Desolation

An entertaining survival-horror flick with an awesome antagonist… ★★★

Desolation

United States: Directed by Sam Patton, 2017. Starring Jaimi Paige, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols, Claude Duhamel. 78 minutes. ★★★

I don’t have any statistical evidence that more films about getting over loss have come my way since October than normally do, but it sure seems like it, to the extent that I’ve called 2017 “the year of grief” somewhat facetiously, if not entirely disrespectfully. It rears its head again in Sam Patton’s Desolation. Recently widowed Abby (Jaimi Paige) sets off on a hiking trip with her thirteen-year-old son Sam (Toby Nicholas) and best friend Jenn (Alyshia Ochse) to scatter the ashes of her late husband and Sam’s father. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of a creepy stranger (Claude Duhamel) who starts stalking them.

This is Patton’s first feature as director and his keen eye, use of location work, and control of mood impressed me. There are a few flaws with the story and characters. The plot develops in a largely predictable way; ordinarily, I’d find this a problem, but since it looks like Patton’s going for suspense over shock or surprise, I didn’t really mind here. That could bug some viewers, though; and since it’s pretty clear from the outset which characters will live and die, the film never quite sells the danger. I appreciated how the theme of grief manifested itself in the film’s climax, but I also felt the script could have tied the themes and plot points together a bit more tightly. In keeping with the focus on suspense, Patton uses blood and gore sparingly, although it is present.

Similarly, Abby, Sam, and Jenn fall into familiar, standard-issue character roles. When the ladies discover a joint in a geocache, you just know Jenn (the mildly hedonistic bestie who brings two bottled of Cabernet on a hiking trip) will eventually suggest smoking it. Thankfully, Paige and Nichols have enough skill as actresses to add extra dimension; while Nichols’ performance doesn’t transcend the surly-teenager clichés, I didn’t find him outright annoying. Which is something.

However, Claude Duhamel provides the most compelling reason to watch Desolation. It’s not just the long hair, beard, hoodie, or ’80s-style mirrorshades that make the stranger such a menacing character. Duhamel conjures up a physical presence just oozing with menace, almost more of a force of nature than a human being. His performance kept reminding me of the big looming evil truck from Duel and the better Shapes of the Halloween franchises. He’s the sort of guy who can make you crap your pants with a slight tilt of his head.

Desolation is an entertaining survival-horror flick; while it has some flaws, it also has some strong strengths to compensate.

Desolation poster

Cinepocalypse: Tragedy Girls; Get My Gun

A dark high school comedy and an intense tale of revenge

This November marks the inaugural Cinepocalypse. While it can’t accurately be said to be Chicago’s first film festival dedicated to genre (Willy Atkins’ Chicago Horror and Indie Horror Film Festivals probably deserve that distinction), it does seem to be the first one with major power behind it. Co-organized by one of the minds behind the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival and boasting sponsorship from IFC Midnight, Bloody Disgusting and the AV Club, the basic idea seems to be Fantastic Fest-type fare, with 100% less Devin Feraci. The festival takes over Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theater for eight days, running from November 2 to 9.

And, of course, I’ll be there. I plan to see a dozen films, and as always, I’ll pass my opinions along to you—starting with my Friday screenings, Tragedy Girls and Get My Gun.

Tragedy Girls

Tragedy Girls

United States. Directed by Tyler MacIntyre. Starring Brianna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp, Jack Quaid, Kevin Durand, Josh Hutcherson. 90 minutes.

We haven’t had a teen horror movie since…uh, Happy Death Day, I think. I haven’t seen that yet, but don’t judge me; I was busy covering CIFF. Anyway, the dark high school comedy Tragedy Girls stars Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool) and Alexandra Shipp (Straight Outta Compton) as the titular Girls, a pair of morbid BFFs with a nascent social media empire. When a serial killer (Kevin Durand) takes up residence in their town, the Girls sieze their chance to boost their numbers by committing a few murders themselves.

