Interview: André Øvredal

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Originally published on The National Student on 28/03/17 and Cultastic on 30/03/17.

We caught up with the Trollhunter director as he takes the leap to the other side of the Atlantic, with grisly new horror The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Set almost entirely in the basement of a mortuary during an autopsy on an unnamed (and apparently dangerous) woman, André Øvredal’s sophomore release is a real celebration of old-school jumps and scares, keeping things simple whilst dialling up the fear factor all the way to 11. 

Hitting UK cinemas for one night only at the end of March, after a hugely successful festival roll-out last year, making waves everywhere from Toronto to our very own BFI-backed London Film Festival, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a very special one for hardcore genre fans. Not for the faint hearted, of course, but for horror nuts and hell, even Brian Cox aficionados, it’s a must-see. 

Chatting to us on the phone before a very special FrightFest-backed preview in London, Øvredal was quick to push the importance of just where Jane Doe came from: “I grew up on American and British horror movies, and I love their clarity of storytelling; the way those movies scare.” With the backing of some stateside producers who were, like us, huge fans of Trollhunter, Øvredal quickly found himself with the script in question and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Filming wasn’t without its challenges though, namely the fact that casting the female lead (the eponymous Jane Doe – a character who spends the entire movie naked and motionless) was easier said than done: “You’re looking for somebody with strength and vulnerability, even just in their face. We see so much just in her face. So it became a picture hunt; I scheduled about 20 actors and models, and met with them.” 

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At times there were talks of shooting the entire movie with a very lifelike prosthetic model, but of course Øvredal was adamant on casting a real person: “She is the core of the movie, the movie’s titled after her… I insisted on it being a human being and not a doll, it had to be a person that you could identify with and I wanted the audience to know that it was a real person going into the theatre.” 

A person he actually found surprisingly quickly in the process: “Olwen [Kelly] was actually the very first one I met. We just talked in an office at the production company and we discussed the part, showed her the script so she knew what it was all about. The requirements, with the obvious issues of the nudity to the actual awkwardness of just lying on a table for weeks on end, and she was so relaxed about it. She had no issue with anything; she was amazing.”

Moving on to talk more directly about the film’s horror elements though, Øvredal seemed very aware of just how extreme his film was going to be, and how he needed to really earn those moments: “Even though there’s going to be extremities on screen, it always has to feel like they’re necessary for the storytelling to function.Then you can allow yourself to do almost anything, because the audience will want to see it. You have to make the audience want to see the next gruesome thing because the mystery compels them to need to know it.”

When asked if he himself believes in the extremities in question though, these supernatural digs at witchcraft and the afterlife, the director’s response was a fairly straight-forward: “No, I believe in absolutely nothing [laughs].” That’s not to say he doesn’t find interest in them however: “On the opposite end of that, I’m fascinated by the supernatural. I’m fascinated by the idea of God, because it’s such an extreme thing that the entire world has agreed that he even exists. So how you get there, that’s what this movie’s about. How can you walk a human being through that transition on screen in 90 minutes, from not believing to believing?”  

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Talking about genre more widely, another important tool in the modern horror market’s repertoire has very much been the jump scare, something Øvredal really masters in Jane Doe. His outlook on the whole thing though, is a lot more scientific: “They have to feel earned somehow… It’s Hitchcock 101: the anticipation, the building up to it, and then really hitting the audience with a bang. It’s about knowing the general psychology of a human being: how you perceive a scary thing or how you drive these kind of emotions that are really quite strong watching a horror movie.” 

And finally, when pressed if he had any tips for the next generation of filmmakers, Øvredal was all about the festivals: “My suggestion would be to make a genre short film, and don’t let it go over ten minutes. You have to be clever, and make it programmable for a festival. If you make it a genre short, you can get into more cool festivals then if you make it into a drama.” From there it’s just a matter of time:  “Slowly you can build a reputation, if you’re talented, and you have to really believe you are talented.” 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is in UK cinemas for one night only on 31st March. 

