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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Beyond the Gates

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 9, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Dec. 9, 2016
Unrated (equal to rated R for graphic violence, gore, and language) – 1hr 24min
Directed by Jackson Stewart
Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton


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Months after their father has gone missing and is presumed dead, estranged brothers Gordon (Skipper) and John (Williamson) must work together to settle their dad’s estate, which includes his video rental store. There, they – along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Grant) – find a mysterious VCR board game, hosted by an ominous enchantress (Crampton) that may hold the key to their father’s disappearance.


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From the central plot device to the musical score to the creature design, Beyond the Gates is obviously a lovingly nostalgic throwback to the 1980’s. However, that’s not without a considerable serving of character drama first.


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Narrative: The core of Beyond the Gates is very entertaining, as long as it’s involving itself with the namesake game and its various elements. However, the plot pushes that back to the latter half, choosing instead to focus on exposition of the brothers, Gordon in particular. It doesn’t make great use of that time, and we don’t really learn more than we otherwise could have in just several minutes – instead, we get a series of scenes that are on the duller side of things. As a result, the mechanics of the game come across as exceedingly simple and rushed, which is a shame because that’s where the lifeblood of the movie resides.

Acting: The three leads all turn in solid performances. In fact, the interplay between them was suitable enough to provide the dramatic subtext without devoting so much runtime to exploring it at length. In short, they each do a lot with characters that, despite the script’s efforts to deepen them, remain fairly shallow. Regardless, the film springs to life whenever Barbara Crampton appears, camping it up as the mysteriously prescient game host Evelyn. Again, the game really shines as the film’s backbone and Crampton brings it all together as the personification of it. Somehow, someway, the movie needed her in it more.


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To aspiring filmmakers: your horror movie will always score bonus points if you cast Barbara Crampton in it.


Direction: It’s a no-brainer that writer/director Jackson Stewart has something of a soft spot for the 1980’s with his debut feature. The opening credits bring a new definition to ‘VHS porn’, as the sequence plays over intricate close-ups of the mechanical components of a functioning VCR – a montage of spinning wheels, flipping switches, and moving levers that lovingly elevates the obsolete piece of entertainment hardware to industrial marvel. So obviously, there’s numerous callbacks to ’80s horror throughout – specifically of the demon/ghoul variety with an emphasis on splattery gore. Also, it needs to be noted that the movie is something of a triumph considering its $300K budget; it looks great at a bargain, yet that may explain the slow first half.

Horror Elements: When Beyond the Gates gets to them, it gets to them with enthusiasm. A disemboweling, an exploding head, a ripped-out heart – the gory moments are fleeting, but they do serve as a proper calling card to the type of movie experience to which it is paying homage. The look of the ghoul makeup also conjures up that same ’80s aesthetic. Again though, it could have really used more of these things.


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Derek always took Trivial Pursuit a little too seriously, but this was still rather unexpected.


Sound: Here, there’s no complaints to be had. Wojciech Golczewski’s score is really good and does exactly what was needed from it – to thoroughly establish a retro vibe while being inspired enough to not come across as generic. It’s a standout effort.

TL;DR: Beyond the Gates could have really used more Beyond the Gates in it. When that key premise isn’t there, it’s a rather bland and listless character drama about two brothers who don’t much like each other, yet for reasons never adequately explored despite the time dedicated for it. When the film is focused on its giddy nostalgia, it’s quite fun, but those proceedings feel rushed. In all, it’s solid but underdone.

sorta recommend

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Mara

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 7, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Sep. 7, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 38min
Directed by Clive Tonge
Starring Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet, Rosie Fellner


what_it_is_review_header
When criminal psychologist Kate Fuller (Kurylenko) is brought on to investigate an alleged murder, she’ll find herself in the path of ancient demon Mara (Botet), who strickens her victims with sleep paralysis before marking them for death.


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Mara tries its best to be a supernatural chiller of the Blumhouse variety with strong Asian horror overtones, but it might succeed in delivering more unintentional laughs than legitimate scares.


