Happy Death Day movie review

For inSing

HAPPY DEATH DAY 

Director : Christopher Landon
Cast : Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello, Cariella Smith, Phi Vu
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 96 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG-13

Live. Die. Repeat. Tom Cruise endured that ordeal in Edge of Tomorrow, and now, so must Jessica Rothe. In this horror thriller, Rothe plays Tree Gelbman, a college student and Kappa sorority girl at Bayfield University. On her birthday, she wakes up in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a guy she met at a wild party the night before. That night, Rothe is killed by an assailant wearing a Bayfield Baby mask, the Bayfield Babies being the school’s football team. Tree awakes, gradually realising she is caught in a loop, reliving this same day over and over, repeatedly dying at the hands of the masked killer. Tree must solve her own murder and outsmart the killer to break the cycle and live another day.

Happy Death Day comes from Blumhouse, the production company which specialises in low-budget, high-return horror flicks. Director Christopher Landon has co-written five films in Blumhouse’s Paranormal Activity franchise and directed one. Happy Death Day isn’t very scary, but it’s plenty of fun. This teen-aimed horror flick is surprisingly funny, a hybrid of Scream, Mean Girls and, naturally, Groundhog Day which is efficiently constructed. The time loop time device is tried and tested, but Happy Death Day is sufficiently self-aware, toying with audience expectations and cleverly executing numerous plot twists.

The movie revels in its campiness without coming off as obnoxious, trading heavily on college movie archetypes. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel and has much in common with the teen slashers that were popular in the 90s-early 2000s, but it isn’t derivative in a dull way. Screenwriter Scott Lobdell is best known as a comic book writer, having worked on several X-Men books and Teen Titans. There’s a sly wit to the script and some of the dialogue is genuinely hilarious. It turns out that Happy Death Day has been floating around Hollywood for a while – back in 2007, when it was known as ‘Half to Death’, the project was set up at Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production house and set to star Megan Fox.

While the film doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for the time loop, it resorts to neither a howl-worthy cop-out or shameless sequel-begging. The set-pieces aren’t particularly inspired, and this reviewer would have preferred Tree’s deaths to be a little more elaborate and staged with more panache.

Rothe displays astute comic timing and is a fun leading lady to watch. Tree is not the nicest person in the world, and is self-centred and shallow. Much like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors character in Groundhog Day, Tree must gradually learn to be a better person. Unlike Phil Connors, getting brutally murdered is part of the deal. Many horror films suffer from unlikeable protagonists that are difficult to root for, but while Tree starts off that way, there’s a satisfying arc that her character undergoes.

Broussard plays the sweet guy who helps Tree parse her mind-bending situation, and is quite charming in the role. Rachel Matthews visibly enjoys playing the insufferable sorority president Danielle. It’s highly unlikely you’ll have heard of any of the actors in this film, but that’s part of what makes it cheap to make.

Like a birthday cake laced with a bit of booze, Happy Death Day is a delightful confection with a kick. It’s silly, but is carried by enough knowing wit that it’s easy to enjoy.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Mother!

For inSing

MOTHER!

Director : Darren Aronofsky
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 2h 2m
Opens : 14 September 2017
Rating : NC16 (Horror/Violence)

Jennifer Lawrence gets in touch with her maternal side – and an infernal side – in this psychological horror film from Darren Aronofsky. Lawrence’s character, the otherwise-unnamed Mother, is the wife of an author, the otherwise-unnamed Him (Bardem). Mother and Him have moved into a remote house, which Mother is attempting to fix up while Him struggles with writer’s block. Out of the blue, the couple is visited by an Orthopaedic surgeon, Man (Harris), and Man’s wife Woman (Pfeiffer). Man professes to be a fan of Him’s writing, and Him appreciates the attention, but Mother becomes wary of their new guests. This opens the gateway to more surprise visits, as Mother and Him grapple with issues within their marriage that are made manifest by the strangers who have come to their house.

Mother! is a film that is difficult to review because the filmmakers want us to know as little about it as possible. The marketing has had to be creative, because it’s such a challenging film to sell – a deejay friend of this reviewer’s received an actual pig’s heart in a box as a gift from the movie’s distributor. This is very much an arthouse film, and audiences going to see it because of Jennifer Lawrence will be thrown for a loop. Mother! is packed with potent imagery and thought-provoking ideas, but it feels like a film that was made with the intent to alienate the audience. Aronofsky does a fine job of establishing mounting dread, and there is a pervasive uneasiness to the affair, but because Mother! is so mannered and arch, there’s a barrier separating the viewer from the movie. This makes it difficult to get into, and no matter how intense and visceral the movie becomes, it engenders a certain detachedness.

