The Retaliators

Morality and metal music underpins this revenge horror.

Synopsis: An upstanding pastor uncovers a dark and twisted underworld as he searches for answers surrounding his daughter’s brutal murder.

Pastor Bishop (Michael Lombardi – also co-directing) is having something of an identity crisis. His church sermons are popular, drawing crowds due to his preaching of life lessons and including musical performances. He turns his easygoing nature and reluctance to challenge aggression around him into teachable moments for his followers but increasingly his daughters are questioning him, challenging him on his risk-aversion. In an attempt to loosen the reins on oldest daughter Sarah (Katie Kelly) he allows her to borrow the car to attend a Christmas party, setting in place a sequence of events that sees the teenager brutally murdered. Reeling from the loss, Bishop is drawn further into the murky side of the area, confronting violence, drugs and the seductive power of revenge.

On the surface (especially from the excellent poster art) it would be easy to assume that The Retaliators will offer an all-out, pulpy revenge film but the end result is actually more complex. The timeline moves around, offering an opening scene that returns with greater meaning and relevance much later in the narrative. These time shifts are furthered by a shift to different characters and a dedication to world-building. The move away from Bishop’s pristine, brightly-lit domestic space to the gloomy underground spaces really sets out well the darkness hiding just under the surface. Despite the focus on energetic, metal music throughout, this is a far more moody film than initial appearances suggest.

This creation of mood does take time, however, and there is an imbalance in how the film unravels. Placing some scenes out of sequence and spinning them off into different character concerns leaves the film with a dip in which nothing appears to connect for almost too long. Despite the satisfaction gained when everything does click into place, this does occasionally make it feel directionless. It does allow you to gain a greater understanding of the characters, with Bishop’s reckoning with his morality called into question by Jed (Marc Menchaca) a detective fighting his own demons. The time afforded to their positions is well-earned, while some of the underground scenes distract from that for a little too long.

Dynamic camera work comes into effect for later action scenes and the gore on offer is well-realised. Violence is given an impact, for the most part, allowing the time and space for the viewer to feel the hits as they land. As the film progresses into gorier territory that fades somewhat, allowing a little more inventiveness and even fun with its set pieces. With such a long time afforded to build the texture and detail of the area and characters this almost feels like a different kind of film, bringing a lot of energy late on. This is a film that wants to pursue both the lure of violence and the morality of revenge, both elements that do not always sit comfortably together.

Musical performers being involved in films can often seem like gimmick casting but The Retaliators weaves its cast well. If you are familiar with performers like Jacoby Shaddix, Spencer Charnas and Ivan Moody then you’ll recognise them and there is fun to be had in that recognition, but it isn’t essential. The soundtrack is obviously influenced by this, but it never feels like stunt or gimmick casting. Shaddix in particular holds his own as the deeply disturbed Quinn Brady.

If you like a decent helping of blood and angst in your Christmas horror films, you’ll find much to like here. Moody and pulpy by turns, The Retaliators makes for an uneven yet enjoyable ride.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Retaliators will be in Cinemas worldwide from 14th September. Tickets are on sale now at https://www.retaliatorsmovie.com

Orphan: First Kill

A wildly entertaining prequel befitting the return of Esther to the big screen.

Synopsis: After orchestrating a brilliant escape from an Estonian psychiatric facility, Esther travels to America by impersonating the missing daughter of a wealthy family.

Crafting a prequel to 2009’s Orphan presents a daunting task. So much of the original film’s tension and perhaps more importantly, discomfort, rests on the perception of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) being a child and how at odds her behaviour is as a result. Any prequel has a challenge in building to what is, essentially, a foregone conclusion so trying to surprise the viewer becomes difficult. Impressively, First Kill builds upon the campier, trashier elements of the original managing to wring further tension from the narrative.

Part of this is down to impressive pacing, with an opening 15-minutes that manages to introduce a reminder of Esther’s unique condition while also swiftly kicking off some action. As Esther tries to find her footing in the wealthy Albright family the pace is kept buoyant by a steady stream of knowing dialogue and set pieces that are, at least for me, exactly what you want from this kind of story. The initial presentation of the Albright family, made up of Tricia (Julia Stiles), Allen (Rossif Sutherland) and son Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) highlights their wealth and status in Connecticut. This is by no means an incisive tearing down of the American class system, but the representation of that kind of family is an element the film has a lot of fun with.

