The Wicker Man. 1973. Directed by Robin Hardy. Screenplay by Anthony Shaffer; based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner.
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Water, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters, Walter Carr, Ian Campbell, & Roy Boyd. British Lion Film Corporation.
Rated R. 94 minutes.
DISCLAIMER: as of this writing it’s been 43 years since the release of this classic, so if you haven’t see it I really don’t even need to tell you about any possible SPOILERS! Yet I do so anyway. This review is going to talk about the ending later. If you head on through expect for that to get talked of openly. This is your final warning.
Upon hearing Robin Hardy passed today, I was torn up. Honestly there’s nothing else he’s done that I’ve particularly been interested in. It’s the influence of his mysterious folk horror The Wicker Man that endeared me to him permanently. When I was young I remember catching this movie on some channel, whether it was Show Case here in Canada I can’t be sure; likely, but not positive. I remember how strange and dreamy the whole thing was, and the way in which its songs mixed into the creepy story to make something altogether different from anything else I’d ever seen at the time. So as an early teen Hardy influenced me greatly with a single hour and a half of film.
There are a few reasons for Hardy’s influential touch. First, it wasn’t until about age thirteen that I finally shed the influence of my Roman Catholic upbringing, after my parents were smart enough to give me a choice – church or not. I saw this movie around age eleven, maybe twelve at most. It was before that choice of mine to stop going to church and taking communion, all that. The religious elements at play in this film were incredibly interesting to me. Second off all, Hardy’s finale is one of the single most horrific sequences of all time. To me it is the epitome of folk horror, including the gradual build up to those moments. This is a successful horror movie that does not rely on an entirely physical element to make things scary. Rather, The Wicker Man pries up your skin and slithers beneath it, both disturbing you and even making you smile (or laugh) from time to time.
One thing’s for sure: imitators be damned, there is NOTHING like this one.
Shaffer has done some good work other than this film, mainly Frenzy, Sleuth, Murder on the Orient Express come to mind. This is his crowning achievement. There’s of course the inclusion of David Pinner’s novel Ritual, but his work together with Hardy made for some terribly interesting story and characters. Forget the simple fact all that folk music thrown in is so unique and fun, Shaffer makes this paganism-styled religion out on the fictional Scottish island Summerisle partly unnerving and also an equal part intriguing. You want to know more, and as Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) discovers more then you sort of want to know less – in the best, mystery-horror hybrid kind of way. I love that there’s a great deal of attention paid to the Celtic traditions, paganism, as well as drops of history here and there. Shaffer uses all kinds of things, such as the Middle English folk tune “Sumer Is Icumen In” (you can find a proper copy of this in A Middle English Anthology edited by Ann S. Haskell) that you’ll find comes at a crucial moment. The song is a terrifying sound to hear when it’s sung. It is also very poignant for that scene, too. If you know a book called The Golden Bough by James Frazer then you can see how much Shaffer drew from when writing this script. What I love is that he creates a purely organic way for us to discover this Summerisle religion alongside Howie. Instead of feeling like a terrible load of exposition, while still being completely expository, the journey on which Howie goes to figure out what’s happening allows us to sift through the pagan island religion with interest. Other screenplays might make that feel boring. Shaffer manages to keep the pacing steady. Then you can also count the interesting musical pieces as a way to make everything feel compelling. Between the unique atmosphere, the songs and the dancing and the pagan-like rituals we witness, all the odd visuals (those first animal masks are horrifying), there’s enough to make this more than weird for weird’s sake.
Some of the more enjoyable aspects stem from the theme of religion v. paganism, the centrepiece of the screenplay. Howie is a direct parallel to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), whose hippy-like vision of religion appals the lawman, a staunch Christian. There are some genuine looks of horror courtesy of Woodward’s talented acting which really make you see how devastating the idea of pagan worship is to the straight laced, God fearing Christian worshipper. The awful irony is that Woodward’s Christianity leads him into curiousness and duty that is his downfall. That apprehension and judgement becomes a gateway into paranoia. In the end, this Christian paranoia re: heathenism alongside Howie’s dutiful police sensibilities combine in a lethal cocktail of curiosity. Something that’s worth noting is that on his way toward the finale, and his doom, Howie momentarily loses himself in the heathen pagan traditions: whilst wearing the disguise to follow Summerisle and his people, Howie sheds his Christian repression and slaps a few women on the ass gleefully. If only for a second he forgot his devout Christianity and let loose with the heathens. Probably all for the best, as the poor Scottish policeman isn’t long for this world, anyway.
