Super Dark Times

A fascinating and chilling portrayal of doomed youth… ★★★★

Super Dark Times

United States: Directed by Kevin Phillips, 2017. Starring Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves. 100 minutes. ★★★★

Super Dark Times opens with a death. In a high school classroom, a deer lies dying in a pool of its own blood. We don’t see how it got there—we only see the shattered window—and it probably isn’t important. What does matter is that it must be put out of its misery. The deer could be an omen that presages the tragic events to come. Or it could be the sacrifice that starts a ritual.

The characters of Super Dark Times are young teenage boys navigating the middle 1990s, the gap between the Cold War and the War, a time when we didn’t realize we still had things to fear. High school freshmen Zack (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) spend their time doing teenage boy stuff: playing video games, discussing which of their female classmates (and teachers) they’d like to get it on with, spending hours tuned to scrambled cable channels, hoping to get a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. Their younger acquaintances, eighth-graders Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), are on the road to becoming “bad kids.” Daryl dares his friends to do gross things, boasts about masturbation, and exhibits an interest in drugs and weapons: an interest which will ultimately cost one of the boys his life in a senseless accident.

If it weren’t for the 1996 setting (which allows for the soundtrack to feature songs like “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth”, and explains the absence of mobile phones) I’d call Super Dark TimesRiver’s Edge for the 2010s. Both films take place in small towns where the sun hasn’t shined in years, with streets laid out in such a way to prevent escape. Both films center on kids living under the specter of benign neglect at best, outright abuse at worst. Both films work largely because they see the teenagers that don’t fit into the easy high-school stereotypes—nerds, jocks and cheerleaders, preppies, so on—and understand how they relate to each other. Chances are, you knew kids like this during your school days—or you were one of them.

Zack and Josh’s shared secret festers and rots like discarded meat, manifesting as paranoia; when Zack’s classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino) reveals she reciprocates his crush, he proves too distracted to respond. Campbell and Tahan, both of whom have prior experience playing troubled teens (on the TV series The Americans and Gotham, respectively), deliver excellent performances—I could easily imagine the mental strain turning like metal gears in their heads, waiting for something, anything, to jam up the works and bring everything crashing down. These performances, as well as director Kevin Phillips’ commitment to cultivating a doom-laden, damn near apocalyptic mood—make up for a number of flaws, particularly a not-particularly-well foreshadowed twist in character development in the third act and a hard-to-follow action sequence near the end of the film.

Super Dark Times provides a fascinating and chilling portrait of characters cinema often struggles mightily to get right. One of the essential films of 2017, even if it’s not particularly comfortable.

Super Dark Times 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).

The Gallows

Another found-footage movie we didn’t need

United States, 2015. Directed by Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing. Starring Reese Mishler, Pfiefer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford. 81 minutes.

The world may not exactly need another horror movie about mean, unpleasant teenagers picked off one by one by an unstoppable, possibly supernatural antagonist, but Blumhouse (the low-budget production house behind the InsidiousThe Conjuring, and Sinister franchises) gives us one anyway. In The Gallows, a trio of high-school friends run afoul of a murderous force while trying to sabotage a revival performance of a school play whose previous run, twenty years earlier, ended with the accidental death of the student in the lead role. It’s not too hard to work out where things go from there.

By no objective metric can The Gallows be considered a “good” movie. The attentive viewer can spot every plot beat five minutes before it actually happens. The script keeps character development to a minimum even by the standards of films populated entirely with stock characters: when one of the protagonist can’t put together a more imaginative put-down than “Hey drama nerd!” you know you’re in trouble. The second-act twist strains credulity (it is almost impossible for the character to not have the piece of information it depends on him not having) and the third-act twist, while not impossible, is highly unlikely in chronological terms. In this context, the film’s entirely extraneous found-footage format turns out the least annoying thing about the film.

Yet even despite these flaws, I have a hard time describing it as “bad” even though I certainly did not like it. There is an audience out there for slasher-type movies loaded down with jump-scares and populated with characters the viewer actively wants to see die. A certain minority of this audience might even do so sincerely. The gaggle of teenagers who shared the theater with me certainly seemed to believe that every scare, no matter how slight, was worthy of a blood-curdling shriek.

Plus, the principal cast of twenty-something actors who look almost, but not quite, young enough to be actual high school students–Reese Mishler, Pfiefer Brown, Ryan Shoos, and Cassidy Gifford playing characters named (you guessed it) Reese, Pfiefer, Ryan, and Cassidy–sell the material for more than it’s worth. If the filmmakers mean for the latter two to have any redeeming traits whatsoever, nobody bothered to tell Shoos and Gifford–and I have to admit, if somebody can make me loathe completely fictional characters this much, that’s some sort of accomplishment.

