Film Review: Annabelle

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st October 2014.

If the formula for the very successful and mega spooky The Conjuring was quiet + quiet + bang = scare, then the formula for its prequel Annabelle goes like this: quiet + quiet + bang = yawn.

Certainly the breakout star from the original, it was pretty clear that the creepy possessed doll deserved a feature film of her own. Unfortunately, director John R. Leonetti, whose pedigree includes the dodgy sequels The Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, has crafted a predictable second rate horror flick that telegraphs all of its scares and demystifies the demon doll with unnecessary backstory.

The Conjuring wisely featured Annabelle in a subplot rather than the main storyline. She was possessed. That’s it. This time around, we find out that her origins are linked to a Charles Manson like cult. During a killing spree, a drop of a dying cultist’s blood drops into the doll’s eye and voila, instant demonic possession. The killer also bled on the carpet. Is the shag pile also possessed?

I’m not spoiling anything. Everything I’ve just mentioned is in the trailer. In fact, it’s fine to arrive 30 minutes late for Annabelle. You won’t miss anything.

As our leads, Annabelle Wallis (yep, that’s her actual first name) and Ward Horton overact as if this movie is their big break. Wait, it is. The usually reliable Alfre Woodard (12 Years A Slave, Star Trek: First Contact) is wasted in a role that teases the audience with a possible intriguing end plot twist but then doesn’t.

If copious close-ups of a spooky doll’s porcelain face scare you, buy the poster. Once again, less is more. Avoid Annabelle, turn the lights off and watch The Conjuring again.

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:44  Leave a Comment  
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Film Reviews: The Babadook & If I Stay

These reviews were originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 2 September 2014.

Film Review: The Babadook

Australian screenwriter and director Jennifer Kent has a critical hit on her hands with The Babadook, her feature debut. An atmospheric horror thriller, it is an intense cinema experience which will stay with you all the way home (in the dark in my case) and beyond. I’m definitely going to check the basement for ghoulies before I go to bed, and I don’t even have a basement.

The ever reliable Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) stars as Amelia, a single mum still reeling emotionally from the death of her husband seven years ago in a car crash on her way to the hospital to give birth to their son, Robbie (Daniel Henshall). Barely coping with Robbie’s behavioural issues and irrational (but normal) fear of monsters under the bed and in the closet, their lives fall apart when Amelia comes across a mysteriously creepy pop-up book about The Babadook.

Using a modest budget, with some dollars generated by a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign, Kent makes the most of a creepy old Adelaide house, a little CGI, a super scary sound design and plenty of darkness.

Unlike most conventional films of this genre, there’s a real emotional heart to this film, and I found myself genuinely caring for the characters. The performances of Davis and Henshall are superb. See The Babadook (even through your fingers  or under a blanket if necessary) before he finds you.

Film Review: If I Stay

After sitting through this disaster, I figured that the title referred to the question of whether I would stay for all 106 slow minutes of this cheese-fest. I did, but only in the name of film criticism and to save others from wasting their time. Letters of thanks may be sent to the CWD.

If I Stay is actually based on a popular young adult novel of the same name. Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a brilliant cello playing teenager experiencing her first love with the most clean cut baby faced lead singer of a rock band ever, Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley). When inclement weather results in a school “snow day”, her hipster parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) stupidly decide that a road trip with her brother (Jakob Davies) is a good idea.

One inevitable car accident and three deaths later, Mia has an out of body experience running barefoot around the local hospital, watching her family and friends keeping vigil over her comatose body unconvincingly lying in the ICU (hint: don’t watch this film with hospital staff…actually just don’t watch this film).

Will Mia return to the land of the living? Will she go to “the light” (I was cheering for this one)? Why does Mia have to wait for doors to be opened for her, if she is a ghost? What sort of idiot boyfriend would break up with a girl for successfully auditioning for the Juilliard School? Who cares?

Miss Grace Moretz is a talented actress but she is way too good for this material. The rest of the cast, including screen legend Stacy Keach, do their best with a turgid script, which never rises above an episode of The O.C.

