2009), with a shaky hand-held camera. This method tens to be pretty contorverisal with some poeple likeing the technique and some people finding it alomost unwatchable. Personally I think if it is done well it can really add to the veracity of the movie. The problem is that it is a technique that has been overused so much in recent years. It works quite well here but the ever-present music score really detracts from the impact of the documentary technique. The film has a slow build-up which makes the horror all the more effective when it does arrive. The largely unknown cast do well in their roles, but the real standout is Ashley Bell as the tormented teen, going from sweet farm girl to contorting, dead-eyed killer (incidentally Ashley Bell is double-jointed and did all the contortion scenes herself without any special effects). The main problem with the movie is that it lacks originality and provides very little that horror fans won't have seen before. The worst part of the movie was the end, and the final twist just really did not work. There is enough good stuff here to make it worth watching but there's not much worth going out of your way for.

Ashley Bell in The Last Exorcism


Year: 2010
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Screenplay: Brian Nelson, from a story by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Chris Messina, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O'Hara, Geoffrey Arand
Running Time: 80 minutes
Genre: horror, supernatural

Summary: In present day Philadelphia five complete strangers enter an elevator in a modern high-rise office block. However, the elevator becomes trapped between the floors. As the security and maintenance staff struggle to release the trapped passengers, the occupants experience intermittent power failures and find that, while they can hear their would-be rescuers through the intercom system, they are unable to be heard by anyone on the outside. As the tension between the passengers increases, a series of bizarre and violent events begin to happen in and around the elevator. As the police, who are investigating the suicide of a man who jumped from the same office block earlier that morning, are called in, it soon turns out that everyone in the elevator has their own dark secrets. In fact it begins to appear that one of the occupants of the elevator is none other than the Devil himself.

Opinions: This film forms the first of a projected trilogy called The Night Chronicles that deals with the supernatural in modern, urban society. The movie is a very effective horror thriller. The supernatural elements are downplayed for the most part, with most of the events in the movie seeming at first to have a completely non-supernatural rationale. Most of the horror and tension comes from the very real fear of being trapped in a confined space with potentially hostile strangers. Also the fact that most of the crucial events in the elevator take place in complete darkness works well. The film alternates between the plight of the trapped passengers and the increasingly desperate attempts of the security, maintenance staff and police in trying to free them. The mostly unknown cast all do well in their roles, and there is a real feeling that anyone can die at any time. A few of the climatic revelations can be guessed well in advance but there are still more than enough surprises to keep this a well-above average shock show.

Calm before the storm: Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O'Hara, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green and Geoffrey Arend in Devil

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Angels & Demons

Year: 2009
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: David Koepp and Akiva Goldsmith, based on the novel by Dan Brown
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Armin Mueller-Stahl
Running Time: 146 minutes
Genre: Thriller, mystery, adventure

Summary: In the Vatican City, the Pope has just died and the College of Cardinals prepare for the papal conclave to vote a successor. However the four 'preferiti' (the most likely candidates to be elected Pope) are kidnapped before the conclave enters seclusion. Additionally a vial of antimatter is stolen from the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. The kidnappers reveal themselves to be members of a secret society known as the Illuminati and threaten to kill one cardinal every hour and at midnight to use the highly explosive antimatter to destroy the Vatican City. The Vatican call in well-known symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) and Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) from CERN to solve the Illuminati's coded threats, save the prefereti and find the stolen antimatter.

Opinions: This movie was based on the bestselling novel by Dan Brown first published in 2000. The film is a sequel to the hit 2006 movie The Da Vinci Code, which was also based on a Dan Brown book. Incidentally, although the film is a sequel to the film of The Da Vinci Code, the novel of The Da Vinci Code is a sequel to the Angels & Demons novel. This film provides more running around an exotic location, deciphering ancient codes. It's a fun, slickly made thriller which improves on the film of The Da Vinci Code by tightening up the pace, although as with the earlier film the pace does suffer from the necessity to stop and explain the plot and background, which is much easier done in print than on film. However the short time frame and strong threat mean that the tension is always there. Howard directs with a sure hand and manages to get a lot of mileage out of the Vatican and Rome locations. Tom Hanks puts in his usual solid perfomance, reprising his role from The Da Vinci Code and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer is engaging as the female lead. Ewan McGregor appears as a Northern Irish priest and doesn't manage to maintain his accent for the whole movie. As with the earlier film, there was some controversy due to the religious elements but the film is neither anti-religious or anti-Catholic. As with the earlier film, while you're watching it you do get the impression that you might be learning something from it but it is improtant not to put too much faith in the film's accuracy in either religious or historical matters.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The Frighteners

