Nightcrawler (2014)

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I was lucky enough to see this as part of a secret screening last night and it’s such a treat to watch. Affectingly dark, this is a solidly engaging and unnerving feature film debut for director Dan Gilroy. The Californian night will never seem so alive with crime and questionable morals of the media and public sourced footage. The film feels like a ticking time bomb as you witness the birth and growth of this nightcrawler’s talent.

In California, a sly yet passionate and willing man by the name of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is seeking quick money and stumbles upon the grimy yet lucrative career of nightcrawling; turning up to crimes, crashes etc to document the danger before police and get it sent to news teams for money. It’s a job that quickly suits Bloom’s nature and after hiring an intern it isn’t long until he’s bending around the law to try and get the next big scoops.

Dan Gilroy has such an eye for this type of story. The beginning is shot beautifully leading you down a road of false security as we see daylight exteriors setting up the location, but as expected the majority of the film takes place during the twilight hours of the city. There’s a simple yet vivid look to most of the movie making everything look sort of like a news report car crash item but the sheen of it gives it a glossy and frankly unnerving image. Gilroy clearly has patience in the 117 minute running time to build that apprehension of Bloom’s psyche and it works a lot as we see repeated shots of his life and/or routine making him seem to focused or normal, i.e, watering his plant or watching TV laughing to himself in his home. The film is undoubtedly stylish but not so much so that you never believe what you’re seeing, it’s lying in this realism of events that could happen that makes it more worrying.

James Newton Howard who is so successful and has talent for motion picture scores, uses that know-how for this smaller scaled film and it gives it a burning grimy quality, especially in the car chasing segments and at one montage point as you see the rise of Bloom in this field of expertise. That montage in general is fantastically done, with edits tallying up to Bloom’s home video collection, back and forth’s of his new car adding pace to the film, it’s also helpful to adding more tension to what was already there as we see how dangerously efficient he is at this new role.

The story itself, written by Gilroy is coursing with dark undertones, the writing of Lou Bloom is thick with that bubbling current of suspicion and unease. He spiels off information like a better written Wikipedia page, he has an eye for details and framings and has the brains to carry out the best led story, even if it means letting people die in the process. It’s a calmly scripted character that does so much more to make you anxious watching him, than if he was just overly mad for the sake of it. Of course you need bursts of his true self coming through and you get that now and then but it’s in the more relaxed, smarmy clearly scheming side of things that his character comes alive.

Taking the morning news angle and dangling a moral compass over the authenticity of it as a media package is very interesting as you just know news hounds and press teams will do anything for a story and it does all get shockingly crude as they document house invasions or bloody bodies. It may of course be a far stretch from how American news channels really work but you can believe it to a degree that they loosen their morals to get the best headline. Every character involved in this film is necessary and never contrived, they all work to compliment or go against Bloom as the lead and that gives space for opposing ideals, some loving his work and others firmly going against his footage.

It really is the Jake Gyllenhaal show however, as he embodies this deadly yet charming figure of a man. It’s an odd performance making you see Leo as some ghoul of a guy, in physicality and mind. Gyllenhaal uses his eyes a lot and to great effect, there’s something so scary in those wide eyes that draw you in and work hard to keep you there. He is excellent, one of his best performances ever and chilling is not the word to use for his acting, it’s so much better than that, a wiry, shadowy creepy performance that entices you and sucks you into the sleazy world of this film.

The only thing that is of minor bugging to me is the ending, I still don’t know whether I liked it, whether it worked or not. There’s also slight bits and pieces in the last 15 minutes of the film that feel rushed. These are small criticisms that might completely evaporate when I see it on release day, but they’re there nonetheless.

Deep and dark in visuals and performance, ‘Nightcrawler’ succeeds in balancing actual quality moments of hilarity with awkward laughter and metal tangled, blood drenched nightmarish after dark frights in a fresh and bold way.

8/10

The Fly (1986)

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Horrendously icky in the right way, this sci-fi horror flick hits so well thanks to a convincing tragic undercurrent and the gooey downfall of Jeff Goldblum’s character. It’s thick with hair raising transformations added with an extra spice of fear with the music over all the action. An outstanding feat of human horror giving space to feel anxious of technology and flies at the same time.