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Narrative: This is where Mara goes all kinds of wrong. Whether it was from a lazily written script or one that was hacked into bits of garbage after the fact, the film trudges along at a laborious pace, ticking off boxes on the ghost curse checklist until it’s time to go home. It occasionally twitches with the promise that it will be something more than simply asleep at the switch, but then, it quickly fades back to its ponderous slog. Despite being frustratingly predictable, I do need to put a point back in the till for the motivation behind the titular antagonist – it’s a fairly clever concept (at least initially – until it has something to do with bad fish. I’m not joking.) It’s telegraphed in a manner that allows the viewer to reach the conclusion before our hero does (except for the fish, which is definitely a curveball), but it’s a good idea all the same.

Acting: Mara seems like it was an absolute chore to make for everyone behind the camera, but the ones in front of it at least put forth an attempt to salvage the effort, even when they’re given hilariously clunky dialogue to work with. The film keeps trying to insert emotionally wrought material, generally with weepy monologues that are earnestly delivered, yet the tone and atmosphere don’t accomodate these moments – they’re just shoehorned in wherever. In one, Kurylenko’s character is visiting the woman who she has had committed for her husband’s murder (wrongfully) and, when the woman wants nothing to do with her, she decides this is the best time to share her tragic backstory. I understand that this is for the benefit of the audience and not the falsely accused woman, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an authentic scenario. Yet, when this dramatically charged scene ends with the woman shouting “I TOLD YOU!!! MY HUSBAND WAS KILLED BY A SLEEP DEMON!!!”, I was howling with laughter. This isn’t the only scene derailed in such a manner, and as such, I refuse to hold the cast accountable for this mess. They earned their paychecks.


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I know what you mean, Olga. This hasn’t been easy for me either.


Direction: This is Clive Tonge’s feature debut, and if I were to wager a bet, his uninspired paint-by-numbers work here has something to do with the stable of 14 producers holding the reins. It’s competently made, if not totally lacking in a singular definitive flash of personal style. Mara could have been directed by an AI uploaded with every similar movie ever committed to film, yet its finished product may have been more daring.

Horror Elements: To cast famed creature actor Javier Botet as the ghoulish villain and waste him is representative of the squandered opportunities throughout. Presented with little flair, the demon Mara just isn’t scary. The lights go low and in she shuffles, wheezing and rolling her wrists, presumably as warm-up exercises for some high-impact strangling. That, or she’s silhouetted behind a sheet, as curse ghosts are prone to do. Appearance-wise, she’s a mere echo of some of Botet’s other well-known monsters, like Mama or ‘Patient Zero’ from [Rec]. It’s like Samara from The Ring was put through the taffy puller from Willy Wonka, given emphysema, and set in super slo-mo. Elsewhere, aside from a couple more notable moments, the rest is corpses with bloodshot eyes and hysterical screaming. There was what could have been a really squeamish scene, where a character lops off one of their own eyelids, but the punch is pulled – the movie plays it safe at pretty much every opportunity.


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Actual line of dialogue from the movie: “I’m a scientist. I deal with facts and logic – not this.”


Sound: For the score, the spooky bits are your very standard spooky bits, which should come as no surprise at this point. However, at the moments that are intended to be emotionally heavy, the music kicks into overdrive, drenching the scene in swelling strings and an operatic choir, as if we’re watching a classical tragedy. It’s too much. Also, the demon Mara is very crunchy when she walks – another common affliction of curse ghosts.

TL;DR: Mara brought together all the components necessary to make a solid supernatural horror movie and then did nothing interesting with them, even dipping its toe in unintentional comedy territory. It had a budget, so it can’t play the ‘scrappy indie production’ card, nor was it intended to be bad, like anything from the last 5 years with the word ‘Shark’ in the title. It’s a pure misfire, but it’s still a coherent movie with glimpses of a higher quality within it. There’s way worse out there, but this is still firmly mediocre in relation.

not recommended icon

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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
REALLY GOOD ICON

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