Sunday, 22 April 2012

Livid (2011)

"Don't you know it's bad luck to whistle on the moor on Halloween?"

- Ben, Livid

What do you do when you find out the comatose old lady you're caring for is hiding unimaginable riches somewhere in her creepy, forbidding old mansion? Go back there at night with torches? Wrong. You go back on Halloween night, with one single torch.

This is more or less the premise of Livid, the latest film from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, who in 2007 gave us the superbly twisted home invasion thriller Inside. Lucie, a trainee nurse, learns on her first day on the job that one of her charges - an emaciated hag on a life support system - has hidden a treasure away in somewhere in her vast, decaying moorland residence. Together with her boyfriend Will (who so far takes the 2012 prize for Horror's Biggest Dumbass) and his brother Ben, she breaks into the mansion later that night to discover - gasp - that some treasures are best left unfound.

After a steady, well-crafted opening, Livid dives into its haunted house exploration theme with relish. Populated with spooky dolls and snarling mounted heads, and filmed with an adept economy of light, the house is spooky, and gets even more so when the old lady upstairs proves to be less comatose than she seemed. Upon the discovery of the "treasure" (spoiler: it's not treasure), the house seems to awake along with its owner, spilling its history as vengeful ghosts, animal-headed animatronics and bloodthirsty witches creep out of the woodwork to terrorise the invaders. The hag, it transpires, was a heartless ballet teacher in the life before her coma, and the mansion still holds the remnants of the cruelties she inflicted on her students - one of whom was her own mute daughter.

If this sounds like the premises of a few different films rolled together, well, you'd be right. Livid's problem is that it's trying to be every horror film at once, and while this concept has potential in the right hands, those hands just aren't Messrs Maury and Bustillo's. Everything from the story to the set-pieces to the scares have clear and direct influences from Hammer, Tim Burton, Dario Argento and Guillermo del Toro, and there are more specific visual references to the likes of An American Werewolf in London, Nosferatu and Suspiria. The overall effect just feels watered-down, as if the creators couldn't agree on an overall theme so they just threw everything at the script to see what sticks.

Some of it does stick - there are some good scares (creepy clockwork zombie vampires are creepy) and the story - which shifts into Burton-esque Gothic fantasy by the end - still engages, but it wraps up with too many confusing plot holes and irrelevant twists to be satisfying. Even the scares are inconsistent, lurching from Woman in Black-like haunted house tension one moment to violent, flesh-tearing body horror the next. All this said, the overall experience is still good fun and Livid makes a decent watch - but it feels like a messy step backwards from the focused, carefully-crafted Inside.

I caught this at the Bradford Film Festival and stuck around for the Q&A with Julien Maury afterwards, where he talked about his attachment to various remakes/sequels of Hellraiser, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, all of which have fallen through for one reason or another. It's a shame because if nothing else, Livid demonstrates that Maury and Bustillo have the filmmaking style and knowledge of the genre to put together a good entry in any franchise. If they were given a single story to focus on, instead of mashing together elements of about a dozen, this directing duo has the potential to make something great again.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Curt: "This isn't right. We should split up."
Holden: "Yeah, good idea."
Marty: "...Really?!"

- The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods has attracted a lot more hype than there is for your average horror, and that may have a little something to do with it the attachment of russet-bearded thundergeek Joss Whedon as writer. We knew we'd be getting something different - the promo material suggested something along the lines of The Evil Dead by way of Cube, and that's not completely wide of the mark - but even going in with full knowledge of Whedon's love for genre-bending, pop-culture-dissecting comedy, The Cabin in the Woods still surprises and amazes. It's a horror film, and it's a horror film about horror films. Spoilers ahead - and Cabin definitely falls into the "less you know, the better" category.

The premise: five college kids (fulfilling the horror Major Arcana of Stoner, Jock, Nerd, Slutty Blonde and Innocent Girl) head for a beer-and-drugs-soaked weekend in a remote woodland cabin. Unknown to them, their every move is being watched and manipulated from the get-go by a shadowy organisation operating out of a surveillance facility deep underground - a gleaming, hi-tech steel-and-glass complex that's somewhat at odds with the inept, cynical staff who run its day-to-day business. This business, it transpires, is to callously kill off the kids using any one of a vast array of movie monsters (bored staff members run a sweepstake on which one the kids will choose), which are stored warehouse-fashion until needed.

