Energy drinks at the ready, it’s time for the horror faithful to catch yet another crop of horror and genre premieres on day three of Film Four FrightFest 2015. On the cards this time around – heavy metal bands takes on rampaging demonic hordes in Deathgasm, Ben Cresciman inventively explores madness with Sun Choke, a dysfunctional family hold their daughter captive in Estranged, and an agoraphobic finds her home under siege in Shut In.
Writer/director Ben Cresciman brilliantly ignores the rules of regular, linear narratives with his second feature to create a beautiful, disorientating and uncompromising avant-garde story of mental illness and claustrophobic control.
In a large home among the sun-lit hills on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Janie (Sarah Hagan) is under the strict control of Irma (Barbara Crampton), who runs her through daily routines of yoga, medication, hypnotherapy, sound aversion and physical check-ups. There appears to be no real method behind these strange set of exercises, and indeed we are never given any true explanation of one, but day after day Irma continues to calmly, but forcibly put Janie through this sadistic regime to, as she says, help and protect her ‘little girl’.
Janie is eventually allowed to leave the claustrophobic confines of this minimalist home on short excursions out on her own, and it is during this time that she begins to imprint her identity on a stranger who she happens across. As Janie begins to live vicariously through the beautiful woman that she has taken to stalking, her strained relationship with Irma begins to crumble along with her psyche until it explodes with horrifying, and extremely brutal results.
With no noticeably defined distinction between what is real and what is not, and with no clear narrative within a timeframe that mixes moments of the now and flashbacks of the past, what Sun Choke so brilliantly does is to force the viewer to confront the confusing and dissociative mental illness that appears to have controlled Janie throughout her life. Repetitive symbolism alludes to issues starting right from Janie’s earliest years as well as the horrors that may have occurred during her past episodes of mental fragility, yet no real explanation is ever given to that past, or indeed the story behind that of her carer who may just be as disturbed as she is.
It’s a confident move from Cresciman to allow this story to unfold with such little explanation, but it is just one of many things that he does to so successfully create a film that stands apart from so many other genre films. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Mathew Rudenberg, Cresciman also has the action take place amid the glaring, Los Angeles sunshine, lending a look to Sun Choke that again spins on the expectations of how a horrifying story should be played out. Indeed, the sunlight is embraced as the horror unfolds, and at times appears to all but be a character of its own as it starkly inhabits Janie’s place of healing.
With daring performances that are superbly played by Crampton and in particular Hagan, Sun Choke is a tense and sometimes uncomfortable piece of hallucinatory storytelling. As beautiful as it is disturbing, it is a film that every fan of inventive genre cinema needs to see.
It has been a long, long time since there has been a heavy metal themed horror film that is even half decent, let alone one that is actually good. Indeed, the last one of any note at all was arguably in 1986 with the release of Trick Or Treat. Thank the metal gods then for New Zealand heavy metal comedy splat-fest Deathgasm!
Orphaned metal-head Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) lives with his religious aunt and uncle. Bullied by his cousin, Brodie’s only respite from his mundane life are his two geeky dungeons and dragons playing friends Dion and Giles, and the time he gets to spend at a local hippy run record store.
One day in the record store, Brodie meets a kindred spirit in the shape of fellow metal-head outcast Zakk (James Blake). Bonding over the music they love, the pair forms a band along with Dion and Giles, and Deathgasm, as they decide to name themselves, is born. Hidden away in the garage at Brodie’s aunt and uncles, the band jam out the heavy-riffs, until one day they decide to play a piece of ancient sheet music that they have acquired called the Black Hymn – and in doing so they inadvertently trigger a demonic plague that begins to infest the towns-people. Can Deathgasm save the day? And can they do so before a local demonic cult succeeds in helping to create hell on earth?
Very much oozing from the same vein as fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson’s superb 1992 splatter comedy Braindead, Deathgasm is as just as filled with witty one-liners, irreverent moments and straight-down-the-line gross-out comedy, as it is awash with over-the-top blood and guts.
Skulls are cracked open and guts ripped from bodies amidst showers of gore as the group, joined by Brodie’s preppy would-be girlfriend Medina (Kimberley Crossman), battle their way through the increasingly possessed towns-folk in various inventive ways. Heads are re-decapitated, and in one hilariously jaw-dropping slow motion scene Brodie and Zakk go into battle wielding various sex-aids as weapons – the sight of a large rubber dildo being smashed into the face of one of the demonically possessed is certainly one that will not leave you for some time after seeing it.