Film Review: CHiPs

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Originally published on The National Student on 23/03/17. 

2-stars

Dax Shepherd’s poorly timed buddy-cop remake really struggles to stay afloat in a post-Jump Street world. 

For those still unsure (which is most likely every single member of the film’s blatant horny teenager demographic), CHIPS was a semi-successful American TV drama in the late 1970s/early 1980s following the California Highway Patrol as they, well, patrolled the highways of California. 

This modern-day reboot though, aside from keeping the bikes and dorky uniforms in check, all but does away with everything else the original series was known for. In its place is a barely watchable 100 minutes of crude humour, runaway action, and an unwelcome dose of some of the most unnecessary nudity this side of an American Pie spin-off. 

Obviously, following on from the ridiculous success of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s unexpected cop comedy hit 21 Jump Street and it’s sequel, it’s clear where the thinking came from here. Another cult police show getting the 21st Century treatment might well make sense on paper, but where Shepherd and co.’s latest effort starts to veer wildly off course is in just how little brainpower they put into any of it. 

What starts as a fairly basic buddy comedy with plenty of promise – a veteran FBI agent (Michael Peña) going undercover, only to partner up with a sad-sack rookie (Shepherd himself) – pretty quickly loses its way. CHIPS isn’t really powered by any cleverly-scripted mystery, or even much of a central bromance either; instead the entire thing seems to just hinge on nothing more than a never-ending string of hit/miss sex jokes, most of which are totally irrelevant to whatever the hell’s going on around them.

Shepherd and Peña are both likeable actors elsewhere, as are Maya Rudolph, Jane Kaczmarek, Vincent D’Onofrio and even Frozen’s Kristen Bell, but it’s a real testament to just how misguided this whole thing ends up, that not a single one of them comes out of CHIPS with anything more than a (at most, forgettable) black mark against their names. 

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Every single female character ends up as either a love interest, a sex object, or both, while over half of them seem happy enough to send pictures of their boobs to random strangers (a really weird subplot in itself). Even the main duo very rarely do anything more than make borderline homophobic jokes or lust after their female colleagues. Whatever odd specs of character depth that you can just about pick up, from trophy wives to genuine mental health conditions, come out severely underdeveloped and mostly end up ditched at the roadside. 

In fact, one of the film’s only redeeming features is oddly enough its action set-pieces. Despite pretty much giving up on its whole undercover plot less than halfway through, and sacrificing the large majority of its twists and turns for one more poorly-timed jibe at Oscar Pistorius (I mean, seriously?), there are any number of well-shot bike chases that Shepherd deserves plenty of praise for. The stunt driving alone is impressive enough for an otherwise lowest-common-denominator comedy, and in keeping things almost entirely in-camera, the action here is surprisingly focussed. 

The only problem being that said approach doesn’t really balance well with CHIPS’ crude sense of humour at all. So we end up with this bizarre mixture of quick-fire sleaziness and the occasional insane cross-city chase, all wrapped up with a fairly cover-all-bases finale, that ultimately does very little to pull the quality back up to even close to simply ‘watchable’.

All-in, CHIPS is basically a lazy Jump Street for the quietly sexist crowd, lacking any sense of the wit, charm or even baseline intelligence to make a buddy movie work. It’s possibly the first film to be so aggressively shifted at the horny teenage demographic since the early Fast & Furious clones; a hugely disappointing, and really very backwards comedy that deserves to be forgotten.

CHIPS is out in UK cinemas from 24th March. 

Film Review: Don’t Knock Twice

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Originally published on The National Student on 20/03/17. 

2-stars

Katee Sackhoff headlines this flimsy demonic horror about a haunted door on the edge of a motorway in Wales. 

We’ve had haunted houses, haunted dolls, hell, even a haunted car once upon a time. But never in so many years, have we come across an idea as limp and lazy as Don’t Knock Twice’s central horror: a literal ‘scary door’. We now apparently live in a world where dodgy Futurama jokes are dictating what gets made. 

