Tag Backwoods/Survival

Hills Have Eyes II, The (2007)

The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

The Lucky ones die fast

A squad of National Guard are sent into the New Mexico desert on a supply mission to a team that is installing a new system into an abandoned facility. When they get there, they find no sign of the team until a distress call is received from the hills. Making their way up the hills, the soldiers are attacked by a group of mutants and equipment is damaged and stolen. With no way of getting back down the hill, the remaining soldiers must find their way through an old mine to get back to base.

 

The 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes certainly surprised me as being a brutal, gory and relentless ride which, in many ways, bettered the original. And just like the revamped The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake in 2003 saw a sequel, Alexandre Aja’s slick remake has spawned a sequel for whatever cash-related reason. Out went Aja, the man responsible for the disturbing and savage nature of the original, and out with him went that brutal and unforgiving edge – you got the sense that anything went in his film and there would be no prisoners, no matter how sick or depraved it was going to be. In its place comes a totally out-of-place comic tone, more mutants you can shake a stick at, more characters to get killed and more gore. Say goodbye to everything that made the remake such a great ride.

The problems with The Hills Have Eyes II are evident from the start and that lies with the characters. For starters, I don’t want to see a bunch of soldiers being chewed up, decapitated and hacked to pieces because surely they should be trained enough to deal with this sort of thing better than anyone (I know you don’t get mutant-fighting training anywhere but at least they practice combat regularly as opposed to say, me who has never done anything like that and wouldn’t stand a chance against the mutants). I like seeing ordinary people put into extraordinary situations and seeing how they cope with it. So by throwing the best prepared humans into that situation and watch them suffer doesn’t really hit the same nerve.

Secondly, if you’re going to give me soldiers, then at least make an effort to humanise them and characterise them a little. Names are for tombstones in films like this and it’s funny how you won’t remember 90% of the names by the middle of the film, let alone the end. Instead just sit back and call them their token names: hotshot, black guy, coward, hot chick, etc. It borders spoof at times with the silliness of the characters. Do you remember a little film called Aliens back in the 80s? That involved a bunch of bad ass soldiers taking on acid-spitting aliens. But James Cameron never once let the characters descend into caricatures. He humanised them, gave each one personality traits and made the audience care about them, even the ones who didn’t survive too long. Here they’re just going through the motions of the generic “macho bullshit” that soldiers are portrayed as having in the movies.

They also do some of the most ludicrous things I’ve seen in a horror film and as such, plot developments can be seen way ahead of time. Thinking of climbing down a mountain using a rope? Good idea but stand around dithering for ages and you’re going to be in for it! I can’t really comment on the actors involved because some of them may suck, some of them may have talent – it’s just impossible to see through the awful script. And when you consider who wrote this – WES CRAVEN no less, it’s a complete travesty.

Now I’ve had a rant over the script and characters, where else to begin? Well the fact that the film descends into a pointless sequence of chases around the dark, abandoned mine is a start. The Descent showed how you could breathe a little life back into a setting as over-used as this with its sense of claustrophobia and constantly lurking danger. No such atmosphere or skill here, just annoying characters stumbling around the dark looking for an exit or looking to be killed. How about the silly comic tone that the film has? In one moment, a mutant pulls an arm of one of the guys and waves it back at him. Mildly amusing when you see it but totally out of place here. The gore stakes have been ramped up but without the savage tone, without the brutality and without the violence of the original, it’s all wasted.

 

The Hills Have Eyes II is a pointless, stupid exercise in gore. It’s a total rush job and it smacks of pandering to the modern horror fans who only watch these films to be shocked with blood and gore. Does anyone know how to create a story any more? Or build up suspense? Even former genre icons like Wes Craven seem to have lost their way.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead (2009)

Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead (2009)

What You Don’t See Will Kill You

A group of dangerous criminals are transported through a remote rural backwoods area in order to avoid a potential jail-break attempt by one of the inmates’ gangs. But the bus is soon forced off the road by a truck and soon the criminals and guards start to be picked off one-by-one by inbred mutants who have been living in the mountains.

 

After two entertaining instalments, it was only a matter of time before the Wrong Turn series derailed and this is the culprit – a limp, by-the-numbers sequel. What could be worse than a group of stereotypical teenagers smoking pot and getting naked? Well it’s the group of stereotypical prisoners that are unleashed in this one. I mean seriously, how many films do we see where each group of convicts contains one complete psycho, one rapist, one weasel/little runt, one of the silent types and not to mention the guards, one of whom is usually a family man or dreams of a better life? Are American prisons that full of equal numbers of ethnic groups that each prisoner transfer contains Hispanics and white skinheads? And who thinks that having a horror film full of nasty, ruthless and depraved convicts is a good idea? We’re supposed to root for the people who fall victim to the mutants, not the other way around.