As I’ve mentioned, The Wicker Man is successfully filled with horror not because of any blood or gore, nor any jump scares. It isn’t due to anything typical. All the fun elements like the songs eventually transform into something treacherous and evil. By the final scene, singing is nothing but a vortex into madness. The masks and the pagan symbols are appealing early on, like the marks of island/small town charm. Later, as Howie discovers himself the ultimate fool – perfectly dressed just like Punch, eternal fool himself – those animal masks and all the nature imagery, it’s positively chilling. Christopher Lee gives a charismatic performance that set him so far apart from the typical Hammer Horror roles it’s amazing, and his determined attitude as Lord Summerisle is nothing if not psychopathic. Likewise, Woodward plays Howie perfectly, and for all his foolishness you truly pity him, especially once he sees the eponymous structure from which the film takes its name. Robin Hardy will always be remembered, fondly, for his weird and wild The Wicker Man. It is not merely a load of hype. It is a fantastic piece of folk horror and an unforgettably unique moment in cinematic history. Relish that. I do, every so often, and as damned often as I can.
We’ll miss you, Mr. Hardy. Thank you for your strange vision; it is forever a fever dream in my memory.
The Demolisher. 2015. Directed & Written by Gabriel Carrer.
Starring Ry Barrett, Tianna Nori, Jessica Vano, Duncan McLellan, Gerrit Sepers, Bruce Turner, Duane Frey, Andrew Bussey, Owen Fawcett, Rich Piatkowski, & Reese Eveneshen. Latefox Pictures.
Not Rated. 85 minutes.
Sometimes the hype of a film precedes it with way too much intensity. The Demolisher is absolutely one of those types. One of the posters is loaded down with so many quotes there’s barely enough room for the poster itself; already utilizing a minimalist style having the main character stand in a meaningful pose by himself, as if representing everything about the film. Yet these quotes, and from reputable sources (mostly), confuse me. After watching this I couldn’t figure out exactly how any of these reviewers managed to come up with those words to describe it. Granted, there are aspects here of which I’m a fan. The atmosphere and overall tone, including the score and some of the cinematography, makes for an audio-visual treat you don’t usually get out of small indie films, except for the excellent ones floating around out there. So director-writer Gabriel Carrer milks some of what he can out of The Demolisher. Only, after viewing it a couple times just to make sure I felt solid on my verdict, I can’t help feeling there are missed opportunities for storytelling inside this loaded story, as if the plot never truly kick starts itself and gets going proper. Instead we’re left with 85 minutes loaded down with intense, booming music in the score from Glen Nicholls, and some good cinematography out of Martin Buzora – too often marred by the use of slow motion at times – rather than a supposedly John Carpenter-esque, low budget Michael Mann flick, as the poster touts. The influences are there, no doubt. But the quality is far from that hallowed territory.
A cable/internet repairman named Bruce (Ry Barrett) takes care of his disabled wife Samantha (Tianna Nori), a former police officer whose injuries came as a result of a gang-related shooting. Slowly, Bruce devolves into his own world where he takes to the streets at night, donning riot gear and a vicious appetite for violence. More and more the nights bleed into his daytime life. He becomes a vigilante of sorts. Except soon enough, his mental health falls apart. And in the daytime, his violence comes out. After killing a man during a house-call repair, Bruce begins to truly go mad.
When he focuses his disturbing, violent psyche on a young girl named Marie (Jessica Vano), his world crumbles into a frenzy of chaotic madness.
I’m just not sure, above all else, what Carrer is trying to say or do with this movie. What I enjoy is that we get an indie film action flick, as there are several great chase and fight sequences. Added to that is the level of brutality and outright horror inflicted by Bruce, a.k.a the titular Demolisher. So what I do get is that Carrer perhaps wanted to do some action-styled sequences on a lower budget, and they turn out insanely awesome at times; when the slow motion doesn’t rear its head too often.
But aside from action, what’s the point of it all? The Demolisher sets itself up as an emotionally charged character study focused on Bruce and his descent towards madness. However, along the way his journey becomes unclear. At first I imagined there was something to his vigilantism. Or is that merely a gateway into this action-oriented horror? Still not sure. If it’s simply a way to make Bruce into this hulking, always stalking killer like a Death Wish Bronson crossed with Carpenter’s Michael Myers, then it works. Sort of, not always. If there’s something more profound to the journey of Bruce, I’ve yet to figure that out. Not saying the elements are all there to make this anything profound, but it feels like there’s something more this film wants to do or wants to be. Somehow, Carrer loses it along the way and The Demolisher transforms into a lazy bit of horror trying to masquerade as partly arthouse. Never is a mark hit either way. And the finale downright makes no sense to me, so at every corner I’m at a loss for compliments.
