horror

REVIEW: Sea Fever (2019)

Marine biology student Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) joins a trawler crew to conduct research as part of her studies but things soon go awry as she and the crew, marooned at sea, struggle for their lives against a growing parasite in their water supply.

Written and directed by Neasa Hardiman Sea Fever is one of those more subtle, quietly haunting horror films. It has a great script and cast but one thing I think it really has going in its favour is it doesn’t try and overly explain the creature. You just see glimpses and Siobhán has theories based on science but nothing is ever proven. Sometimes with “creature features” having to have answers for everything leads to plot holes and an unsatisfying threat. Sea Fever embraces the mystery and having the creature, the parasites and how it functions being an unknown quantity means that there’s always a danger to every decision the characters make.

Though there’s hints of more of a gruesome outcome for the crew, the third act focuses in on the horrors of panicking people rather than the horrors of some unknown creature. Siobhán is a scientist first and foremost and believes everyone should quarantine and not get ashore as soon as possible for fear of infecting others, while the rest of the crew just want to get home and be safe, even if they don’t know whether or not they’ve already been infected. Personally, I thought that worked really well as sometimes a group of people are their own worst enemy. Seeing how these characters react in close confinement and when and how they turn on each other was riveting.

Sea Fever is super atmospheric little Irish indie film and one that I’m really glad I watched. The sound design is great too as is the score by Christoffer Franzén. It suits the tone of the film perfectly and never oversells a moment. 4/5.

REVIEW: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is a typical popular cheerleader, oblivious to the strange things happening in her town. That is until a strange man called Merrick (Donald Sutherland) enters her life and tells her she’s the chosen one and is destined to battle vampires.

Confession time, I have never watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think I was too young for it when it starting showing in the UK and the few bits I do remember catching on TV scared me as I have always been a wuss. Side note, I remember catching bits of Roswell around the same time and that also freaked me out. Anyway. Though I’ve never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer the show, I do know some of the basics thanks to pop culture osmosis, mainly character names, but I’m definitely aware of the show and the phenomenon it was.

So though I’ve never watched the show it was still a bit weird watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer the movie as I’m so used to Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular character and a bunch of other faces/names that don’t appear in this film. There’s still a lot of familiar faces in this film though like Hilary Swank, David Arquette, Thomas Jane and even Ben Affleck is a high school basketball player which was very jarring.

I feel like for a film that has a runtime of less than 90 minutes, the pacing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is somehow simultaneously too fast and too slow. Relationships that you’re clearly supposed to care about like Buffy and Merrick aren’t given enough time to really feel anything for, and the constant back and forth Buffy goes through of being a vampire hunter and wanting to be a normal teenage girl is, while understandable not that interesting after a while. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is written but Joss Whedon, who would go on to create the show, and there’s hints of the kind of humour he’s known for sprinkled throughout the film but the script is never funny enough, tight enough, or dramatic enough to make its big ideas work.

To be honest, it’s as if Whedon didn’t know what he wanted Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be. Sometimes it’s a campy comedy, sometimes it tries to be horror movie, and then it’s also a coming-of-age story and a teen girl trying to find her own path – is it her “destiny” and everything Merrick says, or is it what her friends think she should be interested in? It veers wildly between each tone and none of them work together or separately.

Kristy Swanson is pretty good as Buffy; she’s got the physicality and a charm to her that eventually starts to shine through. Though I wish she and her friends weren’t the typical mean girls. Sure, Buffy goes through a character arc but it is hard to really root for her to begin with when she is so materialistic and is very much a dumb popular blonde stereotype.

Honestly, I think my favourite thing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was Pike (Luke Perry). It’s always fun having a guy as the damsel in distress type role and Pike was great at being a supportive friend to Buffy and just generally rolling with all the weirdness he encounters. He’s not useless but it’s also clear that Buffy is more skilled than him when it comes to fighting the undead which was good.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t a great film but I think it’s an interesting jumping off point for what became a hugely successful TV show. 2/5.

REVIEW: Prey (2022)

On the Great Plains in 1719, Naru (Amber Midthunder), a fierce and skilled Comanche tracker and wannabe hunter, discovers strange tracks in the forest. While some may think it’s a bear, she thinks it’s something else and as she tracks it, she encounters a highly evolved predator that is unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

Prey is a Predator prequel and to say that films featuring the Predator creature have been a bit of a mixed bag over the years would be an understatement. Thankfully Prey, is firmly in the good category when it comes to this franchise. It’s a film that really goes back to the basics; small group of people, remote location, inventive kills, and a great lead.

