Stoker Hills

Stitching two subgenres together delivers mixed results in this inventive but jumbled thriller.

Synopsis: Three college students filming a horror movie find themselves trapped in their own worst nightmare. Their only hope for survival is two detectives who find the camera they left behind.

While the boom of found footage horror is almost certainly over now (despite the subgenre still reliably turning out modern gems that seek to exploit our familiarity with the form) Stoker Hills still goes some way to prove that there is unbroken ground to be found. Despite this not perhaps being the most successful example, the marriage of found-footage and grisly detective-noir certainly feels like a new idea.

After an initial blast of shaky-cam, we take up with our characters in their film class. Under the tutelage of film professor (played by the inimitable Tony Todd, capable of providing more screen presence in a matter of minutes than many can muster across a film), the group are to make their own film. Deciding on Streetwalkers, pitched as Pretty Women meets The Walking Dead, Ryan (David Gridley) and Jake (Vince Hill-Bedford) enlist the help of classmate Erica (Steffani Brass) in bringing their project to life. As the team start filming, Erica attracts attention from a man in a car and is soon snatched from the streets. What unfolds is their search for Erica while the police search for them, thanks to the camera left behind.

Setting up the dual formats does get the film out of a little trouble at times, especially regarding a few unnatural performances at the outset of the found-footage section. That need for the film to feel like characters are speaking to one another naturally suffers, but perhaps not as much given the film’s switch to a detective noir story. However, this section does present some failings. Despite a glossy, green-tinged grading that clearly separates it from the handheld camera sections, there are costuming and dialogue decisions that seem to place it within a hardboiled, troubled detective story that adds very little to the overall narrative. This increasingly has the two elements clash, rather than blend together, with the modernity of one section at odds with detectives that feel almost from another era.

The transitions between the two sections are good, with a knowledge of when to cut between them for maximum effect. While the story ultimately rings a little hollow, the whole tone and structure put me in mind of early 2000s horrors that you could pick up, with almost no knowledge of what you were about to watch and be taken on a diverting journey, even if it does not linger in the memory for too long. The attempt to do something different with the two competing designs is to be commended and certainly relieves it of some of the storytelling constraints that would be in place if sticking to one. It does, however, feel like the story runs out of steam, resulting in a conclusion that feels both rushed and almost too clean.

The three main performances work well within the found-footage set ups, allowing a more natural exchange of dialogue. That these are young people in an impossibly scary situation with mounting guilt weighing on them does really translate. It is a shame then, that some of the detective dialogue leans on stereotypes from the genre. At times, it feels like the film is suffering from an identity crisis that it can’t quite overcome – wanting to mix a more moden format with accompanying characters while also foregrounding a more classic narrative and performance style.

Ultimately, Stoker Hills has a different concept that should set it apart from others. There is not quite enough other unique material within it that supports this, but if you are looking for something trying something new and not outstaying its welcome, you may well find something worthwhile within Stoker Hills.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

Stoker Hills is available on digital on March 28th from 101 Films.

The Queen of Black Magic

This slick reimagining of the 1981 film trades in unpleasant scares and even more unpleasant revelations to create an atmospheric and pleasingly nasty slice of horror.

poster of woman holding skull

Synopsis: Families were terrorized at the orphanage. Someone wants them dead, apparently with black magic that is very deadly. She has a grudge and she was also born because of the sins of the orphans who formed her into the Queen of Black Magic.

The initial premise of The Queen of Black Magic is a relatively simple one: Hanif (Ario Bayu) is returning to the orphanage where he grew up for the sad task of saying a final farewell to Pak Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), the man who effectively raised him. Returning with his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) and children Dina (Zara JKT48), Sandi (Ari Irham) and Haqi (Muzakki Ramdhan), the trip is also an opportunity to reconnect with people from his past. However, the sad reunion is further disrupted by strange happenings.

I did initially have some concerns about the number of characters featured within the film, but thankfully these were unfounded. Yes, there’s a tendency for some to feature only to up the body count or showcase a particular effect, but there’s enough depth elsewhere to overlook that and enjoy those moments for what they are. Indeed, there are a few moments where CGI creepy crawlies are not that convincing but this is supported by either fleeting glimpses or by careful work to ensure that the idea of what is happening is well solidified so you only need to see a small amount to get the full effect.

