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.

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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.

Mayhem Film Festival – Preview

I’ll be heading down to the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham tonight to catch the first night of action.

First up will be The Duke St. Workshop feat. Laurence R. Harvey. Presented in conjunction with Kinoclubb, the performance will feature an electronic live score accompanying Harvey (star of The Human Centipede 2) as he reads two H. P. lovecraft short stories: ‘From Beyond’ and ‘The Hound’.

Next is the film ‘Raw‘, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival last week to rave reviews.

Finally, the UK premiere of Indonesian film ‘Headshot‘ will round off the proceedings. 

UK Festival of Zombie Culture (Phoenix Cinema, Leicester, 14/11/2015)

I’m off to the UK Festival of Zombie Culture, an annual event held at Phoenix CInema and Cafebar in Leicester.

There are six films on offer today:

Maggie
Nightmare City
Darkest Day
Me and My Mates vs the Zombie Apocalypse
Cooties
A Mystery Sixth Film

There’s also a ton of special guests, book signings, talks and The Arcade of the Dead to check out. It’s going to be a great day. I’ll report back later with how it went.

NEKRomantik (Jörg Buttgereit, 1987)

Arrow Videos never shy away from putting out a controversial release, and the history of a banned film has never been as gloriously controversial as NEKRomantik.

Released in 1987, Jörg Buttgereit’s German-language horror is one that is designed to test the viewer in the same way that The Human Centipede has for modern audiences. In fact, The Human Centipede falls short of this one ever so slightly in the “Making Me Feel Physically Sick” competition, though it is probably slightly behind Saló. I don’t think any of them would be an easy explain to someone walking in at the wrong time though.

The film basically charts a short period of the life of a man who is heavily into necrophilia, with both him and his girlfriend harbouring corpses for their own personal endeavours. Fortunately he’s landed himself a job at Joe’s Streetcleaning Agency (JSA), who are responsible for cleaning up fatal car accidents and such like, so he has ready access to his next unsuspecting victims. However, when he gets sacked for lack of hygiene he quickly realises that he has no easy access to further bodies and to make matters worse his girlfriend quickly loses interest in him, a double blow that leads him down a path to depression and drug abuse.

I’ve probably explained away pretty much the whole film there, not that it really matters. If you’re thinking about buying this Arrow release – the first time it has been available on home video for years – it’s probably worth noting that it really isn’t a very good film. There’s a lot of scenes where we’re shown sex scenes involving corpses; they aren’t too hard to look at as they don’t really look too much like dead people. There’s a disproportionate amount of shots of men urinating, which I never really figured out. I think it’s just in keeping with the theme of transgressive imagery. The locations tend to look like Buttgereit has pulled in favours from friends, and don’t look like they’ve been prepped too much. The camera quality is similar to that of most home video recording equipment of the time. The acting isn’t very good. The most upsetting scene is the one where a rabbit is killed and skinned, though this looks like the director just asked a butcher if he could film him doing his job.

It’s a sub-par film that didn’t really emote any kind of response from me except for a bit of discomfort in the rabbit scene and the first sex scene. What I find most interesting is the continued fame of the film, which is solely down to the fact it was banned and remained so hard to get hold of for years and years. My hunch is it wouldn’t have remained so popular amongst cinephiles but for the fact it was banned for so long.

This is a similar situation to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview, whose release is still shrouded in controversy. Two months ago few people knew about it, and those that did weren’t overly bothered about its release. But once it was banned and involved in an international political scandal that almost triggered the start of a USA-North Korean War, people started to wonder what it was all about, making it a highly anticipated film. Funny, really.

As always, Arrow has pulled out all the stops with the package. We’ve got a Blu-Ray, DVD and soundtrack CD, a certificate with an individual number on it, five postcards of stills from the film, a 100-page booklet, a new introduction, extensive interviews, a Q&A from Glasgow’s Centre For Contemporary Arts, two Buttgereit-directed music videos, several commentary tracks, two short films (Hot Love and Horror Heaven) and a lovely package to house it in. To be honest, it’s frustrating that a film like this gets this kind of treatment when some films I’ve bought recently are really just a bare-bones release (The Killing Fields 30th Anniversary Edition and Attenborough’s Brighton Rock both fall into this category). If only the people at Arrow had the time and the rights to do more releases like this, the world would be a much happier place.

Nekromantik is out now on Arrow Video Collector’s Blu-Ray. Be quick as it is limited to 3000 copies and no further prints are planned as of writing.

