Housesitters

Housesitters

[Full disclosure: I know Housesitters director/co-writer Jason Coffman personally. Also, I contributed to the funding of Housesitters, which earned me an onscreen credit as a member of the “Tomorrow Romance Founders Club.” The point of all this is to assure you that if I genuinely hated Housesitters I’d be so nervous about the idea of writing a scathing review that I’d probably just not write anything at all.]

Do-it-yourself micro-budget horror films have a license to be weird, but even by this standard, Housesitters is an odd duck.

Sure, the plot—a pair of callow millennial slackers (played by co-writers Jamie Jirak and Annie Watkins) take what looks to be a sweet housesitting gig only to find themselves pawns in a ritual enacted by an evil magician—looks standard enough. But I didn’t mention the sitters’ obsession with gay porn. I didn’t mention the marijuana strains named after Italian crime thrillers from the ’70s. I didn’t mention the foreplay scene where a woman holds a smoke machine in front of her groin like it’s a strap-on. And I certainly didn’t mention Little Bastard, the green puppet monster that serves as the film’s antagonist.

Director and co-writer Jason Coffman has a peculiar sense of humor. I mean, here’s his idea of an effective commercial for his film:

Some of my favorite bits of Housesitters occur when he just lets that fevered brain of his loose. (Case in point: “Dancing About Barkitecture,” the lysergic machinima interlude that separates the film’s two halves.) The story is pretty flimsy, but it at least works on its own internal logic. The characters should be more annoying than they actually are, but Jirak, Watkins, and the rest of the cast give them an easy affability (or at least, I didn’t suffer from an intense desire to tase them in the face repeatedly). Moreover, Coffman is a genuine film geek and has some understanding of how cinema is supposed to work; as a result, this thing feels more genuinely cinematic than a lot of “I’ve got a camcorder and a few hundred bucks, let’s take a week off and make a movie” type productions do. And “Dancing About Barkitecture” is a work of genius.

That’s not to say that Housesitters is a great film. The pacing is occasionally wonky, Coffman displays his influences a bit too strongly, and many of the jokes just plain fall flat. (Or at least they fall flat to anyone not named Jason Coffman.) It probably doesn’t have much to offer anyone who isn’t already disposed to liking this sort of thing. But uneven though it is, Coffman delivers something you’re not going to find anywhere else—and isn’t that point of the no-budget horror underground?

Recommended for fans of Dustin Wayde Mills (who designed and built the Little Bastard puppet), Henrique Caouto, and such—you know who you are.

Starring Jamie Jirak, Annie Watkins, Peter Ash. Directed by Jason Coffman. 62 minutes.

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part 4

Cinepocalypse 2018: Part Four

Relaxer

Relaxer

Early on in Relaxer, the protagonist—a shirtless, pantsless slacker named Abbie—vomits what looks like a quart of milk all over himself. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the cinematic experience the film offers. The plot—at least, what passes for it—requires Abbie to best the world-record Pac-Man score* before he can leave his couch. If you think spending ninety minutes watching someone fiddle with a Nintendo controller sounds dull, guess what: it’s actually worse than it sounds. The script, largely devoid of incident, tends to focus on the largely unlikable characters engaging in interminable bickering (Abbie spends what seems like 10 to 15 minutes arguing with a “friend” over a bottle of cherry-flavored Faygo), separated by long, silent sequences focusing on lead actor Joshua Burge’s slack, dead-eyed stare. Not even a half-assed attempt at a subplot involving a pair of 3-D glasses that give Abbie telekinetic powers can relieve the monotony. If there’s an allegory here, I’m not finding it. Pointless, tedious, and actively unpleasant.

* Long story short: the world-record Pac-Man score (something in excess of 3.3 million points) cannot ever be beaten, because it represents reaching level 256 and scoring every possible point on all of those boards. Due to a quirk in the game software, it’s impossible to progress past 256, the game’s legendary “kill screen.”

United States. Directed by Joshua Potrykus.

