Alien: Covenant

Year: 2017
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo

Written by Jo Craig 

Met with scepticism from devout fans of earlier episodes, ‘Alien: Covenant’ divided audiences after it was unleashed onto the chopping block for worldwide cinema release. Many viewers claimed that an ‘Alien’ installment without Ripley was just another Sci-Fi rehash with Xenomorphs, along with the speculation that ‘Covenant’ left unanswered questions circling the conception of the deadly alien species and the Engineers that posed a real threat of shaky continuity. Dissecting all the conflict, JUMPCUT can hopefully shed some light on these dubieties.

‘Alien: Covenant’ joins officers Oram (Billy Crudup) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston) with their crew on-board the titular vessel as it journeys to an uncharted planet that promises sustainability for their colonial mission. Disguised as an idyllic ‘paradise’, the newly discovered planet reveals a dark infestation that threatens to compromise the mission’s success.

As much as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley will forever be noticeably missing from the line-up, as ‘Covenant’s’ events occur before the Nostromo mission, Ridley Scott has had success in finding fairly equal momentum and survival instinct mentality in his ‘Prometheus’ crew that Ripley carried fearlessly in the first four films. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw showed promise of conserving the push of self-preservation in the first prequel, showing strength in progression and the ability to propel the story forward to face greater threats in the future, before Katherine Waterston’s Daniels and her Ezra Miller inspired locks from ‘Fantastic Beasts’ undoubtedly failed to deliver the same values.

Ridley’s third outer space squad provided some fresh energy from Danny McBride’s Tennessee that offered distinct likeability to bestow faith in, however the rest of the crew appeared to serve no purpose other than tasty bait for far superior predators and a healthy extension to the franchises kill count. Leads Daniels and Oram spent most of the film dick-measuring, giving two capable actors incredibly stale roles that overruled any impressive leadership qualities. A vacant on-screen relationship between Waterston and Crudup fractured any connection the head officers were meant to possess, meanwhile Daniels and Tennessee’s relationship bellowed charisma that failed to get a glimmer of attention until the conclusion which by then was too little, too late. James Franco’s anticipated cameo as captain was cut short to the bewilderment of viewers, annihilating a component which could have supplied another dynamic addition to this weary feature.

On a higher note, an integral part of ‘Covenant’s’ storyline is refined droid Walter and his encounter with ‘Prometheus’ survivor David, Walter’s predecessor cyborg. The preordained plot takes a detour during their meeting as we learn what David has been involved in during the ten years between the two films and to what lengths he has gone to for answers. David’s detective work advanced the franchise to greater heights as it side-lined the accustomed action in the foreground to address the deeper question of creation. Who created the Xenomorphs and for what purpose? ‘Covenant’ also introduces a new breed of Xenomorph named Neomorphs, a livelier form of alien that further aids the mystery behind the Engineers.

Despite Scott wasting no time in establishing his classic oppressive ambience against a stunning display of Australian scenery that stimulates the films tension, a series of predictable outcomes and a rather shaky final showdown were both the fatal acid poured onto a once unique hypothesis. ‘Covenant’ and its big question of creation is ultimately the influence that could have lifted this second prequel into the Sci-Fi hall of fame, but instead this opportunity to delve deeper was flooded with time-wasting characters and a lot of infuriating faffing about. Scott sets emphasis on the two droids whose morals become the key fascination to the narrative, but is diluted by a sense of desperation to churn out violent sequences to keep audiences engaged.

For die-hard fans of the franchise, like myself, ‘Alien: Covenant’ provided a solid fix of Xenomorph action whilst addressing a biblical subtext that added an intriguing continuation to Ridley Scott’s original concept, but fell short at supporting this development by focusing on a rudimentary storyboard. With Scott slipping the title of his next Alien film ‘Awakening’ in an interview with Fandango, stating: “It will go ‘Prometheus’, ‘Awakening’, ‘Covenant’ [and] “If [Covenant] is successful, and then [Awakening], then there will definitely be three more.”, we can guarantee that one of the greatest loved Sci-Fi chain’s will be delivering exciting space chases for years to come, providing ‘Awakening’ has audiences running back for more at light speed.

Jo’s rating: 5 out of 10

The Ritual

Year: 2017
Directed by: David Brückner
Cast: Rafe Spall, Sam Troughton, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali, Paul Reid

Written by Jo Craig

The Halloween film reel for 2017 has a diverse line-up for fright night enthusiasts as they countdown to the witching hour by entertaining a robust array of compelling features, including the anticipated return of ‘Jigsaw’ and British / International horror ‘The Ritual’. Underdog geezer Rafe Spall teams up with ‘VHS’ contributor David Brückner to supply our preliminary fix of adrenaline on an idyllic Friday the 13th release.

