Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Horror Duration: 110 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
Spooky psychological horror with Ethan Hawke playing a true crime writer desperate for another bestseller who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants were hanged so that he can investigate the unsolved crime. Discovering a box of 16mm home video tapes in the attic, he briefly wonders how the police could’ve missed something so important but quickly finds himself absorbed in the revelatory footage and the series of family murders that they reveal.
Veteran horror director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) meticulously crafts a movie of unyielding creepiness in this original take on the haunted house scenario that reaches into pagan lore as opposed to the more typical Christian mythology. Hawke is intense enough to carry the majority of it and though the support cast are more peripheral than usual, Juliet Rylance is outstanding as his past tolerance wife while James Ransone provides a slightly mercurial presence as a comical but deceptively competent deputy. Draped in shadow and deep blacks, even the daytime scenes are dreary to the point that the audience will find few opportunities for some much needed reprieve. The excessive gloominess thus bleeds into the narrative rendering Sinister an unforgiving watch even for the most seasoned horror fans.
Embedded within this stark profile, novel demon concepts permeate the story and plot adding a serious dose of unpredictability while a slow creeping collaboration between Christopher Young’s score and obscure indie tracks haunt the darkest parts of the movie, in particular, Hawke’s viewing of the 16mms. Derrickson’s script is economic or revealing where needed and does well to steadily intertwine the necessary expositions with the unfolding drama. However, while everything outside of Hawke’s new home is necessarily kept at a distance, it could be argued that his family, particularly his son and daughter, needed to be more relevant to the narrative given its ultimate destination. That said, it can’t be denied that the ending works in a uniquely chilling manner. It may make for a bleak bit of entertainment but Sinister counts as yet another success in the catalogue of indie horror.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Horror, Drama Duration: 93 mins Director: Jennifer Kent Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Every now and again, an independent horror movie comes along that celebrates the art of the genre by doing the most important things well. Things like: being unpredictable so that the scares don’t just come as shocks, or subverting the natural to generate a primal fear, and darkly colouring the story with fairytale-like themes so that it crawls inside the recesses of our psyches. While not scoring flawlessly on each of these levels, the Australian chiller The Babadook nonetheless achieves an even enough balance to comprehensively scare the bejesus out of you. Essie Davis stars as a single mother left traumatised by the death of her husband and trying to raise her seemingly disturbed son. But when a terrifying storybook entitled “The Babadook” appears mysteriously in her son’s room, she begins to believe his claims that the eponymous monster is in their house. What follows is as much a psychological thriller as it is horror as the despairing mother slowly loses her sanity and falls deeper into the monster’s clutches. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook demonstrates admirable restraint in the buildup and combined with some spine-tingling concept design (particularly with regard to the creature’s voice), the scares can be vigorous. However, against the austere set design and dull toned photography, the film’s mood is perhaps even more affecting and the movie would’ve surely veered towards the depressing if it wasn’t for some timely humour and the engaging performances by both Davis and Noah Wiseman as her eccentric son. And if the final act begins to feel a little familiar, rest assured that Kent reigns it in with a wryly unpredictable ending that will satisfy the more knowing and/or jaded horror fans alike. Highly recommended.
Rating: The Good – 96.2 Genre: Horror Duration: 114 mins Director: Peter Weir Stars: Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, Vivean Gray
Quite simply the most haunting film you will ever see, this tale of three girls who walk up a rock formation never to be seen again forgoes ghouls, monsters, or ghosts in favour of an intangible force altogether more terrifying. Set in the early 1900’s, it follows a party of school girls from a prestigious boarding school who, accompanied by their teacher, visit the ancient rock formation known as Hanging Rock on a sunny Valentine’s Day afternoon. Weir gives the early stages to this film a hypnotic dreamlike flow as the teenage girls prepare for and embark upon their eagerly awaited trip. However, as the movie proceeds, this dreamlike haze begins to feel more and more like a spell cast on the girls and audience alike by an inexplicable force. As three of the party break away to be whisked up the rock by some irresistible pull, out of nowhere, the film takes a startling if not piercing turn.
Peter Weir’s ability to imbue the otherwise lifeless rock with an elemental and terrifying life-force that dwarfs anything our minds can conceive of is one of the truly great directorial feats even if it’s relatively unrecognised as such. However, looking back on Picnic at Hanging Rock after just watching it, what he does in this film seems far broader in scope, as you get the unavoidable feeling that you were truly mesmerised and lulled into a thick perceptual and conceptual haze. That you were lured up that rock yourself! This isn’t frightening in the typical shock horror movie sense. This is frightening in a much more primal and evolutionary sense as if Weir is tapping directly into the baser regions of our psyche. This is cinematic power at its most sophisticated.