Further to that point, this is a film that really takes pleasure in putting the devil in the details. Some moments that feel otherwise played out are given a fresh energy by the addition of one or two adjustments that, when highlighted, considerably ramp up the body horror and scare factor. Even non-horror touches like a reference to the number 81 (the year of the original film) mark this as a film both concerned with paying reference to its predecessor while adding new touches.

Despite the focus on smaller, uncomfortable physical details, The Queen of Black Magic isn’t just about the gore – in fact, it is the gradual unpeeling of what is happening and more importantly, why, that leaves the longer lasting impact. Themes of regret, guilt and ignorance find a place within the discussion, but there is a nod towards the social importance of myth-making and providing palatable explanations for unpalatable truths. Evolving gradually through flashbacks, this feels like rich storytelling punctuated with gory set pieces and the early, near-chamber piece feel when the group is first gathered adds a huge amount in terms of tension without ever becoming overwhelmed by character numbers or ideas.

Deep, rich storytelling with an emphasis on myth-making, this is hard-hitting and squirm-inducing film-making that delivers on scares and images that will stick with you.

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Queen of Black Magic hits Shudder on January 28th. You can also watch the Indonesian Horror panel from Nightstream festival here, or read my recap here.

FrightFest 2020: The Swerve

Heavy-hitting with a devastating performance from Azura Skye, The Swerve is a painful, visceral watch that plays on your mind well after its close.

Synopsis: In writer/director Dean Kapsalis’ stunning feature debut, a shimmering American take on Michael Haneke-style torment, a woman battles depression, rodents, guilt and more in a superbly acted slow burner certain to leave a haunting impression. Holly is a wife, mother, teacher, and daughter whose psychosis starts to crumble after she’s part of a deadly car accident. But did that actually happen or not? Just one of many things on her disintegrating mind, along with her difficult two sons, her very distant husband, a student in class who shows inappropriate interest and her ‘perfect’ sister who returns to the fold.

Some will question a film like The Swerve being programmed at a genre festival like FrightFest, given that much of its content suits the pace and style of an arthouse drama more than a horror genre piece. Despite that, the gradual sense of events about to turn tragic and moments of horror made this one of the most visceral and frequently difficult to watch films at the festival.

Holly’s (Azura Skye) position as a wife and mother is a profoundly joyless one. Her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) is distant, often working late and her two sons have found themselves in their pre-teen and teen years honing a kind of obnoxiousness towards their mother that feels overwhelming and mostly unchecked. Holly’s life as an emotional punching bag for those around her is further complicated by her struggles with mental illness. Much of the film is based on Holly’s perception of what is happening around her, sometimes with flimsy evidence. She may be seeing things and perceiving events differently or just taking them to heart more than others, but each one is another small, deliberate chip at her mental state. Despite her job as a teacher, there’s a sense that she has little control of her own life and path.

A scene in which Holly confronts her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell) about a previous incident with a pie is startling, mainly because it is one of the only times that Holly is given a louder voice and it speaks to Holly’s ongoing humiliation and that every single word and action is felt as another wound. Skye is fantastic in the role, with her rigid body movements and increasingly fragile features emphasising her position as a woman on the edge. While she is mistreated, she also turns that mistreatment on others, including Paul ( Zach Rand), a lovelorn student who takes an interest in her. Their scenes feel incredibly uncomfortable as both exude a kind of vulnerability that comes from a lack of agency. As her mental stability suffers, the film feels like a leaking tap, dripping small event after small event until it is almost unbearable and as viewers, we wait for the flood.

Director and writer Dean Kapsalis has done well to create this character study with all the ugly moments of a mental illness without it feeling exploitative. Skye’s face is intimately studied by the camera, taking in every strained detail. Skye’s total commitment to the role is obvious with her totally transforming as the film progresses. The film is not interested in definitive answers, offering numerous events without conclusion or confirmation and leaving them largely open to interpretation. For the most part, we see what Holly sees and the film is skilful in terms of when it chooses to alter that perspective to question her experiences. Every scene feels weighted, whether that be with sadness, longing or anger and the emotions radiate through the veneer of the respectable life that Holly has from the outside.

