Tagged Independent Film

Short Film Review: A Late Thaw is a Beautifully Dark Look at Grief

A Late Thaw. 2015. Directed & Written by Kim Barr.
Starring Michelle Boback, Lucas Chartier-Dessert, Kathleen Fee, Helena Marie, & Ivan Peric.
14 minutes.
Drama/Fantasy/Short

★★★★1/2
POSTER Over at ChicArt Productions they’re consistently putting out interesting little short independent films. Some are great subversions of genre, others are merely great examples of the genres in which the films exist. In the past six months or more, I’ve received a lot of fun screeners from them. I’m only now just getting around to seeing each film and reviewing them. No matter how big or small a production, it’s always a major honour for me to be asked by filmmakers and their publicity teams to take a look at their work. Getting a screener is like Christmas for me!
But it’s even better when these shorts are actually solid pieces of cinema. Usually, I receive requests for horror movies, seeing as how my website is (for the most part) fairly horror-based. All the same, I find many genres wind up in my inbox.
Director-writer Kim Barr’s most recent short, A Late Thaw, is less a horror – though it contains the essence of creepiness most of the time – and more a drama-fantasy. Better yet it reminds me of contemporary Gothic Literature, honestly. You could almost say it’s one long hallucination with bits of reality peppered in. No matter how you define it – perhaps dark fantasy might work best – Barr executes an innovative little screenplay to make 14-minute film into something magical, otherworldly, and excruciatingly personal. More than that, this short examines grief, how people deal with it, when they do, and how that grief can reach out from a person’s past to either strangle or give way to their future.
Screenshot 2016-05-07 at 12.49.39 PM
The cinematography is beautiful, at times quite surreal. Very much dig the fantasy elements, as they’re woven around the story fairly well. When Tara (Helena Marie) walks through the house and the snow is falling, frost is on the doorknob, you feel in an entirely other reality. The snow-covered stairs, the hallway shrouded with foggy, blowing snow; each moment is like something out of a dream. And then soon comes the paranoia, which includes great little sound design thrown on top of everything else. The score sits perfectly beneath all the camerawork. It pulls the viewer in with an ambient sound, swelling, fading, and helps to put us in a nostalgic frame of mind while we continue to watch on, wondering what will come next: dreams, or reality. These elements come together to create a strange atmosphere; strange in a good way. Barr’s directorial choices work well alongside the cinematography to create a space that feels like one step in a different direction through this house will take you to a whole other world. Short films by nature only have a limited window to take you inside their universe. A Late Thaw immerses us into this story so easily, so quickly, that it’s a seamless transition. One minute you’re here, the next you find yourself walking through this dreamy, cloudy house, snow falling, the air thick. A remarkable aesthetic overall, which is something I’m big on. Although the story is excellent, it could’ve been only half decent an the technical work on this film would still make it highly enjoyable.
Screenshot 2016-05-07 at 12.50.17 PM
When it comes to the titular thaw, we find out Tara has been trying to move on from a previous tragedy. Only now, with the new house and all its happiness, her old grief is thawing and working its way up to, and out of, the surface. The film’s imagery with the snow and all the frostiness is so dark without needing horror. This personal drama about a woman is moving in that it explores very touchy, tragic memories. Certainly the snow and all that are partly representative of the old lover and their apparent death on a mountain, climbing somewhere; it’s as if that atmosphere has moved itself into her house, mentally and visually we see it literally. At the same time, the snow buries, it covers up and conceals. So the further things progress in the film, the more snow covered and cloudy things become, until even Tara finds her own face and eyes covered. In a way, the snow is also grief.
Further than that those memories are evoked with interesting images and writing. For instance, at first you’ll believe the wall climbing scene is something out of place. I did, and found myself questioning what exactly was the purpose – other than to look neat – to have this woman and her friend at a rockwall climbing spot. Then as the short moves by and gets closer to the end you begin understanding why Barr decided to include this moment, as it becomes totally relevant to Tara’s plot. Even better, there’s a terribly creepy scene which sees Tara sort of falling further and further into the hole of memory, calling back the climbing. This is one of my favourite moments, it is so unique that I felt the scene stick with me long after the film finished. Again, there’s no outright horror here, yet Barr lets the psychological terror seep through the drama at the center of this story to make everything edgy, uneasy, hard to predict. The imagery is so damn powerful, I had to go back and watch this a couple times after my first viewing.
Screenshot 2016-05-07 at 12.49.09 PMScreenshot 2016-05-07 at 12.51.08 PM
Personally, this is one of my favourite short films I’ve ever seen. There are a handful or two of shorts that are just near perfect in my mind; this is one of those movies. Kim Barr is definitely talented, and it may be her work in other areas before coming into her own as director which helped shape some of her style. I’d dig a full-length feature from Barr because if this is any indication of her talent, any studio would be glad to have someone with the writing skills she possesses, along with the fact she has a knowledgeable grasp on her role as director. Keep an eye out – if you get the chance to see A Late Thaw, do it. You will not regret these 14 minutes. And maybe, like it did me, the film just might leave a mark, too.