All style over substance here. Except, even when the filmmakers are trying for style, there are moments this does not work well for them. As I said, the slow motion bits were a tad too prevalent, and they did nothing to enhance things. Other than give us some more time to watch the scenery and the nice-looking cinematography. Outside of that, this technique only makes things look boring, as if we’re watching any other wannabe action-thriller; over and over, the action is slowed down, to the point these brief bits are painful to watch.
I do love some of the filter work, such as a quick couple shots of Bruce in his riot gear, bathed in a reddish wave of light. Definitely Mann-inspired. But these few types of scenes are limited, and they don’t add anything overly special to anything. With the amazing, nerve-wracking score from Nicholls pulsing constantly, it’s a shame the visuals never amount to much in the end. There could’ve been so much more accomplished with the film’s aesthetics. Unfortunately, it’s all for nought.
This movie gets a 1&1/2-star rating. I can’t give it any more without hating myself. Obviously the visuals and the audio make things exciting to hear, and to look at. But none of that is enough to lift this film out of the muck and mire. At first, you expect The Demolisher will rock you with an amazing style. It does nothing except lull you into hoping at some point the plot will break out and do big things. Never happens. Don’t walk into this relying on any of the outrageous quotes put on the poster. In fact, I chose to track down a totally different one to use on this review because I will not let those totally unrealistic expectations poison you. See it, judge for yourself. But this one’s a real rough watch. And not in an awesome horror-like fashion; just rough and forgettable.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston. 2005. Directed & Written by Jeff Feuerzeig.
Starring Daniel Johnston, Laurie Allen, Brian Beattie, Louis Black, David Fair, Jad Fair, Don Goede, Matt Groening, Gibby Haynes, Sally Johnston Reid, Bill Johnston, Dick Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Margie Johnston, and Ken Lieck. Complex Corporation/This Is That Productions.
Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.
Documentaries are everywhere, on every sort of subject. Anything in the world you can think of, there’s probably a documentary on the subject. Certain documentary films interest me because of how I connect with them personally, others are just intriguing and interesting topics that will draw me in.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston is one of the former types. I’d never actually heard of Daniel Johnston before this movie. Other people I know had heard of him, but not me. Either way, I dove into this documentary because I knew that Johnston suffered from mental illness; that’s the single thing I knew of him. Identifying with him, as both a hopeful artist and a man trying to negotiate life with a severe form of depression, this film spoke to me. While I’m not a fan of all his songs, there are pieces of music here and there which really reach out to me. More than that, to see Johnston struggle through being an artist, growing up, living life, all the while battling manic depression desperately. There are moments you might find yourself grinding your teeth sitting there almost feeling the pain. Certain scenes are funny, lighthearted. A huge mixed bag here that collides into making one of the most personal, wrenching, devastatingly awesome documentaries about a musician you’re likely to ever see.
The most fascinating part about Daniel Johnston is the fact of his own rawness, his real and unabashed open qualities concerning his personality. At one point, on MTV no less during 1985, he tells the camera: “This is my album Hi, How Are You? and I was having a nervous breakdown when I recorded it.” He says it in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s hard not admire, or laugh, or smile. In just about every last scene where he’s talking, you find him divulging the most personal, inner secrets about the darkest corner of his life. And coupled with that, the way Daniel performs is different than anyone else I’ve ever seen. You can witness both the intensity of his musical ability, as well as his wildly nervous personality. He is visibly nervous each time a performance comes up, from his younger days to his later shows. Always there’s this fear inside him, which is actually endearing a lot of the time.
So it’s no surprise when, later, Daniel ends up having an actual serious breakdown. He becomes violent and crazy after experimenting with acid/LSD, which first began at a Butthole Surfers show. Slowly things deteriorate, as Daniel starts to get arrested, the police have altercations with him, he even causes disturbances in his family. Then there are various struggles. There were people who worked for him/with him, re: his career, who all tried their best to help him, whether that was committing him to a mental institution or getting him shows to play or whatever else could’ve been done. All the while throughout the history of Johnston, we’re seeing edits of him talking in various recordings (from dubbed tapes he did himself to video shot of him by others). It’s a strange conglomeration of things coming together to present his life to us. Best of all, even in the most intense, scariest moments of discussing Daniel and his condition, director Jeff Feuerzeig preserves a sense of respect and delicacy that shelters us from looking at Johnston like a freak. He isn’t, especially considering how mental illness is becoming less and less stigmatized today; this is a raw and honest look at someone’s struggle. But again, it doesn’t come off as “Look at how fucked up Daniel is“. There is a tenderness about the way Feuerzeig offers up glimpses of Daniel and his difficult life.