The Cabin in the Woods pitches itself somewhere between parody, loving tribute and total re-imagination of the conventions of horror. It would be so easy for a premise like this to fall flat, but it's Whedon's relentless inventiveness and his great eye for in-jokes ('stupid gas' released by the surveillance team ensures the kids don't outwit the redneck zombies sent to kill them; even the archetypal creepy gas station attendant gets a great comic scene) that sets the pace and sustains it. From the brilliantly schlocky opening, Cabin never stops being creative, and has the good sense not to let its subtext - the voyeuristic and desensitising nature of graphic horror - ever get in the way of the fun.

The cast deserves a lot of credit for breathing life into a slew of characters we've seen a thousand times before, with special mentions going to Fran Kranz's stoner savant, and Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the bickering, coffee-slurping jobsworths controlling the action. Just as good is the creature design - there are a lot of monsters in this film, paying homage to everything from Ringu to Hellraiser, all of which come out to play in a frantic, blood-soaked climax that feels like the movie's centrepiece. Aside from anything else, this demonstrates that director Drew Goddard (of Cloverfield fame; perhaps unfairly overshadowed by Whedon in the promo) knows his way around a great action sequence.

If I have a criticism, it's that the big reveal at the end feels just a bit too knowingly cheesy, almost like an afterthought - but that's only because everything that's come before it has been so very well-judged. It's really just the tying up of a big loose end, and it's hard to be too disappointed when you're still reeling from everything the film's thrown at you. That's about it, though - all in all, I'm confident The Cabin in the Woods will be the most fun you've had at the cinema all year.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Evidence (2011)

Ryan: "What if there's bears?"
Brett: "Stop, drop and roll."

- Evidence

Evidence is a tricky one to do a proper review of because I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, and (spoiler alert!) a fair chunk of the film is going to be impossible to talk about without giving anything away. Suffice to say that it begins like a normal found-footager, with a group of friends recording their first camping trip together. There's all the normal wisecracking, simmering tensions (it's no surprise that one of the group really hates camping) and weird screeches around the campfire - in fact, it's so by-the-numbers to start off with that you might be forgiven for wanting to switch it off after the first half hour or so.

If you like the sound of it so far, I recommend you stop reading here and just go and watch it, because here be spoilers. After glimpsing a strange creature in a ravine and having an uncomfortable midnight run-in with a gun-toting stranger, the group soon come under attack, forcing them to shelter in the RV and roll the cameras less often. There's a palpable sense of dread as the sparingly-glimpsed creature - somewhere between a Bigfoot and a big dog - tries to batter its way through the van and at this point, you might expect the film to carry on in siege fashion, with the survivors being picked off one by one: but this is where Evidence goes absolutely apeshit.

After the gang decide to make a break for it, the film shifts gear into a nausea-inducing kaleidoscope of gunfire, monsters, spattering evicerations, babbling crazies, military installations and zombies (yep, zombies) as the survivors desperately try to find somewhere safe as what seems to be a world-shattering outbreak of something or other unfolds around them. Compared with the sedate-but-creepy first act and the claustrophobic jumpiness of the RV, the last half hour is just one long insane dash, pock-marked with explosive gore, half-glimpsed nightmare creatures, roaring helicopters and radio chatter. There's no way to judge the timeframe of what's happening, and certainly no explanation - the outbreak seems to be military in origin, but that's about the best I could piece together - the whole sequence is an authentic snapshot of all the panic and confusion of the Apocalypse, minus the details.

Not since Kill List have I seen a film hang such a colossal left on the audience in the final act, and it's one that's well worth sticking around for. Like many films of its kind, it was made for next to nothing (about $12,000, and I'd guess 90% of that went on the last 20 minutes) but delivers bigger and better shocks, scares and balls-out weirdness than any number of high-budget efforts. Not everyone's going to like the fat middle finger it gives to their expectations, but even if you've read this far and you know what's coming, it's well worth seeing for the experience.