Torn Hearts

Deadly ambition is at the centre of this thriller, offering style, substance and Southern charm.

Synopsis: Follows a country music duo who seek out the private mansion of their idol and end up in a twisted series of horrors that force them to confront the limits they’d go for their dreams.

When we first encounter Leigh (Alexxis Lemire) and Jordan (Abby Quinn) they are in their element, happily performing on stage together as country music duo Torn Hearts. Only moments after stepping off stage, however, cracks in their relationship begin to show, exacerbated by Leigh’s relationship with their manager Ritchie (Joshua Leonard). Jordan craves making her own vision a reality, fearing that they are being forced to become ‘robotic country-pop princesses’. A chance encounter with Caleb Crawford (Shiloh Fernandez) secures her the address of former ‘Dutchess Sisters’ mega-star Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal) to pursue that new direction. However, as Jordan and Leigh arrive, tensions threaten more than their musical partnership.

Torn Hearts is steeped in the duality of fame. From its opening chipper interview with the Dutchess Sisters intercut with more sinister scenes, the film is constantly pushing artifice to the fore, probing at the darkness behind the neon lights. That sense of duality extends to other characters too, words are twisted and promises are broken with no concern. Early on, Ritchie explains that a company need more women, quickly followed by ‘for the optics’. Despite their hard work in refining songs and the clear enjoyment of their audiences, Torn Hearts, are still seen for their potential to tick a box, rather than genuine investment.

The glossy interview that starts the film introduces the Dutchess Sisters as a typical country music duo from the past, with big hair, big smiles and gaudy colours as a kind of uniform. By contrast, Torn Hearts are introduced as bolder and more energetic, keeping a modern look and stage performance style. The pastel pinks and glitter in the Dutchess Sisters’ aesthetic extend into Harper’s home, but that duality features again surfacing signs of decay and unpleasantness from digging through boxes or cracking an egg. The richness of colour in the surroundings and costumes gives every scene a tactile depth. This is a film that is stunning to look at, with perfect lighting choices and real attention to detail that serves it so well. Deep reds, neon pinks and mirrored disco ball effects leap off the screen, with those normally ‘girly’ aesthetics staying in place as the tension and threat escalate.

Of course, given the subject matter, it is difficult not to see hagsploitation hints within the film. With that said, this is high-glamour hagsploitation, with Sagal’s Harper seemingly in a new costume and immaculate makeup with every appearance, even when only minutes apart. Furthermore, whereas many of those films have their central figure as a has-been, desperate to reclaim past glory, Harper does not fit into that box, with the younger characters in pursuit of her wisdom and prestige. Sagal’s performance is excellent, commanding attention every time she appears on the screen. Her mix of Southern charm with sudden bursts of unpredictability adds to the tension. That surface welcoming charm moves from friendly to insistent and demanding throughout, dialling up and down the sense of danger.

Abby Quinn and Alexxis Lemire as Leigh and Jordan respectively are convincing as a partnership, managing to convey their frustrations with one another as well as a deeply-held affection. Quinn’s Jordan is the rather more spiky, sarcastic and openly frustrated of the pair, with Leigh a softer presence, more inclined to do as she is told to by others. In many films that call for tension between two women, the writing can make it hard to see why they were ever friends at all or imply that there has always been a deep-rooted dislike. That many of their disagreements come from outside forces that wish to place them into distinct roles is a major thread within the film.

Brea Grant’s directorial debut 12 Hour Shift displayed an awareness of how to create standout moments using music, so her handling of the musical elements here is notable. Given that this is a film primarily about the way genuine talent can often be buried under enforced, constructed narratives, Grant offers space for the talent to shine. A scene featuring the three women singing acapella together (released as a clip from the film, but best avoided until you have seen the film) hits the pause button in a moment of reverence for their skill, shot simply but effectively to make them the focal point. Writer Rachel Koller Croft’s script has a throughline of dark comic lines but also delivers on the weightier material, never losing sight of the central message.

Excellent performances, lavish style and a focused central message make Torn Hearts an engaging and meaningful watch.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

Torn Hearts is available On Paramount Home Entertainment on May 20th. You can pre-order now.

