In conjunction with another wonderfully evocative synth score by Le Matos, the filmmaking triumvirate behind TURBO KID return with this funny, intense variation on that familiar 80’s horror staple of my-neighbour-is-a-vampire-or-some-other-nocturnal-suburban-threat. The story is framed by the sober reminder that “Even serial killers live next door to somebody”. In small town Oregon in 1984, 15-year-old Graham Verchere and his chums live in fear of the “Cape May Slayer” following a succession of disappearing kids. In between treehouse banter about beating off and lusting after the school beauty (Tiera Skovbye), Verhcere becomes convinced the murderer is his well-respected police officer neighbour Mackey (Rich Sommer). Against a fashionably nostalgic backdrop of CB communication, BMX rides, misconceptions about AIDS and debates about Gremlins and Ewoks, this captures the paranoia, coarse chatter, silliness and touching loyalty of adolescent male friendships better than most movies made in the wake of STAND BY ME. Like TURBO KID, it effortlessly negotiates a series of tonal shifts, and finds depth in typically one-note characters (the pretty blonde, the big-talking tough kid) who turn out to be as insecure as everybody else. Beneath the fond recreation of the decade and the often-hilarious character rapport, however, is a reminder that we can never truly look to the past with rose tinted glasses. A genuinely sinister final half hour refuses to offer the conventional reassurance of a mystery solved, instead leaving us with the all too real sense of at least one life forever haunted by what happened in the Summer Of 84.
SECRET SANTA **** USA 2017 Dir: Adam Marcus. 89 mins
A worthy stablemate to Michael Dougherty’s cynical KRAMPUS and DEAD END’s vision of Hell as the Christmas car journey to Granma’s house, this is a fabulously heartless, acidic deconstruction of the festive season. JASON GOES TO HELL director Adam Marcus co-wrote the relentlessly savage script with actress Debra Sullivan, puncturing the hypocrisy of forced Christmas cheer by focussing on one specific miserable family get-together. Here, the obese black-sheep daughter spikes the punch with a “truth serum” that results in everyone losing their inhibitions and ultimately unleashing their long repressed violent rage. The pleasure comes from witnessing the ultra-violent collapse of this rich, white, hate-filled Trump-era American family (overseen by the CEO of a pharmaceutical company), as profane insults and outbursts are exchanged about weight problems, infidelities, disabilities, sexuality, awful vaginas, terrible mothering and pretty much everything else you can imagine. An authentically miserable gift-exchange sequence is the tip of the iceberg in a film inevitably descending into gory confrontations involving Christmas decorations, though the quotable verbal nastiness (marvellously delivered by all, including Curtis Fortier as the homophobe uncle) hits harder, especially for anyone with scars from family Christmases. It looks cheap and employs typically terrible-looking digital blood in certain sequences, but it’s also frequently hilarious and cringe-inducing in the very best way. Even the opening title sequence, wittily perverting the names of cast and crew, is playfully sour.
PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH **** USA / UK 2018 Dir: Sonny Laguna, Tommy Wiklund. 84 mins
With diminishing budgets, Charles Band is still making PUPPET MASTER movies almost three decades on from the comparatively lavish 1989 original; this “reimagining” was designed to spark a new chain of movies without infringing on Band’s cycle. Co-directed by the guys responsible for proficient EVIL DEAD riff WITHER, it boasts a script by S Craig Zahler, responsible for the finest latter-day B movies BONE TOMAHAWK and BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99. Following a 1989-set prologue in which Toulon is recast as a heavily scarred Udo Kier lamenting “disgusting homosexuals” in a bar, the modern-day story follows divorcee / comic store worker Thomas Lennon as he returns to his childhood home to get his shit together. Discovering the “Blade” puppet in his dead brother’s old room, takes it to a 30th anniversary convention at Toulon’s home, where tour guide Barbara Crampton (who played a different character in the original film) provides exposition while attendees are gruesomely offed by the revived Nazi puppets in what are defined as “hate crimes” due to the race / sexuality / proclivities of the victims. Complete with a “Junior Fuhrer” puppet that gets oven roasted (“See how you like it!”), Zahler succeeds in reviving an increasingly barren series much in the way Don Mancini was able to restore relevance and creativity to his Chucky franchise. In an age where everyone is offended by everything, this relishes the chance to cut loose as the puppets slaughter kids, Jewish couples, fake-boobed blondes, lesbians and, in a show stopper, the unborn foetus of a heavily pregnant guest. It’s engagingly merciless, with terrific old school gore FX and a gleeful sense of PC-trashing fun. Shame about the lazy “To be continued” ending, however.
THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT ***** USA 2018 Dir: Robert D Krzykowski. 97 mins
The title sounds like it could be an Asylum-style CGI-laden monster mash, but feature debut writer-director Krzykowski, channelling the spirit of BUBBA HO TEP, has instead crafted a poignant story of old age and regret, gifting veteran actor Sam Elliott the perfect showcase. Spending his dotage propping up a bar and, when needed, displaying remarkable resilience in dealing with a triple-threat mugging, Elliott is the hero that never was. He recalls the extraordinary events of the title that few people know about, his younger self effectively portrayed by Aidan Turner, but his work for the Secret Service prove incidental in his vast memory banks. Wiping out the Fuhrer is not considered a true victory (“I killed a man, the monster lived on…”) and everything pales in significance to his failure to propose to his true love (Caitlin FitzGerald) before joining the service. Elliott’s characteristically unfussy, understated performance is at the core of an uncommonly tender movie about paths taken and seemingly tiny moments (passing on a toy dinosaur to a sibling) that become symbolic for lifelong regrets. Krzykowski’s elegiac character study veers effortlessly from low key absurdist comedy (“It doesn’t have big feet either, not living up to its name…”) to sadness, and the bittersweet mood across a range of time periods is perfectly matched by Joe Kraemer’s rich score. Produced by John Sayles, Douglas Trumbull and Lucky McKee, it’s a haunting reminder of life’s most important things – which, as it turns out, are infinitely bigger than Hitler and the Bigfoot.
WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE **** Canada 2018 Dir: Colin Minihan. 98 mins
“You only kill what keeps you alive…” A small-scale, largely two-handed psycho-thriller from the impressive writer-director responsible for the stand-out zombie picture IT STAINS THE SANDS RED. Minihan rewrote his original conception of a heterosexual couple pitted against each other, and the result offers a needed refresh of thriller conventions and a riveting central character dynamic. Brittany Allen, so good in IT STAINS…, gives another multi-dimensional performance opposite JIGSAW’s terrific Hannah Emily Anderson, who refuses to let her role descend into the routine. On their one-year wedding anniversary, the couple take refuge at a lakeside cabin with significance to Anderson’s past. Soon, troubling secrets and hidden agendas emerge and, following a startling encounter coincidentally similar to the catalytic event of this year’s REVENGE, the movie becomes a brutal extended battle of wits and physical prowess. Minihan cleverly finds as much intensity from uniquely uncomfortable domestic scenes (notably a dinner table set piece involving oblivious friends) as he does from the more conventional thriller set pieces. In a genre where we have become far too accustomed to (and accepting of) male-on-female violence, as well as painstaking psychopath backstories, the antagonist here is a “monster” who had a happy childhood and sells the liberating power of murder (“I’m free in all the ways you’re not!”). The script wittily toys with audience loyalty as roles are reversed and both leads prove equally capable of brutality, but it never slides into the cliched territory of the cycle of 1990’s Hollywood fill-in-the-blank-from-Hell movies. This Ontario-shot movie does suffer from the 21st century curse of too many endings, but its key climactic twist is marvellously pulled off and it never releases its vice-like grip.
UPGRADE **** USA 2018 Dir: Leigh Whannell. 100 mins
Leigh Whannell’s second film as director (following the superior INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3) is a hard-edged slice of technophobic sci-fi in which budgetary restrictions work in the film’s favour and obvious thematic parallels to ROBOCOP and Cronenbergian body horror do not distract from its own sense of style and energy. Logan Marshall-Green offers a charismatic, physically challenging performance as a near-future mechanic crippled by a road accident and craving vengeance for his wife’s murder. He signs up for the revolutionary “Stem” technology, which allows him superhuman mobility and strength and begins to (politely) take control of his body and mind. Marshall-Green’s interactions with “Stem” provide a streak of welcome black humour typical of Whannell’s inspirations, particularly in the first gruesome kill he makes, while a clever riff on expectation has a scene of ultra-violence occurring largely off-camera because our hero looks away from the Stem-perpetrated horror. It could have been a shade tighter (a cop-on-the-case subplot feels a little ordinary), but the incidental details are strong and Whannell’s fondness for final act twists results in a familiar but marvellously sour conclusion with strong echoes of bleak American sci-fi movies of the 1970’s. Most of all, it’s just refreshing to watch a smart, character-driven genre movie where the narrative isn’t constructed upon half a dozen strategically placed city-levelling CGI set pieces that will look dated within a year.
TERRIFIED **** Argentina 2017 Dir: Demian Rugna. 90 mins
Although it owes a major debt to the post-PARANORMAL ACTIVITY era of supernatural American horror films (complete with frenzied strings on the soundtrack a la INSIDIOUS), this precision-tooled Argentinian chiller lives up to its name with a series of truly alarming set pieces. The jolting opening ten minutes introduce us to a housewife who has begun hearing voices coming from the pipes that threaten to kill her. Subsequently, her husband bears witness to the evil force lurking in their house when it levitates her above the bathtub and smashes her face repeatedly into the walls. Arrested for her murder, he is interviewed by a pair of paranormal researchers, and the narrative expands into other houses on the same street. Although, like some of the films it echoes, TERRIFIED loses some of its edge the more it shows, it does achieve a couple of marvellous jump scares and yields significant frights from the bald, naked, malevolent figure that hides in wardrobes and watches the home owner sleep at night. The film’s most chilling bit of business would probably be deemed too macabre for a mainstream Hollywood horror film: a young child is mown down in front of his parents’ house and returns home to continue decomposing at the family dinner table. It’s invigorating to watch a movie like this incorporate the too-rare image of a grown man cowering under the covers during a harrowing encounter, and TERRIFIED largely lives up to its fearsome international reputation.
