Mild Spoilers ...

26. Sep, 2015

Vampire Circus (1972)

Some of Hammer’s most interesting films were made during their perceived decline and ‘Vampire Circus’ is one of the defining examples of this. It’s also probably the company’s bloodiest feature.

It also features their longest ever prologue. Set in the Austrian village of Stetl, director Robert Young dresses the sets and location with convincing detail. The curious practice at the time of dubbing voices is rampant here, with seemingly every actor re-dubbed (not always successfully), mostly by the original actor. There was, notoriously, not enough time in the schedule for Young to complete all his scenes – perhaps it was more economical to re-dub everything than re-take certain scenes.

That the film is quite ‘choppy’ in places works to the general weirdness prevalent in this macabre fairy-tale. It doesn’t quite flow as films usually do – especially in one scene. There are some students boarding in rooms upstairs to where the beautiful Dora is staying. They are only mentioned in passing and we never see them. We see the vampires converging at the house, witness some impressively subtle human-to-animal transformations but see nothing more. The attack on these unseen students occurs off-camera. The sound-effects Dora reacts to make the scenes border on parody. But that is the only obvious casualty of the impossibly tight schedule.

I wonder if Young had been allowed to film those last scenes, could the results really have been any better? ‘Vampire Circus’ is a sumptuous, occasionally ethereal weird bloodbath. The cast are faultless (only the dubbing threatens to spoil things), with the evil circus people emerging as more interesting than our heroes. Emil is played brilliantly by Anthony Higgins/Corlan – smiling and stroking the face of Albert (Laurence Payne) as they throttle each other; Lalla Ward and Robin Sachs as the two dancers, are twins both seductive and deadly (dare I suggest Rollin-esque?) and fresh-faced, young and sweet Lynne Frederick makes the most of innocent Dora; Robert Tayman is Count Mitterhaus and does very well considering he is definitely dubbed by a different actor and has to wrestle with some very outsized fangs. James Whittaker’s rich, layered score is among the most haunting Hammer ever featured. Sumptuous and atmospheric, this confident film belies the company’s fortunes at the time of release.

24. Sep, 2015

Petrified (2006)

I’m not sure I see what inspires people to make films like this. Parodies are fine, but when the parody itself is made with much less money and sophistication than the genre it is parodying, it’s difficult to see the point.

I am assuming ‘Petrified’ is one such film. It doesn’t invite itself to be taken seriously, yet there is nothing here particularly amusing. The most successful aspect of it is the main creature (a vampire mummy who turns many of its victims to stone). For a low budget venture, I’ve seen far less convincing monsters. And yet any scene with the creature is played and shot so badly that even the most invested viewer must find it hard to take things seriously.
To allow for some mild titillation, events occur in a hospital designed to cure nymphomania. We see lesbians attempting to have sex. I mention this because it leads to a joke in the script which demonstrates the level of finesse on display. Experiments are being carried out of some patients allowing them to appear younger than their real age.
“She’s actually 61 years old”, points out the doctor.
“Ew,” pouts her lover. “You mean I’ve been muff-diving an old hag?”

Another gem is this:
“This is not of terrestrial origin.” “What, you mean like E.T.?”

I might not ‘get’ this film, and that’s fair enough. If there are those that find this entertaining, then I’m glad: presumably those who wrote and produced it had a hoot. But it really isn’t for me.

23. Sep, 2015

The Inside (2012)

In some ways this could be the most realistic found-footage film of all that I have seen – in that it’s often impossible to work out what’s going on. Equally, the depictions of the group of teenagers getting drunk and swapping embarrassing stories is immediately tiresome.

As the story goes, a man (Eoin Macken, who also writes, produces and directs) gains possession of a second hand camcorder, and on it he finds footage that appears to depict the final hours spent by a group of currently missing Irish girls. Spending an evening in an abandoned warehouse isn’t everyone’s idea of a good way to celebrate a birthday, and tempers are frayed from the outset. These are flawed people. When they are attacked by vagrants, however, it comes as a relief the camerawork is shaky and obfuscates the resulting raw abuse.

When it is revealed there is a bigger, supernatural threat at large, the pace of the film slows. We are treated to quite slow scenes involving the characters reacting to barely glimpsed creatures not dissimilar to those in ‘The Descent’, and some unexplained sounds of a baby crying.

