I Am Not a Serial Killer

We all know the “monster-next-door” trope…but how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

I Am Not a Serial Killer

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Billy O’Brien, 2016. Starring Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd, Karl Geary, Dee Noah, Christina Baldwin, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucy Lawton, Anna Sundberg. 104 minutes.

We’ve all seen movies or read stories about ordinary folks who suddenly discover they have monsters living in their neighborhood. But how do you handle the situation when you’re something of a monster yourself?

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) finds himself in just such a situation in I Am Not a Serial Killer, the Anglo-Irish adaptation of Dan Wells’s novel. An awkward social misfit, with morbid obsessions (at least partially fueled by the family business of undertaking) and unreliable estranged parents, would have a tough row to hoe in any small-town high school. But John has been diagnosed with clinical sociopathy. Early in the film, he describes most people as being like cardboard boxes: boring—until you open them up and see what’s inside. So he takes great care to keep himself on the straight and narrow. When a serial murderer strikes in his hometown, he naturally finds himself drawn to the mystery. The discovery that his elderly next-door neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible for the killings shocks him enough, but then it turns out kindly old Mr. Crowley isn’t even human…

Sociopathy is a tricky condition to portray in fiction, particularly when developing a character intended, to a large extent, as sympathetic to the audience: it’s hard to relate to a kid when he admits to suppressing an urge to abuse animals, even if you understand that the urge itself is not his fault. But on the surface, John doesn’t seem all that much different from any other misunderstood teenage outcast, which should give most of us a toehold in the task of accepting him as a character we can identify with. Records’s performance is the key to this, and he effectively interprets John’s central internal conflict, between his fascination with Bill Crowley and an intellectual understanding that Crowley poses a threat to John and the people around him—even if John doesn’t have much in the way of emotions for any of those people.

Bill himself proves to have more depth and complexity than your average movie critter. Lloyd delivers one of the best performances of his recent career in the role, subtly balancing Crowley’s harmless-old-timer exterior with a gradual creeping menace…and some other unexpected facets. The special effects work—with creature design provided by Toby “the bratty baby brother in Labyrinth” Froud—takes a minimalist approach, reminding us how specifically human a monster Bill is.

The strength of the character study doesn’t prevent the plot from going down a fairly predictable, X-Files-reminiscent path late in the game, but luckily the production has other cards up its sleeve to make up for that. The screenplay puts enough focus on John’s dysfunctional family dynamics to give the Cleaver household a genuine lived-in feeling. Director Billy O’Brien makes good use of his wintry rural Minnesota locations, giving the visuals a chilly vibe appropriate to the lead character’s psyche. Laura Fraser (as John’s mother April) seems to have carved herself a niche playing highly strung single moms (see also The Sisterhood of Night and her work as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle on Breaking Bad); her performance is solid, if not revelatory. Fine performances also come from Dee Noah (as Bill’s wife Kay), Anna Sundberg (as John’s sister Lauren), and Karl Geary (as John’s therapist).

Thought-provoking and quietly unsettling, I Am Not a Serial Killer delivers a fresh and unconventional take on the “monster next door” trope.

I Am Not a Serial Killer poster

Pod

A freaky and fun little creature feature with a modern twist.

United States. Directed by Mickey Keating, 2015. Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Dean Cates, Brian Morvant, Larry Fessenden, John Weselcouch. 76 minutes. 6/10

At last year’s Fantastic Fest, I saw Darling, the second of two feature films Mickey Keating made in 2015; the first was Pod, a tale of family dysfunction, madness, and military secrets. Brian Morvant stars as Martin Matheson, an Army veteran going not-so-quietly insane in rural Maine. His erratic behavior worries his brother Ed (Dean Cates), who collects their sister Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter), intending to stage an intervention. In response, Martin spins a wild tale of what he calls the “Pod,” a…thing…the Army attempted to harness, but which killed most of Martin’s fellow soldiers instead. And now, Martin’s convinced that the Pod has come for him.

