Film review – Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

Supernatural horror ‘Thelma’ begins with an unforgettable opening scene. A girl called Thelma, no more than 7 years old, is hunting with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). The man allows her to walk ahead of him, entranced by the sight of a deer and the prospect of its impending doom. Trond instead points the gun at his daughter’s head, with a expressive face that reads as both fear and temptation.

It’s an arresting opening shot that is hard feel anything but intrigue for. Why was a man willing to kill his own daughter? What sort of emotional termoil are they both experiencing? It’s brilliant filmmaking.

It is followed up with a long shot of a pedestrianised square. The viewer is essentially challenged to a game of ‘Guess Who The Main Character Is’. Eventually, the slow pan begins, finally focusing on Eili Harboe, who portrays the titular Thelma, some ten years after the opening scene.

Director Joachim Trier, in these opening shots, is warning us what he is about to do with his film – drawing us in slowly and leaving us guessing until he, by design, reveals what we need to know, with maximum impact.

The square, we learn, is at the University of Oslo, where Thelma has just begun her studies. A deeply-religious girl who refrains from drinking, she struggles to settle in and make friends. However, when she has a seizure in the middle of the study area of a library, she is helped by a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins).

Becoming increasingly friendly with Anja, Thelma begins to express herself more, eventually becoming physically attracted to her. However, her journey of self exploration doesn’t stop at her growing lustful emotions for Anja and she begins to worry about the causes of her seizures and the dark secrets that lie behind them.

What Trier has achieved with this story is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a visual wonder, full of memorable set-pieces that jump out of the screen and leave a lasting memory. A scene at the opera oozes with tension as Anja and Thelma search for each other’s hands in the safety of a dark public space. With the accompanying concerto raising the pace and increasing filling the auditorium with volumous classical music, Thelma begins to feel another seizure engulfing her mind. It’s a stressful thing to watch, and captures the threat she feels perfectly.

Harboe is the perfect casting for the title role. She has a naturally distant expression on her face that gives nothing away. It borders on cold, making her eventual emotional expressions feel genuinely surprising. When she finally kisses Anja, you can feel her blushing. She knows it goes against everything she has learned as a child and is scared and excited about her new discovery.

The flashbacks serve as a means to reveal to truth behind her story, what the seizures mean and the shocking reason her father was willing to murder her as a child. The make-up department has done a fantastic job of making these flashbacks believable, without trying too hard to make them look like the parents are caked in make-up – too often a failing of bigger-budget releases.

The culmination of the film hits like a crescendo, and Trier plays the audience perfectly with a balanced build up to the final pay-off.

This genuinely is an excellent film and one that should do well outside its home country. It has also been submitted as Norway’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, 11 years after Trier’s first feature film achieved the same accolade. Here’s hoping it goes one step further and makes the shortlist – it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and this will help ensure this happens.

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Film review – The Cured (David Freyne, 2017)

What happens to the zombies after the disease has been contaminated and cured? This is a question many zombie-horror film fans have thought about, but that is seldom explored in cinema. There’s good reason too – an axe-wielding hero chopping off a zombie’s head is a much easier sell than someone dealing with social exclusion and depression following an almost-apocalypse.

Writer/director David Freyne’s feature debut dares to explore those themes, with considerable success.

The film is set in a ravished, desolate Dublin, in the aftermath of a zombie plague. Scientists have found a cure for the maze virus, but now the living and the former undead are finding the memories of the effects of the virus hard to handle. The cure is successful for 75% of the infected, though 25% remain immune and in secure isolation. Former zombie Senan (Sam Keeley) is released from quarantine and taken in by his American sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page). The film focuses on the reintegration into society of Senan and Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a friend Senan has made during the quarantine period.

The film is an excellent piece of social commentary. It deals with the manner in which modern society lives in fear. It’s something that has always been prominent in humanity, although it seems especially prescient that it debuts in the same year that Donald Trump began his presidency of the USA. The cured are humans living with the horrors of the past, but are treated as lesser beings due to the fear from those who were lucky enough to avoid being infected. Fear is driven by a swirl or rumours, mistruths and a media willing to maintain the confusion and feed the fear. At its best moments it’s a thoroughly thought-provoking piece of drama.

Freyne does his best to maintain the suspense with a smattering of jump-scares, primarily in the form of flashbacks. I felt these were unnecessary but were clearly there to serve a purpose. This is a horror film and for all its successes as a sociopolitical piece, the threat of the maze virus eventually becomes the driving force for the film. The horror credentials of the filmmakers are truly opened up at the point the film finally hits pace, leading to a frenetic and pulsating finale.