Heavy Trip

Heavy Trip

Scandinavian black metal gets its very own equivalent to The Blues Brothers with this strangely feel-good comedy. The “symphonic post-apocalyptic reindeer-grinding Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandic metal” band Impaled Rektum has been practicing at their guitarist’s father’s small-town slaughterhouse for twelve years but has never played an actual gig. That all changes when the promoter of a Norwegian heavy-metal festival pays a visit to the slaughterhouse, and soon the band finds itself on a quest to play said festival (even though they’re not actually invited). While the ensuing plot is more than a little familiar, the film succeeds with flying colors thanks to a rapid stream of hilarious gags and situations, strong performances and endearingly goofy characters (particularly Max Ovaska as the guitarist, who gets the film’s by-far best line). Probably the best tribute to heavy metal and its fandom since Saxon’s “Denim and Leather.”

Finland/Norway. Directed by Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren.

The Appearance

The Appearance

Jake Stormoen and Game of Thrones fan favorite Kristian “Hodor” Nairn play a pair of inquisitors investigating accusations of devilry at a medieval monastery in Kurt Knight’s historical horror The Appearance. Remixing a number of standard elements from the sub-genre—including a wide-eyed girl accused of witchcraft, a hard-assed, cruel abbot, a series of ghastly murders, and more secrets than you can shake the Latin mass at—The Appearance occasionally threatens to collapse under the weight of its familiarity (its overlong run time—I’m not sure how long it is, but the 90-minute time cited in the Cinepocalypse program was definitely wrong—doesn’t help matters). But Knight maintains a thick, eerie atmosphere throughout, and most of the cast (particularly Stormoen, Nairn, and Baylee Self) put in fine performances. If only they could have done something about those accents…

United States. Directed by Kurt Knight.

My Monster

Short Films

My Monster

Screened alongside Await Further Instructions.

Brea Grant finds herself plagued by both a hideous monster and a clueless husband(/boyfriend/partner/whatever) in this brief horror-comedy. I’ll pretty much watch Brea Grant in anything, and she didn’t disappoint me here, but overall My Monster didn’t do much for me.

Canine

Screened alongside Gags.

A man searches his neighborhood for his missing dog. I sussed out the twist pretty early, but I still enjoyed it.

Spell Claire

Screened alongside Relaxer.

The titular ’80s-obsessed Claire finds a Speak & Spell at a garage sale. It doesn’t like her. Have you ever wanted to watch a movie about an evil Speak & Spell? Here’s your chance. I’ll say it again for the kids in the back: EVIL SPEAK & SPELL! Winning performance by Wendy Jung.

Festival Overview

Ranking of all the movies I watched

The great:

  1. Heavy Trip
  2. Await Further Instructions
  3. Empathy Inc.

The good:

  1. Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss…
  2. Clara’s Ghost
  3. What Keeps You Alive
  4. The Devil’s Doorway
  5. The Appearance
  6. Satan’s Slaves
  7. The Russian Bride

The meh:

  1. The Ranger
  2. Gags
  3. Malicious

The bad:

  1. The Brink
  2. Hover
  3. Relaxer

Various achievements

Best director: Yedidya Gorsetman, Empathy Inc.

Best actress: Paula Neidert Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best supporting actress: Abby Elliott, Clara’s Ghost

Best actor: Zack Robidas, Empathy Inc.

Best supporting actor: Max Ovaska, Heavy Trip

Best screenplay: Gavin Williams, Await Further Instructions

Best original score: Omri Anghel, Empathy Inc.

Best use of non-original music: “Georgy Girl,” performed by the Seekers, Clara’s Ghost

Capsule Reviews: December 2017, Part 4

Capsule Reviews: Get Out; Dunkirk; Good Time

Get Out

Get Out

Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stansfield, Stephen Root.

One of the reasons I find the present so exciting when it comes to genre films is the growing recognition that there is no distinction between “genre” films and “quality” films (or at least there shouldn’t be). This is nothing against the year’s crop of “quality” films such as Three BillboardsCall Me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, and Lady Bird, but I’m not seeing them dominate other critics’ rankings to the extent I’d expected. I think I’ve seen Baby DriverWonder Woman and even It on more best-of lists than The Square. And then there’s Get Out, which was not a film I’d expect any critic to name as the year’s best-of.

Not because Get Out isn’t a good film; by all metrics, it is, in fact, every bit deserving of the hype it’s received. Jordan Peele has managed to pull off a masterful juggling act, interpolating Carpenter-esque suspense sequences with the surreal artsiness of the Sunken Place. Daniel Kaluuya lives up to the promise I first saw in “Fifteen Million Merits,” his episode of Black Mirror, and he heads a brilliant cast that ranges from dependable character-actors like Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and Stephen Root, to “where have you been hiding all these years?” revelations like LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, and Betty Gabriel. Get Out is scary when it needs to be scary, funny when it needs to be funny, and balances the two modes with a deftness I’ve not seen since The Cabin in the Woods.

