The Second Death

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The Second Death is my first exposure to Argentinian ghost story films and if others are even half as strong as this, then I’d happily sit through a thousand more. For me, The Second Death does everything a really effective ghost story should do – it is cyclical, confronts very real, human emotions and concerns like belief, grief and the desire for revenge while packaging it within a uniquely creepy treatment of spirits on film.

The Second Death stars Agustina Lecouna as police detective Alba, a woman settling in a small town in an attempt to escape her own dark past who is suddenly tasked with finding an explanation for burnt corpses turning up within the town, left in a prayer position, but nothing burnt around them. Her investigation is made all the more difficult by a reluctance from the townspeople to get to the bottom of it, until child medium The Wizard arrives and she sees a chance to expose the culprits.

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The film is that most strange of genre meshes in the way it fuses the detective genre, complete with hard-boiled, troubled detective at odds with everyone else, with the ghost story, containing discussions on the ethics of mediumship and faith itself. From its opening crying baby The Second Death is an unsettling piece, underpinned by a spectacular soundscape and a meandering narrative. In many cases meandering could be considered as a criticism, but certainly not in this case. The pace of the action is exactly right and the reveal of information even extends into the credits (a fact likely missed by a few cinema goers who left as they started rolling).

It is then, a real credit to a film that tries to do so much within a relatively short run time that nothing feels unresolved or under explained and is testament to the skilful handling of director Santiago Fernández Calvete, who also creates some effective, often gothic, biblical imagery within a modern-day setting. As already mentioned the soundscape on this film is incredible, with increasingly discordant notes contributing to the suspense without ever really telegraphing a scare.

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Certainly, I’ve found myself increasingly fond of the film the more I’ve thought about it, which is always a good sign. The worst thing I think anyone can say about a film is they left the cinema without thinking about it afterwards and this definitely will not happen with The Second Death. It has given me hope that the ghost stories I love to watch can be handled in wonderful ways, providing scares without deafeningly loud noises and weaving a strong, intricate plot.

Please, if you have the chance to see it, do and totally contact me because I need someone to discuss it with!

The Harrowing

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All things come to an end and this is especially unfortunate in the case of Inside No 9 (the wait for series two will be unbearable).  For the last six weeks I have found myself glued to the screen while the episodes have played out, each one a different but technically brilliant experiment in anthology story telling.  Hopefully these fully-formed, exceptionally crafted tales have whet the appetite for more daring, inventive television.

The final episode promised ‘full-on gothic horror’ and for me, certainly did not disappoint, with an eerie atmosphere combined with some wonderful comic moments creating a compelling half-hour of television.  The real standouts of this episode were the schoolgirl characters of Katy (Aimee Ffion Edwards) and Shell (Poppy Rush) who are drawn in to ‘baby sitting’ for Andras (Sean Buckley), the brother of Hector (Reece Shearsmith) and Tabitha (Helen McCrory), but soon find there is more to the job than first advertised.

The wonderful thing about the episode were the relatively small, yet deeply disturbing touches, such as an early shot of a tray holding a rusk, a milk bottle and a pair of pliers.  Instantly, it sets the viewer up for a discomfort that continues throughout the episode, punctuated by laugh out loud one-liners.

For me, Poppy Rush as Shell is a total show-stealer, delivering her comic moments perfectly.  This isn’t to sell short anyone else involved, just that she is absolutely perfect as the gothy teenager who sees One Direction in macabre oil paintings.  Also, I feel the need to mention how wonderful the music is, evoking all the great sounds from 1970s horror films. While some more hardened horror fans may not find the climax all that scary, I was certainly unnerved by it and it was definitely one of those things that kept returning to my mind.

Despite it being on television, the design and direction lend it a real cinematic quality that makes it easy to be absorbed into.  The beautifully designed posters to accompany each episode have also added to this.  Simply put, the series should be considered a landmark, not only in comedy-horror anthology terms, but in straightforward drama terms for the way in which it has blended high concepts, creative limitations and well-crafted characters.

My only complaint, which as I understand it is out of the control of the creators, is that there are no commentaries on the DVD.  Pemberton and Shearsmith always produce fascinating commentaries and I have so many questions about how certain decisions were made and how effects were achieved as well as the overall writing process.  In fairness though, Reece Shearsmith has been doing a fantastic job of answering questions on his Twitter (@ReeceShearsmith).