The script is all over the place and this is the film’s downfall. There’s actually a reasonable story in there waiting to come out with the cons killing the mutant’s kid and sticking his head on a pole as warning for him to back off. But the film does nothing with this vengeance story and it’s virtually dropped as soon as it happens. The mutant doesn’t seem to get any more angry or any more determined to kill them (after all, he was going to kill them all anyway) and apart from a stand-off with the head con later in the film, that’s it. The script also spends a lot of time establishing a couple of characters but then throws it all out of the window in the final scene which opens the door to another sequel. I think that says it all when the entire characterisation of the film is blown away just for the benefit of a ‘plot twist’ finale and sequel set up.

Too much of the film is spent with the cons bickering about the money that they find in an armoured truck in the woods (upside down and in the middle of nowhere no less – go figure that out) and it almost turns into a mini-episode from the second season of Prison Break. The group of characters then spend the rest of the film wandering around aimlessly in the dark, occasionally falling foul of another hillbilly trap before arguing with each other again. The dialogue is terrible and whoever wrote it obviously thought that a lot of swearing and profanity from Tamar Hassan’s psycho Chavez character would be a good idea. His performance is awful too and when he’s not struggling to disguise his thick British accent, he’s just shouting abuse at the top of his voice. The other actors don’t fair much better and it’s arguably the innate cackling and howling from ‘Three Fingers’ that makes for the best performance.

I will say that the film isn’t boring and at least manages to keep a steady pace. The CGI kills, as ridiculous as some of them may look, are actually quite inventive and there are a few decent practical effects including one of the cons stepping into a full-body barbed wire trap before being dragged off down the road. Unfortunately some of the novelty value is quickly eroded by the lousy CGI effects which follow the initial shock of seeing someone diced into three! The film needed more female characters (come on, this is a horror film after all and we need breasts – this film’s sole quota being filled in the first five minutes but worth the watch!) to put into peril.

The film needed less macho crap, less pointless arguing and more mutants. It’s as simple as that. This mutant has some uncanny ability to teleport anywhere in the woods at any time so he sits up in trees, appears from behind doors and can outrun a speeding truck and appear in the road a couple of miles further along from where the characters last saw him. A few more mutants would have alleviated that problem. The budget for this one looks to have been dramatically cut resulting in fewer mutants, more stupid CGI gore and some of the worst green screen effects work since the dawn of movie making. Take a look at the background in the driving scenes and it’s like something out of the 40s where some lousy rear projection is played whilst stagehands rock the prop vehicles from side to side.

 

Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead isn’t the sequel I was hoping for and is such a disappointment after the last sequel. With annoying characters, some grade school script problems and a general sense of reducing the sum of its successful parts, the ‘franchise’ has certainly taken a wrong turn somewhere – let’s hope the next sequel finds the right route!

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007)

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007)

In the Forest, Only They Can Hear You Scream.

Six contestants taking part in a survival reality TV show find themselves pitted against a family of hideously deformed and inbred cannibals in the woods in West Virginia.

 

A belated sequel to 2003′s Wrong Turn, you would be forgiven for thinking that this would be a straight rehash with more blood, guts and a bigger body count. That’s what horror sequels are supposed to do, right? Well if you think that Wrong Turn 2: Dead End is going to be any different, you’re wrong.

Sticking to the same formula of a bunch of pretty boys and hot chicks being stranded in the woods and hunted down one-at-a-time by a bunch of inbred cannibals, it surprisingly doesn’t seem stale at all. The original Wrong Turn is a particular favourite of mine from the last ten years of horror films, simply because it didn’t skimp on the visuals when someone was sliced and diced. It got nasty when it needed to and it was just a fun all-round watch (having Eliza Dushku in a glorious white top didn’t harm things either). This sequel sticks rigidly to the formula and ups the ante with some more gruesome kills – in fact some of the most entertaining kills I’ve seen for years (though the years have been sparse for creativity).

The original tried to go for a more serious atmosphere more akin to one of the late 70s backwoods horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Wrong Turn 2: Dead End goes for the jugular and becomes just a fun, light-hearted, no-brains hardcore splatter fest! The pacing is cranked up. There are more characters to dispose of (the good ol’ “sequels have a higher body count rule”) and the blood flows freely. One of the reasons the film works is because of the script. Not just your cut-and-rush job like most sequels, the writers actually spend a bit of time getting us used to the characters before all hell breaks loose. Granted the characters are all stock (the slut, the comic relief, token black guy, ex-army ranger, etc) but at least some of them are made out to be more than just things where axes and sharp objects should be inserted. Even the inbred cannibals are given some development – you realise towards the end of the film that they’re not just maniacs but actually a loving family who know no better than the life they have chosen.

It still doesn’t stop the brutality though and believe me, lovers of gore and splatter will find plenty to marvel here. I don’t really want to spoil the film for those who may be pondering a look but there are some hilarious deaths, some nasty ones and some of both. The film opens with a kick ass kill and it doesn’t let up from there right until the final showdown. Get the sick bags ready.

Out of the cast, you’ll no doubt recognise Erica Leerhsen from the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but that’s about it for the younger cast. It’s rapper-turned-spoken word maestro Henry Rollins who steal the show as the gung-ho presenter of the reality show who reverts to type when the threat of the cannibals hits home. Also of note is the gigantic Ken Kirzinger who plays the dad of the cannibal family – this is one big dude you don’t want to mess with.

