Saturday, 27 July 2013

FRIGHTFEST: The Dyatlov Pass Incident


Nowadays, for a found-footage film to stand apart from the piles of tapes of amateur camerawork before it, it seems that a safe bet would be to base it on true events. If that’s the case, what better than to feature it on one of the most bizarre mysteries of the 20th century? The Dyatlov Pass Incident refers to the disappearance of nine young American hikers in the Russian Ural mountains 54 years ago, which remains unsolved and has sparked deliberation and international theoretical debate ever since.

Renny Harlin’s film adaptation sees a group of young graduate hiking enthusiasts from Oregon trek the now isolated mountain where these unfortunate climbers mystified their fate, in order to replicate their journey and try to discover what happened to them all those years ago. They do, of course, record it. And alas! - They do, of course, go missing too.

Initial clips from TV news stories help authenticate and contextualise the story, and an unnerving leaked thirty second clip from the group’s camera that preludes the main viewing sparks a tepid interest early on.

Rewatching the footage of the crew’s camera, retrieved one month later, plays out this subgenre’s most worn clichés from obsessive over-confident characters, warnings from locals not to proceed and the tracking down of those once involved for interviews. A series of unexplained noises, spooky disruptions and inhuman footprints break from the group’s frictions, only for a ‘freak’ avalanche to incite the film’s first fatalities.

It’s not until Harlin renders his own theory to the group’s fate - a theory which was and still is widely shared by others - that it starts to embrace the opportunity of portraying one of the most important modern age mysteries. The dark consequences of historic military torture and experiments unearths a terrifying deranged presence that raptures a brutal chaos and an uncanny scientific suggestion that is left to the baffled viewer’s imagination. Unfortunately, with only twenty minutes to go, this intriguing otherworldly ending is not enough to provoke an all-round satisfying thrill. 

Having been documented and fictionalized in TV and books since the legal inquest was declared inconclusive, the popular found footage subgenre may have instinctively appeared to be the next format for theorizing this Russian mystery. Maybe it is. But here, the priorities are muddled and the occasion wasted; the narrative dominance of sweeping facts, theories and context adds nothing to the complexity of existing literature, thus leaving the plausible, imaginative scope to be half-heartedly executed as a mere after-thought.

VERDICT: A half decent effort to uncover one of history's true mysteries through the use of a popular genre medium, but an effort that does not make use of its opportunity.

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Tuesday, 23 July 2013



The first release of the trailer for Wither immediately raises speculation of its mimicry of Evil Dead, and whenever those two words sit next to one another and clamber into a new movie’s description, it tends to trigger a wave of excitement and an unnerving anticipation among genre fans. Here, the excitement is fully worthwhile. And the two appearances in the Film4 Frightfest programme help prove it.

Renowned for cult hits like Let The Right One In (2008), Troll Hunter (2010), Not Like Others (2008) and Dead Snow (2009), Scandinavia seems to be pumping out its fair share of genre movies, and Wither co-directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund are among the handful of Swedish filmmakers proving that their native country’s contribution to horror is up there with the rest of their Nordic neighbours. Having riskily experimented with Swedish actors in English-language roles in cabin-in-the-woods slasher Blood Runs Cold- their first collaborative effort - Wither marks their first native-language feature.

Albin (Patrik Almkvist), his girlfriend Ida (Lisa Henni) and his twenty-something friends embark on a weekend away at a cabin, only to find that it’s locked when they arrive. When Marcus (Max Wallmo) dares Marie (Jessica Blomkvist) to climb through a back window to scare the others, she finds herself stumbling upon a hatch in the wooden floorboards. Though Marie descends into the basement simply out of a playful curiosity, something evil encompasses her and she resurfaces as a wicked creature set to bring terror on everyone.

Wither’s framework screams Evil Dead from its gory attack set pieces, the awakening of a historic curse, the blood-soaked look of affected victims, and of course, the cabin in the woods. Those scrutinising its every sequence may even assume that the character Albin rocking the familiar blue shirt is a symbolic reference to our beloved hero Ash. Who knows, maybe it is. But peer past its resembling surface and you can see that Laguna and Wiklund are striving to do a lot more here.

It’s a slow and typical start, toying with the misfit group’s pranks, angst and quarrel, which hardly sets itself apart from every other camp flick. But from the moment disaster strikes, it throws full throttle devotion to characterisation, and each member is individually dissected in one way or another from the one dimensional group mould. It intermittently steps back from the fast-paced bloody brutality to catch its breath, only to take yours away as its arty vibe seamlessly waltzes through a stream of poignant and intriguing character-led scenes.