You’ll find it hard to deny the power of this documentary. No matter if you hate Johnston’s music, or if you think he’s a genius (I don’t think; I do find him an incredibly unique talent), if you have a heart beating in your chest and a soul deep down inside, this film will absolutely shake you. In the last 45 minutes or so, the devastating details come out. Such as the time Daniel thought he actually was Casper the Friendly Ghost, took the keys out of his father’s small plane in which they flying and tossed them out into the air, prompting his dad to make a crash landing. Luckily, they made it out of the situation with only minor injuries, but to think of what could’ve happened. It is a really frightening thought. That’s one of the turning points in the documentary, as not only do we realize the extent and depth of his illness, we also see a slight change in Daniel. Shortly afterwards, he starts to come down out of his religious fervor, his hallucinations and other similar delusions. He probably didn’t lose his faith. He just understood the gravity of his own condition. Today, he still struggles with issues of manic depression, but I feel after some of the more insane moments in his journey, there’s a part of him which accepts all of the ups and downs, in one big package. We go along that journey. Maybe in the end, the documentary’s biggest aspiration is to show people the mania inside music. Often people want the crazy, unstable musicians out there doing their thing and entertaining, but forget the human people inside these celebrities, inside the fame, deep down at the core. The humanity can’t ever be forgotten; this, if anything, is what Daniel Johnston and the film of his life has to teach.
This is a 5 star, flawless documentary. One of my favourites ever made. Because despite what you may feel concerning Daniel Johnston’s music, you cannot watch this without feeling something. To understand the mania and depression of others it’s necessary for people to be open, honest, willing to expose themselves to the world. It just so happens Johnston is one of the people willing to open himself up, like a living cadaver, and through this film he allows us a window into the damaged soul inside him. There are so many depressed and mentally ill people who could benefit from people coming out, talking of their own illnesses, their own struggles. We see so much of the devastation of unchecked mental illness in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but in a roundabout way Daniel lets us understand how severe depression (or other similar mental afflictions) can be conquered: through love, honesty, openness, understanding, and yes, a dose of medication. There’s nothing ever glorious about this documentary, perhaps something which sets it apart from a lot of other biographical movies about musicians. Just remember – it isn’t all about the music, it is about the man. That is a point this film makes, over and over again. You may want all the madness that goes into the music, but don’t forget the men and women behind the music, their lives, what brings them to their talent and what gives us the unforgettable songs they’ve made.
Cinemax’s The Knick
Season 2, Episode 1: “Ten Knots”
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler
* For a review of the next episode, “You’re No Rose” – click here
I’ve only just now decided to start reviews for The Knick‘s second season. Being a huge fan of the first, I thought it’d be fun to get in on the action.
So, after the wild events of the first season in New York – in particular the gutpunch of the final episode as Dr. John W. Thackery (Clive Owen) finds himself being weened off one drug, only to be weened onto the dreaded heroin – Season 2’s opener “Ten Knots” begins with a nice fade in on ole Thack’s eyes; fitting shot to start. But first it’s a blurry image turning into a little girl… then the watery eyes of Thackery emerge.
Then we’re back with Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson). She’s dictating a letter in narration to Thackery. Apparently Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) is “bearing up” according to her while Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) is still kicking about, naturally, as well as young Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) and the steadfast Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland). They’re all getting by best they can. Though, Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) hasn’t returned as of yet, even with his suspension lifted.
Most interesting, as usual, is Dr. Thackery. In a tiny room he works on a woman’s nose. Very gruesome little bit, not to mention Thack looks like something ragged and worn out. Worse, it appears he’s working for vials of drugs. Sad state of affairs.
Another suffering soul, Sister Harriet gets a visit in jail from her Mother Superior (Maryann Plunkett). Mother asks Harriet if the charges against her are true, to which the latter does admit clearly. It’s a sad scene once again, as even the non-religious (like myself) will feel bad for Harriet; she only wanted to do the right thing and help women in need, but this of course turned her against her faith in confrontation. Mother Superior pretty much rubs salt in the wound.
Another actually gruesome scene – at the home of Dr. Gallinger, his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan) is helping to size up her sister Dorothy (Annabelle Attanasio) for some new teeth… teeth which came out of her own face. Eleanor has a grim smile now with sharp and stumpy gums in her mouth. What an image.
Dr. Edwards has a problem with the retina in his left eye. This is obviously troubling regarding Algernon’s abilities as a surgeon, difficulties with his vision would mean even worse things for his career. At the same time, Edwards hopes to become the permanent chief surgeon at The Knickerbocker Hospital while Thack is not around. What I love is that Edwards works well with those who wish to give him a chance. For instance, his relationship with the youthful Dr. Chickering seems pretty great; he gives Bertie the chance to have a hand at doing a surgery, encouraging him not to simply watch and rather get his hands on the work himself.
Only problem is, as always, Edwards is constantly the underdog to everyone at the top – simply because he’s African-American. Foolish nonsense, though, we are at the dawn of the 20th century in this series. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.
