A scene from THE CORRIDOR

The Corridor

Canada. Directed by Evan Kelly, 2010. Starring Stephen Chambers, David Patrick Flemming, James Gilbert. 98 minutes. 8/10

Five men–five friends–arrive at the house in the woods. Chris Comeau (David Patrick Flemming), a teacher of the deaf at the high school he and his friends attended. His cousin Bob “Bobcat” Comeau (Matthew Amyotte), happily married, father of several children, but balding and unable to get over a pro ball career that never happened. Ev Manette (James Gilbert), a bartender screwing his boss on the side. Jim “Huggsy” Huggan (Glen Matthews), married to a beautiful woman he can’t impregnate.

And Tyler Crawley (Stephen Chambers), recently released from psychiatric care, bearing his late mother’s ashes.

Some time ago, Tyler had a psychotic break, triggered by the apparent suicide of his mother, a woman who herself had mental issues. He attacked his friends, slicing Ev across the face and stabbing Chris through the hand.

The house in the woods is “Pauline’s Retreat,” the Crawley family’s second home. The friends come to reminisce, to make amends, to bond, and to lay their good friend’s mother to rest.

Scattering the ashes out by the old beacon tower, Tyler stumbles through something much like a force field covering a small patch of ground. It keeps the light in and weather out, and inside it, machinery and electronics don’t function. It scares him, but it also fascinates him, and he returns to it several times, eventually leading the rest of his friends there.

It’s when all five friends stand inside the zone that they get a glimpse of its full potential. It grows larger with every visit. First it was like a room; now it’s like a hallway, a corridor. And it changes them somehow, binding their minds together in a telepathic bond.

But one of those minds is sick. The corridor is gradually driving the friends crazy. And at the center of that madness is the relationship between Tyler and his late mother.

The most effective horror films, to me, are the ones that work on an existential level. I don’t mind a fun tale of stupid teenagers relentlessly stalked by an axe-wielding maniac in a rubber mask, but they’re like junk food to me, empty calories. But a movie that poses fundamental questions about the nature of reality and humanity’s perception of it? That’s a satisfying meal with a rich dessert. I cut my teeth on Lovecraft, after all. That’s why I loved The Corridor so much.

Screenwriter Josh McDonald and director Evan Kelly keep a tight focus on the five friends and the things that make them tick. In this way it’s closer to a psychological thriller than a standard horror movie. This is a film about men and how they relate to each other, and it hits the nail on the head. When I get together with my male friends, we treat each other the way these guys do. Yes, they indulge in machismo, break each others’ balls, and engage in dick-measuring contests, but there’s no small measure of sensitivity and affection as well. Exaggerated bromance men-children need not apply.

Another thing the film gets right is…I’m not sure I want to call it a “mid-life crisis” (even though that’s what Netflix says) because it doesn’t look like any of the actors were older than thirty, but it’s the feeling of failure one gets having reached a certain age without having conquered the entire world. I think this is a distinctly male concern; women experience something similar but since they have an entirely different set of cultural expectations laid on them, it’s not quite the same. None of the five are satisfied with their lives, and suffer from some degree of self-loathing. Even Jim, who pretty much has conquered the entire world, but still hates himself because he can’t get his wife pregnant (and the film makes it clear that it’s Jim’s “fault” because he’s firing blanks).

Drop the Corridor into the middle of this and suddenly everyone’s sharing neuroses and delusions…and let’s not forget Tyler, who probably suffers from schizophrenia. Many viewers won’t be pleased that the Corridor doesn’t get all that much screen time or explanation, but let’s get real: is there anything that could satisfactorily explain a Phantom Zone that turns people into mind-readers? I didn’t think so. This is a film that trusts its audience not to get hung up on the stuff that’s not important.

The Corridor is an ensemble piece for a strong cast, and all five of the main actors put in excellent performances. Flemming’s Chris is the emotional center and audience-identification character; Chambers underplays Tyler’s crazy (it must have been hard to fight off the temptation to go full Nicolas Cage); Gilbert manages to make Ev likable despite a long streak of douchebaggery. Amyotte and Matthews are also terrific.

There are few minor roles, but Mary-Colin Chisholm makes a strong impression as Pauline Crawley, and respected British character actor Nigel Bennett (probably best known for his roles on Forever KnightLa Femme Nikita and Lexx) makes a brief appearance as a hunter who stumbles across the Corridor.

There are a couple of silly narrative decisions in the last fifteen or so minutes, some dodgy effects, and the world’s fakest-looking bald cap on Amyotte’s head. But honestly, if that’s the stuff you care about then you’re watching the wrong movie.

The Corridor is a genuinely thought-provoking cosmic horror story that remembers that the center of the story isn’t some awesome supernatural force, but the characters who discover that force, and how they respond to it. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Scott.

The Corridor poster

A scene from ALYCE KILLS

Alyce Kills

United States. Directed by Jay Lee, 2011. Starring Jade Dornfeld, Tamara Feldman, Eddie Rouse. 94 minutes. 5/10

Twentysomething Alyce (Jade Dornfeld) works a dead-end data entry job for a boss who loathes her. She lives in a run-down apartment, her landlord constantly hounding her for rent. Her associates see her as weird and pathetic, and even her best–more like only–friend, Carroll (Tamara Feldman), thinks she’s kind of odd.

One night, Carroll discovers her boyfriend Vince (James Duval) is cheating on her and responds the only way she knows how: by dumping the bastard, then going on an ecstasy-fueled bender and taking Alyce along for the ride. The two young women end up on the roof of Alyce’s apartment building and tragedy strikes. The drug-addled Alyce playfully pushes Carroll as she dances along the roof’s ledge. Alyce doesn’t mean to hurt her friend; nevertheless, Carroll takes a multi-story tumble and lands on the street below.

Assuming she killed Carroll, Alyce sneaks back to her apartment. When the cops arrive the next day, she lies to them, telling them that Carroll was distraught over her breakup and went to the roof alone. That’s when the cops reveal that Carroll isn’t dead. Although with a shattered jaw, she’s not in much of a position to tell anyone the truth.

The guilt of having nearly killed her best–only–friend sends Alyce, never the most stable of people to begin with, over the edge. She looks up Carroll’s dealer Rex (Eddie Rouse) and tries to buy drugs from him…but since she doesn’t have enough money, he demands an…alternate…form of payment. Her life soon spins into a downward spiral of drug abuse and degrading sex. Her job performance suffers. Her behavior becomes more erratic than it already was.

Something inside Alyce has snapped. She may have been weird before…but now she’s dangerous.

Hey kids! Do you like movies about adorable, eccentric misfits (May)? What about gut-wrenching tales of emotional and physical degradation (Requiem for a Dream)? Or black comedies about psychotic murderers (Sightseers)? Well then, friend, today is your lucky day, because Alyce Kills is all three at once!

