Demon’s Rook, The (2013)

The Demon's Rook (2013)

Hell is hungry

As a young boy, Roscoe claims to be visited by a demon friend who eventually takes him away from his family into the demon underground. Dimwos, the demon, raises him as if he was his own son and tutors him in the ways of magic. Around fifteen years later, Roscue emerges from the underground and discovers that the world is under threat from invading demons who turn people into zombies. Hooking up with his childhood pal Eva, Roscoe realises that this was what he was trained for as only he can stop them.

 

A throwback/homage to the 80s make-up effects-driven horror films that were released straight onto VHS, The Demon’s Rook checks all of the boxes that so many of Its forefathers did with a passion back in the glory days of low budget horror. There are practical make-up effects (hardly a drop of CGI in sight and all the better for it), a synthesised music score, eerie artificial lighting (which can illuminate anything to be scary when used right) and plenty of dry ice. I think back to some random films off the top of my head like The Keep, The Video Dead, Re-Animator, Night of the Demons and Prison to name a few and see how many of the above boxes they all ticked.

The problem with so many of these homages is that modern filmmakers are trying to recreate what those people in the 80s were doing using modern techniques. But what they forget to include is the heart and soul – those filmmakers from the glory days of low budget horror films were innovating with what little money they had and had to be as creative as possible. Nowadays, filmmakers think that they can just showcase some corn syrup, a few fake prosthetics, a bucket of entrails and that they have the next big thing. The Demon’s Rook certainly has the nuts and bolts to make a good go of it but there’s something sorely missing – a sense of fun. The Demon’s Rook is clearly made by fans of the old classics but they spend too much time making it all overblown and serious rather than being something tongue-in-cheek and affectionate. It lacks a mischievous edge, something which the older films had and the thing that keeps audiences flocking back to them.

The sketchy plot does little to help matters and there’s hardly any exposition, with the film allowing the images to explain the story. The narrative virtually consists of two side-by-side storylines – one of Roscoe’s re-appearance in the real world and the other of the demons committing acts of carnage. Five to ten minutes of one storyline and the film switches focus onto the other one. It’s a very frustrating approach because we learn very little of the characters and in classic horror form, most of the non-characters get maybe one or two lines in a brief scene before they’re killed off. Whilst it does showcase the excellent gore and make-up effects on a regular basis, these scenes add little to the film except to pad out the running time with more carnage. I wouldn’t mind if these were characters we knew and cared about but seeing the eighth non-character get ripped to shreds doesn’t really affect the audience.

At an hour and three quarters, The Demon’s Rook overstays its welcome long before the credits roll. As I’ve already said, there are plenty of random scenes, many of which could have been trimmed. We also spend too much with Roscoe as he struggles to come to terms with what has happened or see his training through a copious amount of flashback footage. He’s not a talkative guy either, in fact not many people in the film are. There are loads of scenes without dialogue, just music in the background or the demons or zombies growling away. Having more than just two main characters to be invested in, or at least having some meaningful dialogue, would have helped these long, drawn-out sequences.

It can’t be disputed that The Demon’s Rook contains some superb prosthetics. The demon masks and costumes, hell even the zombies, look brilliant in all of their latex glory. The zombies reminded me of some of the best creations from The Return of the Living Dead and the demons looked like something out of, well, Demons. They really look the part and I wished they did a little more than just snarl and growl most of the time. Both the zombie flesh-ripping and the slasher-style kills are effectively brought to life with plenty of realistic blood and guts.

 

There’s a good film in here waiting to come out but unfortunately the finished product of The Demon’s Rook is just not that. Too repetitive, not involving enough for audiences and with a rather bland finale (given everything that had gone on before it), The Demon’s Rook can at least showcase some superb make-up effects work to prove that even if big budget horrors have converted to the dark side of CGI, at least the old techniques are still alive and kicking in the lower doldrums of the genre.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Blackfoot Trail (2014)

Blackfoot Trail (2014)

Survive

Urbanite boyfriend and girlfriend Alex and Jenn head to the Canadian wild for a romantic getaway. Having visited the woods several times in his life, an overconfident Alex shuns bringing a map or mobile phone and is determined to veer away from the hiking trails into the true wilderness along the Blackfoot Trail. Before they know it, Alex and Jenn find themselves lost and even worse, they end up stumbling into the hunting grounds of a black bear with a voracious appetite.

 

Based on a true story, apparently, Blackfoot Trail comes with an overhyped reputation. I’ve got to wonder what films other reviewers are watching when they claim that this “does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean” or “the best horror movie in ages” which are two quotes plastered on the front cover of the DVD. Whilst it’s not the worst film you’re ever likely to see, Blackfoot Trail is hardly the second coming of Spielberg’s classic, nor is it remotely near the top ten horror films of the past year. I feel that some people just want to get their reviews on the front cover with some cheesy soundbites.