And then, of course, there’s the social commentary. I doubt the conversation surrounding Get Out would be much improved by more white-guy-splaining, but I do want to say that this sort of commentary is the exact thing that horror, as a genre, is uniquely positioned to deliver. In fact, I believe that delivering uncomfortable truths with a dollop of entertainment value—especially, in the case of this film, to white audiences—is what horror entirely exists to do. Get Out inherits from a long tradition of horror-with-social-subtext that includes films such as Dawn of the Dead and They Live and The People Under the Stairs, films that critics and “serious” audiences overlooked because they were genre efforts. But our culture has changed since then, to the point where Get Out is recognized as one of the finest films of the year. And that’s all for the better.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

May 21, 1940. Eleven days into the Battle of France, and Nazi forces have the British Expeditionary Force, along with three French field armies and the remains of the Belgian and Dutch forces, trapped along the northern coast of France, near the port city of Dunkirk. The best course of action is to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk across the English Channel to Dover, a distance of about fifty nautical miles. That is, if they can make it past the German Luftwaffe (air force).

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, then, is less about heroism at wartime and more about simply not getting killed. The narrative follows the evacuation on three fronts: on the ground, a trio of British privates desperately try to make it off the beach; in the air, a pair of Spitfire pilots engage the Luftwaffe; at sea, a civilian sailor, his son, and his son’s friend sail from Weymouth in a civilian vessel. The Axis soldiers and pilots are almost never seen; the only markers of their presence are the bullets and bombs raining from the sky. Fighting can only effectively be done in the air. If you’re on land or in the water, your only option is to run or swim and pray to God the projectiles don’t follow you.

This is Nolan at his most straightforward and concise. While the three stories don’t all play out at the same pace, Nolan eschews the narrative trickery he’s become associated with. In terms of putting the audience in the middle of the action (such as it is), Dunkirk is perhaps the most effective war film since Saving Private Ryan. With so much going on, there’s very little room for character development. The civilian sailors—Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney—are the only characters with time to register as people. And even at a comparatively breezy 106 minutes—the shortest running time Nolan’s delivered since his début, Following—too many scenes stretch on for too long.

Still, there’s an important lesson here. On the last day of the evacuation, Winston Churchill delivered his celebrated “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, rallying the British people and preparing them for the long road ahead. The Allies did, of course, eventually triumph over the Axis, proof positive that Nazis can be defeated…something it may help us to keep in mind in the near future.

Good Time

Good Time

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Lennice Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

There are movies that have to pull off delicate balancing acts, and then there’s Good Time. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a small-time hood who takes a trip through the seedy underbelly of New York culture to come up with bail money for his developmentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed with his brother Josh), recently arrested for participating in a bank robbery Connie masterminded. Imagine a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Of Mice and Men, and you’re not far off.

Good Time shifts from exciting to disturbing to funny in turn, as Connie’s adventures draw in a motley gang of allies and antagonists, including Ray (Buddy Duress), a parolee who finds himself in trouble within hours of release, and Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster), a rebellious and bored sixteen-year-old. The plot shifts into a rollicking new gear once the McGuffin—a 16-ounce bottle of Sprite, spiked with LSD—is established; a propulsive score by electronic artist Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) keeps the pace quick and steady.

Through it all, Pattinson keeps everything grounded. If you’ve managed to miss everything he’s done that doesn’t have the word Twilight in the title, prepare to be blown away—this is not the mumbly “hero” of the Cullen saga. Connie isn’t always a sympathetic or even likable protagonist, and he’s capable of some vicious scumbaggery. But his (admittedly unhealthly) love for his brother shines through in every inch of Pattinson’s electrifying performance and gives the film a heart you wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a New York crime drama.