The found footage formula ends when ‘The Man’ has reached the finale and we return to more coherent, slick direction of regular film-making for what I feel is the least convincing part of the story. Having seen a group apparently slaughtered by demonic forces in a location that is familiar, would you then take it upon yourself to investigate that very area, unarmed and alone? Because I wouldn’t. Yet that is exactly what the man does. Would he not hand over the webcam to the police?

I justify his actions in this way: we saw him pawn his ring for cash. Perhaps he has a drug habit and is reticent to contact the law? I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that people who pawn their goods are addicts, but it’s the only reason I can imagine he doesn’t contact professionals to deal with this. Much as this lapse of logic happens in horror films, I found it difficult to get past here, which mars an otherwise very effective feature.

22. Sep, 2015

Kigdom Come (2014)

At first I wasn’t expecting much from this film. It seemed initially to be a clone of the ‘Saw’ films, but it proved to become much more than that. A group of ably acted, abrasive characters wake up in an abandoned building with no memory of how they got there.

As the films rolls on, we become aware that they all have grim stories to tell; their flaws are many and it appears they may even have ended up in Hell – especially as one of their number Daniel (Jason Martorino) is revealed as major villain with an assortment of partially successful demons (thankfully untouched by CGI). Having cast the cultured-sounding Martorino, I question the wisdom of then giving him lines like ‘just kill the mother-fucker already’ which sound unconvincing.

And yet his performance is otherwise very good – and so is that of the little girl Ceilia (Ellie O’Brien) who manages a potent performance even when given some punishing lines. A very enjoyable film.

22. Sep, 2015

Legend of the Mummy (1998)

If ever there was a curse on a project, it was surely cast upon Bram Stoker’s ‘The Jewel of Seven Stars’, for the film adaptions of this story have been ill-fated and, for the most part, disappointing in their execution.

This is sadly no exception. A sprawling story anyway, this adaption seems to go to great pains to complicate events further with flashbacks, unclear narrative and characters it is impossible to care about. The production has dated more than many others; it’s not obvious that the 1990’s had a ‘look’ (unlike the garish ‘80’s or the flares and collars of the ‘70’s), but ‘Legend of the Mummy’ proves that it had and possesses that ‘look’ in spades. It appears the designers took their inspiration from daytime US soap operas.

The mummy itself gets scant screen-time and is often filmed in extreme close-up, so we only get a glimpse of a hand or a bandaged jaw. It spends most of the film ‘stirring into life’ so we spend far too long with bland characters and the running time seems to last a lot longer than 96 minutes, despite the musical score’s attempts to convince us exciting things are happening. By the fourth or fifth time the creature seems about to go on a rampage, my enthusiasm has been strained.

There are some good set-pieces and some others that don’t convince, and there are moments when thing seem at last to be building up some tension. This is always short-lived, though, and the finale, when we get there, is something of a mercy.

22. Sep, 2015

Dark Touch (2013)

‘Dark Touch’ is very much open to suggestion. We are left with the impression of what is going on, but allowed to be certain of nothing. Young Naeve may well be abused by her parents, she may well have caused the conflagration that killed them. It is likely that she has some empathic understanding of other abused children, and it seems that they combine their unspecific telekinetic powers to gain a brutal kind of revenge.

Naeve seems both terrified of and embracing of her powers. Her parents and those who try ham-fistedly to understand her exchange meaningful glances with one another, but nothing is really said and no true progress is made.

‘Dark Touch’ is mostly filmed in stark, cold colours and visually contains many elements typical of horror films, of hauntings, and themes of possession. And yet this variant of (disturbing yet fantastic) themes is coupled with the (very real and abhorrent) subject of child abuse, which makes it difficult to categorise. Not that categorising a film is necessarily a desirable thing to do; often films that blur the line between subjects are very effective, but the approach often means that thematically, too many subjects are explored and none in satisfying detail for them to be truly effective.

22. Sep, 2015

Silent Night, Bloody Night: The Homecoming (2013)

As titles go, this isn’t one that trips of the tongue. The awkwardness continues throughout this low-budget would-be slasher, with variable acting and sound design. The opening moments, there to lure in the viewer, are amongst the least effective thanks to some artless CGI and mismatched sound dubbing.