The premise of a killer bear is one that hasn’t been used too often – Grizzly from the late 70s springing to mind as the standout of this sparse sub-genre – and you have to wonder why. Bears are real. They are extremely dangerous when confronted in the wild. And they have attacked and killed hundreds of people across the world. So you’d expect them to be a little more popular when it comes to horror films. Grizzly, Grizzly Park, Grizzly Rage and Bear are the only four that spring to mind and looking at that ‘elite’ list it’s pretty easy to see why they’re not as popular as snakes or sharks.

Blackfoot Trail will do little to enhance the reputation of the killer bear sub-genre. At least it treats the material seriously and with as much respect as possible. This isn’t just a daft killer bear slasher-type film. This is a serious survival horror-thriller pitting man against nature. It is more interested with trying to create an ominous tone, knife-edge tension and rounded characters. Notice I said trying. Whilst the excellent cinematography goes a long way to providing an eerie and isolated location for the film, you need something else to build upon this. Sadly Blackfoot Trail provides little else.

The film is devoted to the two main stars and their relationship (and then the inevitable arguing and bickering when they get lost). Actually three quarters of the film is devoted to this character development, with the bear toddling into view with about slightly more than a quarter of the way to go. Whilst they are a fully-rounded couple, even if Alex is a bit too arrogant, I’m not really here to see squabbling between human characters. Too long is spent developing them as individuals and by the time we have got to know them, their continual domination of the film soon begins to bore the viewer. The danger needed to be introduced quicker and the film spend longer on them trying to stay together both physically and mentally. As it turns out, the bear shows up and the proverbial hits the fan way quicker than it should have done. This slow burn build needed a longer and more focused onslaught to really get us on the side of the characters, rather than the short, sharp burst towards the end of the film. The much-anticipated third act fails to materialise and the bear does its thing very quickly.

Whilst I’m not arguing for the bear to go crazy, you would expect a lot more pay-off than the eventual human-bear confrontation. The film is hardly soaked with blood, nor is the bear a killing machine. It savagely kills one character in the entire film and, whilst the attack inside a tent is pretty realistic, this is no gore factory. There are a few suspenseful moments inside the tent waiting for the bear to go away but this whole portion of the film is moved along far too quickly given how much time was spent building the characters up.

Arguably more suspense and tension comes from the introduction of Eric Balfour’s Irish guide early on in the film, who just so happens to stumble upon Alex and Jenn and immediately imposes himself as the alpha male, much to Alex’s annoyance. The “is he a psycho or just a friendly local?” narrative plays out over ten minutes or so and is far more interesting than the stuff with the bear. However his insignificant contribution to the film ends abruptly and pointlessly as his character never leads to anything worthwhile happening and seems to have been added to pad out a few extra scenes before they stumble across the bear.

 

Blackfoot Trail attempts to put its audience through the ringer by subjecting a couple of developed characters to the perils of Mother Nature. You’ll be sick of the characters by the time Mother Nature rears her bear-like form and, even then, she does her thing far too quickly to warrant such an overlong build-up. The film has suspense and tension in sporadic patches but it’s too forgettable to make a lasting impression.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Tonight, the dead shall rise again

In New York, body parts are going missing from a morgue. It is discovered that one of the hospital orderlies, a member of a cannibal tribe from a small island in the East Indies, is responsible. Anthropologist Lori Ridgway recognises the name of the island and, along with fellow expert Dr Peter Chandler, his assistant George and news reporter Susan, they head off on an expedition to track down the cannibals. However when they arrive on the island, cannibals are not the only problem that they face as a rogue doctor has been experimenting on the dead.

 

Zombies! Cannibals! Mad doctors performing unnecessary surgery! Zombie Holocaust has it all. Coming hot on the heels of the successes (and notoriety) of Italian cannibal films (most famously represented by Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust) and zombie films (Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters), a producer clearly had a quick brain surge and decided that a combination of the two would lead to even greater rewards. The result of this unholy union is Zombie Holocaust, another of the legendary cult classic Italian splatter films of the 80s and made in the same year. Its mixed reputation proceeds it and it is definitely a love/hate kind of film.

For a start, Zombie Holocaust is a mess of ideas so it’s best to just unplug your brain and go with the flow. The film works better as a ‘tribute’ piece to its inspirational predecessors and director Marino Girolami certainly demonstrates that he has seen many of them with a ‘best of’ selection. In between the set pieces, the narrative does its best to keep the thin plot from falling apart…but let’s face it, as soon as the characters set foot on the island you don’t really care what happens because you know they’re going to suffer. The similarities with Zombie Flesh Eaters are obvious – openings both set in New York, Ian McCulloch playing pretty much the same character (and dressed like he’s off on safari), a small group of white folk heading off to what suspiciously looks like the same island, having the same guide and arriving at the same church building for the finale.

