Horror Review: Let Us Prey

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Let Us Prey is an interesting film to review. On the surface it seems like a very generic horror film but, as it is with events in the film itself, looks can be deceiving.

Let Us Prey is set in a small, out of the way, Scottish town. Its police force consists of four officers; one of those officers, Rachel (Pollyanna McIntosh), is literally heading in for her first shift with the department when she witness a car hit a pedestrian. The driver, Caesar (Brian Vernal), stops and she arrests him, but the victim is nowhere to be found.

After getting back to the station ,she meets her commanding officer, Sgt. McReady (Douglas Russel), who seems intent on keeping the status quo and isn’t very warm to having Rachel in his department. Her fellow officers, Jack (Brian Larkin) and Jennifer (Hanna Stanbridge), are having an affair and seem to be pretty clearly corrupt.

Besides Caesar the police are also holding Ralph (Jonathan Watson), who is being held for domestic abuse, and not for the first time. Things get complicated when the man Caesar hit (Liam Cunningham) shows up at the station, battered, but apparently alright. After having Dr. Hume (Niall Gregg Fulton) examine the man, the Sargent decides to put the man in cell six, in part due to his refusal to identify himself, thus the character is referred to as simply Six.

After this, odd things start happening around the station. It becomes increasingly clear that Six is manipulating events and that each person in that station is not there by chance. It is up to Rachel, who has vague memories of meeting Six as a child, to figure out what is going on.

As I said at the top, Let Us Prey starts out as a very standard horror movie, with the introduction of the victims and then the slow thinning of the cast. What makes it stand out is that, as the plot unfolds, it starts playing with our expectations. Writers David Caims and Fiona Watson know who their audience is, and what they have come to expect, and use that knowledge to take the story to places that play with those expectations.

Director Brian O’Malley keeps the pace slow, but never dragging. When he does pick up the pace at the ending, he remembers that this is a horror film and not an action movie. The mood is also aided by the lighting, often coming off as if the whole movie is lit by the halogens in the station.

For the actors, this is clearly Cunningham’s film. Being the most recognizable of the cast (from his role as Davos Seaworth, the onion knight on Game of Thrones) Cunningham carries the film as the enigmatic Six. As the story moves on it becomes clear to the audience who Six is supposed to be, but the movie never comes out and confirms anything.

McIntosh manages to hold her own with Cunningham, as the film’s protagonist. Rachel’s history, showing she was kidnapped by a child murderer when she was a young girl, leads to a character who is determined to help others, but dealing with her own darkness from the event. All this leads to the final scene of the movie;  without giving away spoilers, it is unexpected, but McIntosh’s performance makes it stand out as a triumphant moment, where it could have easily fallen flat.

The rest of the cast is fine, but no one really stands out. They just play as figures in the game between Six and Rachel.

I give Let Us Prey a grade of B. Horror fans should enjoy the mood and how it plays with genre tropes, non-fans should still like it, but may be thrown by twists.

If you want to check it out, Let Us Prey is currently available on Netflix.

Horror Review: Sapphire and Steel

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Sapphire and Steel has been getting some buzz amongst fandom lately. Neil Cross, the creator of the BBC series Luther has stated that he wants to do a revival of Sapphire and Steel as his next project.

For those of us who were getting into British Sci-fi shows in the 80s, this is an exciting prospect; however, I’m sure a lot of you have no idea what I am talking about.

So what is Sapphire and Steel and why are some of us excited about a reboot?

Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, and Sapphire and Steel were considered the holy trinity of British Science Fiction in the 80’s. Which is interesting because I, personally, don’t consider it Science Fiction; I think of it as horror. Sapphire and Steel is a British TV series created and written exclusively by Peter J. Hammond that aired from 1979 to 1982. It was broadcast on ITV, which was a commercial network in Britain that was often the main alternative to the BBC.

The premise of the series is that if a breach in the fabric of time occurs, other worldly operatives are dispatched to fix the situation before malignant forces from outside of time can take advantage of it.

Most of our knowledge of the operatives comes from the opening narration of each episode:

“All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel.

Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.”

It is implied that this corresponds to the periodic table, but since none of the named operatives are named after elements we cannot be sure.

The series follows operatives Sapphire (Joanna Lumley) and Steel (David McCallum) as they investigate the breaches in time and work to correct them. The two are clearly not of this world. They can communicate with each other telepathically. Sapphire can manipulate time in a limited fashion, rolling it back, as well as having psychometry. Steel is super strong, has limited telekinesis, and in one episode was able to lower his temperature to near absolute zero to defeat a threat, but at the cost of weakening himself. In personality, Steel is cold and a bit rough in his dealings with humans, as opposed to Sapphire who is warmer, although this is implied to be a learned skill when Steel calls her a diplomat.

