Stake Land 2 (2016) Review

rsz_stake1STAKE LAND 2 (Dirs- Dan Berk, Robert Olsen, USA 2016)

Starring- Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Laura Abramsen, A.C. Peterson, Steven Williams, Kristina Hughes, Bonnie Dennison

Out NOW on UK DVD from Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment

Jim Mickle’s STAKE LAND was a surprisingly effective flick back in 2010 as it at least tried to bring back the vampire into a more darker and gritty combination of post apocalyptic western and straight up serious horror. The film carried a bleak almost nihilistic world view in parts backed up with interesting and empathetic characters most notably Nick Damici’s vampire hunter Mister and the young lad he takes under his wing, Martin, played by Connor Paolo as they navigate the ravaged American landscape on their way to find New Eden in Canada, the last hope of a safe refuge.

The film picks up with Martin and the girl he left with at the end of the last film, Peggy (Dennison) now living with a kid of their own. Tragedy rears its ugly head as we learn in flashback that Peggy and Martin’s daughter were slain by a new leader of the religious nutter group, The Brotherhood, who where one of the main human threats from the first film. This new head is called The Mother (Hughes) who has control over the mutant berserker vampires that spread the epidemic in the first place and who The Brotherhood worship as their new god intent on their mission of wiping out the remaining heathens in the world.

rsz_stake2Martin sets out on a quest for vengeance encountering un-trust worthy folk along the way including an elderly couple whose hospitality hides a sinister purpose (seems pretty obvious in the long run) and a band of humans who seem to be trading other unfortunate captive humans and forcing them into fighting. Its this point where Martin meets back up with Mister who has found a feral women he has called Lady (Abramsen) and they soon return back wandering the waste land in search of The Mother, meeting up with two old friends of Mister’s, Bat (Petersen) and Doc Earl (Williams) on a mission that sees them facing persistent struggle and possible doom.

It was surprising to hear that this film originally had its premiere on the SyFy channel in the states, which is more at home to screening first time premieres of films about mutated ghost sharks and the like. The SyFy channel premiere doesn’t really do it justice and despite a few festival screenings this time round unlike its predecessor STAKE LAND 2 goes straight to DVD in the UK. This shouldn’t put anyone off as this is a decent sequel and whilst it doesn’t have the strength of the first one and in some ways less of a budget the film still retains the bleak world view of the original. Naturally in post apocalyptic times we are reminded of the futility of society and its complete breakdown due to collapse in institutions and this sequel keeps up that notion even if I would say borrowing very slightly from THE WALKING DEAD and that series bleak world view, which in turn I felt certainly must have had some of the original STAKE LAND’s inspiration rub off on it in the latter seasons of that show.

rsz_stake3But then post apocalyptic films have always traded on our fears of epidemic, nuclear war and the breakdown of the world and rationale humans turning on other humans an idea which always works well and forever will be present and in current uncertain world climate even more relevant. Paolo and Damici, both excellent in this, reprise their roles as Mister and Martin and its good to see them return since their pairing was one of the first films strengths. A nice connection is played out with the tragic incident at the start that befalls Martin and with one that happened to Mister in the past, who sees Martin change and slowly start to become what he used to be even though he sees a better future and character for the boy. They are backed up with support from Petersen and Williams who lend a pair of bad ass characters also driven numb by the bleakness of the world.

rsz_stake4Directing duo Berk and Olsen handle the film with confidence and pace the story into new territories alongside introducing new past story traits to strengthen the characters even though in some respects it lessens the hidden past mystery of Mister. They also benefit from a great use of the shooting location of Saskatchewan that adds to the vast loneliness of the post apocalyptic landscape and an almost Western-esque feel. Credit should also be given to the make up effects work which manages to be effective adding an ugly look to the vamps as well as making the head vamp, The Mother, look albino in a way and strangely like Tilda Swinton but with long hair and one eye. In the outset this sequel, whilst might not be as sprinkled with the originality of the first film still manages to be an entertaining 81 minutes that delivers some fantastic scenes of mutant vampire action and gore amongst the dramatic human moments.

6.5/10

Late Phases (2014) Review

FF bannerLate_Phases_poster.1Late Phases (2014)

Dir: Adrián García Bogliano
Written By: Eric Stolze
Starring: Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Lance Guest, Tina Louise

95 mins.

UK release: Frightfest 2014

Grumpy war vet Ambrose (Damici) moves into a sleepy retirement community, only to discover the place is besieged by werewolves.