The series is up on BBC iPlayer for two more days and the DVD is now available too.    

The Understudy

ImageThis review of episode five of Inside No 9 could easily be a very short one: 5 out of 5.  So far, every episode has been able to hit a stride very quickly, seemingly never affected by the anthology format that can require a lot of character and situational awareness to be condensed into a small space of time.  Thankfully Pemberton and Shearsmith have managed to offer detailed characters without presenting caricatures so that the viewer is completely aware of that character from the very beginning without being force-fed it their motives.

This week’s episode The Understudy offered a mix, I would argue, of the previous two episodes – the dialogue-reliant Last Gasp and the disturbing tone of Tom and Gerri, to great effect.  By mixing the two this episode feels like the complete package and honestly, one of the episodes I would be most likely to show to someone unfamiliar with their work to showcase just how well they can balance comedy and horror.

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While this episode certainly leant more to the horror genre, with one effect being particularly nasty, even when viewed by a hardened horror fan, there are still some of the funniest lines from the writing duo I’ve heard.  I won’t spoil any of them here so as not to spoil the inevitable ‘mood whiplash’ that viewers will undergo during the episode. 

Again, The Understudy is confined to one location, in this case the dressing room of performer in Macbeth, the boorish Tony (Steve Pemberton) who makes loud remarks about assistant Kirstie (Rosie Cavaliero) bringing him his juice and also about hating his neighbours visiting the show.  Waiting in the wings, quite literally, is Jim (Reece Shearsmith) as Tony’s understudy patiently watching every show in case he is ever given the chance to perform the lead role.  However, Jim’s self-doubt is never far from the surface and it seems like fiancé Laura (Lyndsey Marshal) is tiring of it.

In addition to an already stellar cast, I must make mention of Julia Davis, who despite being confined to an almost cameo role in this, shines as bossy and uptight Felicity.  The wonderful thing about the episode is everyone is given at least one moment to ‘shine’ and the benefit of such a wonderful cast is that this is immensely entertaining and rewarding.

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If the comedy comes mainly from dialogue it is the sound and direction that swings toward the grim.  The sound in particular was very effective in this episode, with situations unfolding on stage made all the more bleak and disturbing by only listening to the event whereas seeing it would take too much away.  If there is one thing I really love about Pemberton and Shearsmith it is that they want their viewers to work and engage with their writing and this is further evidence of that.  The direction too does much to switch from the everyday to the macabre, often jarring the viewer with some wonderful visuals that really stay in the mind.

All in all, The Understudy may not have overtaken the initial impact of Tom and Gerri, which is still inspiring a multitude of theories (something rather confusing to me considering that all the necessary information is there in the episode and pretty simple to get), but it will remain a marker of some of Pemberton and Shearsmith’s writing: deliciously dark and disarmingly witty.

Inside No 9

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Apologies for these reviews being so late.  Due to illness, travel and work (plus the other 634 things I’m currently doing) a chance to rewatch both episodes in order to provide a more involved review has been difficult to find, but I’ve finally managed it and so, for your reading pleasure are two reviews of the latest episodes.

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First up is episode three: Tom and Gerri.  Now, from the title and an earlier suggestion that this episode was to be one of their most disturbing I was expecting a potentially violent cat and mouse game.  However, as usual with Shearsmith and Pemberton, they never do quite what you expect them to do and that in itself makes their work a pleasure to watch.  On one point I was right – Tom and Gerri is a cat and mouse game, but one that is far more disturbing than any kind of overt violence could show and honestly, I was holding my breath all the way through.

The story, in short with no spoilers, is that Tom (Reece Shearsmith), a school teacher who seems to have long fallen out of love with his job and Gerri (Gemma Arterton) witness a homeless man living near their flat.  With Gerri away for an audition, Tom is soon visited by the man, named Migg (Steve Pemberton), who returns his wallet and expects some comfort from the cold in return.  Begrudgingly, Tom allows the stranger in.