For that matter, the same can be said for writing-directing team Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing. Much like the later installments in Blumhouse’s tentpole Paranormal Activity franchise, The Gallows is a mediocrity but it’s a well-directed and well-edited mediocrity, with the jump-scares executed with textbook precision and a surprising amount of atmosphere wrenched out of its modern high-school setting. (The one issue I have here is the point of exactly when the main camcorder dies and the students start filming everything on their cell phones. For that matter, I’d like to know why they start filming everything on their cell phones.)

Neither good enough to be good nor bad enough to be bad, The Gallows has one saving grace: it offers numerous opportunities for the audience to scream at the characters how stupid they are. But don’t approach it looking for a “serious” attempt at horror.

Review originally published by Cinema Axis.

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

It Follows

Despite a willingness to poke at and dissect the occasional trope here or there, It Follows bears very little resemblance to its assumed slasher/teen-screamer forebears.

United States. Directed by Robert David Mitchell, 2014. Starring Maika Monroe, Lili Sepe, Jake Weary. 100 minutes.

It’s hard to believe, at first glance, that there might be anything particularly special about It Follows. Suburban teenager Jay (Maika Monroe) finds herself stalked by a malicious supernatural entity after having sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary). Chuck in the pulsing, throbbing synth score, and you get nothing you haven’t already seen a thousand times, right?

Wrong. Despite a willingness to poke at and dissect the occasional trope here or there, writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore effort bears very little resemblance to its assumed slasher/teen-screamer forebears. What he aims for–and, for the most part achieves–is something a bit more thoughtful and less self-consciously clever.

From my point of view, the key to understanding what differentiates It Follows from its forebears is its take on the characters’ relationships, romantic, sexual and otherwise. You’re probably familiar with what I call the “Breakfast Club model” of how teens relate to each other, with each such character slotting comfortably into archetypes–jocks and cheerleaders, nerds, burnouts, snobby rich kids, prudish “good girls”–with the types largely defining the dynamics. The model works great in the teen-angst classics (the point of The Breakfast Club is that these types, while handy, fail to encompass the totality of the teen experience), but since the ’80s, numerous works have substituted these types for actual characterization.

As a result, we’ve reached the point where this model is the default for any film whose protagonists are of high-school or college age. Indeed, it’s a familiar enough element of the teen-scream formula that meta-deconstructive works such as The Cabin in the Woods and Thankskilling feel the need to directly comment on it.

To get back to It Follows, Mitchell isn’t interested in adopting this model to his characters. Jay and her friends don’t “comfortably” fit into stereotypes or cliques or…anything, really. At the risk of sounding cliché, they exist in that nebulous grey zone where they’re no longer “teenagers” in the strictest sense but don’t really qualify as “adults” either. Parents exist on the fringes of the story or are entirely absent, and the nostalgic, simplified existence of childhood is a consistent theme.

This is a more “realistic” take on characterization than is common for teen-screamers and this more relatable set of dramatis personae allows It Follows the chance to frighten the audience more extensively than the audience might expect, and the cast rises to the challenge, led by Monroe, who impressed me in The Guest and puts in an even better performance here.

Mitchell gives the titular “It” a Freudian dimension that really unsettles the bowels if you notice the subtle implications, but the scares work on an impulsive visual level as well–in particular, Mitchell largely eschews “jump scares” in favor of slow burns. I never thought a lone figure walking deliberately towards the camera could fuel so many nightmares. His deliberately retro visual sense–combining compact-shaped e-readers with ’70s and ’80s cars and typewriters–creates a “timeless” vibe. The awesome score by Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland, all Carpenteresque analog synths, feeds into the mood.

It Follows has been on the receiving end of a lot of praise and hype, all of which it well earned. It’s not perfect–I think the story comes apart a bit in the last ten minutes, and I’m not sure of the logic of everything that happens at the pool–but it is damn good. I hope it’s an omen of great things for the genre in 2015.

It Follows movie 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

All Cheerleaders Die

I expected more from a Lucky McKee movie than hot chicks and fun kill scenes

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

+1

The good news is that you can’t fault the filmmakers for falling prey to the usual doppelgänger/bodysnatcher clichés. The bad news is that there are so many other things to fault them for.

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

 

Toad Road

I should have loved Toad Road; what happened?

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

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