A couple of the technical and CGI elements are a little unconvincing. The multiple methods used to de-age Fuhrman are jarring at times, particularly where the child stand-ins are most obvious in wide shots. This was relatively easy for me to overlook with the amount of fun to be had elsewhere. However, I can imagine that if the film hasn’t won you over by that point that those elements may become more distracting. First Kill is not only an echo of Orphan, genuinely presenting a take on the character that feels engaging.

For the most part, performance-wise, the film belongs once again to Isabelle Fuhrman, returning to the part after a long absence, but seemingly slipping into it with ease. Her take is different here, largely led by no longer having to conceal the depths of her character and so she is able to swap between the child-like presentation and more overt horror character more swiftly than in the original. Elsewhere, Julia Stiles brings buckets of charisma to her role, juggling the role of adoring mother while also becoming ever more skeptical of Esther’s unusual behaviour. The performances, particularly in the latter part of the film are a true highlight as the film really comes into its own.

Orphan: First Kill is not without flaws, but the overall impression is one of a fun horror that builds on a compelling character in a way destined to be a crowd-pleaser – trashy in the best possible way.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Signature Entertainment presents Orphan: First Kill exclusively in Cinemas from 19th August

What Josiah Saw

A gloomy horror focused on dark family secrets.

What Josiah Saw poster

Synopsis: A family with buried secrets reunite at a farmhouse after two decades to pay for their past sins.

The Graham family is troubled, to put it lightly. Tommy (Scott Haze) lives at the now neglected farmhouse with his father Josiah (Robert Patrick). His twin siblings, Eli (Nick Stahl) and Mary (Kelli Garner) are estranged, both battling their own demons. When the land is to be sold, the family must reunite to confront their history.

What Josiah Saw is split into clearly defined sections that focus first on Tommy, Eli and Mary separately to begin with before bringing all threads together for the final act. This is a strength of the film, allowing you to understand each of the characters before seeing them interact. This effect is furthered by each segment having different tones, looks and feels to drive home how fractured they are while also adding to the control the house appears to have over them. It is the kind of story you could easily see expanded to a series of episodes and would perhaps sit more comfortably within that format with an ability to dig into those characters further. This is not to say that the characters aren’t clear within the film, as they are, but there is the sense that the writing could peel back further layers.

With a two-hour runtime, Josiah is a slow-burning narrative. This, along with the grim subject matter that permeates the film will make it a difficult sell for some. The overwhelming influence of troubling patriarchal figure Josiah (played to perfection by Robert Patrick) looms large over the film with his unpredictable, aggressive drunk immediately setting up a distinct discomfort. The horror here, while it is keen to prod at belief systems and the afterlife, is mainly situated in the haunting situations the characters find themselves in. Moments of jolting horror work incredibly well, bursting through whenever the emotion seems to swell beyond concrete reality.

What Josiah Saw is incredibly matter-of-fact in the presentation of its flawed characters, often allowing their sins to be vocalised by those around them. The characters are never allowed to forget where they have come from or the things they have done. Eli is ostracised and isolated due to his crimes and that isolation forces him into ever more dangerous situations. His thread seems the longest here, featuring a sequence at a Romani community (note: there are several uses of slurs within this that illustrate the kind of background Eli and his cohorts are from). This section does feel prolonged, seemingly introduced to showcase that this call to right a wrong is not only based in Josiah’s religious belief but an overall calling. Tommy is isolated too by his difficulties and proximity to Josiah, whose unusual behaviours keep others at bay.

The theme of reckoning hangs over the film and indeed, the righting of wrongs is a central driving force for characters. It is notable that Miriam, their long-departed mother, is repeatedly viewed in sainted terms by the family and those outside it. This makes Mary’s thread the more interesting one, for me at least, so it is a shame that only a relatively small amount of surface discussion is given over to her own reckoning with motherhood and being a wife. Outside of her loudly soundtracked, dark workouts, a slow, ominous zoom on a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ sign that heralds a triggering moment for Mary is just one of the ways the film captures her discomfort in cosy domesticity. Kelli Garner’s performance is so good that you want to see more of her narrative than is provided.

There is something to be said for horror that truly leans into its bleakness. Comparisons to the likes of The Dark and The Wicked and even The Righteous are understandable given their focus on uncovering secrets and the darkness within generations. What Josiah Saw stands as perhaps a more mellow, grounded take on those themes, although keeps those stabs of horror strings for its most dramatic moments to truly unnerve. The final act does deliver on all the slower discomfort it has built, landing several gut punches that are all the more jolting for the

What Josiah Saw is a confronting work with some balancing issues in terms of the weight given to character stories.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

What Josiah Saw streams on Shudder from August 4th. Available on Shudder U.S., Shudder CA, Shudder UKI, and Shudder ANZ.