The Art House labelled chiller follows a group of four friends who come together for a hike through the Nordic wilderness as a farewell gesture to their fifth companion Robert (Paul Reid) who suffered a sudden and merciless death back on British territory. Travelling with raw emotions and unspoken issues, the lads experience unexplained occurrences during a detour through the forest that test their friendship, sanity and resilience.

If a story began with the bright spark of a wandering pack deciding to take a shortcut through the woods, the ending could be predicted faster than the ‘screamer’ of the group would be killed off. However Brückner’s fourth major production unexpectedly supplies a mountain of weight behind an incredibly misleading trailer depiction that suggested we were in for a Danny Dyer-esque black comedy. With the exception of free-flowing banter cascading over a solid introduction, the plot is quick to address an underlying psychological narrative amongst creepy forest events, acting as an anchor to an otherwise recycled horror with inflated ideas that surface in later plot points. The subtle wit keeps our interest active in the lead up to the shit hitting the fan, but skilfully absorbs the change in tone when our focus shifts to more serious matters, unlocking insight into our characters behavioural patterns. The scares that await behind the branches have a direct relationship with the cognitive subtext, as protagonist Luke provides key scenes that present a unique interpretation of a tormented conscience that differentiates from past foreboding forest flicks.

Rafe Spall from ‘Green Street’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ glory is comfortable portraying a lively but subdued Luke, changing his manner naturally with the directors pace. Spall’s support from Robert James-Collier’s Hutch, Arsher Ali’s Phil and Sam Troughton (who remains an unnamed character throughout) offer tenacious backing and timely comic relief but never overshadows Luke’s spotlight. Spall’s portrayal of a more serious role to date shows his skills as a diverse actor, preserving his place as a household British name like his father Timothy, despite flaunting a rather mellow career. As the gang deliver a grounding performance as a unit, sporadic flickers of personal growth aid their show of individuality but bare their primitive instincts that clash in a calculable way.

‘The Ritual’ closely follows the traditional three act blueprint which neatly packages the storytelling as a whole and helps to contain the sudden shift into Nordic imagination with an idiosyncratic denouement which left half the audience feeling cheated. A cumbersome conclusion teetering amidst brilliance and nonsense interjected some wonder into an initially predictable outcome but consequently gridlocked a once energetic script. After thoroughly extinguishing any molecule of humour, a counterbalance of physical legwork was demanded from the actors to compensate, causing irritating and reckless decision making from the London boys we were meant to be rooting for. Ultimately the eye-rolling fantasy connotation will remain a meaty wedge between viewers, leaving some in awe and others running for the convivial atmosphere of the pub.

Aside from getting lost down mythical lane, Brückner’s adaptation of the titular Adam Nevill novel poses a delicious pick ‘n mix of nightmarish qualities with an intriguing subjective undertone, working closely with surprise producer Andy Serkis who lends his insight on embodying human suffering and enlightenment while building an unprecedented creation for a rather inferior twist. British screenwriter Joe Barton shows his strength in repartee but struggles to generate anything ground-breaking when it comes to the hard stuff, damaging what could have been the films leaven. The “holy shit” wallops relied heavily on imagination from suggestion and hair-raising scenarios that silenced any jump scares and added greater emphasis on Ben Lovett’s simple but effective score.

At its finest hour, ‘The Ritual’ carries a powerful ambience reminiscent of ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and its overbearing tension, but stumbles into amateur hour comparable to Nordic found footage escapade ‘Troll Hunter’, linking engaging character studies with tales of hyperbolic fantasy that failed to collaborate successfully in the closing thirty minutes. Exhibiting a well-equipped pursuit through a labyrinth of woodland torment, our first bite of this year’s Halloween platter by no means leaves you dissatisfied, but conclusively plays rather heavily on a taboo genre that calls for an acquired taste to enjoy. Even though the tagline suggests the boys should have gone to Ibiza, JumpCut recommends you head into the woods regardless.

Jo’s Rating: 7 out of 10

Happy Death Day

Year: 2017
Director: Christopher B. Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitkin

Written by Jessica Peña

Into the realm of fun slasher films comes ‘Happy Death Day,’ a film that shoots its way into box office mayhem, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Christopher B. Landon, the ‘Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse’ director helmed this thriller and gave it a new direction in fear we haven’t been given before. It borrows the notion of the beloved ‘Groundhog Day’ in that our protagonist experiences the same day in a continuous loop, but in this case, our protagonist is unexpectedly killed into the next (same) day. Blumhouse Productions took a stab in producing this one and it somewhat pays off.

