Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Darken



Darken provides. More to the point, Mother Darken provides me with Canadian scifi. If you're not overly familiar with Canadian scifi, it has a certain look and feel. There's something distinctly...Canadian about it. A kind of mild claustrophobic atmosphere.

Anyway, Darken is a new film from Audrey Cummings, and very different from her previous outing, Berkshire County. Eve, a nurse who's struggling with having lost a patient, suddenly finds herself trapped inside Darken, a world of seemingly infinite, interconnected rooms. Presently, Darken is ruled by Clarity who is slowly consolidating her power. Claiming to act on Mother Darken's behalf, Clarity won't tolerate any talk of a world beyond Darken and is swift to persecute dissenters. Eve's presence in Darken threatens Clarity's hold over her people and, well, we can't have that.

What follows is your standard dystopian plot, with plenty of action and drama. As Eve stumbles her way through the world, she learns about its dangers and secrets. Not all is revealed to her, and that's one of the film's strengths--there's still a good amount of mystery left in the world. For instance, although we learn the fate of Mother Darken, the world's absentee creator, we don't know where she came from. And when the film ends, Eve and her friends find themselves staring down a new beginning.

Darken reminded me of The Odyssey, a TV show from the early 90s which I really liked. It, too, is about a stranger in a strange land trying to find their way home, and guess that's something we can all understand on some level--the desire for the familiar comforts of home. In Darken, each room belonged to someone, but the rooms themselves aren't inviting, making the world that much more alienating and foreign.


Weirder still, no one in Darken can remember their life before they arrived. All they know is they were lost, and Mother Darken gave them sanctuary. If this sounds vaguely like a metaphor for suicide, know that I thought the same thing. The idea is further reinforced by the fact that one of the characters did try to kill himself at some point in the past. Thankfully, the movie stops short of becoming allegorical, as the focus is--and should be--on the shifting power dynamics within Darken. Whatever this world is, it's in turmoil. And whoever these people are, they've got some hard choices ahead.

Darken was conceived by RJ Lackie, who's vision was so big that Darken has been developed in a series. Watching the film feels a bit like watching a really good pilot, only better. Sure, there's the standard introduction of characters and a brief orientation to the world of the film, but it's satisfying in a way pilots seldom are. Probably because Lackie knows where he wants his story to go, and Darken's plot is self-contained.

Darken closed out the 2017 Blood in the Snow Film Festival, and was (clearly) one of this reviewer's favourites. And that's not just because I have a soft spot for Canadian scifi. Darken is a testament to what can be accomplished with a great idea and a fairly limited budget.

Darken was preceded by the short film Banshee, another festival highlight. In it, a young girl struggles to fall asleep, haunted by bad memories of that time she got lost in the woods. Her big sister has run out of patience, and the two strike a bargain: big sis won't tell mom and dad about little sister's drawings of monsters in the woods if she promises to go to sleep. Easier said than done because lil sis is sure something followed her home.

Incredibly atmospheric, Banshee does a great job balancing kid fears and teenaged frustration with same. The hateful older sister is so thoroughly unsympathetic you wind up hoping there is a monster in the house, so she can get what's coming to her. Childhood trauma be damned!

Monday, 27 November 2017

Once Upon a Time at Christmas

Blood in the Snow Film Festival is an annual film fest held in Toronto with a mandate to support, promote, and exhibit Canadian horror, genre, and underground film.



On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a movie about a killer Santa and Mrs Clause. I'm not much of a Christmas person so I'm predisposed to enjoy a killer Xmas movie. This year Santa delivered the Canada-UK co-produced Once Upon a Time at Christmas.

In the days leading up to Christmas, the quiet town of Woodridge, NY, is set upon by a maniacal Santa Clause and his crazy wife. For twelve nights, they terrorize the town, first killing a mall Santa, then two lovers, then three members of the Frenchen family. If the victims ring familiar it's because the killers are taking inspiration from The Twelve Days of Christmas, and there's joy in finding what kind of mayhem each new day will bring.