The Blood of the Dinosaurs

Joe Badon’s mixed-media approach delivers on an unsettling and pleasingly unquantifiable critique.

Synopsis: Uncle Bobbo teaches children where oil comes from.

If you have been lucky enough to see Joe Badon’s Sister Tempest you will already have a good idea of what to expect from Dinosaurs. The shorter format still allows for movement between different styles, from the nightmarish children’s TV show to puppetry and more conventional (although only just) live-action sequences.

Bookended by director and star discussions of the film’s meaning, this is a short that manages to pack a huge amount of content into a less than 20-minute run time. While some of the imagery and staging are, undoubtedly, unusual and lean heavily into a surreal tone there is a very clear and frequently angry message at the centre. The meta surroundings all contribute to a unique experience.

The collage effect of the film works to layer it, with stop-motion clashing with live-action and archive footage. The design of Uncle Bobbo’s public access show seeks to evoke the same kind of cuddly feelings of something like Mr Rogers (indeed, the most evocative quote applied to the film is “like an episode of Mister Rogers from hell”), but showing the seams around it like crew standing by add to an unnerving effect. This transformation of an otherwise cuddly, holiday-focused space into an almost liminal one is a real strong point.

Delays in sound and plenty of pregnant pauses further that sense of the film being both divorced from reality while also being deeply embedded within its socio-ecological messaging. The near-seamless move from a single camera setup for the show to roaming, more frenetic sequences shows a level of control that indicates that each element has a purpose. This is far from a collection of random sequences but a carefully plotted and effective short.

The Blood of the Dinosaurs is, perhaps it goes without saying, likely to divide audiences, but it does further Badon’s role as an exciting and innovative filmmaker worthy of attention.

Following an international premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, The Blood of the Dinosaurs will be making the following festival appearances:
Oscar-qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival (Los Angeles, CA August 11th – 20th), MOTEL/X Lisbon International Horror Film Festival (Portugal, September 6th-12th) & Sydney Underground Film Festival (Australia, September 8th-11th)

Playdurizm

Heady, stylish surface visuals hide a sinister secret in this arresting work.

Synopsis: When a teenager finds himself caught in a glitchy-glitzy reality with his onscreen male idol, he does all he can to be possessed by this man and ignore the violent clues of how he got there.

I was lucky enough to first see Playdurizm when it was screened as part of SoHo Horror Film Festival’s Pride edition in 2021. Playdurizm is emblematic of the kind of content of the festival, bringing attention to daring, sometimes experimental films that demand attention. Director (also co-writer and star) Gem Deger has crafted a neon-soaked, pop-art world with pulpy action film influences and a self-contained psychological thriller. If that sounds like a lot, then that makes it an accurate reflection of the film itself. Despite these seemingly disparate elements, as a final product, Playdurizm feels like a cohesive unit.

Demir (Gem Deger) awakes in an unknown location with no memory of how he arrived there or who the people he is around are. Andrew (Austin Chunn) and Drew (Issy Stewart) are an unconventional couple whose impulses around drugs, sex and taboo are instantly brought to the fore. As Demir tries to piece together how he came to be in the house with them he begins to explore his own identity and past as a host of unusual characters engage with him in this otherworldly space..

Aside from the film’s meticulous design and arty non-sequiturs, the real charm is in the performances. Even in a smaller role, Issy Stewart as Drew delivers her barbed one-liners with relish, really selling the campy, melodramatic quality, but finding a heart within that. Chunn too excels as Andrew, needing to balance the excesses of his character, an alternate reality in which he is a movie star in addition to his more sober interactions with Demir. It is, however, Deger’s film, with his at first perhaps oddly pitched performance transforming into an incredibly powerful one. His ability to portray an aching vulnerability in melodramatic lines like, ‘I feel like a manufacturing defect every time I look at you’, perfectly captures Demir as someone in flux or a state of becoming.

A side plot involving an external threat to Demir and Andrew’s burgeoning relationship is home to the film’s few slight missteps, drawing the action and focus away from them. While it does, undoubtedly, have a pay-off, these moments sag the pace to some degree. Alongside the frequently irreverent dialogue and segues into outright strangeness lies a reflexive film with a keen connection to other media, including film and art. For all the exuberant design it is the darker moments where the film’s true power lies. As the film begins to fold in on itself it makes its references to the likes of Videodrome more explicit, evoking the connections between porous media, film escapism and physical transformation.