Sackhoff stars as an American sculptor who reconnects with her estranged daughter (Sing Street’s Lucy Boynton), only to find that they’ve both become cursed, after knocking (you guessed it, twice) on the freaky door in question. Which just so happens to be attached to an abandoned house thought (by a local urban myth no less) to have once been inhabited by a rather unhappy-sounding witch. 

It’s all fairly cut-and-dry stuff; obviously the door itself doesn’t really matter in the long run, and the prime antagonist of the whole thing is actually a shadowy demon that, although freaky enough, seems to have been sneakily lifted verbatim from last year’s Lights Out. Of course there are the occasional jumps and scares to be had, and said creature is certainly no teddy-bear. I’s just very, very difficult to ever escape the fact that Don’t Knock Twice feels cheaply strung together in almost every single department. 

Some half-decent performances aside, the whole thing just feels decidedly rushed; thrown together with nothing but overused tropes and a frustrating lack of real tension. Director Caradog W. James’s previous effort The Machine – although again rather cheap – had at least some sense of ingenuity to it, but there’s barely even so much as a whiff of it here. 

A few exceptions can be made for the film’s final act which, down to some half-clever world building and again, a spot of lasting chemistry between Sackhoff and Boynton, helps raise things just above pedestrian. But it does leave you questioning why it took so long to reach such a critical moment. The plot far too often ties itself in knots, desperately plodding towards obvious twists without ever celebrating really what makes Don’t Knock Twice even the least bit different from the usual horror fare. 

So what remains is exactly that: a carbon copy of the Blumhouse bunch, with the odd underdeveloped nod towards something a tiny bit new. It’s a British genre movie that seems so desperate to forget its roots, that it piles the dirt on the only thing making it even remotely watchable: the fact that it’s not set in some other ropey suburban neighbourhood. 

Don’t Knock Twice is just like any other low-budget horror of the last ten years, recycling the same throwaway scares and creature designs that even the most casual genre fans will have seen over a million times before. There’s so many better alternatives out there that the sad reality is, this one’s frustratingly forgettable.

Don’t Knock Twice is in cinemas and on demand 31st March, and on DVD from 3rd April. 

Feature: The Creeping Garden might be the weirdest nature documentary you ever see

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Originally published on The National Student on 14/03/17. 

Step aside David Attenborough, nature documentaries just got a firm and funky kick up the proverbial arse from two oddball filmmakers with a very different set of skills. 

The Creeping Garden is a bit of a hard sell; it’s an 81-minute documentary about plasmodial slime mould, and the relationships its formed not only within science, but within art, music and even robotics too. But trust us when we say it might just be one of the most fascinating (and visually stunning) films you see all year. 

Not only does said mould (which grows in forest areas all over the UK) look like some sort of extra-terrestrial goop left behind by some casual alien visitors, it’s hugely intelligent in its behaviour too, always finding its way back together when its cells are separated from each other. It’s just a mound of cells, but somehow it still acts as cleverly as a lot of animals with three hundred times the brain power. 

Slime mould is basically the stuff of science-fiction. It’s a real-world subject so off-the-wall and alien-like it can only be fake, despite being very much 110% real. But the film’s subject isn’t its be-all and end-all either. 

Self-confessed fringe filmmakers Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp make this apparent biological phenomenon into one of the oddest bits of non-fiction filmmaking in forever, with help from some seriously swanky photography and a real earnest sense of mystery. Not only is it a film based around a unique set-up, but one with a very unique sense of style too

On the surface it looks very much to be a 70s-esque sci-fi thriller in the vein of Phase IV or Invasion of the Body Snatcher but The Creeping Garden is anything but, blending the lines between fiction and reality in some of the most awe-inspiring ways possible. Between some neat time-lapses on everything from the mould in question to the very origins of the time-lapse itself (also know as time magnification), and one of the moodiest, most carefully themed scores for a documentary in recent memory, Grabham and Sharp have crafted something really quite special. 

