Tuesday 17 December 2013

Documentary Tackling Shark Finning Seeks Crowdfunding Help

The ocean has fallen foul to the ravages of human appetites including whaling, excessive fishing draining stocks, and the practice of corralling dolphins for captivity or food as depicted in the chilling documentary The Cove. Philip Waller's documentary, Extinction Soup looks to expose yet another slice of oceanic savagery, shark finning. Writer, producer and director Waller is looking for funds through crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to cover post production costs for a film that looks set to highlight and bring about legal changes to curb shark finning, a practice that could have devastating effects on the environment.

Shark finning is the practice of capturing sharks and sawing off their fins before casting the now mutilated sharks back into the ocean. The fins are usually sold to restaurateurs to be used into he delicacy that is shark fin soup. The sharks carcasses are discarded back into the ocean dead or alive, with many going days even weeks dying painfully from their wound. It is estimated that around 70 million sharks per year are mutilated and killed for this dish despite being illegal in many parts of the world. Californian filmmaker and adventurer Philip Waller has teamed up with activist and shark swimmer Stefanie Brendl to make Extinction Soup. On board to help bring this important project to the masses is producer Sidney Sherman, whose own success with crowdfunding saw the short film Reboot come to life, and Reboot alumnus Travis Aaron Wade serving as co-producer. The team are hoping that the film will expose practice to a worldwide audience and educate as well bring pressure to the world's governments to bring about effective legislative changes to end shark finning.

Filming has completed thanks to self-funding by the filmmakers but requires a lot of post production work. The funds being raised through IndieGoGo will be used to cover this cost. The sum of $30,000 is being sought to produce the film's music, graphics and titles, audio mixing as well as licensing costs, and none of it will be used to compensate the filmmakers. If the campaign is successful then the makers are aiming for Extinction Soup to be released around May 2014.  To date the campaign has raised over $25,000 but with less than ten days left till the deadline the race is on to find the remanding funds.

In return for their pledge donors will be in line for various rewards starting from the usual thanks and acknowledgments from the filmmakers to digital downloads and DVD copies of the finished film, signed and exclusive merchandise. Those with over $1,000 to invest will receive the usual rewards plus producer, creditors as well as invitations to festival screenings. For the top end investors, i.e. $10,000 or more, they will be flown to Hawaii for a free shark tour courtesy Stefanie Brenda. It should be noted however that this will mainly be for US investors. Most importantly however investors can feel satisfied in helping bring an important film to fruition, one that aims to significantly reduce this cruel practice or even bring it to a halt through a global legal intervention. For more information and to make a donation please visit the campaign's IndieGoGo crowdfunding page. 

Tuesday 17 September 2013

[Fright Fest Feature] Rediscovering Found Footage

Over the years I had grown increasingly tired of the "found footage" sub genre of horror. Most will be familiar with the format; a team of investigators or film makers venture into some remote part of the world to look into a grisly event and disappear. Sometime later however their recording equipment is found intact complete with footage which is extracted, edited and presented to cinema audiences worldwide. What makes these films popular is the inference they are true stories and executed properly, contain a gritty realism as seen from the players' point of view drawing audiences into the unfolding scary events. It is an interesting format that works well but unfortunately has seen that market become somewhat over-saturated  Fright Fest features a bevy of such found footage films which seem to have breathed new life into the format.

Principally, found footage films such as Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust, are popular with studios as they are relatively cheap to make. It is usually best to feature unknown actors as more famous ones will increase the budget and take away any realistic element.  The actors can be included in the technical process and given cameras to film their own scenes as they did with Blair Witch. From a creative point of view however found footage films give scope for the actors to improvise and the filmmakers to create a real sense of atmosphere using a wide array of filming techniques. However with so many such films on the market it has been a case of there being more bad films than good, leaving many fans a little jaded. 

This year's Fright Fest screenings featured a number of found footage films that have challenged the audience perceptions of this sadly over used format. Titles that have impressed Fright Festers include Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek about a couple who hope to catch sight of the infamous Big Foot, and Paranormal Diaries; Clophill, a film investigating witchcraft and satanic rituals. Here is a look at a selection of found footage films featured at Fright Fest.

The Dyatlov Pass Incident

Sitting in the wrong seat having sauntered in just as the movie started, where I expected disappointment I was pleasantly surprised, the best of which was the joy of watching a Renny Harlin film on the big screen again. As timely as my train journey into the big city all the cliches arrived on cue; the true story backdrop, five young camera wielding investigators, interviews with the yokels and a last hurrah before venturing out into the snow covered treacherous mountains, perhaps never to be seen again.

Watch enough found footage films and these aspects creep in and make you feel as if you are essentially watching the same film over again. However Harlin has plenty to work with in Vikram Weet's intriguing script. Despite the film quality being a little too crisp for "found footage" there is no absence of tension or atmosphere. The reveal at the end might leave some viewers disappointed but with a conservative running time, and some decent performances, Dyatlov Pass set a fair standard for raised expectations of what was to follow. 

Frankenstein's Army

Reading the synopsis of this wonderfully entertaining and eerie production that really pushes the boundaries of creativity, it is fair to say that the "real" story element was bundled up and thrown out of the window. The story again has the usual elements; a rag tag group (this time Russian soldiers) venturing into the wilderness in search of another rag tag group who have gone missing. Yes there is a filmmaker who accompanies them but if you are wondering why a Russian filmmaker during World War II is armed with a seemingly modern day camera, this is dealt with quite comically in the film. 

During the height of World War II, a team of Russian soldiers venture into enemy held territory in search of their comrades who went missing. Accompanying them is a filmmaker with orders to record the journey as part of a propaganda film. Their investigation leads them to a compound where Hitler had commissioned a certain mad scientist to build him the ultimate army. Dutch director Richard Raaphorst's film was entertaining and engaging on many fronts mainly the tensions between the soldiers as the film progresses, the setting and genuine sense of atmosphere and of course the wonderfully macabre creations that unleash some creative and bloody mayhem.  

