BFI London Film Festival 2021: Inexorable

A competent thriller, heavily indebted to 90s erotic thrillers and in need of a few more personal touches.

Synopsis: The lives of a wealthy publisher and her novelist husband are changed by the arrival of a mysterious young woman at their country mansion.

As far as first features go, it is hard to imagine anything more impactful than Fabrice du Welz’s Calvaire, a film that purposefully adopted the trappings of European ‘ordeal’ cinema, right down to the name. Inexorable manages to include some moments of Welz’s flair for oddness and discomfort, but otherwise, we are experiencing something far more tame and even throwback here in his take on an erotic thriller.

Marcel (Benoît Poelvoorde) is an author, living with his wealthy wife Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey) and daughter Lucie (Janaina Halloy) in a mansion left to her by Jeanne’s father. When Lucie’s new dog Ulysses runs off, the family fear the worst, but the dog is brought back in strangely commanding manner by Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi). Agreeing to take on training duties, Gloria later finds herself in need of a place to stay and is invited by Jeanne to occupy a room in the mansion, bringing the competing wants and desires of them all into sharp focus.

This is a perfectly serviceable cuckoo thriller with leanings towards the erotic thriller, although with the discomfort turned up considerably. Although the plot beats here are incredibly familiar, there are a few Welz touches that threaten to shake up the format. Those moments are arguably too few and far between, but when they do arrive, they are genuinely interesting, stirring intrusions that stick in the mind. Otherwise, you can likely tell exactly where this film is headed before it sets itself in motion.

There is also some introspection in terms of Marcel’s position, particularly in his growing discomfort in trying to fill the space of the mansion, a space in need of reconstruction. The house dwarfs the family, but the spirit of wife Jeanne’s father also dwarfs Marcel – offers to move into his office trigger intense feelings of inadequacy for him that extend into other areas of his life. The setting of the house puts all the relationships under a microscope with the vast rooms offering no comfort or communal space, further fracturing the way the characters interact.

Bellugi is excellent as Gloria, able to embody the quiet, vulnerable sections as well as the more dynamic scenes required later on. Special recommendation must be made of the film’s youngest cast member Janaina Halloy who centres one of the film’s most challenging moments. Elsewhere, Mélanie Doutey makes a spectacle out of silence, expertly drawing meaning and emotion with facial expressions. In contrast, but no less effective, Benoît Poelvoorde is tasked with various near-monologues, blurting his thoughts and anger into the open.

Inexorable toys with getting a little stranger at certain points and feels like it lacks that gear change it would have if that oddness was allowed to fully flourished. Still, there is enough atmosphere and thrilling moments to soak up that you won’t come away feeling unfulfilled.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Inexorable screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021.

BFI London Film Festival 2020: Rose: A Love Story

Insecurity and co-dependency are explored, with a side of leeches in this minimalistic, slow-burn horror.

Synopsis: Gripped by a violent, terrifying illness, Rose lives in seclusion with her husband, but the arrival of a stranger shatters the fragile refuge they have built.

The strengths of Rose are all based on the intimate, contained nature of it. Jennifer Sheridan’s feature directorial debut in which she also takes on editing duties uses limited, minimalistic locations, shifting all the tension into the relationship between Sam (Matt Stokoe) and Rose (Sophie Rundle). Stokoe wrote the film, but also credits Rundle with developing Rose’s character. The impact of a real couple devising and portraying the characters is that the chemistry is immediate and the comfort between the pair allows for the ebb and flow of Sam and Rose’s relationship to unfurl more elegantly.

Rose has a condition. The condition is never vocalised and instead is shown through Sam keeping the house in darkness, ordering a steady stream of leeches and being the only one to leave their isolated home for supplies. Rose, confined to the cabin, writes and shares her work with Sam, who is endlessly enthusiastic. Despite their relatively cosy existence, cracks begin to show. Is Sam’s isolation of Rose justified, or is it tipping into control? Sam’s need to protect begins to manifest as anger and even violence against those who may threaten it. Rose, however, maintains a sense of strength and at times a chirpy nature that seeks to soften Sam’s paranoid energy. The tension is never used at the expense of how much they clearly care about one another. Rundle’s Rose switches from calm, civilised and friendly, to fragile and tensed to strike. Stokoe keeps the momentum going with a script that seeks to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

For the bulk of the film, the focus is upon Rose and Sam. Those looking for an action-packed vampire film will not find what they are looking for here. This is an altogether slower, more delicate vision of a condition lying under the surface for most of the time. That said, the connection with the characters and their plight makes the bursts of horror all the more impactful. It is achingly sad to see Sam and Rose deal with Amber (Olive Gray), taking on almost surrogate parenting roles and the film invites you to imagine what could have been for them. The kitchen-sink-style drama and horror ambiance make this a haunting metaphor for the struggles of caring for someone with an incurable condition. Other films would be tempted to make the relationship too one-sided, but there is a great balance here where you feel like you know and understand both. Olive Gray’s performance perfectly compliments the central duo. Troubled Amber’s circumstances lead her to view the situation with a sense of fear, coupled with curiosity and Gray, as a late arrival to the film is given a great deal to do in a short time, gains a huge amount of sympathy and feeling for Amber.