Things pick up a little after the effective opening credits have rolled. One of the reasons I often enjoy low-budget productions is that they use, out of necessity at times, inventing ways of telling a story that negates the need for flashy effects. Such is the case here, with some interesting direction and camera angles used to partially obscure the details of some of the gory moments – of which there many. Much of the action takes place without dialogue, which adds an extra sinister layer to events.

This seems to be James Plumb’s project; he is credited as director and writer, but as the film is often a scene-by-scene recreation of a 1972 American horror, Plumb’s is a pretty ambitious claim. Discrepancies occur – the nicely seedy Wilfred Butler dies and leaves his house to grandson Jeffrey. When we meet Jeffrey, he immediately makes a bad impression – perhaps that is the point, inviting us to believe he is the masked, brutal killer who is this film’s violent protagonist. And Jeffrey is just a petulant boor with no charm whatsoever. When the killer is revealed to be Wilfred (not dead after all), we are left to wonder how old this man actually is, and how he manages to physically assault and kill so many people.

This is a fairly interesting, if mangled film in which the often underwritten characters’ sole purpose is the brief lead-up to their own murder.

7. Sep, 2015

Grave Halloween (2013)

‘Sometimes you get lost in the forest; sometimes the forest loses you.’
Set in a suicide forest in Japan (but filmed in Canada), it is the location that elevates this film beyond the ordinary. It looks wonderful, eerie, beautiful and is effectively lit.

The characters unadvisedly exploring the forest are a fairly likeable bunch of teens (which isn’t always the case) – there are the ‘nice’ kids (Maiko, Kyle, Terry and Amber) and there are the ‘idiots’ (Craig, Brody and Skylar - who think it’s a good joke to pretend to be a hanging corpse) – but as it turns out, the ‘idiots’ are more entertaining than their more saintly counterparts, especially as Maiko is, sadly, the least interesting of them all. Inexplicable, gory deaths and imaginative set-pieces abound.

The storyline doesn’t appear to make any sense other than our group of young friends are all victims of ‘a curse’. At one time it seems as if the police are involved, but events ensure they are as much victims of the curse as anyone. And yet, as the final reel reveals, they are at least in league with the evil. The confusion promises to become enjoyable toward the end, as if there is a dangerous chaos on display, but the film ends before this takes a satisfactory hold.

7. Sep, 2015

The Pyramid (2014)

This looks good, is competently acted and has pace. It ticks all the boxes but fails to produce anything much that is out of the ordinary. A possible exception to this is that we don’t have a marauding mummy, but a human shaped jackal. This is not so much horror, rather an action adventure with horror scenes.

As a viewer and rabid fan of this genre, I wonder if my exposure to so many horror films has had a detrimental, difficult-to-please effect. If ‘The Pyramid’ was the first film of this type I had ever seen, would I be thrilled by it, unnerved by it, entertained by it? It is difficult to say, but the story fails to leave much of impression, even the resultant monster. Filmed in half-light, the scavengers glimpsed throughout are effective, but the ‘big reveal’ computer-enhanced creature at the end disappoints. This proves my firm belief that, unless done extremely well, CGI will suck the horror out of every horror film. The creature is nicely produced but is ultimately, just a cartoon.

4. Sep, 2015

Dracula (1931)

This first ‘sound’ horror film opens with some stunning graphics. For years, silent films only had visuals to tell their story, so already the art of matte painting used as backgrounds had been implemented successfully. So as Renfield (Dwight Frye) makes his way by carriage through the Universal films backlot, it is transformed, very impressively, into Transylvania! The first words spoken are from Carla Laemmle, niece of studio founder Carl Laemmle (she died as recently as 2014 aged 104).

After local murmurings of vampires and Walpurgis Night, the camera allows us inside the dusty basement of Castle Dracula, where small animals scamper away as a selection of coffins betray their supernatural hosts. Three somnambulistic women and one man are revealed in near silence. These are beautiful, classic horror scenes. Dracula moves but rarely speaks. When he does, it is to welcome Renfield and then glides up a colossal stairway leaving his somewhat fey guest scrabbling through outsized spider’s webs.

Bela Lugosi had been playing Dracula on stage for some years and by 1931 made the role his own on film. It was a sensation. For a few months, he was an undisputed movie superstar, a horror icon. This story – which he described as a blessing and a curse – would be mentioned in virtually every interview and article about him until his death. He is magnificent, alien and captivating in these opening moments. The first time you see him, you notice how theatrical he is. When you watch him again, he is never quite as theatrical as you remember. He moves slowly, like a hungry lizard and is at one with the thick, macabre, frightening atmosphere – when he is removed from that, however, his performance takes on an anachronistic aspect.