For the first 30 minutes or so the focus is on Naru, her relationship with her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), and how she’s a bit of an underdog and an outsider when it comes to her peers. Naru is a skilled tracker and is knowledgeable about medicine but what she wants is to be a hunter and respected by the other (male) hunters. Prey is a bit of a coming-of-age story in that aspect as Naru fights for respect and prestige as well as survival. It is a bit like any teen drama in that aspect but Amber Midthunder is so good and as the thrills and tension when Naru faces the Predator are there it’s easy to embrace that movie cliché.

It’s easy to like and empathise with Naru and she really goes through it as she fights to survive. She fails and struggles a lot but she learns something from every encounter she has with the Predator and learns to adapt.

Prey looks and sounds good too. The fact that it appears to have been shot on location makes everything feel more real (especially after a lot of more recent big action films never consistently looking quite right). While you don’t necessarily see all the kills in their bloody glory. the sound design is excellent and even if you don’t see blood or a brutalised body, you can easily imagine it thanks to the sounds of all the slicing, tearing, and impaling going on. The score by Sarah Schachner is great too and adds to the tension and the often-haunting atmosphere of the film.

Prey has great tension, a tight runtime, and an excellent lead making it a really engaging horror action film. Plus, it’s nice to watch an action film without a lot of humour that undercuts any dramatic or poignant moments. 4/5.

REVIEW: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

When Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl with extraordinary but uncontrollable powers, he gets pulled into an adventure spanning the multiverse to save her and their universe.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an interesting film and probably one where people may have expected more from its concept. While Doctor Strange does traverse the multiverse, he only spends a decent amount of time in a couple of different universes so it doesn’t really feel like a true “multiverse of madness”. That being said, this is one of the shorter MCU films of late at just over two hours so the lack of extra universes makes a pretty snappy runtime for a film that’s juggling a fair few characters.

Helping Doctor Strange on his mission is his trusted friend and the new Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) and former Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Personally, I love seeing Wong’s role expand from one MCU movie to the next. Benedict Wong is a charming guy and brings a likeability and stability to Wong, especially when next to Strange’s more reactive and harsher attitude. Wanda has an interesting arc and Olsen has always been good in the role but it looks like she really relishes showing a different side to Wanda. I’d be interested to know what people who’ve not seen WandaVision (or have forgotten huge chunks of it) thought of Wanda and her storyline in this film and whether her motivations were understandable and if there was enough context in the dialogue to explain what was up with her.

Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) has more to do here than in the first Doctor Strange movie which was nice. In the brief moments we saw of her in the first film it seemed like she was smart and capable at rolling with the magical punches, and in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness that proves to be the case. Gomez’s America Chavez is an interesting one. The Young Avengers comics is one of the few series I’ve read so I did know about her before watching the film and I’m not sure they did the character from the comics justice. America Chavez should have more gumption and confidence in her abilities, which we don’t really see here. You could say this adventure is what helps her become the America we see in the comics than can be a bit of a copout – especially when so often male characters don’t have to go from meek and mild to a confident leader.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is directed by Sam Raimi but there’s a lot of creepy horror imagery in this film. Raimi directed the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and outside of that he’s best known for his horror films and he certainly brings the horror here. There are jump scares, evil spirits, and some gory and bloody moments too. When you continuously hear that directors can’t put their own unique stamp on franchise films, it’s nice to see something in the MCU that does feel distinctly different.

The score by Danny Elfman is also pretty great and knows how to amp up the tension and add to that unsettling feeling. There’s one fight sequence where music plays a big part and it’s really fun visually and audibly, and shows a different way the magic that’s at Doctor Strange’s disposal can be used.

I think the things people may love or hate about this film are the things that I can’t really talk about in a spoiler-free review. There are cameos and reveals, some work and may have a lasting impact, while others I’m pretty sure are just fanservice. It’s the inclusion of the horror-esque elements that make Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness standout but the problem I have with it, is the same problem I have with Doctor Strange – I don’t really like Stephen Strange as a character, and I much prefer it when he’s part of an ensemble. The start of the film is a bit slower but he’s at least with Wong more who mutes Strange’s attitude a bit. When Strange is front and centre, as he should be as the titular character, that’s when things get a bit shakier for me. A trope I love is “grumpy man adopts sassy teen” and though that’s the kind of dynamic they try and push with Strange and America, it just never hits the mark.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is often weird and creepy but it doesn’t feel like it did enough with its multiverse premise – or there were bigger expectations on it than it ever hoped to deliver. The acting is good, the score’s great, but there was never really enough to allow me to connect with the majority of the characters or to make me really feel anything. 3/5.

