REVIEW: CANDYMAN (2021, Universal Pictures)

Say his name five times and he will appear. Candyman returns to the big screen in Nia DaCosta (Top Boy, The Marvels, Little Woods) new reimagining, co-written by Jordan Peele (Us, Get Out). The new film is a direct sequel to the 1992 original of the same name and brings us back to the Chicago neighbourhood where the urban legend of Candyman began…

Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a painter looking for fame and success in the local art circuit. He lives with his partner in a gentrified Cabrini Green apartment unaware of the full history of the area and its urban legend (Candyman) but is curious to find out more. He decides to embark on a project to bring the story of Candyman to life through a series of paintings for his exhibition on the hope of getting his big break but he is unaware of the consequences his art will bring.

The latest Candyman film pulls together a lot of the source material from the original film but it is a modernisation with a fresh tone and direction. The structure is completely different to what you might expect. Philip Glass’s classical score is long gone and replaced by urban music which poses the first issue; atmosphere. Candyman 2021 is very much a flat film in terms of atmosphere, there is very little tension for most of the film and it suffers from a disjointed structure. Candyman was famous for its urban gothic atmosphere and nail biting tension, but you’d be hard to find much horror in the first hour of the new film.

Candyman is a new breed of horror which focuses on storytelling over scares but sadly it is too comfortable and safe to watch. The 1992 original was full of unforgettable scary moments, the 1995 sequel Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh had a high kill count and tons of gore, while the lesser regarded Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999) still had its shock moments. Sadly, age ratings play a big factor. The first 3 films from the 90’s were all 18 rated slasher films whereas the new Candyman is barely a 15 certificate and it shows. Marketing a film to an audience who weren’t even born when the first 3 films were released is risky and ludicrous. Luckily, the new film has its own charm and is entertaining and solid in its own way.

If we remove comparisons to the previous films in the franchise there is a lot to love with the new adaptation. The introduction of shadow puppet scenes for flashbacks and re-telling the original film story is a stroke of genius and looked amazing on the big screen. The race related social commentary was very well written and relevant in today’s climate, albeit lacking the hard hitting effect that Spike Lee delivers. The acting throughout the whole cast was excellent and there was plenty of witty humour to lighten the mood.

The biggest mistake this film makes is it doesn’t show us enough violence or gore, we are shielded from it until the climatic ending which is a real shame. A perfect example of this is the bathroom scene in the school, we hear more than we see and it felt like we were being robbed of seeing violence. Also, Candyman’s trademark hook to the spine and stomach gutting kill scenes of the old films were strangely replaced by lazy throat slitting which just didn’t have the same impact or shock factor.

Despite its flat tone and lack of tension, I was gripped by the story and couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. The plot is superb, with plenty of red herrings and twists. There is no doubt they intended for a redirection in the tone of the film, they achieved that but I really missed the way the original film made me feel. I didn’t leave the cinema unhappy, I just felt disappointed that the film watered its content down so much that it felt barely a shadow of the original film.

Candyman is a fun and interesting sequel which links up well with the original film in terms of its story but it is a different beast in terms of its tone. If you are familiar with the original films you are likely to know where the plot is heading within the first half an hour. If you are new to the franchise, I strongly recommend you watch the original film first before booking a trip to the cinema. The lack of tension can be forgiven for the way the plot traverses in the last third, taking us to dark places and subject matter.

Candyman is an interesting reimagining of the story which extends its legacy but leaves us wanting more. Sadly, the new sequel is sugar coated to the point where it feels more thriller than horror but it finds its feet in the second half and finishes strong with an unforgettable ending. The new film is a nice way to reignite the franchise, hopefully we will see more sequels on the back of this that will sting more.

Score: 3/5

REVIEW: THE NIGHT HOUSE (EIFF 2021)

David Bruckner (The Ritual, Southbound) returns with his latest horror infused thriller The Night House starring Rebecca Hall (Godzilla Vs Kong, Christine), Sarah Goldberg (The Dark Knight Rises) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Broken Arrow, Die Hard 2).

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a widow who returns from her late husband Owen’s wake to experience weird activities in her home prompting her to investigate the reason why he decided to take his own life. Beth embarks on a journey to find out Owen (Evan Jonigkeit)’s darkest secrets and solve the mystery of what really happened…

The Night House is a hard hitting horror film which explores the grieving process in a very delicate but effective way. Early on in the film we build strong empathy towards Beth as she struggles with the loss of her beloved husband and strives to find a reason to live. The fight to cope and adapt is portrayed extremely well and Rebecca Hall shines in a role which is very challenging. From the very start, the focus on Beth’s emotional torment is portrayed in a very realistic way and Rebecca Hall throws every part of her soul into the character. We are shown all aspects of her life and how Owen’s suicide has impacted her, from her work as a teacher to her friendship with her best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg). The intricacies of her character are perfectly written and are superbly portrayed by Rebecca Hall.