But actually–and this probably shouldn’t surprise you–what it really is, is an unfocused mess. It reminds me a lot of Chicago weather: if you don’t like what it’s doing or where it’s going, just wait about ten minutes. By that time you’ll find yourself wondering if you’re watching an entirely different movie.

Now, I’m all for shifts in tone and changes in direction in cinema. Some of my favorite horror movies employ them to great effect. The problem with Alyce Kills is that its shifts and twists aren’t particularly effective. Most horror films with a dark comic bent either juxtapose the two, or start out funny and progress to terrifying. This is hard enough to do as it is. Alyce Kills tries something a bit different: it starts serious, gets dark, and then becomes a comedy in its last half-hour. I guess there’s got to be a way to make that work, although writer/director Jay Lee certainly isn’t successful at it.

One thing that doesn’t help is that it’s hard for the audience to wrap its mind around the title character. One moment we feel bad for her because Rex shot his wad in her mouth even though she specifically told him not to, then she kills one of her friends, then she masturbates while watching Gulf War footage on a cable channel. Sometimes she’s a lovable, sarcastic pixie, sometimes she’s a freak and sometimes she’s just fucking nuts. Real human beings have all sorts of contradictory personality traits, but fictional characters need a bit of work to resolve them. Sometimes Alyce seems like an effigy to perform whatever action Lee thinks is cool or funny or whatever.

Jade Dornfeld’s performance in the role doesn’t make up for the flaws in its conception. That doesn’t mean that her performance is entirely, or even partially, bad: she’s a gifted comic actress, and she makes the best impression in the later, funnier scenes. There’s a sequence involving a microwave oven, a garbage disposal, and a severed human arm that’s priceless, and the film’s final scene is as hilarious as anything in an Edgar Wright movie.

She’s problematic when the story is on the serious side, especially in the first half hour or so. Like any good white liberal boy, I know I should feel bad for Alyce when she agrees to trade sex for drugs. But Dornfeld doesn’t really make the case that Alyce doesn’t have a choice (or feels she doesn’t have a choice, which is pretty much the same thing), and so I get miffed at her when she just doesn’t turn around and walk away.

Lee consistently tells us throughout the movie that Alyce has always been a little weird, but neither he nor Dornfeld actually convince us. We never get the feeling that there’s this wellspring of rage inside her, just waiting to burst out.

And it hurts because the character deserves a lot better than this, and so does the cast–including Dornfeld herself, despite all my criticism of her. I don’t regret watching Alyce Kills–it’s got its entertaining bits and its disturbing bits. They’re just not put together in a sequence that makes much sense.

Alyce Kills poster

All Cheerleaders Die

United States. Directed by Lucky McKee & Chris Sivertson, 2013. Starring Caitlin Stasey, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Brooke Butler. 89 minutes. 4/10

At the end of her junior year, Mäddy Killian (Caitlin Stasey), interviewing her fellow students on video for a class project, asks her childhood friend Lexi if cheerleading really is the most dangerous high school sport. Lexi insists it is, and proves it by dying in a fall during a botched toss.

Three months later and senior year is about to begin. Lexi’s boyfriend Terry (Tom Williamson) is now dating Tracy (Brooke Butler), the new cheerleading squad captain. Mäddy, having ditched her girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) and the rest of her geeky peer group, surprises everyone by trying out for the varsity squad…and shocks everyone by making the cut.

Mäddy has an agenda: she resents Terry and Tracy for hooking up so quickly after Lexi’s death, and wants to destroy their relationship by spreading rumors and seducing Tracy. But she doesn’t expect to develop a genuine affection for the cheerleading captain…and her plot goes awry when violence erupts between Terry and Tracy at a party. The car chase that ensues results in an accident that leaves Mäddy, Tracy and sisters Martha and Hanna (Reanin Johannink and Amanda Grace Cooper, respectively) dead.

Enter Leena, who resurrects the dead using a pagan ritual that links all five girls together in a supernatural bond. Mäddy and her friends find themselves possessed of unnatural powers–and an unholy thirst for human blood. They resolve to take vengeance on Terry and his buddies.

In 2001, Edward “Lucky” McKee and Chris Sivertson, fresh out of film school, made their first film, a low-budget horror movie called All Cheerleaders Die. It got a limited release and garnered little attention. McKee went on to write and direct acclaimed genre exercises such as May and The Woman. Sivertson had the misfortune to make I Know Who Killed Me during a period of time when everybody hated Lindsay Lohan. All Cheerleaders Die developed a small following, but remained more heard-about than actually seen.

But everything old becomes new again, especially when it comes to horror movies. And so Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson have remade All Cheerleaders Die. Should they have bothered? W-e-e-e-e-ll…

It’s not a bad little movie, not really. It’s well-directed and has a lot of funny moments (such as Leena leading the vampire cheerleaders into school on the first day, all of them with rock-star swagger, even Hanna in her mascot costume). It always nice to see McKee working through his pet obsessions: lonely, awkward outcasts, male-on-female cruelty and, of course, lesbians. Butler steals every scene she’s in, even when she’s not clad only in her undies, and Williamsons’ unhinged performance towards the end is a joyous thing. And, of course, attractive young cheerleaders in cheerleaders’ uniforms–can you tell I’m still bitter over Cheerleader Massacre?

And yet, as a rabid Lucky McKee fanboy (I’m not much familiar with Sivertson’s work), I can’t help but be disappointed.

The characterization simply isn’t as strong as I expected. The press materials refer to Mäddy as a “rebel,” but the writing doesn’t do much to develop that (other than the pretentious heavy metal umlaut in her name) and Stasey never really sells it. Johannink and Cooper barely seem aware that they’re supposed play each other when a (rather pointless) subplot involving Martha and Hanna body-swapping manifests. I found it hard to sympathize with girls who constantly call each other “bitch” as a sign of affection, or to buy a virgin so stupid he actually thinks women are (literally) cold inside during sex. (Although I can almost forgive that last one because it leads up to the “sweet, sweet freezebox” line.)

The storytelling also isn’t entirely up to snuff. A third-act revelation comes out of left field, as if McKee and Sivertson decided late in the writing process that Mäddy’s motivation wasn’t strong enough, and the script never seems to know where it’s going. While there aren’t any bad performances, the only cast member other than Butler and Williamson who distinguishes herself is Smit-McPhee.

But for me, the biggest disappointment was how typical it all was. One of the best things about McKee’s films is how distinct and quirky they are, even when they’re at their darkest; and, although I had a lot of problems with Sivertson’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s The Lost, at least he nailed the mood and feel of a Ketchum novel.