Some will call it a slow-burn and while that is accurate, sometimes slow burns can outstay their welcome. The Swerve is deliberate in filling its screen time with acts that become more tense and agonising the longer they are on screen. The editing is occasionally jagged, swinging in and out of Holly’s nightmares and inner thoughts. The stillness of the camera in some scenes allows the viewer to be fully absorbed in what is happening, lending it a claustrophobic quality. The film telegraphs fairly early on where it is headed, but this doesn’t detract from the power it has to punch the viewer in the gut when it arrives. A soaring score adds to the spell-binding nature of the film, making you feel absorbed into Holly’s painful existence.

The Swerve is a steadily paced descent into tragedy, unflinching in its mission to portray a woman slipping through the cracks unseen by society or those close to her. Azura Skye delivers a devastating performance that should be celebrated. The film is magnetic, making its visceral moments all the more effective. One to check out, but maybe with something more cheerful lined up to watch afterwards.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Swerve was shown as part of FrightFest’s 2020 Digital Edition. Follow The Swerve Twitter for more information.

The Wretched

The Wretched is an impressive and fresh take on a relatively underused horror creature that builds on a solid foundation with a few special touches that make it a fascinating genre piece.

Synopsis: A defiant teenage boy, struggling with his parent’s imminent divorce, faces off with a thousand year-old witch, who is living beneath the skin of and posing as the woman next door.

Ben (John-Paul Howard) is a teenager struggling with his emotions in the aftermath of his parent’s divorce. His struggle to adapt as he spends time at his father’s lakeside residence takes on wider importance when he starts to believe that his next-door neighbour has been replaced by a creature who intends to harm those who cross her. The central idea of the Witch within the film is that she feeds off the forgotten – a theme which resonates with Ben in his sadness and displacement within his own family. Howard is excellent in the role, balancing moments of teenage angst against more thoughtful turns. Piper Curda also deserves a mention as Mallory – new friend and possible love interest for Ben who is drawn into the situation alongside him in a breezy performance with enough emotional weight added when necessary.

The Wretched is very polished in its presentation, making the most of the light and activity around the lake and the peace of manicured gardens. In contrast, the woodland location is beautiful in its presentation, almost a character in itself – all gnarled branches and extended roots providing the perfect dark environment for hidden dangers. Scenes that take place in underground tunnels are fittingly claustrophobic and uncomfortable, upping the scare factor considerably. I possibly have to admit to some personal bias here due to my fondness (and terror) for underground and tunnel scenes but this is effective and unnerving.

The creature design works incredibly well and so much of the imagery is drawn from nature – the shape of antlers, tree roots and leaves all build together, offering the marriage of the natural and supernatural. Everything feels cohesive. The scares are suitably scary, employing a mix of louder, “jumps” but also some slower, quieter and altogether more unnerving moments. Twin directing and writing pair Brett and Drew Pierce use this to steady the pace of the film, allowing moments of tension the space to breathe while not allowing anything to pause for too long.

Perhaps most impressive about The Wretched is that it is a film with its own internal rules and logic which is steadfastly adhered to. So often in less-skilled films, narrative elements are picked up and disregarded to wrongfoot the viewer and deliver a “twist”. The Wretched, by solidly following its own rules manages to craft a cohesive and occasionally surprising narrative. This confidence in the central story is felt throughout.

Overall, The Wretched delivers in terms of performances, style, surprises and scares: everything you want from a horror film. Check it out as soon as you can.

Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Wretched will be available in the USA from May 1st on the platforms outlined below but if you are lucky enough to live in Sacramento or Glendale, AZ you can experience it at a drive-in. Please see IFC Films for more information.

Digital Platforms: iTunes/Apple, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube, Vudu, PlayStation, Xbox

Cable Platforms: Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum (Charter, Time Warner, Brighthouse), Verizon Fios, Altice (Optimum), Cox, DirecTV, AT&T, Bend Broadband, Buckeye, Guadalupe Valley, Hotwire Communications, Metrocast, Suddenlink, WOW Internet Cable, RCN, Midcontinent Communications

30/04 Update – More Drive In Screenings Announced

King Drive-In // Russellville, AL
West Wind Glendale Drive-In // Glendale, AZ
West Wind Sacramento Drive-In // Sacramento, CAMission Tiki Drive In // Montclair, CAOcala Drive-In // Ocala, FL
Starlight Drive-In Theatre // Atlanta, GA
Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre // Henderson, NC
Highway 21 Drive-In // Beaufort, SC
Stardust Drive-In Theatre // Watertown, TN
Tascosa Drive-In Theater // Amarillo, TX
Galaxy Drive-In Theatre // Ennis, TX
Hollywood Cinema // Martinsville, VA

Sea Fever

Sea Fever is a solid film, supported by good performances, slick imagery and the courage of its convictions in numerous ways.