Pod is a solidly middle-of-the-road horror effort featuring some light social commentary, its effect coming through suspense and SFX rather than psychological examination or existential dread. If Keating ever means for the audience to seriously believe the Pod might not be real, it wasn’t evident to me (and Netflix promoting the film with a huge picture of the monster didn’t help).

At a scant 75 minutes, Pod has little time for deep characterization or backstory, but the screenplay uses brief, deft strokes to fill in the necessary blanks: the film delineates almost everything you need to know about the Matheson’s troubled dynamic in its first five or ten minutes. We’re all familiar with the “murderous military bioweapon” trope by now, and Keating makes thin use of it, although Martin’s instability compensates for that. Sure, he’s right about the Pod, but that doesn’t actually make him sane.

Pod’s chief strengths are in its production values and its performances. Its visual style betrays its presumably small budget, but once Ed and Lyla get to Maine, Keating effectively conveys both the remoteness and isolation of the locale and the cramped claustrophobia of Martin’s cabin. He compresses violent sequences into tighly-packed bundles, and the Pod’s design, while not entirely “convincing” or “realistic” is certainly aesthetically impressive. Carter and Cates both impress in their roles; Morvant occasionally goes a little over-the-top but not unforgivably so. Larry Fessenden (who also worked with Keating and Carter in Darling) turns in a particularly memorable if brief performance late in the film.

Pod is a freaky little creature feature with a modern twist; a fun watch, although it’s not likely to give anyone lasting nightmares.

POD poster

The Hallow

The Hallow isn’t likely to win any awards for freshness or originality, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a lot of fun.

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Corin Hardy, 2015. Starring Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovik, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley. 97 minutes. 6/10

You can learn some important lessons from horror movies (and you in the back who’s about to shout out things like “don’t have sex” and other Scream-type “rules,” feel free to go screw yourself). For example: if you move into a big house in the middle of nowhere and your neighbors advise you to move the hell out, and if you can’t do that, then for the love of Christ don’t take those iron bars off your windows…well, that’s the kind of advice you probably should heed.

Adam and Claire Hitchens (Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovik, respectively) fail to heed this advice, and what’s worse, botanist Adam insists on rooting around forest as part of a survey for a logging company. None of the other locals will go anywhere near the woods, particularly Colm (Michael McElhatton), who’s been a bit unhinged since his daughter Cora disappeared in them years ago. What’s up with these particular woods? Why, that’s where “the Hallow”–the locals’ name for the changelings of Irish legend–live. And I haven’t even gotten to the omnipresent rapid-growth fungus that seems to have a lot in common with the stuff that grew on Stephen King in Creepshow.

Of course, Adam cannot leave well enough alone, and the Hallow make sure things do not end well for the Hitchens or their infant son Finn.

The Hallow has its fair share of flaws–particularly in the third act, including a tendency to rely on jump-scares and “baby-in-danger” tropes, not to mention some business with a flaming scythe that falls on the wrong side of the line separating awesome from silly–but for the most part, director and co-writer Corin Hardy’s début feature is a tense and enjoyable modern monster movie. While the basic premise is a bit hoary (okay, a lot hoary), I enjoyed the light but deft characterization.

Mawle’s performance veers a bit too much towards Bruce Campbell territory in the last half-hour (probably deliberately; this is, after all, a film that credits “Fake Shemps”), but otherwise he does a fine job, as does Novakovik. I only know McElhatton from Game of Thrones, so it was nice to see him show a bit of range (although that’s not saying Colm isn’t entirely un-creepy). Michael Smiley–whose work you are doubtless familiar with, yes?–makes the most of his one scene as a skeptical cop.

