Thursday, 15 January 2015

Low-Budget Film Fest: Found Footage/Mockumentary Edition


Found footage was invented for the low/no budget filmmaker to exploit. That, of course, hasn't stopped high profile directors and studios from hijacking the FF bandwagon. Unsurprisingly, big-budget FF movies are often less well made than their low-budget country cousins, the result of confusing money for creativity.

Here's a short list of brilliant FF and mockumentary movies, made on the cheap. I could go on about how the proof is in the pudding, but the mention of pudding has made me hungry. Onto the list!

The Blair Witch Project


BWP should have launched the FF genre but that wouldn't happen for another ten years. Made for $30-50K, depending on who you read, the movie scared the crap outta audiences with the mere suggestion of a monster living in the woods.

The Last Broadcast


Made for an estimated $900, and released a year before BWP, The Last Broadcast is a more accomplished but less well-known take on the monster-in-the-woods trope. Unfortunately, the ending is terrible and completely ruins the film. But everything up to that point is amazing.

Lake Mungo


A fake documentary about how a family deals with grief, Lake Mungo is very nearly perfect in its verisimilitude. This slow burning film is less scary than the others on this list, but the climax will leave you cold. It's impossible to say anything more about the movie without spoiling it, so just go see it already.

The Conspiracy


This mockumentary about a conspiracy theorist weaves together documentary and found footage to tell its story. What begins as a run-of-the-mill doc about an unbalanced conspiracy nut is, in fact, a meta-text about conspiracies. Listen to my interview with the director. But also, see this movie.

Ghostwatch


The infamous British TV broadcast. In a modern-day version of Well's War of Worlds, Brits tuned into the BBC1 on Halloween 1992 and thought they were watching a live broadcast from a haunted house in London. Viewers were so upset with the show that it was banned for ten years. Even watching it now, knowing that it's a fiction, doesn't lessen the impact of the story or its scares.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon


I have no idea how much this cost to make, but I'm guessing less than my $3M cutoff. If you love slashers, you'll appreciate all this mockumentary has to offer. Behind the Mask is an intimate look at the life of a slasher villain, at the challenges he faces, and the planning and detail that goes into successfully executing his killing spree.

Long Pigs


Ever wondered why or how a man becomes a cannibal? Long Pigs answers that question. Two documentary filmmakers stumble upon a serial killer/cannibal who agrees to let them film his exploits. Although you can imagine how it ends, the meat of the film is dedicated to profiling the cannibal. At times funny and disturbing, it's a good little film that's worth seeing. DO NOT confuse this movie with Long Pig (2008), a long and boring diatribe about the evils of corporate greed.

Honourable Mentions:

Devil's Pass


This Renny Harlin-directed FF movie seeks to answer the mystery of what happened to the ill-fated hikers who died in Dyatlov Pass in 1959 (true story). The answers, when they come, are completely unexpected. The film has received middling reviews but it's creative in ways other lower-budget films can't afford to be, and I rather liked it.

Troll Hunter


Screw Cloverfield. If you really want to see an FF movie with giant monsters, Troll Hunter is the one to watch. What Cloverfield failed to grasp is that no one gives a damn about the people and their plight--everyone just wants to see the monsters. Troll Hunter is a delightful FF movie about a group of documentary filmmakers who stumble upon then follow around a government-paid troll hunter.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Year in Review: 2014


The time has come to again take a look back over the year that was and reflect on all I watched. Some of it was good, some of it was bad. Listed here are the best and worst films I had the pleasure and displeasure of seeing over the past year.

I watch so many movies, there's a good chance I've overlooked or forgotten some titles. For that, I apologize. You might remember some of these movies differently and for that I don't apologize. But anyway...

Holy wow: The Fly
Yes, I've only recently seen the fly and it kind of blew me away with its sustained grossness. Haven't been that grossed out and horrified in a long while.
Oh, come on!: Transformers Age of Extinction
What a terrible mess of a movie. It's too long and doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And I'm pretty sure a whole love interest subplot was cut out in favour of...China?

