Film Review: A Dark Song

adarksong

Originally published on HeyUGuys on 03/10/16. 

4-stars

Every year on the festival circuit, one or two strange little titles seem to seep through the woodwork and make a real dent amongst all the big names and awards-hungry dramas. There’s a whole bunch of home-grown, British talents already making a name for themselves at this year’s LFF, but one of the most unique is certainly newbie Liam Gavin.

His feature debut, A Dark Song is somewhere in-between an ultra-involving parental drama, a 60s-style occult horror and an out-and-out black comedy, balancing the trio surprisingly well and delivering a thoroughly entertaining and refreshing new slice of British cult cinema.

It’s a relatively basic set-up: a young woman (Susan Loughnane), still emotionally scarred from the loss of her child, hires an ever-so-slightly dodgy supernatural expert (Sightseers’ Steve Oram) to help her perform a potentially dangerous ritual, but it’s a plot which is teaming with big ideas and fantastic concepts.

For example, Gavin is always careful, particularly in the opening act, to reveal things gradually. There’s no spoon-feeding or waves of exposition. It’s quite a bit of work to follow the ins-and-outs of the ritual itself, and specifically why these leads are so determined to chase it, but once everything is out on the table, it feels so much more organic and well-structured. The central duo (practically the only characters in the entire film) come across as beautifully rounded and detailed as a result, cementing the real importance of patience in storytelling.

This isn’t to call A Dark Song ever boring though. Oram is a fantastically arrogant presence, with a lot of humour and genuine darkness behind him that makes for a tantalising watch. He’s easy to dislike, but always understandable in his actions, whilst Loughnane is slightly more transparent in her own. Again, this is anything but a criticism; she works terrifically in the film and acts as a simple, but effective audience conduit, completely different to Oram’s more boisterous turn.

Sadly it’s not quite all peaches and cream for Gavin’s first effort though. Whilst the film’s first half ticks along at a beautifully steady pace with just enough reveals to keep things interesting, it shudders into a much lower gear later on, meandering for quite a while before delivering a frustratingly in-your-face finale that doesn’t quite fit with all that’s come before it.

A major part of what makes A Dark Song so inviting early on is not just its bleak comedy but it’s commitment to not giving the game away. For a long, long time Gavin walks a very delicate line between embracing the fantasy elements and questioning them. Yet, as the conclusion draws near, he seems to drift away from this middle-point altogether, something which’ll likely dump out at least half the audience before those credits finally roll.

It’s not the biggest of issues, and doesn’t overly detract from an otherwise massively enjoyable debut, it’s just a shame that the consistent complexity of the first half wasn’t quite maintained. All in all A Dark Song is a ridiculously strong and beautifully acted piece of work, but one that deserves a much more satisfying conclusion.

One of the most confident and darkly entertaining British debuts of the year, but one that does still need a little tweaking in places.

A Dark Song was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2016. 

Film Review: Norfolk

norfolk

Originally published on HeyUGuys on 20/09/16. 

2-stars

Thought-provoking filmmaker Martin Radich is no stranger to film festivals, having spent the past fifteen years premiering his shorts up and down the country, as well as across the pond. His latest: the at times unsettling, and always unusual Norfolk, is no exception, although whether or not it’ll find an audience outside of the festival circuit remains to be seen.

Radich’s highly-meditative countryside-set drama, finds a former mercenary (Inglourious Basterdss dairy farmer Denis Ménochet) hiding out in the great British wilderness with his socially-awkward son (Barry Keoghan), adapting to a relatively simple new life among the grassy hills of one of England’s greenest counties. As you can probably guess though, said quaintness doesn’t last particularly long, and soon enough the pair find themselves thrust into danger once more, after a mysterious old couple begins stalking them.

As straight-forward as this might sound, Radich’s film is really anything but, drawing on the director’s own misanthropic nature in its quest to seem about as joyous as being punched repeatedly in the face and spat on. Plot points are tied together with hazy transitions, making for some seriously muddled editing; characters seem to prefer interpretive dance and mumbled demands over genuine development, and the majority of the actual defining action takes place mostly off screen.

It goes without saying, Norfolk is anything but an easy watch. Although often billed (quite wrongly) as a thriller, there’s little in here to truly excite or amaze beyond a few admittedly stunning shots of the British countryside. Between its unruly and painfully dreary plotting, and the visual smorgasbord of filters applied in editing, it’s very much a film that is to be technically admired in some circles, rather than really enjoyed.

Most of the underlying pieces are very much in place: Radich certainly knows his way around a camera and Ménochet in particular is a fantastic addition as a troubled veteran. As is a great deal of the cast in fact, it’s simply just a matter of the foundational material not quite adding up. Ménochet gives it his all as a man driven to the edge by a painful bout of PTSD, but this is showcased in such an obvious and ham-fisted way that it loses all real sense of power and purpose.

There’s plenty of gorgeous photography to be admired, and a slight romance to Keoghan’s naivety that’s easy to cherish at times, but on the whole Radich’s latest feature is a little too muddled and downtrodden in its sensibilities to ever really be enjoyable or affecting. It will leave you praying to see more of Ménochet’s dark side though, that’s for sure.

There’s a great deal of talent involved here, it’s simply just a case of the resulting film being far too difficult to fully sink into.

Norfolk was screened as part of the East End Film Festival 2016. 

Film Review: 31

rob-zombies-31

Originally published on HeyUGuys on 30/08/16. 

3-stars1

Cult hero and hard rock superstar Rob Zombie’s films are nothing less than divisive when it comes to horror audiences. Their super-stylised photography and heavy colouring can often prove a bit of a drain on the eyes at times, and his fondness for truly pushing the envelope with his own unique form of black comedy has left many in the past feeling somewhat sick. 31 is of course, no exception to this rule.