But Hardy’s direction is the real selling point here. He evokes a heavy atmosphere, thick with suspense and the knowledge of things you shouldn’t mess around with if you know what’s good for you. In several scenes, he does things with light and shadow that would make hardened criminals weep with terror. The monster design is fantastic, all practical-effect goodness (none of yer CGI goblins here, at least not that I can tell), and best of all Hardy knows better than to over-light the goddamn things.

While I have to admit that once again that The Hallow isn’t likely to win any awards for freshness or originality, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. It’s a fun monster movie with a surprising amount of tension.

THE HALLOW poster

The Drownsman

A prime example of “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” filmmaking.

Canada. Directed by Chad Archibald, 2014. Starring Michelle Mylett, Caroline Korycki, Gemma Bird Matheson, Sydney Kondruss, Clare Bastable, Ry Barrett. 88 minutes.

One of the things that seems to have developed hand-in-hand with the trend in “throwback” horror is an apparent desire to evoke the “glory days” of slasher films, before Scream and its successors turned the subgenre into a winking series of meta-comedies. This has resulted in a steady trickle of slashers with classic plots and setups but modern visuals and sensibilities, such as The Drownsman.

The titular Drownsman was a killer of women (three guesses as to his preferred method of murder), whose reign of terror ended at the hands of a potential victim. Years later, Madison (Michelle Mylett) nearly drowns in an accident, and while unconscious receives a vision of the Drownsman; after coming to, she develops a debilitating fear of water. When she misses her best friend Hannah’s (Caroline Korycki) wedding due to rain, her closest friends perform an “intervention,” staging a fake séance to prove the Drownsman isn’t real. But the plan backfires, and the killer begins hunting them down one by one. Madison and Hannah must uncover the terrifying secret of the Drownsman if they hope to escape with their lives.

Director and co-writer Chad Archibald emphasizes Madison’s fear, her relationships with her girlfriends, and awesome effects sequences. That would be fine, if it seemed as if he and co-writer Cody Calahan don’t seem to have put much thought into these elements other than to say, “Hey, wouldn’t be it be cool if…?” Now, the effects are pretty neat: the Drownsman can use any quantity of water as a portal from his “realm” to the physical world; in one scene, we see him manifest through a small puddle of spilled water on a table, and it works pretty well. But I think other facets of the production would have benefited if the filmmakers thought things through a little more.

For example, the film is riddled with things which might not exactly be logical flaws, but which require some significant figleafing on the part of the audience to gloss over. Let’s start with the one so obvious that even the film’s fans seem honor-bound to apologize for it: Madison suffers her phobia so completely that she fears rain, looks askance at a glass of water, and takes her fluids through an intravenous drip. Yet for someone who demonstrably won’t drink and presumably doesn’t bathe, she’s remarkably clean and (physically) healthy.

She also doesn’t exhibit a fear of the human body (either her own or others’), so she evidently doesn’t know that over half of the average human adult is comprised of water. Neither does the Drownsman, which is probably good for the budget (bursting through people’s bodies would be expensive) but conveniently inconvenient for the killer. Let’s also consider the Drownsman’s backstory, which involves him spending eighteen months in utero. Yes, I could explain it away as an obvious embellishment in an urban legend, but nobody in the film seems to think it’s ridiculous as I do.

If this seems like a bit of rough grading, well…maybe I wouldn’t be inclined to if I cared more about the characters. But other than Madison, I only found one other character I liked: Cathryn, the real medium called in to perform the, let’s remind ourselves here, fake séance (which is honestly a bit of a dick move in and of itself). The filmmakers want to explore how Madison’s phobia affects her relationships, and I get that. But it’s hard to like Hannah, who looks at her best friend, a person whose fear of water is so severe that (it bears repeating) she would rather inject saline solution into her arm than drink a glass of water, and responds “Eh, she just needs to pull herself together.” And the other girlfriends are just as bad. Making it very hard to feel anything other than sharp relief when the Drownsman inevitably greases them.

