The Dead Center 2019 ****

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Originality and horror films rarely go together; writer/director Billy Senese clearly has other ideas, and his indie thriller The Dead Centre transcends genre limitations to deliver a startling, arresting take on the idea of the dead coming back to life. If your idea of Halloween movies is masked killers and old-school clichés, don’t apply here; The Dead Center is disturbing, troubling fare that might fit alongside, say Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, as a low-budget movie that provides high-powered chills.

In quite a casting coup, at least in the world of indie film-making, Senese has cast Shane Carruth as a psychiatrist who discovers an other-worldly secret. Carruth is familiar as writer/director of Upstream Color, a weird and wonderful sci-fi movie that defied categorisation, and his name alone should be a selling point here. Carruth plays Daniel Forrester, a doctor in a city hospital who takes on board an unusual patient. Michael Clark (Jeremy Childs) is a father and family man who has died, yet comes back to life in the mortuary and escapes to a hospital ward. Forrester wants to ascertain what’s really happened; the dead surely can’t come back to life? But if they did, what exactly would that mean for the living? Running parallel to Forrester’s investigation is Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) who looks into the bloody mayhem that Clark has left in his path, with a spiral design left in a blood-stained bathtub a central clue as to what’s happening…

The Dead Center is a hard, tough, absorbing watch, which takes a few cues from J-Horror and from Upstream Color itself. What’s lacking, perhaps, is the sense of poetry and beauty that Carruth’s breakthrough film had in abundance, but Sense’s world is bleaker and more foreboding still. As an actor, Carruth is fine, and has a lot to do, as does Feehely, excellent in a procedural role. But it’s Childs who really breaks out here, his strong physique and Thanos-sized melon making something sympathetic and yet terrifying of his unpredictable character.

The Dead Center is a dark and worrying film that posits an unstoppable apocalypse much like the one in Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby. Such genuine, weapons-grade nihilism will put off those looking for a horror-themed drama; for those looking for the dark side, The Dead Center hits the bulls-eye.

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Fright 1971 ****

The perennially knowledgeable Kim Newman makes a great point in the DVD extras for Fright; that British critics have been quick to seek out examples of Italian horror movie, specifically giallo, and yet the reputations of strong British films of the period have been allowed to fall into disrepair.  This week’s release of restored Blu-ray versions of Fight and And Soon The Darkness should help restore the position of both films in British film history.

Fright is quite a trip; a pre-Straw Dogs Susan George plays Amanda, a young girl who takes a baby-sitting job that’s weird from the get-go; the child’s parents (Honor Blackman and George Cole) seem strangely on edge, and after they depart, Amanda flirts with being a bad babysitter when an old flame Chris (Dennis Waterman) turns up in the hope of a quick fumble.  Chris is something of a pest, and Amanda throws him out, but when she detects a presence loitering outside, she wrongly assumes that Chris has returned.

Fright seems to be modelled somewhat on Psycho; there’s a Hitchcockian feel to the parlour games here with John Gregson and Ian Bannen amongst those under suspicion. The menaced baby-sitter wasn’t yet a trope in 1971, and there’s a neat splintering of the focus between Amanda’s fortified position and the activities of the parents in a busy dance-club. A dance club in 1971 British cinema really is something to behold, with gyrating figures amongst those enjoying an evening meal. In such an odd world, it’s hardly a surprise when it turns out that there’s a maniac on the loose…

With a script by horror specialist Tudor Gates (Lust for a Vampire) and direction by the underrated Peter Collinson (The Italian Job), there’s plenty to engage horror and British movie fans here. A new interview with Susan George, looking pretty fantastic, reminds how young she was at the time; probably still best known for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, she’s a classic 70’s star, and gives a big, empathetic performance here that drives the film.

Fright is a neat, effective shocker that went down well at the time; with a spanking new restoration, Fright should set the shivers down the spines of new viewers and nostalgia freaks alike; as a bonus, Clements and Fuest have a commentary track here, and UK viewers will be amused to see Cole and Waterman in the same film, albeit briefly, before they became housefold names as Arthur and Terry in tv institution Minder.