Flipping back to his love of group-orientated violence, Zombie’s latest finds a van full of carnival workers thrown into the middle of a sadistic battle for survival by a team of crazed (and apparently mega wealthy) game-makers. The rules are simple: the five remaining souls are trapped in the centre of a deadly labyrinth and must stay alive for exactly twelve hours. The only slight issue is of course, they’re not alone.

At its heart, 31 is really little more than a dressed-up Saw sequel. The eccentric costumes and pulpy setting (a rather welcome late 70s-aura) help it standout to some degree, but beneath the bright colours and loud characters it really is just another exercise in torture porn-style bloodletting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for those expecting more brains, more braun or something other than what they’ve already sat through hundreds of times before, you’ll likely be disappointed. On a base level, there’s not an awful lot new here.

The violence itself is neatly scattered throughout, and provides plenty of bloody encounters for fans who are so inclined, but it also eventually becomes rather repetitive. The same weapons, the same mood; there’s really little change in emotional state as the film presses on. Characters drop dead and injuries get more severe, but round after round, the sick game the core group are pushed into doesn’t undergo any particularly exciting shifts beyond the changing roster of cold-blooded killers sent to slaughter them.

Even on this front, Zombie stumbles a little bit too, playing one of his trump cards a little too early. It seems that the whole idea of these deluded killer-types is that they each have their own selling point. Chainsaw-wielding redneck clowns, little-’n’-large-style knife wielders; it’s a whimsical team dragged straight from the depths of a particularly screwed-up comic book, but the first to grace the screen is a Spanish-spewing dwarf dressed as Hitler, and in all honesty, it’s pretty difficult to get more outlandish than that.

Eventually he does manage it though, wheeling out an undisputed triumph in character acting in the film’s final act, in the form of a tremendously unsettling and perfectly composed Richard Brake. Having already stolen the film’s finest moment in a beautifully-styled black and white opening monologue, Brake strikes back with a genuinely shuddering vengeance, in a role that, although significantly more visually paired-back than his erratic cohorts, is one million times more effective. From his wide-eyed, toothy-grin, to the crumbling fingernails grasped tightly around a pair of switchblades, Brake is something the horror genre is in desperate need of: a brand new and original force to be reckoned with.

Aside from this though, 31’s cast is relatively unspectacular: a run-of-the-mill crew who do little beyond reading their lines and acting on edge. Even those kitted-out in kooky costumes and layers of heavy make-up aren’t particularly exciting to watch, making for a film that seems to think it’s far louder and more unique than it actually is.

Underneath, 31 is really just another slasher-come-torture-driven horror; one that is well-styled and perfectly watchable but, aside from a truly devilish Richard Brake, is rarely anything more. Rob Zombie fans will likely be in their element, but horror aficionados may well find themselves, dare I say it, a little bored.

Despite offering up plenty of bold and colourful characters, Rob Zombie’s latest is really just like any other repetitive slasher on the market. Richard Brake’s delectable villain deserves much more to chew on.

31 was screened as part of HorrorChannel FrightFest 2016. 

Film Review: The Chamber

the-chamber

Originally published on HeyUGuys on 30/08/16. 

4-stars

Single-location thrillers are never straightforward. Throw in some underwater filming and the odd spot of international relations and newcomer Ben Parker certainly didn’t make his first time behind the camera particularly easy for himself. Luckily for us though, the fresh-faced Brit pulls it off almost completely without a hitch, largely down to his impressively tight scripting.

Parker’s bare-bones plot finds a mild-mannered submarine pilot (Johannes Kuhnke) dragged into the middle of a mysterious mission by a trio of secretive American military-types, desperate to recover something from the ocean floor. The twist here being that said ocean just so happens to be North Korean waters, and the mission doesn’t exactly run smoothly, eventually leaving the group stranded on the seabed.

Roughly 90% of The Chamber takes place entirely in a tiny submarine roughly the size of a transit van, with just four characters, a number that then gradually begins to dwindle. Keeping such a modest set-up fresh and exciting for even half the film’s 90-minute run-time is an arduous task, but you’d never guess from watching Parker work.

The script wrangles between the central four nicely, only very quietly giving some bigger nods than others, whilst always developing the group’s individual identities beautifully in the background. The characters themselves may feel a little too archetypal at times, from the no-nonsense matriarch to the brash hot-head, but when their chemistry begins to spark it’s very easy to forget that they’re roles we’ve seen a thousand times before.

It’s really this core interplay between the group which keeps The Chamber alive. One weak link and the constant scuffles could very easily take a turn for the annoying, but through a mixture of neat dialogue and grounded performances (particularly the insanely loveable Kuhnke), Parker manages to build a tense thriller almost entirely around arguments and problem solving exercises, while every conflict these characters face moves the story forward massively; there’s no treading water here. Well, at least in the metaphoric sense.

True, the stakes only really begin to fully ramp up towards the film’s end, but all that comes before it remains a clever build to something significantly darker, making for a finale that’s very, very close to being actually quite heartbreaking. In the end it all seems to feel a tad too rushed to be fully affecting, but this doesn’t prove to be enough of a knock to capsize the picture by any means.

The Chamber is ultimately a pretty fascinating watch; a nod towards gentle progression that’s more about people than it is about blood and guts. A strange choice for a world premiere at FrightFest maybe, but that aside, this is one teeming with talent.

A basic but superbly written thriller that builds slowly and beautifully.

The Chamber was screened as part of HorrorChannel FrightFest 2016.