Tree Gelbman is a self-centered, sorority girl who prances through life with the egotistical impression that she is above everyone else at her college. It’s her birthday and her dad buzzing on the the phone wakes her in the dorm bed of a guy named Carter, with whom it’s presumed she slept with the night before. Tree rushes out of the room, without a care in the world for Carter’s friendly words, and attempts to carry on her day like nothing. She avoids her father’s calls, with the hopes of not celebrating the birthday she shares with her deceased mother. As she continues her day, she’s given a homemade cupcake from her roommate, is late for class, and is on her way to a house party that evening until she is stabbed by someone bearing the mascot baby mask and is awaken back into the dorm bed. Thinking it was a hella realistic nightmare, Tree gets up and begins to notice that she may have lived this day before. As her day plays out the exact same, she’s killed once again, realizing that she needs to somehow break this cycle and figure out who her killer is.

‘Happy Death Day’ carries on with superficial college campus stereotypes. An airhead sorority queen, gnarly parties where drama ensues at the thought of who’s gonna sleep with who, an affair with your professor, and other small touches in its tropes. Set almost entirely on the college campus, the film really takes a leap of faith with its predictability. With that being said, it does have a few surprises up its sleeve. Christopher B. Landon and writer Scott Lobdell know that the audience, from the get-go, will be on the lookout for Tree’s killer. The film dances around the ideas throughout the runtime and half-heartedly fulfills it, not to say we weren’t surprised though!

We see a delightful performance in ‘Happy Death Day’ from Jessica Rothe as the collegian victim who realises the gravity of not only her murderous encounters, but also what it’s like to look at the person you have become. Rothe gave lasting performances in her day to day chances at life. Her acting saves the film enough to make it unforgettable. We see her experience almost every feeling imaginable and it begs us to just follow her in future films she ventures to. While silly as some scenes of the film may be, it plays hand in hand with the thriller’s narrative, which is pretty decent on some levels. Going into the theater and leaving it pleasantly surprised is enough to give ‘Happy Death Day’ credit where it’s due. The baby mask worn by the recurrent killer only amplifies as a staple to the film. Where it doesn’t excel in storylines, it makes up for as a film that was fun to watch.

The film carries more heart to it than one would expect. There are times when it makes us take a look at ourselves and how, if given the chance to redo things, we would fix them. Tree struggles in the beginning at being a likeable character, as she is mainly a stereotype sorority gal. Toward the middle of the film is where she grows a few redeeming qualities, and I give it tons of kudos in this department. ‘Happy Death Day’ angles at not being too full of itself and it demands to be a lasting print into the modern thriller collection.

Jessica’s Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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Flatliners

Year: 2017
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Cast: Ellen Page, James Norton, Nina Dobrev, Diego Luna, Kiersey Clemons

Written by Jo Craig

The premise of quizzical Med students prepared to temporarily stop their hearts in order to obtain scientific and spiritual research from the afterlife, is a fascinating subject to explore even twenty-seven years after Joel Schumacher’s first encounter with the intriguing idea. The uncertainty of death is a relentless “big question” and a timeless topic for debate between the man of science and the man of faith that can translate into a gripping story… if executed carefully. This fall, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev is on call embarking on his endeavour with the great beyond, uniting with an alternative cast primed with adrenaline that ultimately become smothered under the weight of an unrefined rehash.

2017’s ‘Flatliners’ introduces medical student Courtney (Ellen Page) who is deeply distracted from her studies by a festering side project; an experiment to stop her heart or “flatline” in order to gain enlightenment and provide documentation of how our brains respond after death. After recruiting a team of four colleagues who gradually partake in her growing obsession, Courtney soon realises that tempting death comes with a price that alters the lives of all who tamper with it.

Schumacher’s original nineties production became somewhat of a cult success in the later years of its existence, combining eighties stars Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon with rising star Julia Roberts in a thought-provoking plot for the start of an action-packed decade that eventually succeeded in its obscurity, much like ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. On the grounds that cult treasures should remain untouched, the news of a redo was met with catatonic dismay from the general public, as zero interest was shown towards another steroid-induced horror with overactive big kids and their inflated ego’s looking to get their jollies from breaking the rules while using the phrase “hashtag flatline”. While hashtag’s thankfully remained silent, the outcome of Oplev’s modernisation was far from a trending phenomenon.