Rating: The Good – 77.6 Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller Duration: 89 mins Director: James Ward Byrkit Stars: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon
The kind of nimble science fiction that makes hardcore genre fans giddy with excitement is a rare event and one that usually emerges within independent cinema where brains are relied on more than visual effects. Coherence is one such movie. When a group of friends meet in one of their homes for a dinner party, a passing comet causes a power-cut which sets in motion a disturbing unravelling of their reality. Though further revealing of the plot will detract from the experience, suffice to say that loyalties are tested, relationships realigned, and soon everyone finds themselves doing things they never thought they were capable of – precisely because they are worried that they might be! If that doesn’t twist your melon enough, then sit down to the full 90 minutes and you’ll be suitably dizzy by the end. Made over five nights and on a shoestring budget, writer director James Ward Byrkit and his crew nonetheless manufacture an eerie psychological thriller, shot, cut, and produced to a rather plush standard. To that end, restricting the drama largely to the house in question was a crafty decision but, by generating a sense of claustrophobia, it also ends up augmenting the power of the movie’s premise. A premise that the cast, a complementary roster of familiar faces from 90’s TV, are all tied into extremely well and who are instantly successful in their roles of leader, trouble-maker, wacky one, etc. That said, not one of them fails to round off their central character dimensions with a compelling degree of humanity. Where Coherence will inevitably and rather ironically be targeted by demanding sci-fi fans will be in the moments of incoherence that naturally accrue within a complex plot. This is not always an empty criticism though, for a film that requires heavy investment from its audience has an onus to keep it straight. But in the case of this one, there are precious few plot-holes to be concerned with and so Coherence can be considered one of those few modern movies that picks up where the “Twilight Zone” left off and helps carry the baton for all of science fiction.
Rating: The Good – 78.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 118 mins Director: Jonathan Demme Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
One of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs scooped all five top Academy Awards and gave us arguably the most celebrated villain in movie history. Starring Jodie Foster as FBI recruit Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Jonathan Demme’s film focuses on the attempts of the talented but inexperienced young agent to tap the mind of the brilliant but deranged psychiatrist in order to aid the bureau’s pursuit of a terrifying serial killer who skins his victims. Though The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps best remembered for its acting and writing, it’s Demme’s directing that sets it apart from the majority of thrillers by intricately setting and maintaining the right tone and mood throughout, an achievement that ultimately elevates the aforementioned acting and writing. In fairness, Foster didn’t need much help for she delivers a wonderfully vulnerable performance full of tempered resolve. As Demme’s moral crucible she helps ground perspective no matter how outlandish the story becomes. This is crucial because Harris has a proclivity for overplaying his hand and skirts the edge of caricature a little too often for comfort. This is best exemplified by his Lecter character. There’s undeniably an arresting quality to the cannibalistic therapist but it takes a deft touch to tease out the more fascinating features of his personality that, for the most part, lie latent. Brian Cox had masterfully humanised him in the seminal Manhunter (to which this film is an unofficial sequel) but Hopkins goes another way and, while he puts in a wholly dramatic not to mention memorable shift, it lacks nuance and therefore realism. There’s just too much looniness to his Lecter and altogether too much revelling in said looniness. Psychopaths, after all, are very good at concealing their pathology but this Lecter is blatantly bananas. However, what he lacks in sophistication, Demme makes up for. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is rich in the grime of murder and Howard Shore’s score is softly invigorating and along with some exceptional production design, the director renders palpable a moody tension that carries the audience all the way to the close.
Rating: The Good – 68.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 92 mins Director: Michael Winner Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Jeff Goldblum
After moving into a New York apartment, a young model (Christina Rains) seemingly begins to lose her grip on reality. However, once her boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) investigates the building’s history, he learns she isn’t crazy at all and her apartment is, in fact, the gateway to hell. Though rather eclectic in his abilities, Michael Winner was in many ways well suited to the horror genre given his oblique directorial style. Thus, it’s not surprising that, with The Sentinel, he furnishes Jeffrey Konvitz’ novel, rich in premise as it was, with the type of atmosphere that can rival the best of the genre. It’s a gleefully creepy old horror that fully engages thanks to a familiar but compelling mythology and a litany of colourful characters played with relish by some of the best in the business. In fact, the cast is a veritable who’s who of that era’s up and comers (such as Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, and even a very young and fleeting Tom Berenger) and old-timers (such as Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach, Arthur Kennedy, José Ferrer, and Burgess Meredith as the boogeyman man himself).