It’s sadly rare that a blind person takes centre-stage in any film, let alone in horror, which requires so much to be glimpsed around dark corners. But such is the case with Late Phases, a blackly comic, heart wrenching, incredibly poignant portrayal of a stubborn man, his fractured relationship with his son, and a pack of werewolves who are running riot in the retirement village in which he’s just reluctantly taken up a spot.

In less capable hands, protagonist Ambrose could’ve been a horrible, bitter asshole but the talented Nick Damici (who’s becoming something of a genre staple, following scene-stealing turns in We Are What We Are and Cold In July) makes him an incredibly nuanced, likeable character in spite of his obvious stubbornness. A man who is all-too-aware of his own mortality, Ambrose flatly tells nosy neighbours “I’d see you out, but I’m blind” and has impassioned discussions with a local priest (played by the wonderful Tom Noonan) about the meaning of life and the supposed existence of God.

It’s a difficult role – not least because Damici has to remain bug-eyed for the entirety of the flick – made near impossible by the looming presence of bloodthirsty lycans. Played straight, as a simple father-son conflict drama, Late Phases could’ve been great, but with the inclusion of the mythical creatures, and the scare factor that comes with them, it’s outstanding. Where similarly-themed genre offerings might shy away from showing everything, utilising clever cuts to make the transformation sequences seem more viable, here director Bogliano gives us the money shot in a gloriously extended sequence that shows every contortion, every hair, every split piece of skin.

Late_1.1Late Phases actually boasts some of the most effective werewolf transformation sequences in horror, even if technically its protagonist doesn’t get to see them. And it’s scary as hell, too, with the first, particularly brutal, kill dropped on Ambrose’s very first night in the village. Stuck having to listen through the walls, his neighbour’s blood-curdling screams are terrifying, and when his beloved guide dog – his only real friend – falls victim, too, the threat becomes horribly real. There’s an element of sameness to werewolf movies and, particularly in recent years with the rubbishy CGI creations of the Twilight franchise, they seem to have lost their bite. Late Phases is inventive with the subgenre, even with something as simple as one of the beasts darting past a window or when a group of them crowd around a body.

Director Bogliano, who has several no-budget genre credits to his name including the B short in ABCs Of Death, has truly created something wonderful here. The script, by Eric Stolze, who penned Under The Bed, straddles a careful line between melodrama and genuine pathos, with a streak of perfectly-judged, pitch-black humour running underneath. However, major kudos must go to Wojciech Golczewski, for a superb score that is omnipresent, yet not invasive.

From the opening moments to the final, bloody, brutal battle, it trundles along, championing Ambrose and signalling something sinister is afoot but never overstaying its welcome. Much of mainstream, modern horror relies on signalling a scare is coming with a shriek of violin or a shock of piano keys, but Golczewski is cleverer than that. He weaves his notes in until they become one with the film, until they are part of Ambrose’s journey.

Speaking of whom, Damici gives a revelatory performance as Ambrose. Empathetic, resourceful and relentlessly cranky, his deadpan delivery is a joy to behold and a voicemail he leaves his son is disarmingly poignant. When he explains that, by the time he went blind, he “couldn’t stand to look at the world anyway” it’s difficult not to agree with him, and the amount of fight he puts up in the final act is truly remarkable, not just in spite of his disability.

Late_3.1Late Phases is that rare surprise in horror – smart, poetic, funny and very scary, it serves as a much-needed reminder that sticking to a formula isn’t always the best idea, and that sometimes, even the most seemingly overdone creatures can be given life to feature again.

Gorgeously shot, beautifully scored, with a pitch perfect lead performance from Damici and arguably the best werewolf transformation sequence since John Landis’ seminal creature feature, Late Phases is a genre masterpiece with more depth, more scope and more vision than much of the current landscape combined.

Rating: 9/10

Cold In July (2014) Cinematic Review

cij1Cold In July (2014)

109 mins

Dir: Jim Mickle

Starring: Michael C Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Wyatt Russell, Vinessa Shaw and Nick Damici

After shooting a would-be burglar in his house, small town frame maker, Richard Dane (Hall) soon finds himself embroiled in a sinister conspiracy. With the fear for his family’s safety, Dane finds himself teaming up with an ex-con and private investigator as they venture down a road of dark deceit and violence.

Jim Mickle skyrocketed into my awareness earlier this year with the simply sublime ‘We Are What We Are’ remake and I was already incredibly excited at the prospect of seeing more of his work. The promise of a dark Southern noir had me at hello as it seems to be an awesome blossoming sub-genre.