In the throngs of a press event, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) meets and gets to know journalist of ‘Particle’ magazine Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) rather well, so much so that he takes her back to his and shows her the latest invention he’s been tinkering away on. This scientific endeavour is a breakthrough, it being a transporting device to move items from one pod to another, soon normal items aren’t enough and Brundle steps into the ‘telepod’ himself little realising the company of a fly he’s got in there with him.

I’m going to go straight in with the whole make-up of this film and boy is it something special. Chris Walas hits it out of the metaphorical ball park with this ageing like process of Brundle’s condition. From nails peeling off to bulbous hunched shoulders, the decay and progression of his insect themed infliction is horrifying. It is so much better than any CGI stuff because it feels more together, the look of this hybrid creature needs more fleshy realism and special effects can’t do that. The gloop and gory nature of Brundle turning into a fly is shocking and adds whack to feeling for him, as he was never a bad guy. This emotional connection we feel for him makes the deterioration that much worse to witness. The final product of it all is seeing the ‘Brundlefly’ mutate into a tall and deformed fly wanting to drag Quaife into an even worse hybrid and let me tell you, the lighting, music and visuals of this final tense set-up are brilliantly mastered.

David Cronenberg directs with his flair of body horror style and poor Jeff Goldblum takes the majority of the flack in this sci-fi nightmare of fly/human bonding. It all starts with a nicer air as Brundle flips, makes love and works out like some Greek god, this all works in setting up a maddening decline as his sweaty hero appearance moulds into something much worse. The dull industrial feel of his lab makes everything seem that much worse too, really slicking on that layer of grimy horror needed for the story being told.

There’s some great, maybe not perfect character writing here but great nonetheless. Seth Brundle is an eccentric smart guy who wants the best for the future and himself but he never comes across as arrogant, a fine trait for empathising with him as he changes. It’s such a cool invention that you can’t help but share the passion he has for it as something like that would be awesome, though it being a horror you already know not to trust the pods. Veronica Quaife, splendid name by the way, is a caring soul and not the typically dirt digging two-dimensional journalist hack she could have been portrayed as. The relationship she has with Brundle may happen mightily quick but you end up believing it and caring for her as she gets herself stuck in a sticky situation.

This film is clearly iconic for the gory imagery it has, being referenced lightly or heavily in many later pop cultural items, from ‘The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episode to the Mohinder curse in ‘Heroes’. It’s obvious to see why this has such an effect on media as it has such an effect upon watching it. The way he develops as this fly thing is so grotesque he still possesses his eyes, the last real ounce of humanity making you connect to him and identify with the monster. That’s a fantastic character move and plays on fears of obsession.

Jeff Goldblum is so good in this movie, going from sort of awkward science guy through his own stages of buff hunk to sexual master before the more demonic stages of his fly life itself. The ticks and little tongue movements as he begins becoming the fly are subtle but brilliant choices to make him feel that less with it and make him more deranged as he goes on. Even as he’s smothered in excellent make up, he sells the worried Seth magnificently making you still see that trace of compassion he’s so frightened to lose. Geena Davis is strong and shifts herself, from flirty to angry dealing with her ex, she demonstrates the right dose of horror in seeing Seth deformed, not too much which makes you like her as something in her performance makes you see she’s still trying to cling onto what she remembers of the man she met at the press do.

Squirmy, bloody and mind-scaringly searing in forcing such a worrying change of science fiction horror into our eyes. It’s quirky and interesting too with well rounded characters making everything that much more horrifying as you put yourself into this tragic situation.

8.5/10

The Judge (2014)

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Excelling in acting finery and showcasing majestic beautiful shots is all well good if the story is solid or at the very least powerful in the majority, alas this film stumbles on the plot points and gets lost in making any other characters beside the leads interesting and tripe-esque attempts at being emotional don’t ever work.

