Reviews for Cinema Axis: Blood in the Snow 2017

An urban legend and a novel mockumentary

Real-life commitments kept me from contributing much to Cinema Axis’ coverage of Blood in the Snow, Toronto’s annual showcase of Canadian low-budget filmmaking. But I did find time to get a couple of reviews in:

Blood in the Snow 2017

Buckout Road (Canada: dir. Matthew Currie Holmes, 2017). Anybody who’s ever watched a movie will recognize the Coping with Grief (what is it with movies about grief this year? See also half the movies I saw at either CIFF or Cinepocalypse) and Living with a Difficult Family clichés. On the bright side, I found Holmes’ direction surprisingly atmospheric, and the always-awesome Danny Glover and Henry Czerny make up for the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors.

Fake Blood (Canada: dir. Rob Grant, 2017) examines the relationship between horror-movie violence and real-life violence through the lens of a found-footage or “mockumentary” film (see what I did there?). It’s a novel idea (while not wholly original; see also JT Petty’s S&man) that might have worked better if their approach was more conventional. The filmmakers concern themselves more with what happened than what will happen, leaving the audience in suspense for events that never come.

 

The Veil

Unfortunately, not even diabolical acting courtesy of Thomas Jane can prop up this limp effort.

The Veil

United States. Directed by Phil Joanou, 2016. Starring Jessica Alba, Thomas Jane, Lily Rabe, Aleksa Palladino, Reid Scott. 93 minutes. 2/10

On the evening of November 18, 1978, more than 900 men, women and children died at the “Jonestown,” a commune in Guyana populated by members of an American cult, the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ. They died on the orders of the cult’s founder and leader, Jim Jones, who was himself found dead of a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted. The incident would stand as the largest deliberate mass loss of American civilian life until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Over thirty-five years later, the “Jonestown Massacre” casts a long shadow over American culture. Screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (best known as co-creator of the Night at the Museum franchise and member of the seminal ’90s sketch-comedy troupe the State) and director Phil Joanou draw heavily from the Jonestown legend for The Veil, with Jones-analogue Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane) overseeing his cult’s murder-suicide in 1984. That incident had a single survivor: five-year-old Sarah Hope. Fast-forward to the modern-day, when the adult Sarah (Lily Rabe) joins aspiring filmmaker Maggie Price (Jessica Alba) on a trip to the cult’s long-abandoned compound, in a search for answers and closure, not just for Sarah but for Maggie, who has her own connection to the massacre.

This should sound terribly familiar, and not just in a “ripped from the headlines…of the late ’70s” way: Ti West’s 2013 film The Sacrament also involved documentarians and a thinly-fictionalized portrayal of Jonestown, but the two films don’t have enough in common to justify calling The Veil a rip-off. While West’s film examines the cult dynamic from a psychological standpoint, Joanou and Ben Garant deliver a straightforward supernatural thriller.

The biggest difference between the two films is that The Sacrament is pretty good and The Veil just plain sucks. While Jim Jacobs’s doctrine of “unpinning” the human spirit from the body (which he overtly ties to the Crucifixion) intrigues, the filmmakers never actually do anything interesting with their ideas. By the film’s halfway mark, you discover you’re watching a typical jump-scare-laden slasher movie with standard-issue stupid characters and a moronic end-twist.

The cast—largely made up of attractive young specimens like Alba, Rabe, Aleksa Palladino (Boardwalk Empire), Jack De Sena (Avatar: The Last Airbender), Shannon Woodward (The Riches), and Reid Scott—do they best with what little they’re given, with varying results. Rabe, a veteran of the various iterations of American Horror Story, impresses the most: the one or two scenes that have any power do so largely because of her performance.

Jane counterbalances this with an over-the-top performance–imagine Jim Morrison as a Pentecostal tent-revival preacher and you’ll be close–that barely seems to belong in the same movie with the rest of the cast. I still haven’t decided whether it’s brilliant or idiotic. Or both. Regardless, he commands every scene with a potent combination of unfettered charisma and ridiculous accent. You don’t dare take your eyes off him.

Unfortunately, not even Jane’s diabolical acting can prop up this limp effort. There’s simply no compelling reason to bother with it.

The Veil poster

The House with 100 Eyes

The makers of The House with 100 Eyes may intend it as a meta-satire, but if that’s the case, they’ve not done a good enough job of making it clear.

United States. Directed by Jay Lee & Jim Roof, 2013. Starring Jim Roof, Shannon Malone, Larissa Lynch, Liz Burghdorf, Andrew Hopper. 75 minutes.

Two and a half years ago, I saw a movie called The House with 100 Eyes at the Chicago Horror Film Festival. The story of Ed (Jim Roof) and Susan (Shannon Malone), a married pair of serial killers who produce snuff movies under the banner Studio Red, it was a curious mix of found-footage and torture-porn. (If you want the tl;dr version of this review, go read my write-up of the festival.) I was a bit surprised to see it, after all this time, showing up on Artsploitation Films’ roster of summer 2015 video releases.