As brilliantly crass as these moments are, a much more subtle layer of humour can also be found here among the flying limbs, particularly in the interactions between Brodie and Medina. Indeed, there is warmth at the heart of Deathgasm that runs throughout the entire film, particularly showing itself in the moments where the pair awkwardly tries to get with each other, or in scenes where Brodie explains why heavy metal music is so important to him, and others like him.
Writer/director Jason Lei Howden is a metal-head himself, and his love for, and indeed knowledge about heavy music is writ large throughout every inch of this film – and in the end it is perhaps this authenticity, alongside the central warmth that runs beneath all of the outlandish humour and gore, that makes Deathgasm work so well.
When January (Amy Manson) is involved in a scooter accident while on holiday with her boyfriend in South America, she not only finds herself wheelchair bound, but also suffering from amnesia. Needing time to recover, her boyfriend takes her back to the UK to stay with the family that, for reasons that she cannot remember, she had walked out on some six years earlier.
Much to their surprise on their arrival, they discover that family live on a large and secluded country estate. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable reunion with this eccentric family of strangers headed by an overbearing father (James Cosmo), who rules the somewhat confused, apologetic mother (Eileen Nicholas), sister (Nora-Jane Noone) and childish, forward speaking brother (James Lance) with an iron fist. As January comes to realise the strangely out-dated and prudish rules which her secluded family live by, she slowly starts to have flashbacks that begin to remind her just why she may have left them in the first place.
The central idea that sits at the heart of Estranged regarding the master/servant relationship that was once very much inherent in the British class system and that is still very much alive in the extremely closeted and dysfunctional family that January has no recollection of, or indeed has feelings for, is certainly an interesting one and it makes for what is for a large part a solid debut from director Adam Levines.
What Levines does well here is the way in which he uses that class system backbone to build a story that allows him to slowly dial up the tension as January not only finds herself trapped in her wheelchair, but increasingly trapped in the crumbling stately home among the household members who begin to display increasing degrees of strange and frightening behavior towards her. As the intimidating head of the family, menacingly portrayed by a typically solid Cosmo increasingly enforces his will upon January, brother Laurence goes from childishly picking on her to creepily asking her for sexual favours, while the jealousy that sister Kathrine feels toward January simmers, barely contained beneath the surface. Although apologetic, even the mother Marilyn is still complicit in what happens, as is the harangued butler Thomas who carries out the father’s gradually more disturbing orders.
There are moments of dark humour to be had here too, coming in particular from the brother whose cutting bluntness is delivered with a mischievous glint by James Lance, and these small moments work well to lend some relief to the unfolding drama. It’s that dark drama with and intent to chill that Estranged is all about really though, and although it admittedly does start to lose its way, and indeed drag somewhat by the time the film’s final act starts to kick in, this twisted chamber piece certainly achieves in its aims.
This home invasion thriller from Adam Schindler is bit of a mixed bag that while solid enough, ultimately fails to deliver on its promising ideas.
Anna (Beth Riesgraf) suffers from crippling agoraphobia and stays at home to tend to her dying brother. She is left a large sum of cash when her brother succumbs to his disease, and when she is unable to attend the brothers funeral, three men arrive at her home with the intent of stealing it from her. Unable to leave the house she now finds herself captive in, a cat and mouse story unfolds where the intruders discover that there is more to this meek woman, and indeed the house itself, than they could have ever imagined.
Shut In is a film that is best viewed going in cold, and as such it is somewhat difficult to review without giving too much away. Suffice to say though that there are things to like here. The main premise of an agoraphobic finding herself under siege in a home that she simply cannot bring herself to leave is an interesting one and it is played out pretty well, helped in no small way by Riesgraf, who does a fantastic job of capturing the utter fear that her character experiences when exposed to the world outside her home. Equally, when a darker streak in Anna begins to make itself shown and she inevitably starts to fight back against her attackers, there are some fine moments of, it has to be said fairly graphic violence that plays against the often amusing interactions between the three would be thieves.
Other elements of Shut In do not work quite so well however. Much of what happens as the film enters its second half strays dangerously close to Home Alone territory, albeit a twisted version of it, while other elements prove to be unfeasible enough to take you out of the core drama of the story, increasingly so as the film brings itself to a somewhat muddled close.
It’s a shame because you just can’t help but feel that if the film makers had chosen to fully play out and explore the films agoraphobia plot-line instead of diverting into other story threads, Shut In could have been a much more satisfying watch for it.