The horror aspects add another layer to the powerful impact of the drama. Simply put, The Night House is an intense viewing experience which rarely gives you a moment to relax. Beth’s house is haunted and her character is constantly on-edge, the film manages to pass this experience to the viewer through a smart sequence of jump scares which will make your anxiety levels hit the roof. The Night House is nerve shredding and heart pounding. It has been a long time since I felt so uneasy and jumpy watching a film in the cinema. Well, The Night House is certainly a scary ride. Shadow silhouettes and wood creaking will haunt your nightmares for some time to come…

The plot is almost flawless until it falls into the same trap that left a noticeable dent in Hereditary (2017); spelling it out for the viewer. The mystery surrounding Owen’s suicide is excellently written for the most part with plenty of red herrings and sustained tension, however during a couple of key scenes we are literally told exactly what has happened in simple terms and it completely flattens the curves. The less we knew, the less we were shown, the better it was. It worked perfectly and continued to build up the complexities of the mystery, it is such a shame the film decided to simply its story in the final hurdle.

Despite some small cracks showing in the plot it couldn’t damage my enjoyment of this movie. The Night House is a fantastic dramatisation which left me in a nervous state causing my body to sweat uncontrollably and I loved the experience. It has been a very long time since I walked out a cinema feeling like I’d been battered for hours. The jump scares hit me harder than I was expecting and it was so much fun. The ending was really well done but could have been cut sooner and left in a more ambiguous way but you can’t take that away from the film as it was forgivable.

The Night House is an amazing film which is well worth every nerve shredding minute of your time. It hits hard and leaves you gasping for air afterwards. Horror should get under your skin, The Night House does this with ease.

Score: 5/5

REVIEW: BORN DEAD (2019, Medienkuche)

Born Dead is a 22 minute zombie splatter short film directed by Simon Spachmann & Olaf Zanetti. A group of party animals search for a place to continue their drunken shenanigans after being left out in the cold. Just when it looks like they are bang out of luck, they stumble across a creepy abandoned house. Sometimes abandoned doesn’t always mean empty, as they soon find out…

When the group enter the abandoned house there are satanic ornaments and decorations everywhere and they soon realise they might have been better off just heading home…

For a low budget short film, the locations look great and there is plenty of variety. The heart of the house is its basement which is inhabited by dead bodies reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead (1978). The movement and look of the zombies is Fulci-esque and there is impressive editing and lighting which adds to the atmosphere around them.

With a short run time, the film has a lot to cram in to keep things ticking over and it runs seamlessly. The scenes never feel forced and the flow works well between the comedy and extreme horror. There is a wonderful selection of latex props made by James Bell & Simon Spachmann which are put to good use in blood squirting gore scenes which are a joy to watch. The zombies look terrific and the flesh eating looks amazing as the helpless group are ripped to pieces and munched by the hungry undead.

Born Dead finds a fine balance between comedy and horror, ensuring both are over the top and outrageous. I found myself laughing profusely at the hilarious lines and drooling at the gore drenched death scenes. The film really wears its heart on its sleeve as it stacks up as many gags and blood squirting moments as possible. Also, the catchy instrumental heavy rock soundtrack gives the action an added pulse as the films pounds in as much gore and laughs as it can. The acting is great and I enjoyed watching all the cast.

Born Dead doesn’t take itself seriously and is a ton of fun from start to finish. The comedy is on-point and the practical effects are top drawer. The moment the film ended, I wanted to watch it again. German splatter is on another level.

Score: 5/5

REVIEW: 29 NEEDLES (2019, Unearthed Films)

Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool, among the extreme horror indie community 29 Needles has been highly sought after since it was announced. The fourth entry in Unearthed Films notorious Too Extreme For Mainstream line gave Scott Philip Goergens a platform to showcase his work. As a subtle nod to infamous serial killer Albert Fish who used to insert 29 needles into his groin, the film is not for the faint hearted…

Francis (Brooke Berry) goes on a journey to explore his limits with pain and sex, taking him to a dangerous underground world of torture and personal exploration. Francis struggles to find a way to contain his inner demons and desires until he meets a man called Hans (Jamee Nicholson) in a bar who invites him to an underground club which is beyond anything he has seen or experienced before…

29 Needles is designed to push you to your limits much like Francis. Nothing can prepare you for what you are about to see, and nothing will prepare you for how you will think afterwards. The film is a straight shooter, it aims for your nervous system and it will shock the majority of viewers within a matter of minutes.