The time breaches are often caused by some anachronism in the area. An old nursery rhyme book, a party exactly recreating the 1930s, and a doctored photo mixing old and new elements. Once a breach has happened, Sapphire and Steel are dispatched and have to figure out why it happened, what it unleashed, and how to fix it.

Occasionally, in the course of an assignment a third operative will be sent in. The two other operatives we meet are Lead (Val Pringle), a jovial giant who can insulate Steel against the weakening effect of lowering his body temperature, and Silver, a technician who can transmute small bits of matter and can manipulate technology.

One of the features of the series that made it stand out (and makes it excellent horror) is that Sapphire and Steel’s main goal is sealing the breach. While they will attempt to save the humans caught up in it, this is a secondary goal and if letting a human die will ensure the breach is sealed, they will let the human die.

Since the series was on ITV it had what could kindly be considered a micro budget. Consider that Sapphire and Steel’s run was during the end of Tom Baker’s run on Doctor Who and the first year of Peter Davidson’s. People joke about the cheap effects of that era. Now consider that to Sapphire and Steel, Doctor Who’s budget would seem lavish. For most shows this would have been a problem, but Sapphire and Steel turned it into an advantage. Since each episode had limited sets, it was simply that during a breach no one could get out, which was usually Sapphire’s doing. The writing was also very good and made the episodes slow, but well-paced. Tension was built to the point that a pool of light on the ground, clearly created by a stage hand with a flash light, was nonetheless absolutely terrifying.

And then there was the acting. Joanna Lumley and David McCallum were already established when the series was made (Lumley from the New Avengers and McCallum from the Man From U.N.C.L.E.), but still years away from their bigger successes (Absolutely Fabulous and NCIS). In Sapphire and Steel they convey the otherworldliness of the characters and make them sympathetic even when having to make the hard choices their jobs require.

Sapphire and Steel was a serialized program, just as the original run of Doctor Who was. In all there were only six stories made, ranging from an hour and a half to three hours, depending on how many half hour segments each story required.

Be warned that some of the episodes can be very scary. One person online once said a story can go from “give me a break” to “Someone please hold me” with very little warning. And it is famous in fandom for having a downer ending in the final episode.

If you decide you want to seek out the series you are in luck. Shout Factory did a rerelease of the series in 2013. You can go to their site to find it, and the series is available from Amazon for about $26.00 as of this writing.

I am going to give Sapphire and Steel a B. I think horror fans who give it a chance will be pleasantly surprised, but I can see where the slow pacing and cheap effects could detract from others enjoying it.

Universal Horror: The Bride of Frankenstein

brideThe Bride of Frankenstein is a fascinating entry in the Universal Horror universe. Released in 1935, it stands as one of the most iconic films in the Universal Horror library and is one of the rare cases where the sequel is considered a superior film to the original (Frankenstein); each of these films is so ingrained into our pop culture that it is difficult to critique them.

The Bride of Frankenstein starts with a prologue featuring Mary Shelly (Elsa Lancaster) being praised for writing Frankenstein. The story proper begins just moments after the supposed death of the creature (Boris Karloff) in the first film. Its creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), has barely survived the encounter. After being nursed back to health by his fiancé, Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson), he is visited by his former mentor Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger); Pretorius has been experimenting with creating life himself, but feels Henry’s work shows more promise. He strong-arms Henry into creating a female body to house an artificial brain of his creation.

While this is going on, the creature is trying to find its way in the world, each encounter with humanity ending in disaster. His only respite comes when he is befriended by a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) who teaches him to speak. Even that ends badly when some hunters come to the hermit’s hut and see the creature. Eventually, the creature is found by Pretorius and convinced to help him force Henry to complete the experiment, with the promise of making him a mate.

The climax of the movie is the creation of the Bride (also played by Elsa Lancaster). The creature tries to woo her, but she is repulsed and rejects him. The creature makes Henry and Elizabeth flee the laboratory, but forces Pretorius and the Bride to stay, saying of the three of them “we belong dead”, after which he destroys the lab.