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The central trio of actors all deliver great performances, but it is Ellen Page who has the most complex and thus most fruitful role. Abbie is a mother fearing for her son’s life and a woman mourning the loss of her husband. The complexities unravel as we go on the emotional journey with her and Page is a fantastic actor to take us on it. You can feel that she is giving it 100%, fully committing to a role and getting every drop of emotion out of the character. It’s the sort of performance that other actors love to feed off, and in the one-on-one scenes with Sam Keeley you can feel them both hitting their emotional peaks to devastating effect.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor delivers an unsettling turn as Conor, a former politician attempting to be accepted by society but struggling to come to terms with his newly-assigned job as a janitor. He puts in the groundwork in the early portions of the film to allow himself to deliver a brutal final act performance.

The big risk with this film is that it feels like it’s trying to be a horror film and a drama film at the same time. Fans of horror films hoping for an out-and-out zombie carnival may be bored before the action takes flight. Those looking for a more subtle take on the genre may feel cheated by the ending. That said, those invested in the emotional journey of the characters should find a genuinely refreshing take on the theme and will be rewarded by a superb feature film debut from a very promising director.

Film review – Verónica (Paco Plaza, 2017)

Director/writer Paco Plaza latest horror film Verónica received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this week. The film’s short running time ensures that there are few dull moments, though a pulsating finalé does its best to make up for a lack of characterisation beyond the titular lead.

Based on a real life police report, the film opens with a frantic emergency call and response. It is June 1991. Madrid. A girl screams down the phone that there is someone in their house. Once there, the police officers discover evidence of paranormal activity and it becomes the first official officer report to corroborate evidence of the occult. It is that real-life report that Plaza uses as a starting point.

Verónica (debutant Sandra Escacena) is a teenager who is trying to cope with the death of her father. Busy with her school work, looking after her siblings full time (her mother is around but works long hours), but feeling outcast at school, Verónica is a girl mature beyond her years in many respects. However, she seeks an escape from her isolation in the form of a ouija board séance, which she plans to carry out during a solar eclipse with her school friends Rosa (Angela Fabian) and Diana (Carla Campra).

The three girls conduct the séance in a manner that ticks off very much every quintessential horror trope. The glass smashes, the lights go out, the board rips, panic ensues. It’s ticking all the right boxes but doesn’t ever feel like it’s convincing in any of it.

Indeed, throughout the film there are a number of typical plot points that serve to underline Plaza’s love of the genre, which some will see as a love letter to the genre. Many, however, will see it as a lack of ideas.

At times, it felt like there wasn’t enough time to explore the relationships between the main characters. Seemingly pivotal lead characters in the first act are largely forgotten by the end, whilst the mother changes from negligent workaholic to loving mother over the course of three days, without ever feeling like there’s a strong bond between her and her children.

Conversely, there is clearly a playful rapport between all of the children. Twin sisters Lucía and Irene (Bruna González’s and Claudia Placer respectively) have a real bond and it is in some of their natural banter that the film sparks into life. Their younger brother Antoñito inspires a lot of sympathy due to his hopelessness, which Iván Chavero portrays wonderfully. Together the results are great and the scenes they share are entirely believable.

Another positive is Plaza’s deliberate lack of use of CGI effects, which serves the film well. Black, monstrous hands appearing from out of a bed is something that is so easily done as a practical effect, but yet this seems to be something many modern directors would add in the CGI studio at a later date. The terror felt by the children is palpable.

By the conclusion of the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the story had been embellished based on the police report. What we have is an isolated, depressed teenage girl who is obsessed with the occult. The police may have been called to the house, but it would be negligent to blame the occurrences on the occult based on the scant evidence available. This is clearly a girl in need of attention and mourning the loss of a father, unable to find an outlet.

In cinematic terms, that can all be forgiven with a pulsating climax that feels pacy and realistic, making any worries about the plot slightly moot. Sometimes horror is just about delivering thrills and making your audience share in the terror of the main characters. For the last fifteen minutes that’s exactly what we get.

Film review – Little Evil (Eli Craig, 2017)

If the thought of a horror-comedy fills you with dread, if not for the scary monsters then more for the fact that they usually fall short of whatever they’re trying to achieve, then fear not. Little Evil may not truly be a great horror film, nor is it a hilarious comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. For those wanting something lighthearted this Halloween there are much worse ways to spend 95 minutes.