Synopsis: The crew of a West of Ireland trawler, marooned at sea, struggle for their lives against a growing parasite in their water supply.

Much of the success of Sea Fever hinges Hermione Corfield as Siobhán, a young doctoral student sent to work on a trawler to study marine life. Siobhán is interesting in terms of gendered character presentation as women are so rarely allowed to be socially disinterested without a dark, traumatic event as a reason. Siobhán’s inability to connect with people is remarked upon by her academic supervisor who views her assignment to the trawler as a chance to force interaction with people. Corfield’s performance is suitably detached and allows for the rest of the cast to react to that energy. Her chemistry with Johnny (Jack Hickey) works, even though it isn’t typical and the pair do well to make their connection believable without sacrificing the character quirks.

The ensemble cast is well-structured, a highlight being Olwen Fouéré’s Ciara, who gets some of the film’s more explosive moments. Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott) are the owners of the trawler, struggling to make ends meet. Their financial issues dominate proceedings as their desperation prompts Gerard to steer them into an off-limits area to fish. Neilsen does a great job as a sometimes stern, but mostly fair matriarch trying to keep the crew together. Ardalan Esmaili is greatly sympathetic as refugee Omid and provides someone for the audience to connect to over Siobhán.

The parasite is effective, designed in a way that it is impressive in scale, but also works for smaller, more grisly details. Tentacle forms on the outside of the boat have an ethereal quality. The unfortunate results of parasitic infections are delivered in an incredibly surprising way for the first time. This isn’t overused but used to enhance the tension surrounding following infections without the effect of diminishing returns. The at-sea setting is effective for confining the characters, as expected, but moments where we view the scale and beauty of the sea add a further sense of how isolated they are. The beautiful photography adds to this considerably. Themes of desperation and also the need to belong come to the fore throughout in terms of character backgrounds and the sur

Despite the strength and competence of Sea Fever, it does very much play out as you would expect. Despite some alarming imagery and shocks, there are numerous times where it feels like the plot is treading water. It makes for an enjoyable, if not groundbreaking viewing experience. It feels strange to almost criticise something for being too solid and dependable, but it feels like it could comfortably stand for an injection of something more unusual and risky.

Overall, if you’re looking for a moody and claustrophobic parasitic thriller with an unconventional lead character Sea Fever may be for you.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sea Fever is released by Signature Entertainment UK on April 24th (Blu Ray and digital)

Saint Maud

Saint Maud is a riveting and confident film, made all the more impressive by it being the first feature of director Rose Glass who has immediately made herself one to watch.

Synopsis: Follows a pious nurse who becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.

Saint Maud is one of those rare things: a debut feature that feels effortlessly confident and hits all the necessary notes, from quiet, darkly comic moments to bursts of spectacle. Morfydd Clark gives an astonishing performance as the titular Maud, signalling a real synergy between star and director that makes the film feel fully-rounded.

Maud is a former medical worker, turned carer after an unfortunate and traumatic medical event. Her care work leads her to provide palliative care for terminally ill Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is, at first, mocking of Maud’s piousness and intense devotion to her faith but begins to indulge her. Gradually spurred on by her internal monologue with God, Maud becomes ever more convinced that she can save Amanda’s soul. The pair are opposites – Amanda demands her luxuries and her libido seemingly not eroded by her illness. Maud is not sexless, but she is seeking religious euphoria, rather than sexual pleasure. During moments of doubt in her faith, the sexual encounters she has with men are joyless affairs. Her dislike of Carol (Lily Frazer), a sex worker who visits Amanda straddles religious disapproval and outright jealousy, hinting at further tensions between her belief and internal feelings.

The Scarborough nightlife is used to great effect, allowing Maud to be mostly anonymous amongst the neon lights. These scenes contrast well against Maud’s small, dingy flat where muted colours take over. The fact that the flat becomes the setting for one of the film’s most indulgently spectacular moments ties together the dual themes of the mundane and divine in a way that feels genuinely stirring and impressive.