OMG: Guardians of the Galaxy
I wasn't at all looking forward to this one, but Marvel pulled off a coup with this rag-tag misfit space adventure.
OMFG: Robocop
Whoever decided a Robocop remake was a good idea should be fired. Honestly. This movie takes everything you love about Robocop, craps all over it, and flushes the whole thing down the toilet.

So good!

Rolled the dice and it payed off: The Machine
A quiet little indie flick about real and artificial humanity. Don't be romanced by Ex Machina, see this one instead.
Snake eyes: Jack the Reaper
Oh Tony Todd, is there nothing you won't do? Is there no plot too thin? No story too half-assed that you won't say no?

Blew me away: Housebound
A delightful and surprising horror comedy about a young woman under house arrest. Think Disturbia only better in every way.
Just blew: Wolf Creek 2
Christ, was this awful. The thoroughly unappealing Mick continues to stalk visitors to the Outback. He hates foreigners, see. So he kills them. Really doing Australia a favour, he is.

So much more: Tower
So much more that an rip-off of the end of Die Hard. Tower is Towering Inferno on steroids.
So much worse: Great American Snuff Film
Of all the snuff-themed horror movies I've seen (and I've seen quite a few) this one's the most boring. For Sean Tretta completists only. (If you don't know who that is, don't worry about it.)

Could have done with less human drama, but it is an American movie so...yeah.

What could possibly come next?: Dead Snow 2
A huge crowd-pleaser at TADFF this year, this excellent sequel continues the story of everyone's favourite Nazi zombies.
Ugh, what's next?: You're Next
Lot of people liked this one. Not me. With a few notable exceptions I found the whole predictable and largely uninspired. Hard to believe these same guys made The Guest, which is amazing.

Unexpectedly amazing: The Guest
This oddly funny thriller takes a hard left and leaves you speechless by the end.
Surprisingly mediocre: The Purge
I know the Purge 2 came out this year, but I only ever saw the first one. Fraught with problems, this is really just Wasted Potential: The Movie. Also, it's not like Ethan Hawke forced his neighbours to buy his security system.

Don't wait another minute: Arsenic and Old Lace
Looking for a non-traditional Halloween movie? Look no further! Halloween actually has nothing to do with the plot. It's about a guy who learns his aunts like to poison lonely old men.
No rush: Robovampire
It's like the spaghetti western of Kung Fu movies. New footage featuring a walking copyright infringement was spliced into an unfinished martial arts movie about vampire drug enforcers. So bad it's ridiculous. But not quite bad enough to warrant seeing.

Loads of fun! Just don't ask me to fully explain the ending.

Way better than the first: ABCs of Death 2
The first was so bad that it was a bit of a challenge finding filmmakers for the second. But they all rose to the occasion and put the original to shame.
How are there two of these?: Bunnyman
Half of what happens on screen makes no sense and the rest is just garbage.

I can't believe this got made: Tusk
It's entirely possible the story of Tusk is more entertaining than the film itself, but I really liked watching Michael Parks turn Justin Long into a walrus. The horror, when it comes, is thoroughly alarming and satisfying.
A new low in cinematic "achievement": Hospital
This film has been added to my short list of "worst movies I've had the misfortune of seeing." I turned it off ten minutes from the end. After having fast-forwarded through part of it, I still couldn't make it to the end.

Honourable mention: The Uninvited
It's about a killer mutant cat attacking people on a yacht. And it's played totally straight. It's terrible and wonderful all at once.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Book Report: Devious


This is the first Lisa Jackson book I've read, and it will likely be my last. In short, I hated it. At least twice I considered leaving it unfinished. Why did I continue to read a book I couldn't stand? I don't know. I think part of me hoped it might improve while another, more masochistic part, was curious to see how much worse it could get.

I both was and wasn't disappointed--Devious was so much worse than I imagined. Also, and this is the kicker, I traded a book I really liked for this stinker.