So of course with a movie like this the major reference point will be Heathers (pay close attention when the Girls reveal the serial killer’s name) and the ’90s works of Kevin Williamson. What makes Heathers work, for me at least, is the fact that even if Winona Ryder’s character isn’t an actual outsider per se she has outsider cred. This means that, number one, she sees the high school social hierarchy for the steaming pile of bullshit it is, and number two, the target audience, whose members probably see themselves as outsiders, have an identification figure.

The Tragedy Girls, on the other hand, are two of the most popular students in their class—they’re cheerleaders, they run the Prom Committee. They pass for normal, and apparently always have, partially because almost all of their classmates are also sociopaths, and partially because everyone in town in any position of real authority is an idiot. They’re don’t want to burn the system down because the system sucks, they want to burn it down because they like burning shit down.

Now, none of this is automatically wrong per se, but since I found myself unable to root for the Tragedy Girls and the one other possible identification character was clearly doomed from the start, I felt adrift. Tragedy Girls is a comedy, and a lot of it is very funny. I liked the sly commentary about how important social media has become in our lives (and I found a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the neo-fascist “alt-right” movement about halfway through the film…at least I hope I did). I liked the visual shout-out to Cannibal Holocaust. I liked all the performances, particularly Hildebrand and Josh Hutcherson as a shallow kid who hilariously pretends to be deep.

But I also noticed I was only laughing along with the audience about half the time. Clearly they were seeing something else in the film I wasn’t.

Get My Gun

Get My Gun

United States. Directed by Brian Darwas. Starring Kate Hoffman, Christy Casey, Rosanne Rubino, William Jousett. 90 minutes.

Roughly three-quarters of the way through Get My Gun, its protagonist Amanda (Kate Hoffman) screams, “How the FUCK is this my life!” By this point, she’s been raped, impregnated by her rapist, and discovered that the woman who’d agreed to adopt Amanda’s unborn child has, shall we say, severe emotional and mental issues. We can reasonably assume things are not going to get better without getting much worse first.

Filmmaker Brian Darwas, alongside co-screenwriter Jennifer Carchietta, cast Get My Gun squarely in the tradition of exploitation classics such as Ms. 45 (and if you want to put the word “classics” in ironic air quotes, add I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller: A Cruel Picture). The overall film doesn’t focus as much on revenge as the opening scenes—which include Amanda clad in a nun’s habit, pointing a shotgun at a creep and demanding he “Get in the fucking car!”—imply. Instead, Darwas and Carchietta just keep throwing shitty situation after shitty situation at her, seeing how much she can take before she finally breaks.

Even with the filmmakers portraying Amanda’s rape as sensitively as possible without losing its intensity, this isn’t an easy watch, and I respect the filmmakers and the cast for their commitment to the material. Hoffman displays extraordinary vulnerability and bravery in her performance. Unfortunately, the introduction of Catherine (the psycho who wants Amanda’s child) sees the film stray too far into slasher-film territory. The script leaves too many gaps between characters: Amanda’s best friend sets up the practical joke which leads to her rape, but this doesn’t change their relationship at all. The final third of the film sees multiple characters gain superheroic abilities to suffer multiple potentially fatal injuries and not only survive, but not suffer any side effects.

I really wanted to like Get My Gun more than I did, but that third act pretty much killed it for me. Oh well.

Next

My next screenings are on Sunday night: the Canadian film The Crescent and Housewife, the latest from Turkish director Cam Evrenol (Baskin).

Cub

A strong film that has much to offer horror fans of all stripes.