Maud’s search for her religious high is frequently shown in terms of self-harm behaviour, giving way to old ideas about suffering becoming a closeness to God. Some of these moments are bold, wince-inducing acts that are incredibly difficult to watch, while others are a quick shot of fresh cuts on top of healed scars in hidden places – a sign that her quest for that intimacy with God is ongoing and exhausting. It is this balance of the quiet and alarming that makes Saint Maud such a compelling experience as it wrongfoots the audience, resulting in the most alarming moments feel awe-inducing.  

Clark is a Welsh speaker and this is woven into the narrative. From the Q&A with Rose Glass at Glasgow FrightFest this was not originally scripted, but born of overhearing Clark speaking to relatives while on set. The result is the Welsh language being used in a surprising way that emphasises the individual nature of how religious experience is represented within the film.  

Saint Maud is bold, assured film-making that so wonderfully tells its story that by the time the credits rolled it honestly felt like hardly any time had passed. Saint Maud is a film experience to be utterly swept away by. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Cleansing Hour Review

Part-Exorcism movie, part-internet critique and part, well, numerous other things, The Cleansing Hour is an ambitious, but ultimately bloated film that struggles with momentum due to an abundance of ideas.

Synopsis: Another successful “exorcism” streamed online – or so it seems. Can the “exorcist”, producer and their team bring the ratings up? Ratings skyrocket, when a real demon gets involved.

Based on a 2016 short film by director Damien LeVeck of the same name, The Cleansing Hour follows online Exorcist, Max (Ryan Guzman) in his show (also called The Cleansing Hour). Father Max is not a real priest and instead uses his online fame to engage in casual sex with his followers, often recording their encounters for added sleaze. Max works with his friend Drew (Kyle Gallner), who scripts the live streams and co-ordinates their special effects to ensure spectacular shows.

The presentation of The Cleansing Hour show within the film is impressive. It strikes the right tone for the stream offering tacky merchandise and positioning Father Max as a heroic figure with swish on-screen graphics and an active comment stream. A skilful balance is struck between the comic and more unpleasant elements. While the comedy is a bit more successful for the most part there is still some real bite. Most refreshingly, even though the possession of Lane (Alix Angelis) does fall into some of the usual tropes there is a greater weight on Max putting his own body and mind in peril in an attempt to get through the experience.

The live stream comments look to have a lot of thought put into them (imagine my joy at seeing one commenter throw in a “Cymru am byth!”) with everything verging from genuine care for Max’s predicament to those enjoying the spectacle and voting to add to his torment. It isn’t saying anything particularly new about how online anonymity robs some people of their ethics and compassion but it is well-constructed and frequently funny in how this plays out.  

Where the film loses some momentum is when it needs to leave the room as it is here that the multiple ideas that LeVeck and co-writer Aaron Horwitz put on display start to expand the film beyond its means. That isn’t to say that the performers, effects and general technical ability can’t keep up, but it just begins to feel like there is far too much going on. While I’m not about to attack a film for including too many ideas (the reverse would be so much worse), there are a few moments where it feels like the film could comfortably end but it picks up again. The need to throw everything at the screen also serves to leave one of the central tensions between Max, Drew and Lane too hollow and it feels like more focus on developing those relationships would result in a better pay off. I have other issues with that tension that I won’t go into here as I wouldn’t want to provide any spoilers.

The Cleansing Hour does provide a sense of escalating tension and certainly manages to scale up well even if those moments feel like overkill. The performances are brilliant throughout which allows you to extend it further good grace. Despite all the charm it has, it would still benefit from sacrificing a few ideas and putting the focus back onto the three central characters.

The more I’ve thought about the film since first seeing it, the more I’ve admired its desire to do something on a greater scale than others would attempt. If anyone is looking for an occasionally vicious, sometimes ridiculous dark comic take on online phenomenons The Cleansing Hour is one to possess.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Disappearance at Clifton Hill Review

Disappearance at Clifton Hill uses it’s central ‘unreliable narrator’ angle to disquieting effect in this quirky, frequently muddled mystery thriller.

Synopsis: Obsessed with memories of an unsolved crime from her childhood, a young woman’s investigation reveals the seedy underbelly beneath her idyllic Niagara Falls tourist town.

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (hereby shortened to Clifton Hill for brevity’s sake) does excellent work to create atmosphere and a compelling mystery. However, the film’s reliance on a sense of wry and often absurd darkly comic touches separates it from your usual mystery thriller.

Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to her hometown, Niagara Falls, after her mother’s death to decide the fate of her mother’s motel, The Rainbow Inn. Her return to the area sparks a memory of witnessing the kidnap of a young boy when she was only 7 years old. The event has haunted Abby for much of her life, as evidenced by her fractured relationship with her family. Abby’s troubling behaviour throughout her life emerges through the course of the film and Middleton’s performance is skilful, combining the vulnerable and the self-assured. Hannah Gross gives an excellent, understated performance as Abby’s sister, Laure, worried about her sister, but distant in a way that displays so much about their lives together.

Clifton Hill is all about family histories, secrets and how those elements bind people to certain paths. Abby is brought back to her hometown based on her mother’s business, where she encounters Charlie Lake (Eric Johnson), who looks to purchase it from her to expand the Charles Lake Company. The Lake family are positioned as wealthy and powerful in a way that appears to be sinister. This is furthered by Walter Bell (David Cronenberg in a relatively small, but impactful role). Bell comes from a family of Niagara Falls daredevils and still routinely searches lakes in addition to running a podcast attempting to highlight two missing young boys who had a mentor/student relationship with Lake. During her research, Abby discovers that the boy she saw was the son of the Magnificent Moulins – a husband and wife magician duo. The son’s body was never found but was ruled a suicide.

While mostly fitting the form of an average mystery thriller, Clifton Hill stands out due to its setting within a world that feels isolated and detached from normality. The Moulin’s tiger-based magic act feels like a throwback and the VHS tapes that Abby finds have a brilliantly surreal and authentic design. Walter Bell records his podcast in a UFO-themed diner. These quirky choices don’t undermine any tension and even the more outwardly absurd elements like tiger attacks come to feel eerily plausible as the film progresses. The spectacle, neon signage and attractions add to the dissonance of the area being a place for happy family holidays, with a much darker experience for permanent residents.

Supporting the uneasy scenario that Abby finds herself in is a superb score, discordant but jazzy that adds a ton of energy and discomfort to even quiet scenes. Later scenes evolve into decidedly more gritty and uncomfortable territory with some scenes becoming very uncomfortable. A confrontation between Abby and the Moulins adds a helping of sinister melodrama, with some incredible work from Marie-Josée Croze as Mrs Moulin in a scene that somehow works on both a darkly comic and deeply unsettling level.

Navigating a difficult balance between dark humour and more serious themes, James Shultz and Albert Shin’s writing has created a film that uses the thriller format to focus in on odd areas and characters with a focus on how traits and troubles are communicated through generations. By no means is it perfect, and some viewers may find the dissonance a little too much to take, but for me, it is the kind of film that isn’t afraid to try something a little new and is all the more interesting for it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Disappearance at Clifton Hill is available through IFC Midnight from 28th February.

Scavenger Hunt Book Review

Scavenger Hunt sounds and feels familiar at the outset, but by playing with the expected format, author Michaelbrent Collings manages to craft something that feels a little more fresh.

Synopsis: Five strangers have woken up in a white room. A room with no doors, no windows. A room with no hope. Because these strangers have been kidnapped, drugged…and brought here as the newest contestants in the world’s most high-stakes scavenger hunt. Run by a madman named Mr. Do-Good the game offers only two options: win or die. All they have to do to survive is…
… complete every task…
… on time…
… and not break any of Do-Good’s rules.
Playing the game will bring the players to their breaking point and
beyond. But play they will, because Do-Good has plans for these
strangers, and their only chance to live through the night is to play
his Scavenger Hunt.

The idea of forcing troubled strangers together to take part in a twisted game for their survival feels so well-worn that it is difficult to imagine how anything can put a new spin on it. While not entirely new, Collings quickly escapes from writing a one-location ordeal and allows the game to take them outside, often in daylight. This doesn’t lessen the grisly nature of the tasks, however, and the violence leaps off the page. The early fast pace and injections of evolving threats give the book an energetic quality in the central storyline.

The situation the characters find themselves in is intriguing but this is often derailed. Too much is taken up by seemingly excessive backstories that do not resonate until much later in the book. The story of Solomon Black’s gang history feels like a story in itself and so it’s length and depth feels out of place in an ensemble piece. We receive long backstories for some characters, but very few details for others leading to feeling detached. The fact that we get the longest backstories for characters like Solomon and Chong who are perhaps the hardest to root for also adds to this feeling of detachment.