As with many arthouse films, there is plenty to pick apart and muse over, and there are several themes that root the movie. Mother! reflects the power to create and to destroy inherent in every person. Mother! touches upon the culture of celebrity worship, and how cult-like it can become. Mother! is about the relationship between artists and their audience. Mother! is about the anxiety of, well, motherhood, the joy and hardships of bringing another human being into the world. Mother! is about how women can be side-lined, about how wives are sometimes forced to alter their lives to orbit around their husbands. One could write a paper, nay, several papers about Mother!, but perhaps a film should be more than something to dissect.

There’s a purity to Lawrence’s presence in this film, and she emanates an almost ethereal radiance. This is different from other projects she’s undertaken, clearly pushing the actress outside her comfort zone. While the character seems to be victimised for most of the film, she does bring a quiet strength to the role. Audiences know Bardem is capable of being creepy, and to his credit, he doesn’t come across as overtly evil – but we’re plenty suspicious of him all the same. Lawrence and Bardem are mismatched, but that seems to be the point, with the age gap between them being repeatedly pointed out by other characters.

The story is focused tightly on the dynamic between Mother and Him, but the supporting players do make an impact. Pfeiffer is especially fun to watch as someone who’s passive-aggressive and calculative, but outwardly pleasant. Of all the performers, Pfeiffer appears to be having the most fun. There is a certain Saturday Night Live who shows up later in the film – if you don’t who this is yet, it’s a fun surprise, but also comes off as deliberately gimmicky.

Mother! has attracted its share of controversy – you might have seen headlines online along the lines of “Mother! could be the most hated film of 2017” or “Has Darren Aronofsky gone too far?” After a near-excruciating slow burn, Mother! does build to a chaotic, gory frenzy. There are moments of raw, searing power here, and it is immensely thought-provoking. However, because of how much attention the film draws to its own construction, and how desperately it seems to want to be seen as a piece of art, Mother! is more a bubbled-over cauldron of allegory and metaphor than an absorbing story.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

It

For inSing

IT 

Director : Andy Muschietti
Cast : Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 15m
Opens : 7 September 2017
Rating : NC16 (Horror and violence)

Stephen King’s creation Pennywise the Dancing Clown is one of the best-known evil clowns in popular culture, and rears his grinning head again in this big screen adaptation of King’s 1986 novel It.

Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) is the default appearance of an evil entity known as It, that exploits and feeds on the specific fears of its victims. Pennywise is responsible for a spate of disappearing children in the town of Derry, Maine. Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is one such child, and his brother Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) has been investigating Georgie’s disappearance. Billy is the de facto leader of The Losers’ Club, a collection of outcast kids that includes Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Waytt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). The group is tormented by a gang of bullies called the Bowers gang, led by the cruel, unhinged Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). As the Losers’ Club goes about solving the mystery of the disappearing children, they uncover the dark history of Derry, with It/Pennywise seemingly at the centre of horrific events in the town’s past. This collection of misfits must band together to defeat an unimaginable evil and put a stop to its reign of terror.

This remake of It has long been anticipated, with a few bumps on the road on its way to the screen: director Cary Fukunaga was replaced by Andy Muschietti, and Will Poulter was originally cast as Pennywise, but was replaced by Skarsgård. The result shows no trace of any behind-the-scenes tumult. Muschietti establishes the period and place in which the story takes place, building the mythology without it feeling tedious and drawing the audience in. The characters are easy to care about and relate to, and there is intent in how each scene links to the next.

Muschietti pulls off quite the tonal balancing act: It is variously heart-warming, funny, even romantic, and yes – extremely scary. The humour derived from a bunch of kids hanging out and the friendly ribbing that arises from their friendship does not undercut or diminish the visceral, lingering horror that saturates the film. While there are the expected jump scares and the soundtrack is trying a little too hard to startle the audience, much of what makes this movie frightening is finely calibrated and well thought-out. There’s a whole bag of tricks here, such that the scares do not feel repetitive or stale. The set-piece involving a slide projector is an especially elegant, effective moment.

With Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise from the miniseries being as iconic as it is, it would be difficult for anyone to step into those oversized shoes. Skarsgård turns in a menacing performance that is minimally campy. The redesign, which highlights how Pennywise has been around since the earliest days of Derry’s formation, is unsettling and is more understated than the classic Pennywise look. There’s some creepy physicality, and the different manifestations of It have elements that make them as scary as It’s Pennywise mode in their own way.

The Losers’ Club is one of the great assemblies of kid heroes, not unlike the boys in King’s Stand By Me. The characters are brought to life by a talented cast, led by Lieberher of Midnight Special fame. His portrayal of the stuttering Billy is sincere and intense, and he’s far from the ‘boring hero’ type one would expect to be leading a team. Wolfhard, best known as Mike on Stranger Things, steals the show as the loudmouth Richie, who is always handy with an insult. The characters appear to be defined by superficial traits, but are mostly meaningfully developed as the film progresses.