The Conspiracy

Christopher MacBride's entry into the found footage cinematic battle draws the viewer into a world that many tend to dismiss but still can't help but be fascinated with; the world of the conspiracy theory. From Area 51 to the September 11 attacks the conspiracy theorist with a hazy combination of wild eyed paranoia and logical scientific examination has helped cast shadows of doubt on much of what goes on around the world. All the trademarks of found footage are there, investigators in search of a missing person delving into sinister goings on, hidden cameras and a terrifying revelation to the point of cheesy cliche. However it works eerily well in its execution and treatment of the subject matter. 

Where The Conspiracy works is in its documentary format giving a high level of authenticity that is lacking from many other films of this type. Using this eerie realistic feel, MacBride introduces the conspiracy theory elements in great detail and whether you believe in them or not, many of such theories have an air of truth and convincingness to make one stop and think. Unlike so many other found footage films, its scares do not lie in the supernatural but in the far more terrifying reality of greed and power. The ultimate reveal is a little far fetched but all in all The Conspiracy has tension and and atmosphere to boot and is almost a guaranteed conversation starter about the existence of secret societies and whether or not conspiracy theorists might just be right after all.  

v/h/s/ 2

Horror anthologies are back with a vengeance with some of the biggest names from independent cinema contributing a segment which combined launch an all out war on the human senses. The rapper story is that of two private investigators hired to search for a woman's missing son. They arrive at his apartment and find a pile of videotapes with a recorded instruction to play them in a specific order. As each horrifying segment is viewed the grisly nature of the young man's disappearance is revealed. 

Of all the found footage PoV (point of view) style films featured at Fright Fest v/h/s 2 is by far the most entertaining for light scares and lots of laughter, with Safe Haven, co-directed by The Raid's Gareth Evans being the star player. Dispensing with all the authentic documentary style with a story bogged down with facts, v/h/s 2 is out thrill from start to finish and succeeds. All the stories are told from a variety of recorded PoV films ranging from a prosthetic eye enabling its wearer to see dead people to a helmet cam of a zombie cyclist. The array of well known indie directors including Evans, Adam Wingard (You're Next) and the found footage master Eduardo Sanchez (Blair Witch Project) each bring their own brand of suspense and humour to their individual segments all linked together with the engaging underlining story. This is the perfect example of taking a familiar format and having lots of fun with it and still able to conjure the scares.

I can honestly say the Fright Fest has restored my faith in the found footage genre although there is still a barrage of awful titles to trawl before you get the to good stuff. Still, it just goes to show that a familiar formula can still be tinkered with to create something that is imaginative, filled with scares and humour aplenty. 

Sunday 1 September 2013

[Fright Fest Special] On Tender Hooks

Stars; Kate Shenton, Tam Smith, Ana Loco, Damien Lloyd-Davies, Charlyne Chiappone
Written and Directed by; Kate Shenton

WARNING!!!! If you have a sensitive constitution perhaps you should not read this review. 

Fly on the wall documentary by a young filmmaker who spent a year following and talking to people who engage in human suspension, an activity that involves piercing themselves with hooks and suspending in mid air. Starting in London before moving onto Rio, Croatia, and Oslo in Norway, the film shines a light on the people and their reasoning behind as well as feelings about this mind blowing, innovating and largely misunderstood past time.

Body piercing, tattoos, and extreme body modifications always leave most people in a state of awe and disbelief - "why on earth would anybody do that to themselves?" and "they must have a screw loose" are typical reactions. Whilst these are tolerated within certain boundaries, human suspension is sure to be the limit to what many consider an acceptable practice. Yet Kate Shenton's frank and emotional documentary looks to cast an enlightening spotlight on the practice, its very strict safety protocols and the motivations of those who week after week keep coming back for more indulging in some outlandish displays which are jaw droppingly creative.

When you think of human suspension by meat hooks pierced through the skin attached to a custom made harness it is hard to imagine it involving anything other than just hanging in mid air and bearing the strain and pain that must surely accompany something so gruelling. However what Kate Shenton's film reveals are acts of suspension that defy conventional human imagination. Hooks penetrating various parts of the body with positions ranging from the lotus position to mid air splits, stationary suspension to acrobatic swings that would put to shame the most daredevilish of trapeze artists, the art of human suspension (and yes it is an art) provides a challenge for those who practice it as well as even the most hardened of onlookers.

The film also focuses, in shocking detail, the piercing techniques involved, including the different types of hooks used as well as the care and attention that goes into constructing the high tensity harness, rigorously tested and maintained for safety to ensure trust and well being of participants. What will challenge those who feel this is a highly dangerous (and done incorrectly it can be) and disturbing past time, is the care that goes into making sure the suspenders are "hooked" up. From the anatomical knowledge of the piercers to ensure no vital areas of the body are caught, to the very sanitary conditions of the work areas that would rival any operating theatre, for what is seemingly a very dangerous activity, safety and well being of suspenders is an absolutely priority. Some aspects, such as the hook piercing are not as painful as one might believe, and whilst some experience pain and discomfort, many under the endorphin and adrenaline rush, are swinging away like children from a climbing frame.

Where the documentary really excels is in capturing the stories of the people involved, and the sheer rush of joy suspenders get from an activity the mere thought of would have others squirming in their seats. The thought of suspending oneself from sharp meat hooks might seem painful yet watching these participants perform an array of mind boggling suspensions with nothing but smiles and laughter is guaranteed to challenge those perceptions. The suspenders themselves are colourful yet very happy and open minded individuals, even more well adjusted than perhaps "society" would like us to believe, after all what sane person would do this to themselves? It is this sort of preconceived notion of what is acceptable also reveals that some suspenders are vilified by their families and the legal system. The story of Ana who is currently fighting for legal custody of her child, is particularly heartbreaking, and during a Q&A afterwards Kate revealed that the majority of suspenders and piercers face similar harassment, and that this mostly targets women.

