Thursday 26 December 2019

Top Twenty Films of 2019

Yes you read that correctly. There have been just too many great films (and great festivals at which those films were shown) for me to do a Top 10 this year. My final list of great stuff came to 20 & so to eliminate having to make any difficult choices I have decided to include the lot. 
The Rules. For those who aren't familiar with what I do here, nothing gets on the list if it had a widespread UK cinema release, widespread acclaim or anything else that might lead to the film in question already being well known about. There are plenty of sites around who can give you that in any number of regurgitated forms. This is the list of brilliant stuff that you might not have seen or even heard of. Each film must have had a showing in the UK this year, either at a festival, the cinema, or on your TV screen through disc or streaming release. 
Because there's a lot more quality than usual, it means my annual round up of the worst of the year is going to be confined to just this paragraph. The worst film I saw on the big screen was probably ARE WE DEAD YET? a 'comedy' about a gang of 'lovable' criminals who break into a country house & get more than they bargained for. At least someone did. DVD gave us ROBERT REBORN, the latest in the 'Robert the evil doll' franchise. Director Andrew Jones appears to be trying hard but after five films in this series alone he ought to have at least learned to alter the aspect ratio settings on his video camera. A couple of glove puppets and some dodgy actors were not meant for Cinemascope. Netflix gave us a whole swathe of movies. Amongst the most notable was ELIZABETH HARVEST (not on my best of list but worth a look). The most disappointing was probably THE INFLUENCE. Ramsey Campbell's excellent novel will hopefully one day get the atmospheric and sensitive treatment it deserves, but this was definitely not it. 

Right! That's enough of that. 20 great films to get through. Let's go!

20 Death of a Vlogger

One of the best films at this year's Frightfest, this tiny-budget first time effort was a surprising and worthy addition to the 'corner of the retina' ghost story genre made famous by M R James. Graham (played by writer-producer-director Graham Hughes) gains fame on the internet for posting a video showing an apparent haunting. Then events take a turn for the worse. Is Graham really starting to see weird things in his flat, or is it just all in his head? Made on a tiny budget but with some of the scariest scenes in Frightfest, this one's still awaiting a distribution deal. Look out for it when it gets one.

19    Vivarium

        Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg are looking for their dream home. A chance meeting with an estate agent finds them prisoners (and sole occupants) in a housing estate from which there seems to be no escape. One day a baby is delivered in a cardboard box with the instruction 'Raise the child and be released', but who is keeping them there and why? Influences here include Nigel Kneale and Sapphire and Steel. This one gets grimmer and grimmer as it goes on. Plenty of subtext too to reward multiple viewings.

18.    Daniel Isn't Real

Director Adam Egypt Mortimer redeems himself after SOME KIND OF HATE with this. As a boy Luke had an imaginary friend called Daniel. That is until Daniel made him poison his mother - after that Daniel was banished to an old doll's house. When Luke heads off to university, various stressors cause Daniel to resurface. Luke's new / old friend helps him to be successful with women and to express himself artistically, but it all comes at a terrible price. With a storyline that reminded me a bit of Christopher Fowler's novel Spanky (in a good way), DANIEL ISN'T REAL is a delicious, mind-bending Boschian melodrama that provides plenty of nightmarish imagery along with its is-he-or-isn't-he-mad plot. 

17 Extra Ordinary

Time for comedy! A grape, a toaster and a wheelie bin are amongst the mundane items possessed by ghosts in Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman's tale of an Irish driving instructor who can communicate with the spirit world and exorcise ghosts from all manner of inanimate objects as well as living creatures. Add in a plot concerning one hit wonder Christian Winter and his attempts to use satanic rituals to have another bestselling record and you have a film that even Dennis Wheatley would have found funny. EXTRA ORDINARY was utterly charming and I hope co-director Mike Ahern's suggestion that the characters may get a TV series comes to something It's a warm and funny film with added gore, reminiscent of Nick Whitfield's 2010 SKELETONS (GHOSTBUSTERS in Derbyshire). 

16 Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson

There were a lot of documentaries on the festival circuit this year, & this was the best. A superb, exhaustive documentary on the career of Al Adamson, director of such poorly regarded cinematic fare as BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE, BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR and BRAIN OF BLOOD. The final act takes a bit of a left turn to become something of a true crime movie, as Adamson's murdered remains were notoriously discovered buried beneath the cemented over remains of his jacuzzi. It's a fascinating, enlightening documentary and both David Gregory and his co-producer Heather Buckley are to be praised for going the extra mile (in fact several marathons) to get some of the info presented here. I look forward to Severin's promised box set of Adamson movies so I can properly fry my brain. 

15 Driven

In which taxi driver Casey Dillard picks up man with a mission Richard Speight, Jr and has to drive him to various locations to help him save the world. I would say more but that would spoil the surprises, suffice to say this is a creative, charismatic, low budget gem, with engaging leads and a plot that wrong-foots and entertains in equal measures.