On the other hand, All Cheerleaders Die is…well, it’s just another teen-scream horror movie. There are too many teen movie clichés in play here and the filmmakers don’t put much effort into subverting them or even poking at them. The film needs the bite of Heathers, but ends up feeling like a third-rate episode of Buffy or Charmed.

To be fair, sometimes you want to watch a movie with hot chicks and fun kill scenes, something you don’t want to think too much about. And if that’s what you want, All Cheerleaders Die is a whole lot better than most. It’s just that, at the very least, one half of the filmmaking duo is capable of a lot better.

All Cheerleaders Die poster

HEAVY METAL

Retro Review: Heavy Metal

Canada. Directed by Gerald Potteron, 1981. 90 minutes. 5/10

From the pages of Heavy Metal, the legendary comics magazine of adult fantasy and science fiction, come these tales of heroism, sensuality, violence and imagination.

An astronaut returns to his home with a gift, a green crystal sphere, for his young daughter. But he realizes, too late, that this is no mere bauble. It is the Loc-Nar, “the sum of all evils,” a powerful alien intelligence whose corrupting influence has been felt across worlds, times, and universes. It will destroy the astronaut’s daughter, it says, for she possesses a destiny of which she is yet unaware. But first, it will reveal itself, and the full extent of its powers, to her, in these tales of the death and destruction it has caused.

  • In New York, in the near future, a group of ruthless alien businessmen threaten a young woman in possession of the Loc-Nar, and a taxi driver gets more than he bargained for when he comes to her aid.
  • The Queen of Neverwhere uses it in human sacrifice rituals to commune with the great god Uhluhtc. An arrogant upstart seeks to steal it, to usurp the Queen’s power for himself. Between them stands a stranger: Den, a strapping warrior claiming to hail from a far-away land known as “Earth.”
  • A seemingly harmless bauble picked up by an apparently random passer-by, it nevertheless has the power to interfere with the fate of a roguish spaceship captain on trial for his life.
  • It appears on board a bomber plane during the darkest days of World War II, and teaches the hapless crew that some horrors are worse even than war.
  • A motley crew of aliens pick it–and a beautiful young stenographer–up when it causes an android masquerading as a government scientist to malfunction.
  • Finally, it takes a nomadic tribe under its evil influence, mutating them into warrior savages who make war against an ancient city. The city’s elders call upon the lone descendent of a noble warrior to protect them. But she arrives too late, and her quest becomes one of vengeance.

*   *   *

Most anthology films are mixed bags and the 1981 animated effort Heavy Metal is no exception. Pulpy, a bit sleazy and not particularly sophisticated, it wants to prove animation ain’t just kid’s stuff, but it doesn’t understand what “mature content” actually is. (It’s like the target audience isn’t adults but teenage boys.) It just throws a lot of gore and sex at the audience, and the end result is something like an animated exploitation flick.

It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. A couple of the segments are quite good, and even the weaker ones aren’t unwatchably bad, especially if you can keep yourself from thinking too much. But taken as a whole, it’s more than a little less than the sum of its parts.

Reviews of the individual segments, using capsule-review ratings, follow.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Soft Landing/Grimaldi

Heavy Metal kicks off with one Hell of a visual event: a Space Shuttle deploying a 1960 ‘Vette from its cargo bay, which then descends to the Earth’s surface. Then we get the whole thing with the astronaut and the little girl and the Loc-Nar.

This is the film starting as it means to go on, prepping the audience for most of the conceits that recur over the next hour and a half. The animation style is…well, there’s no way around it, pretty creaky by modern standards. If you’re familiar with Ralph Bakshi’s output of this vintage, the animation’s quality shouldn’t really surprise you. I really hope you like rotoscoping, though. On the other hand, if Don Bluth is the standard by which you judge all early-Eighties feature animation, Heavy Metal isn’t likely to impress you.

In terms of the art itself and the overall visual aesthetic, those who like genre mash-ups will find themselves drooling uncontrollably like dogs in Pavlov’s kitchen. “Soft Landing” juxtaposes the Space Shuttle (a very 1981 image) with a classic sports car, and “Grimaldi” twists it again by adding the obviously mystical Loc-Nar to the mix. Again, this is something that the film does throughout, so this is just setting the stage.

Other recurring elements that start here is the sight of a human being dissolving into goo (which declares the film’s commitment to graphic violence as well as being the signature effect of the first third or so of the film) and the use of contemporary rock (mostly hard rock and heavy metal) in the soundtrack, in the form of Jerry Riggs’s “Radar Rider.”

Harry Canyon

The first proper story is a bit of a weird one: initially continuing in the same science fiction-horror vein as “Grimaldi,” with a death scene set to Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” the genre then shifts to near-future neo-noir, with the taxi-driving title character caught between a beautiful young woman and the alien “investors” who want to buy the Loc-Nar from her.

“Harry Canyon” should work a lot better than it does, considering its refreshingly sardonic tone and beautiful design (apparently influenced by the French comics genius Jean “Mœbius” Giraud), but it comes up short. The writers don’t put much effort into the characterization. For example, the femme fatale doesn’t seem to have a name other than “Girl,” which should give you a good idea of what the film’s sexual politics are like. The world-building is similarly lazy, despite a few nice touches such as the NYPD demanding cash up-front to investigate the attack on Girl.

But the big problem here is the animation. Too many poorly-rendered scenes like the one where Harry hands Girl a beer. Also, notice how the side vents on Girl’s dress seem to appear and disappear from scene to scene. I know enough not to expect Disney quality from Heavy Metal but this is something Bakshi might turn in if he just didn’t give a shit.

Den

About a month ago a friend of mine retweeted the following:

That’s not really true, of course: only two of the stories, “Harry Canyon” and “Den,” are like that. (The two appearing right next to each other in the running order doesn’t help matters, though.) But it is indicative of something I’ve always suspected: while “Taarna” is the segment of Heavy Metal people seem to remember most clearly, “Den” sums up what the hive-mind seems to think the entire experience of watching it is like: cheap T&A and gratuitous violence.

Based on material writer/artist Richard Corben started publishing during a fad in sword-and-sorcery comics (and comix) that lasted throughout the early to mid-’70s, “Den” is essentially Conan with the nudity Marvel Comics couldn’t depict in their comic books featuring Robert E. Howard’s legendary warrior-hero. Basically, it’s a juvenile power-fantasy. A nerdy eighteen-year-old virgin on Earth, Den becomes a muscular, charismatic badass in Neverwhere. Whereas Harry Canyon’s sexual prowess was incidental, Den’s is crucial: in one scene, he literally fucks–albeit temporarily–some sense into one of the villains. No wonder he doesn’t want to go back home.