What follows is some of the most tense television I have ever seen, made all the more unbearable by the writers’ clever weaving into moments that could be a ‘jump scare’, but instead keeping a calm, sober pace.  The aforementioned flat is made to feel smaller than the wardrobe from Sardines and so much effort is put into the setting and characters that you almost feel you can smell it and them through the screen. 

This story will also appeal most to Shearsmith and Pemberton fans as it features them spending the majority of screen time together.  The performances are some of their best, largely straying away from a comic beginning into an increasingly twisted climax.  Arterton too, provides a lightness to proceedings with her character breaking up some of the more intense moments in order to keep the tension building without breaking completely.

From the sheer impact of this episode I’m sure it will figure highly on most fan’s lists of their favourite Pemberton/Shearsmith works and rightfully so.  In fact, if more writers put as much effort into creating coherent programmes as they did, we’d be much better off for entertainment.  The key, as I’ve mentioned before, is to not tweet through it, because you’ll almost certainly miss something, which I think is why there is such a great outcry about the ‘twists’ in the serious.  There aren’t twists as such, as I see it, rather there are gradual, thoughtful reveals brought about by information you are afforded from the beginning.  Too often, twists are employed that make no logical sense just for the sake of having a twist.  Shearsmith and Pemberton don’t do this and it really doesn’t matter if you ‘guess the ending’ as chances are, it’ll be the most logical one.

 

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This brings me on to episode four: The Last Gasp, which from a brief look through Twitter seems to be the least well-received of the current episodes and I do think that this is a result of people expecting ‘twists’ or a surprising outcome.  This is not necessary for The Last Gasp and certainly doesn’t warrant the rudeness it has received over Twitter.  The idea is original, despite tackling a common theme – our rather disturbing obsession with celebrity and plays out with great interplay between characters, who despite spending only a little time with, we understand their motives entirely.

The Last Gasp features a charitable visit from a famous singer, Frankie Parsons, to a sickly young girl, called Tamsin on her birthday as part of a wish making foundation.  The visit goes badly wrong, however, when Parsons dies blowing up a balloon, leaving Tamsin’s parents, a Wishmaker worker and Parson’s employee in possession of a balloon containing Parson’s dying breath.

The event sparks a struggle with morality in the house in which Tamsin’s mother grieves for the singer, her father sets about price-checking eBay for similar celebrity products and the ‘neutral’ Wishmaker employee soon becomes more interested in the potential earnings than what is the right thing to do.  Again, here, performances are key and all play their parts perfectly, with Tamsin Grieg arguably as the stand-out role of a charity worker with a deeply unpleasant side.

The reason the performances are so key here is this is probably the most dialogue-driven story of the anthology so far, delivering as much in wit as the slapstick did in episode two.  From the mother’s ineptitude at handling the family video camera to Si’s (Adam Deacon) corrupt coin toss every character is given something different to do and is entirely believable in such an unusual situation.  The fact that the mother is the real Frankie Parsons fan is never far from our understanding, yet no one speaks about it so as not to telegraph the issue too much.  In more clumsy writing this likely would have been overplayed.

Again, the setting plays a huge part, but also costuming and set dressing, setting off the lurid colour of Pemberton’s jumper and the young girl’s green, horse-adorned duvet cover against the relatively muted beige of the rest of the house.  Here, I must admit to being terribly balloon-phobic (I’m sure there is some long , Latin name for that), so the tension for me around the possibility of a balloon bursting was unbearable.  I’m not sure it would have been as powerful for others, but still, the writing strays away from doing the ‘easy’ thing while also keeping the balloon within the viewer’s mind.

All in all, two more strong episodes of Inside No 9, which has quickly become a weekly highlight for myself.  The fact that they have been awarded a second series even before the broadcast of Sardines says a great deal about how well-crafted the series was to be.  I for one, cannot wait for the next two episodes and also a DVD release as I’d imagine the commentaries will reveal many important details many will have missed. 

Inside No 9 – A Quiet Night In

 

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Inside No 9 proved last night that there is seemingly no such thing as a limitation for Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.  After last week’s Sardines used limited spacing and staging, A Quiet Night In utilised limitations in sound with minimal dialogue used to pay homage to silent, slapstick comedy.  However, as befitting the partnership, the content was far more macabre, involving the attempted robbery of a house.