Aside from a few talking heads popping up throughout, stylistically this is a million miles away from what you’d expect from a film based around not just nature, but such an unspoken part of that whole genus too. There’s frankly nothing waffly about it at all. 

To put it simply: if you only ever see one feature-length documentary about the many uses of a mysterious scientifically questionable category of mould, make it this one. You’ll be surprised. 

The Creeping Garden is out in the UK on Blu-ray now. 

Film Review: The Eyes of My Mother

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Originally published on The National Student on 13/03/17. 

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This short, sharp and unrelentingly dark debut is an unusual breed, but stands as all the better for it. 

Despite keeping it extraordinarily simple story-wise for his first time behind the camera, Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother still kicks hard. Opening on a young girl witnessing a brutal and seriously confusing murder, things only get bloodier and more thematically dim from here, building towards an oddly sobering little horror with a seriously violent undertone. 

Pesce’s 21st Century tragedy plants its roots firmly in the American outback; a quiet country farm with little distraction, or connection to the outside world. Its focus, a troubled young woman who struggles to find a place beyond the family home she’s known all her life, is obviously familiar, but just patient and eerie enough that it feels in some way fresh. 

The real driving force here is an origins story; a more emotionally complex stab at what pushes some of the horror genre’s most adept and unhinged to their climactic breaking point. And whilst we usually have to suffer through the standard buckets of blood and torture to even get half an honest glimpse of what lies behind the mask (if at all), here Pesce very much leads with the latter, making any violence full-stop, although present, very much the outcome of the drama, rather than the film’s very reason for being. 

The result is something which feels surprisingly patient, especially considering the ultra short 75-minute run time, and this mixed in with the haunting milkiness of the film’s black and white cinematography makes for a carefully creepy watch for sure. Although all of this will, without doubt, separate its audience massively. The cheap thrills horror crowd are unlikely to be keen on the long pauses, or more art-focussed direction, even if the almost grindhousey bloodletting more than makes up for it later on. 

So Pesce’s film ends up at something of a crossroads; too careful and delicate in its framing to match the louder and more blood-hungry slasher audience, but just too wobbly and devoted to the grisliness to ever really be considered high art either. It’s such an odd blend, and whilst each of these elements alone could be hugely praised, smashing them all together does end up feeling very, very jarring. 

Far from ever really being accessible to a wider audience, The Eyes of My Mother recalls moments of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night alongside more earnest echoes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. It’s short and astute, bloody and bonkers, whilst still feeling prissy and drawn-out all at the same time. Which is just as strange to watch as you’d expect. 

A deeply unusual crossbreed of so many different ideas from the horror genre as a whole, and while not all of them totally work, it’s a fascinating exercise nonetheless. Worth it for genre nuts and completists alike, but anyone seeking a low-rent thrill might need to look elsewhere. 

The Eyes of My Mother is in UK cinemas 24th March. 

Feature: Buffy At 20: All The Greatest Episodes

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Originally published on The National Student on 10/03/17. 

As Joss Whedon’s seminal vampire hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns a ridiculous 20 years old, we look back at the show’s most lasting episodes. 

It seems almost painful to admit that Sarah Michelle Gellar’s late-90s star vehicle, the same cheapo network show, a movie spin-off that has since become a total cultural phenomenon, is now over two decades old. Running for seven incredible seasons from 1997 to 2003, it’s an irreplaceable slice of barnstorming TV that totally changed the face of the medium for good. 

As you’d expect there’s obviously been whispers of everything from reunions to reboots in the many years since the show bowed out, and a long-running comic follow-on from Dark Horse, at first fronted by Whedon himself (who later disappeared to work on a cute little indie film called The Avengers) pretty much took its place. But nothing beats original Buffy. 

