Frightfest 2012 All-Nighter – in Review(s)

FF12-AllNight

6.30pm – EXCISION

Stars: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Ariel Winter, Roger Bart, Jeremy Sumpter, John Waters, Malcolm McDowell, Marlee Matlin, Ray Wise | Written and Directed by Richard Bates Jr.

Beverley Hills 90210 star AnnaLynne McCord pulls off an amazing Bela Lugosi style transformation to play a dowdy, delusional, egocentric, sociopathic outcast Pauline – a modern-day Carrie if you will (but without the telekinesis) – who spends her days being bullied at school and her nights having bizarre wet dreams about performing weird operations and relishing in the blood that flows forth from them. Her fascinations disturb her schoolmates and her parents, Phyllis (Lords) and Bob (Bart) who just want her to be “normal” like her younger sister Grace (Winter), who suffers from cystic fibrosis. An outcast at school and at home, Pauline is convinced that the best way to repair her estranged relationship with her family is to perform a risky operation to save her sister’s life…

Let’s get this out of the way first, Excision is strange. Very strange. Very, very strange…

Writer/director Richard Bates Jr. has taken his original award-winning short and expanded it into what can only be described as a David Lynchian suburban nightmare come David Cronenberg body-horror. A mix of bizarre psycho-sexual imagery, teenage angst and black comedy, the film is also that rare breed – a fantastic original idea in a world of remakes, reboots, sequels and found-footage movies! It’s a testament to the horror genre that it can, despite protestations to the contrary, produce films that are challenging, difficult and beautiful all at once.

Excision works largely because of its cast, who give their all in their roles – especially McCord as Pauline and Traci Lords as her conservative religious mother. Their estranged relationship  is central to the film, it’s impact only truly becoming clear in the films final denouement as the hard-skinned Pauline, who until that point has remained stony-faced and stoic, breaks down in the arms of her mother – not because of what she has done but because her mother is showing her affection, even in face of the situation that has occurred. It’s testament to writer/director Richard Bates Jr. that the roles, even with actors playing against type (Lords as a conservative, John Waters playing a priest), never feel false or untrue. In fact the decision to cast against type – led by the casting of typically glamourous 90210 actress Annalynne McCord as the films dowdy “heroine” – works tremendously to undermine the audiences expectations, and without expectations you’re left only with the film and the world it presents.

Inspired by the surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky and the body-horror of David Cronenberg, Excision is a masterpiece of horror filmmaking which will have you questioning both just what kind of person could make such a twisted movie and why you’re enjoying it so much, and marks Richard Bates Jr. as a talent to watch.

11.30pm – THE TALL MAN

Stars: Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, Stephen McHattie, Eve Harlow, Jakob Davies | Written and Directed by Pascal Laugier

Writer/director Pascal Laugier exploded on to the horror scene with his audience-dividing, often hard to watch, torture-porn opus, Martyrs, which both followed and subverted the tropes of that particular horror sub-genre; and now he’s back with something altogether different. The Tall Man follows Julia Denning (Biel), the town nurse at the free clinic. Discreet, capable and well respected, Julia lives in a remote woodland house with young David and his nanny Christine in the depressed Canadian town of Cold Rock, where children are disappearing, never to be found again. Some witnesses say they have seen a “tall man” at the scenes of the crimes only adding to the fears of the local families. Then the worst happens, the Tall Man kidnaps David and Julia finds herself at the centre of the town’s urban legend.

At first glance it would seem odd that director Laugier would follow up his brutal-but-acclaimed French horror Martyrs with an English-language supernatural tale set in the backwoods of America. However The Tall Man is not what it appears at first glance…

Much like Martyrs, this film is not just a mere horror story, like it’s predecessor the film turns on a dime mid-way through its running time, eschewing the horror aspects and supernatural elements of it’s plot for an intense psychological thriller that has much to say about rich and poor, wealth and the class divide. The Tall Man is in fact very much a film of it’s time – with much of the world in a recession, the films ideas on the power of money and the effect a lack of money has on sections of society is very apt.

Of course despite its story altering twist this is still, at least at first a horror movie, and thankfully Laugier doesn’t scrimp on the atmospherics. The town of Cold Rock is a bleak place, surrounded by the kind of forest we’d expect to see in one of Grimm’s fairy tales – in fact it reminded me a lot of Twin Peaks, with the very same eerie atmosphere that pervaded Lynch’s TV show. There are, save for the intense scene in which David is kidnapped, no real scares in The Tall Man; instead Laugier opts to explore the psychological aspects of child abduction, how it effects those involved and the town as a whole. Sadly that exploration does, at times, feel somewhat clunky – especially in the final closing voiceover – and it does, on occasion, slow down the pace of the film, but otherwise the film is a solid thriller with a superb central performance from Jessica Biel, one of her best in fact.

Proving that Martyrs was not just a one-off, The Tall Man shows that whilst the subject matter may change, director Pascal Laugier still has the ability to make you stop and question your beliefs in the most provocative of ways.

1.30am – BAIT 3D

Stars: Xavier Samuel, Sharni Vinson, Julian McMahon, Phoebe Tonkin, Alex Russell, Dan Wyllie, Lincoln Lewis, Cariba Heine | Written by John Kim, Russell Mulcahy | Directed by Kimble Rendall

In a sleepy Australian beach community shoppers at the underground Oceania supermarket are under attack by a crazed bandit. Suddenly, the unimaginable happens. A monster freak tsunami swallows up the town hook, line and sinker. Now trapped, with rushing waves threatening to entomb them in a watery grave, the survivors discover they are not alone. For the tsunami has brought unwanted visitors up from the depths. Not only must they overcome the threat of drowning and the psycho robber in their midst, but also a hazard far more deadly and bloodthirsty – a pack of hungry sharks.