As in Sardines, location is exceptionally important here.  The large, floor to ceiling windows of the house simultaneously reflecting the wealth of the inhabitants and also offering laughs from a seemingly unavoidable motion-controlled light.  These windows and indeed, the open plan space also throw up more limitations as without careful consideration everyone can be seen – a dangerous predicament for the would-be burglars played by Shearsmith and Pemberton.  Their communications are silent, relying on viewers to pay constant attention to them at all times (no tweeting during this show, but afterwards is fair game!).

It does ask for full engagement on the part of the viewer, but isn’t that the point of television?  Does anybody really write a television show (or film, for that matter) and calculate moments where their audience can and should stop paying attention?  I’d hope not.  In this case at least, you are rewarded for your engagement by the programme being saturated with jokes and clever details for the full 30 minutes.  Even the involvement of Oona Chaplin suggests a desire to pay attention to all possible details and use clever references rather than just name-checking previous films/television programmes.

There was only one joke within it that fell a little flat for me, but the rest was so utterly engaging, laugh out loud funny and inventive it is easily forgivable.  With the number of jokes, to have just one not quite be to your taste is nothing at all to complain about.  What is also great is to see other actors fully embracing the vision of the writers, particularly Kayvan Novak, who thanks to Phonejacker is perhaps most well known for his voice abandoning it and selling the performance easily.  I must also offer huge praise for Christian Henson’s music, which given the lack of dialogue could easily have become too intrusive, but instead allowed the action to take place – enhancing it rather than offering a distraction.

So, with that said, another two thumbs up from me and eagerly awaiting next week’s which I have been promised is a particularly dark outing, starring Gemma Arterton.

 

A Personal Look at Women in Horror Month

For horror fans February is far less about sickly sweet Valentine’s Day and more about Women in Horror Month, a time for a celebration of women involved in both the creative and business elements of horror.  Like any movement it has passionate supporters and detractors, but for me, I’ve always fallen into apathy.  I’ve never hated the movement, nor particularly loved it and while there have been certain elements that have annoyed me (like the seemingly indiscriminate handing out of the title Scream Queen) I’ve retained a mostly neutral stance on the matter.  Despite considering myself a feminist I’ve never incorporated my horror experiences into this, often pretty much considering myself genderless while watching, only really making the connection when presented with outwardly misogynistic texts or behaviour.  It wasn’t until Nia’s fantastic article for Brutal as Hell (link here) about the month and a tweet I read afterwards that it really ‘clicked’ for me what the movement was all about.

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For whatever reason, while growing up, I tended to be the only girl or one of few involved in the things I was interested in.  As a result, it was always really cool for me to see another girl come along that I could talk to, not have the awkwardness of being the only girl around and have someone to talk to that maybe had the same experiences as I did.  There’s always one event I think about when I consider being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated area – when I fractured my wrist during professional wrestling training (I don’t do it anymore as I’m too scared haha).  It felt like an event horizon for me.  Someone had fallen on my wrist from a height and I heard it crack in my ear.  I’d never broken anything before but I was pretty sure I had then.  I got up, was asked if I was OK, said yes and then went pale. 

Thanks to my face betraying me I felt like somehow I’d failed.  I was pretty sure anyone else who’d just fractured their wrist would have been quite open about how much it hurts, yet there I was running it under a cold tap then going back to try more stuff.  Only when I couldn’t actually put any pressure on it anymore did I sit out.  I watched one bloke in particular watch and wait for me to cry.  I managed to get out of there and all the way to the diagnosis at the hospital before crying, now finally with nothing to lose.  It was my status as a woman in that class that made me feel I had to be tougher and prove myself.  I think this is much the case in horror (or film at large, in fact), where women are in a minority and have to work harder for opportunities and have rather more limited lengths of careers than their male counterparts.