Year: 1996
Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson
Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace-Stone, Jake Busey and Chi McBride
Running Time 110 minutes, and a 122 minute director's cut.
Genre: Horror, comedy, thriller, supernatural

Summary: 1995 in the small town of Fairwater, USA. Once successful architect Frank Bannister (Fox) is now an alcoholic, selfish con-man who operates a scam as a psychic, although he can actually see ghosts following the death of his wife (Angela Bloomfield) in a car accident five years previously. Frank gets his three ghostly friends, Cyrus (McBride) a 1970s era black gangster, Stuart (Jim Fyfe) a 1960s era nerd and The Judge (Astin) an Old West gunslinger, to haunt people's houses forcing the occupants to call Frank who will then "remove" the ghosts for a fee. However Frank becomes aware of a supernatural force that is randomly killing innocent people in the town, also he can see which people are destined to be killed by the force. With the help of a sympathetic doctor (Alvarado) Frank attempts to stop the killings, while also being hunted by a dangerously paranoid FBI agent (Combs) who is convinced that Frank is behind the deaths.

Opinions: This film was originally conceived as a feature film spin-off of the television series Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996) however the film's executive producer Robert Zemeckis, who also produced Tales from the Crypt, was so impressed by the script that he thought it would work better as a stand-alone film. Despite being set in the US, the film was shot entirely in Jackson's native New Zealand with the plentiful special effects being supplied by Jackson's Weta Digital special effects company. The movie mixes multiple references to horror movies old and new with Jackson's distinctive fast-moving style. It also has an impressively quirky cast including such cult actors as John Astin (star of the TV series The Addams Family (1964-1966)), Jeffrey Combs (star of Re-Animator (1985)) and Dee Wallace-Stone (who appeared in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the original The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Howling (1981)) and features a hilarious cameo from R. Lee Ermey as a ghostly version of his demented drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket (1987). The movie is a good one with plenty of imagination and a real verve to it all. At times it veers too wildly between horror and comedy, but mostly it achieves the difficult balance pretty well. The special-effects were really spectacular for their time and are still impressive today, even if the computer generated effects are looking dated now (in movies nothing ages as badly as special effects).
By the way cameo fans, Peter Jackson appears as the bearded rocker who accosts Frank when he comes out of the newspaper offices.

Stuart (Jim Fyfe), Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) and Cyrus (Chi McBride) have a haunting experience in The Frighteners

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Judge Dredd

Year: 1995
Director: Danny Cannon
Screenplay: William Wisher, Jr. and Steven E. de Souza, from a story by Michael De Luca and William Wisher, Jr. and based on characters created by Pat Mills, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, Diane Lane, Rob Schneider, Max von Sydow and Jurgen Prochnow
Running Time: 96 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, action, adventure, thrller, crime

Summary: In the third millennium, the Earth has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Most of the inhabitants live in vastly overpopulated Mega-Cities, seperated by huge expanses of largely uninhabitable desolation known as "Cursed Earth", populated by small bands of brutal, cannibalistic outlaws. Law and order in the crime-ridden Mega-Cities is enforced by heavily armoured Street Judges who have the authorisation not only to enforce the law but to act as judge, jury and executioner, with the power to hand down a variety of sentences such as heavy on the spot fines, imprisonment in remote penal colonies or summary execution.
In Mega-City One, which occupies the east coast of the USA, the top Street Judge is Judge Joseph Dredd (Stallone). However, when a murderous ex-Judge (Assante) escapes from a penal colony and returns to Mega-City One, Judge Dredd finds himself accused and convicted of a murder he didn't commit. With the help of fellow Judge Hershey (Lane), and a cowardly computer hacker (Schneider), Dredd attempts to prove his innocence and uncover corruption that reaches to the top of the Justice Department.

