Stu Smith’s FILMS OF 2014

Stu Smith’s FILMS OF 2014

2014 has been a bit of a mixed year for horror. Slow to start and producing some absolute howlers along the way, the genre has taken a bit of a battering both critically and at the box office this year. However, as the year went on some genuine gems started to emerge from all corners of the globe proving once more that the genre is alive and kicking.

As is so often the case, life can get in the way of it all sometimes and as such there are still plenty of films such as the highly regarded ‘The Babadook’ that I have yet to see, but for now this is my list of films that I feel were more than worth the time in 2014.

tusk (1)TUSK
Dir: Kevin Smith
A late entry to the list, Tusk proved to be a thought provoking and memorable film from Kevin Smith. Whilst it isn’t entirely successful in its attempts to gel the serious horror aspects to more recognisable comedy beats it is a very unique film that pushes its unusual concept to its limit. The story of an internet blogger (Justin Long) who becomes the unwitting victim of a crazed old man (Michael Parks) determined to turn him into a Walrus it’s a divisive oddity and, Like Smith’s previous foray into horror, Red State (2011) it has been greeted with some scepticism and trepidation with not everyone convinced. There are also those who will say that Smith may be biting the hand that feeds with his extremely acidic critiquing of the internet age and the blogging community in particular. However, despite the sub plots not quite meshing, a sterling performance from Parks and a bold one from Long add credibility to the films bizarre central idea and the film is never less than compelling. Johnny Depp even manages to show up in an extended cameo as a crazy Canadian cop. It may not be Kevin Smith’s masterpiece, but it suggests that he is on the verge of creating something truly crazy and special.

Dir: Greg McLean
This belated follow up to 2005’s unnerving and rather brilliant Wolf Creek proved to be just as good as its predecessor, even if it trod a tonally different path. Placing John Jarett’s sneering Mick Taylor at the centre of proceedings from the very start, Wolf Creek 2 jettisons the originals slow burning sense of dread in favour of some dirty, adrenalin infused thrills. Where- as Wolf Creek was a sun burned outback Texas Chainsaw, number 2 takes its cue from The Hitcher and plays a bit like a serial killer’s vision of Mad Max. The first half is more action film than horror featuring big car chases and daring escape attempts as Mick stalks his prey on the open road. Once the film arrives at Taylor’s lair however, things become darker and far more sinister as the true extent of his depravity begins to unfold. Fun and utterly fucked up this deserved far more than a quiet small screen release. Warning: Kangaroo lovers may want to avoid this one as it doesn’t end well for Skippy!

Dir: Elliot Goldner
Found footage doesn’t have the greatest of reputations. Thanks largely to the fact that ever since The Blair Witch Project proved you could turn an easy profit with minimal outlay every hack trying to push their foot in the door has used it as a cheap gimmick. However, when it’s done right it can be a truly unnerving and affecting experience, and The Borderlands nails it. The story of a Vatican investigation into a potential miracle at a small British church it is a slow burning tale of religious uncertainty mixed with devilish overtones. The Borderlands is a creepy experience that favours character depth and genuine dread over cheap scares. Its unnerving atmosphere and violent undercurrents build to a genuinely surprising conclusion that will divide opinion, but this is top drawer stuff and shows that you can make this format a success if you understand what drama and horror is all about.

Dir: Corrie Greenop
This low budget, Scotland set chiller was a real surprise. A carefully, and lovingly made little film it follows the crumbling relationship of a young couple as they visit the Highlands to patch up their relationship. Surreal, unnerving and beautiful it captures the strangely evocative and supernatural atmosphere that Scotland seems to possess, and makes its wide open spaces feel strangely claustrophobic as the characters begin to put together the distressing truth. Brilliant performances and a well -constructed economic script make this far more than the sum of its parts. It is sometimes a little reliant on its scenery to pad out the running time, and it won’t appeal to those looking for quick, visceral thrills but this is a promising debut from Greenop and suggests that he may be a talent to watch.