On the flip side to all of this, if you’ve seen one backwoods horror you’ve pretty much seen them all. With recent remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and its terrible sequel as well as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its terrible prequel, the market is pretty crowded. Cannibals and mutants are a bit over-exposed at the moment so expect the same generic scenes of grunting dialogue, freakish lifestyles (what cannibal movie wouldn’t have a dinner scene?) and disgusting living quarters. Also despite the character development at the start, the dialogue is pretty annoying at best with the exception of some one-liners from Rollins. There are some irritating people in there you want hacked to pieces from the start and thankfully the film fulfils your wishes.

 

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End whips up an awesome mix of thrills and spills despite presenting us the same meal we horror fans have been gorging on for so long now. Director Joe Lynch has clearly made a film by horror fans for horror fans and one that doesn’t disappoint. Top sequel and I can’t wait for his next flick.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Paradise Lost (2006)

Paradise Lost (2006)

Go Home.

A group of young travellers are marooned in a remote Brazilian beach town when their coach is involved in a crash. After a wild night of partying leaves them without their belongings, a local teenager, Kiko, tells them that he will take them to his uncle’s house in the jungle so that they can regroup and get in touch with the authorities. It is only when they arrive at the house that the group realise the intentions of Kiko and his uncle all along – they are to be harvested so that their organs can be sold on the black market.

 

The torture porn or ‘gorenography’ fad of horror has quickly outstayed its welcome, if it ever had one originally. Horror films are no longer about generating tension, creating atmosphere and truly scaring people, they are simply about showing as much gore and nastiness as possible! I could pinpoint the likes of Hostel and Saw for bringing the sheer unpleasant nature of torture, suffering and splatter to the mainstream but it was already creeping in before hand. Now what we get is that pretty much every mainstream horror (that doesn’t involve ghosts or supernatural events) has gone down the route of blood, torture, suffering, pain, sickness and perversion. Directors are showing what was always suggested in these films – like people having body parts ripped off, their Achilles tendons being sliced off or being raped by mutants for the sake of entertainment. As a fan, there is only so much you can take before it just gets repetitive. After a while, it’s not a case of seeing whether the next horror film can out-do the last one in the nastiness stakes but seeing how far it will take it. Paradise Lost comes along at precisely the wrong moment for me to be able to look at it in anything other than being a tepid cash-in on the current fad.

At least it’s short and to the point and doesn’t try and over stay its welcome. It knows its characters are never going to get past its audience thinking “she’s fit” or “he’s buff” so they hired young actors to fit the bills of the cardboard cut outs on display. That’s all I’m going to say about the cast because they’re not worth mentioning anymore. The film seemingly knows no one is watching it to study screenwriting or understand the English language. But at least make a damn effort to give a bit of life to the dialogue. You could cut out the opening half an hour from here and paste it into pretty much any recent horror film and it wouldn’t be too far off. A group of good-looking teenagers begin drinking, drugging up and shagging everything in sight before being dumped into a situation they don’t understand with a maniac after them. They do the most stupid things, are given ridiculous situations to deal with that would never happen in real life and meet some of the most blatant local stereotypes going.

It’s the turn of some Brazilians to get the ‘poor backwards third world country’ tag here. Public transport not even fit for scrap metal (look at that bus!). Horny bikini-clad Samba honeys willing to put out for any strangers. And villages full of mud and disease in the middle of the jungle. Come on guys, at least keep it real. After all that happens to the main characters in the first twenty minutes, you would think they least would want to do is follow some Brazilian guy they just met into the jungle to crash at his uncle’s house whilst they sort out their passport situation. Ever heard of a consulate or embassy? Might I also add that by this point you’ve totally forgotten that this is supposed to be a horror film. There has been absolutely nothing to class it as horror so far, more like teenage drama. It’s got the pace of a sloth and nothing interesting has happened.

Things do pick up a little bit when the big reveal hits and the group realise that they’re in trouble but it’s a little too late to save the film. The big payoff for gore fans is supposed to be the scene where one unlucky teenager has her internal organs removed one at a time. But you know, after seeing numerous hospital and doctor programmes on TV, this scene did little to gross me out. And the most stupid thing is that we know what the villain wants after the first ten minutes courtesy of a scene with one of his minions discussing his plans. So all along we know that he wants to harvest the travellers for their organs. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting if we didn’t know what he wanted until he started operating? Now that would have had more impact. Instead you spend most of the film bracing yourself for the eventual harvesting scene and it’s absolutely crap and has no shock value whatsoever. It’s not even that bloody and the front cover with it’s splattering of blood would have you believe that this is a gore-fest. There’s hardly a scare to be had throughout the rest of the film so it really beats me as to what this film is trying to be? A thriller with horror elements or a horror with no horror elements?