But the scene where Dr. Edwards is being completely dismissed by the hospital’s board was downright brutish! Wonderfully acted and written scene. Still nasty, though. He’s clearly an amazing doctor, we as more modern men and women can see this, yet those racist old white men just can’t get it through their heads.
One of my favourite moments in this Season 2 opener is near the end when Dr. Edwards is let in on the photo-op for The Knickerbocker, to the dismay of a few old white men. Such a classic moment! Loved the look on all the faces of the others involved in the photo, actually made me laugh aloud. Also fist pumped a little for Algie, he’s fucking classy.
We watch Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) still continually trying to do good in the world – she carts a load of green vegetables into an obviously poor neighbourhood, Chinatown, and finds herself overrun with people trying to get their hands on a bit of food; pretty dire, no?
Inspecter Jacob Speight (David Fierro) is still kicking around the hospital, up in Barrow’s office, investigating patients records. Certainly we’ll see more about the outbreak of plague, the dirty Black Death, more and more as the episodes get going this season.
Dr. Gallinger heads over to Cromartie Hospital where Thack, under the name Dr. Crutchfield, is wasting away. Turns out Thackery doesn’t want to leave, he’d rather not go back to The Knick. The drugs have taken hold and I doubt they’ll ever let go. He actually tries to convince Everett to infiltrate one of the doctors offices in order to get some cocaine and other drugs for him – a true addict, through and through. Naturally, Gallinger is only there to try and bring Thackery back to the hospital so Dr. Edwards can’t become chief of surgery; therefore Everett could gladly go back and work under him. It’s amazing Everett is willing to work under a drug-adled headcase like Thackery and not Edwards, all because of race. This whole hypocrisy really shows off the idiocy of racists.
Then in a scene later, Thack wakes tied at the wrists. He’s in the belly of a small sailboat, which is headed out on the ocean. Is Dr. Gallinger going to try detoxing Thack?
Way out on the Atlantic, Gallinger tells Thackery about his plans saying he’s going to “fix the mess” Thack drummed up. Only two options Everett says: “Either get well, or jump off.” Everett also gives Thack some rope to tie, saying he’ll know the naughty doctor is back in control if he can tie the ten knots on a wall chart nearby. I thought this was a great touch.
Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) shows up down at the jail where he sits with Sister Harriet. He gives a sort-of-apology. Funny, though, how Harriet shows off her sense of humour in the face of so-called justice. She jokes around with Cleary quite a bit here, and even Cleary acts the serious part of the pair. He’s worried about her, clearly. Even with the weak apology (that wasn’t even really an apology), you can tell Tom wants to help Harriet and plans on doing just that. Can’t wait to see how their subplot plays out because I like these two characters, ever since the beginning of the first season. Even further, both Sullivan and Seymour are great actors playing off one another.
Over in Chinatown, Barrow is meeting with Ping Wu (Perry Yung). Wu is negotiating terms with ole Herman – he needs his women, the prostitutes, to be clean. Barrow’s hoping to whittle down his debt from Season 1 by providing discount services for Wu’s stable of ladies; $2 reduction with each service. The money man at The Knickerbocker is no better than a gangster when it comes down to it.
So happy the continuity of the aesthetic in The Knick overall is being preserved. With Soderbergh as D.P and Cliff Martinez still rocking out his unique, beautiful score in every episode, there’s no way to deny the power of so many scenes. There’s one sequence which begins with an old school boxing match – in a padded ring with no ropes and a big Masonic-like eye/pyramid on it (similar to the American dollar bill) – then leads back out to the boat with Thack/Gallinger… such an amazing piece of filmmaking. Soderbergh gives the grim plot such a distinctive look and feel with his camerawork, on top of that there’s a relentlessly percussive score happening which almost keeps you in a frenzy for the two or three solid minutes of the entire sequence. It does not get any better. More and more of this as the episode heads to a close in the last 20 minutes, proving why this Cinemax series is one of the best to ever grace television. Period.
When the episode’s finale comes, Thack has managed to tie the ten knots for Gallinger. However, at the edge of the boat he sees a sickly looking girl – the one from the beginning of the episode – and starts at her with his wide, bloodshot eyes. It’s clear he is not at all back in full control, nor should we have ever thought so – Everett may be too gullible compared to the addiction that rages inside Thack.
Could the girl be Thack’s daughter, one who may have died? There’s a pain inside him he tries to drown in drugs. Take a look at the girl’s eyes – they look very much similar to those bulging out of Thack. Either way, we’ll figure out more about the force driving him towards drugging himself into a stupor, this season will bring us more characterization. Owen does a fantastic job with the role and I’m always itching for more after an episode finishes.