Belgium. Directed by Jonas Govaerts, 2014. Starring Maurice Luijten, Evelien Bosmans, Titus De Voogdt, Stef Aerts, Jan Hammenecker, Gill Eeckelaert. 84 minutes. In Dutch, with English subtitles. 7/10

Camping trips rarely turn out well in horror movies, even if the happy campers are a troop of Belgian Cub Scouts on a rural forest adventure. Pack leaders Kris (Stef Aerts) and Peter (Titus De Voogdt) spin a campfire tale about the werewolf supposedly haunting the woods…but misfit Sam (Maurice Luijten) encounters a masked feral child (Gill Eeckelaert) living in a treehouse, convincing him the werewolf is real. The truth is far stranger: the child is the ward of a sadistic poacher (Jan Hammenecker) who has rigged the forest with elaborate death-traps and hunts those who trespass on his territory…

Directed and co-written by Jonas Govaerts, Cub uses the standard slasher-movie template, but is by no means a typical entry in the subgenre. Govaerts’s take is darker, more interested in introspection, less interested in entertaining the audience through elaborate kill sequences. By no stretch of the imagination does it qualify as a psychological thriller, but its focus on the troubled Sam and his difficult relationships with his fellow scouts–even the adults bully him, to an extent–gives the character a bit of depth. Only a bit, mind you; I wanted to sympathize with him more, to understand him better. But it’s still more depth than the average modern slasher.

Govaerts also plays up suspense and atmosphere. Despite some missteps in the story structure, including a flash-forward prologue (where the film starts on a scene that occurs very late in the story, and then flashes back to show how we got to this point) it doesn’t really earn, the filmmaker keeps the pace steady and strong, maintaining the audience’s interest throughout. Fantastic location work gives the forest its own distinct character, although it doesn’t seem quite as vast as it should–it seems that characters get from place to place far too quickly.

The ensemble is uniformly strong with Eeckelaert and Hammenecker standing out in particular. The former sells his “feral child” act to the hilt without going over the top, while the latter reaps churning menace from his subdued, minimalist performance.

There are some other issues I have with the film. For example, the sole female character, camp cook and Peter’s girlfriend Jasmijn, doesn’t have a whole lot to do despite a spirited performance from Evelien Bosmans. Some of the “winking-at-the-audience” moments call too much attention to themselves (a minor character’s mobile ringtone turns out to be the opening theme from Suspiria). Stuff like that.

Overall, Cub is a strong film that has much to offer horror fans of all stripes, not just fans of the slasher subgenre.

CUB 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

Unfriended

A fun slasher with a neat gimmick that keeps the audience engaged when the story sags.

United States. Directed by Leo Gabriadze, 2014. Starring Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead. 83 minutes.

If there’s a horror story hoarier than the tale of the wronged teenager taking revenge on his or her tormentors, then I haven’t heard of it. But at least screenwriter Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze found a new way to tell it: they present the film as screen-capture footage of a MacBook desktop and Skype sessions.

Of course, that’s not to say that they’ve managed to find a twist on the story or character types, the latter of which includes seeming “good-girl” protagonist Blaire (Shelley Hennig), her beefcake boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm), Mitch’s bro-ish bestie Adam (Will Peltz), promiscuous blonde Jess (Renee Olstead), chubby hacker nerd Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and brash, obnoxious Val (Courtney Halverson). They’re very tight, considering they don’t seem to like each other all that much.

One evening, they’re all Skyping when they start receiving mysterious Facebook messages from Laura (Heather Sossaman), the seventh member of their posse. The catch? Tonight is the first anniversary of her death. She committed suicide after an unknown individual posted a video to YouTube of her making a drunken ass of herself at a party. Maybe it’s Laura’s ghost or just some sick fuck pretending to be her, but whoever it is, you just know they’re eventually going to pick off the characters one by one.

While the filmmakers occasionally subvert teen-horror expectations (pay very close attention to who reacts to what during the extended game of Never Have I Ever that takes up the latter half of the film), the story is familiar and so is the structure. Very little here will surprise you. What makes Unfriended worth watching is the presentation.

The filmmakers use the format in ingenious ways, to build attention, to dole out backstory. When communicating in chat windows, the messages Blaire chooses not to send–typing out and deleting–tell us more than the messages she actually sends. Gabriadze keeps the pace taut, lean, and highly effective. While I wouldn’t necessarily call the film scary–I couldn’t take the kill scenes seriously, they were too cartoony–it is reasonably tense. Everyone puts in a good performance, especially Hennig and Storm. And I appreciated the film’s ultimate moral about the evils of cyber-bullying.