After an opening that is as near perfect as any in horror, Renfield loses his mind and is presided over by Martin, a warder at the sanatorium, (a truly grotesque, comedy-mock-cockney character who refers to his client as a ‘loonie’) and the horror is restricted almost entirely to Dracula’s persona (on the rare occasions he is on screen) because the action is placed very much in the (then) present day. From here, it seems very much that we are watching a filmed theatre production, a drawing room drama. The camera barely moves, performances are very crisp and clear and static. The heroine Mina (Helen Chandler) is a meek, fragile, bloodless thing (perhaps The Count prefers subordinate females to Frances Dade‘s feistier Lucy) and her beau (David Manners) is even wetter. Of course, it is easy to note the difference in filmic styles from over 80 years ago – but ‘Dracula’ has dated less well in this respect than other films made during this era.

As The Count is staked by Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing, it is off-screen. We hear a groan (trimmed on the insistence of the censor) and it is rather anti-climactic. One would have hoped that any sequel would give Lugosi’s Dracula a more memorable send-off. What a shame it was with Abbott and Costello, 17 years later.

Horror was a largely unknown genre in 1931, so Universal’s trepidation was understandable. Whilst Lugosi approached his role with full-blooded confidence, it’s a pity the studio didn’t do the same.

30. Aug, 2015

La Cara Oculta/The Hidden Face (2011)

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then what happens when two women become the victims? This is either a horror film, a thriller, or the blackest of black comedies – and one that is impossible to discuss without a SPOILER warning. This film is much better watched if you don’t know anything about it – equally, the trailer is better avoided too.

Flirty maestro, conductor Adrián (Quim Gutierrez) is first seen in a state of great personal trauma when attractive waitress Fabiana (Martina Garcia) helps him find happiness again. Adrian’s previous girlfriend has gone missing, and it is possible Adrian has murdered her. Meanwhile, Fabiana moves in to his magnificent rented home, owned by a German lady. Pretty soon, Fabiana hears strange sounds in the house and believes it to be haunted.

Then, in flashback, we are told of his previous girlfriend Belén (Clara Lago), who suspects (rightly) that Adrian is having an affair with Veronica, a member of his orchestra. The German owner of the house lets her into a secret: the house has an undisclosed, sound-proofed room behind the bathroom mirror. The secret room was built in case her Nazi husband needed to hide during the war. To teach Adrian a lesson, and to see if he really does have another woman, Belen hurriedly decides to hide in this room and watch his activities through the one-way mirrors. In her rush, she leaves the key in the bedroom, and so is trapped, with no way of letting anyone know of her predicament.

Seeing Belen having to watch Adrian grieve for her, and then take another girlfriend is dark humour indeed. Slowly, Fabiana realises what is happening but decides to leave Belen trapped – she doesn’t want a rival. It is only when Fabiana suspects Adrian of having an affair (again with Veronica, which – ironically – he has ended by this time) does she open the secret room. Belen is waiting, and has a vicious revenge in mind …

However this film is categorised, it is beautifully paced and written. It begins slowly – perhaps too slowly, but builds in interest. The acting is top-notch throughout – both Belen and Fabiana are both occasionally (and intentionally) irritating, which makes their slightly irrational actions so believable, whereas Fabiana, although flawed, is caught unknowingly between the machinations of them both.

29. Aug, 2015

Talos the Mummy (1998)

Overshadowed by the wretched Steven Sommers comedies released only months afterwards, ‘Talos the Mummy/Tale of the Mummy’ is superbly directed, looks great, is competently acted and verges on the incomprehensible. It is such a shame because the idea offers something refreshingly new in the way the mummy intends to resurrect himself. Having had his organs intentionally removed, his victims are therefore stalked by malevolent wrappings as he pursues rebirth, wrappings that take on a stronger physical form each time we witness them.

There’s a wealth of familiar UK faces here. Lysette Anthony, Honor Blackman, Louise Lombard – mostly in underwritten parts. There’s a cameo from actors Bill Treacher and Elizabeth Power. A few years earlier, they played characters in UK soap EastEnders who had an affair that scored very high ratings. It’s difficult to imagine their brief inclusion in this film as (presumably) husband and wife is not unrelated to that notoriety. Edward Tudor-Pole, lead singer with the band Tenpole Tudor, also appears as a blind man. Sir Christopher Lee also stars in the first five minutes.