The Innocents

A mostly successful examination of the capacity for cruelty that spotlights a talented young cast.

Synopsis: During the bright Nordic summer, a group of children reveal their dark and mysterious powers when the adults aren’t looking. In this original and gripping supernatural thriller, playtime takes a dangerous turn.

We are first introduced to Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) as she indulges in two moments of unprovoked cruelty. She forcefully steps on a worm and in the car with her non-verbal sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) turns to pinch her, seemingly testing the boundaries for inflicting pain without being stopped. This simmering anger is brought into sharp focus by a burgeoning new friendship with Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy displaying otherworldly abilities. Along with Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), the group begin to expand their abilities, but soon distinct personal differences begin to drive a substantial wedge between them.

Sinister children are nothing new in horror, but Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents is a film unafraid to head in some dark directions, primarily functioning as a study of developing empathy (or the lack of) in its young characters. The characters testing their limits, studying surroundings and consequences of actions and the imapct on other people does lead to some grisly scenes. One scene in question will be an incredibly difficult watch for cat lovers and mileage will vary on how necessary viewers deem it. Personally, I found it a vital scene that portrays the differences between the characters involved incredibly effectively, but it is justly difficult to watch nonetheless.

Another element that some may struggle with is neurotypical performer Alva Brynsmo Ramstad portraying neurodivergent, non-verbal character Anna. While the presentation of Anna is positive (especially in contrast to Ida’s anger) and her relationship with Aisha is moving, there are moments where this veers into the trope of the ‘magical disabled person’ and a particular plot thread involving her condition sits uncomfortably. Vogt did consult with families with autistic children as part of the writing process but the final product does, at times, fall back into more regressive representation.

Where the film undoubtedly succeeds is in its use of space and movement. The flats that the children occupy are large, identical structures, appearing the same even when the camera swirls upside-down around them. The chilly, anonymous effect this creates lends a huge amount of atmosphere and the nearby woodland that the children take to exploring is, at first, a freer, more relaxed space of texture and opportunity. That space is more malleable, more open to warping as the plot develops. There is a geography at work with the film returning to key areas like the woozy heights of the stairwell throughout the runtime. The relative anonymity and isolation that the flats offer, despite their proximity to one another comes to the surface in several important scenes to particularly upsetting effect.

The performances are excellent, especially as everyone involved is so young. Sam Ashraf perfectly embodies the hardly in control rage of Ben, answering every displayed vulnerability with a negative reaction. In contrast, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim brings a huge amount of sensitivity and likeability to her role as Aisha with her seemingly cosmic empathy. Despite the potential discomfort around representation, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad is good as Anna, especially given her lack of dialogue. It is, however, Rakel Lenora Fløttum’s Ida who is the focal point here and deservedly so. Ida as a character is on the cusp of leaning into her cruelty or discovering compassion and Fløttum handles these changing positions incredibly well.

While the film is good at the more grounded, social elements of the plot, the central powers feel ill-defined. Early supernatural moments are technically competent, using more subtle means for the most part and it is this grounding that makes them work. The logic of those powers (even with the suspension of disbelief that comes with this kind of narrative) can be called into question, with some leaps in ability appearing so suddenly it feels like scenes have been cut. There is a sense that these developments are made specifically to drive moments of spectacle, which even when well-realised feel unnecessary when compared to the more effective, grounded and altogether more impactful moments. In addition to adding spectacle, these supplementary powers also serve as a functional way of moving the narrative along when it feels like the film has somewhat written itself into a corner.

The Innocents makes for a frequently uncomfortable watch, unafraid to indulge in its darker impulses and this is to its credit. While not wholly successful, a horror film that leans into making an unsettling atmosphere, disturbing set pieces and even some hard-won emotional threads should be on everyone’s radar.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Innocents is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas on May 20th.

Mums & Sons Pocketbook

A brand new pocketbook of horror film analysis is set to be released on May 6th from the brilliant Rebecca McCallum. To check out her online work, treat yourself to a look at her Linktree. Mums & Sons represents Rebecca’s first feature-length publication and you will not want to miss it.