So without much further ado, to celebrate 20 years of the greatest vampire slaying gang in the history of well, vampire slaying, here are all the best bits to sink back into:

Teacher’s Pet (Season 1, Episode 4)

A testament to just how bonkers early-Buffy was, ‘Teacher’s Pet’ saw one of Sunnydale High’s newest substitute teachers turning out to be a gigantic demonic praying mantis, trapping the loveable Xander with plans to both mate with, and eat him. It’s not exactly high-art, but it’s easily one of the show’s most memorable first season adventures and remains one of the weirdest bits of fantasy-driven TV to date too. 

Prophecy Girl (Season 1, Episode 12)

It’s easy enough to fill a list like this with season finales, but ‘Prophecy Girl’ is a worthy one in many, many ways. Not only is the genuinely freaky-looking Master finally dealt with in both a badass and orderly fashion, but Buffy herself actually dies, introducing one of the show’s longest and most genre-defining themes: mortality and Buffy’s frequent lack of it. 

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Surprise (Season 2, Episode 13)

Whilst Season 2 wasn’t exactly the show’s peak, it did have a few defining moments, the biggest of which coming at the very end of ‘Surprise’. Sure, the episode itself is fairly standard, cut and dry Spike and Drusilla stuff (early Spike is still great though might we add), but the final moments see Buffy and Angel not only finally giving in to their long-term romantic urges, but also their sexual ones too. And in doing so, the Buffy writers actually explore a major part of adolescence that too many other teen-focussed TV shows often shied away from. 

Killed by Death (Season 2, Episode 18)

On the other hand, the second season also provided one of the show’s best bottle episodes and one of its greatest single-serving demons full-stop: the Kindestod, a scary old man-looking entity who strolls around hospitals in an old-school coat and hat combo, sucking the life out of sickly children. Directed by Deran Sarafian, who went on to shoot stuff for both The Strain and Hemlock Grove, it remains one of the eeriest and most unsettling episodes to date, leaning on Buffy’s consistent connection to not just fantasy, but horror too.

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The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13) 

More of an exercise in brilliant writing than anything else, ‘The Zeppo’ flips the show’s point of view completely, relegating the usual core Buffy-lead adventure to the (literal) background, and giving Xander the spotlight as he uncovers and solves his own mystery, alone. It’s just familiar enough to still ring true with die hard fans, but still hugely innovative and in many ways, could even be seen as the influence for the likes of Star Wars background adventure Rogue One all these years later. 

Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)

Widely considered by many to be Buffy’s strongest single episode, ‘Hush’ is the best example of a killer premise, executed to perfection. Driven by a ghostly race (simply called The Gentlemen) who steal all of Sunnydale’s voices, the episode is almost completely told in mime, without any speech whatsoever. And yes, it’s exactly as good as it sounds. In fact. ‘Hush’ was so well praised, it alone was nominated for a Primetime Emmy and remains one of Joss Whedon’s finest pieces of work to date. 

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Restless (Season 4, Episode 22)

Another fan favourite in a whole season of series highlights, this one’s arguably one of the oddest finales to any TV season ever. With the exceptionally twisted Frankenstein-esque villain Adam vanquished in the episode before, ‘Restless’ instead taps into the show’s underlying mythos, jumping between the dreams/nightmares of Willow, Xander, Giles and of course, Buffy, and featuring everything from the original Slayer, to a man covered in cheese and a totally spot-on Apocalypse Now parody starring none other than early-season alumnus Principal Snyder. Quite possibly the most accurate interpretation of dreaming ever, too: Inception included. 

The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)

You’ll only ever watch it once, but ‘The Body’ remains the absolute height of the show’s quality and maturity. Few cuts, little score and no demons; it’s a distinctly empty-feeling episode that solely charts Buffy and her friends’ attempts to deal with her mother’s sudden death, a total removal from the usual structure, but one that doesn’t feel even remotely out of place. Not only is it a huge turning point for Buffy in particular, marking her finally as a fully-fledged adult, it’s also a nod to the fact that TV needs to dwell on the moments that matter; connecting with real emotion and real experience and Whedon does that here better than anywhere else. 