Produced on microbudget limits, the evidence of its low production values creep through in some of the lingering close ups. Otherwise though, it’s a fine and masterful display of the modern B-movie, nostalgically bringing horror back to its basics. Raw, gritty make up-effects splash the screen, stretching and savouring every penny, coupled with atmospheric string instrumentals and a catalogue of quirky camera movements. Its heavy use of panning shots from one scene or character to the next makes full use of the cabin’s inherent claustrophobia and entrapment, and succeeds to create a mindful awareness of the cabin’s lair, something that somewhat lacked in Fede Alvarez’ recent remake of Evil Dead. 

Laguna and Wiklund have come a long way in moulding their creativity to produce more suspenseful set pieces and refining their effects since Blood Runs Cold. Wither joins Swedish horror drama Marianne and psychological horror-thriller Mara among others with this year’s releases, and, having already made a start on their next feature (yes, it’s a cabin horror!), it’s fair to say that Laguna and Wiklund are making a noteworthy contribution to the centrefold of European horror.
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Friday, 19 July 2013

Apartment 1303 3D


There’s now quite an extensive list of apartment numbers that every horror fan will be sure to watch out for on holidays and house moves. Number 1303 became one of those numerals in 2007 with Ataru Oikawa’s Japanese supernatural horror Apartment 1303, and director Michael Taverna now looks to recapture the haunted happenings behind door on the thirteenth floor in his Hollywood headlining remake.
Fed up of incessantly rowing with her boozy, damning mother (Rebecca De Mornay), Janet (Julianne Michelle) moves out of her family home to find independence and happiness in her own flat. But when she is found dead after seemingly leaping from her balcony just a few days later, her grieving sister Lara (Mischa Barton) moves in to figure out the cause of her younger sister’s freak death.  

Oikawa’s original adaptation of Oishi’s novel expended all the contraptions of J-horror; the lurking draped hair figures, narrative complexity in references to paranormal past events, and an ominous score to secure the eerie atmospheric tone all contributed to the deliverance of this chilling story. Six years later and another American rendition of an original J-horror crashes to a bitter inferiority. Taverna fails to translate the novel into anything other than a one dimensional and predictable plotline and makes a feeble attempt to build the deserved atmosphere. The shortcomings are all too immediate, and those who have little patience may well, understandably, throw this aside long before the mediocre eighty five minutes.

When Lara discovers that her sister is the latest in a long line of women to have died in that apartment and decides to move in herself, it’s not only ridiculous and infuriating, but condemns the narrative beyond repair. This happens within the first half. When Lara and the former boyfriend of Janet team up to get to the roots of the death, the following investigation is boring and unimaginative, and the interweaving scares are too blatant to bear any effect. It has its odd moments of eeriness in a Paranormal Activity-esque sequence of a girly ghost (a girl who is clearly just dressed in a damp gown) circling the sleeping boyfriend, but even that is soon ruined by a quick cutaway and return to its lacklustre plot. It’s forever half a step forward and five steps back.  

Barton leads the cast through an array of tawdry performances with no help from the naff dialogue and lack of character development. The pitifulness of De Mornay’s fallible character provides more embarrassment than entertainment, and it’s disappointing to see the horror highness in a weak role considering her tyrannical mothering presence in Mothers Day (2010) and, of course, her legendary contribution in the genre.

A series of unworthy 3D FX and a laughable sex scene concludes the substance of this remake.


VERDICT: If you’re looking for your next horror fix, don’t check in to Apartment 1303 (2013). Go for the 2007 version instead.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

[INTERVIEW] Sonny Logan & Tommy Wikund

Directors of Blood Runs Cold & Wither
In the last decade or so, Scandinavia has pumped out a number of successful genre flicks, namely Let The Right One In, Deep Snow and Troll Hunter, and the spotlight continues to shine on its contribution to the genre. Up next: Wither. If you like Evil Dead (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) you’re going to love this gritty, low budget cabin horror from two of Sweden’s budding horror filmmakers, Tommy Wiklund and Sonny Laguna. Having experimented with cabin-reunions-gone-wrong in their first feature, winter slasher Blood Runs Cold (which also saw its premiere at Frightfest in 2011), the co-directors’ latest flick hurdles into cabin-in-the-wood curses, buckets of blood and a shed load of dead-creepy possessions.
With the UK premiere of Evil Dead-inspired Wither next month at Film4 Frightfest, featuring twice in this year’s programme, we caught up with Wiklund and Sonny Laguna about cabin horror, working in Sweden and the pain in their behind… microbudgets!