Lillis is destined to be the breakout star of the bunch: the camera adores her, and she handles some of the film’s most challenging and emotional scenes with admirable confidence. All the boys are immediately smitten with Beverly, and the way she integrates herself into the Losers’ Club, becoming a driving force, is compelling. Most of the adults in the film are either creepy or downright evil, with Beverly’s abusive father Alvin (Stephen Bogaert) being the foremost example. This plot point is handled without being gratuitously exploitative.

Packed with potent imagery, a finely-honed mythology, terrific performances from young actors and flat-out terrifying creepy clown, It ranks as one of the finest film adaptations of King’s work. It evokes nostalgia without relying solely on it and those who grew up in the 80s will recognise certain references, but enjoyment of the film is not contingent on that. Regardless of one’s background or prior familiarity with the source material, It is an affecting, haunting work.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Bad Batch

For F*** Magazine

THE BAD BATCH 

Director : Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast : Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Yolonda Ross, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi, Jayda Fink
Genre : Romance/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 58m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : M18 (Some Disturbing Scenes and Drug Use)

There’s something about the desert that inspires madness. Whether it’s dehydration-induced hallucination, the sense of isolation in a vast open space, or just the arid heat, the desert is fine backdrop against which madness can unfold. This twisted, post-apocalyptic fairy tale is very mad indeed.

Our heroine is Arlen (Waterhouse), who wanders across the god-forsaken Texas desert. She is part of ‘the bad batch’, individuals deemed unproductive to society, and exiled to fend for themselves. Arlen is captured by cannibals, who saw off and eat her arm and leg. Arlen manages to escape, and is taken by a Hermit (Carrey) to a settlement called Comfort. The Dream (Reeves), a drug lord, rules over Comfort, keeping his followers compliant by supplying them with illicit substances during raves. Miami Man (Momoa), one of the cannibals who kidnapped Arlen, is searching for his lost daughter Honey (Fink), who has been adopted by The Dream. A relationship fraught with tension and attraction develops between Arlen and Miami Man, as they fight for survival in an unforgiving world.

The Bad Batch is written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who made her feature film debut with the “Iranian vampire spaghetti western” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The Bad Batch is hard to describe, and even harder to review. It’s destined for cult status, and VICE Creative Director Eddy Moretti, who is an executive producer on this film, dubbed Amirpour “the next Tarantino”. This is a heady, trippy experience, abstract art painted on a canvas of post-apocalyptic desolation. Often graphic when it’s not moving very slowly, it’s often a challenge to watch. While vastly more expansive than Amirpour’s first film, she’s hardly ‘gone Hollywood’ with her sophomore effort, which is almost defiantly weird. There’s an audience for this, and it would probably play well at a festival like South by Southwest, but The Bad Batch is self-indulgent and meanders without a centre to anchor it.

Waterhouse, known mainly as a model and entrepreneur, comes off like a cross between Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart. The visual effects used to create the illusion that Arlen is an amputee are seamless, and the yellow shorts with a winking face printed on the back is a cool visual device. There’s every opportunity for Arlen to ascend to the pantheon of badass genre movie heroines, but it seems that isn’t exactly what Amirpour had in mind. The character floats through the story, such that when she does something that directly impacts the story, it feels less significant than it should.

Momoa plays a musclebound, tattooed antihero – while this doesn’t sound like a stretch for him, it’s probably the most acting he’s done in his career. Momoa strives to evince a depth from the Miami Man character, who is a knife-wielding cannibal but also has a soft side and is a gifted artist. The relationship that develops between Arlen and Miami Man seems purposely vague and under-developed.

Reeves’ character, The Dream, who lives in luxury surrounded by a harem who bears him children, is clearly inspired by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. It comes off more as an odd bit of stunt casting than anything else, even if Reeve is fairly fun in the role. The raves that The Dream presides over are strongly reminiscent of music festivals like Burning Man, and it turns out that Amirpour went to Burning Man and took acid, which inspired the acid trip scene in the film.

Carrey, gaunt, grimy and nigh-unrecognisable beneath a scraggly beard, seems to relish playing the Hermit. It’s the kind of character actor part he wouldn’t have done in his comedy movie A-lister heyday, and it’s the right pitch of quirky comic relief for this movie.

The Bad Batch will remind connoisseurs of the exploitation films that came out of Italy in the 70s and 80s, or of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy psychedelic westerns. Amirpour has described the film as “El Topo meets Dirty Dancing”. While there’s a seductiveness to The Bad Batch’s scorched dreaminess, the film lacks the energy and momentum to sweep the viewer up in its madness.