I admit that I am not the key demographic for this type of film, but there’s no reason that cinema for teens and tweeners should not be intelligent and thought provoking. If I Stay is neither.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:31  Leave a Comment  
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Halloween Film Franchises

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 30th October 2012.

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, it’s time to don your spookiest costume, carve a pumpkin and visit strangers’ houses demanding food, because I’m about to perform a scary autopsy on Halloween film franchises.

Last week I reviewed the original Halloween film series which introduced serial slasher and horror film icon Michael Myers to the world. Beginning with the original John Carpenter classic in 1978 and concluding with a whimper in 2002, a total of eight films were unleashed upon cinema audiences at around the same time of the year, Halloween.

Several years later, the torch was passed to a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy with a penchant for riding tricycles. In 2003, Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Wannell managed to convince American backers to fund a low budget horror film to be shot in just 18 days. On October 29 the following year, the movie grossed over $100 million at the box office from a budget of $1 million. Welcome to the Saw franchise.

The Saw films centre around John Cramer, a genius engineer who is dying from cancer. After an attempt at suicide fails, he reassesses his existence and finds a new purpose, testing others to value their own lives with deadly physical challenges. Cramer then takes on a new moniker, Jigsaw.

Just like the Halloween series, the original film is the best, with a killer (pun intended) twist at the end. The subsequent six sequels, including a final instalment in 3D and all released on the Friday before Halloween, vary in quality. What remains consistent throughout the series is the cleverness of the deadly challenges placed on unsuspecting (and not so innocent) victims which usually result in painful and bloody deaths. Most of the challenges involve lethal mechanical devices which are a testament to Jigsaw’s maniacal but brilliant mind. They also suggest he had a lot of time on his hands.

Also impressive is the layering of the storylines. With Jigsaw killed off in Saw III, the filmmakers had to come up with a smart way to keep his legacy alive. There are various apprentices, as well as a brilliant conceit which sees two of the sequels taking place simultaneously. This is not revealed until the end of Saw IV (oops, spoiler alert).

By the time Saw 3D was released in 2010, audience enthusiasm for the franchise had waned and producers announced that there would be no further entries (for now). Of course that paved the way for a new Halloween film franchise. Enter Paranormal Activity.

If you’ve ever harboured an ambition to be a security guard in a big building, then this is the series for you. Mostly consisting of security camera footage, the movies focus on the premise that setting up cameras when you suspect your house is inhabited by demons is a good idea, not getting the hell out.

Paranormal Activity 4 is currently in cinemas now, with a fifth instalment due next Halloween. I’m not a huge fan. I like my horror franchises to have an element of logic. I can accept Michael Myers surviving every attempt to send him back to Hell, and a genius Jigsaw who had the foresight to plan and build extra deadly challenges just in case he was killed, but investigating a haunting in your own house by installing video cameras and then editing the footage into a movie after you have been slain by your homely demon? Don’t be ridiculous.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Published in: on December 25, 2012 at 09:04  Leave a Comment  
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Eighties remakes suck…but if you really have to, remake these

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 1st November 2011.

There’s nothing new under the sun. This year has seen the release of eighties remakes, Footloose and Fright Night. Both films have enjoyed moderate box office success and mixed critical reviews, but ultimately, one has to wonder why a remake was necessary.

With a prequel to the 1980 classic The Thing also hitting screens this month, plus a troubled reworking of Red Dawn likely to finally see the light of day this year, it seems all bets are off.

So here are my picks for eighties classics to be remade, even though I think it’s a bad idea.

Number 5 is alive! Despite starring Steve Guttenberg and having a shameful Indian stereotype character played by white actor Fisher Stevens (Birdy Num Nums anyone?), Short Circuit (1986) is great fun. Johnny 5, a military prototype robot, gets struck by lightning and develops self awareness. Permanently stuck is wise cracking mode, Johnny learns about life as he goes on the run from the bad guys with charisma vacuum Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy in tow. A poor sequel was produced in 1988 with only Fisher Stevens and Number 5 returning.

