Population Zero (2016) Review

rsz_pz1Population Zero (2016)

Directed by: Julian T Pinder, Adam Levins
Written by: Jeff Staranchuck
Starring: Julian T Pinder, Julian Robino

Out NOW on demand from Frightfest Presents

“In 2009 three young men were killed in a remote part of Yellowstone National Park. The only thing more shocking than the crime itself are the bizarre events that followed.”

I do not consider myself a gullible person. As the old joke goes, I can almost always tell when a dinosaur in a movie is real or not. And yet, when I got to the end Population Zero, I jumped onto Google to try and find out if I’d watched a movie or a documentary. And, even though I now know it was only a movie, I’m still unsettled by the truth that underpins the story.

Population Zero is presented as a documentary. The phrase mockumentary, although technically accurate, seems to suggest a light-hearted tone in the mode of This is Spinal Tap or The Office. However, rather than focusing on humour, Population Zero narrates a puzzling story that begins with a brutal and motiveless murder, goes on to expose a cruel legal loophole, and carries on with further twists and turns that never overstep the bounds of plausibility.

rsz_pz2According to Wikipedia, “the filmmakers were inspired to make the movie after learning of the existence of the “Zone of Death”, a small portion of Yellowstone National Park, that under the Sixth Amendment’s Vicinage Clause, would enable “The Perfect Crime”.” The perfect crime in this case is the unmotivated murder of three innocent young men. It’s a perfect crime because, thanks to a legal loophole, even though the murderer has confessed his guilt, he is able to walk free.

This sounds like a ridiculous notion but the idea is based on a hypothetical argument from American lawyers and it’s presented in a truly convincing way. The footage of TV reporters discussing the Yellowstone Murders, the in camera court drawings, the grainy still photographs and the crackly confession from a police station’s CCTV footage, all lend a sense of credibility and gravitas to the story’s not-that-fantastical premise. Also, since we’re discussing a country that has elected Trump as president, the idea that America contains a fifty-square mile strip of national park where motiveless murders can be committed without repercussion, does not seem so farfetched.

Julian T Pinder, who usually stays on the director’s side of the camera, carries himself well as the too-curious-for-his-own-good documentary maker at the heart of this story. Pinder was the director of the 2012 documentary, Trouble in the Peace, an exploration of the poisons and upsets that come with fracking. Cleverly, giving the storyworld a more focused sense of reality through intertextuality, Trouble in the Peace is mentioned as Pinder explains why he thinks he was contacted with information about the Yellowstone Murders.

rsz_pz3This was an intelligent film that suggested fear on so many levels. There are the fears that come from a system that fails the community it’s meant to protect; there are the fears that come from the potential brutality of the unknown and irrational amongst us; there are the fears we share of being abused by greedy and uncaring corporations; and the fear that any one of us could become a real victim to the boundless appetites of any of the above.

Well worth watching. 10/10

Estranged (2015) Review

estrangeddvd1Estranged (UK, 2015)
Dir: Adam Levins
Starring: Amy Mason, James Cosmo, Eileen Nicholas

Out now on DVD & VOD from FrightFest Presents and Icon !

Plot: When an accident ends her years of travelling, January (Mason) returns home in a wheelchair, struggling with severe memory loss. Accompanied by boyfriend, Callum, January’s return to the family she refused to speak about sparks a mystery about her past. What had she been running away from and is the danger still there?

Estranged is another of the FrightFest Presents collection, poached for distribution from the many horror films that grace the screen at the prestigious London-based horror festival. Not quite as oddball as some of their other picks including The Sand, and Curtain, instead Estranged is more of a slow, tense thriller. From first time feature director, Adam Levins, we get a moody and atmospheric film full of mystery and suspense.

While amnesia has been used before many times to draw out a mystery, it never really feels forced in Estranged. The opening accident feels very relatable, the consequence of being a little too care-free on holiday and it all going horribly wrong. However this is probably the only bit of the film that feels grounded in reality. Once the film arrives at it’s main location, the family manor, it feels like we’re also arriving in a different era. Everything just feels old, almost Gothic, and the mobile phones seen earlier disappear into some technological void. Not necessarily a bad thing but it does feel more like they are ignoring the story-telling problems of modern technology rather than dealing with it.

estrangeddvd2The cast do a great job, specifically Cosmo as the hulking patriarch, who swings between severely threatening and deeply compassionate towards his family, making him something all the more terrifying. The family come across as strange and suspicious but not overtly so, it has to be drawn out making the audience question what is the secrets they hold.

The unveiling of those secrets is not the most clear, often answering questions with more questions. This is more frustrating that intriguing and I often felt a little lost. Eventually the secrets are revealed more clearly but at that point it just feels like they’re giving you the answers rather than letting you solve the mystery yourself.

While Estranged’s main focus is the mystery of it’s plot, the story also goes to some dark places with scenes of violence and torture. The torture doesn’t really get too vicious, which is great if you don’t really enjoy torture films. However if you do enjoy extreme violence, you’re going to find the violence a bit toothless. It’s easy to be concerned for January, but there doesn’t seem to be much need for concern when it feels like her abusers are pulling their punches.

estrangeddvd3While watching Estranged, I couldn’t help but think of Lucky McKee’s The Woman another film focused around a pretty fucked up family. Estranged doesn’t quite hit the same level as The Woman, but it could have. It’s dark enough at times, but I think the general time-warped feeling of this film really keeps it from getting under the skin of the audience. If it felt a little more modern, it might have felt a little more real, and painful.