On the Radar – The Wind

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 15, 2019

The prairie pioneer is an often romanticized figure in American lore – credited with building a nation out of wilderness with little more than grit and can-do spirit. While they did indeed persevere over time, the reality is hardly the simplistic and infantilized history as taught in our public schools. Instead, apart from those who were attracted by gold rushes or were running away from their checkered pasts (or looking to expand them), many were naive youth, seeking a seemingly easy opportunity and drawn by the promise of a homestead – of 160 acres of land and bountiful freedom; just show up, and it’s yours. Generally, what awaited them was the desolate despair of the colonist – lonesome, under-experienced, and far from help in a world that wasn’t theirs and that bitterly resisted their attempts to claim it.


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This appears profoundly unpleasant.


It’s in that more harsh and unforgiving realm that Emma Tammi’s The Wind is set, an exercise in utter isolation of the kind that few modern Americans could even bear to imagine. The film stars Caitlin Gerard (Insidious: The Last Key) as Lizzie, a homesteader wife reeling from the grief of stillbirth and left for days on end by her oblivious husband who must regularly travel to the nearest yet very far depot for supplies. This leaves her responsible for all their farm’s many chores, and her only company are her overly needy ‘neighbors’, Emma & Gideon – a mile away yet still burdensome. It would be bad enough to be lonely, grieving, neglected, over-worked, and irritated, but then, an ill and nebulous presence blows through on the wind, the area’s reverend begins speaking of demons, and Emma’s mind begins to descend into psychosis. It wouldn’t be horror if things didn’t get worse from there.

The first feature from documentary filmmaker Emma Tammi and an expansion of screenwriter Teresa Sutherland’s short The Winter, The Wind opened to strong reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September. Produced by Soapbox Films (Southbound), Divide/Conquer (Cam), and Mind Hive Films, the movie will be coming to select theaters and major VOD outlets on April 5th from one of the leading distributors of horror content, IFC Midnight (The Babadook, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Pledge, and many more).

Here’s the trailer:



In other On The Radar news, previous feature The Laplace’s Demon will be coming to Amazon Prime Video and VOD on February 22nd.


On the Radar


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Pledge

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 12, 2019

*IN SELECT THEATERS AND ON MAJOR VOD OUTLETS*
Released Jan. 11, 2019
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, torture, sadism, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 17min
Directed by Daniel Robbins
Starring Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Aaron Dalla Villa, Zack Weiner


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College freshmen and social outcasts Justin (Byrd), Ethan (Botello), and David (Weiner) are having no luck in their attempt to rush a fraternity – that is until they are invited to an exclusive gathering off-campus. There, they enjoy a wild and raucous party, courtesy of the charismatic Max (Dalla Villa) and his accommodating bros. The trio are invited back to pledge for membership the next evening, but when they arrive, they find the group to not be so accommodating anymore. How much will these young men endure to prove they belong?


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Pledge is a fast and nasty thriller that wastes virtually nothing in its spartan 77-minute runtime. Both stomach-churning and thought-provoking, it deftly poses a host of uncomfortable questions about numerous social matters, all while moving at a sprint.


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Narrative: In a word, Pledge is economic. The story makes the most of each scene, be it setting up its premise, building its characters, establishing its setting, or putting everything into motion with an agonizing gauntlet of atrocities. It’s not mere voyeurism though – it has a lot to say about the dynamics of social elitism, masculinity, peer pressure, and conformity. It’s telling that the fictional frat’s mascot is the rat – when it sees what it wants, it will pursue that thing with a voracious tenacity, stopping at nothing and plowing through anything to get it. That’s an example of the economy employed in the script – much is conveyed when that is the core value of the university’s most elite social group. Now, there’s not a wealth of surprises to be had throughout – a twist here and a turn there that aren’t exactly mind-blowing – but the ending is a gem. The proceedings are wrapped up in such a way that the movie manages to gnaw its way into the brain and make a nest there.


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Circumstances certainly go from bad to worse here.


Acting: Everybody involved does what they need to when they need to do it. In a movie with nine principal characters and no solo moments to be had, no one steals the proverbial show, and that’s to the benefit of Pledge. It allows for the emergence of a convincing us-vs-them ensemble that succeeds to be compelling. Again, going back to being economical, each member of the cast communicates a lot of context with single lines of dialogue or individual facial expressions and body language. The early scenes of the protagonists are cringe-inducingly awkward. Their despair, once they are hapless pledges, comes across as genuinely uncertain, which motivates their compliance, as does the authentic Jekyll-and-Hyde mannerisms of the frat bros. In short, the actors give the film a sickly realism that allows its themes to thrive.

Direction: While certainly helped by an efficient script from co-star Zack Weiner, it’s uncommon to see a film that moves as fast as Pledge while remaining fully cohesive. Director David Robbins pulls the effort together with style too. The opening shot is especially commendable – presumably filmed with a drone, it brings the camera in from VERY far down into the middle of an obviously unfortunate situation already in progress. It’s an effective introduction. Later, when the going gets rough, Robbins utilizes techniques that successfully invoke a claustrophobic feel – while the setting itself is not especially confined, it captures the vibe of the vicious confinement that the pledges have willingly volunteered themselves for and the distinct social pressures that keep them compliant. He also possesses a keen instinct as to when to shift perspective, uncomfortably cycling the audience through the roles of fellow victim, co-conspirator, and complicit witness. Later, as things become more desperate and frantic, he adeptly delivers the action in a tense and satisfying manner. It’s a seriously impressive effort.