What I was met with was nothing short of a complete and utter mess of quite startlingly high proportions. Was this seriously made by the same director? Was the overriding thought that stuck in my head for what felt like an eternity and yet a mere 109 minutes. The film is absolutely all over the shop with a troubling identity crisis. It has all the outer seeming of a gritty, sun-baked southern noir and yet, bizarrely, elements from road movies, buddy movies, 80s crime dramas, home invasion horror and grindhouse are all rammed together with no thought spared for narrative cohesion.

cij2At times, it felt almost as though three separate and arguably very bland crime thrillers had been human centipeded together, in the hopes that maybe three times the level of seen before crime drama could approach something verging on compelling. It didn’t. Lifeless dialogue, uninteresting characters and the whole thing felt incredibly tired and the apparent real verve Mickle has for being creative, completely tossed aside, which is a real shame.

It would be an unfair comparison to stand this next to ‘We Are What We Are’ as they are both completely different genres of film. It is certainly perplexing, however, that where Mickle showed such note-perfect restraint and terrifyingly bare bones human cruelty with ‘WAWWA’, here he seems to have completely lost his touch. A more apt comparison would be to the tragically under-seen but beautifully dark and haunting, ‘Blue Ruin’ that was released earlier in the year. Both concern seemingly unlikely killers faced with terrifying odds, but where ‘Blue Ruin’ had the hugely sympathetic and ‘innocent’ Macon Blair, ‘Cold In July’ has Michael C Hall.

Now it must be said, that Hall is by far and a way the best thing about ‘Cold In July’ in that he is the only actor not playing some form of terribly dated southern small town stereotype. Whilst he does cut a sympathetic figure, his shift from naive family man to gunslinger is far too quick and unbelievable. It’s impossible not to be reminded by his grim visage of previous performances from two separate TV shows in which he was responsible for putting an awful lot of people in the ground.

It’s certainly a case that this is a ‘boy’s own’ story where Dane’s poor suffering wife is completely reduced to the sidelines and towards the final third, she and her son are dropped completely from the narrative. Perhaps this was a small mercy, if she was anything like as excruciatingly one-dimensional as the other ‘characters’.

cij3Sam Shepard’s grizzled ex-con comes across as a poor man’s Nick Nolte, grumbling incoherently about various things and using his gun to shoot stuff, because that’s what MEN do! Into this shambles is thrown Don Johnson who, to all the world, looks as though he just walked off the set of ‘Dallas’ or god forbid a new ‘Cannonball Run’ film. Cowboy hat, boots and flashy car lined with garish red leather in tow, his exaggerated smooth-talking cool cat demeanour clashes horribly with the harsh real world drama the rest of the film is attempting to create. We as an audience are left unsure as to whether or not we’re supposed to laugh or to actually take him seriously when he’s blowing a load of do-badders away and then dropping quips here and there.

Fundamentally, it is the film’s relentless restlessness that completely blocks any form of real character development or audience investment as to what on earth is actually happening. Having done some research, I discovered that this is remaining truthful to the novel upon which the film is based but it simply does not translate onto the big screen. There remain huge gaping plot-holes that are irritatingly never answered or even mentioned again. The dramatic mood swings from cold and serious to something approaching almost Coen Brothers-esque hyper-reality macabre humour throw you completely off-balance and leave you unsure as to just what you are supposed to be feeling for the characters or situation.

When the film does get dark and full of tension, in the opening section of the film, it does a fantastic if done before job of conjuring up extreme threat levels. The fact that it is able to achieve this simply by showing a teddy bear that’s been hit by a bullet is hugely impressive. It is a problem, however, that once Shepard’s character gets captured and the film again changes its mind as to what it thinks it wants to be, all these levels of dread plummet like a stone and never built up to the same levels even during the film’s bloody climax.

cij4There have been films in which dramatic tonal shifts can add a hugely intriguing and unexpected quality, such as the drastic 180 degree turn in ‘Kill List’. With ‘Cold In July’, however, the constant jumping from different style and tone is undisciplined and largely unpalatable. It is clear that Mickle has the potential for creating a gritty crime thriller, but this original direction is lost in amongst wave after wave of badly disjointed ideas that are loosely stitched together in a sadly haphazard manner.

Verdict: A muddled misfire from Mickle that simply doesn’t know what it wants to be. 2/10

We Are What We Are (2014)

W1We Are What We Are (2014)

Dir: Jim Mickle

Starring: Michael Parks, Kelly McGillis, Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Wyatt Russell and Nick Damici

The Parkers appear to the outside world to be just like any other wholesome American family. Behind closed doors, however, they harbour a terrible ancient tradition that when tragedy strikes, falls on the two youngest girls to ‘uphold’. Their web of secrecy is threatened when the authorities begin closing in to unearth their horrifying buried past…

Over the years, the proof is in the pudding that remakes that dare to push the boat out from the safety net of the original are more often than not, the ones that end up being taken to the bosom of the genre community. ‘The Thing’ and ‘The Fly’ being the best examples that are even considered to be infinitely superior to their predecessors and last year’s unofficial winner of UKHS’ ‘Best Film’ in Franck Khalfoun’s ‘Maniac’, proved that remakes do not have to be stupid and simple cash-cow investments, they can stand on their own two feet when given the proper levels of love and affection.