Valerie Renard is a former police detective living in New Orleans. On the eve of her divorce, her sister is murdered. The following morning, her soon-to-be ex-husband arrives at her door. These two events are unrelated. Slade is not a suspect in Camille's murder, but his presence is a blessing and curse for Val who's determined to find her sister's killer and divorce her husband.

Camille's murder, it turns out, is the first in a series of killings made all the more sensational by the fact that most of the victims are nuns. As Valerie digs deeper into Camille's life, she comes to learn new and interesting things about her sister. And about Slade. No longer so certain about the path she's chosen, Val's life becomes even more complicated when the killer targets her.

The book's cover identifies Devious as being "a Rick Bentz/Reuben Montoya novel." Jackson has written a series of novels about the pair, two homicide detectives with the NOPD. Past adventures are referred to heavily in the text, and not as a nod to die-hard fans of the series, but with the self-conscious attitude of promotion. One problem, though: Bentz and Montoya are background players in this story. They do a minimal amount of detectiving while other characters take up most of the story.

What little police work does take place seems sloppy and half-hearted. It's hard to say whether this is because Devious is really Val's story or because Jackson isn't very good at writing procedural. I'm inclined to go with the latter because despite Val being a former police detective herself, she's not very good at solving mysteries.

But then, Jackson's not very good at writing them. Take for instance Camille's cell phone. The phone is mailed to the police and then disappears from the story. A second phone turns up in Val's house and it, too, leaves the narrative once it's collected by the cops. Was it the same phone? Did Jackson loose track of evidence? The answers don't matter because, in the end, the phone doesn't matter. It's a meaningless plot point. Then there's the curious signature left by the killer, a pattern of blood drops on the victims' clothes. What does it mean? We never find out. And what about the disappearing wedding dresses? Or the possibility of a copycat emulating the ritual of a killer last seen ten years ago?

And there's Detective Montoya who singles out one suspect, to the exclusion of all others, without any solid evidence. His tunnel vision prevents both him and his partner from investigating all possible angles.

Jackson introduces too many plot points, following up on too few. Some revelations come much too late in the story to be properly developed, while others have no pay-off. Why bother harping on Sister Lucia's ESP if it serves no purpose other than to traumatize the poor woman? And what's the point of a coded message in a secret diary if we're not being led down a new path of inquiry and intrigue that will ultimately lead to the killer?

Devious has all the makings of a scandalous and sensational murder mystery/thriller but Jackson has no idea how to fit the pieces together into a well-paced and satisfying story. The book begins with the murder of a nun and then stops dead as people faff about and the author repeats herself in character descriptions and backstories. A badly handled misdirection results in near-total confusion at the end when the killer is revealed.

The book holds no suspense. The killer's identity is a complete surprise--there is perhaps one clue that suggests who the killer might be but this is only mentioned in passing and is then dismissed. Characters continually get in each other's way, preventing the story from moving forward, and the author holds back important information that turns out to have tremendous consequences for everyone.

I can't remember a book I've read in recent years that had as many problems, was as badly written, and was as dissatisfying as Devious. Perhaps the only good thing that I can take away from it is a lowered standard for publishing which I feel confident I can surpass when I finally get around to finishing my own masterwork of literary fiction.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Canada After Dark 2014


In addition to feature films, Toronto After Dark showcases short films from all over. Preceding each feature is a Canadian short, selected for its thematic similarities (the festival includes Shorts After Dark, a screening of international short films). Admittedly, I don't always go out of my way to see shorts so I'm always pleased with the opportunity TAD provides for interested but lazy filmgoer to catch some short genre films.

This year's crop of shorts ran the gamut from brilliant to not-really-my-taste. Because I had to miss out on a handful of features I also missed a few of the short films as well. But anyway.