 

Paradise Lost targets its audience pretty well with the attractive cast, nudity and potential for nasty shenanigans so dumb teenagers who have never seen a horror film may love it. But for me, it’s simply a stale leftover from Hostel reworked into a full blown feature film. This is one paradise you would want to remain lost forever.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Harpoon: The Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009)

Harpoon: The Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009)

Hunting humans in the cold Icelandic waters

A group of tourists take a whale watching trip off the coast of Iceland but when the captain suffers a freak accident and is mortally wounded, they are forced to take refuge aboard an old whaling ship that responds to their distress call. However this ship is home to a family of disgruntled ex-whalers who now take to hunting and killing humans since their previous past time was outlawed.

 

If there were awards for the film with the greatest title ever, surely this has to be up there with them! An Icelandic take on your ‘backwoods’ slasher featuring a family of retarded and mentally unstable psychopaths, Harpoon: The Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre gets billed as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre set aboard a whaling ship but it’s a lot more straightforward and less demented than that. It’s Iceland’s first foray into modern horror (the country made a few in the 80s but this is their first take on horror since Hostel and Saw turned up the notch of nastiness). Given their fellow Scandinavian countries have been making some decent horror films of late, it’s only right that the Icelandic nation gets a claim to horror fame. But despite having plenty of style, Harpoon: The Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre is just a European version of the same old stuff that the Americans have been making for years.

It’s a pity because the set up itself is excellent and the bizarre sequence of events that set the tourists aboard the whaling ship is nicely strung out. The Icelandic cinematography is splendid and really gives you a sense of isolation that it going to be needed later on. The whaling ship itself looks creepy and rather desolate. To say that it’s a big ship is an understatement but, for some reason, the characters only tend to hang around the same parts and thus the scale of the ship is downplayed. There’s little in the way of hide-and-seek as most of the tourists are dispatched within a few minutes of realising they’re all screwed. The ‘turn’ in the film where the psycho family attack the tourists is awesome, complete with a hammer-to-the-skull moment. But it’s at this point that the film unfortunately loses steam and instead of delivering another bloody European horror blow, it turns itself into a derivative American slasher. The tourists all separate aboard the ship and each of the family set off to hunt and kill them. The tourists all attempt to save themselves without thinking of anyone else and the rest of the film is just a rather lacklustre series of scenes of stalking and killing.

Most of the kills are by-the-book – not counting the awesome death-by-whaling-harpoon – but we don’t get a really good look at anything. Either the kill happens off screen or the camera is facing in a way so that you can’t see much at all. Very disappointing indeed especially given that there’s more blood and guts in the titles as real life footage of whales being hunted and killed is shown. The whole thing doesn’t really have an urgent sense of dread or an uncompromising atmosphere – it’s got little atmosphere at all which is a crime given how kick ass some of the parts of the ship were.

The villains are bland and try a little too hard to play to type – the domineering mother, the thuggish older brother and the dim, runt-like brother. The tourists themselves are a motley bunch of stereotypes – the Japanese guy with the camera, the French guy who says “oo la la” a little too much (get him some onions and beret as well why don’t you!) and the butch German women. In fact the most interesting character is the Japanese girl, Endo, who turns from being a servant girl into a rather ruthless killer, out for herself and no one else. It’s a really weird character and one that hangs around in the background at the start when some of the other characters are getting more exposure and development.

This is the film’s worst problem – there’s no real main character. At first we think its Pihla Viitala’s character that is nearly raped and then caught and stripped by the religious nut brother. Then the film switches focus to Terence Anderson’s Leon who again looks like he’s going to be the saviour and save the day. But towards the end of the film, it’s Endo who is the main focus and her cold-hearted approach to everyone else’s life remains frustratingly unexplained. Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface) makes a small cameo and is clearly only top-billed because of his infamous horror legacy. He hardly has any lines, isn’t in the film for long and is cast as the unfortunate captain so don’t expect much in the way of in-jokes towards anything chainsaw-related. It’s definitely a missed opportunity.

 

I really wanted to like Harpoon: The Rekjavik Whale Watching Massacre but maybe I was expecting the whole thing to be a little more grim, distasteful and brutal than it ended up given the more recent Scandinavian horror films I’ve seen (Cold Prey, Dead Snow, etc). Disappointing but still not without its own merit.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The (2006)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

The Only Thing More Shocking than How it Ended, Is How it All Began.

Two young men decide to take their girlfriends with them when they enlist to serve to Vietnam and head off on a cross-country road trip. On their way through a remote part of Texas, they become the first victims of the sadistic Hewitt family.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I got it a bit wrong with my visions of doom for the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – it wasn’t half bad considering they were re-tooling a classic for the modern era. It stuck fairly close to the original, added a few nasty surprises (such as R. Lee Ermey as the scene-stealing Sheriff) and at least paid a bit of tribute to its origins whilst trying to get itself over with the fans. Success breeds sequels in Hollywood and it was only time before Leatherface and co. came calling again. Well they have come calling again but this time it was in a prequel to a remake! There’s not many of those lying around, is there? Having watched Leatherface and his different incarnations and interpretations upon the screen, I was interested to see how they decided to give birth to the monster. After all there has to be some starting point for the infamous killer with sewn-on faces and a chainsaw for his best friend. All of the other big horror icons have had their births and starting points mapped out (some more so than others, Freddy Kruger…) so why not Leatherface?