Dir: Gerard Johnstone
Housebound is the first of two films from New Zealand on this list and proves that Peter Jackson isn’t the only one with a good eye for mixing up horror and comedy. A witty mix of family comedy and horror hi-jinks it turns the haunted house movie on its head and has a lot of fun with its story managing to be unpredictable, suspenseful and laugh out loud funny at times. It follows Kylie, a teen delinquent who is placed under house arrest with her mother and stepfather. Unamused at being forced back to the family home she soon comes to question her sanity as things begin to go bump in the night. The films wonderfully sarcastic sense of humour along with some brilliant twists and turns make this a fantastic fun- house of a movie. It plays with convention and delights in pulling the rug from under the audience just as you think you have it all worked out.

Dir: James Demonaco
The first Purge movie met with mixed opinion but made a lot of money meaning that this sequel was inevitable. I for one thought the original was okay. No masterpiece certainly, and it rather criminally failed to capitalise on its unique concept, but it worked reasonably well as a home invasion thriller and had some genuinely creepy villains. The Purge: Anarchy moves the action outside and follows a group of people stranded outdoors during the annual purge. Delving deeper into the social implications and the adding a neat sub plot about an anti-purge movement this is more action packed, more interesting and much more fun than the first Purge. Taking its inspiration from Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1980) this is a solid B-movie action flick with just enough to say to raise it above the average. It still isn’t quite the ultimate Purge film people seem to be waiting for, but is an exciting and brutal popcorn thriller that I am more than happy to recommend.

Dir: Gareth Edwards
Gareth Edwards Godzilla met with a lot of disappointment on its release, and there is no escaping that Godzilla is a supporting player in his own movie. But whilst its plotting was sometimes weak, and its ‘human’ stories lacking the film possessed a poetic visual edge and some fantastic set pieces that set it miles apart from most blockbusters. He may not have the screen time we were all hoping for, but whenever this Godzilla is on screen its presence is electric. Like Edwards firs movie, the brilliant Monsters (2010), this one deals with humanities xenophobic nature and its dangerous reliance on things it cannot control. The film doesn’t always successfully balance this with the pressures of playing to a multiplex audience, and is hindered by rather flat human characterisation. But Godzilla and the gigantic MUTO’s make for strangely graceful creatures and whenever they are on screen the film rises up and stands monstrously proud, and Edwards has still created a unique summer movie with a visual verve missing from so many.

Dir: Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy
This homage to classic Giallo thrillers of the 1970’s and 1980’s took me by surprise. The opening film at Sheffield’s Celluloid Screams festival it turned out to be a deranged, riotous yet lovingly crafted film that captured the essence of its influences whilst gleefully sending them all up. The story of Rey (Adam Brooks) a film Editor put in the frame for murder it plays havoc with its own conventions and pokes fun at its own absurdities with a demented relish. Using deliberate technical tricks like bad dubbing, it is likely to confuse those uninitiated in the ways of the giallo’ but for those who know and love the films of Bava, Argento, and Fulci this is full of smart references and homages. It may work for everyone but The Editor is wholly unafraid to go to some very crazy places and is a match for almost any horror comedy released in the last few years.

Dir: Adam Wingard
Following up You’re Next was never going to be easy, but Wingard and his writer Simon Barrett meet the challenge head on here. The Guest is a tension packed horror/action hybrid that is more than a match for their previous film and stands as one of the very best of the year. When Dan Steven’s Afghanistan veteran turns up at the Peterson home claiming to be a friend of their deceased son, he is welcomed in and seems to be an antidote to the family’s grief. But people soon begin to turn up dead and the sinister guest begins to reveal himself as something far more than meets the eye. Tense, funny and at times ruthlessly violent The Guest is a throwback to paranoid post war thrillers and has a strange 80’s style edge, but mixes it up with a modern sensibility and a visceral eye. Like You’re Next did before it, it takes conventions and turns them around making the film fun and unpredictable. It also proves that Adam Wingard is as deft at delivering high octane action as he is at delivering scares and chills.