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Please see the previous caption for reference.


Horror Elements: Those looking to Pledge for outrageously gruesome torture and kills are going to leave disappointed. The movie keeps its feet firmly planted in a utilitarian realism – which benefits an immersive atmosphere – favoring a simpler brutality over wildly elaborate gore-tacular scenarios. It does have a couple standout moments though, particularly at the point of no return, but those scenes are still played very straight, forsaking any over-the-top splatter. Given the other components of the film, it’s the right approach here. Further, there’s nothing secretly supernatural here or any reliance on jump scares – the emphasis is strongly, if not exclusively, on disturbing discomfort.

Sound: The retro synth score is very much back in favor right now, and Pledge has one too. I’m not complaining though – I happen to love that style and composer Jon Natchez provides a fittingly tense effort.

TL;DR: This will likely prove to be a love-or-hate experience for viewers. Those who aren’t turned off by the gut-wrenching content or problematic themes on the one hand might be rashly irritated by the existence of another socially woke horror movie. If that doesn’t sound like you, then watch it now. It’s incredibly solid from start to finish and an exceptionally grueling horror experience. 2019 is still very young, but it’s going to be difficult to remove Pledge from our year-end Top 10.

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 2, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Dec. 21, 2016
Rated R – 1hr 26min
Directed by André Øvredal
Starring Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Catherine Kelly


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A coroner (Cox) and his assistant son (Hirsch) are urged by the local sheriff to perform an emergency autopsy upon a mysterious corpse (Kelly) who has no apparent cause of death, signs of physical trauma, or connection to a brutal crime scene. As the night progresses and a vicious storm rolls in, they’ll learn that some secrets are best left undiscovered.


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The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an unorthodox paranormal tale with loads of clinically graphic content. While there’s little violence and nothing sexual, the realistic depiction of autopsy procedures may leave some viewers reeling. Aside from that, the focus is on eerie atmosphere, well-orchestrated jump scares, and the progression of a mind-bending mystery.


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It’s an attempt at a mind-bending mystery anyway, but I’ll get to that more in a bit. The Autopsy of Jane Doe strives to be a claustrophobic creeper that puts the spotlight on the most overworked yet rarely seen characters in horror – the coroners. They generally toil away in the hidden subtext of a story, overwhelmed with a grisly influx of some psychotic or supernatural carnage, and when they are featured, they’re usually killed off quickly to set up or establish a sequel or they have a couple of speaking lines in between bites of that sandwich that movie morgue workers are always eating. Here, they get an entire feature and story of their own, and, for the most part, it’s a riveting success.

It’s actually a novel concept for a number of reasons. The Autopsy of Jane Doe holds back little in its portrayal of an actual autopsy procedure, and that gory authenticity forms a squeamish foundation upon which more traditional scare sequences are executed with greater effectiveness. This is kicked off early with an introduction to the main characters as they wrap up work on a grotesquely roasted burn victim, and its unsettling effects linger on even after he’s been drawered up and the emphasis shifts to more mundane exposition. Even throughout the more ordinary formalities of the first act, many elements are introduced that are exploited later on with chilling results. The horror craft on display in this film leads to numerous well-earned moments as the story continues on.


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I’m not a doctor or anything, but I’m pretty certain this is not a typical autopsy.


It’s also intriguing how the autopsy itself is transformed into the central narrative device, and rightly so, given the title. As senior coroner Tommy Tilden, yet another reliably solid performance from Brian Cox, explains for the sake of their video documentation that the autopsy will be performed in four stages, it is through each of those segments that the plot moves forward, the stakes are raised, and some new disturbing revelation is made – it’s great fundamental storytelling. Further, Jane Doe herself grows ever more compelling as events unfold. Mute, motionless, and naked as a jaybird, it’s rather amazing how much personality she ultimately projects, and speaks to both a fantastic character performance by Olwen Catherine Kelly and the movie’s adept structuring to help her out. She is a corpse on a table, after all – what could she really do?…

Director André Øvredal really impresses with this effort. Whereas he displayed a great talent with large-scale in 2010 must-see Trollhunter – which is fantasy-horror as a fun adventurous romp among dangerous giants – he shows amazing finesse in the fine elements of the genre with The Autopsy of Jane Doe. He demonstrates extensive attention to detail, excellent pacing, and an ability to generate an ever-thickening atmosphere of oppressive dread. He’s at the helm for the upcoming Guillermo del Toro-produced adaptation of classic ’80s youth horror anthology Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and he may very well bring some genuine terror to what will almost certainly be a PG-13 rated outing.

Now, I started off by stating that this movie was an attempt at mind-bending mystery, and it’s with that we come to its greatest flaw. At the moment of the big answer to the sinister puzzle driving the entire story, the film trips, hits its head on a table, and collapses to the floor with a clumsy thump. The leap that needs to be taken to arrive at the conclusion begs disbelief, as does the conclusion itself. However, it gets back up and stumbles onward to the finish line, somewhat worse for the wear, but it’s a testament to the quality of the rest of the film that it’s not a deal-breaker. This is still an exceptional feature and certainly among the better offerings from 2016.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe gets a rating of
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