The Bride of Frankenstein works on many levels. While the movie may not seem as scary to modern audiences, it still retains a great deal of the dramatic tension that is the hallmark of Director James Whale. Unlike the first film, much more of the story is spent following the creature; this time around he is very much the main character and we see him trying to find his place in a world that will never accept him. Karloff brings the pain and longing of the creature to life brilliantly. Colin Clive has much less to do this time as Henry Frankenstein, but still exhibits the mood swings that led me to believe he is bi-polar from the first film. Ernest Thesiger chews the scenery as Pretorius and, unlike the creature, he is very much a pure villain.

Elsa Lancaster’s performance as The Bride is what makes this film truly remarkable. This characters unforgettable image is completely ingrained in our pop culture, yet the character is on screen for less than five minutes. In that short span of time, Lancaster creates a vivid and memorable performance, making The Bride come off as cruel and vicious, while never really doing much more than reacting to what happens around her.

For trivia buffs, it should be noted that The Bride is the only Universal Monster not directly responsible for a death. It should also be noted that during a showing I attended in the last year, when Henry says “She’s alive, Alive!”, three of us sung “Weird Science” under our breath.

I give The Bride of Frankenstein a grade of A+. It is a true classic horror film, and fans of classic horror will love it, and non-fans will still be entertained by it.

 

Fanboy News Network Episode 18

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Fanboy News Network Episode 18

Creepypasta

Jeff is joined by Michael Montoure from Don’t Read the Latin to talk about creepypastas, including their history, what counts as a creepypasta and what their favorites of the genre are.

Horror Review: You’re Next

Youre-Next-posterIt’s time, once again, for our annual Halloween celebration, where everything on the site relates to Halloween or horror for the month of October.

And let’s kick things off with one of the hidden gems of horror films, You’re Next.

You’re Next is from the team of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, and is part of the mumblegore subgenre, which strives for naturalism in both performance and dialogue.

The plot set up plays like a lot of standard home invasion films; the main characters are in their isolated home when masked intruders suddenly attack and start killing them off. But unlike most of the films in this genre, there is a significant twist (which I am loathe to spoil) that makes this film stand out from other home invasion films.

This film did not do as well in the box office as it deserved. Once again we have a film let down by its marketing campaign (or as I like to call it, the John Carter Syndrome) it was marketed as a standard home invasion film, with no hint of the twist. And while that makes a certain amount of sense, it is the twist that makes the film worthwhile. I will say this much about it, by the half-way point of the film the invaders are every bit as terrified as the remaining victims.

There is also a very significant focus on the family dynamic at play. The set-up has Paul and Aubrey Davidson hosting a family reunion, in honor of Paul’s birthday, at their vacation house with their adult children. The four children bring their significant others. During dinner on the first night, the bickering and passive-aggressive attacks on each other get so bad that when the first murder happens it comes as a relief.

Wingard sets a great mood by having the family feel trapped, long before the attacks, and giving an increasing sense of claustrophobia as events spiral on.

Sharni Vinson gives a stand-out performance as Erin, the girlfriend of the oldest son Crispian (A.J. Bowen). Erin has a childhood trauma she is trying to get past that informs how she deals with the attack. Her performance forms the through-line of the movie. Another pair of performances that are noteworthy are Nicholas Tucci and Wendy Glenn as middle son Felix and his girlfriend Zee. They are the source of much of the family discord, and this comes into play as the attack commences. One other performance worth pointing out is Barbara Crampton as Aubrey. Crampton is a former Scream Queen, best known as the female lead in Re-Animator. Aubrey’s goal is to have a happy family gathering, and her pain from this not happening is clear even before the attacks begin.

One particularly nice touch is that the entire sound track is variations of the song “Looking for the Magic” by the Dwight Twilley Band.

I give You’re Next a grade of B on the Fanboy News Network Scale. Horror fans should really enjoy the twist on the clichéd Home Invasion story and non-fans should like it for how the twist is carried out.

Review: Penny Dreadful

penny-dreadful-photo-533ab68c096e3Normally when I review a new series I like to watch five episodes, review it, and then do a follow-up review at the end of the season. With Penny Dreadful there was no point doing this as the first season only had eight episodes.

Penny Dreadful is a Showtime production that follows in the footsteps of Wold Newton, by way of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Anno Dracula. It is a cross-over universe set in Victorian London that brings together the novels Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, along with hints of other stories appropriate for the era.

The story follows Sir Malcolm Murray, as he assembles a group to search for his daughter Mina, who has been abducted by a mysterious force. This group includes Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) a childhood friend of Mina’s who is also a medium, Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) an American sharpshooter who clearly has a troubled past, Sembene (Danny Sapani) an African who acts as Sir Malcolm’s manservant, and Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) who Sir Malcolm brings in for his medical knowledge.