As such, “Den” feels a bit quainter and cornier than the rest of Heavy Metal, because these days audiences expect more sophistication from fantasy. (Not that fantasy always delivers.) But as a product of the age of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, it’s exactly what the mass-mind thought fantasy was like in 1981. The writers undercut this somewhat by using the same sardonic sensibility that marked “Harry Canyon,” juxtaposing cornball lines such as “Your great strength has brought peace to my restless body” with the immortal “There was no way I was gonna walk around this place with my dork hangin’ out!”

The story benefits somewhat by refusing to play the material straight. But one piece of casting pushes it a bit too far. To give the film credit, contemporary audiences might not have immediately recognized up-and-coming comic actor John Candy as the voice of Den. Modern audiences don’t have that luxury, and while Candy’s performance isn’t bad (and he probably provided the producers with exactly what they asked for), it’s too distracting. I guess, considering the number of connections that exist between Heavy Metal and Stripes, we should just be thankful Bill Murray didn’t end up in the role.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Captain Sternn

Next is a tale of Berni Wrightson’s Capt. Lincoln Sternn, standing trial for “twelve counts of murder in the first degree, fourteen counts of armed theft of Federation property, twenty-two counts of piracy in high space, eighteen counts of fraud, thirty-seven counts of rape, and one moving violation.” But he has an angle: he bribed the nebbishy Hanover Fiste to serve as character witness. Unfortunately, fate wrecks Capt. Sternn’s plans when Fiste pockets a small green marble he comes across in the corridor. Prompted by the Loc-Nar, Fiste Hulks out on the stand, accuses Sternn of “selling dope while disguised as a nun,” and proceeds to attack Sternn and the entire space station.

“Captain Sternn” is the more successful of Heavy Metal’s two attempts at outright comedy, and is easily my favorite segment of the bunch. The design matches Wrightson’s illustration style exactly and the script lifts almost all of its dialogue from the first Sternn story. The voice casting–SCTV vets Eugene Levy as Sternn and Joe Flaherty as his lawyer, along with SpongeBob’s Rodger (Squidward) Bumpass as Fiste, is dead-on.

The chase scene goes on a bit too long, and as a segment it doesn’t feel particularly substantial compared to some of the other stories (that’s why I don’t have much to say about it), but on the whole “Captain Sternn” is as good as Heavy Metal gets.

B-17

Based on an unpublished short story by Dan O’Bannon, “B-17” is Heavy Metal’s only excursion into pure horror and apparently the only segment that can’t be traced back to something that originally appeared in the magazine (the Loc-Nar comes from the Lovecrafian mythos Corben invented for the “Den” stories, while “Harry Canyon” and “Taarna” have their own influences).

It’s also another success. The grossest of the lot (not even the corpse-meltings are this disgusting), “B-17” owes an obvious debt to the horror titles of E.C. Comics, with its Loc-Nar-animated corpses attacking the flight crew of a wartime bomber plane. The art, coming in part from comics (creator of Ghost Rider) and animation (Wizards) vet Mike Ploog, is gorgeous and overall the segment is very effective.

If I have to pick a fault, though, it’s in the song used during the segment, “Heavy Metal” by Don Felder. Seriously, who commissions the ex-co-lead guitarist of the Eagles to write and perform a song called “Heavy Metal”? Come on.

So Beautiful and So Dangerous

There are times when Heavy Metal feels more like a product of the ’70s than the ’80s. Of course, most of the source material was actually published during the Me Decade, but that’s not the only reason. And no segment feels more like the ’70s than “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” which takes the designs of Angus McKie and transplants them into a story which might as well be called Cheech and Chong in Space.

It’s an unfocused, meandering affair, which starts with aliens in a smiley-face spaceship abducting a scientist and a stenographer from a government meeting about Americans mutating into green beasts (I blame the Loc-Nar), and ends with the crew, stoned to the gills on “Plutonian Nyborg” (cocaine, essentially), trying to pilot into a space station hangar (“You know your perspective’s fucked, so you just let your hands work the controls as if you were straight”) while the stenographer discusses the prospect of marriage with the ship’s robot. “I’m just scared some day I’ll come home and find you screwing the toaster.” Legit concern.

John Candy (as the robot), Eugene Levy and the late Harold Ramis (as the crew) put in fine performances, and the art and design (with McKie consulting) are breathtaking, particularly the CG-rendered spaceship, the story is just…kinda pointless, really, never seeming to go anywhere or do or say anything, as if the screenwriters were high on Plutonian Nyborg themselves. (I’ve not read the source material, but I’ve heard it described as a more philosophical affair.)

The feeling I get is that the producers felt Heavy Metal needed three things to prove to the audience that it wasn’t a kiddie cartoon: violence, sex and drugs. Other segments cover the first two (actually, “Beautiful/Dangerous” spends plenty of time objectifying the nude female form as well), but the latter needed to be represented. And thus…this.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Taarna

The cornerstone of Heavy Metal is its final segment, “Taarna.” Promotional work features the title character heavily (the most common poster art, later used on home video release covers, is Chris Achilleos’s rendition of her). Taking up the final third of the running time, it seemed to have received the most thought…and the most money. “Taarna” is the only segment that gets all the disparate elements–story, themes, character, aesthetic, and animation–right.

Cribbing heavily once again from Mœbius–this time the “Arzach” cycle–“Taarna” takes all the various elements explored in the preceding segments and blends them together to create something other than else. The result is a mystical Western with both science fiction and fantasy elements, like someone trying to describe El Topo without ever having actually seen it.

The key to the segment’s success is the title character. I’ve criticized the film’s depiction of women in earlier paragraphs, but honestly, Heavy Metal is really no more offensive than your average exploitation flick or teen sex comedy of this vintage. And Taarna certainly suffers from her fair share of objectification: she’s as top-heavy as any of the film’s other major female characters, her battle garb consists of a bikini with strapless top and thong bottom, and she spends two or three sequences completely nude.

But she also has a lot of implied depth and is fierce enough to stand toe-to-toe with any modern action heroine. She’s the film’s most fully realized woman, and considering she has absolutely no dialogue, that’s no mean feat.

Epilogue

Sadly, the film’s end, which ties “Taarna” together with the frame story, isn’t as strong as might be hoped. The connection between Grimaldi’s daughter and Taarna isn’t much of a surprise; admittedly, it’s probably not intended as one, but it’s still somewhat lame. And the links between the two segments are…maddening. Everything the film tells us indicates that “Taarna” takes place in the past, so how does Taarna’s defeat of the Loc-Nar affect the girl in the future? The assumption that the two segments take place simultaneously creates its own problems.

It doesn’t kill the whole film or the power of the “Taarna” segment, but it’s a disappointing way to resolve the strongest portion of the film.