Beautifully shot on location in Powys, the wintery landscape adds a great deal to the sense of isolation and remoteness. The house itself is shot wonderfully, with the darkness adding considerably to the atmosphere and sense of walls closing in. Sheridan’s direction is all about faces and allowing moments to breathe. The film’s pace may be frustrating to some, but the more gentle exploration of a couple forced into a life they would never have chosen more than ramps up the more horrific elements.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

You can watch Rose: A Love Story as part of the BFI London Film Festival until 8.30pm on October 16th.

Synchronic (2019) Review

Since this review was written, a director’s cut of Synchronic has been released and text from this review added to that longer piece – please see this review.

Synchronic is a beautiful, human-led science fiction tale that uses its concept and characters to create an impactful, emotional and incredibly interesting piece of work.

Synopsis: Two New Orleans paramedics’ lives are ripped apart after encountering a series of horrific deaths linked to a designer drug with bizarre, otherworldly effects.

I’ve often found it difficult to truly connect with a lot of sci-fi and much of that is down to having experienced many films within the genre that try too hard to impose increasingly complex rules, which inevitably distract me from the central story. Happily, Synchronic sets up its rules in a way that is both simple to understand as well as entertaining and then continues with the story. The actual mechanics of how a synthetic drug results in what happens within the film feels unimportant because the surrounding package is just so engaging.

Instilled with a refreshing rejection of nostalgia and a huge amount of affection for living in the moment and the importance of life itself, Synchronic is deeply emotional, but doesn’t forget a sense of humour and adds some genuinely chilling moments throughout. Directors Justin Benson (also taking on writing duties) and Aaron Moorhead have never been short of ambition in their films despite relatively low budgets and so it is wonderful to see them given more money to express themselves. Hallucinogenic sequences are beautifully realised and some have a really magical quality before the reality behind them is realised, revealing a skill for injecting jolting moments of horror. Early scenes where paramedics Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are sent on jobs have a chaotic quality but they also have a soft-focus, almost hazy presentation which is very effective.

Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan have excellent chemistry. Anyone familiar with Benson and Moorhead’s previous work will immediately resonate with the representation of genuine male friendship that is punctuated by sparky, often comic dialogue. Mackie is given more of a journey throughout the film and he is a compelling and likeable screen presence. Dornan is secondary but plays his role with a necessary vulnerability and the interactions between the men work incredibly well. Outside of the many stunning sequences and set pieces, Synchronic is ultimately a film which cares about life and the people within it so it is really important that the pair have such a believable connection.

Synchronic is a fantastic, beautiful and affecting piece of work which produces a thought-provoking and moving experience about life, sacrifice and the way we think about time. It provides a host of emotional beats alongside striking narrative moments showcasing Benson and Moorhead’s talents for creating big, thoughtful genre pieces. As if you couldn’t have guessed already – 5 stars out of 5.

Wounds (2019)

Wounds offers a really off-kilter and disarming experience through the use of some really interesting effects and sound design, but some may find it a challenge to connect with it.

Synopsis: Disturbing and mysterious things begin to happen to a bartender in New Orleans after he picks up a phone left behind at his bar.

Wounds stars Armie Hammer as Will, a bartender with nothing much else going on in his life other than working at the bar, his fractured relationship with girlfriend Carrie (Dakota Johnson) and awkward flirtations with Alicia (Zazie Beetz). His general apathy towards life is disrupted by a night in which he serves some likely underage patrons in the bar who flee when a bar fight gets out of hand. In all the chaos a phone is left behind, but reuniting the phone with the owner proves to be more difficult than it first seems.

What Wounds does is quite bold in that it deliberately sets out to only tell some of the story. Some will find that the film feels like an incomplete experience as a result of this, but the film itself is so heavy in tone that it feels very absorbing. It is exceptionally difficult to connect with central character Will, with his sense of entitlement over the women in his life and his desire for control even though he has little ambition or forward momentum but this doesn’t feel like an obstacle – there’s no need for us to feel sympathetic toward him to drive the film. Hammer is great within the role, physically displaying the decline as the stress of the situation hits in.