Opinions: Judge Dredd first appeared in 1977 in the pages of British science-fiction comic-book 2000 AD and remains one of the most popular comic-book characters ever produced in the UK. It is fair to say that the film is only very loosely based on the comic-book, and the movie did have a very bad reaction from fans, most notably because of the fact that Dredd spends most of the film without his trademark helmet, in the comic Dredd very rarely removes his helmet and even when he does, his face is never shown. Also the movie ignores several important elements from the comic series, for example there is a kind of romantic element between Dredd and Hershey when in the comic romantic attachments between Judges (or between Judges and anyone else) is strictly forbidden. The movie also lacks a lot of the quirkiness of the comic.
Despite the fact that the film was mostly panned by critics and fans of the comic, the movie itself really isn't that bad. It is a mid-'90s science-fiction action movie no better and certainly no worse than many that were released at the same time. The special effects while they obviously look dated by today's standards are still pretty impressive, and there are some great effects in the film such as the Mega-City itself and the look of the deadly ABC Warrior Robot. Sylvester Stallone does what he does best providing gravel-voiced one-liners and muscle-bound action-man heroics. Max von Sydow lends the film some dignity and gravitas as Dredd's mentor. However on the negative side Rob Schneider drags the film down with misplaced comedy-relief. It makes it hard to maintain much drama, tension, suspense or excitement when they pop in Schneider to make a bad joke and drain away the drama like water when the plug is pulled from the sink. It also suffers from Armand Assante over-acting like a pantomime villain, really the only think he didn't have was a moustache to twirl.
It's a fun movie, it looks good, there are some fun action scenes and it is often entertaining, but it has been done better elsewhere. It's a pity really, because it is something of a missed opportunity. There could be a great movie made from Judge Dredd, but this isn't it.

"I never broke the law... I AM THE LAW!"
-Sylvester Stallone in Judge Dredd (1995)

Sylvester Stallone lays down the law in Judge Dredd

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Quatermass and the Pit

Year: 1967
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Screenplay: Nigel Kneale, based on his 1958 television serial
Starring: James Donald, Andrew Kier, Barbara Shelley, Julian Glover and Duncan Lamont
Running Time: 97 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, horror, thriller

Summary: London, the late 1960s. Extension work on the Underground station at Hobb's End is interrupted when a number of humanoid skeletons are discovered which indicate that human-like creatures were around on Earth much earlier than previously thought. However the resultant archeological dig headed by Dr. Roney (Donald) and his assistant Barbara (Shelley), discover a large metal object which is immediately assumed to be an unexploded bomb form the Second Worls War and an Army bomb disposal team is called in headed by the hawkish Colonel Breen (Glover) along with Professor Bernard Quatermass (Kier), head of the British Experimental Rocket Group, who has previously clashed with Breen over Breen's plans to use the Rocket Group to establish military bases on the Moon. During the investigation of the object, they discover it has various bizarre and dangerous properties, add to that the fact that evidence suggests that the object and the skeletons have been there for five million years. Linking the object to the unusually high number of apparently supernatural phenomena that has been observed in the area throughout history, Quatermass makes a shocking discovery about the nature of human life on Earth and discovers that the object is not nearly as dormant as it appears.

Opinion: This movie was made by the legendary Hammer Film Productions and was the third of their films based on Nigel Kneale's acclaimed Quatermass television serials. The other two were The Quatermass Xperiment (1955, based on the 1953 TV serial) and no, the spelling of "experiment" is not a typo that is how it appears in the movie title as a joke on the "X" ceritficate the producers expected to receive, and Quatermass 2 (1957, based on the 1955 TV serial).
The movie deals with a theme which Kneale returned to over and over again in his work, namely science-fictional explanations for apparently supernatural or paranormal activity. It also deals with the "ancient astronaut" theory which was quite fashionable in the late sixties and seventies. The ideas of the film are developed very well and it manages to maintain a good balance between ideas and action, especially in the last half hour where things really kick into gear. The television serial is often considered the best, and is certainly the best remembered of the Quatermass adventures.
The movie is a good adaptation of the show and follows the storyline pretty closely and, despite having only half the running time the series had, Kneale manages to effectively lay out his themes and provide plenty of room for character development. It's well directed by veteran director Baker with a strong sense of place and the performances are all good. Wisely, the movie doesn't concetrate too much on it's special effects, although one brief but key scene really does suffer from inadequate effects (even by the standards of the time) although it's not exactly a show-stopping flaw.
The serial is one of the masterpeices of television science-fiction and it is well served by this movie, which is one of the best of the Hammer films. Definitely recommended. By the way, in the USA the film was re-titled Five Million Years to Earth.