Using three definitive horror texts, this exploration will take a close look at how these relationships operate across three major stages in life: boyhood (The Babadook), teenage years (Hereditary) and adulthood (Psycho). Touchstones in this examination will include – the damaging nature of secrets, the importance of setting, notions of doubling and duality, acts of repression, outsider status and one of the greatest taboos of all – the horror of motherhood.

With three excellent films under discussion, Mums & Sons should not be missed if you love horror and analysis. The book features Ken Wynne’s eye-catching art, including this striking piece of Annie from Hereditary hard at work with her miniatures.

The book has already received praise from numerous prominent reviewers, including Mae Murray (The Book of Queer Saints Horror Anthology) who calls the work ‘deeply reverent to horror’s psychological intricacies’. Tim Coleman (Moving Pictures Film Club) calls it ‘insightful, inquisitive and forensic’, while Amber T (Ghouls Magazine) has drawn attention to ‘Rebecca’s passion for genre cinema’.

You can order your copy right now ahead of the release on May 6th for only £7 from Plastic Brain Press.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: A Pure Place

Surface political allegory meets interpersonal tension in this textured story.

Synopsis: A tale of dirt, soap, and magic set in a cult on a remote Greek island.

Irina (Greta Bohacek) and her younger brother Paul (Claude Heinrich) are members of a cult led by Fust (Sam Louwyck). Fust leads with a mythology and ethos that intersects with daily life, aided by rumours of his own otherworldliness. The cult is divided into two distinct areas. The upper area is a wealthy, pristine space, funded by a lower area engaged in making soap, raising pigs and being deprived of light and cleanliness. When Irina is handpicked by Fust to move to the upper level, Paul is left to come to terms with life without her.

The locating of the central cult on a Greek island with strange, often offputting rituals designed to discuss societal and cultural issues will obviously call to mind the label of Greek Weird Wave. A Pure Place lacks some of that characteristic bluntness, instead devoting time to the grounding of the cult’s mythology and the interpersonal relations. A few standout moments of oddness stick in the memory, but A Pure Place has to balance those with the sibling relationship at its heart. This does mean that it is more possible to overlook the obvious central allegory which lacks any kind of subtlety and invest in their connection.

The casual cruelty of the upper levels and the obsession with the story pushed by Fust dominates. The performances suit the heightened world they inhabit and while this is not a place for much nuance, there is a delicateness to the portrayals that prevent them from becoming only caricatures of the concepts they are required to embody. Still, it is difficult to assess if the film has anything particularly new to say, or even if it has to. The clear disparities in wealth are secondary to the more insidious white supremacy thread that runs throughout it with an emphasis on supposed purity that operates only on the suppression and abuse of others.

The attention to detail on the way the cult operates and the depth with which their mythology is imbedded into every action and the surroundings. The production design is well-observed with the decadence coming to further the obviously sinister ideological implications of Fust’s teachings. The messaging, although surface-level for the most part, is troubling in that in our current times we still need a reminder of how damaging that kind of belief is. The seduction of the vulnerable into the cult under the belief of a better life is captured in simple, but no less effective terms.

The impressive visuals make this an absorbing watch, although some of the strangness may hold some viewers at arms-length. It is a shame that the storytelling and impact cannot keep pace with the way the film looks.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out 5 stars

A Pure Place played as part of Grimmfest Easter. For more information on Grimmfest please see their webpage.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: The Family

Competent but too familiar cult-based horror fails to leave much of an impression, despite some decent ideas.

Synopsis: A young family, living in isolation and forced into hard labor out of fear of dishonoring their Father and Mother, fight to free themselves from their religious cult.

The Family contains a line of dialogue in which a character reflects that what she remembered most of her indoctrination was ‘the mercy’. It is a line that perfectly encapsulates why troubled people may stay within the confines of a cult, even when the initial safety and comfort of the situation are long gone. The Family, as a film, understands and lays bare those dynamics. Unfortunately, this comes packaged as far too familiar, with too little to truly set it apart.