After hearing that his mother has passed away, great defense attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) travels back to his smaller roots in Indiana. There he reunites with his younger and older brothers, an old flame and his cantankerous father Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) who is hiding a secret and may have just killed someone. So it’s down to the less than close pair of dad and son to try and protect his honour.

The film looks gorgeous, that’s a given with no shadow of a doubt. Locations and framings of exterior and interior places are almost exquisite. One still stands out, so simple but tells a relationship in picture alone. The sight of Joseph and Hank walking opposite directions in a stretched horizontal shot really hits home the distance they have with one another. It’s all very law and order too with browns and dull tones making the court house feel more heavy and foreboding. As the once Judge now finds himself in the firing line it twists his home environment in a cruel way and you can feel that come across.

Annoyingly a lot of the film takes too much time with Hank and Joseph, I get that it’s about their strained bond but a good film takes moments to round out supporting characters too and all other players feel badly written or at least their backgrounds get shoved in quite sketchily to make it feel like they’re important. It’s clear that the film is really working with the father/son duo though and the brothers who could be very supportive become badly drawn cliched siblings, the ex girlfriend is the typical mum and bar owner happy in the place she was born. The only other character that briefly shines is Hank’s daughter when driving in the car with him she may be spewing cliched dialogue about divorce melodrama but she gets a chance to become three dimensional.

It’s so evident that director David Dobkin and star Downey, Jr. are trying to get this film into Oscar fields of vision, what with family drama, murder mystery and deathly illness to boot, it’s sad that it’s so obvious they’re trying to garner Academy attention because it makes the possible sad moments less than so and makes the entire film feel unreal. The constant back and forth between the will-they-won’t-they reconnect family plight gets pretty tedious and it’s just so predictable that the film will become all sunshine and rainbows in the end, well maybe it doesn’t go that far but it’s obvious that the fracture could mend.

Robert Downey, Jr. is very good on the most part, he convinces the audience that his sole purpose on our planet isn’t only to play a whizzing megalomaniac superhero but that he can play a confident megalomaniac lawyer too. What I’m saying is he is so Downey, Jr a lot of the time in the film, in the beginning even more so as he just sounds like Tony Stark in his cocksure and sometime unlikable manner but then he has bold flashes of brilliance where he shows he can bang on that door of emotion and bust it open. Robert Duvall is the pinnacle of the film, he plays the grumbly weathered Judge with complications and a possible motive for murder under his hat with great aplomb. You really hate and feel for him in different scenarios and once his condition comes to the fore you really see the Duvall broken down portrayal stand out. Billy Bob Thornton is a cool little addition to the cast too and in his smaller scaled role tries getting into the heart of his character and thanks to his charm and cold looks you get slight glimmers of what he could have become given more time.

A long film that feels long and it only has the qualities of it’s two leads to really make it anything of note, if not this film is something you don’t need to see.

5/10

Phenomena (1985)

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Grand in spectacle and skin crawling detail, this Italian horror also known as ‘Creepers’ strikes an oil well of out there imagery, serial killer plot and incredible music. It’s operatic in both its style and soundtrack and you feel like you’re experiencing some lucid ride as you watch this insect filled story progress.

Introducing the unseen killer by offing a tourist who misses the bus she was on gives us a glimpse of the quick and bloody manner they have and clearly the crazy nature they possess by showing them break free from chains. After this we see Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) who attends a Swiss Academy for girls while her famous father is away. She finds out, though that in the nearby area is this brutal slayer who murders young girls. Through her sleepwalking, gift of insect friendship and help from scientist John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) she attempts to track and uncover the multiple murderer.

Director Dario Argento clearly has an eye for the lavish and demonstrates striking yet odd beauty in his work. The many uses of close ups in his film add further closer inspection to places and people and also stir up more unnerving feelings as we feel they could be something more than what they appear. This movie does a magnificent job of generating an aura and with the near constant wind Switzerland seems to have in this movie it somehow works in making you feel cold to the bone. It may not be overtly scary, apart from one part that made me jump out of my skin, but Argento’s theatrical style provide chills.