The real shame here is that they’re all bit parts or supporting roles and so most of the film rests on Rains’ far slighter shoulders. With an absence of personality and presence, she’s a genuine weak link and the movie threatens to wither when she’s on screen. As the other main character, Sarandon is better but, like Rains, he is constantly overshadowed by the heavyweights on show, especially both Gardner and Wallach who are in giddy form as the sinister real estate agent and curious homicide detective respectively. In truth, some of the blame must fall at Winner’s feet for a recurrent failing of his was his inability to use and engage his cast properly.
Though it suffers inevitable and unfavourable comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby, it’s more likely these aforementioned issues that precluded The Sentinel from ascending to the realm of hallowed horror. But make no mistake, it scores in nearly every other department. Winner’s uniquely gaudy touch is all over the ornate production design and helps immerse us in the strange world he and Konvitz have created. Moreover, Gil Melle’s equally unsubtle score echoes the best of the classic horror accompaniments. It may not scare the socks off you like The Exorcist does but, like a good John Carpenter horror, it will give you the creeps.
One of the very best science-fiction classics, Philip Kaufman’s film is a flawless exercise in paranoia inducing film-making. With practically every frame he breathes sinister life into the world he creates from recoiling telephone cords to the gazes and half-looks of countless bystanders. Donald Sutherland has rarely been better as the San Fransisco health inspector working against time to figure out what, if anything, is changing the personalities of the town’s inhabitants. Brook Adams is strong in the co-lead and works wonderfully well with Sutherland as they both give slightly skewed performances which are in keeping with the overall feel of the film. Leonard Nimoy is excellent as the psychiatrist with all the answers and so too are Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright. This is one of the few remakes to actually justify its existence (of course it’s from a time when remakes were actually reinterpretations and not lazy money-grabbing exercises) as it goes far beyond that of Siegal’s original in imbuing the audience with its unsettled and deeply disturbing ambiance. And while doing so, it actually brings back the lead actor from that film (Kevin McCarthy) in an inspired and utterly ingenious cameo to make perhaps its most disturbing observation. Of all the great ‘paranoid’ movies of the 1970’s, it’s fair to say that few if any have captured the essence of paranoia like Invasion of the Body Snatchers does. This is film-making at its very best and like all great movies, it culminates in one of the most memorable endings in cinema history.
Rating: The Good – 88.4 Genre: Drama Duration: 114 mins Director: Ted Kotcheff Stars: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty
There are films you watch and there are films you experience and this once lost classic of Australian cinema belongs, without any doubt, to the latter category. Once entitled “Outback”, during a dismally unsuccessful international distribution, Ted Kotcheff’s blisteringly pessimistic examination of the human condition – not to mention adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s autobiographical novel (!) – was rediscovered and re-released in 2009 to a very different and much more intrigued public to the one that decried it in 1971. With an opening shot that lands us lost in a desperate slow panning 360 degree scan of the Australian desert, we find our narrative vehicle in the form of a snobby school teacher John Grant, whose prim and polished exterior belies the agonising realisation lying on the horizon of his mind. With the Christmas break upon him, he leaves the one-horse town in which (rather symbolically) he is state bonded to teach for a definite period of time, and heads off for Sydney to ostensibly visit his girlfriend. However, when he lays over in the working man’s outpost town of Bundanyabba (referred to simply as “the Yabba”), his life’s previously creeping trajectory quickly crystallises into an extended five day session of drunken depravity wherein he descends into a nightmare of both physical and existential entrapment and the baser side to humanity.
Thematically, what Kotcheff does here is a stunning triumph of reversalism and paradox. Within Grant’s rapidly closing parameters of existence, pastimes become gateways to excruciatingly endless stretches in time, the vast open territory of the Yabba and its hinterland becomes a sweaty cage, the relentless hospitality of its townsfolk sharpens into a belligerently wielded weapon, a horrifying alcohol-fueled nighttime slaughter of kangaroos morphs into a balletic even hypnotic ritual of hopelessness, while sensibility and sexuality are suddenly and violently reversed. However, that it all wraps up in a surgically precise metaphor for Grant’s life and for that of a generation of young men with no real prospects is even more astounding. His layover in the Yabba becomes a mythical journey as epic as any legend of Ancient Greece and equally poetic too. Donald Pleasence’s white hot presence as a disgraced alcoholic doctor who has shunned society by moving to the Yabba where his indiscretions are as oblivious to the people as they are to them is the wise man of this fable but also its monster incarnate. He sits slightly above the rest of the primal characters and expounds the realities of existence to Grant – comments on civilisation, “a vanity spawned by fear”, being the blunt edge to the film’s political statement. It’s an immense turn and maybe even the finest in the great actor’s distinguished career. Gary Bond’s central performance is the real hero though and with a face perfectly sculpted for a film like this – just as Peter O’Toole’s was for Lawrence of Arabia – it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off what he did here. He gives Grant’s sprawling descent an edged realism that haunts as deeply as what Kotcheff was doing behind the camera.