Foxed (played with Housebound)

I loved it! A young girl has been kidnapped by foxes and forced to work in a mine. She escapes and discovers, to her horror, that a fox has replaced her at home. Foxed is four wonderful minutes of claymation and reminded me of a song on a Cabbage Patch Kids cassette tape I had as a kid.

Young Blood (played with Suburban Gothic)

A boy is forced to spend a few hours with his deadbeat uncle on is birthday. During his visit, thugs break into his uncle's apartment and the kid witnesses the violence that takes place. This one didn't really speak to me. It's a bit slow to start, but the kid grows up fast when the thugs turn up.

Lumberjacked (played with ABCs of Death 2)

An animated music video with a story to tell. A lumberjack living happily in the woods, at one with nature, watches in horror as his beautiful forest transforms into an urban wasteland. Really liked this one. Watch it here.

Day 40 (played with Zombeavers)

Another one that wasn't really me. In this animated short, we're privy to the terrible things that went down on Noah's ark once it became clear to the animals they were in for a long ride. I did appreciate the end, which I won't spoil.

Period Piece (played with Dead Snow 2)

I'm torn on this one. I liked it, although I wasn't surprised by the turn it takes toward the end. A film crew is madly racing to finish shooting their movie before it gets dark. There's some disagreement about how it should end but after a brief skirmish the director is encouraged to shoot the ending she wants because it's "what the world needs." Why? Check out the preview. The filmmakers are hoping to turn it into a feature.

Rose in Bloom (played with Wolves)

Told by her mom to play outside, Rose peeks in on her sister and father in the garage then hides in the van, hoping to surprise them. Instead, she's the one in for a surprise when she finds out where they're going. Also, it's her birthday. While I can appreciate the story here, I couldn't tell if the film's awkwardness was intentional.

Dead Hearts (played with Late Phases)

This was delightful. So good! A kind of love story between a boy and a girl. Quirky in a Wes Anderson sort of way. Funny and heartfelt. Also, zombies.

The Monitor (played with Open Windows)

Based on a weird story about a hacked baby monitor, a woman is woken up by a phone call from a man claiming to be the nursery. It reminded me, in a good way, of a similar short film by Fewdio, which I also really liked.

Migration (played with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter)

This was absolutely wonderful, if maybe a touch sad. But sad in a good way. A creature drops to earth and journeys across the country, where it finds other creatures like it falling from the sky. The whole thing looks like it was shot on 8mm and the creature animation is brilliant.

Lazy Boyz (played with Wyrmwood)

True story; I have a script I was going to produce about a killer couch. And now I can't because someone beat me to it. Lazy Boyz is about two hosers who bring home a couch that eats people. It's hilarious.

Satan's Dolls (played with The Town that Dreaded Sundown)

This was great. A sleazy, seventies-era nun movie about a criminal who escapes the cops by hiding in a convent. Lots of over-the-top drama and intrigue with just the right balance of seriousness and humour.

Intruders (played with The Babadook)

Watching this I thought it was too disconnected, like the two stories being told had nothing to do with one another. Turns out, the short was inspired by two different indie comics. The film's well made and looks great and all, but there's no reason the two storylines should occupy the same space. One is about a boy who lives alone in a house with the desiccated corpse of his caregiver. The other, which I really enjoyed is only a couple minutes long and is about a guy who spies on his neighbours and sees something awful.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Babadook


The Babadook has been making waves all over the place. So much so, that I feel the film has become a victim of over-hype. That's not to say The Babadook isn't any any good, but the glowing press creates expectations that can't ever be met. I even heard it said this was a top-notch possession film, which it isn't. A possession film, I mean. The Babadook is a psychological musing on grief.

Nearly seven years have passed since her husband's death, but time holds little meaning for Amelia. She lives day-to-day, nursing the raw, open wound left by Oskar's unexpected and violent passing. Her young son, Sam, reminds her too much of Oskar and Amelia has a difficult time loving her child. Into this unhappy home enters Mr. Babadook, a shadowy monster brought to life in a pop-up book. Sam insists the Babadook is real, which only angers Amelia, but even she can't explain or deny the strange voice she hears or the dread she feels at night.