Heavy Metal poster

A scene from ACROSS THE RIVER

Across the River

Italy. Directed by Lorenzo Bianchini, 2013. Starring Marco Marchese. 6/10

Ethologist Marco Contrada (played by Marco Marchese) prowls the wilderness near the Italian/Slovenian border, living out f a caravan. Here he conducts his regular wildlife survey, which includes trapping animals and strapping cameras onto them, to track their nocturnal behavior. What he finds disturbs him: something stalks these remote woods, savaging foxes and wild pigs, something that hasn’t shown up on his camera footage.

His research takes him across a shallow river to the crumbling remains of a deserted village. Soon enough, Marco finds the source of the animal killings: two diminutive, figures who show up on his night-vision footage.

Marco has no idea what happened in this village, decades ago. He doesn’t know that two little girls lived here during the second World War. He doesn’t know that the girls’ neighbors feared them and whispered rumors of witchcraft. He doesn’t know what happened to the girls when the soldiers came, or why they laid a curse on the village.

All he knows is that when heavy rains fall and the river floods, he is trapped here…with the savage, spectral creatures who slaughter the local wildlife.

The above synopsis of Across the River probably gives the impression that it’s a standard, run-of-the-mill horror picture. A movie, with found-footage elements, about a researcher stranded in a remote European wilderness, where decades before a terrifying atrocity occurred, and a supernatural force still roamed? Gee, I think it’s been two days since I’ve seen one of those. The difference between Across the River and a thousand other similar films proves Roger Ebert’s familiar rule: a movie is not so much about what it’s about, but how it’s about it.

To start us off, the film has very little plot. Marco Contrada is the only major character, and he never interacts with any of the other characters. He occasionally talks to himself, or speaks into a digital recorder, which means dialogue is very sparse. Director/co-writer Lorenzo Bianchini reveals backstory in a parallel plot that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the main story until the end.

He also largely eschews jump-scares in favor of ramping up the creep factor, and paces his movie slowly. Very slowly. 2001: A Space Odyssey seems brisk by comparison.

Its lack of incident, dialogue and character development will turn off the average filmgoer, and even the average horror fan. However, these aren’t flaws in the film per se; they’re simply things that the film does differently from what we expect. The flipside is that Bianchini has crafted an intensely atmospheric film.

We don’t need reams of character development; in this case, knowing so little about Contrada actually makes him so relatable. He becomes a sort of Everyman who wanders toward his doom almost at random. What happens to him is terrifying in part because his survey feels more like a camping trip than the sort of important expedition at the heart of The Blair Witch Project and his many imitators. Something like this could happen in any rural locale far off the beaten path.

Where Across the River really shines is in its mise-en-scene. Bianchini makes brilliant use of his locations and every shot hammers home the idea of isolation. (One thought I kept returning to while watching is that it must have been an extremely difficult shoot.) The decaying village oozes dread from every pore, the sort of place one would naturally expect Silent Hill-type goings-on to occur. Even the remote-camera footage is effective. The scene in which the girls first appear plays beautifully off of familiar found-footage clichés, like the Xbox Kinect scenes in Paranormal Activity 4 done right. And the sound design is a masterpiece.

As impressed as I was with it, I believe most will find it exceptionally dull. I can certainly sympathize with this point of view; there were points at which I found the film trying my patience–and I love slow films. Too many times I felt the urge to scream for it to get a move on already, and it could stand from a more ruthless round of editing–its hour-and-forty running time is just too long.

That being said, if you’re bored with the same-old same-old and have a yen to try something very unconventional, keep an eye out for Across the River. It’s not for everyone, but it just might be for you.

Thanks to the Chicago Cinema Society and Chicago Filmmakers for bringing Across the River to Chicago.

Across the River

A scene from ENTITY

Entity

United Kingdom. Directed by Steve Stone, 2012. Starring Dervla Kirwan, Charlotte Riley, Branko Tomovic. 87 minutes. 4/10

In 1983, an unknown agency keeps a man known only as “Mischka” in isolation in a facility in Sadovich, Siberia. They keep him under restraints, as often as they can. He can do things.

In 1988, an investigation uncovers thirty-three sets of human remains buried in the forest near Sadovich. The authorities issue no explanation and close the case.

In 2010, a crew from the British reality program Darkest Secrets, led by presenter Kate Hansen (Charlotte Riley), visits Sadovich. With the help of psychic Ruth Peacock (Dervla Kirwan) and author Yuri Levkov (Branko Tomovic), they hope to uncover the truth behind those thirty-three corpses.

Twenty-seven years ago, something happened in Sadovich. Something so terrible that the spirits of those that died there are unable to rest. Something that continues to pose grave danger decades later.

A trap that Kate Hansen, Ruth Peacock and their associates have just walked into.

Hip hip huzzah, it’s another found footage movie. I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it.

Well, okay, since there’s plenty of “objective” (for lack of a better term) camera footage, you can argue Entity isn’t really a found footage movie. You’d be correct, but you’d be focusing on a single aspect of the production at the expense of the bigger picture. Entity looks and feels like a found footage movie, it uses the tropes and the iconography. Even when the footage doesn’t come from the characters’ cameras, it still looks like director Steve Stone shot it on consumer, not professional-grade, DV.

Like many other recent attempts to cash in on the found footage craze, a sense of calculation and obligation defines Entity. It meticulously does everything the subgenre requires it to do. When the team learns that Yuri has a secret connection to the mystery, it wouldn’t surprise the audience even if Tomovic didn’t play the character as if he were carrying a sign reading ASK ME ABOUT MY HIDDEN AGENDA. It’s not a surprise because that’s the only sort of role a character like Yuri can play in a story like this.

Similarly, when Kate has to choose between checking up on her cameras or searching for an associate who disappeared literally seconds ago, of course she chooses the cameras. The most important lesson she gleaned from Heather Donahue and Jason Creed is that the footage is more important than anyone’s life, or indeed everyone’s lives.

What Entity doesn’t have is heart, soul or a reason to care. Tomovic’s performance is the only weak one per se, but most of the others don’t exactly come out smelling like roses. Riley isn’t able to invest Kate with anything beyond what little the script gives her: she’s a driven, ambitious TV presenter, indistinguishable from a thousand other similar characters in a thousand other stories. She’s like a toy slot car on a race track, following a path for no other reason than that’s what the script tells her to do.

The same goes for Rupert Hill and Oliver Jackson, as tech assistants Matt and David; the characters are so generic that their job titles may as well be “cannon fodder” for all the difference it makes. Only Kirwan (as a Doctor Who fan, I must inform you that she played Miss Hartigan, the Cyber King, in “The Next Doctor”) emerges unscathed, and even then I can’t help but think that Ruth should have been so much more impressive than this.