As is the case with any proper Christmas slasher, there's a holiday-specific motivation, but the film raises the stakes by introducing a familial angle. It is Christmas, after all—a time for family. And as is the case with any proper family drama, the plot includes its share of recriminations, to the point where all Jennifer really wants for Christmas if for her parents to get divorced. It's against this unhappy backdrop the murder spree is set.

As Christmas approaches, the police are ever more desperate to catch the murderous pair. An unhelpful Jaws-like mayor does a poor job balancing public safety and economics, and the FBI's presence benefits the killers more than the cops. “A storm's coming,” says Deputy Fullard. He's speaking literally, but the figurative (and ultimately melodramatic) nature of his statement isn't lost on the audience, nor on the Sheriff who calls him out.


The movie is peppered with moments like this and I wish there were more of them because they're genuinely funny and they underscore the outrageous events taking place on screen. The film struggles a bit with the more dramatic plot elements, unable to attain the gravitas it's reaching for in some scenes, and a broader approach to the inter-personal conflict would've played better.

The plot, on the whole, is a touch underwritten. For a movie that's ultimately about family, it's the Sheriff and his deputy who drive the narrative. At times the film feels like it’s more about the police response than it is about the killing spree. Were Jen more involved in her part of the story, the film would have a bit more balance. As it is, Jen is easily pushed around, first by her mother who makes her get a job at the mall and then by her friend who makes her google her parents. Jen’s total lack of agency is further underscored when, at the end of the movie, she’s again encouraged to do something she doesn’t want to do.

Minor plot problems aside, there’s the issue of the film’s setting and location. Certainly, parts of Ontario can pass for parts of New York, but that illusion is destroyed when every car on screen has Ontario plates. Also, there’s a quick establishing shot of downtown Woodridge that was clearly filmed in a mountain town someplace out west. Are these mistakes enough to interrupt the willing suspension of disbelief? Maybe. Do they ruin the movie? Of course not.

But since Once Upon a Time at Christmas is a slasher movie, most people are watching for the killers and kills. And that’s where the film shines. The ridiculously insane Santa and Mrs. Clause are delightful and the bloodbath they perpetrate is inversely proportionate to their sanity. When asked about her role as Mrs. Clause, Sayla de Goede said, “My direction was to play her bat-shit crazy.”

She did at that.

Fake Blood

Blood in the Snow Film Festival is an annual film fest held in Toronto with a mandate to support, promote, and exhibit independent Canadian horror, genre, and underground film.


I'm here faced with a difficult task: reviewing a movie I know is good and which everyone likes for good reason, but one I had a hard time buying into. This is a me-problem of the first order; there is absolutely nothing wrong with Fake Blood. The issue is me.

Some context first. In the 1980s and early into the 90s much ado was made about violent media. In much the same way rock music was blamed for a perceived decline in Western civilization, horror movies and video games have been demonized by people looking to explain why the world is changing in ways they don't like or understand. Time and again these theories have been proven false. Violent media does not beget more violence, and for me, the topic has been put to bed.

And then along comes Fake Blood, part documentary, part mocumentary, which seeks to explore the topic of movie violence in relation to violence IRL. The film begins with real-life filmmaker Rob Grant receiving a fan video in which a guy tours a hardware store, pointing out which tools he would use to dismember a corpse. The video sparks a discussion between Rob and his best friend (and leading man) Mike Kovac about the nature of movie violence and their responsibility as filmmakers as to how that violence is depicted.

Rob and Mike decided to explore this topic further by researching violence. What follows is a genuinely interesting and entertaining investigation into real-world violence, and it made me recall times in my life when I've witnessed violence of one sort or another. When Rob gets his ass kicked by a buddy trained in martial arts, I thought about when I trained in martial arts and got punched in the face (while wearing protection) during sparring class. A discussion about actual fights brought back memories of that time my friends and I witnessed a street fight outside a bar. Mostly it was a lot of fronting, and girls yelling. Then one guy walked into a punch and it was suddenly over. These recollections jived with what was being said on screen. Fights in real life are short and messy. Nobody wants to see that recreated on film—they're over too quick.