Breaking down what initially and conclusively was a disjointed cast, indie-comedy favourite Ellen Page spends a majority of ‘Flatliners’ holding the trembling hands of her supporting cast, while by no means creating a solid performance herself. Page has been under fire for accepting a role out with her usual genre, suspecting the part of lead flatliner as nothing more than a bonus pay check. ‘Grantchester’ alum James Norton and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ sweetheart Nina Dobrev appear unsettled in their roles as hot-shot Jamie and headstrong Margo, showing uncertainty against the material they’ve been given to recreate. ‘Rogue One’’s Diego Luna provides some grounding acting opposing newcomer Kiersey Clemons who has been named “a star on the rise” that regrettably failed to shine during any point of the production. This perplexing party of five failed to push the experience or summon the compatibility to make their rebellious bond believable, jilting Page to grind the plot forward while Luna remained shackled by a smaller role.

‘Flatliners’ grasps the main concept of its predecessor, but loses all momentum in deciding where its priorities lie and what genre provides the best platform to export those morals. In 1990 we were watching a classic sci-fi horror designed to last the test of time, however our present day rendition delivers a puzzling concoction of teen drama with cheap psych thriller in a lab of glossy sci-fi tainted with hand-me-down horror; a smorgasbord of careless niche crowd-pleasing. By the third act, we as an audience are feeling alienated after a shock conclusion to the second act, winding down with a wild surge towards time of death being called and body bag filled with abolished investment.  

With only the minor works of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and ‘Dead Man Down’ under his belt, Oplev struggles to deliver the gravitas or originality to make this remake worthy of being reborn, igniting a small injection of tactful imagery and ideas that loses its novelty rather quickly. A middling script penned by ‘Source Code’’s Ben Ripley and aided by original screenwriter, Peter Filardi hindered the films progress from fully exploring the girth of such a morbid practice and the impulse that pushes each character to engage our primal need to find answers. Key scenes involving the students “flatlining” episodes could have been the window to explore the distinctive psyche of each individual, building a robust connection with our protagonists instead of being teased with an informal introduction and a limp handshake.

All in all, ‘Flatliners’ was one ceaseless beep with no thrill and zero depth, doing its cliché rounds while the audience delved further and further into a vegetative state, only showing signs of life when Ellen Page cracked a smile or when the CPR got a bit hairy. While many predict this to be the bomb of the October box office, fans of ‘The Vampire Diaries’ will probably enjoy a Sunday evening tickle, while fans of Schumacher’s midnight movie will be eager to pronounce this nineties itch dead on arrival.

An unofficial warning from JUMPCUT: Epinephrine should be administered before viewing.

Jo’s Rating: 4 out of 10

Mother!

Year: 2017
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Written by Sasha Hornby

‘Mother!’ is the latest film written and directed by American auteur Darren Aronofsky, director of ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’, about a couple whose relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home.  At least, this is what the official synopsis and trailers would like you to believe; the tagline ‘seeing is believing’ has rarely been more apt. 

‘Mother!’ is part metaphysical thriller, part psychological drama, sometimes black comedy and perhaps a little surreal mystery.  In all honesty, it defies description.  The film takes place entirely in one beautifully quaint, grand house.  Burned down at an unspecified point in history, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, ‘Mother’, has painstakingly restored the abode in which she resides with Javier Bardem’s character, ‘Him’, whilst he sits in his study suffering from chronic writer’s block.  When the ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up univited, the paradise Mother is building begins to unwind.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mother is transcendent.  Undoubtedly a career-best performance, ‘Mother!’ is her film.  Rarely panning out beyond 12 inches from her face when she is the focus, and when she isn’t, giving only her viewpoint of the world around her, the camera is her.  Her sanity and reality is consistently brought into question, and so too is the viewer’s.  In one scene, she questions Him about the supposed stranger, “he has pictures of you in his luggage”.  Instead of attempting to explain this obvious non-coincidence, he simply retorts “what were you doing in their luggage?”. There is a lot to be said for instinct, and it is natural for a person to investigate when something feels wrong or out of place; such as a man turning up at your door claiming ‘they’ told him the house was a B&B.  Him is elusive in his non-answer, twisting the narrative, and manipulating Mother to feel she is in the wrong.

She personifies introversion and anxiety – unable to leave the house she has built and unwilling to accept visitors.  As hers are the eyes through which we see events unfold, her agitation and emotional strain begin to fuse with our own, making for an increasingly intense and claustrophobic experience.  This is only heightened by the bold lack of scoring, which becomes deafening, as mundane, everyday noises scream in the background.  When she meets the Woman, the Woman observes “you really love him, god help you.”  Her love for Him is toxic.  She does everything for Him, to protect Him, to provide for Him, to support Him, without question, whilst getting very little back in return.  She gives Him her all, free from expectation; the purest of love. 