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Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)

For many fans though, the most memorable and technically marvellous has always been the 50-minute musical episode ‘Once More, with Feeling’ that not only manages to juggle lasting character arcs – Buffy’s return from Heaven, her doomed romance with Spike, Willow’s pull towards the dark – but also delivers some of the most incredible original music and lyrics ever to grace either stage or screen. It’s a bold and totally insane undertaking, pulled off flawlessly, that represents the very peak of what Buffy had become; much, much more than your average fantasy-driven TV show. 

Tabula Rasa (Season 6, Episode 8)

It’s rare to have two of the show’s best episodes even in the same season, let alone back-to-back, but it just so happens that ‘Tabula Rasa’ picks up the pieces from the entire series’s emotional pinnacle beautifully. A spell gone wrong causes the whole gang to suddenly lose their memories with both hilarious and telling results, not only bringing back the Trio but simultaneously marking the final time the whole gang are together in one adventure. And what a send-off it is.  

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Seeing Red (Season 6, Episode 19)

Joss Whedon’s known for being a bit of a bastard and killing off a whole bunch of much-loved characters, but nothing could quite prepare fans for ‘Seeing Red’s climax. With the Trio’s only real villain Warren on the run – now with a gun because magic can’t solve every problem – Willow’s beloved Tara ends up taking a bullet completely out of the blue, signalling a huge shift in the Buffyverse and the final reveal of Dark Willow, a character who would go on to shape the rest of the show’s (albeit short) lifetime. 

Chosen (Season 7, Episode 22)

And finally we end with the finale to end all finales. Despite taking something of a downturn in quality, Season 7 capped things off with a rather insane farewell, wrapping up the TV-wing of the Buffy world beautifully in a gigantic demonic war at the place where it all started: Sunnydale High School. Now realising that she’s not the only Slayer, ‘Chosen’ saw our favourite vampire-staking-badass teaming up with a bunch of other vampire-staking-badasses to close the Hellmouth once and for all; losing fan-favourites Spike and Anya in the process. 

The end itself was much more of an open book than a fully-fledged finale, but in doing so Whedon opened up his seven seasons of world-building to further life beyond the TV screen. From here onwards it was less about Buffy the vampire slayer, and more about Buffy, leader of the vampire slayers, and considering the direction things then headed in the sequel comic series, it was about time for Buffy and her friends to take the jump beyond the realms of production budgets and practical shooting issues, to a place where none of that really mattered. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seasons 1-7  is available on DVD now. 

Interview: Toby Kebbell

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Originally published on The National Student on 08/03/17. 

One of Hollywood’s most underrated stars went into detail with us about some of his less known work on the latest King Kong movie Skull Island. 

You might not necessarily recognise Toby Kebbell’s name straight off the bat, but between Dead Man’s Shoes, War Horse, The East, Black Mirror and most recently A Monster Calls, his face will no doubt jog your memory enough. He was the key performer behind Warcraft’s Horde, the motion-captured ape villain in 2014’s runaway hit Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and most bizarrely of all, above and beyond the best thing about Fox’s doomed Fantastic Four reboot back in 2015. 

Basically he’s a big deal, and considering his talents both behind and in front of the camera, he’s definitely here to stay. Luckily we had the chance to chat with him too, picking his brain about everything from his human character in the new Kong adventure, to playing the gigantic mighty ape himself in reference work for ILM. 

Fans of Matt Reeves’s rebooted Planet of the Apes series might want to give the interview a quick watch too, for some meaty details about the possibility of a return from Kebbell’s villainous Koba; a post-credits scene did nod towards his apparent survival after all. 

Check out the full interview below and our full review and other interviews here.

Kong: Skull Island is out in UK cinemas from 9th March.