CLOSER TO GOD and the Ethics of Science

Closer to God. 2014. Directed and Written by Billy Senese. Starring Jeremy Childs, Shelean Newman, Shannon Hoppe, David Alford, and Isaac Disney. LC Pictures. Unrated. 81 minutes. Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller.

★★★
affiche-closer-to-god-2014-1
Usually I keep my ear out and head up for any new horror films that sound different, or for whatever reason pique my interest. Closer to God went on the checklist of my IMDB account a long while back, before there was ever a trailer, any pictures online. It was just a poster. Not the one I’ve put on here, but a simple red background with a black outlined tree extending its roots out underneath down towards the movie’s title.
I was surprised when I finally got to see Closer to God because, though it’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, the film was really interesting. Billy Senese, both writer and director, crafts a decent tale of horror, which acts as a film metaphor for the fears people get over human cloning, genetic manipulation, and the ethical/moral implications and ramifications of these practices. While it very literally tackles the subject, the ideas work well with the horror element of the film. This turns out to be more horror than science fiction, even if it wishes to be more the latter.

Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs) has completed the first successful cloning of a human being. He creates a baby girl – Elizabeth. She is a full-on experiment; made for research and genetic modifications. Not to mention little Elizabeth is made with the genetics of Dr. Reed/an unnamed individual. Naturally everyone is outraged. People hate what the doctor is doing, but they’ve got no idea what else is going on inside the house.
While the storm of angry people push on, morally outraged by the new cloned baby, another child is causing trouble – Ethan.

The housekeepers at Dr. Reed’s home, Mary and Richard (Shelean Newman and Richard Alford), are trying to take care of this boy, troubled little Ethan, who seems to be proving too much. Things only get more difficult, and it turns out Ethan is growing, he’s hurting, and he might just want to get the hell out of the good doctor’s family home.
75-3Something I’m a little tired of is all these indie films, horror or science fiction, which try to be the next Frankenstein. I love Mary Shelley – I’ve read the book, loved it, and I even enjoy the Kenneth Branagh starred-directed version. What I’m sick of is the fact that either critics try to claim a movie is drawing from Shelley, or the film itself relies too heavily on those comparisons within the script. I mean, there’s even a point where we see someone hold up a sign that says – you guessed it – FRANKENSTEIN! And someone literally calls Dr. Reed – Dr. Frankenstein.
Plus, Dr. Reed’s first name is Victor. Y’know, it just feels like a thick layer of cheese over top of what could be a good enough film on its own.
maxresdefaultIt’s a tired, tired comparison. And I get it, the obviousness of it sits right in front of us. I’ve discussed the ethics of human cloning enough via university courses in Philosophy and English Literature to last me a full lifetime.
My biggest issue is that, by relying on the comparison between its own material and Shelley’s Frankenstein, Senese creates an environment where there’s too much reliance on the comparison itself. Frequently the Frankenstein connection comes out, as I mentioned before, and it’s so often that the whole concept becomes annoying. Senese easily created an atmosphere of dread and tension without invoking Shelley, over and over.