To say this was ‘The Beginning’ and about how things started off is a joke. There is about ten minutes of back story to Leatherface to begin the film off and then that is it. They covered pretty much the same stuff in the remake so what’s the point in rehashing old material? Here it seems like it was rushed past to get straight to the chainsaws and gore moments because that’s where the money comes from. The cannibal family is also back for more here with R. Lee Ermey reprising his role as the Sheriff, or at least not the Sheriff for the first part of the film. Once again we’re given a weak back story to how he became Sheriff and it’s pretty poor to say the least. You’d have expected the film to delve more deeply into the mindsets of these characters but no. There was such a good story hiding behind this cannibalistic family but you’re not going to get it here. All you’re going to get is a routine modern horror flick.

You know the type – sadistic, ruthless and gory as hell. Normally I’m all for a bit of blood and guts, mutilation and massacring but there’s just no point to it here. It all seems rather forced and pointless. Modern horror cinema has upped the stakes so much in the brutality stakes that each subsequent film has to be nastier and more sadistic than the last. There’s only so far that you can go before people start switching off and I am one of them here. Beating, maiming and torturing the teenagers just has no point to it here. Believe me though, they do get maimed, tortured and beaten up! I watched the unrated version and although I could still hear the echoes of the censor’s scissors cutting the film, it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. You nearly get to see (at long last I might add) just what the chainsaw can really do as Leatherface slices a guy up on a table as his girlfriend covers underneath getting drenched in blood and entrails.

I guess part of the blame in not really caring about the film lies in the fact that the story has been rushed over to get the ‘good bits’ up front and centre. The characters are just not interesting in the slightest. I couldn’t care less if Leatherface chops them up. There’s no apathy with the characters at all. Even the cannibal family doesn’t have much in the way of development. Hell usually I’m rooting for the bad guys in these films because the heroes and heroines are so bland but in this case, I’m just stood shrugging at whoever comes out on top.

R. Lee Ermey gives it his all once again as the Sheriff and he kicks ass big time. He was great in the remake but he gets a little over-exposed in this one. He’s the nastiest piece of work to come out of a horror film in a long while simply because he’s not a lumbering psycho with a mask and sharp weapon – he’s just a badass redneck with a taste for flesh and a sadistic streak that would go down a real treat in something like Hostel. Andrew Bryniarski is imposing and perfectly suited to the role of Leatherface. The film treats him with a little respect at least and he’s one aggressive, relentless and scary-looking killer. No cowering like a woman or dressing in drag for him in this one.

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a banal exercise in terror and torture which serves up plenty of gut-spilling moments and stomach-churning nastiness but little else. It’s basically just a rehash of the remake which in itself was a rehash of the original. Given that the whole purpose of the film was supposedly to give Leatherface and the Hewitt family some back story, it fails miserably. In fact it doesn’t fail, it doesn’t even try.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Just Before Dawn (1981)

Just Before Dawn (1981)

Will Anyone Survive Those Hours Just Before Dawn?

Five campers set off on a weekend excursion to a remote piece of land that one of them has inherited. They are warned by the local ranger that there is a machete-wielding maniac loose in the woods who has been terrorising people but the group ignore his warnings as simple scaremongering. However what they find is much worse as a family of hillbillies wants them off the land, sending their massive machete-wielding son out to kill them.

 

More akin to the barmy backwoods mentality of Deliverance and brutal realism of The Hills Have Eyes than the teenage slash fests of Friday the 13th that it’s commonly branded with, Just Before Dawn has a large fan base within the horror community but is little-known outside of it. There are infinitely more famous horror films from the early 80s including the original My Bloody Valentine and The Burning but this one never seems to get a mention. Maybe it’s because the few people who have seen it don’t like it because it’s not the all-out slasher that they were expecting. Maybe it’s simply because it seems to have been released a little too late and would have fitted perfectly into the mid-70s backwoods horror cycle. To anyone who has seen the likes of Wrong Turn but hasn’t seen this, then consider Just Before Dawn an older, more toned down version.

Just Before Dawn takes a while to get going. The first thirty minutes or so are filled with your standard character development threads but thankfully this group of people aren’t just mind-numbingly dull and generic teenagers but responsible, mature young adults who make rational decisions and feel ‘real.’ They’re actually out in the woods to climb and explore, not to get drunk and smoke weed. Of all the shocks! The characters that last longer in the film really get fleshed out and traverse some wonderful arcs as different characters show their true selves under the stress of the situation. The alpha male, ‘not-scared-of-anything’ guy turns into a complete wuss by the end and the meek, timid ‘final girl’ steps up to the task of trying to get the group out alive. The transformations are handled well and they don’t seem out of place.