Along the way, these adventurers encounter other characters who further complicate matters: Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), who finds Miss Ives fascinating in a way he cannot explain; Brona Croft (Billie Piper) an Irish prostitute, dying of consumption, who Ethan falls in love with; and Frankenstein’s Creature (Rory Kinnear) whom the others are not aware of, but makes his presence felt none the less.

One of the strengths that Penny Dreadful has over The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Anno Dracula, is that not all of its characters are taken directly from the novels. In fact outside of Dorian, Victor, and the Creature, all the other main characters are original to the series. This gives the show much more freedom in how it wants to portray them.

The show has also benefited from the short season. There was no filler. Scenes either advanced the story, or advanced the characters. Next season will increase to 10 episodes, but that should not do any damage to the pace.

It is also clear that series creator John Logan is aware of the difference between gothic horror vs an action story using horror characters. The horror is on full display here, and the mood is pervasive. The monsters here are not portrayed as beautiful misunderstood outsiders, but as alien horrors to be rightfully feared. This is counterbalanced by watching the effect the events have on the main characters and how, in many ways, that is more horrible than the monsters themselves.

The acting in the series is excellent, which isn’t surprising given the experience of the cast. What is surprising is that the standouts tend to be the lesser known actors. Harry Treadaway and Rory Kinnear give poignant portrayals to Frankenstein and his creation. They are so good that the series could just focus on them and it would still be well worth watching. This is not to take away from the other actors. Eva Green gives one of the best performances of her career as Vanessa, who is conflicted by guilt over her role in Mina’s peril, and the cost that saving her friend is taking on her. Timothy Dalton portrays Sir Malcolm as a man obsessed with saving his daughter, but blind to how his efforts are tainted by that obsession. Josh Hartnett does a fine job with his role, which is often to be the voice of reason, meaning he is often at odds with Sir Malcolm.

Overall, the show does an excellent job of conveying a mood and style consistent with Victorian horror.

I give Penny Dreadful a final grade of B. Fans of the horror genre will enjoy it and non-fans should still find it entertaining.

Horror Review: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

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When Jennifer Lovely (of Don’t Read The Latin) started our weekly Friday Horror Movie Night, one of the movies I requested we watch was Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. I’d been hearing about this movie for years and was interested in how it was executed. Recently, we finally did watch it.

This movie works from the premise that all slasher movies are actually real events, but that the slashers themselves are just ordinary men who worked to give their actions the suggestion of the supernatural. Slashers are also shown as having their own subculture.

Behind the Mask is about Leslie Vernon’s efforts to become the next great slasher. Leslie reaches out to a documentary crew to film him as he prepares for his killing spree. At first going along to capture this strange underground culture, the film crew find themselves getting drawn into Leslie’s world for better or worse.

At its heart, Behind the Mask is a deconstruction of the slasher genre. Unlike the Scream movies, that are more about characters that are aware that they are in a slasher film, Behind the Mask takes a look at the genre from the slasher’s point of view.

Director Scott Glosserman, who also wrote the script with David J. Stieve, makes several key choices in how the film presents this world that keep it unique. The main one is in not letting his concept box him in. Most of the cinematography is done in a ‘found footage’ style, with the idea being this is what was shot by the documentary film crew; however, when there are scenes that make no logical sense for the film crew to be there, the cinematography switches to being a more in keeping with standard slasher movie styles. It’s a device that works well. In the documentary segments Leslie is talkative, explaining every step of the way what he is doing and why in great detail. When it is in straight-up slasher film style Leslie says nothing, becoming the typical silent slasher. Even the color saturation changes from natural, to the deeper colors you see in a typical horror movie. Also, the camera men are never seen during the documentary sections. In fact, they are barely characters until the third act when the documentary style is abandoned completely.

This film does a great job of laying out what is going to happen in the story, by following the predictable slasher movie expectations and then subverting them at the last moment. The script has some brilliant moments of subtle foreshadowing for those paying attention.

Of course, a film like this is going to live or die based on the performance of the title character. Fortunately, Nathan Baesel gives a great performance as Leslie Vernon. He makes the character very charming, even while conveying that there is something clearly off about him. Thanks to Baesel’s performance there are times in the movie when you really want Leslie’s reign of terror to go off according to plan.

The other lead in the film (Angela Geothals as Taylor Gentry, the interviewer for the documentary) also puts in a fine performance. Taylor rides a fine line, varying from being aloof about Leslie’s plans, to excited or horrified.