14 Heavy Trip

The adventures of Finnish heavy metal band Impaled Rectum are documented in this endearing and frequently hilarious comedy that gets crazier and more outrageous as incident is allowed to pile on incident, HEAVY TRIP has been likened to Rob Reiner’s classic SPINAL TAP but it some ways it’s a funnier, tighter, and much more economical version of John Landis’ THE BLUES BROTHERS (which even gets referenced in the dialogue), most obviously in the way the climax builds and builds. A real surprise.

13 Ready Or Not

This did get a cinema release and didn't do well, which shouldn't stop anyone from checking it out. Samara Weaving marries into a super rich family that has made its fortune selling games only to discover that after the wedding guests have gone home she has to pick a game to play with her new in-laws. Unfortunately the family has made a pact with Satan that demands they sacrifice a blushing bride now and then to keep him happy. Hide and seek was never so bloodstained or as outrageously entertaining as this, a sterling effort from the Radio Silence team (who gave us the best episode of the original V/H/S)

12 Come To Daddy

Seemingly playing at every single festival going this year, COME TO DADDY is the story of Urban hipster Norval (Elijah Wood) who receives a letter from the father he hasn't seen since he was five inviting him to the man's remote Oregon home. When Norval gets there he is met with nothing but animosity, threats, and a refusal to discuss why his father has even invited him from a man superbly played by Stephen McHattie. 
        Then something happens that plunges Norval into a world I wasn't expecting at all & neither will you which is why I'm not going to say any more. Great performances, a quirky script from Toby Harvard (who co-wrote THE GREASY STRANGLER but don't let that put you off) and carried off with a serious amount of style from director Ant Timpson (the man behind THE ABCS OF DEATH).

11 The Siren

Premiering at this year's Glasgow Frightfest under the title THE RUSALKA, THE SIREN was the latest from Perry Blackshear (THEY LOOK LIKE PEOPLE). A touching folk horror love story, beautifully filmed, sensitively acted and very well directed indeed. Each of the three main characters is so well rounded and developed that you feel the pain and joy of each of them. It's a very difficult feat to evoke a measured balance between loving tenderness and 'monster' horror but Blackshear makes it look effortless. Don't expect lots of blood, gore, or nudity, however. THE SIREN is much more a horror fan's 'chill-out' picture. It's lovely to look at, lovely to take in, and the whole experience is actually rather lovely for the soul.

10 Knife and Heart

As dirty as D'Amato and as lyrical as Rollin, the PR kits for KNIFE + HEART compared it to Argento and de Palma but I thought this was far trashier - quite deliriously & deliciously so. A series of brutal murders of gay porn stars in late 1970s Paris by a leather-masked razor-blade dildo-wielding psychopath is the raison d'ĂȘtre for a film that had me chuckling and open-mouthed by turns. Likely getting an arts circuit release earlier this year because of its queer theme rather than because it's got the most overt Jess Franco tribute smack bang in the middle of it that I've ever seen, but for 102 minutes KNIFE AND HEART is like watching prime 1970s EuroTrash at your local arts cinema. More films from director Yann Gonzalez, please.

9 Chained For Life

At a hospital a "German" director (even that is questioned) is making what seems to be one of those old mad scientist EuroTrash movies. Individuals with actual medical conditions have been employed to act as some of the patients. What follows is an absolutely fascinating examination of how cinema treats a person's physical appearance. CHAINED FOR LIFE is tremendously clever & having now read various reviews I can see it will benefit from several rewatches. It's that rare thing - an arthouse movie that can quite rightly be labelled 'important' but which is also tremendously enjoyable, whisking you along with its characters without ever being preachy.

8 Bullets of Justice

Because very silly films get onto this list too. Basically MAD MAX meets ZOOLANDER. A very homemade, very funny post-apocalyptic bit of daftness where mankind has been mastered by a group of genetically mutated humanoid pig creatures. The only film on this list where the sexy leading lady has a moustache (that changes from scene to scene) and the hero has an obsession with the bottom of a leading male catwalk model. Watch it and feel sorry for any kid called Benedict whose schoolfriends get their hands on this.

7 After Midnight

An ultra low budget meditation on relationships with an added monster, AFTER MIDNIGHT manages to be both touching and surprisingly funny. Hank (Jeremy Gardner) and Abby (Brea Grant) live in Hank's rambling old house in a tiny town in nowhere USA. They've been together ten years but never married. One day Abby ups and leaves for a month. While she's away Hank suffers nightly attacks by a monster with huge claws that tears his front door apart and eats the family cat. Do the monster and Abby's departure have anything to do with one another? I won't spoil it but AFTER MIDNIGHT is a lovely film with excellent acting from the leads and some very funny supporting characters. 

6 Why Don't You Just Die?

A huge surprise and another one that seemed to be playing at every festival going. If Sergio Leone had met Ade Edmondson & Rik Mayall in the eighties then the result might well have been something like this - a spaghetti western that takes place almost entirely in someone's front room. A fantastic music score adds immensely to the hilarious and beautifully choreographed mayhem. The trailer for this one doesn't do it justice as it's far funnier and far cleverer than you may think. Let's have that score released, shall we?