Admittedly, the film has some positives. Mylett makes a terrific protagonist-slash-Final Girl, and Korycki’s performance makes up a lot of the ground missed by the writing. And, as mentioned earlier, the effects and kills are imaginative and well-executed. But taken as a whole, The Drownsman will not impress anyone other than the most forgiving of slasher fans.

THE DROWNSMAN poster

Retro Review: The Freakmaker

A hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together, much like the human-plant monsters who menace the characters.

United Kingdom. Directed by Jack Cardiff, 1974. Starring Donald Pleasance, Tom Baker, Brad Harris. 92 minutes.

Half Freaks, half Frankenstein, half Quatermass Experiment, and half Hammer Horror, Jack Cardiff’s 1974 film The Freakmaker (originally released under the less colorful title The Mutations) is a hybrid of disparate elements that shouldn’t really go together. Donald Pleasance plays the brilliant but deranged Professor Nolter, who believes he’s hit upon the perfect cure for world hunger: combine human and plant DNA, so future generations can photosynthesize their own sustenance. Sadly, he has a penchant for experimenting on unwilling subjects, procured for him by the performers of a carnival freakshow managed by the deformed and cruel Mr. Lynch (an unrecognizable Tom Baker). But then the carnies make the mistake of abducting one of Nolter’s own students, raising the suspicions of her friends, who are also entertaining eminent American scientist Brian Redford (Brad Harris). Can Redford and the undergrads stop Nolter and Lynch, or are they all doomed to a horrifying existence as human Venus flytraps?

The Freakmaker gleefully recycles half-baked ideas from its earlier, better influences and isn’t ashamed of it: one scene outright acknowledges the story’s debt to Freaks. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in grue. It’s a sort of missing link between cerebral examinations of physical transformation (and its close cousin, plants that behave like animals, like in The Day of the Triffids or the Genesis song “Return of the Giant Hogweed”) and the later explicit body horror of Cronenberg and Alien. As stomach-churning as the monsters are–there’s nothing pleasant about something that looks like a Sleestak with Audrey Jr. grafted onto its chest–they’re uncomfortably beautiful, as are the dizzying array of genetically-engineered freak plants that don’t walk and talk. Of course, Cardfiff doesn’t quite have budget to do the designs justice, but if you’re a fan of this sort of thing you know when to adjust your expectations.

Pity the rest of the production doesn’t approach the standard set by the production design. Pleasance’s subtle, understated performance is marred by a bad, fake, and entirely unnecessary German accent. Baker struggles to break through the barrier built by a laughably terrible makeup job, but once or twice he really does let ‘er rip with impressive hurricane fury. His physical performance is altogether better, six feet three inches of looming menace but always managing to seem half a foot taller. The rest of the “norms” are forgettable, although Harris fits his generic square-jawed Yankee hero fairly well, and second-string Bond girl Julie Ege understands she’s only here to supply eye candy. Despite the production’s reliance on Freaks, the carnies aren’t quite as distinct as their spiritual predecessors, the exception being Willie “Popeye” Baines. Be warned, he didn’t earn that nickname by exhibiting an affinity for spinach.

But really, we’ve got to go back to the script as the single most flawed element. The lack of originality glares like lens flare, and in the bad way–this isn’t a daring remix of familiar tropes but a lazy retread of things you’ve seen a thousand times before. You can spot every twist coming ten minutes away. If the character development was any thinner, you could see through the actors. Screenwriters Edward Mann and Robert Weinbach try too hard to make the dialog “hip” and “relevant” by shoehorning in lots of casually inappropriate drug references. (The reference to Timothy Leary is worth a laugh, though.)

Overall, The Freakmaker isn’t some lost gem just waiting to be rediscovered; it’s a somewhat-below-standard specimen of cheap exploitation that’s largely notable for its design, its gore and its months-away-from-cult-stardom villain. (Baker would, of course, make his proper début as the fourth Doctor Who later in 1974…and face off against a plant-human hybrid two years later, in “The Seeds of Doom.”) But it’s not entirely devoid of entertainment value, and a perfectly valid option when you have ninety or so minutes you’re not doing anything better with.