The Walking Dead – Series 05, Episodes 01-03 (Spoiler Alert)

When we left Rick Grimes and Co., they had been forced into a giant shipping container against their will at the hands of a seemingly untrustworthy man called Gareth. I don’t know why they agreed to go in there, but it was a great way to leave us on a cliff-hanger for about six months. If there’s one thing that The Walking Dead does well, it’s cliff-hangers. Oh and gore. Lots and lots of gore.

When we re-join them, things are looking just as bleak. We don’t know exactly how long they’ve been in there, but we’re guessing quite a while. They’re all a bit grumpier and hairier, plus they’ve had enough time to fashion some rudimentary tools to ambush their captors when they next pay them a visit. Unfortunately for them, things don’t quite go as planned and we wind up with four of our main characters – Rick, Bob, Glenn and Daryll – along with four throwaway extras, all lined up and ready to be put to the slaughter. Literally. Yes, we all guessed right, these guys are cannibals and our favourite zombie killers are going to become someone’s dinner. Unless something happens to divert their attention, which it inevitably does.

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As opening sequences to series go, this is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen. Indeed the only one I remember being as good in recent years was the first episode after last year’s mid-season break of The Walking Dead, when we found out what happened to the Governor and the people of Woodbury. Both were equally intense and I was on the edge of my seat hoping no harm came to them. What a way to welcome us back to the series.

As the next couple of episodes pan out, we’re reminded that nobody is safe from harm and can be dropped at any point, and the particulars of this are absolutely horrific (especially for Bob). We’re also treated to some extremely fast pacing, especially considering the bad guys move so slowly. But that’s the critical point, the reason they’ve kept us interested for so long. Over four seasons, they’ve evolved the main threat from being the easy to recognise zombies to the not-so-easy to spot untrustworthy survivors. By now, all of our team are more than capable of fending for themselves and they could just head off to Washington D.C. in their mini bus. But that wouldn’t make for an interesting story. We’re constantly looking around the corner for the next threat, but I can’t remember the last time they were genuinely under threat from zombies.

I wonder how we’d feel if we joined our main survivors now, without prior knowledge of how they got there. I think we’d be far less if we didn’t know that Rick used to be a good person, a sheriff no less, and that his wife died in childbirth, or that she was giving birth to the baby that came as a result of an affair she was having with Rick’s former partner in crime-fighting Shane, or that Rick is now looking after this child. In reality all we’re coming across are other clones of our characters, all of whom probably lived perfectly normal lives before the zombie apocalypse, and who have had to make a series of insanely difficult decisions to survive. The only difference is that we don’t know their back story and we have been on a long journey with Rick Grimes and Co. Yet we cheer along as they murder potentially innocent people without a trial, because that’s what our people need to do to survive. In many ways it brings up questions for the way we live our own lives, making decisions often to maintain the status quo, fearing change and the unknown. I predict over the coming series these questions will keep coming back to us as more groups are encountered, which is pretty hefty work for a series ostensibly about bludgeoning zombies.

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There were a couple of occasions where I thought the show let itself down. Main characters are losing the ability to make rational choices with seemingly the only purpose being that the writers need an interesting plot twist. The biggest example of this was when Glenn and Maggie decided to ditch all their friends and join some people they barely know and go on a road trip to Washington D.C. Clearly the only reason to do this was to keep the viewers interested when they flick to the scenes with this half of the group, but it was completely unbelievable that they would ever make that decision on three levels: Abraham would never push the group into making a stupid or hasty decision that is clearly detrimental to the group as a whole; Rick would never back down so quickly when he risks losing their only means of transport and two critical group members; and Maggie would never leave with the group when the reason to stay is to find out the whereabouts of three of their fellow survivors, of which one is her sister Beth. It is this final point that really is the killer for me. It is a blatant way to twist the plots up and make the season interesting but it’s a shame it had to be via such a blatant loss of integrity to three strong characters.

That said, there are plenty of open ends at the moment (Where is Beth? Do we trust Father Gabriel?) and with a character-driven plot, plenty of blood and gore to keep us shocked and enough deviations from the comic book to keep everyone guessing, I predict I’ll still be on the edge of my seat in five months when this season comes to an end.

The Walking Dead screens in the UK on Monday nights on Fox and Fox HD at 9pm. All three episodes covered in this review are available on demand, with the first one expiring on 9th November 2014.