During this time, there are plenty of stalking scenes with the huge, bulky mountain man watching on from a distance. You always get the feeling that this guy is within a few feet of the group at all times, you just can’t see him. The film doesn’t follow usual convention by having the killer suddenly jump out and shout boo with a huge blast of sound. The scares and tension come from within existing shots. People will be talking to each other, kissing or doing something else and you’ll see the killer in the background either coming towards them or getting himself into position (I’ll call you a liar if you tell me you don’t get chills when he swings onto the camper van). This goes on for too long though and its way too drawn out, leading to lots of dull stretches where little happens. The killer spends too much time lurking and not enough time chopping. It’s this stop-start mentality that harms Just Before Dawn in the long run. You think its picking up a bit of steam only for it to suddenly stop and have to start from scratch.

Just Before Dawn scores massive points with the locations it was filmed in. The cinematography is exceptional and the forest wilderness has never looked more dangerous. The camera lingers over some excellent panoramic shots to really give you the sense that these people are stuck in the middle of nowhere. Waterfalls, rock faces, dense forests and unforgiving trails all lead to nowhere. There’s no help coming. These people are here on there own. It nails the realism aspect down to a tee. Also nailed down is the blood. Considering the era in which this film was made, it’s unusual to see that the film keeps its gore to a bare minimum. During the early 80s, blood was thrown around like confetti at a wedding but director Jeff Liebermann opts to keep things low key. Don’t get me wrong, there are a couple of decent pay-offs where blood is necessary but Just Before Dawn doesn’t need to resort to these cheap tricks to get a kick out of the audience. It uses it’s locations to generate tension and the previously mentioned use of shots of the killer to ramp up the fear factor.

Amongst the cast attempting to survive these harsh lands are a few names which will no doubt ring a bell with people. George Kennedy is the feature name on show here and, although he spends the majority of the film riding around the woods on a white horse like some pompous Roman general, he’s still able to lend some heavyweight credibility to the film. Gregg Henry, who may be more familiar to genre fans as his role as the mayor in Slither, is the unlucky guy to have inherited the land in the middle of nowhere. Performances across the board are decent enough because the script keeps the characters real. These people aren’t trying to fit into generic stereotypes and come off all the more lifelike as a result.

 

I can see why Just Before Dawn is so well thought-of in the horror genre with it’s brutal realism sandwiched between some downright eerie moments and decent scares. But then I can see why it’s little-known to anyone else with its heel-dragging, sluggishness and insistence to keep things low key. It stands out from its 80 teen horror rivals by a country mile but can’t hold a candle to its more respected backwoods horror brethren.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Severance (2006)

Severance (2006)

Another bloody office outing

When Hollywood decides to make a film based on the killer dolls of Chucky and Tiffany, their long-lost son, Glen travels there to see if he can find his parents. He eventually resurrects them but is horrified when Chucky wants him to follow in his murderous footsteps, whilst Tiffany is more worried with the actress portraying her in the film.

 

Ever since the release of Shaun of the Dead, nearly every British horror-comedy gets unfairly labelled with the tag of “the best one horror-comedy since Shaun of the Dead” and pretty much all have failed miserably to get anywhere near it’s genius. Severance is arguably the closest anyone has come. Mixing horror and comedy is a tough ask and usually one side gets a little more focus and therefore weakens the impact of the other. Here the balance is just about right – a mix of crazy bad taste comedy, some truly horrific violence and plenty of comic interplay and witty one-liners between the cast. The film works better as a dark comedy though and there are some memorable sight gags including the best use of a mini-freezer you’ll ever see. It’s gory slapstick at its best and definitely one of this country’s better exports of recent years. More famous offerings like The Descent may receive all of the plaudits and headlines but there is a steady stream of reasonable low budget horrors invading foreign markets. British horror has never been as strong as this for years, since the prime days of Hammer in fact. Severance is leading the charge with severed head and leg in hand.

Severance does take a little time to click into gear though and the opening half certainly goes through the traditional motions on more than one occasion as we’re introduced to the characters and the setting. After a promising opening scene featuring two semi-naked European chicks trapped in a bear pit, I became a little worried at times that the film was heading nowhere fast. Thankfully I was proven wrong later and the opening was just a taste of what is to come (in fact the film goes full circle to reveal why two semi-naked European chicks are trapped in a bear pit). It doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest, even when the film gets nasty later on. The humour is on board to relieve tension and make the situation seem a little less deadly than it is. There are no scares to be had unless it’s your first horror film and a lot of the standard slasher clichés are here ready to be unleashed. But they’re not unleashed in the usual manner.

The script seems derivative at first and the characters one-dimensional (smarmy boss, token asshole, nerd, stoner, etc). But as the film moves along, each cookie-cutter character develops a personality and the film doesn’t stay on the same well-worn slasher track, throwing in plenty of curveballs (and oddballs too). It all makes for a refreshing change and credit must go to the writers for being able to switch the tone of the film quite easily without upsetting the balance.