Javier Bardem is perfect in the role of Him.  He is, of course, considerably older than Mother, though this is acknowledged.  He speaks calmly, with a cool smile, and calls Mother his goddess.  He loses his ‘cool’ once – when the mysterious glowing crystal he keeps in his study is smashed beyond repair by the Man and Woman.  It will only become clear in the final scenes why he is so creepily possessive over this trinket.  In the first half of the film, he is cold and distant, consumed by his lack of life, lack of inspiration.  After one passionate encounter with Mother, he is full of life and inspiration, yet still distant, consumed with completing his finest work.  He is not an obvious villain, but a man selfishly obsessed with his poetry, his legacy. 

The Man and Woman, as played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, are deliciously devilish.  He, a dying old man looking to meet his idol; her, a cynical woman who cannot resist prying into the lives of the protagonists.  The Woman has some of the keenest insights throughout.  When a tragedy is bestowed upon her, she talks of being a mother herself – “you give and you give and you give, its just never enough”.  ‘Its just never enough’ is a recurring theme throughout ‘Mother!’.

The Man and the Woman are not the only visitors.  As events unfold, more visitors arrive to worship Him; and more and more and more.  The worship is poisonous; they are infatuated with Him, and treat Him like a deity, and Him accepts this worship as though it validates his existence.  When Mother questions “who are they?”, he answers excitedly “they’ve come here to see me.”  His ego is ultimately more important than the safety and mental well-being of his ‘goddess’.  When that moment (believe me, you’ll know it when you see it) occurs, he is still willing to forgive his followers, rather than chastise them for their abhorrent, sickening, shocking behaviour. 

If you hadn’t already noticed, no one in ‘Mother!’ is named.  This only adds to the prophetic feeling, like ‘Mother!’ is an allegory for society, for religion, for pathologically abusive relationships, for the current political climate, for war, for everything that is wrong with the world.  All showcased in one house, in one woman’s nightmare. 

One of the several trailers claims “you will never forget where you were the first time you saw Mother!”  I definitely won’t.  Never, and I mean never, has a film had me so on the edge of my seat, mouth agape, eyes unblinking, in the final act.  It is a slow burn, that at it’s crescendo, will tear you apart.  ‘Mother!’ may be the best film I won’t ever revisit; a dizzying experience that I will recommend to all at least once. 

Sasha’s rating: 8 out of 10

 

The Limehouse Golem

Year: 2017
Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Bill Nighy, Douglas Booth, Maria Valverde

Written by Abbie Eales

Set in the gloomy East End of London, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is a gory Victorian whodunnit with a gloriously twisted difference.

Directed by Juan Carlos Medina (director of 2012 film ‘Painless’) the film is based on a 1994 novel by Peter Ackroyd, “Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem”, a meta-fictional pastiche on the Victorian ‘shocker’ which interwove theatrical drama around a spate of murders, featuring real-life historical figures from Leno himself (a lauded music hall star) to the very-much-original Marxist, Karl Marx. The unusual source material has been adapted for the screen by ‘Kick-Ass’, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ and ‘Stardust’ scribe Jane Goldman, who has added additional layers to the tale shifting the action away from the famous men, and back to a female perspective.

The films starts with curtains drawing back on the stage with the words “Let us begin my friends, at the end” uttered by Dan Leno, (Douglas Booth, escaping his usual type-casting as pretty posh-boy for a wonderful outing as a cockney music hall blend of Freddie Mercury and Russell Brand) and so the tale begins to be told, shifting between flashbacks aided by voice-overs to the escalating events relating to the central story-line.

Bill Nighy plays John Kildare, a detective with a stalled career (“he’s not the marrying kind”, said with a knowing head nod) who is brought in by Scotland Yard to carry the can on the stalled investigation of a series of extremely brutal murders in the largely Jewish area of Limehouse. The murder victims have ranged from prostitutes to elderly men and children, with seemingly no pattern to the killings, other than the gruesome tableaus the murderer leaves behind.

Kildare is paired with enthusiastic native Eastender, Constable George Flood (played with some aplomb by the ever fabulous Daniel Mays), who has recently been investigating the death of a playwright, John Cree. Cree’s wife Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), herself an ex-music hall star, stands accused of her husband’s murder and will face the death penalty if found guilty. The two cases begin to interweave as Kildare finds himself fascinated by Lizzie Cree’s rags to riches tale, learning how she was abused as a child, the two outsiders become drawn together, with the detective going to desperate lengths to save her.