Caleb (Benjamin Charles Watson) belongs to a hyper-religious and strict community in which exhausting work in the fields is used as a method of control. After Elijah (Onyx Spark) falls ill due to his workload, Caleb starts to further question his own role within the group, along with the motivations of Father (Nigel Bennett) and Mother (Toni Ellwand). An arranged marriage to newcomer Mary (Keana Lyn) proves to be a further disruption for Caleb, prompting him to further question his situation.

The film’s period setting presents some challenges, mainly in terms of dialogue. This is furthered by the film’s frequent dips into high melodrama. The sober language and the sudden escalations are a slippery contrast that makes the performer’s roles that much more difficult to fulfil. This, along with a narrative that reveals itself far too early into the run time, hampers the film’s ability to sustain itself.

However, there are technical elements that become enjoyable in their own right. On one level, this is mildly frustrating as you can see the real potential of this film to be something more if it wasn’t attached to and embedded within the wider narrative. An excellent string score provides panic to high-energy scenes, some sections invoking the memory of The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Mary’s singing, seeping through walls turns her into a siren figure, effective in furthering her impact on the group. The relationship between Mother and Father, too, offers a departure, not offering pure patriarchal rule governed by Father, but an exploration of slightly more complex dynamics.

While The Family does make efforts to craft an engaging narrative, weaving effective technical elements into the film, it can’t overcome that its themes and execution have often been overused and this similarity impacts it.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Family played as part of Grimmfest Easter. For more information on Grimmfest please see their webpage.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Post Mortem

A tendency to draw out the narrative for too long, coupled with some questionable effects undermine an otherwise very effective ghost story.

Synopsis: A post mortem photographer and a little girl confront ghosts in a haunted village after the First World War.

Starting by throwing the viewer immediately into the chaos and destruction of war, Post Mortem is a film consumed by its impact and the long-lasting hold it has on those involved, either directly or indirectly. After he suffers an injury during the war Tomás (Viktor Klem) is involved in post mortem photography. Sent to a village inundated by the war dead and flu victims, there is no shortage of work, but the spirits are not to be confined to their photographs, with the growing threat surrounding him.

Post Mortem has something of an identity crisis. On one level, it operates as a sober, even sombre exploration of communal grief, but on another, it wants to indulge in short, sharp bursts of more conventional jump-scare horror. This results in a film with a very solid creep factor that is sometimes undermined by an inability of the effects to match the overriding tone. Jerky movements in the background initially offer the kind of pleasing jolt that will stay with you, but overuse and making them too prominent shows the cracks in occasionally sub-par CGI.

Viktor Klem’s performance underpins everything, always striking the right tone for the scene. Tomás’ own brush with death gives him a sensitivity to the loss in the village and a unique relationship with Anna (Fruzsina Hais), a young girl who has also had a near-death experience. Their interactions offer sensitivity and personal touch to the wider, more anonymous nature of the village.

With the pair offering an anchor for the supernatural elements, it allows the supernatural elements to run wild. Levitations and increasingly chaotic scenes in the village are initially refreshing inclusions, offering something different. However, these are inclined to outstay their welcome, with intense movement and wailing suddenly disrupting the film’s focus. This inability to know when to end a scene hampers the film, right up until the conclusion. Each fade to black operates as a reminder that the film could end there, only to add an extra scene to diminishing returns.

The film is at its best when it balances the disquieting stillness of the bodies in the photographs against the tense threat of sudden movement. Drawing out that tension for as long as possible is where the film exercises a real understanding of our discomfort with the deceased and the ways death was commemorated in the past. The difficulty of processing such immense loss permeates the film and even if you find yourself worn out by the reliance on loud noises at certain parts of the film, that very human need to grieve sits at the heart of it.

Flawed in execution but effective in terms of scares, Post Mortem is definitely worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Post Mortem plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 10.15pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Woodland Grey

Atmosphere and indulgent imagery makes this an interesting, if not altogether successful woodlands horror.

Synopsis: When a man living alone in the woods saves the life of a young woman, they are forced to coexist. Chaos ensues when the woman makes a terrifying discovery in the woods behind the man’s home and unleashes something truly haunting.