The film starts with references to Francis Bacon quotations that ‘we are meat, we are potential carcasses’ and that connection to (and more importantly, separation from) physical reality bleeds through the entire film. While the film undoubtedly heads in a thunderously dark direction, it comes to a conclusion that finds beauty and healing outside of that darkness. That Playdurizm is able to conjure both the high-energy, schlocky style with the deeply moving makes it an utterly unique production.

Fiercely original, even when homaging some of the horror genre’s biggest hitters, Playdurizm stands out as a unique, affecting experience that deserves to be seen.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Playdurizm is currently available for rent and purchase on Amazon Prime Video, GooglePlay, Youtube Movies, iTunes (Apple TV), Vudu (Fandango) and Kino Now (Kino Lorber’s VOD platform), plus on Blu-ray and DVD in the USA. It is also available in Canada on Google Play, Youtube Movies and iTunes (Apple TV).

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.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Murina

A coming-of-age story contained within a sun-bleached thriller.

Synopsis: A teenage girl decides to replace her controlling father with his wealthy foreign friend during a weekend trip to the Adriatic Sea.

Named for the eels that Julija (Gracija Filipovic) and her father Ante (Leon Lucev) hunt together to sell as delicacies, Murina is a directorial debut that is as tightly controlled as the protagonist at the outset of the film. Julija is central for much of the runtime and both the way she is looked at and the way she observes the looks between others is a dominant narrative force. The swimsuit she wears for much of the film has a practical purpose, but also displays her to the men around her father, creating discomfort and furthering his desire to hide her away. This enhanced control coincides with a visit from Javier (Cliff Curtis), her father’s wealthy friend and prompts Julija to consider a life with him, given his clear fondness for her mother, Nela (Danica Curcic).

Gracija Filipovic carries much of the film on her shoulders, navigating a character who is naive but also given to fantasies about improving her life, even if that is achieved through sinister means. Her anger for her father comes in the outright anger and darkly rendered underwater fantasies that hint at an altogether more dangerous outlook. Meanwhile, she saves verbal barbs for her mother, angry at the control Ante has over the way they dress and live their lives. There is also a reckoning with becoming a woman, recognising that her mother is the object of Javier’s affection that could be used as leverage, a realisation that prompts her to say, “If I had your power, I would use it”. The relationship between the pair is subject to negotiation as Julija refuses to follow her lead.

First-time feature director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic uses the beautiful location to her advantage, injecting proceedings with an almost magical touch that fuses Julija with her surroundings. When she is in the water, she is at her most free and confident, allowing the film to weave in a fable related to coming-of-age in a way that feels both satisfactory in narrative terms as well as providing memorable visuals. The shift from a sticky, tense atmosphere when Ante is around to the rather more tranquil sensuality when Javier takes centre stage is deftly handled.

Underwater scenes become a space for uncovering desires and removal from reality which the film indulges in long sequences. The film creates the idea that Julija is at her most uncomfortable on land and it is in these sequences, especially a notably tense party scene that she appears as a fish out of water, not content to follow her parent’s lifestyles or adhere to the occasion. Filipovic is excellent, never less than captivating as she inhabits Julija’s questioning and refusal to stay quiet.

Some may find the film’s pace too slow and too content to allow its characters to bake in the surroundings. Sequences that turn up the tempo considerably are few and far between, but even so, there is a palpable tension throughout that maintains that interest. The pace of the film reflects the pace of Julija’s life, prone to periods of stillness set against short outbursts of frustration.

An excellent central performance and composed, unhurried handling make Murina a film to get lost in.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

Murina screened as the Closing Gala of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Murina is released in cinemas nationwide on 8 April, with Q&A screenings with the director this weekend, details at  https://www.modernfilms.com/murina

Menopause

An interesting idea gives way to a muted and misdirected satire.

Synopsis: A solar eclipse turns the women of a New Jersey Town into enraged, psychopaths.

The opening, frenzied sequence of a woman dramatically stabbing a man, lets Menopause set a tone for itself that matches the film’s description, but also one that it struggles to sustain. The cut from this into a throaty, breathy cover of The House of the Rising Sun probably better illustrates the kind of film to follow. Despite the initial exploitation look and feel, Menopause relies far more on dialogue, arguably to its detriment, resulting in a film that feels like it is straining to be bigger, but can’t quite get there.