‘The Limehouse Golem’ is a wonderfully atmospheric, Victorian murder mystery, with a twist in the tale. Elements of Hammer horror meet scenes which wouldn’t have felt out of place in ‘Se7en’, with the odd bawdy song and dance routine thrown in for good measure. The production design is beautifully realised, with the grim and grimy back alleys of Limehouse contrasting with the grease-paint of the music hall and the splendour of Lizzie’s married life.

Olivia Cooke as Lizzie is terrific, playing on her wide-eyed innocence with some joy, drawing  us in as she recounts her tale to Kildare from her prison cell.

“You don’t need saving,” Kildare tells Lizzie. “Not by me. Not by any man.” While it is the famous men whose names initially draw the detective’s eye, this is a film about women claiming centre-stage.

Abbie’s rating: 8 out of 10

Little Evil

Year: 2017
Director: Eli Craig
Starring: Evangeline Lilly, Adam Scott, Sally Field

Written by Sasha Hornby

Horror is one of the most polarising genres – some people are staunch horror fans, watching even the most bargain basement of offerings; others will write off any film with even a whisper of horror.  Horror, when done well, reminds us of our greatest fears and has a mileage well beyond release.  Be it demonically possessed children (‘The Exorcist’, 1973), quirky strangers in backwoods hotels (‘Psycho’, 1960), big-ass sharks (‘Jaws’, 1975), or the un-dead returning from the grave (‘Night of the Living Dead’, 1968), there is a flavour of horror to tap into every phobia.  

‘Little Evil’, the latest Netflix Original release, taps into some very specific fears – those of a man finding his feet in the new role of ‘step-dad’ and those of any parent who worries their child may be the antichrist.  Written and directed by Eli Craig, the writer and director of underrated redneck slasher spoof, ‘Tucker & Dale vs. Evil’ (2010), ‘Little Evil’ falls directly into the ‘horror-comedy’ sub-genre.  It stars comedy favourite Adam Scott as Gary, a man who has just married his perfect woman following a whirlwind romance, Samantha (Evangeline Lilly).  Not all is hunky-dory though, as Gary must now forge a relationship with his creepy step-son, Lucas (Owen Atlas).  

‘Little Evil’ wears it’s influences proudly on it’s sleeve, directly spoofing classics such as ‘Poltergeist’ (1982), ‘The Shining’ (1980), and most notably, ‘The Omen’ (1976).  Lucas wears the same instantly recognisable flat cap and little short suit that Damien wears in Richard Donner’s tale of an antichrist child.  And ‘strange things’ keep happening in his presence (such as his teacher throwing herself out of a window, or his birthday clown setting himself on fire).  And lets not even go there with the sock goat he uses to communicate in a growling voice to those around him.  

In a film that is clearly more about the comedy than the horror, Adam Scott is predictably reliable.  He plays the part of concerned step-parent well, exhasperated by his new wife’s apparent obliviousness to her son’s menace.  He attends a step-dad support group in an attempt to burn his anxieties and doubts, instead only feeding them.  The support group includes Donald Faison, Chris D’Elia and Kyle Bornheimer, who are mostly fine, if a little disappointing.

Bridget Everett is the true stand-out here as AL, Gary’s work friend and member of the step-dad support group.  She is loyal, supportive, and truly funny to boot.  The fact she is a lesbian is never made the butt of a joke, and she is often the voice of action.  I’ve never seen Everett in anything prior to this, but looking at her IMDb, with roles in ‘Trainwreck’ (2015) and the recent ‘Patti Cake$‘ (2017), she is clearly and up-and-coming actress on the comedy circuit, and I, for one, am stoked about this.

The other stand-outs, though scarcely used, are Clancy Brown as the Reverend Gospel and Tyler Labine as videographer Karl.  Brown is a prolific voice and genre actor, who relishes the role of cult leader, fervishly working to open the gates of Hell and bring about the end of the world.  Labine is extraordinarily funny as the wedding videographer who fancies himself as an auteur, delivering some home truths to Gary.

Eli Craig knows his way around a horror-comedy script.  Between ‘Little Evil’ and the aforementioned ‘Tucker & Dale vs. Evil’, he is in control of his references versus originality.  At 95 minutes, ‘Little Evil’ is about the right length, though I find myself wishing there had been more set-pieces.  The final act is completely ludicrous, but so saccharine, even the coldest of hearts will be warmed.