Dir: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi
When I first read the synopsis for this I nearly skipped it. Another vampire film, and a faux documentary to boot, I just wasn’t interested. Never have I been so wrong, and so glad that I took a chance on a film as I am with this absolutely wonderful piece of incisive horror comedy. From the very first few minutes this is a likeable, smart and side-splittingly funny film about what it is like to be a vampire in the modern world. The second film from New Zealand on the list it proves again that the Kiwis seem to have an incredible wit and humour that isn’t confined to the work of Peter Jackson. Following a group of flat sharing Vampires as they deal with the difficulties and dilemmas of being hundreds of years old in an ever changing world, it captures the fish out of water weirdness of the situation whilst making it all seem strangely normal. Filled with lots of smart observations about Vampire mythology and its place in popular culture, What We Do In The Shadows is an absolute treat for genre fans and I have absolutely no hesitation in declaring it my favourite film of 2014. Its limited theatrical release in the UK means that many people have yet to enjoy this brilliant little flick, but I guarantee that once it lands on disc and VOD it will gather momentum and quickly develop the cult following it deserves.

The year produced a handful of other films worth a look, and a couple of reissues that stood out for various reasons. The Mirror proved to be another successful found footage film managing to be both frightening and compelling; it missed out on the final list by the smallest of margins. Spanish Exorcism chiller was not quite The Exorcist (what is?) but had enough going for it to warrant a mention. Well- paced and well -acted it was a classy little film with a neat sting in its tale, revelling in its demonic themes and undercurrents. Claire (originally titled Kuru) is a very effective micro budget Brit-chiller that drew favourable comparisons with the work of David Lynch. Both creepily unnerving and emotionally affecting it was also a strong contender for the main list. Away from horror the blockbuster season threw up the unexpectedly good Guardians of The Galaxy and the intelligent yet exciting sequel Dawn of The Planet of The Apes. Along with Godzilla these both proved that blockbusters don’t have to be stupid to be entertaining and effective.

Clive Barker also had a good year as his Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut finally made it onto Blu-ray, and his underrated and under seen Lord of Illusions also took its high definition bow. The director’s cut of Nightbreed has been almost 25 years in the making and didn’t come without a little controversy. European fans were irked that the release was region A locked, but frankly people should be grateful that this has seen the light of day at all. America’s Scream factory have done a sterling job and the film looks great. As for the cut itself it differs from the Cabal Cut that did the festival run and is Barker’s definitive vision for the film. Adding depth to the central relationships, and returning to the original notion that Midian’s monsters are the heroes it is the film fans have been waiting so long to see. After a poor UK Blu-ray release from 101 films earlier in the year Barker’s final directorial effort was given a proper release once again from Scream Factory. Another brilliant release it offers a chance to rediscover a film that deserves more credit than it has received. Capturing the dark whimsical feeling of Barker’s books and stories and featuring his recurring character Harry D’Amour it is an underrated and intelligent work from one of dark fiction’s most unique voices.

2014 produced a few howlers that failed for various reasons to make the grade. Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil was an absolute bore that failed to capitalise on a brilliant central idea. Dull and plodding, it goes nowhere slowly. Johnny Depp popped up in Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence, a visually slick but painfully uninteresting film that basically replayed the plot of Brett Leonard’s Lawnmower Man with added pretension. The ABC’s of Death 2 should hopefully be the nail in the coffin for these odd and uneven short film showcases. With very little of interest in its 2 hour run time this is one for die-hard fans of the first film only. I Frankenstein was until very recently the worst of the year. A big budget and confused waste of time, it doesn’t even muster the camp entertainment value of the equally maligned Van Helsing. It takes itself unforgivably seriously and manages to feel incredibly long despite a relatively lean 90 minute run time. But as much as I disliked I Frankenstein it was pipped at the post by Hammer films utterly depressing The Quiet Ones. With The Woman In Black (2012) the new Hammer seemed to have finally rediscovered its stride and was on track for a return to former glories. However, with The Quiet Ones a dramatic step backwards is taken. Mixing found footage with standard third person story telling the film is uneven, unexciting, and at times downright frustrating. It is not often that films annoy me as much as this one did, but it genuinely felt like time I would never get back. So here’s hoping that The Woman In Black 2 gets the studio back on the right track as we enter 2015.