There are few films which manage to really get under my skin the way 29 Needles does. The sexual content is extreme and very much real, and the pain being inflicted is at times hard to watch. To fully understand how challenging the film was to make you only need to dive into the extras on the disc. All the actors were sourced from advertisements on social media, a search for those willing to put their bodies and reputations on the line for the purpose of entertainment. This is an extreme project which had never been done before.

29 Needles found a star in Brooke Berry. Not only was this Brooke’s debut film as an actor but Brooke insisted on doing all the sexual activities for real. Brooke is incredible in this movie, reading every line with integrity and conviction, making the character believable and complex. There are countless method actors out there but how many are prepared to do the things Brooke did. Body and soul was poured into the character and it is truly a character study done right with a lot of heart and heartache.

Without spoiling the plot direction and finer details of the story, the practical effects department puts in an amazing shift. 29 Needles is a mix of real and practical FX and there is a lot of freakish moments which will make you squirm. Then we have the excellent sound design which adds a layer of tension which complements the dark nature of 29 Needles. P Andrew Willis creates an incredible soundtrack using synth, glass, metal , electric guitar and bass among other instruments to create a wall of distorted and uncomfortable noise which fits the film like a glove. The film wouldn’t be what it is without the music and sound design which is flawless.

It is a blessing 29 Needles made it to the finish line given the number of obstacles Scott Philip Goergens faced. The film was shot over a number of years and the editing must have been a nightmare. The casting was extremely difficult due to the nature of what was being asked of the actors. Also, achieving distribution for a film which is so far away from what else is out there must have been tricky. For all these challenges, to his credit, Scott Philip Goergens managed to pull it off and 29 Needles exists as a result of perseverance and determination.

I watched 29 Needles the moment my Pre-order arrived from Unearthed Films, then rewatched the film a few weeks later and the experience evolved. I’ll be honest, the excitement I had for the film turned to apprehension when it was arrived. I was worried the film might be a step too far for me and cross the line of what I’m able to tolerate. However, to my amazement it didn’t. I found the sexual content very extreme and unsettling but the horror side of things was totally fine. This is because this was like jumping into a deep pool for me, without knowing how far it would go. Like anything, exposure to extreme things allows desensitisation to happen and your tolerance builds up. However, upon watching the film again a few weeks later I saw it in a different light and I really became obsessed with Brooke’s character transformation and the nightmarish visions that haunt his mind.

29 Needles is an extreme art film more than it is horror and it takes us to places we’ve never been before and lands a fatal blow to our subconsciousness. Once you’ve seen 29 Needles you’ll never forget it. It pushes extreme to new levels and in a cancel culture world we need films that make a real impact with no watered down content. You can’t prepare yourself for 29 Needles, much like Francis you have to test yourself to see how far you can go.

Score: 4/5

29 Needles is available to buy on bluray & DVD via https://www.unearthedfilms.com/catalog/tefm/29needles.php & https://www.diabolikdvd.com/product/29-needles-unearthed-too-extreme-blu-ray-preorder/

The official soundtrack is available digitally and in physical CD format via https://pandrewwillis.bandcamp.com/album/29-needles-original-motion-picture-soundtrack

REVIEW: MAD GOD (EIFF 2021)

30 years in the making, Mad God is VFX legend Phil Tippett long awaited stop-motion epic taking us on an odyssey through the layers of human hell. Set in a world of monsters and mind-bending landscapes and heavily influenced by Ray Harryhausen, Mad God is ready to invade your mind.

Pulling together themes from Dantes Inferno ,the 7 seven deadly sins and stages of hell; a stop-motion film has never looked so beautiful. Gore drenched set pieces orchestrated in Tippett’s hellish world visions, Mad God may be animation but it certainly is aimed at an adult audience. A powerful soundtrack takes us on a journey we’ll never forget through blood soaked surgeries to war torn landscapes to luminescent giant plantations. The film is eye candy in its finest form showing us the best and worst of humanity in a visually stunning display.

Mad God is a labyrinth inhabited by freakish monsters with body features rearranged and deformed. The depiction of hell and purgatory is both breathtaking and disturbing and it fully immerses you in its beauty and filth. The tone of the film is ever changing in line with its lighting, visuals and sound. There are strong themes of post-war and post-apocalyptic nightmares as we see bodies dispersed in inhumanly ways. Heavy industrial imagery and machinery outweighs the cost of human life as we are shown the brutality of power.

