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|Shadows off the beaten path|
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|See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 22.Apr.20|
Review by Rich Cline |
With their first feature, filmmakers Andrew Mecham and Matthew Whedon merrily indulge in horror movie cliches from creaking doors to an ancient textbook. After a nasty back-story, the script sets about defining the characters in ways that are both jaunty and suggestive, cleverly playing with the usual tropes while taking unexpected turns. But while it's unnerving and grisly, it's never very scary, relying on jolts and effects rather than storytelling.
It's been 40 years since little Angela (Carlson) was attacked by something she saw in a mirror. And her big sister Beth (Broberg) is still living in fear, relying on her childhood friend Charles (Brodie), who lives next door. When Beth's other sister dies, she reluctantly takes in her nieces. Teen Olivia (Miller) and younger Claire (Birkner) are unnerved by Aunt Beth's glowery demeanour and the hyper-strict house rules, and also that all the mirrors have been hidden. Then Claire is tricked into releasing a demon from a dusty mirror in the basement.
The fiendishly effective production design casts a gloomy orange hue over busy textures, while the the camera moves in slow, dreamlike pans. Of course, when Claire forbids the girls from going into her study or the basement, or using the rickety lift, it's obvious what they'll do. Ominously, "since the accident" Claire has only been able to communicate through her cuddly rabbit toy. And Olivia's the first to glimpse the horror when she uncovers a bathroom mirror.
Performances are hushed, almost whispery. Miller and Birkner are superb as grieving girls who are smart, curious and increasingly terrified. Broberg brings a witty mix of sinister intrigue as a shattered woman trying to be nice. Only Brodie is allowed to underplay his scenes, which makes him feel like an outsider, even though he was there in the prolog scene. And when the craziness begins to cut loose, everyone becomes more intense, with wonderfully off-handed moments that catch us by surprise.
With each scene, the filmmakers add to the undercurrent of disturbing suspense, deploying little jolts like the discovery of a knife and gun. Meanwhile, the plot continually swerves, keeping us on our toes and making it impossible to predict where it will go next. That said, it never becomes as thrilling as it could have been, veering in yucky directions rather than getting under the skin. There are hints of something much more interesting luring within this story, but the filmmakers prefer to just play with slamming doors and menacing refections.
Review by Rich Cline |
dir-scr-prd Mark Schwab
with Christian Gabriel, Pano Tsaklas, Corey Jackson, Mike Mizwicki, August Browning, Christopher Fung, Laura Altair, Michael Champlin, Keith Larson, Mark Balunis, Devon Lee Grover
release US 11.Jun.19,
While it's obviously made on a low budget, this overloaded drama builds a moody atmosphere that holds the interest. Even if the pacing feels a little slack, it's nicely shot and edited, telling a story that's infused with emotion and intrigue. Some of the topics are very important, but writer-director Mark Schwab gives the film a very preachy tone as things slowly ramp up into into thriller territory.
Simon (Jackson) volunteers at an LGBT crisis hotline, annoyed that most callers are looking for either sex or jobs. So he perks up when Danny (Gabriel) phones in saying that he's in the process of taking his life. He then tells Simon his story, starting with his arrival in town, looking for companionship on dating apps, and falling for Kyle (Tslaklas). As they become a couple, Danny meets Kyle's clients (Browning and Fung), who get him to take drugs with them. Then Danny tells Simon that he has a gun, and plans to get even.
Danny's account is dramatised on-screen while Simon listens. The narrative unravels very slowly, carefully drawing Simon in deeper with hints and suggestions about what's to come. And it's a very long wait for the other shoe to drop. Along the way, Simon brings in a colleague (Mizwicki) to listen in on the call, and the police are doing their thing off-screen. Schwab and his cast conveys all of this in a muted manner, on shadowy sets accompanied by a morose musical score.
The movie's sleepy rhythm makes it tricky for the actors to add much personality to the characters, as everyone speaks at the same subdued, halting pace. This makes conversations feel rather scripted, always right to the point, even though everyone's being cagey. It's easy to identify with Jackson's Simon as he struggles to respond to Danny's evasive account. Otherwise, the actors are likeable but one-sided, purely good or evil. Only Tslaklas' Kyle has an inner conflict, but he never quite grapples with it.
This is essentially a hyper-cautionary tale about the dangers of sexuality, online dating, drug use and porn. Schwab isn't interested in exploring these important themes, instead using them as simplified plot elements. Where the story goes is darkly sinister, and the approach is so specific that it begins to feel like a public service announcement, painstakingly staged to deliver its message while allowing no room for thought or discussion. And the lack of earthy realism undercuts both the suspense and the emotional kick the twisty finale strains to deliver.
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Lane Toran
scr Jaclyn Betham, Lane Toran
prd Jaclyn Betham, Erin Naifeh, Liz Zweibel
with Jaclyn Betham, Scout Taylor-Compton, Landry Allbright, Lane Toran, Lane Caudell, Noah Lowdermilk, Jamil Walker Smith, Ben Deschaine, Liz Zwiebel, Chrystopher Ryan Johnson, Nick Price, Luke Gregson
release US 17.Apr.20
Opening with three nasty prologs, this movie immediately establishes an oppressively foreboding tone before shifting into its lighter set-up. It's clear that this girls' trip will turn into a nightmare, but predicting where it goes is impossible. Actor-filmmaker Lane Toran skilfully balances the tension with moments of earthy comedy. So even if the script never quite cracks the surface, there's enough scary texture to keep the audience gripped.
Several women have gone missing, but Tamara (Betham) is joining her friends Maddy and Brooke (Taylor-Compton and Allbright) for a weekend getaway at the lake. The first hitch is when Tamara runs out of gas on the way, rescued by hot redneck Merv (Toran) and his creepy brother Kib (Lowdermilk). Then it's on to bikinis and cocktails on the sun-deck, plus flirtation with the boys next door. But that night out, Tamara is drugged and kidnapped by Merv, Kib and their religious Pa (Caudell), and she freaks them out by claiming to be a witch.
There's added levity as Officer Jerry (Smith) continually turns up casting lovelorn glances at Tamara, to the amusement of her friends. And the leery local guys are hilarious, in contrast to the predatory Bible-thumping psychopaths. The film is strikingly shot, with a strong sense of perspective that makes tonal shifts connect sharply. As things get increasingly freaky, spiralling in bonkers supernatural directions, the general eeriness is properly unnerving. And when the violence does come, it's awful rather than merely grisly.
The acting is unusually strong for a movie like this, nicely understated and realistic even as events unravel. Betham has terrific presence, a feisty young woman who won't let a man push her around. She has steely energy opposite Toran, Lowdermilk and Caudell as backwoods maniacs. Thankfully, they put some complexity into their roles as true believers who justify their crimes. Smith has the other strong role as the nosey cop, while Taylor-Compton and Allbright get to shine later on as things get much more heightened.
The film is packed with genuinely gruesome elements, often playing with religious imagery. The script cleverly frames this as an inverted battle between good and evil, with the Christians as the murderous villains. And they're beginning to believe that their victims are coming back to haunt them. Where all this goes is twisty, deliberately disturbing and also fiendishly entertaining. If the script had mined some deeper resonance from its inventive premise, it might have become a cult classic.
See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL
© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows
on the Wall
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