After getting his ass handed to him, Rob and friends hit up a gun range where they shoot popular movie guns, including a pump-action shotgun and the exalted Desert Eagle. One hilarious comparison later, and you come away with a better understanding of just how unrealistic movie gun play really is.

Not yet satisfied in their quest for enlightenment, Rob and Mike make the narratively important decision to interview John, a sort of violence consultant. John tells them harrowing tales of murder and has some insights to offer on the topic of fake vs real violence and their consequences. This experience takes the film in a new direction, one which puts a great deal of strain on the filmmakers’ friendship.

And here we come to the real moral centre of the film—the movie’s not really about violence at all but about the obsessive pursuit of story. Rob talks himself in believing he now has a responsibility to show the consequences of violence, to explore how it impacts people’s lives. He goes so far down that rabbit hole that he winds up putting himself and his friends in danger. Rob and Mike become their own subjects and the film turns in on itself before reaching its conclusion.

Everything about Fake Blood is good, but the standout moments for me are the re-enactments of John’s stories. These sequences are beautifully shot in dreamy slow-motion, and I honestly can’t say if it was intentional or not to bring so much artistry to these depictions of violence. Each sequence ends with a hard cut which most definitely is intentional—slapping the audience back to reality.

During the Q&A, the filmmakers explained that Rob is a sensitive guy and when he received that fan video it sparked a crisis of conscience. He really did face an moral dilemma, and worried about the fallout from making super gory, violent movies. Again, not something I spend a lot of time thinking about but hearing this story did help me get on board with Fake Blood’s premise. It also reminded me of another Q&A I attended years ago. That film was extremely violent and not in an artsy or stylized way. When called on, a woman in the audience berated the filmmaker for his negative portrayal of his country and its people, and told him he, as an artist, had a responsibility to produce beautiful things.

“I’m a filmmaker,” he said. “My only responsibility is to make movies.”

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Buckout Road

Blood in the Snow Film Festival is an annual film fest held in Toronto with a mandate to support, promote, and exhibit independent Canadian horror, genre, and underground film.


I first learned of this movie a few weeks ago, searching the Internet for upcoming horror movies to talk about on my podcast. Back then, I kinda made fun of it but my co-host was intrigued. Thing was, I'd already heard about Buckout Road--the place--but didn't know anything about the legend. And now, I guess, I do. Turns out some of the stories they tell in the film are the real urban legends associated with Buckout Road.

The film begins, as so many do, with a lecture on the movie's subject matter. In this case, a "humanities" class discusses the nature of belief systems and the need for faith. This, of course, sets the stage for a longer musing on legends and belief. Or it would if the film followed a normal trajectory. The film's final moments take viewers in a new direction. I hesitate to call it a twist (because the actual twist happens earlier in the story), really it's more of a jarring, last-minute change of course.

Shortly after Aaron returns home to his grandfather's house, he meets Cleo. Cleo, he soon learns, suffers from bad dreams and when Aarons starts having nightmares the two decide to team up. They're joined by twin bothers Erik and Derek, who've been know to sleepwalk their way to Buckout Road. As it happens, everyone's dreams relate to some aspect of the road's legend, but what do they mean?


The answer, when it comes, is a little disappointing to tell the truth. The problem lies in the fact that the film's controlling idea is completely underwritten--hence the big left turn in the plot. At the risk of ruining the movie, I'll say only this: Buckout Road isn't haunted.

For all it's faults, the movie looks good. The characters are likable, which is a plus, and, more importantly the film doesn't waste your time. How many movies have we endured in which the characters refuse to believe what they're experiencing is real, replacing forward momentum with pointless bickering? Thankfully, Buckout Road's characters are all pragmatists. Even Aaron's psychologist grandfather knows something weird is going on, and he springs into action. And Aaron's own search for answers leads him on a personal journey during which he manages to reconcile his past.