We initially meet William (Ryan Blakely) in the woods, far from other people and carrying out what amounts to his day-to-day life. That quiet is soon disrupted by the arrival of Emily (Jenny Raven), a woman he finds injured in the area. Their initial interactions are tense, with William having adjusted to not speaking to other people and Emily keen to probe the situation. That probing leads to further issues between them when she discovers that William may have a dark secret.

The real strength of Woodland Grey is in director Adam Reider’s handling of the swirling confusion that punctuates much of the film’s action. This is a film that is not in a rush and certainly has even less urgency to provide answers to the many questions it offers. Instead, there is confidence in the repeated phrases, images and other motifs, including an ominous whisper that holds it all in place. While not all of these images come to something entirely satisfying, the opportunity it affords to extend that well-realised imagery is welcome. From an initially slow pace, it picks up and starts to pick at the state of mind of the characters, creatively weaving these increasingly unsettling images into the narrative.

William and Emily are forced into a situation where they alternate between trust and intense mistrust. Both Blakely and Raven manage their roles well, especially when they are called upon to produce a lot of tension within a short space of time. With the other elements all competing for attention, the performances still have to provide a base for the other, more abstract elements to be successful. Each new piece of information forces you to look at previous actions differently, leading you into a cyclical viewing experience. Their initial interactions seem slightly stilted, but this soon plays into both the characters and also the wider sense of the film being rather more surreal and unnatural, despite the very natural location. That sense of being unable to hide is at the film’s heart, forcing confrontation to the fore.

The film is beautiful, leaning into the enclosed setting of the wooded area, isolating the characters from the outside world and really adding a lot to the nightmarish feel. The trees looming over and the separation from the ‘normal’ world allows for the characters to become unmoored rather more quickly as all the competing tensions soon add up. For those looking for a straightforward experience, this is likely to frustrate and even with my enjoyment of it, the film doesn’t quite satisfy, lacking a little power in some sections.

This is also a very difficult film to review, as the central discovery is best kept a mystery until watching the film itself. Emily’s reaction to her discovery is one of panic and disgust, but her situation forces her to engage further. Blakely’s performance, veering from forcefulness to terror does much to wrongfoot the viewer at every turn.

Woodland Grey is an ambitious horror that uses everything at its disposal to create a mood-heavy film that indulges in both emotional and physical horror.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Woodland Grey plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 8.20pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: Cross The Line

An energetic and tense thriller with a real-time feel that keeps you absorbed.

Synopsis: Dani has dedicated the last few years of his life to taking care of his sick father. After his father passes away, he decides it’s time to get his own life back on track and buys a round-the-world ticket. But before his journey can get underway, he meets Mila, a young girl who is as attractive and sensual as she is disturbed and unstable. What starts out as a night of adventure quickly turns into a living nightmare, taking Dani to extremes he could never have imagined…

Cross The Line (also released as No Matarás) is a film focused on how quickly things can undergo near-seismic changes. From the first moments, we see Dani (Mario Casas) leave his ailing father’s bedside to buy cigarettes. The camera sticks right by him, taking that journey as he remains absorbed in the music in his earphones. By the time his short errand is complete, he returns to the room and finds his father has passed away. The event functions as both the start of a grieving process and an end to the long-standing responsibility. As part of the freedom from that responsibility he books a trip, but the journey he is about to take is far more eventful than any travel.

When Dani first encounters Mila (Milena Smit) she asks him to pay for two burgers, having been stood up and now under pressure to pay the bill. He obliges, thinking the encounter is strange, but certainly a one-off and writes it off as a good deed. Mila, however, has other ideas and is waiting outside to apologise and offer repayment. Their meeting kickstarts a series of events that escalate over the course of the film.

Casas’ performance is the glue that holds this energetic but occasionally thin thriller together. Any time the narrative flags a little, the camera closing in on his expressions is capable of snapping you back into it. It is a powerful advantage that the film sensibly exploits throughout the runtime. Sometimes, there really is nothing better than allowing a performer to demand the full attention of the audience and offer complex emotions, filling the space. Melina Smit as Mila also offers a captivating presence and their early chemistry also keeps you invested as the pair interact and she seems to guide Dani into his new life, free of duty and care.