For ardent horror fans, or those who would recognise the ‘classics’, ‘Little Evil’ will at least raise a smile as it lovingly pokes fun at, whilst simultaneously paying homage to, the icons of the ‘creepy child’ sub-genre.  Distinctly lacking in horror though, and not really as clever or subversive as some of the great spoofs before it, it never quite hits the mark.  There’s a lot to like, but don’t watch for the scares or the ‘laugh out loud’ moments; watch for the pastiche.

Sasha’s Rating – 6.0/10

Death Note

Year: 2017
Director: Adam Wingard
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe, Jason Liles

Written by Sasha Hornby

When Adam Wingard’s live-action US-set reimagining of ‘Death Note‘ was announced, I had mixed feelings.  Excitement at the prospect of another film from one of my favourite genre directors (The Guest is in my top 10 of all time, a criminally underseen B-movie flick).  But also trepidation.  The incredible source manga of the same name, written by Tsugumi Obha and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, is 2,400 pages long, and was my gateway into manga over 10 years ago.  The best adaptation (and there have been many) thus far, is the wildly popular 37-episode anime series, which is often touted as one of the best anime series, period.  The big question forming in my mind was ‘how on earth do you fit such a rich mythos into 100 minutes?’

And let me tell you now, the answer is, you don’t.  With a simplified plot, Death Note tells the tale of high school student Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who is handed a supernatural notebook, the Death Note, that belongs to Ryuk (voiced by Willem Defoe), a bored Shinigami (God of death).  As owner of the Death Note, Light has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it.  With his girlfriend, Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), he begins a vigilante quest to rid the world of evil, ending the lives of those they deem unworthy of life – criminals, mostly.  As the death toll exceeds 400, he attracts the attention of the mysterious master detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield), and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

The cast for the most part are adequate, with two stand-outs, who are both, unfortunately, underused: Lekeith Stanfield as L and Willem Defoe as the voice of Ryuk.  L is a curious man, preferring to crouch on chairs rather than sit and eating copious amounts of candy for nutrition.  Stanfield plays the character note-perfectly, never making his quirks a comedic crutch, but rather giving insight to an incredibly intelligent man most likely on the autism spectrum.  L is the voice of reason.  Comparatively, Ryuk is the voice of chaos.  Even though all Defoe lends is his voice to the character, he is at his menacing best.  In an interview with IGN, Defoe describes Ryuk as “half-mentor, half-tormentor”, and Defoe taps into that with ease.  Ryuk’s laugh in this film will stick with me for the rest of my natural-born life.

As a person knocking on 30’s door, my empathy for whiney-ass teenagers has all but gone.  And I think this is why I struggled with the central couple.  Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley do what they can with the roles they given, but somehow they felt predictable and one-dimensional.  Almost stereotypical.  He, a supposedly intelligent nerd boy, and her, a sassy cheerleader turned bad girl.  There’s a bit of a Bonnie and Clyde vibe, that is never fully realised.

The new setting of Seattle feels grounded, whilst allowing for the more fantastical elements of the story.  Pier 57 on Elliott Bay, adorned with the Seattle Great Wheel, features in two pivotal moments: a moment of love under the bright sunshine, and a moment of despair in deepest night.  It forms a iconic backdrop to the film – much the same as the Coney Island ferris wheel does in The Warriors (1978).

Director Adam Wingard has such a destinctive style that is painted all over Death Note.  From the synth-dreanched 80s-inspired soundtrack (which I absolutely loved – hurry up onto vinyl already), to the pulpy neon colours, to the ultra-violence, to the electric final act, this screams “I am a Wingard movie!”  Unfortunately, none of the elements I adore in Wingard’s work could save the film from it’s own pacing issues.  Plot point after plot point after plot point are fired in such quick succession, it is both jarring and discombobulating.  It took me a solid 40 minutes to aclimatise to the unrelenting speed – I just really wish it had been given a bit of space to breathe.

Death Note could have been a truly great American adaptation of the famous Japanese property, and more to the point, I really wanted it to be.  If given an extra 30 minutes, and stronger leads, perhaps it would have been.  My advice to fans of the source material (I count myself in this group) is to approach the film as though you know nothing, and it is still serviceable.  For everyone else, its an enjoyable, if hurried, mystical thriller.

Sasha’s rating: 5.5 out of 10

 

Annabelle: Creation

 

Year: 2017
Director: David F. Sandberg

Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Talitha Bateman

Written by Jo Craig 

It’s Saturday night at the movies, and screen thirteen (coincidence?) is packed and buzzing for the late showing of ‘Annabelle: Creation’, the latest addition to the expanding ‘Conjuring’ franchise. ‘Lights Out’ skipper David F. Sandberg keeps to his niche alongside modern horror alum James Wan in the producers’ chair, telling the origin story of the supernatural’s favourite toy.