Summary: The Bad Batch’s peculiarity will attract some audiences but alienate others. It’s an arthouse exploitation cocktail that’s been spiked with a little something extra, and it’s very much an acquired taste.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wish Upon

For F*** Magazine

WISH UPON 

Director : John R. Leonetti
Cast : Joey King, Ki-Hong Lee, Ryan Phillippe, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Daniela Barbosa, Sherilyn Fenn, Josephine Langford
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1hr 38min
Opens : 13 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Horror)

Wishing upon a star seemed like a fairly harmless exercise for Pinocchio. Wishing upon a Chinese music box is a different story. In this horror flick, Clare Shannon receives a mysterious box from her father Jonathan (Phillippe), a rag-and-bone man. The box, inscribed with ancient Chinese characters, promises that it will grant the user seven wishes -for a price. Not taking its power seriously Clare uses the box to enact revenge on Darcie (Langford), who has been bullying Clare at school. She also wishes for Paul (Mitchell Slaggert), the boy she has a crush on, to fall madly in love with her. Clare’s best friends Meredith (Park) and June (Purser) get drawn into the eerie goings-on and deaths that seem to follow Clare around. Ryan (Ki-Hong Lee), who has a crush on Clare, offers to take the box to his cousin Gina (Alice Lee), so she can translate the inscription. Gina uncovers the box’s dark secret, and everyone is powerless to stop the horrors it unleashes.

Wish Upon plays on the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage, while also hinging on the classic horror movie device of a cursed artefact. It’s a variation on the short story The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs, in which the titular object grants wishes but punishes the user for meddling with fate. Wish Upon also recalls the Wishmaster series with its sinister genie, and the deaths depicted are Final Destination-esque, albeit not as elaborate. As with many a teen-aimed movie before it, the dialogue strains to sound contemporary, and is sometimes unintentionally silly. Because of its PG-13 rating, Wish Upon doesn’t linger on the gruesome deaths. This means it isn’t gratuitous, but it also means that the consequences don’t carry too much weight. Final Destination let its inventive, gory deaths play out in full, because cutting away from them would diminish the selling point. Because we don’t see the deaths play out, they aren’t as unsettling or disturbing as they could’ve been.

The film also employs a familiar structure, in which in the protagonist unwittingly makes a deal with the devil – her wishes will be granted, but horrible fates will befall those she holds dear. We also get the requisite exposition-heavy scene of the characters doing a Google search to figure out what’s going on, as we are told the back-story of the music box. While the music box prop itself looks finely crafted and is reasonably spooky when it opens by itself, the accompanying mythos isn’t sufficiently interesting. The invoking of Chinese culture and superstition is meant to add a textural element, but this is under-developed. We’re relieved Wish Upon doesn’t fall back on an elderly Asian antique store owner to explain its central cursed artefact – instead, we get a tattooed young woman to fulfil that function in the plot.

Horror movies starring teenagers tend to have annoying characters, and one of Wish Upon’s strengths is that it acknowledges its heroine’s flaws while keeping her sympathetic. Having suffered from a family tragedy and being bullied by the popular kids in school, it’s easy to see why Clare might be frustrated. King, who also starred in the horror films The Conjuring and Quarantine, does a fine job as a relatable teen character. It does get to a point where one wonders why Clare isn’t more suspicious of this box that eerily unlatches and plays music on its own any earlier in the story.

Ki-Hong Lee demonstrates his ability to pass for a high-schooler at age 30, and is likeable enough as the guy whom Clare places in the dreaded friend zone. Park can come off as a little annoying, and her character seems more like she would fit in with the stuck-up popular kids than with Clare. Purser, best known as Barb from Stranger Things, is underused as “the other friend”. Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn doesn’t get too much to do either. The film aims for depth in depicted the strained relationship between Clare and her father, but because Phillippe is as handsome as he is, it’s hard to buy him as a down-on-his-luck average joe digging through the trash for scraps.

Wish Upon might not be as actively grating as most teen-centric horror films of its ilk, but it’s too derivative to be truly scary. Director John R. Leonetti, who also helmed Annabelle, passes up a chance to meaningfully develop an engrossing mythology around the music box, and the ending is as unsatisfying as it is shocking. Stick around past the main-on-end titles for a sequel bait stinger scene.

Summary: The teen target audience might be spooked, but horror aficionados won’t find too much of value when they look in the cursed music box.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dead Awake

For F*** Magazine

DEAD AWAKE 

Director : Phillip Guzman
Cast : Jocelin Donahue, Jesse Bradford, Lori Petty, Jesse Borrego, Brea Grant, James Eckhouse
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 39min
Opens : 11 May 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use and Horror)

The heroes of this horror movie have something to get off their chests – that something is a supernatural entity known as the Night Hag. Beth Bowman (Donahue) is recovering from a substance abuse problem and has been experiencing night terrors. Beth’s boyfriend Evan (Bradford) and Beth’s twin sister Kate (also Donahue) try to get to the bottom of this, uncovering a string of mysterious incidents in which perfectly healthy people die suddenly in their sleep. While Dr. Sykes (Petty), an expert in sleep science, assures Beth and Kate that sleep paralysis is completely normal and harmless, the sisters aren’t so sure. Their search for answers takes them to the eccentric Hassan Davies (Borrego), who believes that sleep paralysis is caused by a ghoulish being who sits on people’s chests and suffocates them while they’re caught between sleep and wakefulness. Kate must confront her own demons as she attempts to defeat an eons-old evil.