While omitting some character details throughout does make some events feel left-field and unpredictable this feels like it could have been achieved more dynamically. Lengthy departures from the central story do offer some context but are possibly too detailed and occasionally distract with too many details that by the conclusion of the story, actually don’t feel very important to the overall package. Without spoiling anything, these omissions are essential for important reveals so it is a shame that they feel suddenly sprung on the reader rather than evolving naturally throughout.  

There is an effort to reframe earlier actions as important but it feels like signposting that would not be necessary if more was woven throughout the rest of the narrative. Those elements having attention drawn to them so explicitly feels like the author has an awareness that there isn’t quite enough for readers to go on without those details. The longer backstories for characters like Solomon and Chong mean there’s considerably less time to explore Clint, Elena and Noelle. The sinister Mr Do Good and the traps attached to the players is a good device, even if, as a reader, you figure out their purpose pretty quickly.

Scavenger Hunt is not for the sensitive – it is befittingly mean-spirited and explores bleak and uncomfortable subject matter. Violence and gore are described in visceral detail. The book is interrupted at times by police reports, first detailing a witness interrogation and later, features YouTube comments. The comments reveal that the actions detailed within the book are in the public domain, adding another level of discomfort. The theme of the internet as a facilitator of terrible crimes runs under the work, but it is made clear that it the motivations of humans, rather than the tool itself.

If you are looking for a dark, bombastic thriller with plenty of nasty moments with flawed but interesting characters you should check out Scavenger Hunt. Find more information about Scavenger Hunt and Michaelbrent Collins at the Goodreads page for the book here.

Hell Is Where The Home Is

This sometimes muddled home invasion thriller works best when it plays it simple, losing a little something by introducing too many elements, but still manages to retain tension and intrigue.

Synopsis: Two couples, each working through relationship issues, rent a gorgeous house in the desert for a sex and drug-fuelled escape from reality. Sarah (Angela Trimbur, The Good Place) and Estelle (Janel Parrish, Pretty Little Liars) are long-time best friends looking forward to reconnecting after a period apart; their boyfriends, however, are immediately wary of one another. As tensions escalate over the course of a debauched night, things take an unexpected turn when a woman claiming to be a neighbour with car trouble shows up at the door. She seems harmless enough… or so, they think. As the twists and turns pile up so does the body count in this stylish, blood- and neon-soaked thriller which hits with the furious force of a machete to the skull.

Renamed as Trespassers in some markets, Hell is Where The Home Is, as the synopsis suggests, the story of two couples who rent a house to try and pull together their troubled relationships. Sarah is struggling to recover from her boyfriend Joseph’s (Zach Avery) infidelity, resulting in one of the most whiplash-inducing sex scenes I’ve seen all year, while Estelle’s boyfriend Victor’s (Jonathan Howard) indiscretions become ever more clear as the film moves along. Their already simmering tensions come to the boil when a stranger (Fairuza Balk) asks to use their telephone because her car has broken down, claiming that she knows the owners of the house.

After this point, the tension between the four continue to rise as each of them make their viewpoint clear. I don’t really want to explore any more details of the narrative from there as it really should be experienced without any knowledge. However, what I do need to say is that there are numerous twists in the tale which involves introducing a number of different elements which wasn’t quite as effective for me as the friction between the central characters. The need to offer twists can feel a little like there’s not enough confidence in just that conflict, which there definitely should be.

The violence within this film definitely has bite. Without unnecessarily dwelling on close-up details it manages to make all instances of violence feel slow, meaningful and painful. The confrontations between characters, especially Estelle and Victor feel genuinely uncomfortable and the escalation of bad feeling is really well handled by the entire cast who are given some difficult material to express.

The ultra-stylish house with lots of glass (apparently the same house used in Coralie Fargeat’s fantastic Revenge) is really effective for the film and director Orson Oblowitz uses it to almost create a fishbowl effect early on around his characters where the audience can see not only the reflection of them, but lights from outside, increasing that feeling of threat being from both outside and inside the house.

Even though I wasn’t entirely convinced by the way the film hangs together, there is enough to make it a effective entry into the home invasion subgenre by trying something a little new, even if it is unlikely to spark a rewatch. I’m awarding it 3 out of 5 stars.