On Tender Hooks is a frank yet touching examination of a group of people who for a variety of reasons choose to take up human suspension from spiritual fulfilment to the endorphin-fuelled rush that challenges the limits of the human body and soul. By leaving the floor open for the subjects of the film to do most of the talking, and choosing largely to stay behind the camera Kate has captured the real sense of community amongst the suspenders. These are happy and content individuals who seek fulfilment through extreme yet very safe methods in a trusting environment, no different to say any form of extreme sports or physical activities such as mountain climbing or potholing. Kate's connection with the community not to mention a finale that reveals her taking research into a subject matter to new heights (pun intended) that have given her a unique understanding of it all, powerfully comes across in the film.

Human suspension, like anything else, is not for everyone and neither the filmmaker nor its practitioners are looking to convert more people to participate. On Tender Hooks however should leave everyone with a better understanding and appreciation for this bizarre practice and even a little fondness for these colourful individuals whose only wish is to be left to their own devices (again pun intended), free from judgement and vilification.

Friday 30 August 2013

[Fright Fest Special] The Shorts at Fright Fest

The amazing aspect of short films is their ability, under the proper creative guidance of course, to tell a complete story with as much running time as it takes to travel from my hotel room to Leicester Square (around 13 mins). In fact a well crafted short film can be more entertaining and engaging than most Hollywood feature length productions. This year at Fright Fest nine short films received their big screen premiers from new and established names in the genre. The event also played host to the imaginatively titled and conceived 666 Shortcuts to Hell film competition. Let us also not forget those highly entertaining and gruesome shorts encouraging the audience to turn off their mobile phones or risk facing bloody retribution. 


Two police officers break into the apartment of notorious criminal Vince Deacon (a chilling steely performance by Stephen McCole) beat him and tie him to a chair. Having now crossed the line the senior officer Jimmy Parton (Neil Maskett) threatens to torture and kill Deacon, much to the shock of his junior partner Nathan Reece (Ed Speelers) unless he reveals the whereabouts of a certain package. Realising that the officers have reached a point of no return that it can only have one outcome Deacon attempts to set the two policeman against one another before they decide to clean up their mess.

Writer and director Will Gilbey has crafted and helmed a tense psychological thriller with all the edgy grittiness of a British gangster flick. All three actors give sterling performances and Gilbey keeps the viewers' attention fixed on the mind games leaving other details such as the contents of the package a mystery never to be solved.

Chuck Steel; Balls of Steel Justice

If you love 80s action cop films then this claymation spoof/homage from Welsh based Immortal Pictures is the one to watch. Chuck Steel is the quintessential action hero cop, a lone wolf loose cannon whose  arrests and interventions turn the city into a war zone. Yet Chuck, along with his sex-crazed robot partner, is the only one who can save an accountant held hostage from a deadly ball busting (literally) end.

Every cliche from 80s cop films is packed into this laugh a minute animation, including the shouty police chief who is one angry cry away from a coronary, explosions and inventive deaths always followed by cheesy one liners, and grandiose martial arts finale. Think of every aspect of all four lethal weapon films and anything by Arnold Schwarzenegger and what you have is a very affectionate poke at some of action filmdom's most loved films.

The Body

A stone cold killer (Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen) chooses Halloween night to carry out the murder of his latest bounty so that he can escape with body in tow on the one night nobody would be suspicious. His plan seems to work until he is recognised by an old school friend who is impressed with the killer's "costume" and insists on showing him off at a party. The killer at first agrees but time is wearing thin and so is his patience.

Writers Paul Davis and Paul Fischer have crafted a macabre story laced with dark humour. The juxtaposition of Allen's stoney faced killer posing with his victim at a party full of fancy dressed party goers is entertaining yet never loses any of its sinister side. .Under Davis' direction a tense atmosphere is maintained right up to its unexpected end and Alfie Allen is in fine form as the killer .

666 Shortcuts to Hell

Filmmakers were called to make a film under restrictions around the 666 moniker including 6 lines of dialogue, 6 cast and crew on a budget of £666 and with a running time of 6 x 30 secs i.e. 3 minutes. Around 157 filmmakers responded to call from which six (ha ha) were chosen to compete for the grand prize of £6,666, a premier screening at Fright Fest and mentorship under the guiding hands of film production company Movie Mogul Films. The six-member panel judging the submissions make-up leading names in the horror genre including presenter & actress Emily Booth, actor Laurence Harvey (Tom Six having to withdraw due to filming commitments) and Paul McEvoy programme co-ordinator for the Horror Channel and part of the Fright Fest "four musketeers". 

The finalists comprised of up and coming as well as established filmmakers with an array of submissions which included a new twist on the tequila worm, the tale of a heartbroken zombie as told through the medium of 80s power ballads , and a warning to rogue government agencies about the dangers of experimenting with telepaths. Having watched all six films I can only imagine just how hard it was for the judges to choose a winner from this macabre motley crue. Heads might have exploded as in a scene from Cronenberg's Scanners, however thankfully sanity was secure and heads on necks remained whole as the winner was announced; Weronika Tofilska with her disturbing yet highly amusing 6 Feet Under, the story of a young woman working in the mortuary applying makeup to her deceased (and attractive) charge and whose imagination results in her getting a little carried away. 

Shortcuts to Hell not only provided an opportunity for talented filmmakers to have fun adding to the beating rhythm of the "dark heart of cinema" but as a testament to the storytelling challenge power of short films. Along with the nine other titles premiered during Fright Fest audiences have been treated to a smorgasbord of creative storytelling and imaginative visuals that have made us laugh, cringe and laugh  some more.  All hail the power of the short film. 

Tuesday 27 August 2013

[Fright Fest Special] R.I.P.D 3D Review - UK Premier

Stars; Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker
Director Robert Schwentke
Running Time; 120 mins

Recently and untimely deceased Detective Nick Walker is given an opportunity to serve the R.I.P.D (Rest in Peace Department), an afterlife enforcement agency tasked with capturing souls looking to evade judgment. Partnered with grisly veteran Sheriff Roy Pulsifier, Walker soon realises that his death in the line of duty is linked to a plot to build an ancient staff that will bring about the end of the world. The two are caught up in a race against time to find the artefacts before it's too late.