When Closer to God really works, though, it works.
A scene truly got to me a little ways in; when Mary (Shelean Newman) goes up to bring Ethan some food. We get a glimpse of him in the corner – you can only barely make out his face, but it is one of pure evil, or emptiness, a void lacking any humanity. He doesn’t make a sound, Mary is clearly unnerved. She leaves, but just as she does and the camera moves back with her Ethan comes running out to the table, smashing things, and screaming in this utterly soul crushing voice that cuts through your skin and your bones. I like to think I’ve seen a lot of horror – in general I’m up to almost 4,100 films in total – but this moment genuinely frightened the shit out into my pants. I was wide-eyed and actually had to text my girlfriend, who is out on a Saturday night unlike her cinephile boyfriend, to tell her how scary the damn scene came off. A great, great bit of subtle horror.

There’s another creepy, brief scene I like, but it’s not nearly as terrifying. There’s an almost horror-beauty to it: Dr. Reed heads out to the gate in front of his house and watches as protesters lob burning plastic baby dolls over and into the yard, just about right at his feet. The way Childs simply stands there, watching these flaming plastic heaps come at him – it’s eerily appealing.
Closer-God-protestor-yelling-700x467As most of the reviews so far have pointed out, the perhaps greatest part of the entire film is the central performance by Jeremy Childs as Doctor Victor Reed. He is an unconventional looking guy to be the lead of a movie – not that I care because I love movies that feel like their characters are real people. There are just so many perfect moments where Childs pulls off the doctor so well. A great exchange happens after SPOILER AHEAD Mary is killed by Ethan – Victor and his wife Claire (Shannon Hoppe) have a short yet rough argument, and Childs does great work with the dialogue between them. He is believable, and that’s what sells the character of Dr. Reed; no matter how cheerily named after Shelley’s titular doctor he may be.
I think if the lead in Closer to God had to have been someone weaker there are tons of scenes that wouldn’t have been able to carry the emotion they did. The chemistry between Childs and Hoppe as the troubled married couple is good stuff. Too many independent films suffer from having wooden acting, along with bad dialogue. These two really sell the fact they are a married couple, it feels like a bad relationship of course, especially considering the circumstances of the film, but it’s real, it doesn’t come out forced and you don’t see two actors acting as husband and wife. The movie is immersive, and certainly the fact Senese wrote a decent script helped that along.
screen_shot_2015-07-08_at_9.51.22_am.pngIn the end, I think what detracts most from this movie being great is the fact it doesn’t pay out on all the ideas of morality and ethics surrounding the original premise. We get excellently developed tension, a slow and steady pace for most of the film, and then it devolves from what could’ve been, at times, fairly profound horror/science fiction.
Instead of doing more with the science fiction angle, Closer to God drops off into complete horror. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either, I am a horror hound. But I can’t help feeling at least slightly cheated, in a sense. There’s a promise of grand concepts here. The finale of the film becomes a typical sort of thing – I don’t want to fully ruin the ending or anything. Mainly, I love how creepy the Ethan character was, I just don’t think Billy Senese went anywhere innovative or fresh with what he was doing. Essentially all those Frankenstein comparisons never truly go anywhere, all paths leading to a slasher film-like conclusion.

I think Closer to God, for all its creepiness and tension and the incredibly believable performance by Jeremy Childs, is still only a 3 out of 5 star film for me. There was so much promise in the whole project, but I feel as if Billy Senese squandered a lot of what he’d built up. Again, the comparisons to Mary Shelley’s famous gothic horror novel is an angle I’m frankly done with unless it gets taken somewhere useful.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some beyond creepy scenes in this film. So much of the material involving the failed experiment of Dr. Victor Reed’s that is his “son” Ethan could have really went into incredible territory. Unfortunately, that territory never gets explored. What Senese does with the material is creep us out awhile and then go for the jugular with a far too heavy handed approach at the finish.
Check this out if you’d like to see some interesting horror/science fiction, but know this: it is mostly generic horror you will find. Even with the supremely creepy bits sprinkled throughout, Closer to God is closer to nothing special. See it for, if anything, Jeremy Childs, and a handful of eerie scenes.