Can’t wait for the second episode. This is one of my favourite series’ ever, plus it’s one of the best on television right now. Stay tuned for my review of the next episode, “You’re No Rose”, coming again this Friday, October 23rd. Cheers!
Let Us Prey. 2014. Directed by Brian O’Malley. Screenplay by David Cairns & Fiona Watson.
Starring Liam Cunningham, Pollyanna McIntosh, Bryan Larkin, Hanna Stanbridge, Douglas Russell, Niall Greig Fulton, and Jonathan Watson. Creative Scotland/Fantastic Films/Greenhouse Media Investment/Irish Film Board/Makar Productions.
Rated 18A. 92 minutes.
In my review for the recent Last Shift, I talked about how it built a sort of supernatural twist out of the simple premise John Carpenter used in his incredible action-thriller Assault on Precinct 13. There’s a certain amount of the small, claustrophobic feel and location in Let Us Prey which owes very much to Carpenter’s film. Otherwise this is its own beast.
Lots of people no doubt came to this film simply because they’re like me and keep up on all sorts of horror films, whether British, American, German, French, or out of any other country. Others probably saw that Liam Cunningham was on the cast list; many recent fans of his come from his role as Sir Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, on HBO’s Game of Thrones, others of us recognize him also from things like The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Dog Soldiers. Then, even further, are those who came because they’re big fans of Pollyanna McIntosh from films like Offspring/The Woman, and more recently White Settlers.
Regardless of what draws a viewer to Let Us Prey, it ultimately delivers as both a tense and savage indie horror movie. This one has teeth. Not afraid to use them, either.
PC. Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh) is starting on her first shift, overnight, at a tiny police station out in the backwaters of Scotland. As a few prisoners sit in their cells, PC. Heggie and Sergeant MacReady (Douglas Russell – A Lonely Place to Die, Valhalla Rising) keep an eye on things. There’s also PC. Jack Warnock (Bryan Larkin) and PC. Jennifer Mundie (Hanna Stanbridge) who’ve got their own thing going on.
But it’s when a man named Six (Liam Cunningham) shows up at the police station, brought in after seemingly being hit by a car, that everything begins to change. Rachel, her Sergeant, and the other officers have no idea exactly who or what they are dealing with, and over the course of the night Six intends to show them.
I think this review is as good a time to say it as any, given that I find this movie is pretty solid horror.
With any genre really, but in this case horror, my view is that you don’t have to be original in order to be good, great even. As long as you can bring something fresh to even the oldest of concepts, something exciting and interesting, then there’s at least SOMETHING to be mined out of that effort. For instance, like I mentioned about the Carpenter film almost being a prototype for this movie and Last Shift, there’s a way to incorporate that and still be unique on its own. Let Us Prey goes even a much different route than Last Shift, in my opinion, apart from the obvious plot/story differences. What I enjoy here is that there’s horror, yet behind it all there seems to be bits of symbolism. That is to say, other than the heavy handedness in the screenplay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson.
Unfortunately, I don’t get to enjoy it too long. There could have been much more done with all this, instead it ends up mostly as gimmickry for the characters. The barbed wire crown of thorns-style headdress? Obviously a gritty nod to the crucifixion, just fell flat more than anything because it was begging to be used for more than fodder. I’m not even religious, it’s only the fact I feel the imagery/symbolism was there to use and it ended up like discarded pieces of fat trimmed off the meat; good fat, not the useless kind. Anyways, I’m not the one who had the good fortune to come up with this whole plot and story, so kudos to the screenwriters on all the wonderful stuff they DID jam into Let Us Prey.
There are still problems.
I really don’t know exactly why Sergeant MacReady (Russell) turned into the wild religious maniac he did. I guess I do; it doesn’t work for me, though. Totally dig the confrontation between MacReady and Six (Cunningham) where the entire idea of Christianity v. Atheism came out. However, this simply doesn’t account for him going off the way he does. There was some amazingly disturbing subject matter happening in the subplot of MacReady, but it simply wasn’t thought out well enough. All the same, I did enjoy Russell’s performance because he got to go crazy and, though tempting surely, he stopped short of hamming it up.
Part of what I did love here is that this movie is a modern horror with great aesthetic things going on all around; from the visual look to the pounding, unrelenting score.
First off, the cinematography by Piers McGrail, who also shot the excellent looking (though ultimately disappointing) The Canal, is a part of what sets the overall sombre mood and tense tone of the film. Aside from an amazingly shadowy, rich textured look to many of the scenes, the composition of certain shots is absolutely marvellous. Old school style framing with these incredibly proportional shots which can, at times, box you in the way proper horror ought to, anyways.