That said, the last word should be saved for how this masterpiece sounds for Wake in Fright is perhaps one of the most enchantingly sounding films ever made. From John Scott’s minimalist score which always seems to know more than the audience, the heavy accents of the characters, to the everyday sounds of the Yabba and its inhabitants’ activities, it’s a deeply affecting piece of production that meets the grainy visual textures and harsh conceptual qualities of the film head on. Yes, Wake in Fright is indeed an experience and with qualities such as these, it’s a profoundly transfixing one at that. So much so that it shares the same rarefied place in Australian and world cinema as films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout.
Rating: The Good – 87.6 Genre: Horror Duration: 88 mins Director: Robin Hardy Stars: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento
If one reason why we have been given so few uniquely original films is because derivation is a natural feature of how we think, then film makers such as Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer deserve all the more credit for breaking free of our mental shackles and fashioning this dizzyingly novel and utterly enthralling masterpiece. Edward Woodward plays devout Christian, Sergeant Howie, whose jurisdiction includes some of the outlying islands off the Scottish coast. When he receives word a young girl has gone missing from Summerisle, an isolated island where the inhabitants long ago eschewed their beliefs in Christianity in favour of more ancient pagan ways, Howie heads off to the island in his sea plane. It’s not long before he suspects foul play which he believes is wrapped up in customs that disturb his Christian sensibilities.
The Wicker Man is a nuanced film that cleverly and playfully examines the subject of religion by contrasting the island’s traditions with more conventional ways. The action unfolds to Paul Giovanni’s seminal folk soundtrack that sets the film’s tone perhaps better than any other score has done before or since. Recounting the rites of their religion, the songs are otherworldly, feel incredibly authentic, and wondefylly capture their seeming irreverence for things Christianity holds sacred. Such is the calibre of the music, that at many points it feels like we are watching a musical as the island’s inhabitants belt out one pagan number after another with gusto. Hardy’s direction is solid to the hilt and he brings the island and its people to vibrant life like few other horror film makers would choose to do. He almost unassumingly contrasts Summerisle’s perfectly normal features with the abnormal behaviour of the island folk so as to make the island oddly and quite sinisterly inviting. Shaffer’s script is as clever and mature as they come and there isn’t a word out of place.
The final jewel in crown of The Wicker Man is the acting. Woodward is perfect as the straight-laced and increasingly incredulous sergeant and he is matched every step of the way by Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Lee seemed to intuitively understand the world which Shaffer envisaged and it is through his eloquently delivered speeches that the soul of Summerisle is conveyed to us. It all builds up to one of the most memorable and chilling finales that will leave you fittingly unsettled. Masterful.
Rating: The Good – 78.6 Genre: Action Duration: 91 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
John Carpenter’s second outing as director is a tour de force in atmosphere generation as he gives the story of a recently decommissioned police station which is under siege by a marauding gang an almost apocalyptic tone. By not giving the gang members any lines and by focusing the action on the co-operating occupants of the police station (prisoners and police alike), Carpenter quite ingeniously imbued the former with a zombie-like quality which makes them all the scarier. This Carpenter film more than any other reveals the great director’s influences from Hawk’s Rio Bravo to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the good news is that Assault on Precinct 13 is easily worthy of being mentioned alongside these two classics.
There are no big names on show just some solid acting talent whose quirky and fleshed out performances are as important to the movie’s success as anything else. Austin Stoker makes for an enjoyable lead as the officer in charge of the deserted precinct and Laurie Zimmer scores well as the tough female lead typical to other Carpenter films. As good as they are, however, everyone takes a back seat to Darwin Joston’s Napoleon Wilson who eats up Carpenter’s bad-ass dialogue and spits it in the face of authority with a care-free smile. He more than anyone else embodies the hypnotic grittiness of the movie as he presents us with what surely must be one of the most iconic anti-heroes.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a triumph of independent cinema and defined by that foreboding sense of momentum which Carpenter sews so seamlessly into all his movies. From the opening credits when yet another legendary Carpenter score begins to resonate with whatever recesses of the mind its composer seems to have a direct line to, you’ll know you’re in for something different.