The writing is so weak and flimsy that you wonder why they bothered to begin with. How is this mad scientist doing Frankenstein-like experiments in a shanty hut in the middle of an island without any real equipment save for an operating table, some drips and a few scalpels? Why would a doctor and a nurse from the hospital decide to take an expedition to the cannibal island? What were they hoping to accomplish there? Why, when one of the female members of the expedition is captured by the cannibals, do the survivors just shrug shoulders and decide to escape? There are so many questions that this film raises. But the beauty is that by the end of it, you won’t care.

Everyone knows that it’s going to be exploitative but you will never guess at how badly. From having lead actress Alexandra Delli Colli get stripped full-frontal and placed onto a large sacrificial rock (which looks suspiciously like the one Ursula Andress got strapped to in The Mountain of the Cannibal God) to the copious amount of intestines on display, Zombie Holocaust punches for the lowest common denominators to hook its audience. Combining the two bloodiest sub-genres going promised that Zombie Holocaust would be a messy ride and it was certainly that. From open skull brain surgery to a zombie getting a motor boat propeller right to the face, there are plenty of gory set pieces on display. However it is the cannibals who get a bigger slice of the action and they’re very handy when it comes to offing the cast early on. Porters are killed left, right and centre with bamboo traps and such and one of the unlucky Westerners falls victim to a bunch of them who slice open his stomach and gouge his eyes out. Its intense stuff and extremely gory. Sadly, the zombies don’t do an awful lot and only appear for the first time around the fifty-five minute mark. They leave the flesh-eating to the living.

One thing that these Italian horrors usually guarantee is an excellent soundtrack, regardless of the eventual quality of the visuals and composer Nico Fidenco doesn’t disappoint here. He recycles an earlier soundtrack from Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals but the keyboard emits a nice brooding, ominous vibe to certain scenes. The other aspect of the sound, the dubbing, is done reasonably well but it’s easy to see that the actors were there for a holiday and no more. As I’ve said, Ian McCulloch plays pretty much the same character as he did in Zombie Flesh Eaters and stands around looking scared or getting involved in the action as and when he needs to be the hero. It is Donald O’Brien as Dr Obrero who has the most fun, delivering scene-chewing cheesy lines such as “I could easily kill you now, but I’m determined to have your brain!” with so much unnatural depth and feeling.

 

It’s not one of Italian horror’s shining lights of the two sub-genres it straddles but there’s no denying that Zombie Holocaust isn’t a lot of silly, sleazy and gory fun. You’ll be reminded of all of the other films that it is ripping off but the innocent way it tries to stick it all together will have you forget that in a hurry. And if not, the film will drown you in glorious 80s gore instead.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Island of the Living Dead (2007)

Island of the Living Dead (2007)

Where the hungry dead feast on the flesh of the damned!

A group of sea-faring treasure hunters are forced to take shelter on an apparently deserted island when their boat becomes damaged during a storm. Exploring the island whilst repairs are being carried out, the group are unaware that the island is victim to a centuries-old curse which has reanimated the dead and they still roam the place looking to feed.

 

Cult Italian exploitation director Bruno Mattei gets a harsh rep from me most of the time due to some of his 80s hack jobs including the likes of Zombie Creeping Flesh and Rats: Night of Terror. His was a legacy of shameless filmmaking featuring copious use of stock footage, blatant plagiarising from superior films, inane dialogue, awful scripts….and that’s just for starters. Called the ‘Ed Wood’ of horror in some quarters, Mattei was never going to become one of the greats but perhaps one of the most loved. His films are awful but in an entertaining way – the master of the ‘so bad, they’re good’ horror film.

So it’s both amusing and ironic to know that, in a modern era of filmmaking where directors are desperately trying to ‘recapture’ the look and feel of horrors of the 80s, Bruno Mattei was actually still making the same films (up until his death in 2007). It’s like he missed the memo telling him that the era was done and dusted. The end of the 80s brought an end to the glorious era of Italian cinema and the classic splatter fests that we have come to know and love today. Mattei kept on going though, never losing that ‘style’ and, save for the shot-on-digital look to the film, you could have sworn Island of the Living Dead was straight out of the gory Italian zombie flick period.

I suppose this is why I wanted to like Island of the Living Dead more than I should have done (though due to the second half of the film, I ended up hating it more than I should have done!). It looks, sounds and, more importantly, feels like it was from that glory era. The plot is all over the place but finding decent narratives for Italian zombie films is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Some people arrive on an island or remote location, either looking for someone or are stranded there, and they fall prey to the hordes of the living dead. The set-up changed little in the countless Italian zombie films I’ve seen and it starts the same here. The gear change midway where the zombies start talking and explaining what the whole curse is about is confusing and things just go from bad to worse in the final third with a lot of ghostly goings on. This turns the film into a haunted house-like attraction, where the characters walk around looking in haunted mirrors, listening to phantoms playing music, drinking dodgy-looking wine and so on. This is not really that interesting and you’ll be hoping that the zombies get down to business sooner rather than later.