Papillon

I Also Watched…

Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973). I’m on a Steve McQueen kick lately. Papillon is apparently a true story about a French safecracker who was framed for murder and sent to a brutal prison camp in French Guiana that he then spent the next decade attempting to escape from. It’s engaging for about the first hour and a half or so, but after that it becomes a bit of a pointless drag. The thing I find really interesting about it, though, is the fact that the screenplay was co-written by blacklist target Dalton Trumbo; while I don’t know for sure that Trumbo drew parallels between his own struggle and Papillon’s bloody-minded obsession (even after being retired from the prison camp and moved to a comparatively comfortable colony for exiles, he continues to plot escape, because he’s not really free), but I like to think that.

The Best of 2017

Because I got such a late start on my 2017 movies I’m deferring my Year in Movies post until the end of January. I still have a lot of 2017 movies to see (just to name a few: Atomic Blonde, Logan, Logan Lucky, Untamed, Nocturama, ColossalThor: RagnarokThe Post…). I don’t want to close out my list without seeing the two year’s two big non-genre critical hits, Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name, even though neither film could really be described as “my type of thing.” And I want to revisit a few films from Fantastic Fest 2016 (Buster’s Mal HeartA Dark SongRaw) and even 2015 (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, once known as February) that finally saw release in 2017.

However, as of right now my top ten films of 2017 are:

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  2. The Shape of Water
  3. Baby Driver
  4. Get Out
  5. It Comes at Night
  6. Kedi
  7. Okja
  8. Blade Runner 2049
  9. Good Time
  10. It: Chapter One
Blood in the Snow 2016

Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2016

Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser star in CAPTURE KILL RELEASE

Capture Kill Release (directors: Nick McAnulty & Brian Allan Stewart) may be yet another found-footage horror movie in a world that doesn’t need any more of them, but at least it’s a good one. Farhang Ghajar and Jennifer Fraser shine in this tale of a young couple making their own snuff movie. This is what House of 100 Eyes could have been had it been done right.

It wasn’t really my thing, but I heartily recommend Holy Hell (director: Ryan LaPlante) to all fans of outrageous, over-the-top, Troma-style gross-out horror-comedies. LaPlante stars as a mild-mannered priest who takes up the path of holy vengeance after barely surviving a night at the mercy of a clan of twisted, depraved freaks. If nothing else, where else are you going to find a gun battle between a man of the cloth and a drag queen in a kitten mask?

The Sublet (director: John Ainslie) finds an engaged couple with a toddler son taking up residence in a creepy apartment with a sinister past. This modern-day riff on The Haunting of Hill House gets a lot right, including a fine performance from lead actress Tiana Nori, but the story fails to come together in a satisfying way, and the film feels like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

As promised, here are my capsule reviews of the two films I saw during the second half of CIFF 2016: Prevenge, a particularly dark horror-comedy written and directed by Alice Lowe, and Amok, a brutal crime drama set at a rough boarding school for orphaned boys.

Prevenge

Prevenge

United Kingdom, 2016. Directed by Alice Lowe. 88 minutes.

Culture probably fetishizes pregnancy more than any other concept, but when you think about it, it is a rather odd thing to carry the larval form of a complete stranger inside your body for the better part of a year, while it throws your internal chemistry all out of whack. (My friend John Bruni—I can’t tell you how many NSFW things are on the other side of that link, so consider yourself warned—used to sell bumper stickers that read It’s a Parasite, Not a Choice, a play on a classic anti-abortion slogan.)

Alice Lowe, the British writer/actress partly responsible for the awesome Sightseers, subverts the mystique of motherhood in her feature directorial début, Prevenge. Lowe (who was herself pregnant during the film’s production) directs herself in the lead role of Ruth, a single expectant mother and spree killer spurred on by the voice of her unborn child. As with Sightseers, Lowe deals in a specifically uncomfortable brand of dark comedy, playing with the audience’s sympathies as we learn more about Ruth and her motives and her victims become progressively less nasty. It’s a tough balance, and Lowe doesn’t always get it right, but when Prevenge works (and it works more often than not) the gallows humor and churning unease feed into each other for a unique frisson.

Amok

Amok

Macedonia, 2016. Directed by Vardan Tozija. 102 minutes.

Writer/director Vardan Tozija tells a familiar story in Amok, but that familiarity doesn’t dilute its power. Set in a rough-and-tumble subculture centered around an “adoption center,” a Brutalist monstrosity where orphaned teenage boys (nicknamed “rats”) live and are educated, the film follows its troubled—but essentially sympathetic, up to a point—protagonist Filip as he consistently runs afoul of a series of corrupt, exploitative, or indifferent authority figures. When a corrupt police detective finally pushes him too far, Filip strikes back the only way he knows how: with violence.