If the premise of R.I.P.D sounds a bit like Ghostbusters meets Men In Black it would be due to the number similarities the movie bears to its counterparts. It is hard to not think of Men in Black when you see the R.I.P.D precinct or Reynolds and Bridges chasing down souls using their somewhat out of this world weaponry. Even Mary-Louise Parker as the department's supervisor Proctor has the gruffness of Rip Torn's Z, whilst the supernatural apocalypse and spectral hunting draws influence from Bill Murray et al's 1984 blockbuster. Yet such comparisons are disingenuous as despite some shortcomings R.I.P.D is  an entertaining picture in its own right.

The word across the great oceanic divide has been that R.I.P.D was a flop of gigantic proportions which is why Universal apparently kept it hidden away until its US release. From the terrible acting (what even Bridges?) to the poor special effects, expectations from the Fright Fest crowd were low but on the whole it was a pleasant surprise that the film was not as bad as believed. R.I.P.D is not without its flaws. The emotional elements of the film, mainly Reynolds' undead detective trying to cope with his demise, lacked a little depth. Whilst this is a lighthearted supernatural action romp, the film would have felt more complete with a little visceral element (see Heaven Can Wait for how this was done). Kevin Bacon, who knows how to give a truly villainous performance, sadly fails to deliver in his bad guy role as Reynolds' treacherous partner, so much so that any number of lesser known actors could have played the part (probably for less money). 

Yet the biggest disappointment was the climactic battle to stop the unleashing of rotten souls bringing about the end of the world, which lacked that epic apocalyptic scale. The whole segment looked and felt like it was all taking place in a studio lot rather than city streets and lacked any sense of foreboding doom. With a budget of $130 million dollars, expectations for this finale were high on the visuals alone yet it was disappointing on all aspects and at times felt rushed. 

The negatives aside however the film is not wanting for exciting (but not jaw dropping) special effects and the 3D version being of much superior quality of recent productions. The action, under the directorial helmsmanship of RED's Robert Schwentke, is impressive and fast paced. However the truly entertaining and saving grace aspect of the film are the central characters and a script that gives the two leads some truly entertaining (though excessive) comic moments. Although failing to deliver on the emotional content of his character's inability to let go (more to do with the script perhaps) Reynolds executes his trademark charm and deadpan delivery that often leaves filmgoers divided, and he does so with great timing. This plays off well with Bridges essentially reprising his True Grit performance but resembling Buffalo Bill and looks as if he is having fun with some of the film's best comical dialogue. 

Overall R.I.P.D is a fun entertaining film that with low expectations will surprise and delight on many fronts. Fans of the Dark Horse comic upon which this is based might be hugely disappointed with how this has been adapted. It is evident to see why it draws comparisons to Ghostbusters and Men In Black which is hard to ignore, yet all comparisons aside, the film has a look and feel all of its own. Shame about the ending.

Sunday 25 August 2013

[Fright Fest Special] Review You're Next - London Preview

Stars; Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz
Director; Adam Wingard
Running Time; 95 mins
Release Date (Cinema) 28th August.

A family reunion to celebrate a wedding anniversary in a remote manor house turns into a bloody nightmare as a menacing masked figure traps the terrified group and begins picking them off one by one. The only person who stands in his way is a feisty family guest who puts her survival training to use protecting everyone in the house. Soon it becomes apparent the killer is not alone and the real fight for survival begins.

Although production finished on this project two years ago Adam Wingard's (A Horrible Way to Die, v/h/s) home invasion revenge picture is finally ready to grace the cinema screen. Packed with gruesome suspenseful action "You're Next" ticks all the boxes and adds a few of its own.

The film wastes no time getting the blood fest swinging into action. The opening scene features a masked machete wielding killer slaying his first victim then leaving the film's title scrolled in blood as a prophetic warning to the next victim. Although there is a brief pause as hosts Paul and Aubrey (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) await the arrival of their adult children and with respective significant others in tow, the attacks resume in full brutal force. Simon Barrett's sharp script however is more than just a series of killings by a random maniac with a gradual unfolding events revealing a twist or two in the tale. Barrett injects some dark humour smoothing off the edges of what is a dark and brutal film. 

Director Adam Wingard maintains the suspense levels effectively with throwing in the occasional horror cliché. The clean editing switching from moments of calm into the full force of another attack keeps audiences glued to the screen and on the edge of their seats. This is helped by the cast performances conveying the right balance of grief and panic all  create a tense atmosphere. Shari Vinson, who has now left days in Aussie soap Home and Away far behind, throws herself into the role of the film's heroine Erin putting great gusto into the action yet never sacrificing any of the visceral elements.  

Great performances from the cast as a whole and an enigmatic script add intrigue and emotional content to the film but this mainly about the bloody action The killer's penchant of machete and crossbow wielding (as well as one or two nasty little surprises) are over the top in comically brutal way fuelled by the family's attempts to defend themselves. Out come an assortment of flesh slicing weapons of choice including axes, kitchen knives and under Erin's almost military-eque direction, a series of booby traps which when guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes. It is brutal and bloody but outlandish enough to entertain."

You're Next is an above average slasher home invasion picture dark and bloody but with just enough macabre humour thrill and entertain audiences. It a solid platform for its female star as a viable female action lead, and cements the director and writer's reputation as a creative force in horror.

[Fright Fest Special] Review Curse of Chucky - European Premier

Stars; Fiona Dourif, Brad Dourif, Danielle Bisutti, A Martinez
Director; Don Mancini
Running Time; 90 Mins

Chucky is back and this time he is unleashing murderous mayhem on a grieving dysfunctional family. The life of wheelchair bound Nica has been shattered following the death of her mother. The arrival of Nica's sister and her family stirs up old arguments and new ones about Nica's perceived inability to cope on her own. When each member is found horribly murdered she begins to suspect that the culprit might be the strange doll delivered a few days ago, one that seems to have itched itself to Nica's little niece.