The make-up effects look ok – not exactly believable from a ‘these zombies have apparently been dead for hundreds of years’ point of view but they fit right at home with the traditional Italian zombie look (i.e. a bit of paint and some glued-on oats). The zombie priests look more like something from The Blind Dead films of the 70s than anything from Fulci.  The zombies are pretty useless too, unable to overpower the humans in a number of ten-to-one situations, and allow them to escape numerous times. Perhaps this explains why the gore is so thin on the ground. Those expecting a return to the glory days of the gruesome Italian zombie film will be sorely disappointed at the lack of intestine-rippings, eye-gougings and skull-smashings.

The acting is clearly appalling, even before the audio track has been looped and the characters dubbed. Lead actress Yvette Yzon is great to look at but she and the rest of the cast are mind-bogglingly awful. Literally everything they say is communicated with the wrong tone of voice. People shout when they should whisper. They talk quick and aggressive when the scene dictates a quiet word. This always used to be a problem back in the glory days of dubbing but things seem to have gotten worse now. The captain is the worst culprit, one of the most awful dubs I’ve ever seen but you clearly see that he is really acting this way in the original track by his body language and facial expressions.

 

 

Whilst many of his comrades retired or moved on, Mattei stuck it out till the last and was making these horror films right up until his death. You can’t fault him on commitment. It’s this nostalgia factor which goes a long way to papering over the multitude of sins that Mattei spoils us with. Made on a low budget and with the usual Mattei trademarks, Island of the Living Dead starts off promisingly enough but when the focus shifts away from being a throwback zombie film to the nonsense with the ghosts and talking zombies, it loses its charm factor and rarely manages to capture it again.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen (2015)

World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen (2015)

To celebrate the centenary of the First World War, a TV documentary team travels to the Somme to put together a ratings smash about new mysteries relating to the famous battle. However, what they unearth is far from a new story of those that died one hundred years ago but an army of the undead.

 

It’s a bit hard to get excited about a genre film that squarely positions itself with the boundaries of two of its most over-used sub-genres. I’m talking about World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen. And I’m talking about the film being a cross between the found footage sub-genre that has been worked to death in the past couple of years, and the much-travelled zombie genre which has literally nothing left to give, save for the superb The Walking Dead. With both sub-genres having nowhere left to go that’s interesting, all we get is stale mixes of the two like this.

I’m guessing the selling point for this one is for its war-themed zombies, only this time the zombified Germans aren’t Nazis, they’re just normal Germans from the First World War. It makes little difference when they’re all shuffling around with helmets on. Cue the basic set-up where we see the world through the eyes of the cameraperson, we are introduced to the main characters and they all go about their jobs. It’s hardly riveting stuff and seems to take ages before anything worthwhile actually happens. Visiting the site of the Battle of the Somme, the filmmakers at least seem like they had a good holiday whilst filming. There’s no real build-up of tension here and very few set-ups for later on.

Once the crew discover the zombie army, it’s purely by-the-book found footage numbers for the remainder of the running time. The camera somehow manages to remain focused on all of the important bits of action regardless of the angle or position. The camera shakes around and drops to the floor numerous times. The camera picks things up in the corner of the frame which are not there again on closer inspection. The cameraman implausibly keeps filming for far longer than you or I would do in the face of certain death, for instances when his friends are being torn to shreds. There will also be some scenes where the camera’s night vision mode is enabled. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. There are no new approaches to the material. It’s just safety first.

When the survivors head into the underground trench, things go from dull to impossible to watch. The scenes are far too dark to see what is going on and between the unnecessary fake camera glitches, the shaking movements and the lack of light, you’re going to be waiting for a while if you think you’ll get a good look at some of the action. That’s appropriate too given that there’s hardly any action and no standard zombie-style kills. Save from a mildly effective couple of seconds at the beginning of the first zombie attack, the rest of the attacks just consist of the characters running around in the dark shouting swear words and trying to avoid being grabbed.

I actually hate seeing actors ‘act’ in these found footage films, trying to act naturally as if they were off-camera. Talking in low voices, indulging in endless chatter, speaking over the top of people, etc. gets frustrating after a while. They do it to try and capture the essence of filmmaking but in doing so these films lose their pacing, their narrative and sometimes end up in shouting matches or scenes with people screaming and running around. There’s a lot of that in World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen. Right from the first zombie attack, the characters run around like headless chickens trying to escape the zombies.

 

I’m really struggling to get into this review since watching World War Dead: Rise of the Fallen was a struggle in itself. With literally nothing worthwhile to comment on, it’s a good thing that at only seventy-seven minutes long, it doesn’t waste as much time as it could have done.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