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

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 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

Blue Ruin

United States. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, 2013. Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves. 90 minutes. 9/10

Unkempt and withdrawn, Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) lives “off the grid” in Delaware. He breaks into houses for baths, scavenges for food and lives in his broken-down, pale blue Pontiac Bonneville.

One day, someone raps on the car’s window. It’s Officer Eddy of the local P.D. She has a message for Dwight.

Years ago, Wade Cleland, Jr., murdered Dwight Evans’s mother and father. He went to prison for his crime. And soon, within days, his term will be over.

Dwight’s demeanor changes the minute he hears the news. He fixes his car, sends a postcard to his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), and unsuccessfully attempts to get a gun. He hits the road, his destination a place he hasn’t seen in a long, long time.

Home.

By pure chance, Dwight comes across the Cleland family, celebrating Wade’s release at a meeting hall just outside the small Virginia town where he grew up. Within minutes, Wade lies on the floor of the men’s room, dead by Dwight’s hand.

Dwight gets away–but not unseen. Soon, the Cleland family will come for him, and probably his sister and her young daughters. He’s got to get them first.

It’s the only way.

It’s an old story. The wronged man takes up arms, to take vengeance on those who persecuted him. But at the end of it all, he rarely finds that revenge delivers the catharsis and closure he seeks. Instead, he finds the price he pays is terrible indeed, and he is worse off than he was before. He sees, to his sorrow, the truth behind the old saying: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

That’s not how Dwight’s story goes, not exactly. It’s not hard to guess that writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin won’t end with Dwight Evans perched triumphantly atop a mound of Cleland corpses. But it’s not the process of vengeance that destroys him. He’s a broken man, damned the day his parents died. He’s a tragic figure, unable to take any step that doesn’t bring him closer to his looming fate. Awkward and inept, he’s nobody’s idea of a hero.

“I could feel sorry for you if you were crazy,” Sam tells him, “but you’re just weak.”

The direction is poetic and spare, occasionally interrupted by scenes of intense suspense and harrowing violence. The cracked urban pavements and long shots of vast, empty rural land reflect the characters’ mental states. Some of the dialogue is quite clever (I’m very fond of “The guy with the gun gets to tell the truth”) and there’s a thin streak of black comedy running through the story, but the overall tone is bleak. The script sparingly doles out backstory, and while there are surprises and twists, it thankfully doesn’t hinge on an all-important third-act shock plot twist. Haunting ambient soundscapes, provided by Brooke and Will Blair, underline the action, along with the occasional country and western song.

Blair (who also executive-produced) inhabits the lead role of Dwight and carries the film with it. It’s not just in his line readings (sometimes intense, sometimes scattershot). His physical presence is just as important, and even after cleaning up and changing from a scraggly-bearded, creepy-looking drifter to someone you wouldn’t look twice at passing on the street, Blair looks the part of a man driven by demons. It’s in the eyes, mainly.

The other performances are quite good, especially Hargreaves (best known for playing Claire Danes’s sister on Homeland), Devin Ratray as Dwight’s gun-fondling childhood friend and Kevin Kolack, Stacey Rock and Eve Plumb (yup, that Eve Plumb) as various Clelands.

Quirky yet hauntingly dark, Blue Ruin is one of the best films of 2014 so far. Highly recommended for fans of the Coen Brothers’ darker films, such as Blood Simple and Fargo.

P.S. Jeremy Saulnier may seem to have come out of nowhere, but several months ago my friends Jori and John introduced me to his first film, 2007’s Murder Party; we discussed it in the April episode of the Forced Viewing Podcast. As riotously hilarious as Blue Ruin is spare and grim, this merciless evisceration of pretentious art-scene sycophants is one of the finest horror-comedies of recent years. It also stars Macon Blair, as well as two other Blue Ruin actors, Cleland siblings Stacey Rock and Alex (Sandy) Barnett. I wholeheartedly recommend it. “Fuck the scene! Everybody dies!”

Blue Ruin 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

Contracted

Contracted

Contracted

United States. Directed by Eric England, 2014. Starring Najarra Townsend, Alice Macdonald, Caroline Williams. 84 minutes. 8/10

“Sex is natural,” proclaimed the Anglo-Greek poet Georgios Panayiotou in 1987, “sex is fun.” But it’s also often awkward, occasionally painful, saddled with a lot of cultural baggage, and kinda gross.

In other words, the emotional and physical mechanics of sex are perfect territory for horror movies to mine.

The last decade or so has seen a minor boom in horror movies that use frank depictions of the female sexual cycle to generate unease in the audience. (For a lot of people, frank depictions of the female sexual cycle are unsettling enough without the added context of a horror movie.) Paul Solet’s Grace graphically portrays a miscarriage, while the heroine of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s satire Teeth turns out to have a set of the eponymous chompers in her vagina. Eric England’s Contracted, a plague movie in which the plague is an STD, works in a similar vein.