There’s only one way this story can end, but Amok isn’t so much predictable as it is tragic. Tozija brings a savage realism to an environment where even a high-school teacher has to be able to kick literal ass just to survive day-to-day. Actor Martin Gjorgoski gives Filip a dead-eyed stare that makes the character more terrifying than most horror-movie monsters. The moral of the story is clear: if you give the young and marginalized nothing to live for except violence, don’t be surprised when they deal violence in return.

My Months in Film: March through September, 2016

So I’m back, apparently.

I didn’t expect the Gallery to remain shuttered this long: I made some genuine attempts in April and May to get back into the groove…and couldn’t get anything to stick. Real Life was kicking my ass, something had to give, and it was the film writing. I had burned out. I think my exhaustion even shows in the spring and early-summer podcast episodes. I’d been doing this for over five and a half years—starting all the way back in late August 2010 when I launched Forced Viewing—and during that entire time, I’d never taken more than a couple of weeks off from watching and writing. It even encroached on my vacations.

That being said, I never considered not writing about this year’s Fantastic Fest, though. So I was glad to discovered I still had my mojo, and it was great to get back into the rhythm of things. (Even after I caught a cold that turned into a bronchial infection that needed to be nipped in the bud lest it mutate into pneumonia.)

It looks like I have some time to seriously reconsider the future of this site and my film-writing hobby. I’m still determined that reviews will re-commence, at some point. I’d like it to be soon, but I can’t make any guarantees: things are still hairy busy in Real Life. My content schedule won’t be as punishingly aggressive as it was in the past; I’m thinking three movies every two weeks sounds reasonable. But we’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for your patience.

And to prove I haven’t spent the last six-odd months just twiddling my thumbs…here are the movies I watched during the hiatus.

Continue reading “My Months in Film: March through September, 2016”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A scene from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES.
United States/United Kingdom. Directed by Burr Steers, 2016. Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Boothe, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Suki Waterhouse. 108 minutes. 5/10

The inevitable film version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 cult novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies finally sees the light of day at the hands of writer/director Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down). Jane Austen’s seminal tale of marriage and manners plays out against a Victorian Britain plagued by brain-eating undead, with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Downton Abbey) leading a quintet of ninja sisters and Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley, Control) serving the Royal Army “at large” by rooting out zombie infestations before they spread.

Like most notable zombie fiction, PPZ largely uses the undead as an environmental hazard, an important fact of life for the characters but not the source of the main conflict. As in Austen, the major narrative arc follows the headstrong Elizabeth and the aloof Darcy as they gradually fall in love despite making a series of bad impressions on each other. The film reinterprets Austen’s battles of words as literal, impeccably-choreographed battles.

While Steers often develops his themes without subtlety (for example, when Elizabeth’s sister Jane predicts the former would “relinquish her sword for a ring” from “the right man,” she retorts, “The right man wouldn’t ask me to”), the film does contain some measure of wit, particularly in the form of supporting characters such as the vain and obsequious Parson Collins (Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor Who, in a bravura performance) and the legendary swordswoman Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones, sporting a strangely alluring eyepatch). The historical setting and period dialog brings out the best in the ensemble, which also features Douglas Booth, Bella Heathcote, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire), and Charles Dance (GoT again).

Other aspects of the production aren’t as strong. Despite its jump-scares and plentiful gore, the film lacks the conviction necessary to work as a horror story; by pulling a crucial early punch, Steers indicates that he has no intention of killing any of the major characters. When he focuses on invincible protagonists, throngs of nameless cannon-fodder extras, and massive battle sequences, PPZ feels more like a modern superhero movie (complete with mid-credit stinger) than anything else. Unfortunately, the editing and poor digital effects make action scenes look like they belong in a video game.

Similarly, the plot weakens when it emerges from its drawing rooms and cellars. The film fails to clearly convey how zombies and their plague operate in its fictional universe, the script mishandles an important and unusual subplot that develops across the second act, and the audience should figure out the big climactic twist at least half an hour before it shocks Elizabeth.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is great fun when its characters spar with words and weapons, but not so much when it strays from Austen’s original template. The novelty of combining classic romance fiction with horror elements can only carry the film so far, and the other elements can’t make up the rest of the distance.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES poster

Samantha Hill stars in THE EDITOR.