5 Harpoon

Three people (rich bloke, rich bloke's girlfriend, rich bloke's considerably less well off best friend) set sail on the rich bloke's yacht to celebrate his birthday. Soon things start to go horribly wrong. How wrong I'm not going to reveal because HARPOON deserves watching pretty much cold. What I will say is that it starts off deceptively cocksure and smart-alec, making you think you're going to watch a comedy, but ever so slowly the film tightens into a knot that had me on the edge of my seat by the end.

4 The Nightingale

Director Jennifer Kent's latest is part I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and part CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH with its brutal rape-revenge plot line set against the backdrop of merciless Australian colonialism. Those two films are excellent, and so is THE NIGHTINGALE. It's been called 'a hard watch' and 'relentlessly grim'. Back in the 1970s it would just have been called 'a film'. Ignore those behaving overly preciously about the unrelenting and very grown up approach this one takes. It's very, very good indeed & destined to become a classic.

3 Color Out Of Space

Richard Stanley's long awaited return to feature film-making is his adaptation of H P Lovecraft's story THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE, presumably getting a spelling change to avoid confusing potential audiences on the other side of the Atlantic. When a meteorite lands on the property of Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage) it heralds a change in both wildlife and vegetation as whatever the rock has brought with it strives to change living things into 'something it knows'. A feast for the eyes and ears, COLOR OUT OF SPACE really needs to be seen in a cinema with a 7.1 surround system to get the most out of it. The visual effects are astounding, Cage's performance is mesmerising and Richard Stanley's direction walks the razor's edge between the fantastic and the absurd with assured confidence. Spectacular, memorable and as faithful as any modern-day adaptation could hope to aspire to be. 

2 Mutant Blast

It's unashamed love and bouncing up and down on my chair with enthusiasm time now. MUTANT BLAST is, well, a blast. There's a zombie apocalypse. People wander the wasteland. Very strange (and often very silly) things happen. Blending the surrealistic absurdism of Richard Lester's 1969 film of THE BED SITTING ROOM with zombie mayhem and possessing genuine heart, MUTANT BLAST is, I suspect the only film ever that will feature a man whose hand turns into a rat, a human-sized lobster in a suit, and be able to have me in tears by the final scene. Wonderful, unique stuff that fully deserves all the plaudits it's been getting around the world.

1 Depraved

"God is dead and all we have left is our technology and our nightmares." It was a year of welcome comebacks and Larry Fessenden gets the top spot for his magnificent take on the Frankenstein story. Taking place mainly in a loft and filmed on a very low budget, DEPRAVED is an acerbic satirical take on modern American culture. It's getting a US Blu-ray release early next year on a disc that looks loaded with extras. I've already got my pre-order in.

That's it! As always my thanks to the organisers of all the wonderful festivals we attend (Frightfest, Mayhem, Abertoir) and to the PR companies who are kind enough to send me films to review. I'm going to have a lie down before it all starts up again next year. And hooray for when it does! 

Sunday 15 December 2019

Hell Is Where the Home Is (2018)

"Hell is where they're showing this"

Receiving its world premiere on the main screen at London's Frightfest last year, HELL IS WHERE THE HOME IS makes its digital debut on that festival's very own label through Signature Releasing.

Four ghastly obnoxious young people rent a luxury isolated mountain getaway for the weekend, not knowing that the owners have been despatched in a pre-credits sequence. They have booze (it looks like sherry but I suspect it's not) and at least one of them hoovers up cocaine as if a national shortage has been declared. Do not play a drinking game with this man's onscreen habit or you will be under the table before the end of the first act.

While they're all drinking, drugging, shagging and squabbling (and thus endearing themselves not a jot to the audience unless said audience consists of similar superficial narcissitic nobodies & surely such have far more frivolous and self-damaging ways to spend their time than watch a film), the doorbell rings. It's Fairuza Balk. Her car has broken down and can she use the phone?

Needless to say, an actress of Ms Balk's calibre (and therefore cost) isn't going to last long in a low budget film like this and sure enough soon something happens to her to render her offscreen EXCEPT the film-makers forget we need to see her later on so when we do it's a stand-in with a flannel on her face.
Our leads argue some more and get themselves into even more trouble before the bad guys turn up, wielding machetes and going full home invasion. They are brutish, tattooed, boast gold teeth and speak in grunts and you'll be rooting for them all the way as the far more sympathetic individuals in this frankly miserable film that takes far too long to get going for something that only runs for 83 minutes. 

Director Orson Oblowitz tries the odd nod to Argento (a blade being forced between teeth by a black-gloved assailant) and lights the end of the film in Bava greens and pinks but the opening half an hour is so devoid of any redeeming features that by then we're not prepared to cut him any slack. Composer Jonathan Snipes opens and closes with a tinkly giallo theme that has you hoping that with its isolated glamorous setting we're going to get a FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. Instead we get four morons for a bad night in. The Frightfest Presents label has brought out a lot of great stuff in the last couple of years, much of it covered on here, but unless you are a label completist you can give HELL IS WHERE THE HOME IS a big miss.

HELL IS WHERE THE HOME IS is out on Digital HD on Monday 16th December 2019