Sidenote: if you want a really great multiverse adventure, watch Everything Everywhere All at Once.

P is for Psycho (1960)

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with a domineering mother.

Due to pop culture osmosis, I knew the general gist of Psycho and a lot of the twists before watching it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t surprise me though and I was thoroughly gripped throughout. Seeing how those famous pop culture moments unfolded was probably just as thrilling as if I knew nothing at all about it.

As soon as the opening titles appear accompanied by that iconic score by Bernard Herrmann I was enthralled. The fact that it starts with that unsettling and creepy music puts you on edge from the very beginning. The music, along with it being a Hitchcock film, makes you unsure who to trust long before anything really bad or suspicious happens. When Marion is leaving town with the money and encounters a police officer, the way he’s framed and the fact she can’t see his eyes because of his sunglasses makes it feel like he’s always watching her. His presence makes her act more nervous and guilty and that makes his presence felt even more.

Anthony Perkins is just brilliant as Norman Bates. He’s young and good-looking, and he has that boy next door kind of charm to him so when he does become serious it feels more unnerving. He does a great job of juggling the various shades of Norman’s personality and Psycho is one of those films that wouldn’t have worked so well with someone else in the role.

It’s kind of fascinating watching Psycho now, sixty years after it was made because it’s clear that it’s the inspiration of so many other films and the filmmaking feels ahead of its time. The silent by imposing police officer reminded me of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and so many of the scares have been riffed on in other films and shows but seeing the original now just demonstrates how great it actually is.

I’m very pleased I’ve finally watched Psycho. It’s a classic that lives up to its reputation; it’s creepy, foreboding and just fantastic filmmaking. 5/5.

REVIEW: Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz), a WWII pilot, is travelling with a confidential package when she encounters an evil presence and mistrust from her fellow airmen on board the flight.

Shadow in the Cloud is one of those films that I feel is best to go into it knowing as little as possible, and that includes not watching the trailer. All I knew before watching was “Chloë Grace Moretz in a WWII movie and things go wrong” so how everything went wrong was always a nice and sometimes funny surprise.

Shadow in the Cloud is pretty much a single location film and it makes the most of the restrictions that offers and how fun filmmaking can lead to some interesting situations. The single location in question is the plane, and specifically the Sperry Ball turret, the spherical gun turret on the plane’s underbelly. Maude spends most of the film there and her only communication with the crew is via the radio. While the majority of the crew are crass and mistrusting of Maude, their dialogue via the radio only furthers Maude’s characterisation and Moretz give a great performance. Her Maude is capable and strong but also scared and reactive. She is a character who is easy to root for as you learn about her the same time the crew does. Plus, with the men being pretty sexist (and in some cases racist) and generally acting in an unlikable manner, it’s easy to be on Maude’s side.

Have to give a shoutout to composer Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper. A synth heavy, techno score is not something I’d expect in a WWII film but it ends up suiting the tone of the whole film perfectly. With the help of the score and having Maude in such a claustrophobic spot the tension amps up nicely and when Maude gets her big hero moment for the first time, the synths kick in and it’s a thoroughly entertaining sequence.

Shadow in the Cloud is a bit silly with its genre mash up of war drama with supernatural/horror elements but it does it well and entertainingly so thanks to being grounded by Moretz’s performance. The dogfights are thrilling, the supernatural presence is suitably creepy and overall, it’s just a really unexpectedly fun film.

If you like Overlord then I’d definitely recommend giving Shadow in the Cloud a try – plus it’s only 83 minutes long and that includes the credits. Director and co-writer Rosanne Liang definitely knows how to do a lot with little in the best possible way. 4/5.

REVIEW: Little Monsters (2019)

When washed-up musician Dave (Alexander England) volunteers to accompany his nephew Felix’s (Diesel La Torraca) kindergarten class on a school trip, he doesn’t expect to have to team up with the teacher Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) and kids TV presenter Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) to protect the children from zombies.