None of this takes away from the fact that, once again, it’s time to sit back and watch some unpleasant teenage assholes scream at each other and get it in the neck. And believe me, these jerks go out of their way to make sure you loathe them. Every question the film poses at its beginning turns out to have the most obvious answer imaginable.

Overall, Unfriended is a fun slasher with a neat gimmick that keeps the audience engaged when the story sags. I doubt it will wow anyone the way Behind the Mask or Hatchet did, but I suspect it will have some rewatch value and find a decent following in the future.

It is, however, a bit of a one-trick pony…which means I’m not particularly looking forward to the inevitable sequel.

Unfriended poster

Stage Fright

No mere mortal could make a film that lived up to the awesomeness promised by Stage Fright‘s log line.

Canada. Directed by Jerome Sable, 2014. Starring Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Brandon Uranowitz, Minnie Driver, Meat Loaf Aday. 89 minutes. 

The idea of a musical slasher comedy that takes place at a theater camp that’s preparing to stage a revival of an obvious parody of The Phantom of the Opera is so adorable that I find myself tempted to just give the endeavor four stars and not even bother writing the review. Sadly, that’s not how we work here at the Gallery.

The setup is archetypal summer-camp slasher. Once upon a time, someone murdered singer/actress Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) after the curtain closed on the début performance of The Haunting of the Opera. Ten years later, the show’s producer Roger McCall (Meat Loaf) runs a musical summer camp for teens, employing Kylie’s orphaned children Camilla and Buddy (Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith) in the kitchen. This year’s production might just be Roger’s ticket back to the big leagues: a post-modern reimagining of Haunting set in feudal Japan. With kabuki makeup. And Camilla dreams of singing the part her mother originated, even though she’s not even a camper.

That’s a lot of pins to keep in the air, and to his credit, Sable usually makes whatever the film is trying to do at any given time work. The musical number establishing the camp is a riot, poking fun at musical-theater stereotypes (“I’m gay, I’m gay,” sings the Designated Hunk, “but not in that way”). Meanwhile, it’s hard to avoid the word “classic” when discussing the slasher elements: the creative kills, the rampant horndoggery, the masked killer with the motivation ten times more complex than required, plus an added layer of callback and reference for the generation that grew up on Scream.

All of this is delivered by a killer cast, if you’ll pardon the pun. Not a single performance falls flat; I could literally write all night about how much I loved the ensemble. I won’t, but I’d like to single out the adorable MacDonald in the Final Girl role, and Meat Loaf in the role he was born to play. Even the mustache looks perfect on him.

Yet there’s a feeling that all these genres might mix together a bit more thoroughly. There are times when Stage Fright is a movie musical, and times when it’s a slasher movie about a musical; there are damn few times when it feels like a musical slasher movie about a musical, even when the killer sings his lines in hair-metal fashion. Some of the second act drags, when the story switches over from “musical” mode to “slasher” mode.

I also feel that the film’s third act, when the campers actually perform the musical, represents something of a missed opportunity. This chunk of the film is funny and entertaining, don’t get me wrong, but it could (and I’d say it should) be a lot more clever than it ends up being. The events of Haunting don’t really comment on the characters putting on the show. And killer’s reveal felt, well, wrong to me. In order for  relationship between the story of Stage Fright, the story of Haunting, and the implied story of The Phantom of the Opera to resonate properly, the slasher needed to be someone (one of two characters) that it didn’t end up being.

Still, Stage Fright is a marvelously entertaining production that will delight fans of both musicals and horror, particularly devotees of the ’80s slasher formula. It’s not an unqualified success, but it was never going to be. No mere mortal could make a film that lived up to the awesomeness promised by that log line…even with Meat Loaf in the cast.

Stage Freight poster

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