When I first saw it, I felt it had potential, but it also had a lot of problems. That hasn’t changed. Roof delivers a clever and insightful script that explores the sexual underpinnings of Ed and Susan’s relationship and individual psychoses, along with some social commentary. The major performances are all strong, the highlights being Malone and Larissa Lynch (as Final Girl and prospective victim Jamie). Roof is the loudest and most flamboyant, but he never goes too far over the top. Even Liz Burghdorf and Andrew Hopper, in cannon-fodder roles as (respectively) Jamie’s anxious friend Crystal and cocky boyfriend Clutch, are better than one might expect.

The problems largely come in the form of the direction, by Roof with Jay Lee (Zombie Strippers!Alyce Kills) and cinematography. The found-footage format gives filmmakers a narrative device to explain footage clearly shot on consumer-grade cameras, but it comes with a caveat: the director, cinematographer and editor (likely the same person filling all three roles) must make certain that they compose and present every shot as if it were really happening. (Or at least, that’s how I feel: the acclaim for The Taking of Deborah Logan, which prominently features much footage that the camera crew wouldn’t have been able to get, proves this isn’t a universally-held opinion.) And it’s this element of the film that provides the most problems.

The most obvious example is the film’s approach to nudity: there simply isn’t any. Most of the time, the offending bits are just blurred out. That’s an odd approach to take to a film like this to begin with–a horror film whose setup specifically includes the victims lured into a trap on the premise that they’ll make a porn video–but it gets weirder when it’s time for the characters to actually Do the Deed. The blurring doesn’t do much to disguise the briefs Clutch obviously wears while he’s supposedly naked (and never mind that you can see several unblurred glimpses of them at a couple of points).

That’s just the most obvious example of the conceit failing. There are others: Ed instructs Jamie to take her top off for the camera, but the shot remains an ECU of her face while she does so. Hidden cameras abound throughout the house (the “hundred eyes” of the title); all the better to provide “behind-the-scenes” footage, but they pick up odd angles. For example, a cam installed in the shower aimed at the tops of occupants’ heads. (If you’re making a snuff-porn movie, what would even be the point of that?) Audio distortion makes its way onto the soundtrack seemingly at random, and at one point, a gunshot seems to deafen a camera’s microphone.

It’s possible that Roof and Lee intend The House with 100 Eyes as a meta-satire à la Funny Games, that the “mistakes” are not only intentional but part of the point of the entire enterprise. I don’t expect filmmakers to spoon-feed me everything, but if that’s indeed the case, I don’t feel Roof and Lee have done a good enough job of making it clear.

THE HOUSE WITH 100 EYES poster

Dark Mountain

If Dark Mountain were any more cynical, more generic or simply lazier, it would be named Found-Footage Movie and be directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.

United States. Directed by Tara Anaïse, 2013. Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, Shelby Stehlin. 80 minutes.

About twenty minutes into Dark Mountain, one character turns to another and asks, “Are you afraid this will turn into The Blair Witch Project?” I kind of admired that. Dark Mountain is an obvious shameless rip-off from its first scene, which is Heather’s iconic “apology” sequence from Blair Witch without all the snot. I appreciated that director and co-writer Tara Anaïse was willing to fess up to that.

Lord knows there’s little else to admire or appreciate about Dark Mountain. It is, essentially, the mean average of every lackluster found-footage horror flick made since the industry fired up the bandwagon in the mid-to-late ’00s. (Trust me: I’ve seen AtrociousHollow and most of the Paranormal Activity sequels, so I know what I’m talking about.)

I wish I could keep the Blair Witch comparisons to a minimum, but I honestly don’t see how I can do that. Two-thirds of both films’ plot is functionally identical. The main difference is that instead of being set in a creepy fictional Maryland forest, Dark Mountain takes place in a spooky real-life Arizona mountain range.

The character outlay is the same: ambitious female aspiring documentarian bossing around two male techies who aren’t as emotionally invested in the idea. We get a scene where the characters interview the eccentric…I’m not sure they’re locals per se, but whatever the Superstition Mountains equivalent of a local would be. We get a scene where weird sounds happen outside a tent. We even get a scene where the Heather-figure (she has a name, but good luck thinking of her as anything other than “fake Heather”) runs around screaming another character’s name.

Okay, not every idea in Dark Mountain comes straight out of Blair Witch. For example, fake Heather and fake Josh are an item here. And everybody shoots video on their mobile phones, and Anaïse digitally processes the footage to make it look like it’s supposed to look like the characters shot it on a Super 8 camera in 1967. I’m not entirely sure why she does this, since the characters make no bones about the fact that they’re recording the footage on their phones. Maybe she thinks it looks cool. It kept pulling me out of the film and reminded me I was watching a work of fiction, which is the one thing in the world a found-footage movie must not do.

And…okay, there was the Lost Dutchman mythos, which, as I think I said earlier, is a real-life thing that wasn’t invented for the movie. Google “Superstition Mountains” and “Lost Dutchman Mine” after you watch Dark Mountain (or, better yet, instead of watching Dark Mountain). There are some very cool ideas in those legends, ideas that would make for a pretty groovy horror film. Then weep, for Dark Mountain is not that horror film.

If Dark Mountain were any more cynical, more generic or simply lazier, it would be named Found-Footage Movie and be directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Seriously, don’t bother.

Dark Mountain poster

 

What We Do in the Shadows

An expert dissection of the modern gothic supernatural romance, taking Twilight to its logical, and hilarious, extreme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Do in the Shadows