Going into this film all I knew of it was that Lupita Nyong’o goes up against zombies, so the fact this film starts with a couple continuously arguing in public whether it’s in a supermarket or at a restaurant with friends did make me wonder how it got to the hook I knew of. One half of that arguing couple is Dave and while the third act does try and redeem him and make him a less selfish character it’s almost too late as he’s such an insufferable, self-obsessed guy for the majority of the film that it’s difficult to actually care about him. His relationship with his nephew does work (even though he’s definitely not a responsible adult or decent role model a lot of the time) though that’s mostly down to how sweet the young actor playing Felix is.

In fact, all the young actors are great and it’s the juxtaposition of their cuteness and innocence with the bloody zombies that makes Little Monsters work. Once the story brings Dave and Miss Caroline together, and in fact gives her a more prominent role, the film works a lot better for me. Nyong’o is fantastic as the teacher who will do anything in her power to protect her children and to make sure they aren’t scared.

Little Monsters is a horror comedy and while personally the comedy side of things wasn’t particularly laugh out loud funny, the way Miss Caroline protects the children by pretending everything is a game is sweet and amusing. Her interactions with Teddy McGiggle are a highlight as you get to see the soft, kind teacher become no nonsense and firm in a whole different way. In fact, having Gad playing against type works pretty well here as this is a children’s TV presenter who does not like children and does not do well in a crisis.

If you’re looking for a more light-hearted horror film then Little Monsters might work for you. The zombies look suitably bloody and gruesome and but having the focus being on a kindergarten class almost adds an air of safety to proceedings – because would they really allow zombies to maul some adorable little kids? 3/5.

REVIEW: The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino

When Tess and Eliot stumble upon an ancient book hidden in a secret tunnel beneath their school library, they accidentally release a devil from his book-bound prison, and he’ll stop at nothing to stay free. He’ll manipulate all the ink in the library books to do his bidding, he’ll murder in the stacks, and he’ll bleed into every inch of Tess’s life until his freedom is permanent. Forced to work together, Tess and Eliot have to find a way to re-trap the devil before he kills everyone they know and love, including, increasingly, each other.

I’ve been getting the book-only Illumicrate subscription for the past six months and this is the first book I’ve actually read from them. That’s not necessarily anything against the books from previous months (especially as I’m just generally not reading as much as I used to) but as soon as I read the blurb for The Devil Makes Three and looked at that beautiful but dark cover, I really wanted to read it as soon as possible. Thankfully, for a book I’d never heard of before and had just piqued my interest – I really did enjoy The Devil Makes Three.

The atmosphere in The Devil Makes Three is incredibly vivid. Even before the devil makes an appearance there’s a sense of foreboding and bleakness to both Tess and Eliot’s lives. As the story progresses you learn more about the two of them and how their relationships with their parents are strained for different reasons. Each of them are going through tough times and with Tess especially it’s made her hard and prickly. She’s been betrayed by the people (her parents) who are supposed to care about her and put her and her younger sister Nat first so she now finds it incredibly difficult to trust and rely on other people. This means that she tries to deal with what’s going on with the devil on her own before opening up to Eliot about what’s been happening to her.

The things Tess ad Eliot experience after the accidentally release the devil are truly creepy and terrible. Things they experience blur the line between dream and reality, making events even more unsettling as they (and you as the reader) are never entirely sure what’s real. There is a bit of gore in The Devil Makes Three but it’s not over the top and instead it’s ink that’s used to give you nightmares. Honestly never thought of ink as creepy/evil but the way it’s described here, how it moves and bleeds from pages and almost devours people, it’s really quite disturbing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a creepy/horror story and The Devil Makes Three was really very good. The ending was a little sudden and I’d have liked to see more of the consequences of Tess and Eliot’s actions on people in their wider sphere who were affected, but overall, it’s a gripping and atmospheric read. 4/5.

REVIEW: Army of the Dead (2021)

Mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by businessman Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) to put together a team to go into Las Vegas to steal $200 million from a safe beneath the Strip. The only problem is Las Vegas is walled off from the rest of the world and is overrun by zombies – some of which appear to be a lot smarter and faster than you’d think.