As in the first scene, music plays a key role throughout the film, sometimes even becoming too intrusive and turning scenes into snippets from music videos to some extent. As the very dark farce continues, this dissipates somewhat, allowing the energy to increase and settle into the physicality as much as the early soul-searching and flirtations. The film knows exactly when to pause for breath, confronting the viewer as to what options Dani has available at each turn before sending him into another tense sequence. These pauses become all the more important as Dani’s choices become less palatable and more extreme.

On a technical and performance level, this is solid, but there are times where the events of the film feel a little thin. The focus on one key event that other issues spring from keeps everything cohesive, but also limits it to some degree. From my perspective, the inciting event doesn’t quite gel convincingly so the following chaos fell a little flat as it seems such a departure from the way the character is initially set out. The film has to rely on this life-changing incident for the rest of the film’s stakes but doesn’t quite earn it. This is offset somewhat by the pace of the film, escalating in terms of action and threat in what feels close to real-time. It allows you to see the toll everything takes on Dani and captures that sense of transformation.

A thriller that has a compelling lead and a good grasp of action, even if it is lacking in some depth.

3 out of 5 stars

3 out of 5 stars

Cross The Line plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 6.10pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets.

Grimmfest Easter 2022: The Cellar

A strong, spooky idea that can’t quite make the leap to feature-length.

Synopsis: Keira Woods’ daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house. She soon discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.

Writer-director Brendan Muldowney returns to the idea behind his excellent short film The Ten Steps to expand the story, to limited success. Viewers of the original (and brilliantly executed) short will be familiar with the concept – some busy parents head out to a work dinner, leaving their children at home. When the lights go out their teenage daughter has to go into the cellar to fix the issue, guided over the phone to walk the ten steps. The short packs a powerfully creepy punch, so a continuation of that idea may make sense, although the feature-length production highlights that the short’s power lies in both its brevity and lack of explanation.

Focused around the Woods family, The Cellar‘s opening moments play out in much the same way as the short, with sullen teenager Ellie (Abby Fitz) at odds with her parents, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) as well as younger brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) as they move into their new, suspiciously cheap house. On the first night of the move, Brian and Keira are at a meeting, leaving Ellie to look after Steven. Creepy goings-on in the house ensue and soon Ellie is having to make the scary trip into the cellar, resulting in a disappearance that Keira has to take exceptional measures to resolve.

While Muldowney very clearly has a great sense of what makes something scary and a good grasp on how to bring that to the screen this cannot overcome the fact that this is an 80 minute film built around an idea that makes for a very strong short film punchline. Outside of that punchline, the film is forced into recreating the usual ‘haunted house’ tropes. Internet symbolism research and expositional historians make appearances almost like clockwork. The addition of a mathematically-focused expert does add something not seen as often, but the delivery is just as undynamic and stalls momentum. The Woods parents’ social media company meeting is full of vague references to previous campaigns and ‘going viral’ but fails to establish sufficiently high stakes for them leaving the children alone in a new, unknown house.

The use of light and shadow is very impressive, providing some standout moments of tension and horror. Even as the film often lurches into scenes you have seen previously, they are, undoubtedly well-realised. However, as the film needs to expand further toward its conclusion there is some straining at the seams as the images can’t quite live up to the film’s ambitions, resulting in the mood and atmosphere from all those well-earned scares sadly escaping at the conclusion. This leads to the film ending on a whimper, rather than the bang of the original short.

Elisha Cuthbert’s performance provides the main focus here, solidly selling the concept of a worried, yet determined mother trying to come to terms with her loss and the desire to keep searching into an entirely unknown world. The film affords a few starring segments for Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady’s Steven, under threat from the house perhaps more than anyone. Eoin Macken is just as solid, although he appears more sparingly, allowing Cuthbert to take centre stage as the driving force. This does lead to the family feeling rather more fractured as the film moves on, fitting, given the strain placed upon them.

Some pleasing horror moments and the undeniable shudder that the film’s borrowed set piece brings can’t quite elevate this to the heights of the short it is based on.

2.5 out of 5 stars

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Cellar plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 4pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets. The Cellar will also begin streaming on Shudder from April 15th.

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.