Rating: The Good – 88.9 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 108 mins Director: Jonathan Glazer Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams
In his 2000 debut Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer burst onto the scene with all the swagger and verve of a young Tarantino but instead of capitalising on that success, the music video director made only one more movie (2004’s underwhelming Birth) in the next decade and a half. However, despite the lack of hands-on practice, his new film is nonetheless marked by the kind of reach and maturity that, back in 2000, we all would’ve hoped he’d be showing right now.
Based on Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin is a stunning piece of science fiction cinema that lives up to the genre’s loftiest promises in the manner 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, and Primer do. It begins with an extraordinary Scarlett Johansson assuming the guise of a human female in order to lure lonely men (played by unwitting non-actors who thought they were genuinely being picked up and who the crew filmed with hidden cameras) back to her apartment where human reality and that of her species’ morph into a gateway from the former to the latter. The purpose of this seduction is revealed in one remarkable scene that will chill you to the bone – a process of extraction that someone or something else takes care of while Johansson’s alien predator goes back out on the prowl. But with each foray into the world of humans and each victim she brings back, something changes within her that causes her to crave a fuller range of human experience.
Within this stripped down narrative, Under the Skin achieves two equally daring and intangible objectives. Primarily, it offers an examination of human existence as an alien construct but within that aim is the ostensibly narrower but infinitely broader goal of pondering the oft dodged question of what alien consciousness might amount to. It does this not through abstraction or surrealism but through a dramatic realignment of the traditional realism in which movies are shot. Under the Skin has been compared by some to 2001 and it is this regard that such comparisons are warranted. For Kubrick is one of the very few to have previously addressed the hypothetical question of alien perception. Thus, like Kubrick does in the closing sequence of 2001, Glazer (albeit to a lesser extent) methodically probes what experience might be to a sentient being of an incomprehensible nature (incomprehensible to us). A creature born to and framed by a different reality and dimensional constraints. This is what so many sci-fi films avoid dealing with because it obtrudes on any traditional notion of narrative. But through Glazer’s ability to detach from the standards of character perspective and meticulously frame a new kind of perspective around Faber’s vision, an intriguing marriage between the two is achieved.
Central to the project’s effectiveness however is Johansson’s bravery and strength as an actor. She not only carries the film as the only significant character but she builds a character every bit as nuanced as the reality which Glazer gives her to inhabit. A level of technical proficiency is equally crucial here for one misstep along the way and the delicate tangibility of that reality could shatter. Thankfully, that’s what we get. There’s a stark beauty to Daniel Landin’s cinematography that complements the bleakness of the subject matter and Mica Levi’s ubiquitous but unobtrusive score provides an appropriately haunting quality.
It all adds up to a profound meditation on existence that reaches deep into the psyche. It’s cerebral and stimulating but, as is often the case, it’s also extremely disturbing. Anything that makes us abandon our archetypes of understanding always is and so anyone looking for a mainstream science fiction movie should be warned away. This is as bleak a film as you’ll ever see and so it works less as a piece of entertainment as it does a work of art. Even those who appreciate such endeavour may not be inclined to revisit it too often such is the level of discomfort it can generate. Not to worry, though, because Under the Skin isn’t a film you’ll forget easily.
Rating: The Good – 94 Genre: Horror Duration: 96 mins Director: George A. Romero Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
George A. Romero’s B-budget horror piece was revolutionary at its time and that still shows today. Beginning in a patient yet sinister fashion and maintaining a controlled pace to the end this film seems to creep into our psyche. A group of strangers accosted by ravenous undead humans board themselves up in an isolated house. The internal squabbling which erupts between the group slowly takes on the air of inevitability in much the same way as the relentless pursuit of the creatures outside does. This is where it all began and there’s a fresh sense of terror which any number of subsequent zombie movies has failed to replicate. Duane Jones became a folk hero most notably because he was one of the first black men to lead a cast of white people. Romero cleverly reserved any commentary on racial issues until the ending which is utterly unforgettable and all the more potent because of the wait.
On the technical front, Romero redefined the genre (and medium) with his economic use of lighting and set-design. Everything is lean and Romero uses that to augment the atmosphere. The gore is introduced sparingly making it all the more disturbing and the scenarios he creates (brother/sister, parents/child) were for the time (and still to this day) core-shocking and rooted in cultural discourse. Night of the Living Dead is a monument to horror direction and independent movie making alike. There are few films that have been more important to the medium and on top of all that, it’s one hell of an enjoyable 90 mins too.