At almost two and a half hours long, Army of the Dead is a film where you feel that run time. There are entertaining sequences but there’s more lulls than not and there are certainly portions of the film which drag. The fact that this crew of people don’t get into Las Vegas into almost an hour into the film is telling. There’s a fair few characters to recruit but it takes so long and never uses any of the typical narrative choices from the heist genre to do so so it’s interesting. Not to compare a zombie heist film to Ocean’s Eleven but that film shows how you can quickly get what the key skills an personality quirks of characters in quick succession and how they’ll fit in the team. And to be honest, while Army of the Dead is pitched as a zombie heist movie and though there are certainly a lot of zombies, the heisting is actually quite minimal. There’s really only Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) who’s the safe cracker, everyone else is former military or gang members who can handle themselves in a shootout. Though an argument can be made for Peters the helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro) having the getaway driver role.

Naturally being a zombie film and having about a dozen characters in this band of thieves, there’s going to be some casualties and potentially a lot of death but there was far more than I was expecting leading to a very bleak viewing experience. Plus, so many of the characters get little to no development and many don’t seem to have strong ties to one another that the vast majority of deaths have no impact. Dieter and Peters had key roles to play in the plan, so the threat of their death means something but with everyone else it just let like they were there to be zombie fodder.

What I presume is supposed to be the emotional core of this film is the relationship between Scott and his daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), a volunteer at the camps outside Las Vegas who joins her father and his team on their mission though she has her own reasons for going. I say presume as it really didn’t do anything for me. Bautista and Purnell are both fine in their roles but it’s the dialogue and story that surrounds them that doesn’t work. It was also very difficult to care about Kate when her actions were often infuriating. Personally, I was more interested in the dynamic between Dieter and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), one of the former-military guys, as small interactions between them actually built the foundations of a relationship, something that none of the other characters had. More often than not you were told why these characters liked or cared about one another than were shown it.

One thing Army of the Dead has going for it are the zombies themselves. These creatures are fast and intelligent and there’s interesting power dynamics in play with them. Plus, the way these zombies move and the sounds they make is very unsettling. There’s a sequence with a room full of hibernating zombies that is very suspenseful, though character decisions after it are very annoying.

I’ve realised that there’s more negative here than positive but that’s what’s sticking out to me about Army of the Dead. There are fun moments like Dave Bautista jumping from car table to card table while money rains down, guns fire and zombies attack, but those are few and far between. It’s hard to care about the characters when they make so many bad decisions and seem to be bad at the jobs e.g. former-military people not doing basic things like watching each other’s backs so they don’t get bitten by zombies. The heist element is minimal and while the zombie element is good, it’s hard to care about it when the story is pretty dull. 2/5.

Honestly I think I’ve given Army of the Dead two stars instead of one because of how well Tig Notaro was added into the film (she shot all her scenes on greenscreen as she replaced an actor who was fired during post-production) and because her character was fun and weird. Something the rest of the film was lacking.

REVIEW: Peninsula (2020)

Four years after a zombie virus has spread across the country, South Korea has been quarantined from the rest of the world. A small team led by former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) come back to the peninsula in order to retrieve a truck containing $20 million in cash.

Peninsula is a sequel to Train to Busan, but as it has new characters and is set after the events of the first film it can stand on its own. It’s a similar scenario to 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later really.

I think the best way to go into Peninsula is to not think too much of its predecessor. Train to Busan was like lightning in a bottle in terms of a zombie movie with a lot of heart. Peninsula tries to capture the same emotions with familial relationships, but it doesn’t reach the same heights of Train to Busan.

Gang Dong-won gives a great performance as the tortured but capable Jung-seok. He’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his family as they were fleeing South Korea four years earlier so to go back there and meet other survivors gives him a lot to think about. On the peninsula he meets Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and her young daughters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), and their grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo). This little family is very likable and easy to root for but due to there being more characters outside this family unit and the heist/survival plot, they don’t get as much development to make you truly care about them.

As well as the zombie hoards Jung-seok and his comrades also have to deal with the soldiers of a unit who were abandoned by their government in South Korea. These men are mostly sadistic and greedy, looking out for themselves and subjecting any one they find to their cruel games.

The car chases as people try to either get away with the money, avoid the zombies or both are fun though a large part of them are done with easily noticeable special effects. Likewise, while scenes with a handful of zombies are actors in makeup (the zombies still move in an unsettling way and the makeup is very good), often when there’s a lot of them it’s CGI.

One could describe Peninsula as a zombie heist film with hints of Fast and Furious thanks to all the innovative car chases. The way people use lights, sounds and flares to attract or distract the zombies is really interesting and fun. All in all, while it doesn’t really hold a candle to its predecessor, Peninsula is a decent zombie film. 3/5.