The film is set mostly within the suffocating space of Amelia's house. As Sam is taken out of school, and Amelia looses her job, the movie turns inward cutting itself off from the rest of the world to focus on Sam and Amelia's growing psychosis. Journeys outside the home end badly for everyone and so the film takes on an enclosed feeling as Amelia becomes more withdrawn, shutting herself and her son inside their home.

The Babadook is a slow burn and, like Poltergeist, endings don't come easy. As a manifestation of her grief, the Babadook has power of Amelia, and she will be haunted by her husband's ghost until she can find it within herself to move on. More to the point, Amelia's tragic inability to let go is having a negative effect on Sam. If she can't get it together soon, she risks losing her son. But Amelia revels in her grief, identifies herself through her suffering, and letting go is scary for her. Scary like the Babadook.

The Babadook is more atmospheric than it is outright terrifying, although the film does reward the audience with a few glimpses of the monster. Most of the runtime is held over for exploring Amelia's and Sam's fractured psyches. Visual cues remind us of the ever-present threat of Mr. Babadook, while the look and feel of Amelia's home pays homage to the German Expressionism cinema of the early 20th century. There's no intensified continuity here, no fast-paced editing or shakycam. The Babadook trades on stable camerawork, some clever effects, and a brooding pace that leaves time to think and worry about what will happen next.

The film's warm reception and glowing reviews earned it a special place on the Toronto After Dark programme: the closing gala. Having sold out in record time, the festival added a second late-night screening to accommodate disappointed horror fans. Most sold-out shows have one or two empty seats, but The Babadook played to a full house, which included the grandparents of Noah Wiseman, the boy who plays Sam. I hope they're proud of him.

The Babadook's praise is well-deserved but audience members should be cautioned against falling victim to the hype. I hesitate to suggest part of that hype has to do with The Babadook being helmed by a first-time female director, but the fact of the matter is there are few women out there making horror movies and so we tend to give special attention to those who are.


All caveats aside, Jennifer Kent has delivered a wonderfully crafted psychological horror movie full of atmosphere and suspense. If you're growing tired of jump scares and torture porn, have a look at The Babadook.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Wyrmwood


Remember when zombie movies were about something, something other than running away from zombies? Or, if they didn't lay on the social commentary, the movies at least tried to do something fun or interesting with their story? Seriously, think about it. Carriers was well done but formulaic. 28 Days Later was all window dressing. But Shawn of the Dead? That was a mildly critical of modern society while also being a slacker comedy. And Zombieland had characters you cared about who had places to go and things to do.

In the better zompocalypse movies, the zombies situation gets the plot rolling, but it's the characters and their stories that keep it going. And I mean proper characters, not the stock players and stereotypes that populate a lot of horror movies, but real people you can sympathize with. Wyrmwood, as crazy and ridiculous as it is, is full of people you like and feel sorry for.

One night, apropos of nothing and with no warning, the sky is full of shooting stars. The following morning, for no apparent reason some people have turned into zombies. Benny's out pig hunting with his brothers when it happens. Barry is at home with is wife and daughter, and his sister Brooke is working in her studio. When the zombies happen, each one is caught up in a different situation; Benny and Barry intersect and together they set off to find Brooke.

Wyrmwood is advertised a cross between Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead, which I think is more telling of the film's atmosphere than its plot. In short, it's high energy craziness. Thankfully, the movie doesn't waste any time on inter-personal drama. In fact, everyone's pretty likeable and complete strangers easily band together to deal with the situation. It's rather refreshing to watch a zombie movie that doesn't feel the need to cram in a lot of conflict within and between survivors, and Wyrmwood understands that cutting down on needless human drama leaves room for more important things like zombie-proofing your ride and performing weird experiments on people.