Second, and just as important, there comes a lusciously composed score out of the mind and hands of Steve Lynch. I’ve never honestly heard anything he’s done, not that I know of, but this score is WOW – downright homage-like, harkening once more back to John Carpenter, and all at once there’s also a totally different quality to the different pieces, a heavier, more terrifying feel. Some moments really gut punch you, in the right sort of sense. Other scenes have this dreadful foreboding skin laying thick over every beautiful shot where the atmosphere seeps into your skin and really entrenches you in the world Let Us Prey presents. Hallmark of a solid horror is always nice atmosphere, in part due to cinematography and score working in conjunction as one creepy unit; this film bears those marks, more than plentifully.
While I don’t agree with certain reviews stating the police station here is a type of Limbo, or anything similar, I think there’s absolutely some Hell-ish stuff which transpires. That leads us into the greatest part about the film: the horror. Pollyanna McIntosh and Liam Cunningham are equally wonderful in their respective roles, but what gets me going about Let Us Prey is good old fashioned horror fun. From the savage antics of Sergeant MacReady, to one of the officers slamming a chair leg through a guy’s head with gory pleasure, there are more than enough moments to satisfy the gorehound horror fans amongst the pack.
The finale is somewhat lacking. Not that I’m a person who needs ALL things wrapped up in the end. However, there’s a bunch of things happening thematically and I don’t feel as if the finale and ending do enough for me in terms of closing off those themes, ones they started in on initially, so there’s a copout in that sense. I didn’t want a bow on top and a neat little present of an ending – there’s something missing. I can’t say what, but the Cairns/Watson script needed a more suitable finish, which left me walking away lacking.
Let Us Prey is a 3.5 star film, for me. The script leaves me a bit lukewarm by the end, but the performances are really great all around – even from the smaller roles – and the horror is downright nasty, as well as relentless for a good deal near the end. The problems I do have with the script are relatively minor. There’s enough tension and excitement throughout this awesome Scottish indie to keep anyone interested. If not, well there are nice frilly little action movies with bright shapes and colours for you to look at: over here we’re watching brutal horror movies!
Kristy. 2014. Directed by Oliver Blackburn. Screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski.
Starring Haley Bennett, Ashley Greene, Lucas Till, Chris Coy, Mike Seal, Lucius Falick, Erica Ash, James Ransone, Mathew St. Patrick, and Al Vicente. David Kirschner Productions/La Sienega Productions/Electric City Entertainment.
Rated R. 86 minutes.
There’s nothing absolutely unique to Kristy. I can’t say there’s anything I’d call overly innovative, honestly. Yet something about the film draws me in. I’ve seen it three times in total now. There’s nothing to dissect, nothing to unpack and pick apart, nothing to examine. But each time I viewed Kristy, something lingered in me about this horror movie I could never fully shake. At least not for a couple days.
People look at the movie and see it as cliche-ridden, predictable horror with situations we’ve seen a million times before. I’m not saying director Oliver Blackburn reinvented the wheel on the genre. Nor am I trying to claim Anthony Jaswinski’s script is revolutionary, it doesn’t take horror and turn a mirror in on itself or bring new light to the tropes of the genre, anything in that sense. Simply put, I find Kristy just a good old fashioned horror movie. The difference which makes me think it’s better than the rest? A kick ass lead character, who is female and who doesn’t merely survive on instinct, she wills her survival into existence. Then takes some more.
At college trying to live her own life, Justine (Haley Bennett) works scrubbing dishes while studying her ass off to get good grades. During Thanksgiving, her boyfriend Aaron (Lucas Till) heads off to spend time with his obviously rich family, as does her roommate Nicole (Erica Ash) at the very last minute when her father suddenly gets time off from a political campaign.
Virtually alone – except for the groundskeeper, a young man named Scott (James Ransone), and sparse security including the friendly Wayne (Mathew St. Patrick) – Justine finds herself walking the halls, listening to music, studying, and generally passing away time. Though, Nicole left behind her BMW offering it to Justine in case she needs to get away from campus.
When Justine takes the car out for a drive and stops at a convenience store, one nice gesture towards a girl named Violet (Ashley Greene), who rudely declines, turns into a night of absolute terror and a horrifyingly tense struggle for survival.
An immediate thing I noticed, then saw again more the next two times I saw the film, is how at the beginning of Kristy, the college campus has this beautiful, bright visual sense about it. Even while Justine finds herself alone across the entire college, there’s still this brightness everywhere she goes. Blackburn chooses to film much of everything in the first 15-20 minutes in this way, making the college and Justine’s life seem pretty relaxed. Along with that, there’s a pretty good little montage sequence where Justine goes through the motions, passing time swimming and bouncing around the lonely, empty halls with her headphones playing “Pumpin’ Blood” by NONONO as it bleeds out into the film’s soundtrack itself.