The CGI Talos towards the end disappoints, but his almost spiritual influence throughout the film is impressive, particularly when it concerns Brad (Sean Pertwee) who is subject to a kind of exorcism to expel the creature. The ending further jumbles the narrative, with seemingly half the cast taking it in turns to be host to the spirit of the mummy. A flawed, frustrating ending to an enjoyable but confusing film.

29. Aug, 2015

Oltre il Guado/Across the River (2013)

There have been many films that have featured buildings haunted by previous residents, but very few with the slow deliberation and intensity of ‘Across the River’. The first time I watched this Italian film, I found myself losing interest and turning off some twenty minutes in. This second time, I was mesmerised throughout. Providing you are in the right mind-frame for a true ‘slow burner’, this is hugely effective – and, yes, very frightening.

When ecologist Marco Contrada (Marco Marchese) finds himself trapped in the ruined remains of a desolate village due to persistent flooding, he sees clothing floating across the river. At first, the clothing looks like offal. As his time trapped in the crumbling, decayed buildings becomes an endless succession of creaking doors, distant knocking and unearthly screeching from the densely wooded surroundings, Marco appears to become visibly older, clearly haunted by lack of sleep and the endless damp and leaking windows and roofs. The leaking, however, takes on an almost supernatural turn; it appears to be hunting him.

Yes, the pacing crawls. The scares are drip fed, but slowly become more intense, and ultimately, the flowing camera and squalid decomposition provide an immersive atmosphere – the camera lingers on every stained, ripped curtain, every mud-strewn pathway, every mildewed window-frame: you can almost taste the decay. The dialogue is scarce, and – much like a bigger budget – proves entirely unnecessary. This is haunting at its most effective.

29. Aug, 2015

Apocalyptic (2014)

This is an example of what makes a successful found-footage picture. Two likeable film-makers Jodie and Kevin (Jane Barry/Geoff Pinfield) visit a ‘doomsday cult’ populated mainly by women and lead by Michael (David MaCrae). They appear unnaturally happy and contented. Something is clearly wrong, but answers aren’t forthcoming in any great hurry. When they come, they are covered in a subtle way – strong hints of necrophilia, murder and a not unpredictable final outcome are covered in a solid, entertaining manner. Solid is one thing, however, and I found myself wishing the excellent performances (Barry and Pinfield have great chemistry, and MaCrae succeeds in making Michael a thoroughly convincing, unhinged monster) and mood of unease could have been embellished with a few more genuinely frightening scenes. What we had, even at the end, was fairly repugnant, but not terribly frightening.

As is sometimes the case with found-footage projects, the ending is open to interpretation. Although events certainly appear to be heading in a certain direction, I didn’t expect things to end as they did. (Spoilers) There were four different endings shot, and this is the one the crew were most happy with. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have preferred the character of Kevin, who disappears towards the end, to reappear. Still, with the ending as it is, the earlier prophecy of ‘apocalypse’ might well have come to fruition …

A mention too for the tremendous cinematography. Misty early mornings and sunrises certainly make the idea of the isolated cult seem an appealing one, even if their methods were a lot less wholesome.

23. Aug, 2015

Umbrage: The First Vampire (2009)

The most common word I have seen in reviews of this film is ‘ambitious’, and I think that is pretty fair. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high when directing a film, and there are moments where ‘Umbrage’ really appears to be hitting its stride – only to be knocked back by incomprehensible dialogue, occasional bad acting or the meandering storyline.

The first half concentrates on Doug Bradley’s Jacob (who has recently acquired a black mirror, which appears to be letting in ‘shadows’), who is either fending off barbs from his heavily pregnant wife (never a good omen in a horror film), or his constantly moody ward, Rachel. When two visitors arrive, things get a great deal worse.

The second half delves into the back story of the character Phelan and his age-old battle with the unspecified demon Lilith. Phelan (Johnny Hurn) is an Irish cowboy vampire, and Lilith looks wonderfully evil and sultry, only stumbling when Natalia Celino’s limitations as an actress are exposed whenever she has dialogue. A wholly unnecessary flashback rape scene reveals some of the reasons for their rivalry, and it appears Jacob and his vastly diminishing group have simply been caught in the crossfire.