Becky Roberts: Even from first looks at the trailer, people have very much dubbed this an Evil Dead-esque horror, and in the film there are clearly similarities from the cabin horror premise to the relentless attack sequences. How much was Evil Dead an influence or was it more a result of your enthusiasm for cabin horror?

Tommy Wiklund: People like to put films in a box and then put on a label that pretty much describes the whole thing in one word. For Wither, that means it's an Evil Dead-type of film. Evil Dead, the original, is one of my favourite films of all time. That film alone for me was one of the main reasons I thought it as possible to put together a film with a low budget and a small crew. I can say for certain that the creature design was heavily inspired by Evil Dead. I think the rest of the film is just our imagination based on our experiences from other films.

BR: Your 2011 winter chiller Blood Runs Cold was also a cabin horror. What made you decide to stick with a similar concept / sub genre?

Sonny Laguna: It all comes down to budget, what we can d and what type of house we can shoot in. We can't afford to create a set from scratch or have, let's say a ballroom filled with hundreds of extras and a lot of other things that pump up the production value. As an example, in Blood Runs Cold we tried to populate a bar with extras in different ages. We had around 20 people that told us that they were gonna show up: two came. So that is a problem here in Sweden, the film culture is just limited, especially for the horror genre. But we wouldn't have done this type of film if we didn't enjoy making it.

BR: A criticism of Blood Runs Cold was its alleged inability to adapt Swedish actors for an English-language performance. Was this a factor in your decision to make Wither a Swedish-language film?

SL: Well, it was a factor but not the only one. We've always wanted to make a Swedish horror film but couldn't find a concept until now that would have a chance here on this kind of budget. Wither was that kind of idea that could work and the end result is a wide theatrical release here in Sweden.

BR: What I like most about Wither is its ability to intermittently withdraw from the action to reflect on the characters’ emotion as it added much more individual suffering as opposed to just group torture. Was it your intention to add more depth to your characters?

TW: I'm glad to hear that you noticed that. We tried to develop each character on their own and together as a group. We really wanted to show the difference in a person's reaction when the same extreme event happens to them. For example, Simon in the film is a more selfish guy then Albin (the main character), so his initial reaction is to take care of himself. That was something we really tried to push for.
BR: You used panning camera shots a lot to transition from one scene or one character to the next, as opposed to quick cutaways. Was this your intention from the beginning and where did the idea to use technique come from?

TW: It's a style of shooting and storytelling we like. We don't want to make it look too produced, too perfect for its own good. We really wanted Wither to feel more gritty, more captured in the moment so to speak. We think that's why the found footage-genre is so popular, it feels like someone was actually there to capture the action. And this technique in our case can actually enhance the production value, again without sacrificing the realistic approach.

BR: How did you decide on the appearance?; What was the make-up process like and was the decision to ignore CGI purely a financial one?

SL: Well, as mentioned earlier, it was very much an Evil Dead-inspired design. We wanted the creatures to feel human at times because underneath that possession, there are still traces of the old self left. We never wanted to be compared to zombie films, because our vision of a zombie is much more traditional than this. The shooting took about 50 days because of the make-up process taking time. We had some help from a talented girl named Leo Thörn that helped doing some prosthetics, otherwise David and Tommy did most of the practical effects/make-up. About CGI, my favourite thing about filmmaking, there are a couple of hundred shots that were in some way manipulated through CGI but used sparingly. I love CGI but as every aspect of film, it needs to be used at the right time.

BR: With your films all being done on a micro budget, you certainly embrace it. But what are the toughest barriers you face with concerns to production values?

TW: One of the toughest things about not having enough money is to actually produce the whole thing. To get actors on set at the same time and when we need them to, when we can't pay them as much as we would like. We were extremely lucky to have such a dedicated cast, especially Lisa Henni and Patrik Almkvist that were in the film in almost every scene. They wanted this as much as we did, so they sacrificed a lot of weekends for us and the film. We certainly would like to have a bigger budget, but sadly, we don't earn enough money on this to even pay our own salaries. We don't know how much longer we can keep doing this if we can't break through on the market and make a good profit.

BR: The curse that turns those who are consumed by it into ravenous and violent monsters is explained to be supposedly buried deep in the past of this cabin. Was there an origin of this tale?

SL: Yes, the tale speaks about weird creatures living underneath us in the ground. If you were to build a house on their territory, things would go very bad. We took that tale and twisted it a bit. In the intro to the film we have drawings from different time periods that tells the tale over and over again.

BR: Are you influenced by any particular Scandinavian, or even European, directors / works?