The craftsmanship by Phil Tippett is out of this world. The ambition and scale is mind blowing as we are treated to a groundbreaking display of stop motion and VFX which was worth waiting 30 years for. Tippett has created a universe that everyone should witness, a life changing experience which goes beyond words.

Mad God is an unforgettable mind-bending experience which brings light into our lives and opens our minds like never before. It is a stunning exploration of heaven and hell which everyone should witness.

Score: 5/5

REVIEW: MARTYRS LANE (EIFF 2021, Ipso Facto)

Martyrs Lane is Ruth Platt’s third feature film and focuses on Leah, a young 10 year old girl living in a vicarage with her parents and troublesome older sister. Leah (Kiera Thompson) lacks affection from her mum Sarah (Denise Gough) and starts to notice that her mum sleeps with a golden locket in her hand. Curious over the significance of the locket, Leah stumbles across it and opens it up; subsequently opening a gateway where she is visited daily by young girl with a ghostly stature (Rachel),

Martyrs Lane is a slow burner from the offset with a fairly uneventful first hour but this is required to set up the events to follow. Straight off the bat, Martyrs Lane isn’t a horror movie per say, it is a drama which deals with subject matters such as bereavement and questions the afterlife. Unfortunately, the opening hour of the film drags itself at a very slow pace and it can be very off putting and may be difficult to hold the attention of most viewers but try to stick with it.

Martyrs Lane places a lot of smart symbolism within its scenes which you might miss if you blink. One of the best examples of this is the appearance of a dragonfly which is known to be a gatekeeper to the spirit world. The film may test your patience at times but it is beautifully shot throughout and there is plenty of enjoyment to be found in finding the hints which will take you on a path to finding out what is actually happening.

The relationship between Leah and the ghost Rachel is childish throughout but they are both children after all and the humour fits their generation. I liked the way the ghost was portrayed in the sense that it wasn’t purely there for jump scares and creepy set-pieces. Infact, contrary to what I expected, the ghost doesn’t really show a darker side until the final third of the film. The human aspect of Rachel’s character was done very well.

In the final third of the film, Martyrs Lane comes out of its shell and is quite simply excellent. The pace picks up considerably and the excitement ramps up. The ending is both intelligent and original and really opens up adult discussions around loss and bereavement. I really enjoyed the build up to the films climax and I just wish the opening hour had similar pacing and direction.

Martyrs Lane showed a lot of promise but it was sadly let down by a lack of tension and action. However, this is still a very good film that brings something different to the table. It has great production values and story concepts but it felt like a short story stretched into a feature length due to a distinct lack of action.

Score: 3/5

Martyrs Lane will be screened at The Filmhouse on 20th & 22nd August as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021.

REVIEW: PIG (EIFF 2021, Altitude)

Pig is the directorial debut from Michael Sarnoski starting Nicolas Cage (Mandy, Color Out of Space), Alex Wolff (Hereditary, Old) and Adam Arkin (Halloween H20). The film is about a recluse, Robin Feld (Nicolas Cage), who has his prized truffle-hunting pig stolen by thugs and he has to find her again.

Using a small but experienced cast, Pig is very heavy on character development. Robin (Nicholas Cage) is initially portrayed as a simple man with little interest in social interaction and tangible things ; all he cares about is his companion pig. However, there is more to the character than meets the eye, as we discover his background as a former chef and his connections with the local community. Robin works closely with Amir (Alex Wolff), a young determined man who is trying to find his foot as an entrepreneur and win the respect from his father (and successful businessman) Darius (Adam Arkin). Amir, like Robin, is a complex character and his cocky attitude at the beginning mellows down when we understand he is hurting inside from lack of self worth and external recognition. Darius, Amir’s father is portrayed as a ruthless, heartless businessman who only cares about money, but we discover his human side as the film progresses. Simply put, the writing and character design is consistently excellent and it forms the backbone of a very strong film production.

It is very hard to pigeonhole Pig, it has a mixture of comedy, drama and thriller all rolled into one. The film does get more serious as it progresses and there are coming of age themes for both Robin and Amir. There is a lot to say about the plot but it is really worth experiencing it for yourself first hand. The script is water tight and 90 minutes flies by as you are totally immersed in the story. For a debut feature film, the production values are very high, it has the look and feel of a big budget production.