THE STRANGER is Eerie Indie Vampire Horror

The Stranger. 2015. Directed and Written by Guillermo Amoedo. Starring Cristobal Tapia Montt, Ariel Levy, Luis Gnecco, and Nicolas Duran. Sobras International Pictures. Unrated. 93 minutes. Drama/Horror/Mystery.

★★★1/2
the-stranger-poster Eli Roth, though some may say different, is a great talent. I enjoy his movies because they’re fun. I really enjoy him as a producer, as well. He manages to find people with interesting little concepts and help the directors/writers/et cetera bring them to life. One such film is the latest from writer-director Guillermo Amoedo, The Stranger, which is now available through VOD platforms.

The film has a fairly simply premise we’ve seen before – the titular character, the ever mysterious Stranger (Cristobal Tapia Montt) ends up in town looking for a woman. One night, a group of idiots confront him for no other reason than boredom. Peter (Nicolas Duran) watches these same idiots leave the man for dead, beaten, stabbed in the street. After the group leaves, Peter heads back and takes the Stranger home to his place. From there, the Stranger’s arrival in this small town creates a number of problems, all falling over one another, and everyone he comes in contact will be affected.

This isn’t a perfect film, nor can say I it’s perfect to me, but it’s a real great little independent horror. One of The Stranger‘s biggest strengths is that, while still remaining balls-out horror, it does not push too far too soon. Good horror can be like good food – way too much at once and it’s no good, boring even. There are good hardcore horrors, but the absolute greatest, in my opinion, are those which deal out equal doses of horror and of character, good dialogue, and a certain feel. For the most part, The Stranger has those.
4guide_the-strangerMy biggest complaint is the dialogue. Some of it is pretty good – I like a lot of the exchanges between the Stranger and Peter, especially nearing the end, for reasons you’ll understand once you see the film. The cop, played by Luis Gnecco, is my issue. I don’t know what’s worse, Gnecco or the written character. I think the dialogue was really stiff when it comes to the cop, and there were some cringeworthy moments between him and his son, played by Ariel Levy. Gnecco doles out some terribly stunted, flat, and downright boring delivery. To his defense, I really don’t think that character was written well, along with the other police officer who seemed highly one-dimensional.
Other than that, I was impressed with the acting. Particularly I thought Cristobal Tapia Montt was excellent in the role of the Stranger. He played very subtle, laid back, which gave the character a great vibe; instead of the whole ‘tough guy outsider’ he seemed more fragile, even when angry, and the brief outbursts from the regular subtlety he conveyed were still contained, they were like a scared and wounded snake. I think if the Stranger had been miscast there could have been major problems, the character needed the qualities Montt brought personally. Very expressive actor.
THE_STRANGERI like that there weren’t jump scares and all the typical bells and whistles modern horror movies often move towards. This one bucks the trend, or more like what’s become a habit. The atmosphere of dread builds towards intense scenes or shots, in turn this makes the fear more visceral than many modern horrors with shiny cinematography, jump scares, pretty looking actors, and CGI buckets of blood. I like that there weren’t jump scares and all the typical bells and whistles modern horror movies often move towards. This one bucks the trend, or more like what’s become a habit. The atmosphere of dread builds towards intense scenes or shots, in turn this makes the fear more visceral than many modern horrors with shiny cinematography, jump scares, pretty looking actors, and CGI buckets of blood.
The slow reveal of what’s really going on behind The Stranger‘s story is what propels this movie past a lot of recent efforts. Even once you’ve figured out what’s happening, who the Stranger is, the rest of the film doesn’t come off as played out or tired. From the beginning things get going. In the first fifteen minutes I was actually thinking to myself “this is a bit too vague”. However, by the time I thought that the mystery quickly wrapped me up. The more things are given out to us in terms of backstory, the more I found myself thrilled with the suspense, wondering when we’d find out exactly who or what the Stranger might be. There are some slowburns which really don’t end up being worth how slow the burn was, but Amoedo does a fantastic job creating a perfect atmosphere.
the_stranger_stillI can safely say The Stranger is a 3.5 out of 5 star film. There are things I would’ve loved to see changed; mainly my problems with the cops, particularly Luis Gnecco, and the dialogue. One thing I also keep coming back to is that I wonder why there was a need they felt to set the film in Canada? I’m a Canadian, and love to see fiction of any kind set in my country, but it just struck me odd after watching that there was any reason the filmmakers would have set it in Canada. Not that it’s a bad thing, just strange. Especially seeing as how they didn’t shoot it in Canada.
I highly recommend giving this movie a shot. The main character does a great job, as does the actor who plays Peter. The dialogue them both is spot on. There is plenty of horror, it’s just doled out sparingly, when it needs to be. So those of you horror hounds who need the blood, hang in there – blood will come. The make-up effects are so damn solid; later on, the character Caleb (Levy) has some injuries and they are incredibly nasty looking, stellar practical effects.
I don’t want to say exactly what “type” of movie this is – you’ll figure that out once the plot moves along. Let’s just say it’s one we’ve seen plenty of. Yet this doesn’t feel like it is jumping on the trend or anything, this is a genuinely fresh take. Amoedo isn’t exactly offering up completely new visions of this sub-genre in horror, but I do think he’s given us something at least not as predictable as others, and certainly not squeamish – late in the film there is one severely nasty little kill, emphasis on little, which harkens back to ballsy films like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 containing a kill along similar but different lines.