B.J. apparently contracts the disease from the corpse he’s seen fucking at the beginning of the film. Later, he passes it on to Samantha, when he meets her at a party and uses her drunken condition to take sexual advantage of her (read: rapes).

Sam is the story’s protagonist, a troubled and confused young florist who’s on the outs with both her mother and her ex-girlfriend. Her friends are assholes: Alice encourages Sam to drown her sorrows in booze, Zain offers her a “bump” of cocaine despite the implications of substance abuse in her past, and Riley is an obsessive sad-sack who puts on a grand show of being a “nice guy.” Alice and Riley are both angling to get Sam in the sack, and they don’t seem to mind employing dickish tactics in their pursuit.

With friends like these, who needs chlamydia?

Once you’ve added Sam’s bitchy ex and her homophobic mother to the mix, you find yourself without much in the way of likable characters. Even Sam, with her tendency towards immature behavior that only increases as her illness progresses, isn’t a particularly sympathetic central figure.

This has a bit of an alienating effect, which I found largely countered by strong performances, particularly from Najarra Townsend as Sam. Townsend expands upon the characterization, turning a character who could very easily be an obnoxious brat into a girl who’s still visibly battling with demons everybody else thinks she should have conquered by now.

Caroline Williams (Sam’s mother) and Alice Macdonald (Alice) put in good performances as well. Charlie Koontz brings darkly comic relief in his two or three scenes as Zain, and Simon Barrett (better known as writer for several Adam Wingard projects) is great in his brief role as B.J.

Contracted doesn’t necessarily need gore to disgust the audience; the characters are revolting enough. But there is plenty of the icky stuff on display. Sam interprets the initial effects of the illness as a particularly nasty period, allowing England to indulge in several scenes involving clothes with strategically-located bloodstains. Eventually we realize that Sam’s been gradually decomposing before our eyes. The impeccable makeup work will impress gorehounds, and a third-act scene involving maggots is sure to upset the most ironclad of stomachs.

England also wrote the screenplay and I was quite impressed with it. The plotting is effective and I enjoyed the first fresh take on the zombie/plague trope I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that focused on the gradual change from living to undead the way this one does. His direction is fairly solid, although the cinematography more on hand-held “shaky-cam” techniques than I prefer.

All in all, it’s a fine modern horror film that doesn’t skimp on the splat. But if you can get past the unpleasant characters, you’ll find that Contracted’s emotional violence is just as powerful as its physical violence.

Contracted poster

The Hanover House

The Hanover House

United States. Directed by Corey Norman, 2014. Starring Brian Chamberlain, Casey Turner, Anne Bobby. 73 minutes. 7/10

Haunted houses, family secrets and personal demons go together like peanut butter and jelly, and Maine filmmaker Corey Norman (who’s already impressed me with two short films, The Barn and Natal, serves up a satisfying portion of all three in his feature début, The Hanover House.

The tale of young couple Robert and Shannon Foster, a young married couple who find themselves in a tragic, uncomfortable situation during an uncomfortable ride home from Robert’s estranged father’s funeral, The Hanover House places its emphasis on atmosphere over flashy effects sequences. Largely filmed in and around a purportedly real haunted house in western Maine, Norman squeezes out every last drop of creepy dread his locations have to offer.

The script covers the familiar tropes of haunted-house stories, with a couple of highly memorable creep-out sequences (Robert taking a phone call from his deceased father is a highlight) and the occasional surprise revelation. There’s a strong degree of realism to the character dynamics: as familiar as dysfunctional families are in fictional film worlds, it’s actually fairly rare for a movie to get one exactly right. The Hanover House nails it right on the head, thanks not only to the script but to fine performances from leads Brian Chamberlain and Casey Turner, along with supporting turns from Nightbreed’s Anne Bobby (as Robert’s mother) and David Shaffer (as the less-than-trustworthy Uncle Fred).

The Hanover House looks and feels like a local, low-budget production and a few of the familiar flaws are present. The most notable one, at least to me, is what I’ve come to term “ultra-indie acting.” As good as most of the performances are, the actors tend to wait a bit too long to respond to a speaker during a conversation, as if they’re trying a bit too hard not to step on their castmates’ lines. This tends to give the line-readings a bit of a stilted, unnatural feel (and when combined with rapid cuts between the speaking characters, makes the scene feel as if it Norman cobbled together from different takes in post, even though he most likely didn’t).

The flashback sequences also aren’t as successful as they could be: Norman tries too hard to avoid showing Robert’s father’s face (the voice of the character’s younger version is almost certainly provided by Chamerlain, and I suspect he stood in for the character as well), and the actor playing the teenaged Robert puts in one of the film’s weaker performances. (I also got the feeling that the Norman intended the part for a younger actor.)

Overall, The Hanover House is a solid, entertaining haunted-house exercise with a couple of great scenes. It will make its official début at the Saco Drive-In in Saco, Maine, on May 9, and will hopefully start making the festival rounds shortly thereafter. Worth a watch if it comes your way.

Hanover House poster