Adam Scott stars as Gary, a real estate worker who has married Samantha (Evangeline Lilly), who comes with baggage in the form of her son Lucas (Owen Atlas), who Gary suspects may be the Antichrist. As he unravels the truth behind his new stepson, he is forced to form unlikely bonds in a race against time to save his family and the world.

There are supporting roles from the brilliant Bridgett Everett, Donald Faison, Chris D’Elia, Kyle Bornheimer and a surprising cameo by Sally Field, though this is less surprising when you learn that director Eli Craig is her son. It’s an ensemble cast that are able to provide plenty of humour to keep the wagon rolling without ever feeling like it stutters.

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The film is peppered with nods to horror greats, presumably so that fans of the genre will giddily point at the screen and say “Oh, that’s the clown from Poltergeist!” at their less-versed friends. Of course, the more likely reaction is a roll of the eyes and silence, but the references are done in good faith. Sure, giving the child a 6th birthday on 6th June is fairly obvious, but not all comedy has to be subtle to be successful.

There is a worry that the film lacks any memorable gags and also fails to produce any striking horror set-pieces, though the movement of the buried-alive scene to the start of the film provides an impactful opening.

Adam Scott is a great leading man here, producing a relatable everyman who wants to make things work despite obvious signs that something is awry. There’s an art to his delivery of disbelief that only he seems to notice that Lucas is hiding something. It’s good to see him in a more prominent role than he is usually given.

Eli Craig has produced a fine follow up to his breakthrough film Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It has found a suitable home on the VOD service Netflix, which reduces the risk of it being a flop at cinemas and will undoubtedly increase viewership in the October double-header of Friday 13th and Halloween. It is notable, however, that it has quickly vanished from the front page of the service, making foot-fall traffic a little less likely.

Incidentally, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is also available on Netflix. If you’ve seen neither, Little Evil should be the one you approach second.

Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Film review – Alien (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 1979)

I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Alien. I’m sure I was far too young. I know this because I remember I was really sad I couldn’t see Alien 3 at the cinema. I’ve calculated that I was eight years old at the time. Why was I gutted? Because I’d already seen the first two films and didn’t want to wait.

Yes, that’s right. Somehow either my mum was supremely lenient or we pulled a fast one on her and managed to get a VHS copy of both films.

Looking back on the 1979 debut, it’s easy to see what the appeal was for a eight-year-old. Sure, the heart of the film lies in a character-driven plot and it’s powered by Scott’s unwavering ability to build suspense. At the time I wasn’t sat there thinking “Well, Parker and Brett have an agenda now because of this pay dispute, so this is going to get really interesting.” No. I was looking at the alien, the guns, the space travel and the explosions.

All of these things are, unquestionably, of great appeal to a child. Or, at least, they were to this child.


It was great, then, to finally see this masterpiece of cinema on the big screen as part of Alien Day. As an adult. And, completing the circle, with my mum as well. 

It’s a film that deserves to be seen on the big sceeen, away from disturbances that home viewing might detract from the experience. 

The film was originally released in 1979, in the midst of the wave of hysteria for space-based films created by Star Wars. However, it is very much the antethesis of the 1977 space opera. The distant past setting is replaced with a not-too-distant future. The bright and open planets are replaced with a singular, isolated spaceship. The droids played for light relief are dropped in favour of a malfunctioning synthetic human with a hidden agenda.

Indeed, whilst the film may have seemed like a lucrative prospect for 20th Century Fox after Star Wars, Alien owes a lot more to films like Jaws or Forbidden Planet in both tone and pacing.

It is a film about isolation, playing on the claustrophobia of being trapped in the middle of nowhere and allowing your survival instincts to take over. 


Jerry Goldsmith’s score, conducted by Lionel Newman and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, may be one of the most perfectly-suited film scores ever crafted. It starts off exactly where the audience do at the beginning of the film – somewhere between romanticism and intrigue. As the horror unfolds, the score increases in intensity and loses any sweetness it ever had, heightening every moment we see on screen.

The set design and the Alien itself was famously designed by surrealist artist H. R. Giger. It’s as iconic as the film itself, critical to the story and heightening the horror when we eventually see the creature fully formed in the final act of the film.

It was a hard act to follow and they’ve spent 38 years trying to reach the heights of the original film. James Cameron’s sequel may be preferred by some, but for me you simply can’t compare that to the original. They are in the same universe but are completely different genres, one wrapped in suspense and the other all-out action.