The Freakmaker

The Babadook

The Babadook knows what the monster under the bed really means.

Australia. Directed by Jennifer Kent, 2014. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney. 93 minutes.

It’s a thick “pop-up book” of the type we all read when we were kids, bound in red cloth, with the silhouette of a strange humanoid figure wearing a hat embossed on the cover. Above that, the title: MISTER BABADOOK. The book tells, in rhyme, the tale of the titular monster. Once you discover his existence, he enters your body through your mouth, forcing you to do naughty things, and never, ever leaving. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a book,” reads the opening couplet, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) tries to be a good mum, but she’s still haunted by the death of her husband Oscar, who died in an auto accident while driving her to hospital the night of her son Samuel’s birth. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now six, tries to be a good boy, but he’s impulsive, stubborn, eccentric and more than a little wild. Their relationship has been fraying for years. One night, Amelia finds a copy of Mister Babadook on Samuel’s bookshelf, and reads it to him before bedtime, inviting the Babadook into their home, and their lives.

Who–or what–is Mr. Babadook, exactly? He’s a metaphor, of course, for the scars we leave when we speak cruelly or thoughtlessly. Horror can be highly effective when it operates on that allegorical level, and The Babadook is as effective a monster movie as it is a dysfunctional family drama–a horror story that knows what the monster under the bed really means. Writer/director Jennifer Kent grounds the story with a keen sense of human nature, reminiscent of Stephen King’s best work (more than once the film reminded me of The Shining). All of us know families that treated each other like this, and some of us have been part of those families. That grounding allows the film’s fantastical elements to take flight.

The Babadook is a starkly and grimly beautiful film in both cinematography and design, evoking the feel of gothic picture-books filled with gallows humor by artists such as Mervyn Peake and Edward Gorey. Mr. Babadook himself is a triumph of design, one of the most memorable movie monsters of recent years. The film’s atmosphere is as thick as petroleum jelly, but Kent proves as adept at shocking the audience as she does creeping it out.

However, as good as Kent’s story and direction are, the film requires crackerjack lead performances to truly succeed. Essie Davis truly knocks it out of the park (actually, this being an Australian movie, I guess she should do whatever cricket’s equivalent of “knocking it out of the park” is), ensuring Amelia’s sympathy and believability even when she’s not exactly at her best. I was highly impressed with Wiseman given his age, and although I occasionally found him grating or annoying, so is the character. (Also, I’m not always very good with kids.) Kent has also assembled an impressive supporting cast, including Hayley McElhinney as Amelia’s self-absorbed sister and Barbara West as a kindly neighbor.

In my review of The Taking of Deborah Logan I said that some of the best supernatural horror operates by helping the audience work through, and come to grips with, the terrors of real life, and The Babadook is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind: a story that works on multiple levels of terror. It’s a modern classic, and I’d not be surprised if in the near future it’s regarded as one of the seminal horror films of this era. An absolute must-see.

The Babadook

Rites of Spring

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a horror film so committed to succeeding despite itself

United States. Directed by Padraic Reynolds, 2011. Starring AJ Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Sonny Marinelli. 80 minutes. 6/10

For almost thirty years, every spring, women have disappeared. Their bodies are never found. Nobody knows what happened to them.

Rachel (Anessa Ramsey) lost her firm an important client. Even worse, she allowed someone else to take the fall. After a night at the bar with her co-worker Alyssa (Hannah Bryan), she resolves to come clean to her boss and make things right. She never gets the chance: a hooded stranger (Marco St. John) abducts the two.

They come to, tied up, in a rural barn. Who has kidnapped them, and why? What will happen to them? The stranger doesn’t give them a straight answer. He asks the women “Are you clean?” and makes enigmatic references to a sacrifice. Then he takes out a bowl and knife.