The imagery within it is the most exceptional part. A recurring tunnel motif offers a huge amount of suspense and the images and video found on the mobile phone are incredibly well designed and disturbing. As the story is adapted from a novella (The Visible Filth) it is clear that attention to detail has been given in bringing these dark, otherworldly elements to life. This, along with the mounting paranoia throughout the film makes it feel creepy, although it does still hold the audience at arms-length.

Wounds is a successful exercise in creating tone and a pervasive sense of dread throughout. The distance from the characters might make it difficult for some to connect with the material and the deliberate way in which the story is told might leave some feeling unfulfilled. I’m giving it 3 and a half stars for the strength of imagery and a great ability to wrong foot the viewer throughout.

The Antenna (2019) Review

The Antenna is an impressive debut feature from Orcun Behram that manages some exceptionally creepy moments and excellent imagery, but lacks the pacing to be entirely successful.

Synopsis: After new satellites are installed in an old apartment building, a mysterious substance begins to leak into the apartments, but this is only the beginning as the Midnight broadcasts bring forward something even more sinister.

The Antenna, as perhaps befitting of a debut feature wears its influences openly, including some imagery worthy of and clearly inspired by creatives like Cronenberg or Lynch. A late sequence riffs on the corridor scene Repulsion in a way that is incredibly effective, emotive and adds to the central themes. However, these influences can be seen to overwhelm Behram’s own story and direction, feeling at times like someone trying to recreate their favourite moments. That isn’t to say that there is no originality to be found – far from it – but you can certainly feel the influences more than the director’s voice. There are pacing issues here too, with the film taking a while to warm up and a few false starts.

Despite my own issues with the pacing, the slowness does to some point work in the film’s favour. The cold setting and crumbling apartment building where nothing changes provides a static and unsettling environment for the action to take place. The grey and near-identical spaces do much to isolate the characters from one another. Only Mehmet (Ihsan Onal) the building’s attendant and Yasemin (Gul Arici) have any designs on striking up friendships or even leaving the complex for something else. This creates a bond between them and while much of the film works to keep them apart as much as possible, this bond does provide a great deal of feeling.

There are times when the lack of budget and perhaps technical experience shows, although there are still attempts to provide a sense of scale for the apartment building that add to the feeling of isolation. There is a clear criticism of the ways that apartment living contribute to people living as individuals rather than in community. This is illustrated particularly by one of the residents who only takes a moment after hearing of someone’s death to start complaining about the state of her bathroom. The seeping of black goo into the private spaces within the building is well-realised and offers the opportunity to cut between spaces without having to have much interaction between characters. There are also smaller slices of satire (other than the overriding theme of state media control) which work very well, including footage of a far too gleeful home-injection beauty kit’s accompanying DIY video.

The Antenna has issues (likely due to inexperience and timing problems) but provides a keen sense of dread, the uncanny and a final shot that shows a real talent for creating disturbing imagery. If you like a slow-burn and aren’t adverse to a bit of goo, you’ll find something to like here.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Ghost Stories (2017)

The film adaptation of the hugely successful stage play arrives, bringing new scares in a hugely compelling anthology tale.

I should preface this review with the fact that I am one of the people who saw the stage play a total of three times and therefore my experience of the film is clearly marked by that.  I’ve always considered that being a fan of Ghost Stories is a bit like being in an exclusive club of sorts.  This has its advantages (being in on the secrets and having a really fun shared experience) and also disadvantages (an inability to talk at great length on it without spoiling for others).  At the close of the play and also at the end of a Q&A featuring directors and writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, following the screening everyone is asked to keep the secrets of Ghost Stories.  This review intends to do just that by remaining spoiler-free.

Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is more than a sceptic.  He actively chases those he deems to be con artists through his show Psychic Cheats, inspired by an academic who has mysteriously disappeared.  The academic enlists Goodman’s assistance in the investigation of three cases he has been unable to fully debunk.  What follows is a dark exploration of ghostly encounters and the marks they leave on those affected.

The three cases are comprised of a night watchman (Paul Whitehouse), a student (Alex Lawther) and finally, a businessman (Martin Freeman).  With such a small ensemble and the format of the anthology film limiting screen time, it becomes more important that each character is dynamic and instantly fully-formed.  Whitehouse is a real triumph and follows successfully in a long line of comedians lending their talents to darker, more dramatic material.  Lawther too, excels as a student undeniably impacted by his experience, but manages to add comedy among the pathos.  Freeman is the perfect choice for the self-involved businessman and it is a role he performs well.  Lastly, Nyman’s performance maintains the intensity of the stage role, but offers even further insight to his background and mentality.