And what really hurts is the fact that, for once, for all the film’s other failings, it’s solid from a visual perspective. The forests of Yorkshire, England, easily double for the forests of remote Russia. The facility interiors are beautifully atmospheric, and the effects and editing team deserve most of the credit for the two or three scenes in which Mischka is an effective villain-slash-monster.

Ultimately, Entity is a mediocre effort that doesn’t even have the common decency to suck. If it did, it would at least be memorable. Instead, it’s largely forgettable, a horror film as generic as its title.

Entity poster

A scene from +1

+1

United States. Directed by Dennis Iliadis, 2013. Starring Rhys Wakefield, Ashley Hinshaw, Logan Miller. 96 minutes. 4/10

Angad’s parents are out of town for the weekend, and you know what that means: party of the century! And he’s pulled out all the stops for this one. Booze, music, dancing, strippers, a sushi girl, the works. This one’s gonna be epic.

Too bad David (Rhys Wakefield) probably won’t enjoy it. His longtime girlfriend Jill (Ashley Hinshaw) broke up with him, after finding him kissing her rival for the collegiate fencing championship. He’s taking it pretty hard, but best friend Teddy (Logan Miller) is insistent that he at least try to have some fun. And when he sees Jill at the party, he realizes he might–might–have a shot at a second chance.

That’s always assuming David survives the night. Angad promised surprises galore, but there’s one surprise nobody could have expected…or planned.

Logan witnesses the first oddity: a drug dealer shot dead in the driveway, by his own exact duplicate. Teddy scores with the girl of his dreams…and as she steps into the shower, her doppelgänger walks through the bedroom door.

There’s two of everybody at this party, and the doubles seem to be living through the same events as the originals, only a few minutes later. Who are they? Where did they come from? And do they have sinister plans in mind?

“What would do me head in is…does he think the same way, look the same way…how would I know which one I was?”

—Karl Pilkington, when asked about how he would respond to meeting his own doppelgänger

The good news is that you can’t fault +1 director/co-writer Dennis Iliadis and co-writer Bill Gullo for falling prey to the usual doppelgänger/bodysnatcher clichés. The bad news is that there are so many other things to fault them for.

Let’s start with the positive. It’s easy to go into the movie expecting a mash-up of The Faculty with Can’t Hardly Wait, but the evil twins of +1 aren’t evil. They’re not alien invaders or mystical shapeshifters. They’re exact copies of the characters, with the same motivations and backstories. They only differ from the “originals” because different things happen to them in the present.

At this point, I originally planned to write “they’re just as confused and scared as the originals” but that’s not strictly true. If anything, they’re more confused and scared. They must cope, not only with the fear that comes from seeing their doubles, but also with the occasional instances of “missing time” (from their point of view) as their timeline comes closer and closer to syncing up with the original.

Knowing there’s an alien monster wearing your face isn’t what scares the characters. What scares them–both groups of them–is not knowing who the others are or why, and not realizing that the two groups are exactly alike.

This is easily the most fascinating aspect of the film and what separates it from most “teen scream” flicks out there. Iliadis and Gullo are as interested in exploring the philosophical ramifications of their premise as they are with delivering T&A and violence to the audience. Their film often feels like a lost Twilight Zone premise: “The Monsters Are Due at Angad’s House.”

The premise almost, but not quite, covers a few severe problems with the story. The party is the same party we’ve seen in a thousand times in a thousand teen movies. There’s more nudity, but that’s about the only difference. The characters are severely underdeveloped, and everything you need to know about most of the main characters can be summed up in a few words. David is a nice guy who blew it and wants to redeem himself. Teddy wants to get laid. Alison is unpopular and doesn’t even want to be there. Melanie is the target of lust. The one exception is Jill, who’s a bit more complex than the others, but sadly the script seems to see her more as a MacGuffin than as a character the audience might identify with.

It’s a credit to the cast–Wakefield, Miller, and the adorable Hinshaw, plus twins Suzanne and Colleen Dengel as Alison (you’ll have to watch the movie to realize why) and Natalie Hall as Melanie–that they can bring these characters to life, because the filmmakers don’t have much interest in investing them with much personality.

Character underdevelopment hits several subplots very hard, and exposes the streak of misogyny that underlies David’s quest to reconcile with Jill. The kiss that breaks the camel’s back is a more complex situation than she sees, but he never speaks up about it (not that we see). She has a lot to say about his personality flaws, but the audience rarely experiences them for itself, and sympathy for one character for another becomes a matter of “he said, she said.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that the filmmakers meant me to think that Jill was being unreasonable, and David’s journey of understanding rang distinctly false to me.

The subplot culminates in something I found personally horrifying but which the film seems to present as a happy ending. I don’t want to spoil it too much here, but the film probably doesn’t benefit from my having watched it so soon after the Isla Vista murders and the ensuing discussion about misogyny in the media. The resolution of this plot went a long way towards ruining my experience of the film.

Ultimately, +1 is a bitter disappointment. It’s a project with a germ of originality, a lot of potential and a few thought-provoking moments, overshadowed by teen-comedy tropes and a severely mishandled subplot.

+1 poster

 

A scene from NIGHTMARE CITY

Retro Review: Nightmare City

Italy. Directed by Umberto Lenzi, 1980. Starring Mel Ferrer, Hugo Stiglitz, Laura Trotter. 88 minutes. 3/10

Intrepid television-news reporter Dean Miller (Hugo Stiglitz) bides his time at an anonymous European airport, waiting for the impending arrival of an important nuclear scientist or something.

That’s when an unexpected military aircraft makes an emergency landing. Air traffic control is not able to make contact with the plane and the police assemble to investigate, as do Miller and his cameraman. A swarm of people–some of them appearing to have congealed beef gravy smeared on their faces–disembark from the plane, draw guns and knives and make short work of the police. (One of the killers is the scientist Miller was waiting for.) That being settled, they descend upon the city and wreak havoc.

Miller escapes with footage of the massacre, but when he attempts to broadcast it, the imperious General Murchison (Mel Ferrer) arrives and puts the kibosh on it, because blah blah blah military blah blah blah mass panic.

The plane came from some sort of top-secret nuclear facility; radiation mutated its passengers into murderous fiends. (It turns out the beef gravy is actually radiation burns.) They need to drink blood to survive, and the mutations have driven their cellular regeneration systems into overdrive. Only by destroying a certain part of the brain may one incapacitate them, as it disrupts the healing factor.

These blood-drinking, zomboid freaks target locations of strategic importance, including the television station where Miller works, the hospital where Miller’s wife Anna (Jill Trotter) assists with a crucial surgery, and the estate where Gen. Murchison’s daughter lives with her new husband. The ranks of the fiends swell as more planes filled with them arrive. Even worse, their affliction is apparently virulent.