Barbara Shelley, James Donald, Andrew Kier and friend in Quatermass and the Pit.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

District 9

Year: 2009
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenplay: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope and David James
Running Time: 112 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, action, thriller

Summary: In 1982 a large alien mothership appears in the skies over Johannesburg, South Africa. Inside the ship are a large number of sick aliens. Despite causing a lot of tension with the humans (who derogatarily refer to the aliens as "prawns"), the aliens are housed in an area of the city dubbed "District 9", which is intended to be a temporary refugee camp vut soon turns into a permanent slum. Twenty-eight years later, the private military company Multinational United (MNU) is hired by the Government to forcibly relocate the 1.8 million aliens in District 9 to another camp outside the city. An enthusiastic young MNU employee, Wilkus van der Merwe (Copley) is appointed to lead the relocation with the serving of eviction notices to every alien home. However, while in District 9, Wilkus accidentally sprays himself with a mysterious alien fluid. Shortly afterwards he begins to undergo a bizarre transformation. Hunted by the police and MNU, Wilkus' only hope for survival lies in District 9.

Opinion: This South African film is produced by acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson and, despite a fairly modest budget and largely unknown cast, became a fairly sizeable success worldwide. The movie was adpated from Blomlamp's 2005 short film Alive in Joburg, and both the title and premise of the film are inspired by events that occured in District Six, Cape Town during the apartheid era. The movie is filmed in a documentary style with a large use of hand-held cameras, talking-head style interviews and footage apparently taken from television news reports and CCTV cameras. Despite the modest budget, the film features impressive and imaginative special effects, many of which were supplied by Jackson's acclaimed Weta Workshop. The movie has many important themes to do with racism and xenophobia, but it manages to not let the message get in the way of the entertaining action. The cast are impressive, with Copley in particular managing to take a character who initially is pretty unsympathetic and yet make him engaging for the audience. Interestingly, the character becomes increasingly likeable and humane the more his humanity is taken away.
The movie is most interesting it's first half, certainly from a science-fiction point of view, becoming more and more conventional shoot-em-up action-adventure and chases as it goes along. However it is always entertaining and, at it's best, is one of the highlights of recent science-fiction cinema.

The movie contains quite a lot of fairly graphic gore and violence. It also features a lot of strong language throughout.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Singing Detective

Year: 2003
Director: Keith Gordon
Screenplay: Dennis Potter
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito and Mel Gibson
Running Time: 109 minutes
Genre: Drama, crime, thriller, mystery, musical, fantasy

Summary: In the present day United States, Dan Dark (Downey Jr.) is an author of pulp detective stories centering around the character of the "Singing Detective", a private detective in the 1950s who moonlights as a singer in a rock 'n' roll band. Dark is in hospital with severe psoriasis and is in constant pain and unable to move. To escape his situation he reworks the plot of his first book, imagining himself as the Singing Detective and people from his own life as the characters. In the hospital he often escapes into surreal musical fantasies and experiences disturbing memories of his childhood. As Dark's paranoia and bitterness increase, reality and fantasy begin to collide.

Opinions: This film is an adaptation of Dennis Potter's controverisal and hugely acclaimed 1986 miniseries The Singing Detective. The movie attempts the almost impossible task of effectively condensing a six hour television series into a one hour forty nine minute movie. The film updates the story from 1980s England to 2003 USA, and the fantasy sequences (and musical numbers) are updated from the 1940s to the 1950s also the name of the lead character is changed from Philip Marlowe (played by Michael Gambon) in the original. Dennis Potter, who died in 1994, had been very enthusiastic about the idea of a film version and the script had been circulating around Hollywood for a long time with various directors including Robert Altman and David Cronenberg, and actors such as Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino attached at different times.
The thing is that despite the film being savaged by critics, it isn't really all that bad, it's fast moving and entertaining with most of the themes and incidents of the original cropping up, it also features some good performances from a talented cast (including Mel Gibson looking almost unrecognisable as a bald psychiatrist). The problem is that it feels rushed. Lacking the time that the TV series had, various parts of the story just feel rushed, for example the "Singing Detective" mystery just seems abandoned part way through and the childhood memories which are a key part of the story or reduced to just a few brief scenes. The thing is that the film is frustrating because so much of the show survives that it just makes you miss the show.
By the way, if you've never seen the 1986 series dio yourself a favour and check it out as soon as possible.