I Survived A Zombie Holocaust (2014) Review

FF bannerI_Survived_A_Zombie_Holocaust_poster[1]I Survived A Zombie Holocaust (2014)

Dir: Guy Pidgen
Written By: Guy Pidgen
Starring: Harley Neville, Jocelyn Christian, Ben Baker, Reannin Johannink

104 mins.

UK release: Frightfest 2014

A satirical take on the overdone zombie genre, during which an enthusiastic young runner finds the film set on which he’s delighted to be working overtaken by the un-dead.

Zombie movies are totally overdone. Even the zom-rom-com subgenre is overstuffed at this stage, which is really saying something. And, just when you thought every possible rip on the genre had been done, this nifty little New Zealand comedy/horror comes along to turn everything we thought we knew on its head before tearing it to pieces spectacularly, for our viewing pleasure.

In an interesting twist, the zombie outbreak at the heart of I Survived A Zombie Holocaust actually takes place on the set of a low budget zombie movie, on which plucky runner, and wannabe writer, Wesley (Neville) has just landed his dream job. With a loopy director who demands to be referred to only as the initials SMP and a cast of nightmarish diva actors to contend with, Wesley soon realises he’s the only one who can stop the zombies. But, in the meantime, he really wants to pitch his movie to anyone who’ll listen.

I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is writer/director Guy Pidgen’s second feature, his first foray into the difficult horror/comedy genre, but watching the madness unfold onscreen you’d swear he’d done this a million times over. He attacks what many would consider a stale genre with flair, establishing from the get-go that he knows the ins and outs and is perfectly poised to exploit them for all they’re worth.

Zombie_2[1]There’s an impressive amount of splatter from the outset, with the emphasis on gooey, old school practical effects. The flick is loaded with on-the-nose references to budgetary restrictions, actor demands, how comedy-horror mash-ups “never work” and, in one particularly clever twist, a certain performer going a bit too Method for a B-movie – naturally, when things start going to shit, nobody believes him as he continues reiterating his line “the zombies are coming” with increasing desperation.

The main message, though, is that zombie movies are played out and nobody has any interest in them anymore, not least from New Zealand, the land of hobbit epics. This allows for nodding winks to something being wrong with the town’s water supply, and for one character to matter-of-factly ask why they can’t just outrun the zombies, because “It’s not like they’re fast”. In less capable hands, Zombie Holocaust could’ve come across a bit cynical, but everyone is having too good a time, and too much thought has gone into landing every little detail that the amount of love for the genre is undeniable.

Somewhat surprisingly, for a film of this nature, the cast are consistently great, and totally up for being lampooned, with Neville in particular taking more than a few hits as try-hard Wesley. The main actors in the film within the film, a spoilt rich girl and a dumb Himbo, are given two of the meatiest roles, not to mention some of the best lines. When Wesley’s crush, a kindly catering assistant who can’t cook to save her life, demands to know why she doesn’t get a gun, Ben Baker’s hilariously-named Tane Henare replies simply “why don’t I get a vagina?” Later, Wesley notes that “Even when he’s dead, he’s overacting!”