But all this good will is shot to hell when the film inexplicably abandons its ghostly premise in favour of something far more demanding in terms of the willing suspension of disbelief. When The Diabolical pulled this stunt and switched gears at the end, it was surprising, sure, but it also made sense. Buckout Road's attempt at the cinematic bait-and-switch has no satisfying pay-off.

As a final example of how the film doesn't know how to handle its subject matter, I turn to the use of legend within the story. Partway through the film, Aaron visits a church where the priest shares with him a bit of local history and then tells him a highly abridge version of the Descent of Inanna. In the movie version, the goddess Inanna is sent to hell and when she returns she's surrounded by demons so Enki, Lord of the Earth, takes her place in hell so she can be free. The priest tells Aaron the story is known in many religions, and says the Hindu call it karma. For starters, there's nothing karmic about that story. For seconders, the original story does a much better job laying the thematic groundwork for the movie. In the actual Descent of Inanna, Inanna attempts to take over the underworld and dies in the process. She is brought back to life with Enki's help, but he doesn't set foot in the underworld. Rather, it's Inanna's husband, Dimmuz, who didn't properly mourn her death, who is forced to go below and take her place.

The thing is, there was no reason to include the Sumerian myth at all. The movie already has three real urban legends to draw from, all of which are debunked partway through the film. But, for whatever reason, the filmmakers couldn't figure out how to leverage these plot points. The fact that Buckout Road includes some truly great dream sequences specific to each urban legend only makes this whole state of affairs worse. What's the point of being able to dreamwalk through legend if it makes no difference in the waking world?

Buckout Road is a film without proper direction. Although its characters are barreling toward a conclusion, it's not the right one.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Red Spring

Blood in the Snow Film Festival is an annual film fest held in Toronto with a mandate to support, promote, and exhibit independent Canadian horror, genre, and underground film.


Opening the Blood in the Snow Film Festival was Red Spring, a vampire movie that plays like a zombie film. The first time I encountered this type of treatment was Jim Mickle’s Stake Land. Personally, I thought it worked great and I’ll admit I’m surprised the idea didn’t catch on. That’s good news for Red Spring because now it means Jeff Sinasac’s movie doesn’t play like just another vampire flick.

The vampocalypse happened at some indistinct point in the past. Not so long ago that our heroes have settled into their new lives in the new world, but just enough time has passed that the government’s failure to save its people is still a raw, open wound. After the vampocalypse, the few humans left in the world have to keep moving lest they become food for the undead. But life on the road is tiresome and ultimately pointless; there’s nowhere you can go where the vampires won’t eventually find you. This bleak outlook underscores much of the film, but thankfully stops short of being overwhelming nihilistic.

The film beings with the aftermath of a vamp attack on a government shelter, in which dozens of folks were slaughtered. Enter Ray, who is looking for his wife and daughter, and who stubbornly chooses to believe they’re not dead. Any other zombie film would follow Ray as he desperately searches for his family, risking everyone (and everyone around him) in the process. But Red Spring isn’t any other zombie movie, and Ray leaves the shelter to join his fellow survivors in the relative safety of their van.


Each person in the van has been given the opportunity to learn the fate of their loved ones, Ray being the last in line as his personal journey means traveling to Toronto, deep into vampire territory. The rag-tag group successfully books it out of town before sunset, and somewhere between Toronto and nowhere they pick up another survivor, Vicky.

Vicky’s headed to Kincardine, where she plans to wait out the end of the world, and she invites the others to stay with her. Vicky’s reasoning as to why everyone would be much better off cooling their heels in Kincardine rather than freezing their asses off way up north is some of the best reasoning encountered in any contemporary vampire or zombie movie. Unable to counter her logic, self-appointed team leader Mitchel accepts her offer and the group settles in but not before an unfortunate run-in with a familiar gang of vamps.