FRIGHT is released on DVD and Blu Ray courtesy of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection on 14TH October 2019 and can be streamed below.

 

Angel Heart 1987 *****

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1986 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen. While friends waxed lyrical on Scorsese and Godard, it was Alan Parker’s film that caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text.

The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a huge influence on Christopher Nolan

Parker’s wry commentary starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this fresh re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.

ANGEL HEART is  released on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on October 14th 2019 and can be streamed below…

 

And Soon The Darkness 1970 ****

 

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Remade to minimal effect with Amber Heard in 2010, this original Robert Fuest chiller fully deserves a cult reputation. The brain-child of Avengers creator Brian Clemens and Dr Who/Daleks originator Terry Nation, it’s an unusual horror film that unfolds almost entirely under bright sunlight and over a few miles of French countryside.

It’s in this idyllic environment that we meet Jane (Pamela Franklin) and Cathy (Michelle Dotrice), two nurses on a cycling holiday. They bicker and get separated;  Cathy vanishes after Jane leaves her in a woodland clearing, and enlists various local men in her quest to find her friend; Sandor Eles and John Nettleton are amongst them.

Kim Newman’s notes on this new Blu-ray extras tie And Soon The Darkness into a specific genre of films in which fish-out-of-water tourists are menaced by locals, with Hostel the obvious example. But there’s also a straight who-dunnit here, with much to misdirect and some ingenious touches like the non-translation of dialogue which forces the audience to see things from Jane’s view. For television specialists, Clements and Nation resisted the temptation to overstuff the narrative ,and instead keep things simple; the killer can only be one of several people, but you’re kept guessing right to the end.

Franklin and Dotrice are British film and tv staples, with Dotrice best known as Betty in sitcom Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, and they both give a good account of themselves here. Although marketed as horror, this feels more like a straight up thriller, and the minimalism gives it the kind of stripped-down appeal of Steven Spielberg’s Duel. 

Regular late-night exposure on television has made And Soon the Darkness a well-remembered film; it’s one of a kind, the there’s bound to be a few viewers, petrified by the film’s moody atmosphere as children, who will return and find that this was a rather accomplished entry in the canon of Bryan Forbes’s short-lived reign at EMI.

AND SOON THE DARKNESS will be released courtesy of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection on 14TH October 2019 and is available to stream below

Ella Enchanted 2004 ****

Shrek started a vogue for post-modern fairy tales, with self-aware characters, pop-culture jokes and retro needle-drops designed to keep the parents on message. Ella Enchanted attempted to do the same trick with live action, and Tommy O’Haver’s film deserves to be remembered as a kid-friendly movie with something more to offer adults than a few patronising tit-bits.

Ella (Anne Hathaway) is enchanted from birth; a wayward fairy godmother (Vivian A Fox, very 2004 casting) has given her the gift of obedience, meaning that whenever Ella is asked to do something, she can’t help but oblige. Ask her to hand over a precious necklace given to get by her late mother and she’ll oblige. The arrival of a wicked stepmother (ideally played by Joanna Lumley) means that Ella’s behavioural traits are taken advantage off, and even though Hugh Dancy’s prince is within reach, a plan is set in motion to sideline Ella. A quest is embarked upon, with a magic book (Jimi Mistry), an Irish imp, some ogres and some other predictable obstacles on the way to ap upbeat, all-singing all-dancing finale set to Elton John and Kiki Dee’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.

Although five writers are credited here, the original book by Gail Carson Levine is presumably the source of Ella’s principal notion; that speaking up for yourself isn’t easy. The wider political world Ella encounters underscores the notion; Ella doesn’t like being told what to do, much as the ordinary people round about her resent their authoritarian rulers. Ella Enchanted doesn’t do much to resolve such issues, but there’s a clear and heartfelt message at the centre.