Jaws has a lot to answer for. Today it seems shark movies are a dime a dozen, from big budget Hollywood films like Deep Blue Sea and Open Water, to low-budget, straight to DVD fare such as Blood Surf, Megalodon and Sharktopous. And the Syfy channel seem to commission new shark flicks every other week! However it’s not just Hollywood that has a fascination with the demons of the deep, Australia has recently discovered it’s love for all things shark, with Andrew Traucki’s 2010 effort The Reef, which brought true-to-life terror back to the ocean, and now Bait (or Bait 3D to give the film its full title), which goes the exploitation route but on a bigger and better scale than say, The Asylum’s recent shark flicks.

Director Kimble Rendall first came to my attention for his Y2k slasher movie Cut, which starred former Brat -Packer Molly Ringwald and Aussie singer Kylie Minogue in a post-Scream horror that, like many of the time, played with the conventions of the genre in an “ironic” way. Since then Rendall has cut (pardon the pun) his teeth as a second unit director on a number of big-budget Hollywood action flicks including the two Matrix sequels, Ghost Rider, I Robot and the recent Jason Statham flick Killer Elite. Bait [3D] marks his return to the directors chair (at least in filmic terms – he did direct episodes of the Aussie comedy Jesters) and what a return. Showing just how to shoot a “nature gone wild” flick, Rendall has a fantastic eye for the eerie – from the moment we see a huge flock of birds fleeing… something, to the fantastic tidal wave and the devastation it causes, and the frankly creepy underwater scenes with dead bodies floating past the camera as the action plays out in the background.

Of course being a modern shark movie there’s a reliance on CG for the sharks, but thankfully Rendall’s use of CGI in this case works perfectly to both enhance the physical prowess of the sharks in the movie and convey the 3D aspect of the film and even in 2D the forced perspective shots of the sharks jumping out of the water and into the camera look awesome. I have no doubt that there will be plenty of people who decry the over-use of CG in a film like this, but me? I didn’t mind the over abundance of computer-generated sea creatures in the film (which is a first for me to be honest) as it was all done so bloody well and blended in perfectly with the exploitation aspect of the film. After all, what’s a giant killer shark movie without a scary-looking giant killer shark?

A slice of cinematic cheese – the good kind I may add - Bait is not a film to be taken seriously, which is probably why a number of my fellow critics just didn’t “get” the film. Hey it’s not high-art, and it’s certainly not Jaws, but the film is a fantastic man vs. nature flick that throws in some Dawn of the Dead-esque tropes in it’s tale of shoppers stuck in a water-logged basement supermarket with two 12 foot great whites!

5.30am – THE HELPERS

Stars: Kristen Quintrall, Denyce Lawton, Christopher Jones, JoJo Wright, Rachel Sterling, Black Thomas, Dustin Harnish, Cameron Diskin, Braxton Davis | Directed by Chris Stokes

Music producer-turned-film director Chris Stokes (You Got Served) turns his hands to horror with The Helpers. And whilst his early work featured a number of rappers and singers he has produced and worked with, this is his first movie NOT to follow that format. This time round Stokes takes a bunch of relative unknowns (the majority of whom are credited with small roles in TV fare) and casts them in a movie that blends traditional filmmaking with that most risible of genres – the found-footage film.

The Helpers follows a group of seven friends who are headed on a road trip to Las Vegas, but along the way they get a flat tyre. Leaving the women behind, the men then go off in pursuit of help and quickly come across a local rest stop with some very friendly owners. As the group are reunited, they party with the owners of the rest stop and spend the night in their motel. However, when they wake they soon realise that these people have other intentions as they are held captive and forced to go through a horrific ordeal at the hands of their helpers.

Straight away you can tell The Helpers comes from a director who has close ties with the music industry. Nearly every scene is scored with loud pop and/or rock music (featuring Ke$ha, Linkin Park and their ilk) of some kind and there’s an over abundance of lens flare – the type typically seen in Stokes’ music video work! And those aren’t the only “interesting” directorial choices… If you’re going to shoot a found footage movie, then shoot a found footage movie. Don’t comprise the conceit by switching to traditional camera work when someone walks out of the POV frame. As if to make it worse, Stokes shoots the non-POV footage in a tighter frame, often getting right in his casts faces! Then Stokes and co. throw in CCTV footage on top of all that and it all turns to multi-camera, multi-format shit.

If you’ve seen Vacancy or its sequel, then you know what to expect from The Helpers. Only this time the filmmakers go a little further and throw in Saw-like traps that see each couple having to survive (and save each other) by putting their bodies through hell. This is yet another film that feels like its come too late. It’s also another film that seems to be very heavily influenced by better films that have come before it – including The Hitcher, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, of course, Hostel. Sadly this film isn’t a patch on any of the films I’ve mentioned so far, and doesn’t have any redeeming features either. Yes, as much as it pains me to say this, The Helpers is nothing more than an exercise in “torture porn”, the type of film that non-genre fans will point to and denigrate.

If you check out the IMDB page for The Helpers you’ll notice there’s no credited writer, and with good reason. A flimsy plot with zero story, combined with a series of badly shot, Saw-wannabe set pieces does not a horror film make. Especially in this day and age. The only help this film needs is help to be put down.

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