Dead Awake is helmed by Texan director Phillip Guzman, and written by Jeffrey Reddick. Reddick wrote the original draft of Final Destination, and has been a long-time fan of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. At 14, he wrote a treatment for a prequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which eventually landed him a job as assistant to New Line Cinema boss Robert Shaye. It stands to reason that Reddick would want to create his own sleep-centric horror series, as the phenomenon of sleep paralysis is a spooky one indeed. In Dead Awake, we are presented with the rational explanation for seemingly unexplainable deaths, before the horrifying, supernatural truth is unveiled. The problem is, Dead Awake spends far too much time explaining what sleep paralysis is, when it’s a simple concept to grasp.

One would expect the writer of Final Destination to, at the very least, devise some creative deaths. Dead Awake is cripplingly repetitive, in that there’s really only one way the Night Hag can kill – crawl onto her victims and suffocate them as they are helpless to fight back. The Night Hag is far from a distinctive movie monster, and lacks the personality that defines, say, Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare films. It’s a generic design, and the physicality of the Night Hag, who drags herself across the floor and makes jittery movements, isn’t particularly fresh either. The film’s best scene, which depicts the horrifying extent one man goes to in order to stay awake, doesn’t even feature the Night Hag.

Donahue, whom horror fans might recognise from House of the Devil and Insidious: Chapter 2, plays the dual roles of twin sisters. The film uses lo-fi techniques such as clever framing and body doubles to achieve the illusion, but it isn’t as seamless as in some other films in which one actor plays twins.

While Dead Awake avoids the common horror movie pitfall of making its characters utterly insufferable, Kate, Beth and Bradford’s Evan making for boring protagonists. Petty is wasted as a strait-laced skeptic, while Borrego’s performance borders dangerously on over-the-top.

Dead Awake tries but fails to fully exploit a premise that’s inherently disturbing sleep paralysis could happen to anybody, and has happened to many, including this reviewer. After watching Dead Awake, one should be terrified to shut one’s eyes, even for a moment. The film doesn’t burrow deep enough under one’s skin, and instead of giving the phenomenon a terrifying new dimension, instead takes away its mystique by offering a pat answer as to why sleep paralysis happens.

Summary: With its generic monster and uninteresting lead characters, Dead Awake’s potential as a truly unsettling horror flick is largely unmined.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Alien: Covenant

For F*** Magazine

ALIEN: COVENANT 

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Amy Seimetz, Callie Hernandez, James Franco
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Running time: 2h 3min
Release Date: 10th May 2017
Rating: M18

Five years after the divisive Prometheus, Ridley Scott takes audiences back to the realm of sci-fi horror he helped create with 1979’s Alien. It is the year 2104, 10 years after the events of Prometheus, and the colony ship Covenant is bound for the planet Origae-6. After a neutrino blast wakes the crew early, and a mysterious transmission is intercepted, Captain Christopher Oram (Crudup) decides to make a detour. Against the protests of terraforming specialist Daniels (Waterston), the Covenant sends a lander down to the planet where the transmission originated from. The android Walter (Fassbender) joins Oram, Daniels and other crew members on the expedition, as pilot Tennessee (McBride) awaits their safe return to the Covenant. On this uncharted planet, the crew encounters vicious, hitherto unknown life forms, resulting in multiple casualties. They also meet David (also Fassbender), an android who was the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission. Daniels, Oram and Walter quickly realise that the planet is home to something far more terrifying than the monsters that are pursuing them.

Prometheus left many unanswered questions in its wake. Since there are at least two more films planned after Covenant before the chronology links up to the original Alien, many of those questions remain unanswered. Alien: Covenant is executed with technical polish, boasting marvellous production values and convincing design elements. However, it is also a frustrating work. There are bits of the film that are reminiscent of Alien, and others that evoke the high-octane Aliens, but for most of its duration, Covenant is stuck in limbo between those two.

John Logan and Dante Harper penned the script, from a draft by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. It’s largely a serious-minded film and wants to be philosophical, just not as upfront with the ‘big questions’ as Prometheus was. Then, in its final act, Covenant becomes an action film, leaving audiences with the sense that the film took one-and-a-half hours to get into gear. The first time something genuinely exciting occurs, it’s 40 minutes into the movie.