Movie franchise, especially in horror with well known figures such as Jason and Freddy Kruger have become over-saturated to the point where no amount of tongue in cheek self mockery can possibly save them from public disdain. A principle problem is that at some the point those who originally conceived the characters jumped the creative liner long ago leaving their beloved creations in the hands of those who do not necessarily appreciate them. Somewhat unfairly, the Chucky series gets lumbered in with the likes of those iconic idols of splatterdom and terror in franchise hell, yet of all these the Chucky films have succeeded by going for quality over quantity. With the latest instalment, only the sixth in a series that has spanned twenty five years, writer/director (and Chucky creator) pulls out all the stops to deliver a fun filled ride of a movie that delivers on all fronts; dark humour, mild scares, and a strong script and properly fleshed out characters (pun intended).

Manicini seems to have by-passed the events of the previous two films, Bride, and Seed of Chucky and reset this latest story decades after Child's Play 3. This was a wise move as although the addition of Tiffany and Glen added some new life to the series, continuing this twisted family saga could have added a bore  factor spelling disaster for Chucky fans. By removing them from the main story, Manicini gets back to having the kind of fun with everyone's favourite killer doll that made the first film such a success.

The plot, at its core is very straightforward setting the scene typical of most horror films, that of a decaying old house playing host to a grisly death that brings together a troubled grieving family. What Mancini's script does well is introduce brief elements that keep the story moving along setting up it for the big battle at the end. It is with the principle human characters however that Manicini has the most fun injecting some dark humour but capitalising on all the horror hallmarks.

In Nica (a strong performance by Fiona Dourif) Mancini has scripted a quintessential scary movie heroine, brave and resourceful though seemingly surrounded by those who think they know what is best for her. Nica's older sister Barb (Danielle Bisutti in fine comic form) provides intrigue and comic relief as a shallow snob, a victim of the current financial crisis ashamed of her husband working as a barista and devastated at the thought of her daughter going to public school. Her high pitched whispers echo her snobbery fears matched only by her green eyed observations of her husband's seemingly amorous focus on the family nanny. Manicini establishes a tense sibling rivalry masked by Barb's false smiles shattered by Nica's refusal to be treated as an invalid. This adds a little depth of characterisation and it is this interplay that provides some of the film's best dialogue. 

Other players including the family priest (a rather one dimensional A Martinez) , Barb's husband Ian (Brennan Elliot) seems to float through the first half of the film all smiles and niceties but not for long, and Jill the nanny (Maitland McConnell) provides some moments of titillation. Alice (Summer Howell) is the typical "cute kid" in a sickly fashion juxtaposed brilliantly as she slowly echoes Chucky's maniacal influence leading to a sudden outburst laden with the occasional colourful metaphor. Nica is by far the strongest and multi-dimensional of the all the players which makes her journey through the story even more poignant. Yet the one the audiences flock to see is the most entertaining; the combination of the creepy animatronic Chucky doll with Brad Dourif's venomous yet hugely entertaining voice over creating an icon of horror that has stood the test of time.

The film is well paced and the sub plots in no way distract from the main story but keep the audience entertained as Chucky settles in before unleashing his own brand of mischievous homicide. It has the right blend of dark humour mixed in with grisly macabre which Mancini the director executes flawlessly. The stand out moment has to be the dinner table scene with spinning ceiling view shot as dinner is served and the players take their seat whilst the audience is left wondering which one gets the poisoned dish. It really is a clever piece of cinematography that is not only visually engaging but adds some tense comical anticipation.

If there is one aspect the film that leaves a question mark is the end, not so much from the characters point of view since their final journeys are satisfactorily resolved. On the one hand Mancini the writer seemed to have trouble closing the door on this chapter of the saga opting instead to cram in a number of alternative endings. However this also worked in keeping viewer engagement revealing one surprise after another for fans of the franchise. All in all though Curse of Chucky is an entertaining addition to the series with right blend of gruesomeness laced with laugh out loud dark humour succeeding in keeping the franchise fresh and audiences anticipating more where the others have failed.

Film 4 Fright Fest 2013 - Day 2 Friday 23rd August

The first day presented a heady mix of excitement and exhilaration even though Fright Fest for me did not get started until 9.00 at night. It was certainly an eventful and entertaining evening resulting in me crawling into my hotel room at an ungodly hour hoping I would survive the first full day of the event. The goal for that day was to cram in as many films as possible and report back to you all but this was a task that would prove to be easier said than done.

Day two started in the main screen with the latest addition to what is an over saturated market - the found footage sub genre. Amongst the high volume of these type of productions, the majority of which I can honestly say are poor, The Dyatlov Pass Incident (aka Devil's Pass) was one of the few that was of reasonable quality with a genuinely tense and unnerving atmosphere as well as an engaging story. It was also great to see Renny Harlin helming a solid picture again. This was followed later on with an early evening screening of Haunter, a solid ghost story with elements of The Others and Lovely bones with a spooky and twisted take on Groundhog Day. By any stretch not the best film premiering but it was refreshing to see a fairly creative and decent ghost story, This segmented into the main event which I had intended to miss and was pleased to have been swayed by an unexpected change of mind.

The star of the night had to be v/h/s 2, a collection of short "found footage" stories merged into a fantastic modern take on the horror anthology that used to grace the silver screen right up until the 80s and then disappeared into the ether (pun referencing Haunter intended). A sadly missed format which is now making a brutal and bloody return and with this latest offering, featuring a bevy of cult and horror directors who unleash mayhem on the senses of the audience. We laughed, cringed, and applauded furiously and came away feeling more cleansed and refreshed than a colonic. However the best was yet to come, and this epitomises Fright Fest perfectly. 