Even though Wyrmwood features a kind of action/adventure plot, the film does leave time for musings about how and why the zombies happen. As the title suggests, the movie takes its end-of-days scenario literally, drawing inspiration from the Book of Revelations. Again, its a nice change from the constant onslaught of viral- or radioactive-led zombie plot. Moreover, Wyrmwood's writers have thought this thing through, giving reason to why some people survive and others don't. Most impressive of all is the attention to detail given to the zombies themselves, to how they operate and what it means for the survivors.

Wyrmwood is not without its problems. A great deal of this movie appears to have been shot in close-up which creates a certain amount of disorientation. Adding to this is the constant racking focus which, under normal circumstances would focus viewer attention, but in this case only serves to create too much chaos in an already chaotic space. The film's zany enough without the need for additional “creative” camerawork.

The film ends at an odd point in the story, one might even call it a turning point. Friends of mine took it to mean the movie didn't actually have an ending. I think the opposite. I think after witnessing everything that happens, you know where the story's headed and don't need to see it. Ending with the big, expected confrontation would be too much, too Hollywood for an indie Aussie zombie movie. Rather, the film ends on the build-up to that moment and it feels more personal, more invested in the characters.

I hesitate to call Wyrmwood a mad-cap thrill ride through the zompocalypse, but it does present us with some fun, new ideas about the zombie uprising.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Open Windows


I have a fondness for cyber thrillers. 1990s cyber thrillers in particular. Back then, connectivity and the Internet were still fresh and new, ready to be explored and exploited. A new frontier, as it were. We imagined the web as a kind of megalopolis, a giant city that lived inside a network of computers and phone lines. It's not a bad analogy and it allowed for some interesting and creative visuals.

Twenty years later, the Internetropolis seems dated and quaint. Our ideas about the Internet haven't changed any, but how the Internet is represented in film has. This is due in part to the fact that everyone knows about it, knows what it is and how it works. No sense wasting valuable story time on a lesson in network connections. Instead, contemporary cyber thrillers use that time to mine our fears about surveillance and privacy.

Open Windows brings a new dimension to the paranoia that permeates most contemporary cyber thrillers: control. Nick is a normal, nice guy who's just a touch obsessive about Jill Goddard, a popular actress. Nick manages a Jill fan site where he posts pictures and articles about his favourite star. After winning a contest, Nick flies to Austin where he'll have dinner with Jill. While he settles into his hotel room, he's contacted by someone from Jill's entourage telling him the dinner's been cancelled. Nick's understandably upset about it, and his disappointment makes him easy to manipulate. First he's guided to surreptitiously film Jill and things progress from there.

Voyeurism has always been an important aspect of any good cyber thriller, and Open Windows takes the idea of constant surveillance to another, creepier level. By hacking her devices, Chord is able to activate the cameras on Jill's phone and computer, thereby allowing Nick to always see her. But this potential benefit for Nick is just another way for Chord to leverage his control. Nick can watch Jill, but Chord is watching them both.

Open Windows wouldn't be a true Nacho Vigolando movie if it didn't toe the line between contemporary thriller and scifi, and for some members of the audience this is where the film falls apart. Chord's almost super-powered hacker ability is made possible by next-gen equipment. He's also in possession of special video cameras that can be networked to visualize their environment. For a movie that gently pushes the limits of believability, the introduction of science fiction-y elements late in the story can cause some viewers to disconnect from the movie. And that can be a bit of a problem for a film that's all about being connected.

In Open Windows that connectedness is displayed visually through the open windows on Nick's computer. The entire story is told through the different points-of-view displayed on his screen: Jill's cell phone, Nick's own webcam, CCTV feeds, ect. The movie cycles through these different windows as the story unfolds, sometimes getting two or three generations removed from the action. It's no wonder the film took a year to edit so that it all seamlessly fits together.


With its themes of voyeurism, control, and connectedness all relayed through a first-person POV, Open Windows is a cyber thriller for the 21st century. In the 90s, Hackers told us to “hack the world,” and it would appear that Open Windows has done just that.