Then once Blackburn moves further into the screenplay, we start to get a mood shifter in terms of visuals. We see Justine go out at night, then things figuratively and literally get foggy. She drives through fog, almost like a barrier as she leaves the enclosed safety of the college campus gates into the real, terrifying world. You can almost look at it in the metaphorical sense: once you leave college/university, real life is there, real will fucking get you.
Because this is where Justine’s life changes, at the convenience store. This is also where the tone of Kristy links back to its grim opening sequence. Real life outside of the college campus clashes hard with Justine. Worst of all is the fact Justine herself is not the “Kristy” the antagonists are searching out to taunt, torture, and kill. She is not the rich type girl, but only drives her friend’s car (most likely a car her friend got from her parents). Funny enough, Nicole, the roommate with the BMW, is more the type Violet (Greene) and her crew are trying to find. There’s a tragic and scary irony in that. Especially considering the fact Justine even tries to befriend Violet by paying for the latter’s items at the store.
Passing through this point, the land of no return. Things get legitimately suspenseful, tense, and downright frightening at times moving forward. I love the interaction at the convenience store/gas station with Justine and Violet, then the clerk is thrown into the mix, as well. There’s great tension in that scene, which I found thick enough to bite. Great stuff and a well-written scene. This is the setup leading into the film’s real meaty bits.
A notably unsettling scene happens when Justine goes back to the dorm rooms at one point; as she goes by the wall of one room, unbeknownst to her, has all the pictures scratched up, specifically the eyes. I thought it was a brief and real eerie shot. This slowly ratcheted up the tension, adding to Justine’s fear without her even knowing.
In conjunction with creepy scenes like this one, I love the score composed by François-Eudes Chanfrault; his excellent work has included Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, Inside, and Vinyan. The amazing music goes along SO WELL in certain scenes that it’s hard to deny its effects. Moments when Justine finds her life threatened, when the danger is most real, the music swells and sort of throbs at you. In quieter moments the score lulls you in and captures you, the emotions onscreen jump into your head and into your chest. Chanfrault has a knack for incredible music and I think he is a definite asset here.
What really does it for me throughout Kristy‘s meagre 86 minute runtime (including the credits/post-credits scene) is the central performance of Haley Bennett as Justine. Not only her performance, I think Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay has a great character in Justine. She’s a vulnerable, scared young woman in the beginning whose lonely Thanksgiving on campus turns into a nightmare. By the end of this psychologically daunting horror movie, I found myself almost fist pumping because of how kick-ass this woman had become; she had inside her, just like the intellectual side of herself coming out through class and study, this venomous and visceral side which was required in order to cast out these predators. They hunt her down, thinking she’s someone she is not, and she also becomes – in a sense – someone she is not in order to overcome their savagery. I think an important part of Kristy – not just why I like it – is the fact Justine starts off in a position of weakness, but really takes charge and becomes a tougher, stronger person after coming out the other side of a bloody, haunting situation. Justine reminds me of the Erin character from Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett’s You’re Next, yet without the same background, and in a sense a bit cooler.
This leads me to the fact I love the finale of the film, so incredibly much. Again, nothing innovative or absolutely fresh, I simply find it hits all the right notes and really becomes this visceral experience. With Justine, we walk through this hell-like evening, or more like run and fight, until she essentially snaps and becomes the hunter instead of prey. She takes on these murderous masked psychopaths and there’s this awesome quality to her redemptive scenes I find really powerful, in terms of horror. I think some might fin the first 40 minutes a little slow pace, which I personally don’t mind. To those viewers I say: hold in there. The next 44 minutes are pretty spectacular, in my opinion. This portion of Kristy truly grips me, as the action and horror get more and more intense, barreling towards a nice finish.
And make sure you check out the scene after the credits.
With some real amazing horror moments and a strong female lead in Haley Bennett, Kristy is a 4 out of 5 star film in my books. Tons of modern horror aims to be scary yet doesn’t hit the mark, as well as the fact we don’t often see a lot of horror movies where the lead female characters are anything but simple survivors, based on the merit/lost lives of others or a lot of lucky; Kristy is at times terrifying and always sees the character of Justine as someone who is willing to fight, to work, to really strive towards conquering the fear and obstacles surrounding her.
Check this out. Honestly, I think it’s worth the time, even if only for the final half hour. Plus I find the ending/post-credits scene intriguing with the idea from the beginning – of an online type of cult, people killing these “Kristy” substitutes in order to “kill god” as they put it. Very wild and weird and horror-ish fun.
There’s some great character in the screenplay, as well as genuine moments of horror and terror, in equal amounts. Maybe this is not for everyone. For me, it’s a movie I can watch over and over again obviously. Hopefully it might strike others in a similar way, chilling and thrilling to the end.