It’s the sprawling location of hills and the hideous fraction of the overly posh clinical Academy that contrast and make the film stand out further. Both sides still hold that worrying feeling, the freedom of nature gives the killer room to run and kill as seen in the fantastic stone tunnel chase opening and the girl school just feels locked down and too ordered that you get a gist of something going on you don’t like, this manifests into the bullying of Jennifer as the other snobs torment her pretending to be worshipping insects of hers.

The story is no doubt surreal and you cannot deny it’s original but there’s times you question it or wonder why on Earth this idea even came about, or how. The whole serial killer angle lands the film in horror land but it feels laboured just to get that bloody spree involved, though I guess never knowing who is behind the murders leaves you guessing and therefore watching. It’s just weird in many places but wonderfully so, even if the insect kingdom aiding Jennifer comes across as strange, you buy into it because the film feels theatrical.

There’s an awful lot going on, what with killers, forensic science, detective work, dream studying, Jennifer’s plight and insect talk in general that it could feel like too many cooks spoiling the broth but perhaps luckily it all boils together nicely like a six armed Gordon Ramsay perfecting every aspect of the preparation to bring out a top notch dish. The strongest feature of this film lies in the world of the shuddering nastiness. Maggots, body parts and flies come together to really make you squirm and see this landscape as insane and nightmarish.

A lot of names to follow but; Claudio Simonetti, Bill Wyman, Fabio Pignatelli and Simon Boswell mixed in with the likes of Motorhead and Iron Maiden must be credited massively for the music in this film. The loud sounds of operatic/progressive rock and heavy metal tunes really gets the non-diagetic side of things pulsating and many times it kicks in really breathing atmospheric tension into the film. It coincides with the remarkable visuals of Argento to create a truly energetic thrilling story.

There are problems like believabilty of such an unbelievable plot but bypass this or view the story as a grotesque fairy-tale then you may just enjoy this film…a lot, like I did. There are shoddy moments of insect effects that don’t work but you’ll end up fist punching the air thanks to an outstanding primate and both the music and film will excite and shock you.

It’s exceptional and succeeds as a horror film for worming into your mind and creeping you out. The out there aspect of it all is fine and rather cool to see, especially when blended in with heightened dream like imagery, pounding music and clever interesting direction.

8/10

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

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One of the best horror films for being intelligent, scary and fun too. ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ is a scream from start to end and with endless crazy yet clever imagery throwing together the nightmarish behaviour of Freddy you can’t help but appreciate this film for the story it puts across.

Four high school students, friends and partners all have the dreadful connection of dreaming about the same thing. As they sleep they see a striped jumper wearing man with a burnt face and sharp gloved hands stalking them in a steamy boiler room. After Tina (Amanda Wyss) dies Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) realises this ‘Freddy’ persona can kill you in real life by killing you in your dreams, so hopefully with the help of her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp) she can find Freddy (Robert Englund) and bring him to the real world to get him caught or killed and leave her and other teenagers alone.

Wes Craven who both directs and writes this film; his eighth feature strikes gold with such a great idea that you wonder how it hadn’t been done before. The script is believable considering how make-believe it can be and the dialogue is at multiple points funny and realistic. The direction Craven waves over his film is steady and sweeping for a lot of the time which helps tremendously in constructing the sense of a dreamlike world. In fact this movie is brilliant for blurring the gap between reality and subconscious platforms, it reads like some blood soaked ‘Inception’ as you wonder whether Nancy is sleeping or not.

The design of Freddy Krueger is so effective, a torn and ratty jumper, a hat and some knifed gloves do more than enough to make him one of the most iconic and scary movie villains of all time. It’s a brilliant character and works with the 80’s slasher boom going on. The theme of killer hunting down promiscuous youths is of course prominent but Freddy goes further as you find out why he’s stuck in nightmares and why he looks the way he does, a back story for the killer is a neat touch and the youths in question aren’t just sex obsessed but they’re smart too making them more likable to root for. Nancy especially becomes more than a typically horror movie idolized object when she proves herself with wit and know-how setting up booby traps for Mr. Krueger.