Under a trapdoor in the barn, a hideous creature stirs.

Ben (AJ Bowen) is down on his luck, recently fired from his job for a fuck-up he had nothing to do with, and half a million dollars in debt. He’s gotten involved with Paul (Sonny Marinelli), a career criminal heading up a kidnapping job. Also working the job are Ben’s wife Amy (Katherine Randolph) and brother Tommy (Andrew Breland). The take is two million dollars, split equally four ways. The target is the young daughter of Ben’s former boss Ryan Hayden (James Bartz).

The job doesn’t go off as planned, but that’s the least of the criminals’ worries. Because Rachel, having escaped the stranger, bursts into their lives, covered in blood, begging for help, and telling a wild story about being chased by a murderous monster.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a horror film so committed to succeeding despite itself as Rites of Spring.

The story combines the setup for a bog-standard horror movie (plucky heroine kidnapped by psychotic weirdo and must escape from murderous monster) and the setup for a bog-standard crime picture (down-on-his-luck anti-hero gets drawn into a caper and finds himself in over his head). Writer/director Padraig Reynolds seems to believe that merely marrying the two setups will result in a fresh take on both subgenres, but it doesn’t, not really.

The problem isn’t the over-familiarity of the premises, but the relentless predictability of the plot development. Everything that happens in a crime-gone-wrong story happens to Ben, and everything that happens in a slasher movie happens to Rachel (and eventually Ben) as well. The identity of Paul’s “person on the inside” is obvious from the moment he mentions said person. Alyssa’s status as cannon fodder is so obvious from the beginning that it barely seems like a spoiler.

On top of this is the most problematic individual plot point, the massive web of coincidence that connects the two stories. If you read between the lines of my synopsis it’s not too hard to figure out that Rachel committed the multi-million-dollar cock-up Ben went down for, and that Hayden is both the boss Rachel plans to confess to and the target of Paul’s ransom plan.

I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why this development is necessary (and like every other plot twist in the film, it’s presented as a major reveal when, in fact, it’s blatantly obvious from the moment the pieces start to fit into place). I guess maybe it’s to give Ben and Rachel more of a motivation to help each other, although considering they are both on the run from a bloodthirsty rampaging freak, I can’t imagine they’d need more motivation. In fact, the twist hinders, not helps, the film, as it makes suspension of disbelief, already a difficult thing for this film, that much harder.

About that aforementioned bloodthirsty rampaging freak: man, was I disappointed. The Stranger’s dialogue foreshadowed the inevitable appearance of some sort of Lovecraftian Thing that Should Not Be, but what we get is a guy in some grotesque makeup running around, beheading victims with a scythe. It’s like being promised Pinhead but actually getting a third-rate Jason Voorhees.

And yet Rites of Spring is much more enjoyable than it ought. Reynolds’s direction creates suspense where his script lacks it and creates a couple of genuine scares. (The “bloodletting” sequence is probably the film’s highlight.) Characterization is quite deft and effective. To be sure, the characters are rats in a maze, but at least they’re fascinating rats.

The real draw here is the cast. If you absolutely must have a Final Girl in your horror movie, you could do much worse than Anessa Ramsey, who was impressive in The Signal and a bright spot in the desperately uneven Yellowbrickroad. Her Signal castmate, the ubiquitous AJ Bowen, stretches out a bit (in 2011, he was mostly known for psychos and villains), and while his take on Ben isn’t entirely successful, it mostly works. Hannah Bryan’s take on Alyssa is better than the film deserves, Marco St. John’s Stranger is one creepy fuck, and Sonny Marinelli’s ruthless Paul makes for a great second-string villain.

All of this is to say that Rites of Spring doesn’t seem to hold much promise but mostly works. It probably isn’t anybody’s idea of a modern horror classic, but it’s a perfectly decent way to kill 80 minutes of free time.