The original aim of Ghost Stories as a play was to put familiar horror tropes onto the stage in a way which felt like something new.  This is reflected within the film adaptation and certainly has retained the stage play’s reliance on Nyman’s stage magic background in creating set pieces that feel profoundly unnerving and different to other scares.  There are a few moments where it feels like the medium of film has forced Dyson and Nyman’s hands in revealing more than is comfortable under budget restrictions and would possibly be better left as suggestion.  However, I also think there is a possibly thematic reasoning for the choices, which I clearly can’t divulge, but hopefully others see it this way too.

I am normally the first to complain about films which use excessive volume to emphasise scares and there are certainly more bombastic moments in which this is the case.  However, this is balanced by emotionally-led stories in which the quieter moments are the ones which stay with you long after the jump scares.  A booming score from Frank Ilfman, known for the impactful soundtrack for the fantastic Big Bad Wolves (2013) adds real atmosphere and sets the tone, particularly in earlier scenes.

The film is clearly aware that people who have and have not seen the stage play are watching.  As such, there are a number of elements which nod toward the stage version without alienating viewers who are new to the story.  This provides nice moments of recognition and encourages a second viewing.  For those who have seen the stage play however, there are enough differences which make the experience worthwhile.

In summary, Ghost Stories is thrilling, taught but also thoughtful, particularly surrounding the social and cultural need for the sharing of stories of the supernatural.  Brief moments of comedy allow for the occasional deep breath and sense of relief without dismantling the tension.  At the time of writing this review, very little publicity exists for the film, aside from the photograph used here.  Until the film is on general release (possibly in April 2018), I would recommend people avoid too much in the way of trailers and posters to embrace the full impact of the final film.

Ghost Stories screens at the BFI London Film Festival at Hackney Picturehouse on Saturday October 14th.  Tickets are currently sold out but check here for updates.

Catch Up

Has been a little while since I’ve done some blogging but as we head into October a lot of stuff needs blogging about so seems like the right time.  If you follow me on Twitter (@caitlynmdowns) you’ll probably know a lot of this stuff already, but never hurts to recap.

Anyway…first bit of news is that I have the featured article on AllHorror.net for this month, which is a line up of new releases on film and television for the month of October (USA dates, sorry UK folks).  You can read the article now by clicking here and please feel free to comment either on the site or to me directly on Twitter if you’ve seen any or are looking forward to seeing anything on the list.  So thrilled to have an article on such a great site and ridiculously excited about their superb new co-host.  No I won’t reveal it here, go listen to the latest show!

Second bit of news is that I’m adding a second horror festival to my year: Celluloid Screams in Sheffield.  You can click the name to be taken to the site and check out everything on offer for the weekend.  I’m most looking forward to Jug Face and Discopath (if any film deserves a theme song it has to be this. I’ve practically written it myself in my head) for this one, although there’s no films there that I wouldn’t like to see, which is always good. As with last year’s Abertoir film festival I will be working alongside Hayley of Hayley’s Horror Reviews to create on-site video updates of everything we’re seeing and thinking but this year you get 2 lots of videos as we’ll be doing this in Sheffield too.

Speaking of Abertoir, the first wave of scheduled films has just been made today and there are still tickets available.  For 6 days full of horror goodness, including a theatre performance, talks and a pub quiz for £58 you really can’t go wrong.  Or you can go very wrong…after those 6 days, as I did last year, but it was a fun kind of hysteria….a warming, giggly kind that produces terrible jokes about egg sushi.  Early highlights for me include a classic screening of The Haunting (scares the ever-loving shit out of me), Axelle Carolyn’s Soulmate and found-footage film The Borderlands.  Yes, this is me, being excited for a found-footage… strange isn’t it?  All this seasonal October-ness must be getting to me.

So, even though I’ve been slightly quiet for a while it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to shut me up for the next few months.  The videos from festivals will likely be supplemented by longer reviews after the festivals by myself and Hayley so is best to keep an eye out on both sites for those if you’d rather a more in-depth review than at-the-festival video coverage can provide.  I’m happy to take requests for any reviews via Twitter or this site during the festivals and have them posted upon return.

Oh also, I need to mention Wales Goes Dark, which is a collection of events in association with the BFI as part of their BFI Gothic season.  Highlights include Dracula at Cardiff Castle and Night of the Demon at Tredegar House as well as a variety of events at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.  Sadly I don’t think I’m able to make it to these events but if you can, you definitely should.  Is so nice to see more and more horror stuff popping up in Wales.