Imaginative and bold, this movie has so many stand out moments of ‘Holy cow’ ideas, even today they still work and feel fresher compared to the stale things we see a lot of the time. The hand pressing down through the roof or the sinking stairs are clever film making tools and help build up that supernatural quality of Freddy’s world. There is plenty of gory fun to be had in the way he messes about with not only the teens but himself to freak them and us out. Freddy and Nancy become a dueling pair and you can’t help but like both. It’s good vs evil and this film works as it keeps you enjoying both sides.

Robert Englund is Freddy Krueger, the maniacal way he plays this dream tormentor is fantastic. You truly believe the giddy delight he’s having tearing down chasing these four teens. He plays the rotten murdering scamp with such ferocity and charm that you fear Freddy is real and even watching it at my age it still puts some chills into you making you think about the dreams you might have. Langenkamp is a great lead, there’s only a few slips where her acting makes it look like she’s smiling instead of crying but she improves and becomes a brave horror female character with brains and beauty to tempt the killer into a place less sure for him. Depp too makes his film debut here in a role pitting him as the helpful yet dumb jock, he doesn’t have much to do but he makes Nancy look better.

It’s a great premise and Wes Craven joyfully puts together the ideas into a film with shocks, sequences of nightmares – something we can all be afraid of, and an awesome and haunting horror killer. Full of invention, primal fears and fun, it’s superb to see this film still feel as modern now as it was probably back then.

8/10

Friday the 13th (1980)

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Classic and one of the first true slasher films of its kind though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good. It is though, it’s good…not great. The silence and long shots to make you fit in place of the killer work really nicely but some hammy acting and mindless character choices leave it feeling slightly wafer thin, like a cardboard standee of a horror film though it survives as being much better than any of the sequels.

After an opening showing the murder of two camp counselors in 1958 we move to present day or 1979 Friday the 13th, as some new guys and gals start rustling up the abandoned and unkempt Camp Crystal Lake for some children to do activities in. The group arrive earlier of course to set up, but ignore the advice of a crazy village dude and stories of grisly murders in the past thinking it’s all baloney. Ned, Jack, Bill, Marcie, Alice and Brenda may soon realise their choice to say is ill fated as an unseen killer picks them off one by one.

The setup is pretty basic, creepy location big enough for plenty of young horny fooling around doubling up as a dark playground for a killer to have a field day. The village nut is now a staple device and always serves to either put the willies up people or get laughed at, in this case Ralph becomes the latter though, we the audience know better. The cabins themselves are so off track that it instantly makes the place scary as they are far away from civilisation and help. It might tick every conventional horror cliche box but Camp Crystal Lake has a fantastic name and works in putting the six counselors away from the world and closer to death.

The strongest aspect of this slasher is the music or lack of. Harry Manfredini only comes in as a good score master when needed, otherwise the film is just the diagetic sounds of the characters or their surroundings. It’s perfect symmetry to have the non-diagetic sound only rise up when the killer is doing their stuff. That way you start feeling creeped out at the right time and manipulation of music to push a scare is never used. I really like this decision as it lets the scenes play out naturally. The music to mirror the camp murderer is simple but 100% effective with echoing calls reverbing to produce an unnerving track of suspense. It’s a sound that will always be associated with this film and that’s a sign of good work.

The characters are generically done in being sexual, dopey or jock like. They also make horrendous decisions and especially in the case of Alice who does nearly everything wrong when facing the killer. It’s a case of most of the actors being pretty bad and obviously acting but for a cult horror film from the 80’s you can’t hate on it that much for it. They at least get the whole ‘young souls having fun’ down to a T which in a way makes you hate them and that’s where controversy for this movie came as critics didn’t like the way it made you root for the killer, which makes sense slightly but I like that take.

The reveal of the killer is brilliant and still feels fresh now, a clever and kind of sad unmasking to see who is haunting this camp and why. The actor in question may over act shockingly but their motivations and frightening face as they rampage come together as a cool twist for what could have been any other slasher horror. It’s a shame the sequels tampered with this story and messed it about, making the victim of an unwatched camp the killer in future films. You can’t deny that this film delivers on what it sets out to do so in that sense it succeeds.