For once, the female characters aren’t providing background noise either, with Reannin Johannink’s wannabe superstar Jessica getting a couple of the best, and most disgusting, scenes of the film, one of which takes place in a Portlaoo. In another, her colleagues wrongfully assume that she’s purging in public, as though it’s nothing to be concerned about, and leave her to it. Welsey and his paramour are clearly set to be the only survivors, but it doesn’t make it any less fun watching everyone perish around them. Refreshingly, though, the characters in Zombie Holocaust aren’t caricatures, rather they’re well-considered reflections on well-known film tropes.

Zombie_3[1]It’s impossible to dislike a film this clever, even if it does drag slightly while we wait for the zombies to start creeping up. Incredibly self-referential, with lots to say about the seemingly unfair amount of hatred thrown at zombie flicks, this is a horror comedy with lashings of both that knows exactly which side its bread is buttered – or its skull is chopped – and exploits that fact to hugely enjoyable effect. Fantastically gory zombie carnage is balanced expertly with well-drawn, three-dimensional characters and a climactic battle sequence is balls-to-the-wall mental. It all ends rather well too, without the filmmakers feeling the need to hint at a sequel for once.

The zombie genre isn’t actually overstuffed. It just needs a little kick up the arse to get it going again, and I Survived A Zombie Holocaust is just the film for it.

Rating: 8/10

James Simpson’s World of Horror: The Devil’s Rock (New Zealand, 2011)

devilsrockDVDJames Simpson’s World of Horror: The Devil’s Rock (New Zealand, 2011)

The mission to find little known horror movies from around the world continues in an attempt to discover any ‘hidden treasures’…

Director – Paul Campion

Starring – Craig Hall, Matthew Sunderland, Gina Varela, Karlos Drinkwater

Language – English

Run Time – 82 minutes

It’s the night before D-Day in 1944, two Kiwi soldiers Grogan (Hall) and Tane (Drinkwater) sneak onto one of the Nazi occupied Channel Islands, Forau Island, in an effort to distract the enemy. They slowly advance across the landmine filled beach and come to a doorway that leads to a bunker below crowd. The men hear screams coming from within and Grogan decides to enter. Tane eventually goes down and he finds a horrific sight of blood on the walls and body parts on the floor. On a table he finds a small book containg black magic spells and drawings. Just then he is brutally killed by a hiding Nazi named Meyer. Grogan re-appears to see what has happened to Tane but is attacked and tied up by Meyer. The captor reveals that the screams are coming from a woman chained up and she is the devil. Grogan thinks Meyer is insane and manages to escape only to receive a big shock when he tries to rescue the chained woman.

devilsrock1An intense and well acted movie, The Devil’s Rock is a brilliant New Zealand horror, filmed in Wellington despite its Channel Islands setting, which ticks a lot of boxes.

The premise, two men in a bunker with an unspeakable evil, brings about a narrative that is almost a ‘two hander’ as Hall and Sunderland take up most of the screen time. Lengthy periods are of just these two characters sat at a table trying to outwit each other at first, leading to Meyer trying to convince Grogan of the woman’s true identity.

When we see this woman, who magically takes the form of Grogan’s dead wife, played by Varela, the movie takes a step away from horror and concentrates on the soldiers grief of being manipulated by this ‘thing’ claiming to be his wife. She is trying to convince him to unchain her, although Meyer claims this will unleash the evil within her. Varela does appear in devil/demon form and it’s quite a sight.

devilsrock2The film builds the tension as Meyer and Grogan decide how to deal with the demon problem. Meyer insists they need to send her back to hell with the help of the book discovered earlier. The Devil’s Rock then takes on a tone that is similar to that of an occult movie as the history of the demon and what happened before the two soldiers arrived on the island is explained. Sunderland excels in these moments as a fine actor.

The ending piles up the tension as the men attempt to stop the demon and some plot twists cause doubt to surround their fate. The script is strong despite how many things happen at once during the final scene of the film.

A movie the New Zealand film industry can be proud of, The Devil’s Rock is an enthralling watch.

8 out of 10.

This is James’ 50th movie review for UK Horror Scene since he began writing for UKHS in May 2013.