Gareth Evans, director of The Raid; Redemption, talked about the filming of his segment on v/h/s 2 with great passion and humour before unveiling a real film lover's treat; a world exclusive peak at a new film still in production. The scene from The Raid 2; Berandal due for release next year, excitedly teased actions fans with devastatingly bone crunching yet balletic display of "hari mau" martial arts as the assassin known only as Hammer Girl unleashed a carnage of punches, kicks, locks, and throws whilst armed with a pair of household hammers. D.I.Y will just never seem the same again after you see these put to deadly use.

A short film, the gripping and tense Turncoat, as well as conversing with like minded horror fans, writers and filmmakers added to what can only be described as a full on and engaging first full day of Fright Fest. If there is one thing I learned from today however is to queue early for the Discovery screens as sales for those go faster than tubs of ice cream from Empire Cinema's Ben and Jerry's stall. 

Friday 23 August 2013

Film 4 Fright Fest 2013 - Day 1 Thursday 22nd August

The banner above the entrance to Leicester Square's Empire Cinema says it all; a rallying cry for horror fans to enter and partake in a festival of cinematic bloody carnage that are some of the best modern and classic horror films ever committed to celluloid (well maybe not all of them). Yes Fright Fest has arrived, and one of London's most prestigious movie theatres has opened its doors to the "Woodstock of gore". This year not only marks Front Row's debut attendance at Fright Fest but a first for me personally as an avid film buff and horror fanatic. With my festival pass in hand I was ready to be enthralled, exhilarated, engaged and entertained, as well as have the proverbial fecal matter scared out of me. 

Day 1 actually consisted mainly of just the evening with an introduction by actor and director Bobcat Goldthwaite (more familiar to many as Zed from the Police Academy films) before launching into the first film of the event, The Dead 2; India.  Having not seen the first film it seemed pointless to sit through the sequel; word across the whisper gallery praised the film as a superior to its predecessor. One to watch on DVD. 

Whilst waiting for the much anticipated European premier of Curse of Chucky followed by a preview screening of You're Next, a quick glance at the festival guide revealed a schedule bursting with 50 screenings of films (95%of which were premiers) from all over the world. Reading the showing times for all three screens left me somewhat dizzy with all the excited anticipation of swine in swill but also heady panic of which film to watch and when, worried that I might make the wrong choices. Currently this is still an issue and once I have cracked my system of cramming in as many films as possible in much the same way one approaches an exam I shall patent and share with you all. The remainder of the time was spent bantering with other like minded horror fans on a variety of topics from deadly drinking games to a loathing of Michael Bay whilst trying not to inflict a starstruck stare at Human Centipede II star Laurence R. Harvey passing among the crowd. 

This was also my first time watching any film at the Empire cinema. The main theatre is impressive with a seating capacity of over 1300 cinemagoers, and a screen following a panoramic curved wall and towering over the immediate rows like King Kong from the Chrysler building, but without the chest thumping or attacking bi-planes. The size and style of the auditorium took me back to childhood days of similar styled cinema screens in Bristol's Odeon before the mid 80s makeover, and the late local wartime picture houses that were the Gaiety and Whiteladies Road with their theatre style art deco screens now sadly absent from modern day multiplexes. 

Curse of Chucky and You're Next were both highly impressive films but for very different reasons. Curse was a reminder that a familiar horror franchise can maintain a high standard of entertainment and You're Next breathed fresh life (or should that be violent death) into the modern day home invasion horror. What made the screenings enjoyable however was sitting in a theatre of hundreds of horror lovers laughing and clapping at the films' most inventive and entertaining (and yes violent) moments. I cannot remember the last time I watched any film in the cinema which was greeted at the end with a thunderous round of applause. This however could be attributed to the presence of key cast and crew from the films at the screening and a loyal fan base showing its appreciation.

A great start to what promises to be a cinematic marathon of horror screenings that will probably wield more cutting instruments than a metallurgist's hobby room and splatter enough blood and guts to rival an abattoir. Fright Fest is on, a bar has been raised high and I cannot wait to see how this will unfold.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Horror Channel Presenter Crowdfunds Latest Film Project

Actress and television presenter Emily Booth will make her short film début behind and in front of the the camera after a successful crowdfunding campaign. Based on an ancient Celtic myth Selkie will see Booth star as a sea creature who escapes enslavement looking for revenge, and serve as the film's producer. The ongoing crowdfunding campaign through the international renowned Kickstarter platform has already exceeded its funding target to cover the cost of the film's traditional special effects. 

Emily Booth is known in the UK to horror fans as an actress in cult films such as Pirvirella, Cradle of Fear, Evil Aliens and the BAFTA nominated short film Inferno. Booth is also recogniseable as a presenter for UK television including Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, Banzai for E4 before moving onto shows covering her true love, horror. Booth's body of presenting work focusing on cult and horror films include Shock Movie Massacre for the defunct cable channel Bravo, Eat Cinema, and in 2007 she joined The Horror Channel as a regular presenter and continuity announcer. Booth enjoys a genuine love of the horror genre, lending her support to the classic horror campaign, and is considered an authority on the subject.

For Selkie, Booth has assembled her own team to work on the visual aspects of the production including concept artist Danny McMahon and special effects artist Robbie Drake whose credits include Nightbreed and The Seasoning House. The film will be directed by her brother Simon Booth and will feature extensive use of traditional special effects make up that is in increasing decline with the rise of CGI. To meet the overall costs of the film's effects Booth launched a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter with a funding target of £5,000.
My aim is to create something truly unique and memorable, a dark and haunting adult fairytale, with a spectacular creature transformation sequence, all shot in Medieval locations. Yes it’s a challenge and will not be cheap which is why I’m using the innovative crowdfunding site Kickstarter. - Emily Booth
The campaign's rewards for donors feature the usual of any crowdfunding venture such as acknowledgements and credits, but also copies of the finished film, limited edition merchandise, screening invitations and for the top end donors, an exclusive set visit. The campaign has less than fifteen days till the deadline and has already exceeded its funding target by close to £1,100. Fans of the genre and Emily Booth can still pledge their support by visiting the film's Kickstarter page by clicking here.