TW: We love the Fritt Vilt (Cold Prey) trilogy from Norway. France is a great country for producing gritty and violent horrors that still maintain great production values. 
BR: How excited are you that Wither has been chosen to feature twice in the Frightfest programme next month?

SL: Well, since we are in the middle of the shooting our next film we can't think about it that much. But it seems to be one of the most classy horror film festivals there is so that is a great honour and good inspiration for us to keep pushing the envelope. 

BR: You’re already onto filming your next feature. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Another horror?

SL: It's a horror alright. Very different from Wither, but still features a cabin. It just went very well with the story we are trying to tell. It's in English and it features the worst kind of evil there is, mankind. I can't share that much more right now but we are doing a lot of daily updates on our Facebook page, and yeah, please like us. We are "like"-sluts. 
BR: Lastly, what did you think of Fede Alvarez' homage to the Evil Dead franchise in his recent remake?

TW: Actually, we haven't seen the thing yet. We have chosen not to watch it in cinemas because we want a 100% focused experience at home. I've ordered it on Blu-ray and just waiting for it to arrive. I have a pretty good set up at home so we are gonna religiously watch it soon, so looking forward to it. The trailer looks amazing.

A huge thanks to Sonny and Tommy for conducting the interview, and to co-writer David Liljeblad for his input. Wither will premiere at Film4 Frightfest on Friday 23rd (9pm) with a repeated showing on the Sunday 25th (11:10pm). A UK distribution has not yet been secured.

Friday, 5 July 2013

A Field in England


Back in 2010, Ben Wheatley split audiences with his second feature violent religious cult thriller Kill List (the first, comedy action Down Terrace, stole hearts at Raindance Film Festival the year before). Catapulting him to the forefront of independent film, Wheatley and his long-time creative partner Amy Jump, have since plunged into cross generic experimentation. Last year birthed their first cinematic film release with romping black comedy Sightseers, which follows a couple’s macabre murdering spree during their campervan holiday in Scotland, and now, the daring duo have experimented in yet another catastrophe in the countryside. This time we are to blasted back to the brazen scenes of 1940-something England.

In the Civil War somewhere in the western hills of the country, four deserters manage to flee an explosive battle before being captured by an alchemist O’Neil (Michael Smiley) and his stooge Cutler. But when the unlikely captives are forced to help the overpowering duo in their hunt for the field’s hidden treasure, their first night’s mushroom meal causes an outburst of paranoia, irrationalism and hostility. The hunt for the treasure becomes misconstrued and before they know it, it’s the emerging entity of the field that overpowers their fears of war on the very playground itself.

Much like Kill List, first impressions wither on where to put it. It defies categorization, blending folk horror, comic adventure, war drama, and British western landscape. It rambles through a predominantly absent conventional story; its wildly disjointed set pieces lack continuity; and the gore is uncharacteristically feeble considering its genre incorporation.

But that doesn’t matter. In fact, fans of Wheatley will contend this is the essence of its beauty. They would, of course, be spot on.  

Once again the master of the unorthodox imagination has done what he does best - create a weird, wacky and wonderful world that unravels an enchanting journey and captures it through a kaleidoscopic lens. It’s an enthralling and boggling psychedelic ride into the deepest realms of madness, and the magic in his picture is evidently far from confined to the make up of the mushrooms. Anything can happen in this delirious vacuum - and the nonsensical musical interludes prove it. 

Shot in black and white and rinsing the diversity of kooky camera framework, the beauty of each shot precedes the last. The rolling fields of Surrey provide the perfect backdrop for his character’s hazy and empty provincial existence, and the shoddy costume efforts helps bring a refreshing portrait of grisly 17th century England to life. The audience is as exposed to and embraced by the field’s gritty entrapment as the characters, and the metaphoric images that particularly surround the abuse towards self-professed coward Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) and depict his agonizing pain and subconscious confusion only serve to add depth to the frenzy of the trudged hero.
A Field in England was released today and marks the first film to be released simultaneously on omnichannel media platforms, being available to viewers in UK cinemas and on Freeview TV, on DVD and on Video-on-Demand thanks to the partnerships of Film4, Picturehouse Entertainment, 4DVD and Film4 Channel. Whether or not its distribution will be revolutionary or suffer from an overly concentrated experiment, it will remain an important project for the history books. It is also an internal landmark moment for the studio as it marks the first Film4.0 feature film. Innovation applauds.

VERDICT: Interlacing all the distorted elements of Kill List and Sightseers, and adding a new layer of historical relevance, A Field in England entertains with all its extremities and oddities.