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It was the connection of this experience with Nia’s article that finally made Women in Horror Month ‘click’ for me.  Women are still forced (or feel they have) to try harder and subject to far more criticism than their male counterparts, as evidenced in the article using the example of the similarity between Adam Green and the Soskas, that somehow only saw one side criticised.  It soon occurred to me that WiHM wasn’t about overestimating the contribution of women in horror, but rather bringing it in line with the regular celebrations of male contribution.  It was also about women engaging with how they are represented on-screen and offering a safe space in which this could be discussed without some of the more spiteful commentary that can come with female representation.  It is exceptionally sad to me that women still need a safe space to express their fandom, but having read the vitriol levelled at female cosplayers and gamers by some men it is definitely necessary.  In addition to this, after reading the article I went to Twitter, where BJ Colangelo had posted this tweet:

<blockquote lang=”en”><p>Just found out a &quot;friend&quot; has only been supportive of my writing because he hoped I'd fuck him. This isn't a humble brag, this is insulting.</p>&mdash; BJ Colangelo (@bjcolangelo) <a href=”https://twitter.com/bjcolangelo/statuses/429266808290287616″>January 31, 2014</a></blockquote>

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Now, this really brought it home to me that women need to work together and support one another in their genre ventures, as there are some male reviewers and writers that assume female writers are only worth supporting in the event that sex is on offer, despite the thoughtful and powerful writing that BJ consistently produces.  Do male writers and reviewers experience this?  Women in fandom are still being treated as outsiders or that they’re involved for ‘the wrong reasons’ (whatever they are).  Male cosplayers as far as I’ve seen (and happy to be proven wrong) aren’t criticised for their costumes being inappropriate and male gamers aren’t told that they are only playing because they are looking to be worshipped.  While slightly outside of the horror sphere, it just goes to show that there is inequality in fandom and if WiHM can even address a little of that, then I’m all for it.

 

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In addition to this, I’ve also learned that WiHM is about education – particularly in terms of considering not only the representation of white women, but also exploring the representation of different ethnicities and LGBT issues.  At first, I did consider WiHM to be a little white-centric, but thanks to a few tips directly as a result of talking about the month I’ve found that there are women involved in the movement dedicated to raising awareness of all kinds of representations – far more inclusive than I originally thought.  So, with all this said, I’m more than happy to join the celebrations and be quietly ashamed of my previous apathy and might even put together a post about my favourite female influences in horror at some point.

Inside No 9

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This is slightly outside of my comfort zone, given that I’ve not done any television reviewing before, but upon watching Inside No 9 last night I really felt compelled to get my thoughts down about it and will likely review the entire series.  Some episodes may seem distanced from horror, but given the team behind it, it is likely to fulfil a horror quota. 

For the uninitiated, Inside No 9 is the latest collaboration between The League of Gentlemen stars and writers, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, following their critically successful murder-mystery series Psychoville.  Unfortunately, unfavourable scheduling prevented Psychoville from achieving a larger audience, but the series itself was a masterpiece of call backs, physical comedy, dark twists and also made you feel an empathy with some incredibly twisted characters.  Shearsmith and Pemberton’s gift is to create characters that at first appear grotesque caricatures before layering them with both expected and unexpected traits – making them real beneath the make-up.

What is surprising about this duo then is that they routinely do away with the characters that they have obviously put a great deal of effort and care into in often vicious ways that prevent them from returning.  This ensures that their writing is never stale and certainly in the second series of Psychoville, quickly makes the viewer aware that no one is safe.  Given their bravery in this it only makes sense that their next project would be even more ambitious, leading to Inside No 9 – an anthology series loosely linked by the number 9 (obviously), starting with ‘Sardines‘.

The real genius of ‘Sardines‘ is that our establishing shot is of a large manor house, a grand number 9 on the front gate, suggesting something grand, but the majority of the action takes place within a wardrobe (with the bedroom and en suite bathroom providing a little breathing space).  Immediately as viewers we are wrong-footed and spend much of the duration (30 mins) attempting to right ourselves as new characters are introduced in the guise of a game called ‘Sardines’ – a sort of hide and seek where the aim is that upon finding someone, you have to hide with them.

Most of our time is spent with Rebecca (Katherine Parkinson) who is the first to find Ian (Tim Key), a man who no one really seems to know, or understand why he is at the party.  Ian’s incredibly misjudged remarks are a source of humour and discomfort.  The claustrophobic space of the wardrobe really heightens the awkwardness between the two before more and more characters (including some wonderful cameos) gradually fill up the wardrobe and we learn more about the inhabitants.  Family members, partners and guests hoping to make an impression on a powerful friend of the family all make appearances.  As these varied characters enter the wardrobe the humour escalates, only to be drawn back by a foreboding remark that keeps the balance of funny and creepy in check.