The explosive first scene gives way to far more explanation and setup than would usually be expected of this kind of film. In a way, that is admirable, allowing characters to emerge and allow their plights to become more meaningful to the audience. Unfortunately, many characters are overwritten and given to quoting swathes of ‘did you know’ factoids that outstay their welcome. Although this is a satire, the broad characters and this unnatural style of speaking blocks a connection to the characters and definitely has an impact on some performances. Certainly, some elements feel reductive beyond the realms of satire.

At first, the addition of numerous characters feels superfluous but as everything unfolds this does give it a sense of scale as the effects of the eclipse begin to take hold. It also allows the film to explore the variety of reactions to those effects. Eschewing the practice of having everyone overcome by the effect and losing their existing feelings as some would, Menopause instead retains elements from the character build. It is, after all, far more interesting to consider the impact on a happy couple than one at odds so it is buoying to see this feature.

Ultimately, a few of the film’s flaws come from its limitations and while effects are not everything, some of the violence here lacks impact in order to work around the available effects. This is no surprise for a low-budget production and certainly there is a lot of creativity behind creating these, but it does somewhat dull the overall impact. Still, independent productions like this one are sure to develop and expand into evermore polished efforts with great ideas as a promising starting point.

Arguably a film that will land better with those not expecting an all-out action-packed gorefest, Menopause has an interesting idea at its heart.

2 out of 5 stars

2 out of 5 stars

Menopause will be released by BayView Entertainment.

Grimmfest Christmas Horror Nights: The House of Snails

A writer’s inspiration takes a sinister (and sometimes confounding) turn in The House of Snails.

Synopsis: Writer Antonio Prieto decides to spend the summer in the mountains outside Malaga, where he hopes to find peace and quiet and inspiration for his next novel. Here he meets Berta, a woman he feels instantly attracted to, and quickly finds himself drawn into the lives of the locals, who he soon realises are hiding many sinister secrets. As he investigates, and writes, he finds himself confronted by a terrifying local legend, and the gradual realisation that, sometimes, reality is much stranger than fiction…

It is often difficult to write about films like The House of Snails, simply because it sets out to uproot and disjoint itself (and, by extension, the audience) repeatedly throughout its runtime. This is perhaps no surprise as this is an adaptation of a novel about a writer so the layers of reference and desire to fold in on itself are already running fairly deeply. Director Macarena Astorga takes on Sandra García Nieto’s novel with enthusiasm, swiftly layering different ideas and recognisable horror trappings that disrupt one another as the film progresses.

Antonio Prieto (Javier Rey) finds himself in the town of Quintanar while seeking inspiration for his new book. Quintanar is seemingly surrounded by wolves, keeping everyone within, seemingly subject to a long-standing curse that results in numerous strange beliefs and rituals.

The nature of The House of Snails is in that it is constantly seeking to add more layers and to some viewers, this may feel too scattered and overloaded. However, it is difficult to argue with the approach when the film is able to play off all these moments successfully. The beautiful location allows Antonio to wander into different areas, each with its own distinct look and feel. In some sections, you are in folk horror territory, focused on the things that people do to feel safe or explain things that are unexplainable. At other times, you are in supernatural creature territory, with both threads finding common ground in the film’s weaving of legend.

The Vimero legend that underpins both these elements comes to represent something altogether more powerful by the film’s conclusion. While young children like Rosita (Luna Fulgencio) regard the Vimero as a very real threat, the more sceptical Padre (Carlos Alcántara) details the kind of taboos the legend could be a cover and explanation for. Again, this frequent switching of viewpoint and refusal to commit to a straight line may alienate some viewers, but there is something immediately compelling about the strange town and its strange ways that keeps everything moving. The myth-building that takes place and the questioning of how legends start to impact reality is a real strength of the film.

To some degree, the film gives itself too much to do and so some elements do unfortunately feel underdeveloped and so lack a necessary punch. Antonio’s love interest Berta (Paz Vega) for example, feels like a character with more to offer than what she receives. Despite all the performances being excellent, it is only Javier Rey who truly gets to stretch and deliver, simply because his character is given the most to do. In keeping with its playfulness with horror and narrative elements, the film gives the impression that everything is being delivered with a wry smile. Even the film’s bleakest moments have a throughline of dark humour or a nod to the audience. To do this, without undercutting the seriousness of one of the film’s prevailing messages shows the skill with which this has been developed.

A compelling study of myth-making, taboo and uncovered secrets, set in a location that feels as uncanny as the townspeople within it, The House of Snails is one to watch.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

The House of Snails plays Grimmfest’s Christmas Horror Nights on December 11th. You can buy tickets here and read more about the event here.