On the edges, there’s also plenty of fun in the window-dressing, from Eric Idle’s storyteller to Steve Coogan’s Heston the hissing snake, while the film amusingly leans into the Americanisation of European fairy-tales by presenting Ella’s marketplace as a mall complete with wooden escalators. For kids bored with Frozen and Tangled, Ella Enchanted is a worthy next step; chunk and easy to watch, it’s got some hidden depths worth exploring.

 

Midsommar 2019 ***

‘Get on with it’ would be a more appropriate title for Ari Aster’s glacially slow horror film, a follow up to Hereditary that repeats many of the same tropes but with a remarkable drop-off in terms of effect. Midsommar went from much anticipated to immediately forgotten after a big hype and subsequent minimal performance; it’s a strange misfire which gains points for imagination and atmosphere, but is crippled by a lack of plot and character development.

A commendably brief set up establishes the troubled family history of Dani (Florence Pugh); her sister killed herself, taking her parents with her. While Dani waits for a response to frenzied phone-calls, her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is meeting his bros and planning a holiday in Sweden. When Dani comes along, clearly in a state of mourning, it’s obvious that if the copious drugs consumed won’t dislodge something from her psyche, then something will have to give in the fragile relationship she has with Christian.

After a brief interlude with hallucinogens, the group find themselves in a bizarre and remote commune where the apparent niceness and friendly overtures of the locals hide a dark secret. Some kind of pagan worship is going on, and as with The Wicker Man, if you have to ask who is getting sacrificed, then the answer is probably ‘you’. Despite the considerable running time, there’s considerably more culture clash involved in the Wicker Man trope, which gets into details about how and why these outdated customs are adhered to. Aster, swimming in the other direction, depicts the rituals in great length without much in the way of explanation; the result is as dull to watch as a royal wedding in some arcane culture.

Crucially, Aster’s characters lack agency even before they’re given drugs which render them immobile; escape attempts are offscreen and unclear, while the striking setting becomes boring when it becomes apparent that the entire story is guessable from the trailer. The cast don’t have enough material to establish the group beyond rote slasher movie archetypes, and even the sense of dread so powerful in Hereditary eventually fades here as events spiral slowly towards a non-existent punchline.

If Aster goes on to less obviously undercooked projects, Midsommer may gain in resonance, but on it’s own, it’s a weak story killed by over-confidence. The visuals are striking, and the whole package is tempting, but ultimately Midsommer feels like Hostel played at half-speed, minus the gore, humour or excitement.

Due Date *** 2010

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The brief furore over Todd Phillips’ Joker provides a reasonable opportunity to look back on the other work of this unheralded auteur; before winning the Golden Lion of Venice, Phillips has been a prolific purveyor of low-brow comedies like the Hangover trilogy, tv reboot Starsky and Hutch, or teen comedy Road Trip. There have been attempts to lift his game as writer and director; War Dogs wasn’t bad at all, and this vehicle for Zack Galifinakis and Robert Downey Jr rehashes Planes, Trains and Automobiles and many odd-couple comedies to mildly entertaining effect.

Peter Highman (Downey Jr) is a tightly wound exec who gets knocked out of his rut when he meets Ethan Tremblay (Galifanakis) an aspiring actor who accidentally puts the two men on a no-fly blacklist after some on-board shenanigans involving lost luggage. Despite having little in common, the two men decide to drive from Atlanta to LA, with Tremblay’s dog in tow, and encountering Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride and a few other notables along the way.

Due Date’s odd-couple comedy is pretty tired, and the tropes, which include various indignities for the ashes of Tremblay’s father, have been done to death. And yet Galifinakis does a great job of making Ethan a three-dimensional threat to his new friend, and even when the action gets quite silly during an extended Mexican border car-chase, the relationship stays grounded. Downey Jr is, despite his lengthy exposure as an A list star, still somewhat unfamiliar in such a low-key context, and he tests the unlikable edges of a self-absorbed character.

Critics may carp that Phillips is not a major director with something important to say, but there’s merit in making comedies, as there can be profundity in the tears of the clown. Joker aside, Phillips has been involved with a lot of big films; for those who didn’t take him seriously, who’s laughing now?