The Editor

Canada. Directed by Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy, 2014. Starring Adam Brooks, Matthew Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Paz de la Huerta, Samantha Hill. 95 minutes. 6/10

Ah, giallo! Who among us does not revere that elegant Italian art form, that rapturous combination of lush cinematography, lurid sex, black-gloved hands holding straight-razors, and poor English-language dubbing? The giallo revival, which has given us films such as Amer and Sonno Profondo and influenced the likes of Berberian Sound Studio, has progressed to the point where parody is now possible. Enter Astron-6, the Canadian wiseasses responsible for Manborg and Father’s Day.

Rey Ciso (Adam Brooks) was once the world’s greatest film editor, but a gruesome accident with a splicer cost him several fingers, his reputation, and his sanity. Having recovered from a nervous breakdown, he’s now a shadow of his former self, reduced to working on sleazy grindhouse pictures. When the actors on his latest project turn up murdered, police detective Peter Porfiry (Matthew Kennedy) fingers him as the number one suspect. Can Ciso prove his innocence and expose the real killer? Or is Detective Porfiry right after all?

Brooks and Kennedy, who also co-wrote (with actor Conor Sweeney) and co-directed The Editor, have crafted a film largely immune to criticism. They have re-created a particular style of film from a bygone era, the kind they really don’t make anymore. (All the neo-gialli I’ve seen are largely artsy stylistic exercises–they may look like the real deal but they certainly don’t feel it.) The flaws–poor acting, incoherent narrative–are deliberate; if The Editor can be described as “bad” then it is certainly by design. And how do you review something intended to be bad?

Despite my bluster and bombast three paragraphs ago, I have always been a bit iffy on giallo. I’m not opposed to it but neither am I an enthusiast. They sound awesome when I hear about them but then I actually see one and can’t help but be let down. I’m not really the movie’s target audience.

That’s not to say that it didn’t elicit a few laughs–for example, whenever the dialog is particularly awkward (“I am in our home!” Ciso calls to his wife when he gets home from work), or on those occasions when someone spots a “cigarette burn” on the film. Udo Kier, Tristan Risk, and Laurence R. Harvey do what they do best in their minor roles, and while Paz de la Huerta’s acting hasn’t improved since…ever…here it’s actually an asset, not a liability.

Ultimately, then, The Editor is one of those films you either get or you don’t. If you prefer to spend your evenings curled up watching a Bava or an Argento, make a beeline for this one (assuming you haven’t already). On the other hand, if you don’t know your giallo from a hole in the ground, this is probably not the place to start.

THE EDITOR poster

Morgana O'Reilly stars in HOUSEBOUND.

Housebound

New Zealand. Directed by Gerard Johnstone, 2014. Starring Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Ti Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Ross Harper, Cameron Rhodes, Ryan Lampp. 107 minutes.

Something about New Zealand seems particularly conducive to horror-comedy, from the early works of Peter Jackson (Bad TasteDead Alive) to the mid-2000s cult classic Black Sheep (not the Chris Farley one, obviously) and this year’s What We Do in the Shadows. Add to that list Housebound, a satirical look at haunted-house tropes that’s garnered a fair amount of attention since making its way to the States last October.

Morgana O’Reilly stars as Kylie, a petty criminal who finds herself sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home under the care of her estranged mum Miriam (Rimi Ti Wiata) and stepdad Graeme (Ross Harper). Long-buried memories find themselves dragged back up to the surface when Kylie discovers Miriam has always regarded the house as being haunted–a prospect that excites Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), a security guard assigned to Kyle who also fancies himself a paranormal investigator. Their investigations turn up a series of revelations, each wilder than the last, about the house’s history–particularly a murder that occurred in Kylie’s bedroom, not long before she and her family moved in.

First-time writer/director Gerard Johnstone puts his focus squarely on the characters and their eccentricities: brooding Kylie, well-meaning if somewhat clueless and overbearing Miriam, quiet Graeme, overeager supernatural sleuth Amos, not to mention a gallery of supporting characters including a creepy neighbor and an ineffectual social worker (played, respectively, by Mick Innes and Cameron Rhodes). It’s an eclectic but endearing assembly of comedic personalities, matched by a skilled cast.