Have you ever left a yogurt in the fridge for so long that it becomes an evil entity that wants to take over your body? That is pretty much the premise of The Stuff (1985). Miners discover sweet tasting goo seeping out of the ground and decide to mass market it as a dessert (as you do). Of course, the goo is alive and has the power to turn the good folk of America into zombies. Only an industrial espionage expert hired by a rival ice cream company can save the day. I know it’s not exactly Hamlet but conceptually The Stuff is pretty good, er, stuff.

John Cusack was a staple in eighties teen comedies and two of his classics deserve a reboot. The Sure Thing (1985) stars Cusack as a young man who embarks on a road trip across America to hook up with a bikini clad blonde. Bad luck pairs him with uptight classmate Allison (Daphne Zuniga). Chaos ensues. Will he get to meet the girl of his dreams or will the mismatched travelling couple fall in love? I’m sure you can guess.

Better Off Dead (1985), also stars Cusack as a teen who loses his fickle girlfriend to a fellow skiing rival. Depressed, he tries unsuccessfully to kill himself. Pursued throughout the film by a paperboy (I want my two dollars!) and two very funny Asian revheads who seem to be waiting to race him at every traffic light, Cusack has to get his skiing mojo back as he falls for the pretty foreign exchange student next door.

In the eighties, two-for-one vouchers could often be found on promotional bottles of a particular brand of cordial (the one my dad picks the fruit for). These vouchers were only good for whatever film was being pushed at the time, and this is how I got to see my final pick, The Boy Who Could Fly (1986).

Teenager Milly meet Eric, an autistic boy. Both have lost a parent or parents and they soon become friends. After a series of strange events, Milly comes to the conclusion that Eric might have strange powers. Can Eric really fly? Have you read the title of the film?

On paper, none of these films sound worthy of a remake. However, like the original Footloose and Fright Night, they each contain a particular energy, attitude and innocence unique to the eighties and this cannot be replicated by CGI, 3D or any Kevin Bacon wannabe. But if we must disturb the graves of classic eighties cinema, you could do far worse.

Movie Review: Tucker & Dale vs Evil

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 18th October 2011.

Think about the storyline for your average horror film. Does this sound familiar? A group of nubile college students heads out to the woods for a camping trip. On the way they insult two hillbillies, who then proceed to extract revenge by killing off the promiscuous teens one by one. Yep, it’s pretty much the framework for a whole raft of slasher movies.

What if you reversed the concept, following the film from the hillbillies’ perspective? Except this time, the yokels are simple but friendly folk, and the teenagers are familiar with the rules of horror movies. Every good natured move the hillbillies make is interpreted by the teenagers as an attempt on their lives, and one by one they meet their demise through a series of hilarious mishaps.

Sounds like the perfect horror comedy. And it possibly is. The film’s title is Tucker & Dale vs Evil and it has just hit Australian DVD and blu-ray shelves after a difficult birth that saw it come extremely close to a theatrical release and possibly become a major hit.

Alan Tudyk, one of my favourite actors, stars as Tucker. You might remember Tudyk as the popular character Wash from the short lived Joss Whedon sci-fi western series, Firefly, and the subsequent big screen film, Serenity.  As Dale, you have rising actor Tyler Labine, who was most recently seen as chimp handler Robert Franklin in this year’s surprise hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Also starring as college student and love interest Allison is Katrina Bowden, best known as the cute but dim Cerie in TV sitcom 30 Rock. A solid cast for sure.

The director is Eli Craig, making his feature film debut. His short film, The Tao of Pong, is available on YouTube and is great fun.

Filmed in 2009 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the completed film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to cheering audiences. A subsequent screening at the prestigious South by Southwest in Austin, Texas also received a rapturous response.

A mainstream distributor became interested in the project and put the film through a test screening which resulted in overwhelmingly positive figures. Thinking that it was all a mistake, the distributor held a second screening which came back with similar results.

The final obstacle in the US film release process is the booking of movies by the cinema chain owners. Unfortunately, based on one screening, a major chain didn’t think it had potential and turned it down. And with that, Tucker & Dale vs Evil missed out on a major US cinema release. It premiered in Australia last week as a direct-to-DVD title.