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE **** UK 2017 Dir: John McPhail. 107 mins
The first ever Scottish Christmas-set zombie musical, in which the eponymous zombie apocalypse hits just as the appealing Anna (Ella Hunt) is planning her gap year. Meanwhile, fascist headmaster Paul Kaye (relishing his teeth-clenching bastardry) keeps a miserable eye over his pupils’ festive show, where scene-stealing Marli Siu performs a splendidly smutty ode to Santa. Before unleashing its expected rampage of rotting Santas, elves and snowmen, this sets up its likeable protagonists via a traditional opening “breakaway” musical number and a bravura cafeteria set piece (“No Such Thing As A Hollywood Ending”) reflecting the influence of HIGH SCHOOL THE MUSICAL. Its biggest nod to the most obvious inspiration (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) is a sequence reworking Shaun’s oblivious early morning walk through virus-hit London as a joie-de-vivre duet between equally ignorant protagonists celebrating a brand new day while carnage explodes all around them. The catchy, briskly staged musical numbers are balanced with witty pop culture references, apocalyptic geek humour (speculation about whether Ryan Gosling has been turned) and inventive riffs on familiar horror comedy backdrops – notably, zombies-in-a-bowling-alley. The songs are smart and dynamic, encompassing a musical version of all those zombie movie scenes in which survivors fail to agree on the best course of action; an emotional lament about modern communication as the bombs drop (“I Need A Human Voice”); and a rousing rock anthem to accompany a zombie-killing montage. Like SHAUN, it doesn’t shy away from grim plot developments in which loved ones perish horribly and there’s no happy resolution around the corner, but its eagerness to please and the rousing set pieces make it a joy to watch.
CRYSTAL EYES **** Argentina 2017 Dir: Ezequiel Endelman, Leandro Montejano. 82 mins
Unhinged fashion model diva Alexis Carpenter – fond of throwing coffee in the face of her make-up artist – accidentally sets herself on fire on the catwalk thanks to some spilled wine and a flammable dress. One year on, a mystery killer with a mannequin visage begins offing those associated with Buenos Aires’ preeminent fashion magazine as it searches for its next cover girl. Set in the mid-80’s and paying loving homage to everything from BLOOD AND BLACK LACE to HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II, this latter-day giallo punctuates its skilfully executed stalk-and-kill set pieces with marvellously bitchy dialogue (“It seems you were born in a manger!”), eyebrow acting and the movie year’s finest shoulder pads. It’s a strikingly stylish calling card for co-directors Endelman and Montejano, who work wonders on a tiny budget and have fun with primary colours, subjective camerawork and jokey false scares, including the random appearance of an elevator-dwelling blind man named (what else?) Lucio. There’s a proliferation of trouser suits, thunderstorms and red herrings, alongside visual nods to SUSPIRIA and TENEBRAE and a marvellous climactic moment in which a character is literally adorned with a crystal plumage. The synth-heavy soundtrack is as gloriously realised as the suitably histrionic final reveal though it doesn’t skimp on suspense just because it’s a pastiche.
THE GOLEM **** USA 2018 Dir: Doran Paz, Yoav Paz. 95 mins
The Paz brothers follow up their guerrilla-style take on found footage apocalyptic horror (JERUZALEM) with this equally intense take on the Jewish legend that doesn’t tread the path one would expect. Set in 17th century Lithuania, it has a strong performance from Hani Furstenberg as a young woman caught in the middle of the conflict between her close-knit Jewish community and the hostile outsiders (and fast-spreading plague) threatening its very existence. A sacred book inspires her to employ the magic of Kabbalah to protect her village by conjuring up a Golem connected to her wishes. Dedicated to atmosphere and mood rather than obvious scares, and refreshingly patient in its pacing, this well-crafted, sombre period piece crafts a pervasive ambience of dread. The filmmakers smartly adapt ancient folklore and a period setting into a parable for hot-button 2018 issues of nationalism and immigration. Like much modern horror, its story is rooted in grief and desperation, and the decision to manifest the golem as a silent, ominous small child result in effectively creepy scenes. Although some of the gaudier gore FX (including exploding heads) don’t quite mesh with the restrained nature of what surrounds them, this GOLEM is consistently compelling and sincerely acted.
Reviews by Steven West