Rites of Spring poster

 

Attack the Block

Clever dialogue, well-drawn characters and a vivid setting help create an action-horror-comedy that works

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

Retro Review: C.H.U.D.

Trouble, oh, we got trouble, ‘neath the streets of New York City!

C.H.U.D.

United States. Directed by Douglas Cheek, 1984. Starring John Heard, Daniel Stern, Christopher Cheek. 96 minutes. 6/10

Trouble, oh, we got trouble, ‘neath the streets of New York City! With a capital “T,” that rhymes with “C,” and that stands for C.H.U.D.!

Cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers–or C.H.U.D.s, for short–are kinda like the alligators which are said to live in the sewers of New York. Except they’re not reptiles, they’re homeless people. Or at least, they used to be. They’ve actually mutated into big, slimy, icky monsters with taloned hands and glowing eyes. But the bit about living in New York sewers is accurate, at least.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Lackey,” you ask me, as well you should, “how exactly did homeless people turn into these horrifically cheap-looking beasts?” Well, friend, I’m glad you asked me that. It turns out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been storing vats of toxic waste in the sewers. (It turns out that C.H.U.D. also stands for “contamination hazard, urban disposal.”) When a homeless person comes into contact with the goo, he becomes a C.H.U.D. Since C.H.U.D.s can spread their affliction through biting, pretty soon you’ve got an army of uncontrollably violent Doctor Who monsters wreaking havoc beneath the city. Of course, they’re eventually going to want to come up for a bite.

Who will save us from the twin horrors of the C.H.U.D.s and a callous, ruthless federal bureaucracy? There’s freelance photographer George Cooper (played by John Heard), who is known and trusted by the local homeless population because he took some pictures of them for a magazine article. There’s gruff police Capt. Bosch (Christopher Curry), whose wife and dog were eaten by the C.H.U.D.s. And there’s “Reverend” A.J. Shepherd, who runs the dodgiest soup kitchen in New York. Along with George’s fashion-model girlfriend Lauren (Kim Greist), who doesn’t do much but looks great in her underwear, our intrepid gang of heroes will defeat the C.H.U.D.s and NRC Commissioner Wilson and save the day!

…yeah, right.

What I hope you’ve taken away from all this is that, yes, C.H.U.D. is stupid, and yes, C.H.U.D. is cheap, but it is also a whole lot of fun if you can turn off the part of your brain that notices logical flaws and plot holes. It is, in its own way, a successor to the low-budget monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s, the spiritual child of Roger Corman’s giant leeches.

And while we’re talking about those monsters…sure, they’re not particularly believable, but there’s something endearing about their design, and it’s clear the filmmakers put more money and thought into it than they did the screenplay. Luckily, you’ve got Heard, Stern and Curry rewriting most of their dialog on the fly and the resulting performances are actually rather naturalistic. Heard and Stern, at various points, seem like they’re trying to channel Michael Moriarty in Q.

Meanwhile, Douglas Cheek’s direction isn’t anything to write home about but he at least has the common decency to give you something interesting to look at every so often, such as the image of Greist apparently performing an abortion on a bathtub drain with a coat-hanger, or the sight of a gaggle of C.H.U.D.s apparently worshiping something that resembles a gigantic pile of melted jelly beans.

It’s pure schlock, to be sure, and sometimes you may find yourself paying too much attention to the plot and noticing, for example, that Lauren’s pregnancy doesn’t seem to have any effect on anything else that happens in the movie, or that Bosch could stop the whole clusterfuck just by arresting Wilson about halfway through the movie, or that the screenwriters seem to have forgotten to write an ending. If you find yourself doing that, just grab another beer and try to get back into the flow and you may find yourself moderately rewarded: C.H.U.D. may be many things, but it is rarely boring.

I also discussed C.H.U.D. with Jason Soto & Nolahn of Your Face! on episode 78 of their podcast, The Lair of the Unwanted.

C.H.U.D. poster