Despite the limited location, the action is still dynamic and the dialogue is snappy, yet well constructed hinting at what is to come and gradually revealing secrets (including some red herrings), yet the fantastically creepy conclusion never feels like a cheat.  In hindsight, it is the most logical and satisfying climax, yet due to the skilled winding of the viewer around the writers’ fingers it also appears as a shock (or at least it did for me).

The utilisation of limited space is nothing new to the writers who of course paid homage to Rope in Psychoville, yet this took it to the next level, functioning almost as a play rather than a conventional television comedy-drama.  I can only look forward to next week’s episode, which by all accounts is a silent episode – a device handled with flair in Buffy the Vampire Slayer some years ago – to see what other bravery and creativity Shearsmith and Pemberton will show.

Top Horrors of 2013 Part Two

In an attempt to avoid too-long-blog-post fatigue here is part two of my top horror films of 2013, again in no particular order.

 

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A Field in England

I was so excited for this.  Excited to the point that I nearly chased the postman down on the morning of its release.  Luckily for me and the postman, it was not a disappointment and is a great example of a film where everyone involved is working towards one particular vision.  Everyone knows I’m a big Ben Wheatley fan and it is exactly because of films like this – daring, dynamic and not easily forgotten.  It also contains the tent scene….oh the tent scene.  My review is on the blog and also at AllHorror.net

 

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Stoker

Some may argue that Stoker is more of a dark drama than a horror but there are some tension-filled sequences within it that for me, more than qualify it for inclusion in a horror list.  The piano scene in this, although one more fitting with drama than horror, is one of the most well-crafted scenes I’ve ever witnessed

 

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Chiméres

One of the films on this list I could totally write a very long (and spoilery) essay on, having seen it twice so far and am pretty much sure I’d get even more from it on future viewings.  The romance at the heart of the film feels like a genuine romance and the character development and actor chemistry adds an extra punch to an action-packed, tragic story.  Some wonderful, yet fairly subtle vampiric make up grounds the tale in a gritty reality.

 

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Big Bad Wolves

A morality gut-punch with a side of dark comedy that deserves all the praise it has received and more.  Really one of those films that hits you so hard that you can’t adequately discuss it until much later on…and then you can’t really stop talking about it.  Fantastic comic and emotive performances combine to create a film about torture that takes the consequences of vigilante justice very seriously

 

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Jug Face

Speaking of gut-punches, Jug Face delivers a frank discussion about acceptance of consequences and the restrictions that secluded cultures and rituals place on those within them and at no point backs out.  Everyone knows that I love a film that sets something up and no matter how unpleasant it is, follows through rather than backing out for a more favourable outcome and this does exactly that.  Worth watching for fans of The Woman to see Sean Bridgers and Lauren Ashley Carter reunited.

 

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The Borderlands

The scariest film I’ve seen all year.  Genuinely unnerving and a fine departure from the glut of found footage films out there.  By using a Peep Show POV shooting style you are thrown right into the thick of the action, yet are still allowed to see things that the characters themselves don’t.  At times, this is wonderfully subtle, but maintains enough tension that the big scares truly scare.  For further evidence, check out the Abertoir video where I look most like I need a pint.

 

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All Cheerleaders Die

Out of all the films on this list this one is probably the one I’ve recommended most to people, simply because it is so different.  A little bit late 90′s witchcraft movie wrapped up in an innovative, exciting, yet ultimately cynical Lucky McKee coating.  Bookended by one of the best opening and best closing moments All Cheerleaders Die is one I can’t wait to see again.

 

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Discopathe

First, a confession: I was not sold on this film upon starting to read the synopsis before Celluloid Screams.  Second, another confession: by the end of that synopsis I was in love with the idea and wanted a theme song.  Another one on this list that I’ve seen twice, Discopathe is a grubby, occasionally very darkly funny film that will get its infectious soundtrack and gory imagery stuck in your head.  My full review is just a few entries ago so feel free to check it out for more details.

 

So that concludes my favourites of this year. What are yours?  Anything else I should be checking out?  As always, my twitter is @caitlynmdowns, or you can just comment here. Thanks for reading!