Though looking at it today it feels extremely dated, there’s not a huge amount of scares, shock or gore, and you can see it tries to pick ideas and style from ‘Halloween’ but fails and becomes shoddy. It’s just odd that a rather tame horror film contributed to the surge in horrors of the time and kick started such an influential franchise. Kevin Bacon, the music (or lack of) and the killer reveal may be the only gilded items in this unoriginal, poorly acted formulaic slasher spree.

5.5/10

Annabelle (2014)

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Back to The Halloween Club side of things and here comes the spin off/prequel feature from last years ‘The Conjuring’. Now this film may have some suspenseful moments and thrust the creepy doll in question down our throats but apart from that it lacks the same style associated with ‘The Conjuring’, it also lacks on scares and sense.

Once again the three med students open proceedings and then we shoot back a year to focus on married and expectant couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis – very apt, did they only do a casting call for that name!?) and John Gordon (Ward Horton). A gift for the to be child is a doll Mia has always wanted and it of course is the lanky and frankly chilling Annabelle doll, which after being bled into by the suicide of a satanic cult member becomes the carrier of evil demons trying to gain a soul.

Firstly it’s just a laughable premise of having this doll, I mean why on Earth would you ever see that thing and desire it. Before it even becomes scratched and ruined it still looks creepy as sin. I guess at first there’s a sort of valuable reason but then when she takes it back after she never wanted to see it again it makes the movie feel tired to throw in some lame excuse to bring the hideous toy back. Secondly where the Warren and the Perron family had two stories coming together in a mass head of spooks and terror, this release only really has Mia to struggle through the torment of a possessed item and replacing clever camera work and on point tension is predictable jump scares and cliches.

There are a small scattering of chilling moments that do make you sink into your chair, such as the shadowy devil lurking on the stairs, the neat elevator sequence opening onto the doom of the same level and in fact the first scene with the two cult members was actually pretty terrifying because it was real and bloody. Otherwise it’s just cheap thrills to try and make the audience feel they’re being scared when deep down they probably aren’t at all.

It’s a case again of music doing an awful lot to do the heavy lifting. Joseph Bishara does the score once more and it’s a dot to dot drawing of softly softly softly BANG to produce the jumps, therefore not really the moment in the film being scary, just the sudden loud noise. It’s an obvious thing that Conjuring director James Wan didn’t direct this film as it feels so weakened down, there isn’t anything special going on and that’s annoying because it could have been a much more stylised film.

Also where ‘The Conjuring’ script had patches of well written humour, ‘Annabelle’ feels dry on any chance of comedic possibilities. A good horror in my opinion should mix comedy and scares in equal measure making the jump more prominent in contrast to the lighter side of things. Gary Dauberman wrote this script and it’s not outstanding in the slightest, but the story is bonkers and entirely there just to suit a spin off’s needs. The children on the stairs are thrown in, the upstairs arguing neighbours feel like a wasted and unnecessary point, the whole ending could have redeemed everything by being brave and sad but that is lost before it begins.

Annabelle Wallis deals with the majority of the film rather well to be fair and as a leading lady and scream queen figure does the needed job of reacting in shock to increasing actions of hellish behaviour, it could almost be compared to Alison Lohman’s role in ‘Drag Me to Hell’, but not because the latter is so much better in terms of giving a different and over the top role. Ward Horton has little to nothing to do and misses all cases of Satan’s curse being away on his luckily placed night shifts. It’s a film that makes you pine for Lorraine and Ed Warren to come back as they have charisma to carry the film, bring on ‘The Conjuring 2′ is all I can say as it will reunite Wan, Wilson and Farmiga.

I watched this in the cinema in the evening and found it less worrying than ‘The Conjuring’ which I watched during the day on my laptop, I mean there’s something wrong there. Chucky the doll this ain’t, a migraine inducing amount of close ups of the creepy doll’s face can’t compensate for how unscary this film is. It just doesn’t really do anything, the doll or the movie.

4.5/10