There are parts of Covenant that are scary, and there are parts that are thrilling, but they remain parts instead of coalescing into a whole. The basic plot structure is a familiar one: the crew of a ship receives a distress call of some kind, go to investigate the source of the signal, then all hell breaks loose. Because of the plans to continue the franchise, Covenant ends up feeling very much like a middle instalment, which introduces some interesting ideas but is reluctant to push the overall narrative arc forward very far. Fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing the classic, sinuous Xenomorph (or at least something very close to it) on the big screen again. However, because it and the other creatures in the film are achieved mostly using computer-generated effects, we lose the tactility that helped make the old-school Xenomorphs in the earlier films so scary. The goblin-like Neomorph is sometimes creepy, but also sometimes too cartoony.

With any sci-fi movie named after a ship, audiences must fall in love with – or at least be interested in – the crew. Several of them are married couples, meaning there’s potential for heart-rending emotional moments. Alas, the characters who staff the Covenant are mostly bland and under-developed. There are also too many for them to be distinct. They do make dumb decisions, but not to the extent of the Prometheus crew.

Waterston does a fine job, and ably handles the pressure of living up to Sigourney Weaver. While Daniels is mostly a Ripley knockoff, Waterston lends the film a tremulous humanity. She gets to partake in big action set-pieces, including a fun one involving an excavator-like crane arm. However, she’s not fearless or unrealistically tough.

Crudup is also serviceable as the First Mate who gets promoted to the position of Captain, a stubborn man of faith who struggles with leading the crew. Since religious themes and imagery played a key role in Prometheus, which was about man’s search for his creator, it’s disappointing that this aspect of Oram remains largely superficial. While one might assume McBride is on hand to provide comic relief, and he does, he also displays solid acting chops, and stays a safe distance from being the annoying quippy sidekick this reviewer feared the character would become.

Fassbender is the best thing about Covenant. He shines in his dual roles: Walter, ostensibly the ‘good’ android, sounds American, whereas the amoral and possibly evil David speaks with a clipped English accent. David’s murky motivations get further explored, and he’s meant to remind viewers of the Nazis: David has an affinity for Wagner, is interested with eugenics, and may yearn for the complete eradication of a certain species. The tension between creation and creator that is at the core of the character gets further play. Walter is programmed with less autonomy, and is therefore less likely to go off the rails. David and Walter’s interactions are as riveting, if not more so, than the scenes involving the alien monsters. The visual effects work required to make Fassbender act opposite a second, identical Fassbender is seamless.

Fans who were hoping that Alien: Covenant would return the series to its roots will likely have mixed feelings about the film. It seems that Scott felt the pressure to deliver a Xenomorph that was closer to the original H.R. Giger designs than the prototypical beasts seen in Prometheus. It’s a sporadically fascinating, but ultimately unsatisfying entry in the series; and there’s just enough to recommend here for the faithful.

Summary: This Alien instalment will make you scream, but as much out of frustration as in terror, its grandeur undercut by an unremarkable stable of characters and an uninspired plot.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Void

For F*** Magazine

THE VOID

Director : Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski
Cast : Aaron Poole, Ellen Wong, Kathleen Munroe, Kenneth Welsh, Grace Munro
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence and Gore)

Unspeakable terrors lie beyond this plane of existence in this horror flick. Police officer Daniel Carter (Poole) discovers a bloodied man named James (Evan Stern) crawling down a deserted road, and rushes the man to the nearest hospital. As it’s late at night, the hospital has a minimal staff, including Dr. Richard Powell (Welsh), aloof medical student Kim (Wong) and staff nurse Allison (Munroe), who happens to be Daniel’s estranged wife. In the waiting room is a pregnant teenage girl named Maggie (Munro) and her grandfather Ben (James Millington). Eerie figures in white robes and hoods, the front of their hoods emblazoned with a solid black triangle, surround the hospital. The staff and patients start exhibiting erratic, violent behaviour, and as Daniel uncovers the truth behind the spooky goings-on at the hospitals, he is forced to confront horror on an unfathomable scale.

The Void comes from Canadian filmmaking collective Astron-6. The group has popped up on the radar of genre aficionados thanks to their various low-budget horror-comedy short films. They were also behind the deliberately schlocky Manborg, a 2011 film that it appears the better-known Kung Fury owes quite the debt to. With The Void, Astron-6 attempts a graver, more serious brand of horror, while still paying homage to the filmmakers and storytellers they idolise. Writer-directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski were also involved in various other aspects of the film, from composing to editing to creature effects. When not making their own films, Gillespie has worked in the art departments of films including Pacific Rim and Suicide Squad, while Kostanski has been a special effects makeup artist on Crimson Peak, Suicide Squad and the Hannibal TV series.

While The Void boasts a respectable amount of truly disgusting gore and inventive, cleverly-executed practical creature effects and prosthetic work, it is an unpolished product that’s very rough around the edges. Perhaps this is a part of its charm, but even with the filmmakers’ dedication fully evident, this gives off a bit of an amateur vibe. The overarching concept is ambitious, recalling the Eldritch abominations of H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter-directed horror films like The Thing, as well as countless ‘video nasty’ horror films from the 80s and 90s. In the Mouth of Madness, a Carpenter-directed adaptation of a Lovecraft story, seems like it had a strong influence on Gillespie and Kostanski, as did Carpenter’s action suspense flick Assault on Precinct 13.