With the announcement of ‘The Crooked Man’ and ‘The Nun’, extensions from Wan’s paranormal coupling circulating around the true accounts of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s metaphysical investigations, ‘Creation’ has been considered the catalyst in establishing ‘The Conjuring’ universe, thrilling horror fans with their own terrifying rendition of the MCU. With the gears starting to turn, New Line Cinema had a lot riding on ‘Creation’ to possess the box office and prove that their plan to create their own universe would be a success. Thankfully, they might have just done that.

Annabelle: Creation’ puts our setting in 1958, introducing Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) as a doll maker who welcomes a group of six orphans and their carer, Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman), into his home while caring for his estranged wife, Esther (Miranda Otto), affected by the death of their daughter twelve years ago. Two of the youngest orphans, best friends Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (lulu Wilson), are quick to start exploring their new home, discovering a mysterious doll that unlocks secrets within the Mullins family that have malevolent repercussions.

Aficionados of the horror genre will notice the same formula being used throughout the storyline, but with credible differences. What gives ‘Creation’ merit is its attention to detail in establishing a rational origin story (for the most part) for the titular doll and its capability to startle viewers without too many of the cheap scare tactics; there is certainly credence in Sandberg and Wan for achieving this. We also have the usual suspects of a location set in isolation and aptly timed music crescendo’s, but the films ability to effectively animate an inanimate object without bringing Chucky to mind, keeps each frightening occurrence believable by deterring showing everything and relying on the audiences imagination to fill in the imagery.

Miranda Otto’s Esther was well cast and added a freshness to familiar grounds. It was just a pity that throughout the film her character received little screen time. However, Anthony LaPaglia’s Samuel could have been written with more vigour, freeing his character from the morose and monotone demeanour. Sister Charlotte merged well with the content and supplied a key scene giving a tip of the hat to ‘The Nun’ spin-off, while polio-stricken Janice flourished as protagonist. The remaining orphans could only be described as scene-fillers and time-wasters, sequences which could have involved more of Esther and Janice had the story been tweaked slightly. 

Opinions on ‘Annabelle: Creation’ have certainly divided audiences, with Camp A saying “Shit”, Camp B saying “Pretty good”, and the fleeting Camp C going as far as saying it’s better than both ‘Conjuring’ films. While I lie in Camp B, ‘Creation’ does have one major flaw. ‘The Conjuring’ 1 & 2 both work exceedingly well because of the gradual building of unease, the supply of characters we can invest in, and one powerhouse third act. While ‘Creation’ grinds tension and boasts authentic personalities, the third act falls flat and fails to deliver the desperation for survival. We’re expecting to see all hell break loose but too busy following all the characters that are experiencing separate torment, resulting in no sense of unity, the denouement being spread too thinly and an anti-climactic conclusion. That being said, ‘Creation’ certainly explores the realms of possibilities surrounding the enticement of sinister entities and meddling with the unknown, concluding in full circle to 2013’s ‘Annabelle’, but gratefully ten successful exorcisms away from John R. Leonetti’s flop.

DoP, Maxime Alexandre, harnessed the necessary ambiance to keep things creepy and retained a rustic colour tone for the duration to match the fifty’s era and the aged craftsmanship of Annabelle. Momentum carried ‘Creation’ fluidly for the most part, however, with a near first gear tempo in the third act and a buoyant script from ‘Annabelle’ and future ‘The Nun’ writer, Gary Dauberman, Sandberg’s weaknesses started to show. James Wan works intriguing energy and pace into his films that Sandberg couldn’t quite sustain.

Scoring a 68% on the Rotten Tomatometer and a 78% from audience scores, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ has become a dark horse of horror raking in just over £35 million at the box office over opening weekend, and becoming quite the comedy icon; numerous times the laughter from screen thirteen was both unexpected and distracting. Aside from the jittery mob and their squeals of “Jesus fucking Christ”, we have a solid fourth instalment to add to our ratified ghostly cosmos. We now turn our crucifixes to ‘The Conjuring 3’ and ‘The Crooked Man’ both of which have been announced, following ‘The Nun’ already in post-production.

While it’s possible that Chucky has now been replaced as horror’s favourite marionette, at least his killing sprees didn’t hide the final thrills until after the credits rolled; an MCU trait that seems to be contagious. Stay to the bitter end guys.

Jo’s rating: 6 out of 10