Snatch this up on VOD – I love seeing independent horror making waves lately. There seems to be a change of tide, people are recognizing, as those of us who love the genre have always known, that horror is not all just blood, guts, killers. There is more to it, and the indie horror scene in the past few years now has been really churning out the good product; not all, but plenty. So support this, hopefully you like it, and equal hope to seeing more fun, innovative ventures in the horror genre from interesting minds like Guillermo Amoedo.

IT FOLLOWS: S.T.G (Sexually Transmitted Ghosts)

It Follows. 2015. Directed & Written by David Robert Mitchell.
Starring Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Kelly Height, Daniel Zovatto, and Jake Weary. Northern Lights Films. 14A. 100 minutes. Horror/Mystery.

★★★★1/2
it-follows-poster

There’s been a massive amount of praise roll in for David Robert Mitchell’s new horror It Follows, and it seems equal portions of people trying to say it isn’t what the hype is preaching. My take? Mitchell doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but he does a damn fine job at making it spin smooth, intense, and a little better than the rest.

For the uninitiated, those who’ve yet to get a chance to see this film, It Follows starts with Jay Height (Maika Monroe who many know from Adam Wingard’s incredible action throwback, The Guest) who is a regular young woman – she goes to classes, hangs with her friends, and is seeing a seemingly nice guy named Hugh (Jake Weary). One night, Jay and Hugh are at the movies when he starts acting strangely, talking about a girl in a yellow dress who doesn’t look to be present when Jay searches for her. They leave, date over. The next time they go out, Jay sleeps with Hugh in the back of his car. Afterwards, Hugh suddenly throws a rag over her mouth and the next thing Jay knows she is waking up, strapped in to a wheelchair. Hugh explains he has ‘passed it on to her’ and that it will follow her, try to kill her – if it does, the thing will only circle back to him, so he warns her of some ground rules he has discovered. From there, things spiral out of control for Jay, and her friends are along for the ride. Everyone believes Jay was sexually assaulted, but the truth is far, far worse.