What happens next is all pretty straightforward, if a touch predictable at times, all of which reaffirms Red Spring’s cinematic influences. Zombie films are tragedies, and Red Spring is no different in this regard. But rather than position its vampires as mindless, food-motivated monsters, creator Sinasac has bestowed upon them some brains. Vampires can drive and shoot, they can speak and write, and are capable of organized, linear thought. In fact, the vamps’ high-functioning abilities are what led to the fall of civilization. Unfortunately, this vampocalypse backstory clashes somewhat with the vampires present on screen who appear to be little more than bloodthirsty pack animals.

That’s not to say Red Spring isn’t entertaining, and the film does succeed where so many others fail—it’s sad when people die. Is it a touch too long? Yes. Does it deliver a better zombie-type plot than many zombie movies? Also yes. Red Spring’s uncommon approach to the genre is a refreshing change for anyone who’s tired of the same old zombie movie or vampire film or both.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Death Note (2017)


There is absolutely nothing wrong with Death Note. Except for, you know, everything.

Okay, to be fair, the film looks good (for the most part). It's well shot, properly lit, and nicely edited together, but all that style can't make up for the badly-told story that is the substance of Death Note.

I can sum up the film's problems thusly: Montauk is on the east coast.

Montauk, which is where L comes from, is a small community on Long Island. I know this because I spent a few summers there as a kid. It's a beach town, sandy and flat. The Montauk that appears in Death Note is deep in the forest, and the secret institution in which L was "born" is lies in the shadow of a mountain. Death Note was filmed in BC, and although I'm not intimately familiar with the province's geography, I'm pretty sure nowhere in BC could ever be mistaken for Long Island. And still no one thought to change this one minor plot point. The only reason L has to be from the east coast is so that Watari can waste his time traveling across the country (by train!). The clock is ticking, and Watari only has 48 hours to learn L's true name. Death Note is set in Seattle, but what the filmmakers don't understand is that it'll still take a while to get to Oregon or Idaho or the BC interior. Fuck, maybe even West Virginia--the geographic profiles are similar enough. Have any of them ever driven through the mountains? It takes time. But no, the film insists on trying to pass off west for east and this lazy oversight exemplifies why the movie--or more precisely, the story--kinda blows.

Another terribly-conceived moment comes right at the start of the film when Mia is smoking at cheerleader practice. Smoking. Even if her character did smoke (which I don't think she does because she never smokes again after this one scene), she wouldn't smoke during practice. I know I'm talking about unrealistic scenarios in a film about a magical killer book, but Death Note is set in the real world, and in this reality teens don't smoke on school property while practicing their sport.

Death Note starts off relatively strong, with the book quite literally falling out of the sky and into Light's life. He doesn't waste any time making good use of his new power, and movie hurtles along at a breakneck pace. And then everything comes to a screeching halt when L takes over the narrative. All that fun and exciting forward momentum runs up hard against L's investigation into Kira, and what could have been a tense thriller is instead a profanity-leaden PG13 drama.

Any sensible person in Light's situation would try to steer the investigation one way or the other, pitting their intellect against L's. Instead, Light lets himself get baited because this is no longer his story. To make matters worse, I'm not sure the movie itself is even aware that Light is no longer in charge. For the majority of the film's running time, Mia and L wrestle for narrative control, which is a huge problem for us because this film is really supposed to be about the moral ramifications of having power over life and death.

The whole thing comes to a head when Mia tries to strong arm Light into relinquishing the death note. One contrived chase scene later, we have our final showdown between the two teenaged lovers. Wait, what? Yeah, you read that right. The film ends not with Light and L facing off, not even with Light and Ryuk, but with a crazed girl lusting after power and her boyfriend's convoluted plan to undermine her. The film's eleventh hour attempt to give Ryuk some semblance of control over events is laughable at best. At worst, it's final proof that the filmmakers don't understand how to craft a story.

And what's with Light's hair? Either hire a blonde actor or commit to the dye job. Yeesh.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Map It! Canadian Mass Murders

Canada is no stranger to crime, including spree killers and mass murders. Zoom and click on the map to learn more about mass murder in the Great White North.