While the actors are not the main draw and the film’s limited budget means a lack of access to stars, nobody in the cast is terrible. Poole has enough of a leading man quality without coming off like an invincible action hero, while Munroe has a warmth to her that’s comforting until the horror kicks into high gear. Wong, a.k.a. Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, puts in a fun performance as the bored millennial flung into utter chaos. Canadian character actor Welsh from Twin Peaks is on hand to lend genre cred, though the film has plenty of that on its own. The characters aren’t flat-out unlikeable, but they aren’t endearing enough to want to actively be around either.

Gillespie and Kostanski know exactly who their audience is, and this will find a cult following at horror film festivals and when it eventually gets on Netflix. For the uninitiated, however, The Void is disorienting and incoherent. There’s an effort to explore the psychology of the characters in addition to serving up a surfeit of stomach-turning body horror, but it’s too restless and frenetic for its own good. We know that “elegant” and “slimy tentacle monsters bursting out of abdomens” don’t necessarily go together, but The Void could have benefitted from a more elegant approach, letting the mythos build organically instead of unleashing it on the audience at one go.

Summary: Audiences who, like this film’s directors, grew up on 80s horror flicks they were too young to watch, will lap this up. However, the ideas at play are almost as messy as the assorted gore.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

From a House on Willow Street

For F*** Magazine

FROM A HOUSE ON WILLOW STREET 

Director : Alastair Orr
Cast : Sharni Vinson, Steven John Ward, Gustav Gerdener, Zino Ventura, Carlyn Burchell
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 27min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

Don’t you just hate it when decent, honest, hardworking people fall victim to a cruel twist of fate? In this horror flick, a band of decent, honest, hardworking kidnappers get more than they bargained for after they unwittingly abduct the host of a powerful demon. Hazel (Vinson) leads a team of criminals including her boyfriend Ade (Ward), Ade’s cousin James (Gerdener), and Mark (Ventura). Over six weeks, they plan the kidnapping of Katherine (Burchell), the teenage daughter of a wealthy couple, demanding that the ransom be paid in diamonds. Alas, what was meant to be an easy job turns out to be anything but, when the demon that has possessed Katherine wreaks havoc. Hazel and her cohorts must face their deepest, darkest fears, made manifest by the demon’s power, as the tables are turned and the criminals become the victims.

From a House on Willow Street has a rather novel premise: mash up the home invasion thriller and supernatural horror subgenres to deliver twice the tension. While director Alastair Orr displays an affinity for the horror genre, the execution here leaves quite a bit to be desired. The back-story is conveyed through clunky exposition, and the audience is fed a lot of information about the history of the titular house at one go. Things get tedious rather than suspenseful, such that this feels longer than its 87 minutes.

Even though there is an effort made to humanise our protagonists, they’re still largely unlikeable by dint of being career criminals. Then there are the shocks, which are almost all basic jump scares of the “there’s nobody behind you, THEN THERE’S SOMEBODY BEHIND YOU!” variety. Out of all the scares, the most effective is probably a relatively lo-fi gag involving a framed portrait that transforms when one looks away from it.

There is a large amount of appropriately gruesome makeup effects on display, created by South African studio Dreamsmith. Jaco Snyman, who supervised the creature effects, has worked on films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and District 9. If gory, ghoulish figures stalking our ‘heroes’ are what you’re after, From a House on Willow Street has plenty of that. Orr wisely doesn’t overuse computer-generated effects, with the barbed, slimy tongue-like appendage that emanates from Katherine’s mouth looking just as disgusting as that description sounds.

Australian actress Vinson is building her ‘scream queen’ repertoire, after starring in the hit horror film You’re Next. She gives the role her best shot, summoning the toughness that Hazel should exhibit, but is saddled with poorly-written dialogue. The relationships between the four members of Hazel’s crew are roughly defined. Just as in many home invasion thrillers, the people doing the invading are constantly at each other’s throats. Everyone has a tragic backstory that is exploited by the demon, but the bloodied and maimed ghosts popping up throughout the movie lose their frightening effect because of how repetitive things get.

From a House on Willow Street has decent makeup effects and is competently shot, but its potential is gradually eroded thanks to director Orr falling back on too many tried and tested genre tricks. The film relies on the soundtrack lunging at the audience repeatedly, and while the jump scares provide a few jolts to start with, they soon become predictable.