While the military try to contain the chaos, Miller seeks to rescue his wife. Can they make it out of the country alive? Can Murchison devise a plan to defeat the freaks?

Or is all of humanity completely fucked?

In 1979, a little movie called Dawn of the Dead took the world by storm. It was especially notorious in western Europe, where it was known as Zombie (or variations thereof). European production companies specializing in cheap exploitation responded to its runaway success the only way they knew how: either by adding zombies to every film on their production slate, or commissioning a pile of rip-offs of Dawn. Some of these were good, most were bad, and Emmanuelle probably appeared in at least one of them.

Then there’s Incubo sulla città contaminata, variously known in the U.S. as either Nightmare City or City of the Walking Dead (not to be confused with City of the Living Dead, an alternate title for Fulci’s Gates of Hell), which is so very special that it merits specific attention.

According to IMDB, various corporate entities hired director Umberto Lenzi to make 65 films between 1958 and 1992, so it seems that someone thought he knew how to assemble a coherent motion picture. Unfortunately, the evidence of such a claim is very thin on the ground in Nightmare City.

The film includes two or three of the most hilarious continuity errors I’ve ever seen. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill things like “a scene is set at night, and the interiors reflect that, but the exteriors were shot at high god-damn noon,” although, yes, that is a thing that does happen. We’re talking higher orders of discontinuity here. Late in the film, a soldier shoots a zombie in the head, blowing it clean off her shoulders. In the very next shot, said head is attached to the body again. Cinema is magic! Consider, also, the case of an extra who dies at least twice, maybe three times, over the course of a scene.

Let’s not forget all those extras who fall victim to zombie attack by running towards clearly visible monsters instead of away from them. I don’t know who’s at fault here; could be Lenzi, could be the editor(s). But whoever paid them should ask for their money back.

And then there’s the sight of three or four zombies, leaning against a car and drinking bottles of Cherry Coke. I will never be able to make sense of that as long as I live. I’m hoping that when I die, someone in the afterlife will be able to explain it to me.

As for the script, you really can’t call it a story without using ironic air quotes. The degree of contrivance is astonishing: after the brouhaha at the airport, they somehow manage to strike three or four places in the entire city where important characters were congregating. Their prey-stalking technique is incomprehensible: one apparently breaks into a house, vandalizes the inhabitant’s artwork, and then lays low for at least twenty-four hours before striking again.

The script spends a good five minutes explaining why zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, a question very few people require answered in order to enjoy a tale of flesh-eating ghouls, but doesn’t bother establishing how the mutation is transmitted from person to person. Indeed, I spent the most of the film thinking it wasn’t–until the very end, when the screenwriters evidently noticed they forgot to write a scene forcing a character to kill a zombified loved one and duly added it.

And the less said about the ending, the better.

In the writers’ defense, they gave their movie a social conscience. Actually, never mind–Claudio Fragasso also gave Hell of the Living Dead and Troll 2 a social conscience. So, hell with them, then. There’s no defense for this nonsense.

Are there any good points? Well, Silvio Cipriani’s score is top-notch, in aesthetic terms. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t often wildly inappropriate compared to what’s going on in the movie. Like any good European exploitation film, there’s plenty of gratuitous female nudity involving attractive actresses. And of course, me being me, I really appreciated the scene in which zombies attack the Solid Gold Dancers…but I’m not really prepared to discuss my fetish for women in workout or dance attire with anyone other than my therapist.

But, honestly, the only compelling reason to watch this film is to make fun of it. If you want to see a vintage Italian zombie movie that’s actually good, I recommend you look elsewhere.

Nightmare City poster

A scene from TOAD ROAD

Toad Road

United States. Directed by Jason Banker, 2013. Starring James Davidson, Sara Anne Jones, Whitleigh Higuera. 76 minutes. 3/10

Are mood and perception-altering drugs a useful tool in transcending the traditional limits of consciousness? Or are they nothing more than a path leading to a dead end? And, at any rate, do the benefits of expanding your mind outweigh the risks? The debate has raged for decades.

It’s probably safe to say that James (portrayed by James Davidson–all the characters in Toad Road share their names with their actors) doesn’t give these questions much thought. He doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life beyond going to parties, taking drugs, listening to punk rock and engaging in outrageous antics with his buds. He just wants to get fucked up, have fun, and get even more fucked up.

That’s when he meets Sara (Sara Anne Jones), a new addition to his circle of so-called friends. A college student living on her own for the first time, she’s naïve, curious and highly impressionable. She’s ready to try new things, forbidden things, things previously denied her. Including drugs.

James and Sara begin dating, and she begins her experimentation with recreational pharmaceuticals–everything from weed, shrooms and acid to having someone blow the contents of a Vicks inhaler into her eyes.

One night, James describes a local urban legend. Out in the woods, he tells her, is an overgrown trail known as Toad Road. Long ago, seven iron gates stood along this path. If a traveler walked along this path, as he passed through each gate, his perception became more distorted, more frightening. If he were to pass the seventh and final gate, the traveler would find himself in Hell itself.

The path still exists, but the gates don’t–at least, not physically. Some stories state that you can see the gates at night…or while experiencing an altered state of awareness.

Sara becomes obsessed with the story of Toad Road, and becomes determined to walk the path while under the influence of LSD. It’s a decision that will have disastrous consequences–for her, and for James.

Altered perception, urban legendry, infernal mythology and a cute female lead. These things all live very comfortably in my wheelhouse. I should have loved Toad Road. So wha’ happened? Chalk it up to the hand-held, low-fidelity mumblecore aesthetic employed by the film’s “multi-hyphenate” (writer-director-producer-cinematographer) auteur, Jason Banker.

Banker adopts a documentary approach to both the photography and the editing. In fact, in the film’s early stages I thought it was actually supposed intended as a pseudo-documentary or found-footage exercise. In an early scene, as James depants a fellow party-goer and sets his pubic hair on fire, the actor playing the “friend” has his face blurred out. In terms of the narrative, what sense does that make other than to convince the viewer he’s watching documentary footage? But the narrative never acknowledges someone behind the camera. And I’m not the only person confused by this: I have read pieces on the film describing it as a “documentary.”

I assume Banker wanted Toad Road to have a “cinema verité” feel, to make it feel “real.” Instead, I was actually more aware of the mechanics of the filmmaking, causing me to wonder if Banker shot the footage intending to make a documentary and only later deciding to incorporate it into a fictional framework. (My research indicates this may well have been the case.) He fills the film with touches presumably intended to heighten the audience’s sense that they were watching something that actually happened; however, these elements only strengthened the Brechtian divide between me and what I was watching.