Which brings us very nicely onto ‘We Are What We Are’. I confess to having not seen the Mexican original (a mere 4 years old) but from the sounds of the amount that had been deliberately changed by ‘Stakeland’ helmsman, Jim Mickle, this sounded like a film that deserved to be judged entirely on its own merits. Masterfully unsettlingly and a genuinely scary horror film are but two of the film’s extensively long list of those merits and we already have a strong contender again for best horror film of the year and shockingly again, it’s a remake.

W2 Swapping the blazing hot streets of Mexico for the rain-soaked Catskill Mountains, the two key differences in the film centre on the mother passing away of a disease before the family’s sinister ‘ritual’ and the film placing greater focus on the more religious aspect of their ‘bond’ that keeps them together. What the film is so brilliantly adept at doing is telling the story very much without words, the background of people going missing in the small town is referenced sparingly and it’s always interesting when watching a film that creates a pre-existing and very much lived-in world without having to go through the tiresome rigmarole of setting everything up for particularly slow audiences.

The origin of the ritual itself is developed in flashback to the time of the settlers in brutally frank fashion but director Jim Mickle wastes no time in explaining just why it has been upheld for so long and takes the high ground of not spelling out exactly what ‘religion’ their ‘diet’ is associated to. The film places all the importance and drive of the narrative onto the characters, a rare and bold choice in horror these days. Fortunately, there are some simply superb performances on display here, the lead sisters of Iris (Childers) and Rose (Garner) perfectly encapsulate the sense of horror that they are trapped in this nightmarish situation where they have to uphold tradition and feel unable to escape, much like a cult. What few glimpses of normality they nearly obtain are harshly snuffed out by the wonderfully terrifying Bill Sage as their father. He plays the patriarch with such a terrifying calm that there mere sound of him lighting a cigarette off-screen is enough to send shivers down the spine. It is only come the end of the film that we see him truly let off the leash to great effect and cementing his status as a cult favourite horror villain.

W3 In terms of performance, however, the film is very much stolen by Michael Parks (this time NOT on the side of religious nut-jobs) as a desperate father whose daughter was abducted by the Parkers. As with the rest of the film, it’s the fact that his performance is so understated that he is able convey the grief of a man on the edge with that much greater effect. We never see him sobbing in the dark, but haunting shots of him simply stood outside his daughter’s pristinely kept room really stick in the mind as we root for him to put all the pieces of the case together and then come the final wonderful showdown as he sits opposite Frank Parker at the dinner table before shit really goes down.

Much like last year’s ‘American Mary’, the gaudy DVD box art that promises extreme violence and accompanied by the groan-worthy tagline of ‘The Parkers Would Like To Have You For Dinner’, belies the film’s penchant for the infinitely scarier subtle approach. It sounds daft to say but the masterstroke of Mickle to turn everything down to a low volume makes things feel almost disquietingly ‘real’. What very few onscreen deaths there actually are become ramped up in just how shockingly intense they are and I praise the film in making me gasp aloud and shrinking back as far as I possibly could on my sofa.

W4 The best example of the film’s capacity to keep it simple and as a result, far more unsettling is to be found in the ‘dinner’ scene where the family at last sit down for their long anticipated meal. Mickle has played so well with audience expectation in making a film about cannibals so toned down (the word doesn’t appear until well over an hour into the film) that it becomes instantly as iconic as THAT dinner scene in a certain film set in Texas. The whole scene is blood-curdlingly cold and natural that it truly threatens to tickle that gag reflex in a way that films like ‘The Human Centipede’ could only dream of. The fact that this is coupled with some of the most pitch-black comedy I have ever heard in a film just makes this little piece of genius even more darkly enjoyable.

W5As much as I’m not usually a fan for using other films by way of comparison, if I were to add my own little spell of black humour and say that the film is like a glorious 3 course meal of ‘Stoker’, ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ with ‘The Girl Next Door’ for desert and a sprinkling of subtle notes of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. If the prospect of that doesn’t have you salivating at the mouth, then go chow on the fast food mass produced garbage of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ films.

Verdict: A low-key and profoundly unnerving masterpiece. The bar for horror in 2014 has been well and truly set.  10/10