The cast is excellent. Toby Stephens, more used to playing serious roles, gets his teeth into the token ‘office asshole’ who everyone hates. Tim McInnerny, more famous from his Blackadder days, is a right hoot as the smarmy manager of the group who is constantly putting his foot in it by saying the wrong things. Danny Dyer plays himself again – the Cockney chav with sharp wit, an eye for the ladies and basic all-round ‘geezer.’ He plays to his strengths here which is being himself as opposed to acting as someone else. In fact every one of the main actors is decent in their roles and they all bring their characters to life. Thankfully the script does all of the characters justice and it’s nice to be able to root for a group of people for a change. Granted not all of them deserve to live but the film does a great job of making us care for most of them so that when some shocking deaths occur, you can’t help but feel a little sad and gutted.

The deaths come through a variety of unique means including bear traps and flamethrowers. It’s brutal, over-the-top at times and quite gory as you’ll see heads getting severed and you also get a good close-up of the damage done by the aforementioned bear trap. Without the earlier humour to lighten the mood, you’d wonder why the film is as nasty as it is and it could quite easily stand on it’s own as a serious horror. The film even manages to throw in the couple of semi-naked European chicks which comes totally out of left field but at least shows that the director knows his target audience well enough to pamper them.

 

If you’ve got a warped sense of comedy or like your bad taste in big doses then Severance is definitely one to watch. Kudos to the writers for making everything click into place. Not perfect by a mile but I’ll take Severance over any mainstream American remake, sequel or J-horror re-imagining any day of the week.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Wilderness (2006)

Wilderness (2006)

It’s not about revenge. It’s about punishment.

A group of young offenders are sent away to a military boot camp on a remote and supposedly uninhabited island to be taught some serious lessons after one of their number commits suicide, brought on by months of bullying. However they don’t realise that a psychopath waits for them on the island – someone trained and equipped as experienced hunter and determined to make them pay for what they have done via a serious of gruesome booby traps.

 

It’s good to see the UK film industry finally getting back on track with horror films. I mean after all, the British gave the world Hammer Horror, which revolutionised the way we looked at horror films back in the late 50s. With the demise of Hammer and the rise of more splatter orientated flicks in the 70s, British horror suffered a dramatic death which it has only begun to claw its way back from. Like them or not, I’ll at least applaud the efforts of the likes of Dog Soldiers, Creep, The Descent, 28 Days Later and many others to try and rekindle that old magic using different approaches and methods of execution. All of them look to have minor budgets but that’s no barrier for creative and passionate people in front of and behind the camera.

You can tell a good British horror apart from its American counterparts as, on the whole, they’re not as insulting to your intelligence. They’re reasonably believable (Dog Soldiers did such a good job of creating believable werewolves, you’d have thought the species actually existed), have decent scripts on the whole and generally try and avoid as many of the clichés as possible (how many of the recent British horror flicks have a young cast of Hollywood types that plague American horrors?) and make the best use of the tricks of the horror trade as opposed to just throwing as much money into the film as possible.

Slotting in to the whole equation is Wilderness, the second directorial effort from Michael J. Bassett who brought us the interesting-but-shallow Deathwatch. Wilderness isn’t going to win any awards for originality and runs like a cross between Dog Soldiers, Saw, Deliverance and Scum, weaving elements from them together to create a patchwork horror flick. It starts off harshly enough inside the prison where the young offenders are given their character development so that you know who to really boo later on in the film. Foreign viewers may have a hard time understanding some of these guys as well – the skinheads with ropey accents so commonly associated with our prisons. The script doesn’t do them any favours either, with lots of street dialogue that upper-crust residents of this island would have trouble understanding. With the exception of Sean Pertwee and Alex Reid, the rest of the cast seems to have limited acting experience, which actually helps in this situation because the characters aren’t overacting or thinking too hard about how they’re coming off on camera. Their inexperience greatly adds to the realism that the remoteness of the island brings. I like to see a film which really makes good use of its location and, just like Dog Soldiers, the woodland setting here is top notch. The eerie silence is golden and a clear sign of their distance from help and the woodland comes alive with shadows and all sorts of mirages. Think you see something lurking in the distance? There’s a good possibility that you have.

But come on, it’s time to get down to the crunch. All of the quotes on the cover proclaim it to be brutal, gory, etc. Well it is! It’s not as nasty as I was expecting but there’s some great gore including the killer sending his hungry dogs to dish out their own brand of justice on one of the characters (and there’s not a great deal left to the imagination). There’s also a nasty moment involving a minefield of bear traps into which one unfortunate character falls into. The booby trap aspect isn’t as evident as I was expecting either but you can see the influence of Saw on modern horror with the harsh tone it takes towards death. No longer do guys in these films run around killing people with machetes or axes, it’s all about being as creative and as nasty as possible and showing all of its glory on the screen.