When I first heard of the basic premise I was almost reminded of the great graphic novel Black Hole by Charles Burns, which deals with a group of kids who encounter a very dangerous, strange disease being passed around through sex. Of course, the comic goes into a very different direction, but it sort of seemed like there was a creepy, similar vibe to both stories. It Follows is much more of a ghost story, obviously. One of the things I enjoyed most was the fact only Jay, or whoever is afflicted plus the person who has passed it on to them, can see ‘it’. There’s a great scene where Mitchell puts it to use when the group of friends are all hanging out at the beach, trying to help Jay as best they can with what they believe is just nutty behaviour after the supposed assault by Hugh. They all sit around casually, and Jay has her back to a trail coming out of the woods. Slowly a figure appears and we can tell with each passing second this is ‘it’ and not some random person. Very effective.
Leading out of that, I love how Mitchell really played around with this idea, of how the afflicted are the only ones who can see ‘it’. There are certain scenes you can notice a person in the background, their step slightly skewed and walk not quite right, they move at a snail’s pace, and you’re left to wonder – is that ‘it’? The ending also plays off pieces of this, but I don’t want to ruin anything on that end.
Even further, Mitchell also pokes fun at this concept, and directly at his own movie, which provides great tongue-in-cheek moments. There’s one exceptional part I laughed at hard when they track Hugh down again, discovering his name is not even Hugh but Jeff – he’s in the middle of explaining the whole concept of ‘it’ when a girl walks up on them, and frightened he yells out asking if anyone else sees her, to which they all reply ‘yes’. It’s always fun to see a solid horror film, or any film for that matter, poke fun at its own concepts and logic.it-follows-3When it comes to the horror aspect of the film, a lot of people who don’t find it scary, that’s fine. I thought it was very creepy. One of the first moments when Jay realizes someone, or something, is following her is downright terrifying. The actors playing ‘it’ do a phenomenal job, even though they don’t even speak. I just find the whole concept of the slow-moving ghost, zombie, whatever, a real creepshow – it’s been said time and time again, but it really is a great metaphor for death and how eventually, somehow, somewhere, some way, death is going to come for us all. Tired old cliche? Maybe. Works, though. The look of the film, the atmosphere, and the score combined all make for a great flick. Beautiful cinematography, which I love to see from horror films; it isn’t glossed over like an Anchor Bay remake, it looks gritty and raw and real but captured wonderfully. Disasterpiece does the score and it reminds me definitely of something a couple decades old yet still with a fresh, electronic sound. These qualities make It Follows one of the better looking and sounding horrors out there in recent years. 23-it-follows.w1200.h630There’s only one point of the film I didn’t like – when they’re at the beach. It isn’t because the scenes are bad, or the writing, or acting – all great. What I didn’t like were a couple of the ‘it’ appearances. For the first bunch of times we see ‘it’, the make-up and look is super unsettling. Then at the beach, there are a couple of the ‘it’ moments where the look is like a bad rip-off of Asian Horror, with the hollow eyes and the black around the sockets.
It felt as if, for some reason, Mitchell wanted to expand on ‘it’, but instead of keeping with a similar style he tried something different. By no means does it take away from the film overall. It did make those moments less frightening. In particular, there’s a tall version of ‘it’ who shows up, and had they kept with the practical looking make-up of the earlier appearances it would’ve been mind-blowing scary for me. That’s the only real nitpick I have. Some people have problems with the “monster logic” of the film. I don’t see much trouble there. I also don’t want to go into explaining why I think there’s not much to pick away at because it will ruin things, so if you do have opinions on their logic – comment, let’s have a discussion! Even when I love a film I can always admit if someone has a good point that counters my own. it-follows-2All in, I give It Follows a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. If Mitchell kept the same look throughout for ‘it’, in all forms, I would’ve said this is a full knockout. But once again, this doesn’t ruin anything. It’s still a really solid film. I’m a horror fanatic and often I like a few movies along the way others think are trash. I just can’t see this being one of them. Sure, people won’t like everything the same way, but in a state of film like we are in today, with all the terrible horror films being pumped out, all the subpar found footage [I love the sub-genre yet there are only a sparse few actually worth seeing], it’s great to see someone trying to do things a little differently. People have also whined about how the movie seems to try so hard to be retro? I don’t get that. Sure, the soundtrack has a retro sound to it, harkening back to the 1980s and genre classics like Maniac, I just don’t think there’s anything else in the movie people can say has that feel. It’s very modern, I’d almost say it has an urban gothic feel with all the rundown neighbourhoods and buildings and the lives of the young people in it. See it for yourself, be the judge. One thing’s for sure – Maika Monroe is building a great name for herself, which I hope continues as she did a great job with this film. Solid acting, writing, and for those who don’t pretend to be jaded [I’ve seen almost 4,000 films, the majority of which are horror – I’m not desensitized, so stop trying to be tough about movies and just be creeped out!] you’ll get a couple fun scares plus lots of creepy weirdness.