One name in the cast that I’m sure was there to help sell the film to the horror crowd is Robert Englund as Doctor Halloran, a man who knows about Leslie’s plans and is trying to stop him. Englund’s part is small and doesn’t require much from the actor, but does serve to add to the overall structure of the movie. Englund’s presence is fun, especially since Freddy Kruger is called out by name a few times as one of Leslie’s influences, and one character suggests that he knows him personally.

Speaking of the character that might know Freddy, the best performance in the film comes from veteran character actor Scott Wilson, who most people today know from The Walking Dead where he plays Hershel Greene. In Behind the Mask he plays Eugene, a retired slasher who lives with his wife in a quiet secluded home. Eugene acts as Leslie’s mentor, giving advice on key parts of his plan and giving the film crew insights into slasher culture. Eugene comes off as a friendly paternal figure, who still gives off the vibe that he could be very dangerous, given the right circumstances.

Behind the Mask is a hidden gem of horror that is underappreciated by horror movie fans, and certainly under seen.

I give Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon a final grade of B+. Horror fans should really enjoy it and non-fans should appreciate how it turns the normal slasher tropes on their head.

 

Fanboy News Network Episode 11

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Hidden Gems of Horror Part 2

Jeff is joined by Jennifer Lovely (http://jengaloves.com) and Michael Montoure (http://www.bloodletters.com) as they continue their discussion about little known of rarely viewed horror films that they think horror fans should be paying attention to.

 

Fanboy News Network Episode 10

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Hidden Gems of Horror Part 1

Jeff is joined by Jennifer Lovely (http://jengaloves.com) and Michael Montoure (http://www.bloodletters.com) to discuss little known of rarely viewed horror films that they think horror fans should be paying attention to.

Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater Review

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Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater is a 2006 Korean film that is very hard to categorize. Let’s call it a musical comedy that utilizes horror themes.

It is hard to find, as it has never had an official American release; however, it is possible to order  a copy from Korea.

The plot revolves around Seong Sodan (played by Kkobbi Kim), a teen age girl who lives with her Grandmother. One night her grandmother leaves the house, saying she is going to the theater to watch a movie she starred in when she was Sodan’s age. Sodan tracks down the theater to find her grandmother, but no one has seen her. Interrupting a suicide attempt by the theater manager (played by Chun Ho-jin), she is given a job as ticket seller, where she hopes that eventually her grandmother will show up.

It turns out that the theater is haunted by the ghosts of the rest of the theater troop who made the film with Sodan’s grandmother. They are doomed to haunt the theater until they can see that film, (“Minosoo: The Bull-headed Man”) once again.

At first frightened of the ghosts, Sodan befriends them and they help her come out of her shell. She, in turn, tries to find out what happened to the film, both to help her new friends and hopefully to find her grandmother. All the while, the theater manager tries to dissuade her (between his botched suicide attempts), saying that finding the film will lead to tragedy.

If I had to sum up this movie in one word, it would be charming.

The overall feel of the film has a clear Tim Burton-esque feel to it, mainly of his earlier films like BeetleJuice. There is a sense of “what the hell am I watching”, while still enjoying the ghost’s antics.

The characters of the ghosts themselves are immediately engaging. First we have Elisa (played by Joon-myeon Park), who claims to be a Joseon Dynasty Princess. She is loud, bossy, and often threatens to execute the others.

Next is Hiroshi (played by Jo Hie-Bong), a Japanese solider who was stationed in Korea where he fell in love. All of his dialogue is in Japanese, but he can understand Korean, and still be understood by the other ghosts.

Wanda (played by Ae-Ri Han) is a former Kisaeng (similar to a Geisha), who fell out of favor after giving birth to a client’s child. She is bulimic and obsessively counts her hair.

Finally you have Mosquito (played by Yeong-su Park), who is made-up like a demented Harlequin (or let’s be honest, the Crow). Of all the ghosts, he is the only one who is given no back story.

The theater manager is clearly involved with the ghosts’ story, and as Sodan unravels the mystery of the missing film, she learns more of what that is.

All the back story of the ghosts, the manager, and the film itself are done though song. And those songs can be very catchy, even for someone who does not speak Korean.

If you are looking for deep character analysis, Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater is not the movie you want. It is a light hearted romp, with no real concern for character development.

I give Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater a B-. It is appealing, and fans of films like BeetleJuice or The Rocky Horror Picture Show will enjoy it and possibly want to own it. Non-fans will likely be left lukewarm by its surreal nature and lack of character depth.