It occurs to me that during filming, a sudden flurry of snowfall must have hampered proceedings. Rachel is hiding behind a car. When she emerges, snow has covered the ground. Rather than try to hide this, writer/director Drew Cullingham bridges the moments with hugely atmospheric panoramas of the falling snow (which adds further visual interest in a very picturesque backdrop). I assume this to be the case – there is no other reason for this to happen. Then, there is no reason for Lauren to be pregnant, other than to provide a gory death scene (reason enough perhaps) – or indeed for the most of the cast to die.

SPOILERS – after a series of apparent endings, we finally reach the finale: Jacob is blinded and then bitten by Rachel, who has been turned into a vampire by Phelan, reminding us that Lilith may be evil incarnate, but her rival is just as depraved.

The idea of a vampire cowboy is not as unusual as it sounds. Before horror films existed, silent Western films were occasionally spiced up with ghostly happenings. The idea of a vengeful cowboy vampire and a demonic seductress battling each other across (presumably) the centuries is very appealing, it’s just a shame that the results should be this uneven.

23. Aug, 2015

Fascination (1979)

This film has probably the most striking opening of any from French Director Jean Rollin – two young women dressed in white dancing together on a bridge walkway over a picturesque stretch of water, followed by a well-to-do group entering a cadaver-strewn abattoir for a genteel blood-tasting ceremony. Blood is a cure for anaemia, apparently – its taste is very ‘fashionable’.

This is followed by scoundrel Marc (Jean-Pierre Lemaire) who has just double-crossed his band of robbers and takes refuge in an ornate mansion, where he meets Eva and Elisabeth who claim to be preparing the property for when the owners return. He places the two girls in very lose home-confinement (leaving them at liberty to enjoy bouts of lovemaking that – rarely for Rollin – carry a genuine sexual charge) they immediately assume the psychological upper hand by undermining Marc and refusing to be intimidated by him. Indeed, Eva seems particularly stricken with him.

Although I loved the use of stark black and white in Rollin’s ‘Rape of the Vampire’, the colour and lighting here is beautiful. Crisp autumnal dawn sunlight, mist and the vibrant hues of the various costumes – all are intoxicating and spellbinding (although there’s a variant in weather and conditions rendering continuity a mess – mist, sunshine and rain – all in the space of the same sequence).

The owners return – upper-class ‘bourgeois crackpots’ who are, of course, the blood-drinkers from the opening moments and put a grisly end to Elisabeth, while Eva appears to save Marc by taking him to the stables, before making it clear she is the most unhinged of all by killing him and blaming the dead Elisabeth.

The acting is particularly strong here. Lemaire is excellent as the caddish Marc (doomed from the moment he enters the château but the last to realise it), and the ever pouting Brigitte Lahie excels as Elisabeth (equally doomed, but much less predictably so).

Rollin is at his most visually confident here. ‘Fascination’ is probably best known from its image of Lahie as a grim reaper (naked under the cowling), complete with scythe striding across the picturesque stone bridge in red leather boots.

19. Aug, 2015

The House Across the Street (2013)

Amy is irritated by her boyfriend and his offers of help, Amy is angered by the police, Amy is bored by the estate agent, Amy is annoyed at the local chemist. Amy spends such a lot of the time being intolerant of those around her, it is very difficult to care about her plight during the course of this story, especially as the story is not hugely gripping anyway.

As the film rolls on, we realise why Amy has a particularly good reason to be angry at the world, but we spend the majority of the story getting to this point, by which time, I had certainly lost interest in her.

Of the rest of the cast, Eric Roberts is the most familiar face. Known for adopting a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to his roles, there’s no dramatic change in evidence here. He is probably the most entertaining character, with his dry delivery as Officer Peterson bringing the character more life than is written.

What appealed to me about this film was the idea of horrors dwelling beneath the surface of a sunny, respectable suburban setting. Whilst ideas and characters are touched upon in a mildly effective way, there is nothing here to sustain the entire running time, and whilst I often enjoy films that tell a story in a slowly building way, there isn’t even a memorable pay-off at the end.

19. Aug, 2015

Starry Eyes (2014)

Alexandra Essoe plays Sarah, whose demure nature masks a desperation to become a successful actress. She is surrounded by snide wastrel friends, and there are moments when her ambition suggests she is probably just as contemptuous of them as they appear to be of her. After another unsuccessful audition, she is caught throwing a violent tantrum by one of the casting directors, and her outburst sparks interest. When she eventually meets the producer, things take on a mysterious and very sinister turn.

In the pivotal role of Sarah, Essoe excels at every opportunity. The viewer is lead to feel every beat of the humiliation she suffers, either at the hands of her friends, or in the job she abhors. Her transformation throughout the film is believably handled throughout, which is just as well because what happens to her is … bizarre.

The gore effects are very impressive, especially for a low-budget picture, although she does appear to barely be able to move in one scene, only to become a rabid killer in the next.

There are questions. In fact, the whole thing ends with a massive question – none of Sarah’s victims seem to be discovered, there is no evidence of any police investigation. In fact, the whole story takes place in a kind of elevated isolation where no outside influences are present. And of course, who are the people behind it all, and just what does Sarah become? ‘Starry Eyes’ results in being a highly enjoyable, gruesome picture where the journey is a lot more entertaining than the destination.

11. Aug, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

I can barely enthuse about this film enough. But then, I haven’t seen many black and white Iranian films featuring a skateboarding vampire – or any at all before this, in fact. There are many potentially humourous moments here (Arash coming home from a fancy dress party, dressed as Dracula, chatting up the unnamed girl – not knowing that she is a real vampire ; the constant inclusion of the family cat at moments of great intensity; the vampire girl professing a fondness for the music of Lionel Ritchie), but all of them played absolutely straight. The effect is therefore extremely successful.

The location is Bad City, wherein the lone vampire girl stalks the streets. Interestingly, her chador, a tool of female oppression, is used as the vampire's cape - an observation I wish I could lay claim to (it was revealed to me online). All is filmed lingeringly in stunning black and white, elevating each visual to something approaching art: cityscapes, barren waste-grounds visited by a lone stray dog, seedy lodgings, Arash’s father's heroine-induced nightmare – all evocative and sensual. Ana Lily Amirpour not only directed this with an obvious passion, but wrote it too, upgrading this finished project from her 2011 short.

Music plays a large part in this film. Thankfully, it isn’t the standard grunge metal fare usually (and tiresomely) associated with horror, but the tracks selected actually succeed in complementing the mood. The cast is uniformly excellent, from the repellent pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains), ravaged Hossain (Marshall Manesh) to the likeable hero Arash (Arash Mirandi). It is Sheila Vand who takes the honours here though. Even in the many moments of silence, she is fragile, sinister and somehow tragic all at once. This is a hugely recommended film.

11. Aug, 2015

Le lac des Morts Vivants/Zombie Lake (1981)

Told in flashback, a group of Nazi soldiers are killed and dumped into a lake which somehow reanimates them years later and brings them back to 'zombie' life. They then go on a very slow killing spree, either because they are now mindless murderers, or they are avenging themselves against the small French village that 'killed' them. Nothing here is elaborated upon, it just 'is.' Apparently French director Jean Rollin became involved in 'Zombie Lake' after original director Jess Franco walked out of the production. That Rollin was only given a few days notice might explain the unusually slapdash approach to the project. Here we have corpses that blink, tatty horror make-up and a very obvious use of a swimming pool for the underwater shots (with little attempt to disguise the pool's extremities). Franco favourite Howard Vernon plays the Mayor of the village who, in his desperation, turns to insistent journalist Katya Moore (Marcia Sharif) for help in ridding the community of the zombies. Her answer? Napalm! (At least, that is what the dubbed soundtrack tells us.) There is a plot line concerning one of the Nazis and his past relationship with a village girl. This resulted in Helena, a (now) 10 year-old child who recognizes one of the zombies as her father (he realises this too – his wearing of his ex-partner's necklace gives this away). He in turn protects her from the others. She is then coerced to lure the undead group into a barn with buckets of fresh blood to entice them, where they are set on fire and finally destroyed.

I found myself wondering why further bloodshed could not be spared merely by regularly feeding the zombies with blood (they appear quite docile when fed) – and then realised I was enjoying this sloppy, soft-core 'quickie' so much I had invested my own 'logic' into the storyline. It is refreshing to see zombie creatures staggering around on a killing spree in blazing sunlight, but while as an overall production, Zombie Lake' possesses little of the poetry and atmosphere that defines more typical Rollin productions, the resulting film is nevertheless a huge amount of fun.