Friday 24 May 2013

[Review] Olympus Has Fallen

Stars; Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo
Screenplay; Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benidikt
Director; Antoine Fuqua
Cert 15; Running Time 120 mins

When highly organised terrorists invade American soil, and take over the White House holding the US President hostage, it's up to disgraced former secret service agent Mike Banning to save the day. Time is not on his side however as the terrorists demand the removal of US military from South Korean waters but have a far more insidious plan to implement.

The first of two movies in which terrorists invade and decimate the White House  (the second being Roland Emmerich's unimaginatively titled White House Down), Olympus Has Fallen is a beefcake action extravaganza with tongue firmly in cheek but played out very straight laced. It is not so much a parody, yet woe betide anyone who takes it seriously, but a homage to the numerous films of 80's and 90's in which one man is pitted against a group of highly trained and deadly terrorists. The trend of course started with Die Hard in 1988 which launched Bruce Willis' cinema career not to mention numerous sequels that have at times proven divisive in debate yet on same scale hugely entertaining with bigger & badder explosive fun but less engaging villains. Let's face it Alan Rickman's European baddie set the bar so high that only Jeremy Irons in Die Hard with a Vengeance came close enough to match or even set the new standard. 

The success of Die Hard prompted numerous "copies" whilst so blatantly a Die Hard rip off one wonders why the courts were not awash with copyright infringement lawsuits. That said however, the likes of Cliffhanger (Die Hard on a rock face), Under Siege (Die Hard on a boat), and Passenger 57 (Die Hard on a plane) are sufficiently distinct in that they never quite match up to the one that started it all but were packed with thrill rides in their own right. Thankfully the trend died down being relegated to the direct to video/DVD market. Olympus Has Fallen brings the trend back to the big screen with a bang.

If there is an absence of fundamental aspect that made these films the blockbuster financial and critical successes of their day it the lack of decent bad guys and kick arse one liners. Rick Yune does his best to be menacing as Kang, the leader of the North Korean invasion force. Sadly however he ends up a pale imitation of his far more worthy villainous performance as the diamond encrusted albino Bond baddie Zhao from Die Another Day, but still excels in the action and fight sequences. The script is also devoid of the genre's quintessential one liners that made Die Hard and its compatriots the legends they are. In particular Gerard Butler's secret service agent Mike Banning's utterance of a poorly scripted line (Let's play a game of "go fuck yourself, you go first) was cringeworthy at best. 

From start to finish all the little homages to the far fetched action flicks of  yesteryear (or even decades) are evident, and writers Rothenberger & Benidikt pull out all the stops. Mike Banning is a combination of Steven Segal's Casey Ryback from Under Siege (a secret service agent who's more than he seems) and Stallone's guilt ridden rock jock hero Gabe Walker from Cliffhanger. The similarities risk bordering on the ridiculous where at one point it was anticipated Butler would turn to the camera and say "Yeah well I am also a secret service agent." The humour and explosive action save the film from the pit of absurdity. Any avid film buff will not only spot similarities to Die Hard-eque films mentioned earlier but also more obscure 80's action fare such as Invasion USA and even Red Dawn. It also casts Dylan McDermott, who played a secret service agent in 1993's In the Line of Fire as, you guessed it, a secret service agent. As much fun can be had spotting the references as simply watching the events unfold with plenty of entertaining shock and awe action.

Butler is excellent as Mike Banning, the former head of US President  Aaron Eckhart's protection detail engaged in self directed angst ridden guilt over the death of his boss' wife. He seemless transform into a one man counter invasion force and it is in the action that Butler truly shines giving Bruce Willis and Daniel Craig serious runs for their money, oozing charisma, spot on delivery & timing, and handling the action as easy as making an omelette  Eckhart's President Benjamin Asher is sadly lacking in depth and whilst the star of The Dark Knight and Battle; Los Angeles turns in a well executed performance it is too reminiscent of Harvey Dent his most noted role to date. Amiable support is provided courtesy of McDermott making a welcome return to the big screen but the supporting stars of the show are Angela Bassett as the Secret Service Director standing up for Banning's abilities, and Morgan Freeman once again taking the presidential seat as the reluctant POTUS with some difficult decisions to make.

The script is a fair first attempt from newcomers Rothenberger and Benidikt who have turned out a fun packed well paced action thriller. There are one or two lapses in realism, one wonders why the acting President and Joint Chiefs of Staff would easily acquiesce to terrorist demands  with so much more at stake. Saying that such trivialities are quickly forgotten with likeable characters and  a few plot twists whilst likely to be predictable do not disappoint. Direction courtesy of Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) keeps the proceedings moving along at just the right pace dispensing with the sub plots before getting down to the fun bits. The centre piece of Olympus Has Fallen, the explosive action is fun and over the top featuring giant aircraft unleashing a rain of ammunition from heavy calibre guns, gunfire and the obligatory close quarters hand to hand fisticuffs that look highly impressive. Action lovers will be left open jawed as some Washington DC's political landmarks are reduced to burning ruins, charred shells of their former glory. 

Olympus Has Fallen ticks many of the essential boxes for Saturday night popcorn flicks, which plot holes and underused characters aside, has all the thrills of speedy fairground ride. It has sent a high benchmark for Emmerich's White House Down. Until that arrives sit back, power down the brain and enjoy.

Image Credit; Marshalcover (C) All Rights Reserved

Sunday 12 May 2013

[Feature] Ray Harryhausen - Effects Guru 1920 - 2013

Many of us will pay good money to see a film at the multiplex that feature our favourite actors, or helmed by renowned directors. Yet very few of the creative genius' behind some of the most eye popping visual effects had eager viewers flocking to the cinema except for special effects pioneer and innovator Ray Harryhausen. Whilst the likes of Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Stan Lee had a strong following who would watch a film solely based on their work, none had the strength of following like Harryhausen whose body of work includes Jason and the Argonauts, and Clash of the Titans. He passed away on 7th May 2013 aged 92 at his home in London.