I have a tendency to support the underdog, and after reading about the film’s history, I immediately rushed out to buy a copy. And I have to say that it doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously gory and hilarious at the same time, the film is a refreshing take on a worn genre.

Tucker & Dale vs Evil deserves mainstream attention. It is an absolute shame that the latest The Not-So-Final Final Destination chapter is taking up cinema screens when a much smarter and deserving film is relegated to the small screen. I guess it happens all the time.

So gather a bunch of friends, find the biggest TV that you can, buy (and don’t download) Tucker & Dale vs Evil and have yourself a great night in.

Published in: on October 18, 2011 at 22:10  Leave a Comment  
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Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!

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One of the hottest new shows from last year’s US television season is sadly yet to find a broadcast home on Australian television. The Walking Dead has been universally acclaimed by both critics and viewers, with strong ratings both in the US and the UK. Developed by Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist, and co-produced by Gale Ann Hurd of The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Aliens fame, the series is based on a popular comic book series of the same name.

So why isn’t The Walking Dead sitting in our TV guides alongside Hawaii Five-O and Blue Bloods? Probably because it is a post-apocalyptic drama focusing on a small band of survivors following an outbreak of zombies.

Zombies are nothing new to popular culture. Originally appearing in films such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943), zombies were originally intertwined with voodoo and witch doctors. It was George Romero’s landmark black and white feature Night of the Living Dead (1968) that introduced the idea of zombies being the flesh eating undead.

Romero continued his zombie series with four further Living Dead films: Dawn of the Dead (1978); Day of the Dead (1985); Land of the Dead (2005); Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2010). Each film features civilisation falling apart as the world is overrun by zombies but none are direct sequels to each other in terms of characters or storylines. The entire series is gore-tastic and gets two half eaten thumbs up from me.

Romero’s co-writer on the original Living Dead film, John A. Russo, wrote a book, The Return of the Living Dead, which was also made into a film in 1985. This time, the zombies have a taste for human brains, and a further four sequels were spawned, all of variable quality. A scene in Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) depicts a zombie dressed in Michael Jackson’s Thriller costume being electrocuted and hilariously recreating the iconic choreography.

Of course, Jackson’s famous long form music video, directed by John Landis in 1983, has probably been seen by more people worldwide than all zombie movies put together. In the video, the living dead arise from their graves to dance and sing to Jackson’s music. That’s far more frightening to me than any brain eating zombie.

The zombie world is not without controversy. Fans were upset when Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2005) featured running zombies. The argument is that as reanimated corpses, zombie ankles are probably too decomposed and unstable to sustain running. I guess that rules out my Zomba™ latino dance exercise program for the undead.

The excellent post-apocalyptic films 28 Days Later (2002) and 28 Weeks Later (2007) also feature zombie-like creatures. A debate still rages over the internet about whether these films can be considered of the zombie cannon. In my opinion, they can’t be included, as the creatures depicted are actually infected living people who can starve to death if they don’t feed.

Zombies have also slowly made their way (walking and moaning) into other motion picture genres. The action horror franchise Resident Evil (2002-2010) features Milla Jovovich fighting hordes of zombies. Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992), Andrew Currie’s Fido (2006) and Zombieland (2009) are laugh out loud comedies. Even the romantic comedy isn’t safe. The excellent Shaun of the Dead (2004) was the world’s first “zom-rom-com.”

Reportedly in pre-production, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies should hit our screens in 2013. I can’t wait to see literary heroine Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters battle the walking dead.

My favourite zombie movie title has to be the rather subtly named Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! (2007). Surprisingly, it focuses on an unorthodox speech therapist helping King George VI overcome his stammer.

But seriously, zombies are now firmly a staple for modern film audiences. Why shouldn’t they be on our small screens too, especially in a dramatic series as acclaimed as The Walking Dead? With the plethora of free-to-air and pay TV channels out there, surely someone should purchase the rights and air it before some of the more technically gifted amongst us obtain it by “other means.”