Characterization is minimal, and largely consists of people treating each other like garbage. Who cares? I don’t get anything out of watching this particular group of unpleasant jerks be unpleasant to each other. It’s not educational, it’s not emotionally powerful, it’s not scary, it’s not entertaining. In a scene late in the film, James stands on the street and practically begs passers-by to beat him unconsciousness, and I don’t feel bad for him because of his emotional degradation. I don’t even think, “Geez, what a fucking moron.” I don’t feel anything. Maybe I yawn, but that’s it. I simply don’t care.

And that’s because these characters do not seem real. Banker found a bunch of non-professional actors, named their characters after them, and allowed them to improvise their dialog and some of their scenes and it still doesn’t bring them to life.

I don’t blame the cast for this; it looks like they’re all playing themselves anyway, and nobody’s embarrassingly bad, so that’s not the problem. The problem is a story that is deliberately vague and withholds crucial information from the audience by the ton. Nobody seems to have much of a history, it’s hard to tell how the characters fit together, and almost impossible to tell some of the minor characters apart. Yet Toad Road expects to be patted on the head for being “challenging” and “intelligent” and “thought-provoking” and refusing to lead the audience by the hand.

And it’s a shame, because there’s something potentially really good at the core of Toad Road, something that Jason Banker obscures with his vague “script” and obtrusive stylistic touches. Maybe it is really there–like A Horrible Way to Die and Resolution, two films with similar styles that I also strongly disliked, it’s garnered critical acclaim. Maybe I just don’t get it. I hope so.

Postscript: Toad Road ends with a caption reading, “Dedicated to the memory of Sara Anne Moore.” She passed away in September, 2012, apparently of an accidental drug overdose. I rewatched it with that knowledge, and some additional details gleaned from this article about Jones and Toad Road, and I found that while it didn’t make me appreciate the film more, the fictional story did reflect, in a weird way, what little I know about her life.

Toad Road poster

Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, John Boyega, Alex Esmail, and Franz Drameh in ATTACK THE BLOCK.

Attack the Block

United Kingdom. Directed by Joe Cornish, 2013. Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail. 88 minutes. 8/10

Bonfire Night in the South London district of Brixton. Nurse Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker), returning to her home in the Wyndham Estates council block, encounters a group of five local youths. The gang, led by Moses (John Boyega), attempts to mug Sam, but she escapes when a meteorite strikes a nearby car. As the kids investigate, some sort of large, wild animal attacks and injures Moses; it runs away, but Moses and his friends give chase.

They run it to ground and discover that the animal isn’t like anything seen on Earth: pale and hairless, with bioluminescent jaws. Moses makes quick work of the monster. The kids, hoping to get rich and famous off their adventure, take the corpse to local weed dealer Ron (Nick Frost) for safekeeping.

More meteorites rain down on the neighborhood; the kids arm themselves and go in search of more alien monsters to fight. But these “alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers” are larger and tougher than the first, and don’t go down so easily. More complications arise. The police (having been called by Sam) arrive at the block, seeking to arrest the youths. Attempting to flee the monsters, Moses and his friends run afoul of the block’s drug kingpin, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).

More and more monsters descend upon the block, the kids must enter into an uneasy alliance with their erstwhile victim Sam if they expect to evade both Hi-Hatz and the coppers while fending off the alien invaders. The fate of the Wyndham Estates rests entirely with five tough inner-city kids, armed only with baseball bats and knives.

Action-horror hybrids tend to work best by subverting action tropes. The two examples I always use are Aliens, in which all the film’s toughest characters (save one) die in a single scene, and Predator, where a stroke of dumb luck allows Dutch to avoid meeting the same fates as his fellow soldiers.

Attack the Block, the début directorial effort from British comic actor Joe Cornish, is the modern equivalent of Alien and Predator in this sense. Moses and his mates might think themselves tough guys, and put into the context of the Wyndham Estates, they probably are. They certainly scare white ladies like Sam.

But Cornish consistently reminds us that they are also kids, and their desperation shows. Their mums call them on their mobile phones, and none can afford unlimited voice or data plans. They zoom around the grounds on scooters and bicycles; they steal a car, but don’t have drivers’ licenses. Their weapons are mêlée weapons, and even the most impressive one–a katana–is a display piece, not actually meant for real combat. Only the grown-ups, like Hi-Hatz, carry guns. When Moses tells Sam he’s fifteen years old, it’s meant as a big revelation–but, truth be told, while he certainly looks older than that, the context of the film doesn’t tell us he’s much older.

Of course, deceptive appearances also work the other way round. The gang marks Sam as a target because they figure she’s posh; little do they realize she’s one of their neighbors. This serves as part of the film’s social commentary, which, for the most part, is very subtle, coming to the fore only in a couple of instances. At one point, Moses theorizes that the powers-that-be “bred those things to kill black boys.” Just as telling is Pest’s (Alex Esmail) criticism of Sam’s absent boyfriend, working for the Red Cross in Ghana. “Why can’t he help children in Britain?” Pest asks her. “Not exotic enough, is it? Don’t get a nice suntan?”

Cornish bulks up his setting and themes by applying memorable dialogue seasoned with authentic (or at least authentic-seeming) British urban slang; non-native speakers might have to consult the Urban Dictionary to understand terms like “wagwan bruv.” This also strengthens characterization, and each faction of characters has its own particular dialect. Compare the kids’ language to that of working-class white girl Sam, Ron the dealer who smokes a bit too much of his own stash, or Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a “profoundly stoned” slumming uni student. And let’s not forget Probs and Mayhem, the pint-size gangstas in training.

Of course, such dialogue requires a great cast to make it work, and a great cast is what this film has. Boyega is the film’s breakout performer; he emits charisma like light from a bulb. The other gang members–Esmail, Howard, Leeon Jones and Franz Drameh–each get several moments of greatness, as does Whittaker. Frost (the closest the film has to a big name), Treadaway and Hunter steal every scene they’re in.

The film’s direction is superb, with plenty of exciting and clever action sequences. The film cost a relatively modest $13 million to make but looks like it could have been five or six times more expensive. The cinematography and editing transform a series of disparate locations into the Wyndham Estates. As for the monsters, their design is delightful, the effects work solid and Cornish wisely keeps them in shadow or darkness for most of the film. Comparative newcomer Steven Price supplies a terrific score and the soundtrack features a new song from Basement Jaxx alongside some modern hip-hop and reggae classics.

Attack the Block is exhilarating, thrilling, hilarious and frightening–everything you could want from either a modern horror movie or a modern action movie. With its infectiously quotable dialogue, well-drawn characters and vivid setting, it’s destined to become a cult classic–if it hasn’t already.

Attack the Block poster