However whilst the film tries to get creative, it fails to live up to its potential. The ‘hunted becomes the hunter’ theme throughout the final third doesn’t sit that well with the rest of the flick and the unveiling of the killer and his motive isn’t really that shocking. You don’t need to be Einstein to work out the whole revenge plot from the start so at least the film spares us the indignity of pretending to play ignorant with us. The characters, whilst believable and well-acted, are just a pack of bastards. Kudos to Stephen Wright who makes his skinhead rebel to be one of the most obnoxious and horrible characters I’ve seen for a long while. But when there’s no one to root for, who are we supposed to be gunning for? The hunter who wants revenge for his son being bullied or the bastards who bullied him? Some of the characters’ transformations when they are forced to get primitive are a bit far-fetched too, including the main guy who suddenly develops into a better hunter than the ex-soldier who is killing them!

 

Wilderness shows promise and is certainly a big step up from Deathwatch for Michael J. Bassett. It’s a lot more involving, very rough and gritty and throws out plenty of gore and brutality for shock value. Unfortunately we’ve already been there before and it lacks that little extra magic that would make you want to watch it again. However if his next film shows as much improvement on this as this did with Deathwatch, then I can’t wait.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Cottage, The (2008)

The Cottage (2008)

Sleeps six bloody comfortably.

A couple of inept brothers decide to kidnap the daughter of a mobster and hold her to ransom in a desperate scheme to make some money. So they whisk her away to a remote cottage in the countryside where they decide to stay low until the money is paid. However she escapes her bungling captors and heads into the woods. With the brothers in hot pursuit, all three inadvertently trespass onto the land of a deranged farmer who is only too quick to put the proverbial lambs to the slaughter.

 

Oh they don’t make comedy horror films like the British, do they? You can just instantly tell when a film is a British comedy as the humour is just quintessentially British with plenty of wit, sarcasm and low key humour which raises chuckles and smirks. We don’t like making things obvious and throwing in loads of silly in-jokes, fart gags or slapstick. We’re masters at laughing at the understated. When I sit down to a Brit comedy-horror flick, I’m already a little more entertained and intrigued than I would be watching an American flick. It’s biased as hell but it’s true. It’s probably because we don’t make that many films in the UK anymore so that when they do get released, it seems like more of a special event. You can tell that time, painstaking detail and a lot of love and affection goes into them simply for the fact that the people involved aren’t just on a conveyor belt of film production like they are in the studios in the States. The Cottage is the next in a recent wave of comedy horrors from the UK that have hit the market and comes off as a bit of a cross between From Dusk Till Dawn and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The film doesn’t really get into horror territory until the second half. The first half of the film is taken up with the kidnapping and typical ‘everything going wrong’ scenario in which our team main characters find themselves in. This is where the bulk of the comedy comes in as the hapless brothers make a complete mess of the kidnapping and their eventual escape into the countryside. It’s only later in the film where it shifts into more serious horror territory. The gear change isn’t sudden and the anticipation and slow build-up works quite well. The gags still run but they’re not as prevalent. The writers clearly realise that in order for the horror to work, it must be scary and in order to be scary, it can’t be silly. So the psychotic, disfigured farmer who shows up isn’t silly in the slightest. He’s big, brutal and savage and extremely violent. He’s only got one direction and that’s full steam ahead so get in his way and you’re screwed.

Although the character is played straight, the kills aren’t and there are some right beauties here with a variety of farming tools being used. The film is pretty gory but like the tone of the film, it’s not meant to be nasty and some of the more creative moments of goo will have you squirming and laughing in equal measure. But if you’ve seen any of the other recent Brit flicks (Severance, Shaun of the Dead, Doghouse, etc) then you’ll know what to expect in the gore stakes.

Andy Serkis has so much more talent than to be stuck as Peter Jackson’s regular motion capture actor and here he demonstrates why he is such a man in demand. Serkis is always watchable and brings enough tough talking to the table here to give his character a dark edge but also enough likeability and affection for his brother that he’s somewhat humanised. Reece Shearsmith plays his feeble brother who is scared of pretty much everything (in particular he hates moths) to perfection and the two feed off each other very well with some excellent banter. The bond between them may not be obvious but throughout the film you really get the sense of brotherly love and looking out for each other – which obviously doesn’t go down too well with a big assed farmer with a pitchfork after them.

Despite the script dishing out loads of physical abuse throughout the running time to Shearsmith’s character (and boy does this poor bloke go through the ringer), the problem is that they’re supposed to be criminals and we shouldn’t be sympathising with them because they are kidnappers! But even the victims and the innocents who die aren’t very sympathetic. Jennifer Ellison plays Tracy, the kidnap victim, and apart from displaying a lot of cleavage and swearing in her horrible Scouse accent every two minutes, she does little else. We should be rooting for her because she’s been kidnapped but as soon as she opens her mouth and starts swearing, the only thing you want to see is a big bucket of soap and water being dunked down her mouth! Doug Bradley (the immortal Pinhead) makes a small cameo here too but the scene is so small, insignificant and throwaway that I wonder if it was to say “we got a cameo from Pinhead!”

 

The Cottage isn’t the most original film and it’s certainly a bit derivative in places but its fun and entertaining throughout. When you’re dealing with the subject matter of a psychotic, disfigured farmer you can’t really ask for more than for it to be a good watch!

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