"There are things in that book, doc, that are reaching out to grab me by the throat."
- Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) in The Singing Detective

Sunday, 5 September 2010

"The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes" by Neil Gaiman

Year of Publication: 1991
Number of Pages: 238 pages
Genre: Horror, fantasy

Summary: The Sandman is Morpheus, also known as Dream, one of a family of immortal beings known as The Endless. After decades of being trapped by an evil occultist, a severely weakened Morpheus escapes but finds that his realm, The Dreaming, is in ruins. However, to restore order to his world and the dreams of humans, he needs to regain his tools which were stolen from him: A helmet, a pouch of sand and a ruby. In his quest to regain them he teams up with cynical occult detective John Constantine, has to fight a super-powered psychopath and enter Hell itself.

Opinion: This book is the first compilation of stories from the classic comic book The Sandman, collecting issues one to eight. Now, The Sandman is one of the greatest comic book series of all time, blending horror, fantasy, past, present, history and mythology with dark humour to create a genuinely powerful, artistic and literate saga. It's fair to say though, that this book does not present the best of The Sandman. It's fairly obvious that they weren't sure at this point in which direction to take the story, and it is very much a horror comic. That is not to say that it is not good though. The stories are imaginative and well written and the artwork (by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III), while not as good as it would later become in the series, suits the stories and provides plenty of memorably grotesque images. This is the best place to start off your Sandman experience, aside from introducing the character, the storylines echo throughout the rest of the series. Fans of DC Comics will probably enjoy the appearances from other characters from the DC Universe, such as John Constantine (from the Hellblazer comics, and the 1995 movie Constantine where the blonde Englishman was played by the dark-haired American Keanu Reeves) and there is also a brief appearance from Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow, (from the Batman comics).

"Never trust a demon. He has a hundred motives for anything he does... ninety-nine of them, at least, are malevolent."
- The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

30 Days of Night

Year: 2007
Director: David Slade
Screenplay: Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson, based on the comic book by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Manu Bennett, Mark Boone Junior and Mark Rendall
Running Time: 113 minutes
Genre: Horror, action, survival, vampire

Summary: The small town of Barrow, Alaska, is the northmost town in the United States and every year experiences thirty days of total, twenty-four hour darkness. On the last day of sunlight, while many of the residents leave the town to escape the month long night, the town experiences unusually severe occurances of vandalism as the town's power supply and communications are shut. Following a disruption in the local bar, the town's sheriff Eben Oleson (Hartnett) arrests a mysterious and violent stranger (Foster). Oleson is also surprised to discover that his estranged wife, Fire Marshal Stella (George), is trapped in the town after missing the last flight out. As soon as the darkness takes hold, the town is swept by a series of brutal murders. It turns out that they have been overrun by a tribe of vampires, led by the philosophical Marlow (Huston), who have been drawn to the town by the month of perpetual night. Soon, Oleson and Stella find themselves with a small group of survivors who have to survive thirty days in a small town overrun by hungry and unsleeping vampires.

Opinion: This movie is based on the three-issue comic-book miniseries 30 Days of Night, written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith, which was published in 2002 and subsequently followed by several sequels. The movie itself is fun if not particularly special, being very firmly in the "small group of people trapped and surrounded by evil" school of survival horror. The film's main twist on the vampire mythos is the fact that the humans are denied the one main advantage they have in other vampire stories i.e. the fact that vampires can only go out at night. Here there is only night. This makes the movie more similar to zombie movies such as Night of the Living Dead (1968). The film's main problem is that it lacks variety becoming stuck in a fomula (they go out, are attacked by vampires, they escape and go back), and the action, though well done, becomes repetitive, particularly in the middle on the film. The vampires in the film are interesting, they are much stronger and faster than humans and are very resiliant they are also given their own language. The movie is well performed by an effective cast and well directed by David Slade, who made his name with the controversial thriller Hard Candy (2005) and returned to the undead with The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010).
The film was followed by a straight to DVD sequel called 30 Days of Night: Dark Days.

"When man meets a force he can't destroy, he destroys himself. What a plague you are."
- Marlow (Danny Huston), 30 Days of Night