Rise of a Pioneer

Born in Los Angeles in 1920, young Harryhausen (whose parents were  of German descent hence the name) had always been fascinated with prehistoric creatures and would indulge his love of clay pottery to create some of his favourites from that era. When he was 13 years old Harryhausen went to see RKO's epic monster movie King Kong and was in awe of the stop motion special effects used to bring dinosaurs to life. Inspired by this a young Harryhausein using a borrowed non capture camera began experimenting with his own creatures. Through a family friend Harryhausen was introduced to Willis O'Brien, the man who created the creatures featured in King Kong. O'Brien offered some constructive advice to Harryhausen who enrolled at the Los Angeles City College to study graphic arts and sculpture.

Poster for RKO Pictures epic King Kong - Click here for rights details

Harryhausen's first commercial work was for producer George Pal's Puppetoons a series of animated short films alongside his hero Willis O'Brien. The two worked well together sharing a dislike for the unjointed wooden figures used in filming. World War II erupted and Harryhausen was assigned to the US army's Special Services division where he worked alongside renowned film maker Frank Capra who was serving as a Colonel at the time. Harryhausen gained extensive first hand knowledge and experience in film making working as a loader, clapper boy, and camera assistant. After the war Harryhausen was hired as an assistant animator for his first feature length motion picture Mighty Joe Young, reuniting him with his friend and mentor Willis O'Brien. Although not a commercial success the film garnered O'Brien an Oscar win. 

Dynamation and The Schneer/Harryhausen Team

Harryhausen worked on various animation projects both commercial and personal before going on to work on The Beast from 20,000 fathoms (1953), based on a novel by his long time friend Ray Bradbury whom he met at college. It was on this high budget feature length production that Harryhausen developed his revolutionary technique that would go on to change the face of visual effects.

Dynamation, as it was to later be named, enabled the combination of stop motion animation with live action footage using a split screen technique. The background and foreground of a pre-shot live action would be split into two separate images. The background was used as a miniature rear screen in front of which model would be animated using a special animation camera. All the elements would then be combined except for the foreground which would be blacked out. The film was then rewound and the foreground element re-filmed essentially sandwiching the models and live action shots. Harryhausen would carry out much of the work himself controlling the lighting both of the projector and on set using defused glass to soften the sharp lighting. This created a seamless blend of animation and live action shots that was to be the pinnacle of his most famous and cherished work to follow.

It Came From Beneath The Sea - Image Credit mononukleoza

It wasn't until the early 1950's  that Harryhausen met and befriended producer Charles H Schneer who was assigned to the B-picture unit of Columbia Pictures. They released their first picture, the classic It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955) which featured the infamous giant octopus destroying San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. The film was a commercial success primarily due to Harryhausen's high quality (for its time) visual effects and was repeated with Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956) which inspired Tim Burton's 1997 hit Mars Attacks. Riding on the coattails from the success of these films Schneer and Harryhausen were about to embark on their most ambitious and revolutionary project, and the start of not only a fruitful partnership but also a lifelong friendship. 

Harryhausen did not share Schneer's enthusiasm for venturing into colour due to the challenges it posed to the Dynamation process. However after having developed systems to  achieve the necessary colour balances, Harryhausen changed his mind and began work on the highly successful 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). So groundbreaking were the effects that the fighting skeleton in the climactic battle was deemed to frightening for children.Nevertheless it was a box office and critical success. 

The Auteur's Finest

More work followed by way of a loose adaptation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (the Three World of Gulliver - 1960) as well as Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (1961). His finest work however had to be the classic Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Jason was epic in every respect from the colossal statue of Talos the Titan to Poseidon holding back the clashing rocks to enable safe passage for the Argo. However by the far most famous scene, one that showcased Harryhausen's dynamation at its finest to date was the skeleton fight. It is still held with high regard and in 1993 Sam Raimi featured battling skeletons in Army of Darkness. Whilst all three were critically revered, although for the effects alone, sadly they performed disappointingly on their theatrical releases. The poor financial performance together with significant changes at Columbia Pictures resulted in Schneer and Harryhausen's contracts not being renewed. 

As a free agent Harryhausen was hired by Hammer Film Productions to produce the creature effects for the highly successful One Million Years BC (1966), and again with Schneer this time for Warner Brothers on The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Both were financial success but the demand for fantasy epics seemed to wane until the 1970's when Schneer approached Columbia Pictures with a proposal to revive the Sinbad films. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) followed by Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) re-established the duo's box office credentials.

Schneer and Harryhausen were given permission by MGM studios for a big budget monster epic with big name stars. Clash of the Titans (1981), which was to be the last feature film to showcase Harryhausen's talents, excelled in every respect, becoming a commercial success. Harryhausen's Medusa and Kraken drew much praise for the film setting the benchmark for visual effects so high that not even the 2010 remake was able to reach. Despite this however the rise of effects giants such as Industrial Light and Magic who pioneered digital effects, effectively killed the demand for this style of filming leaving both Schneer and Harryhausen to retire from film making. 


Given the expansive body of his work, Harryhausen was never nominated let alone awarded an Oscar unlike his mentor Willis O'Brien. This was possibly due to his decision in the 1960's to live and work in the UK. However after much campaigning by legions of next generation effects artists and film makers inspired by his work, the A.M.P.A.A.S in 1992 presented Harryhausen with the Gordon E Sawyer for technical contributions. Other accolades included a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and even Sony Digital Pictures naming their main screening theatre in his honour.

Ray Harryhausen (top left) 2006 at launch of Jules Verne Festival with organisers & some familiar faces

Harryhausen's work has influenced generations of film makers in the field of visual effects including Steven Spielberg, Nick Park, Tim Burton and James Cameron as well as Edgar Wright who described Harryhausen as the man "who made me believe in monsters". His numerous books on animation techniques and body of cinematic work, despite the advent of digital effects, are revered by the newest generation of pioneering effects creators. His passing is truly a loss to an industry that continues to bring fantasy worlds to breathtaking life.

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