Summary: This horror film promises a different spin on things with its kidnap plot set-up, but ends up falling back on genre devices we’ve all seen before. Star Sharni Vinson and some grisly special effects makeup work barely lift it above mediocrity.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Life (2017)

For F*** Magazine

LIFE (2017) 

Director : Daniel Espinosa
Cast : Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ryan Reynolds
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Run Time : 1h 44min
Opens : 23 March 2017
Rating : NC-16 (Disturbing Scenes and Coarse Language)

Not all aliens in movies want to kill us. Some just want to have a jam session, or study earth’s vegetation and befriend some kids, or teach us a cool new language.

Those are the exceptions to the rule. Most aliens in movies want to kill us. The alien in Life certainly does.

The first confirmation of extra-terrestrial life has arrived, in the form of a microscopic organism found on Mars. A team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station are tasked with studying the sample in a controlled environment. An elementary school wins a contest to name the organism, choosing the moniker ‘Calvin’. Miranda North (Ferguson) from the Centre of Disease Control religiously follows protocol to ensure that everyone on the station and on earth is kept safe. Microbiologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) has the most interaction with Calvin, attempting to determine its composition and nature. Flight engineer Rory Adams (Reynolds) is more than a little disturbed by the creature. Medical officer David Gordon (Gyllenhaal) has come to enjoy life in space, breaking a record for the most consecutive days in orbit. Commander Katerina Golovkin (Dihovichnaya) is in charge overall, and systems engineer Sho Kendo (Sanada) keeps things running smoothly. Things go horribly awry, as they must, with Calvin acting unpredictably, displaying an alarming intelligence. It soon becomes clear that Calvin will stop at nothing to survive, with the mission’s crew in grave danger from a threat they do not fully understand.

The first instinct many viewers had upon seeing the trailer for Life was “this looks like a rip-off of Alien”. This is completely understandable, seeing as Life is a sci-fi horror film about an extra-terrestrial creature who menaces the occupants of a spacecraft. Life also draws on The Thing, since its protagonists are scientists and researchers. The Thing is based on the earlier film The Thing from Another World, itself based on the novella Who Goes There? The point we’re trying to make is that just because something is inspired by existing material, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically worthless. Life is part of a lineage of sci-fi horror films and builds upon the tradition, but stands well enough on its own as a good example of this subgenre.

Life is written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, of Deadpool and Zombieland fame. As such, one might expect the film to be an irreverent deconstruction of movies like Alien and The Thing. Life plays things surprisingly straight, and strikes a fine balance of taking itself seriously while also being entertaining. It plays by its own established rules, and no leaps of logic are demanded of the viewer to buy its sequence of events.

Director Daniel Espinosa stages the tension in Life with a master’s touch. Sure, characters make questionable decisions in the heat of the moment, as characters in horror movies are wont to do. However, the urgency and pressure that Espinosa establishes helps justify some not-quite-awesome judgement calls made by our heroes. Each set piece is staged with finesse, and even jaded genre aficionados who feel they’ve seen everything might find themselves subconsciously gripping the armrests during several intense moments.

The visual effects by vendors ILM, Double Negative, One of Us, Nvizible and Lola is convincing – Calvin seems like a tangible entity, the weightlessness in the space station is seamlessly done, and the exteriors of the space station itself look realistic. Nigel Phelps’ production design makes the space station an exciting location for the events to unfold in, and even we though we spend practically the entirety of the film in its confines, it never feels visually monotonous. Jon Ekstrand’s orchestral/choral score invokes Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music gives Life, mostly set in a single location, a sense of grandeur and scale.

The characters are largely likeable and their individual foibles are neatly established. Ferguson was in the running for the lead role in Alien: Covenant, which eventually went to Katherine Waterston. Some might see her role in Life as a consolation prize, but after her breakout turn in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Ferguson does continue to prove she has leading lady chops. Miranda is level-headed and does things by the book, but isn’t boring and cares for the well-being of her crewmates.

Gyllenhaal makes full use of the sensitivity that’s a large part of his charm, making the audience feel somewhat protective over him. After the fate that befell his character in Sunshine, you’d think Sanada would be wary of joining another sci-fi space mission, but he provides a steadfastness and reliability. Sanada also gets a marvellous scene in which he’s locked in a sleeping pod while Calvin lurks outside.

Bakare is the stock geeky scientist, but it is an interesting touch to have him develop something of an attachment to Calvin while studying him, unaware of the monster the seemingly-benign organism will become. Dihovichnaya doesn’t get too much to do, but she is the rare Russian character in a Hollywood film who isn’t villainous in the slightest. Reynolds is playing himself, the motor-mouth class clown, and is used judiciously. He was up for the lead role, but scheduling conflicts necessitated him taking a supporting one instead, which we think worked out for the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life’s influences might be more than a little obvious, but thanks to energetic direction, a strong cast and convincing visual effects work, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. We also think there’s a market for Calvin plushies, if any toy manufacturers want to jump on that.

Summary: A thrilling sci-fi horror film that’s well-paced and scary, Life does its illustrious genre forebears justice.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong