Monday, 24 June 2013

The Blair Witch Project - Movie Review

There's somethin' happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear...

After seeing both The Frankenstein Theory and Troll Hunter in quick succession, I decided it was time to fill a particularly glaring hole: The Blair Witch Project. Probably regarded as one of the most important horror movies of the 90s along with Scream. But where Scream looked backwards and simultaneously satirized and borrowed from the slasher films that dominated the horror market, The Blair Witch Project, (made with a very small budget, and marketed with the first truly viral campaign) was going to blow the dusty cobwebs off and revitalize it.

At least, that's the impression I always had. To be fair, I was 11 when it came out.

With nearly 15 years distance on it, however, we can see that things didn't exactly pan out that way. The 'found footage' genre went mostly underground until the emergence of Cloverfield in 2008. As such, it seems to stand alone, an odd relic.  So how does it stand up today, to a completely fresh viewer, devoid of it's marketing campaign?

(First off, I would like to say that I went into it knowing nothing of the background or the 'mythology'. Cardinal Rule of Movies - It has to stand on its own.)

If you don't know the plot, it's very straightforward. Three young filmmakers invetigating the legend of the 'Blair Witch' hike into the woods she supposedly haunts and are never heard from again. Their footage is found a year later. This is the footage.

Two things struck me straight off the bat. Firstly, this is very much a product of its time. It seems odd to say that about a time I actually remember, but there are little things that pin it down in the same way the mall is unmistakably from the 70s in Dawn of the Dead. All the protagonists smoke, for instance. They also reference pop culture that is rapidly going out of date (Gilligan's Island, anyone?). I imagine that diminishes it's impact slightly with a modern audience, as they are no longer Just Like Us. 

The second is that this is far more dedicated to the 'found footage' being presented as actual found footage. Most (including the two I mentioned at the start of this review) stretch the boundaries a little, allowing for voice overs, location shots and enough suspension of disbelief that the people would still be filming. In this, there are fights for the camera to be turned off at critical moments, no external exposition is provided and what you see on screen is pretty much what you're getting.

Which leads to a problem. There is no doubt at all that this is a very effective movie. It is exceptionally creepy at several points and the plight of our dynamic trio elicits sympathy, as they slowly get more and more lost, hungry and terrified. It is implied that the woods are rearranging themselves in order to keep them lost, although they do fail to do one or two incredibly obvious things (like follow the river or climb the nearest hill). 

The problem is one William F. Nolan described - nothing is as frightening as what is behind the closed door. Or out of shot with one of the protagonists yelling "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?" and never seeing what 'it' is. The trouble is, eventually you have to open the door, not enough that the monster is fully exposed and rendered harmless, but just enough to hint at what is behind it. H. P. Lovecraft at his best is the absolute master of this technique, and he only gets it right about 25% of the time.

Or to put it another way, implication trumps explanation.

The challenge then, is to give juuuust enough away for the reader to draw their own conclusions about what is behind the door. Too much information renders something harmless. It's a problem many films suffer from. 

This film has the opposite problem. I'm sure if you had seen all the trailers, the faux-documentaries, the website links, the ominous piles of rocks that appear overnight around the tent at one point will seem incredibly sinister and threatening. As it stands, it's creepy and, well, vague. What are they being menaced by? "I have literally no idea" is not the greatest of answers to give, as someone like me who is trying to puzzle out what's going on is only doing that and not engaging with the characters or being scared silly. Vampires and zombies can still be scary now (when done well) because we know exactly what they are going to do to us. The 'Blair Witch' is an unknown quantity. It's sinister, but not horrifying. Scary, but not terrifying.

These, however, were terrifying

I'm sure if I wanted to I could delve into the mythology and find it creepier the second time around, but I shouldn't ever have to. As it stands, The Blair Witch Project is a fascinating ur-example of the 'found footage' genre, a triumph of low budget film making, and certainly worth seeing, but for me it worked on the same level as a haunted house ride. Kids go into the woods, sinister stuff happens, I get creeped out, film ends. I felt like I had just been on a rollercoaster, not watched one of the scariest movies ever made

It sounds like I am bashing this film. I am not. It is excellent, and definitely worth seeing. Just don't expect something mind-blowingly incredible.   

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Troll Hunter - Movie Review

As I said in my review of The Frankenstein Theory, I am usually not a massive fan of found footage films in the same way I'm not fond of the feeling I get when I try to read in a car. But after enjoying TFT I thought I would check this one out for two reasons: 1) This was the film that The Frankenstein Theory was most often compared to in other reviews, most probably because it has the same combination of frozen wilderness + potential monster and 2) I'm a sucker for anything Scandinavian.

Yes, Troll Hunter (known in Norway as Trolljegeren) is a found footage film with subtitles, just like the half-decent Spanish film Rec. The fact that it's been somewhat successful means it will probably get a remake, but then again, I'm cynical.

The film opens with a trio of young filmmakers (that sounds familiar) talking to a licensed bear hunter who believes that another man known only as Hans has been illegally shooting bears. Our intrepid scooby-gang decide to follow this poacher and question him about his activities, as well as his odd nocturnal habits, but he pretty much tells them to go away please and leave him alone.

Or words to that effect

They don't, of course, and instead decide to follow him into the woods at night, where several flashes and mysterious roaring fill the night sky, followed by a wild-eyed Hans stumbling upon the group yelling "TROLL!!"

Yep. Trolls are real, and they live in Norway.

Having established his credentials as a troll hunter/non-poacher, Hans then invites the group to accompany him on his various troll-hunting expeditions. That's basically the plot, with troll action a-plenty. A lot of the trolls are based on Norweigan folk tales, lending this an air of regionalism that will probably be lost in a remake (grumble) and there are moments when obvious cultural jokes and references are lost, either in translation or simply not being from Norway. However the film is good enough and funny enough to transcend these, and they are minor distractions rather than driving the plot.

So what about the trolls themselves? They come in lots of different varieties and we see plenty of them (including one 200 foot fella who really makes the movie's third act) and the effects are uniformly excellent. We get a (very) brief 'scientific' background for them as well as names for the different sub-species. They are pretty 'balanced' as monsters go as well: large enough to be threatening and scary, without feeling insurmountable and yet not feeling like pushovers despite a set of known weaknesses.

So what's wrong with the film? The trolls themselves never really transcend being big and smashy monsters, with no real personality or sense of life-cycle except exposition and a scene down a mine shaft. The overarching plot (something to do with trolls breaking out of their territories and being infected with some sort of disease) is a very loose thread on which the film hangs and stops making any real sense before the end. The ending leaves a lot to be desired as well, with the 'found footage' concept limiting the outcomes as well as leading to some strange behavior from some characters.

Overall though, the film is a lot of fun. You should probably give it a go.


Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Battery - Movie Review

Wow. Just wow.

After watching the lackluster effort The Facility and the awful Survival of the Dead (the rather pathetic latest entry in George A Romero's Dead films) I wasn't feeling that great about modern horror and was about to retreat into the safety of the 70s when the guy who recommended The Frankenstein Theory put me onto this little gem.

Made for a ridiculously small amount of money ($6,000) and starring the writer and director (Jeremy Gardner) it follows the aimless wanderings of two former professional baseball players* through New England as they fish, play catch and club the reanimated dead with baseball bats. Yes, it's a zombie film, but completely unlike any I've ever seen before.

These two (probably the most interesting pairing in any zombie film, hell, horror film I've seen) have survived the initial collapse of civilization and now scavenge the remains of the old world. Their enemies are less the zombies themselves at this point, and more boredom, nihilism and an attachment to the old order. The latter is more of a problem with Mickey (Adam Cronheim), who has trouble abandoning his old life and habits and frequently clashes with Ben (Gardner) who the apocalypse has turned into a ruthless pragmatist. 

This is the kind of film I want to say so much more about, but I wouldn't want to spoil one of the most perfect cinematic experiences I have ever had. The only thing I will add is that the soundtrack (a mix of indie and country covers) is one of the best of it's kind. Anything else will be a spoiler, or won't do it justice.

You may not have the same reaction I had, but you will see something unlike anything you've seen before. This is not my usual GO SEE IT for films I like - this is a serious recommendation that if you are a lover of film you need to see this. 

Here is the trailer:


* The principals are a pitcher and a hitter, which together are known as a battery, apparently, hence the title.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The Bard Subs for Andy's Lack of Editorial Satisfaction

I have been writing some stuff for here, but I can't get it to come together in a way that is satisfying for me, so instead have some late-night Shakespeare:

No matter where. Of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills;
And yet not so—for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's.
And nothing can we count our own but death,
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd,
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antick sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour'd thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?

- Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Facility - Movie Review

I have a bit of a bias towards old horror. Going through my old posts, I thought I had a good mix, but then realized that the 5-part Hammer Horror behemoth tipped the balance somewhat heavily, putting the average age of the movies reviewed on here somewhere around 1975. Ah well.

The reasons for this are many, but the main one is to do with filtration. I'll explain:
  1. Most film reviewers, including several high-profile ones, don't really approach horror very well. I have no idea why, and it's just my opinion, but there we go.
  2. As such me finding stuff I would like relies on (a) word-of-mouth (or rather, word-of-internet), (b) working my way through a director's back catalog and (c) wild stabs in the dark. 
  3. The longer a film is out, the better (a) works, which is the best of the three.
This review is of one chosen through option (c).

Saturday night I was at my parent's house for Father's Day the next day, when myself and my girlfriend found ourselves unexpectedly alone and with access to my sister's collection of schlocky, modern horror. We selected The Facility based on the premise, which sounded intriguing enough (human guinea pigs test new drug, bad things happen) and watched the theatrical trailer:

Looked serviceable. So we watched it.

Hmm. First the positive.

The first thing to say about this is that it is clearly low budget and very stripped down. There's one location: the facility itself (thank you, Captain Obvious), which might have been used for interiors as well from the look of it and nicely coveys a sense of both isolation and claustrophobia. It also doesn't make the mistake a lot of these sorts of films make - the building exterior, nor any of the rooms inside actively look evil. You ever see a film with one of these "let's gather strangers together" premises where any sane person with working eyes would have walked after five minutes? Yeah, this one doesn't do that. It's refreshing.

The cast are redshirts to a man, and there's only about ten people in the film altogether. They're an interesting enough bunch so you can tell them apart when bad stuff goes down, but not a lot more than that. The doctor and nurse seem sympathetic and friendly, the test subjects alternate between anxious newcomers and grizzled veterans (literally, in one case), there's a bloke who wants to break all the rules, etc. etc. They're all cut from 100% horror archetype cloth, but at least you know where you stand. and the slow realization that the staggered injections mean that they are all doomed in turn does make them all somewhat sympathetic in their plight. 

They are all, of course, complete morons in the other great tradition of horror, leaving doors open all over the place, discovering a CCTV system then not using it to track where the crazier members of the party have gone, not taking one of the many, MANY opportunities to escape and go get help, but these are people who have signed up for a medical trial for two weeks. They went in expecting to essentially sit around for two weeks. It's not that surprising that they continue to do so when the proverbial hits the fan.

So what about the negative? First off, the nature of the trial itself seems a bit off. Sure, you can buy into the idea that it's all hush-hush and the trial was supposed to go 'wrong' but I'm not sure what a medical trial with only seven people in it is supposed to tell anyone. I suppose if you got a good mix, but still. Also, what the drug is supposed to be doing is not made clear. Is it an anti-psychotic? A painkiller? No idea.

I could forgive all that, however (movies and science, especially medical science, is always a bit hit-and-miss, or rather miss-and-bigger-miss) if it wasn't for this movies other problem, which is that it is boring. That trailer? That literally is all of the scary bits in this film. Stretch them out over 80 minutes and add in a LOT of talking and that is the movie. It's not scary enough.

The third problem is that it keeps setting up sub-plots that go precisely nowhere. There's a journalist investigating The Facility. One character finds out he's in the clear. One of the staff survives long enough to get in radio contact. The CCTV, which I mentioned. The film ends, abruptly, leaving many threads hanging and onscreen text that doesn't exactly wrap things up, instead going for an "aren't pharmaceutical companies EVIL" vibe instead. 

But surely the nail in the coffin of any horror picture is it not being scary. If it doesn't make you at least jump, it's not really worth the time. 

The Facility is not offensively bad, nor is it so-bad-it's-good. It won't do you any harm. It's just dull.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Game of Thrones Withdrawal, or Andy Tells You What to Watch Now

It's that tragic time of year again folks: Game of Thrones is coming to an end. And while the finale is still just over a week off (meaning we've got two more lovely episodes to enjoy) my experiences in the last two years of vicious withdrawal lead me to write what I hope will act as a TV-based methadone clinic.


The Vikings

Many of you will have been burnt by historical dramas in the past. For every Rome, there has been a Braveheart (although some people would swap these around). This is the first one produced by the History Channel and it's pretty good. We follow the adventures of Ragnar LoĆ°brok, a semi-legendary figure who definitely existed but may not have done all the awesome stuff attributed to him, but he does on the show. If you want to see rowing longboats, raids on monasteries, blood feuds and men desperately wanting to make it to Valhalla through fighting to the death, you'll probably like this program.

  • Travis Fimmel is really good as Ragnar, alternatively brooding, adventurous, paternal and violent.
  • Gustaf Skarsgard, George Blagden, Katheryn Winnick and Gabriel Byrne are all pretty good as well.
  • No sex at all, really, which makes a nice change.
  • The theme tune by Fever Ray is amazing.
  • They're VIKINGS. 
  • The story is a LOT less complicated than GoT, but this means the characters aren't as well developed.
  • In a similar vein, the characters (with the exception of Ragnar) are more reacting to historical events than driving the plot forward.
  • There are a couple of weak links in the cast. I'm looking at you, Jessalyn Gilsig.
  • If you're not into Vikings, there's not a lot here to change your mind or keep you entertained. 
  • The first episode is kind of weak, but it takes off very quickly after that.
 Status: The series finished at the end of April, and got renewed for another ten episodes showing next year.


The Hollow Crown

Showing on the BBC last year, these adaptations of Shakespeare's Henriad (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V) were part of the celebration of British culture leading into the Olympic Games. Produced by Sam Mendes, they are high class, reasonably high budget adaptations of the plays and about a million miles from those staid, slightly dodgy BBC adaptations from the seventies you may have been shown clips of at school.

  • The cast over the four plays is ridiculous: Sir Patrick Stewart, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, David Morrisey...
  • Game of Thrones, Schmane of Thrones, THESE are the original dynastic struggles, based on real people and real events. 
  • The language is beautiful.
  • ...Simon Russell Beale, Julia Walters, Alun Armstrong, David Suchet...
  • The plays are easier to follow than on stage as the action moves around to actual locations.
  • It's unapologetically Shakespeare. If you find his language difficult to follow these don't soften it much.
  • They are all pretty long. Richard II clocks in at about 3 hours and the shortest, Henry V is still over 2.
  • Henry IV part II is seen as one of Shakespeare's weaker plays for good reason.
  • Ben Whishaw is a bit...fey as Richard II. He also speaks exclusively in verse.
  • For Shakespeare purists, they do do a bit of trimming, but that's mainly to control the length.  
Status: Shown last July and available on DVD. I really want them to make the other historical tetralogy (1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI and Richard III) but doesn't seem likely as nobody watched this one.



A bit different from the other two on this list, it makes it through the quality of the acting. Mads Mikkelsen stars as the legendary cannibal, consulted by damaged special agent Will Graham at a point in time before he realized that maybe he shouldn't be eating the hor d'oeuvres on offer. In a TV landscape dominated by 'police' procedurals this one stands out through being beautifully shot, well acted and gruesome as hell.


  • By the end of the first episode, Anthony Hopkins has moved to the back of your mind, as Mads Mikkelsen effortlessly inhabits the role, displaying just the right mix of cultured refinement and suppressed sadism.
  • It's lovely to look at, and has lots of nods to fans of the books or films.
  • Hugh Dancy as Will Graham acts out his loosening grip on reality perfectly, and the scenes with Hannibal are a joy to watch.
  • Excellent selection of guest stars, from Lance Henriksen to Eddie Izzard to Gillian Anderson. 
  • Despite anyone who's seen Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon knowing how it eventually pans out, still one of the most unpredictable shows on TV
  • I cannot emphasize this enough: It is really, really gruesome. One of the most gruesome things I've ever watched. Strong stomachs required.
  • Jumps around a bit between 'killer of the week' and the overarching plot, so can be a bit disorientating.
  • Any time Will and/or Hannibal aren't on screen, it becomes a lot less interesting.
  • Freddie Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman in Red Dragon) is now a red-headed woman for some reason, and is distractingly irritating.
  • On a similar note, almost none of the female characters are well-developed.  
Status: Finishes on June 20th and has just been renewed by NBC.


So there you go. I'm not claiming any of these are as good as GoT BUT they should help with the come-down. Choose the one you like most and enjoy!