Two performers deserve particular attention. O’Reilly’s performance is, in many ways, the key to Housebound. Kylie’s petulant childishness should make her hard to sympathize with, even when she’s funny, and while Johnstone develops her into the sort of protagonist people should think about when they hear the phrase “strong female protagonist” O’Reilly puts us on her side in short order, and she’s easy to like even when she’s eating all the meatloaf, hogging the television, or blowing up an ATM.

Ryan Lampp is the other standout performer. He comes into the story about halfway through the film and I don’t want to spoil his character too much, but his physical performance is one of the delights of the latter phases of the film and he’s a joy to watch whenever he’s on-screen.

The script’s emphasis on character, dialog, and individual set pieces unfortunately comes at the expense of plot: after a strong start, the story peters out somewhat going into the second act, as Kylie’s house arrest and electronic ankle bracelet become more of a narrative burden. Johnstone proves a bit reluctant to follow through with the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. For example, without giving too much away, Kylie does something that should have drastic repercussions for a person in her situation but nothing much seems to happen to her as a result of it. I’m willing to cut the film, which is at its heart an absurdist comedy, some slack in this department, but since Kylie’s criminal history and incarceration are such a central part of the film’s premise I feel it’s an undeniable flaw.

While Housebound does have a few flaws, they don’t keep the film from being an enjoyable, witty romp. For the most part, this is how you do horror-comedy right.

HOUSEBOUND poster

Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, and Jemaine Clement star in WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.

What We Do in the Shadows

New Zealand. Directed by Taila Waititi & Jemaine Clement, 2014. Starring Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh. 86 minutes.

Vampires are people too: vain, petty, condescending, and occasionally prone to not washing the dishes for five years. That’s the central theme of What We Do in the Shadows, a riotous mockumentary co-written and co-directed by Jemaine Clement (one-half of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi.

A (mostly) unseen camera crew films the daily routine of four vampires sharing a house in the New Zealand city of Wellington. The foppish Viago (Waititi) pines after a mortal woman he loved so much, he followed her from Europe–but since his familiar didn’t put the proper postage on his coffin, he arrived a year and a half too late, only to find his beloved married someone else. The pretentious Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who prefers to drink the blood of virgins “because it sounds cool,” copes with a petulant and incompetent servant who doesn’t put enough time and effort into fulfilling her master’s desires. The cruel Vladislav (Clement) broods over his defeat by his arch-enemy, the Beast. The ancient and monstrous Petyr (Ben Fransham) mainly stays in the basement and drinks from chickens.

Clement and Waititi expertly dissect the modern gothic supernatural romance. The culture of Wellington’s supernatural community resembles high school cliqueishness as much as it does Elizabethan or Victorian high society. The anger over being passed over as guest of honor for the annual society ball causes Vladislav to literally rot; the vampires consistently try to bully a pack of (admittedly somewhat nebbishy) werewolves led by Rhys Darby. It’s Twilight taken to a logical but uncomfortable extreme.

However, thousands of internet wags have proved that it’s too easy to simply mock handsome Byronic monsters who can pull off sexy but not dangerous. What We Do needs to be funny to be memorable. Thankfully, it’s not just funny, it’s consistently and excessively hilarious from its first scene (in which Viago’s hand emerges from its coffin to turn off his alarm clock) to its post-credits sequence. Barely a minute goes by without the film delivering a hearty belly-laugh, and much of the dialog should work its way into your day-to-day conversation. (“We’re werewolves, not swear-wolves!” “If you’re going to eat a sandwich, you’re going to enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” “You might bite someone and then, you think, ‘Oooh, those are some nice pants!'”)

The performances are universally excellent, with each actor and character getting a chance to shine; in addition to Clement, Waititi, and Brugh, other standouts include Jackie van Beek as Deacon’s bitter servant and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer as a recently turned vampire; Darby makes the most of his two or three brief appearances. Clement and Waititi also provide excellent direction and a lovely visual aesthetic, effectively contrasting “ancient and decaying” with “shiny, urban and modern.” The effects work is remarkably good for a film with such a low budget ($1.5 mil).

I’ve run out of synonyms for “hilarious” to describe What We Do in the Shadows. Suffice it to say it’s a brilliant and essential horror-comedy and a future cult classic in the making.

What We Do in the Shadows