The genius of Pig is in its title. A three letter word carries so much power and links in perfectly with the screenplay itself. Pig implies connotations of greed (hence, as greedy as a pig) and this is a strong theme throughout the movie. The theft of Robin Feld’s prized pig is driven by greed, and the motives of the other key characters are driven by making money. Pig also may imply a reference to a simple life (like a pig in a trough) which Robin tries to live without conflict or intrusion. Besides the excellent choice of title, Pig also drives home some very thoughtful messages. Sometimes looking for something you’ve lost brings disappointment and misery when you find it…

Pig is an extremely moving and delicate film which brings out the very best in Cage, Wolff & Arkin with career defining performances. The film is rife with social commentary and hidden messages which will leave a long lasting effect on viewers. Michael Sornoski makes a big impression with his feature length debut; an early contender for best film of the festival.

Score: 5/5

PIG has its European Premiere on Wednesday 18th August at Festival Theatre at 7pm as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2021.

REVIEW: BACKWOOD CARNAGE (2021, Blacklava)

Backwood Carnage is a new short film by Simon Spachmann which follows the exploits of a deranged serial killer on a blood-spilling killing spree in a forest.

With a short run time of only 15 minutes, Backwood Carnage strips back on filler and focuses on what we actually want to see in a slasher film. There is no dialogue, it doesn’t need any. Instead, we are presented with a barrage of brutal death scenes and buckets of gore and guts…

Heavily influenced by the much loved slashers from the 80’s, Backwood Carnage makes subtle nods to the likes of Friday The 13th, Madman & The Mutilator but focuses primarily on extreme violence and gore. The film has a grainy presentation with speckling and tearing to give it an old and worn-out aesthetic but there is nothing generic about the brutality on display. The soundtrack is heavy synth with as many hooks as possible and it fits like a glove. The production values are slick throughout and there is no cutting corners.

The film delivers in one aspect that most slashers either lack or fail on; extreme. Backwood Carnage piles all its chips into super realistic practical effects and amazing props (including some made by the master, James Bell) and it pays dividends. The standard of the practical effects is so high that the film doesn’t really need a plot or elaborate character design. We literally see a killer wearing a dead skin mask parade through the forest on a mission to massacre everything in sight and it is thrilling to watch. There are so many great slashers which only have a handful of kills, well Backwood Carnage is a great slasher with a very large kill streak…

Dismemberment, decapitations, necrophilia, spine ripping, skull smashing and ballsack chopping…Backwood Carnage certainly doesn’t hold back. Blood is sprayed everywhere at all times and it never gets boring, this is everything you could possible want to see in a slasher movie in a matter of minutes. One particular scene involving a pregnant woman will make your skin crawl…

Backwood Carnage does more in 15 minutes than most slasher films do in 90. This is an impressive showcase of what can be done on a small budget with big ideas. If you love slasher films and top shelf extreme entertainment you need to make it a priority to buy one of the 500 copies before they are all gone…

Score: 5/5

Backwood Carnage is available to buy via Black Lava Entertainment – https://blacklava.store/collections/frontpage/products/pre-sale-backwood-carnage-limited-500-edition-release-date-2nd-august-2021

REVIEW: TALES TO TELL IN THE DARK (2020, TetroVideo)

Tales To Tell In The Dark is a three-story horror anthology from the minds of Domiziano Cristopharo (The Obsessed, Nightmare Symphony, Red Krokodil et al) & Lorenzo Zanoni (Vore Gore, XXX Dark Web). Hosted and narrated by ‘The Bishop’, we are treated to a trio of dark tales, each with their own distinct style and twists.

As an interlude to each story, ‘The Bishop’ sets the premise with his creepy mannerisms, referring to the themes without delving too much into the stories themselves. This is similar to the format of 80s classics Tales From The Crypt (1989) and Creepshow (1982) but it has its own refreshing style.

The first segment in the anthology is called ‘Reveniens’, directed by Domiziano Cristopharo. A family drive is stopped abruptly after their car hits a man wearing camouflage.  In a moment of shock, the family gets out of the car to find themselves engaged in a tussle with the living dead. This segment is a love letter to the Zombie Flesh Eaters series and brings back all the thrills from the bygone era of stomach churning 80’s Italian zombie flicks. Combined with a Fabio Frizzi-esque throwback soundtrack by Antony Coia, we are presented with a gut wrenching zombie splatter fest with buckets of gore. Following the classic format of ‘slow moving’ zombies, there is enough action and carnage to make Fulci fans drool at the mouth.

This segment really manages to hit the ground running and I was beaming with excitement all the way through it. There is plenty to keep hardcore gore hounds entertained as there is a constant flow of Flesh eating and blood squirting scenes throughout. In particular, there is an excellently choreographed scene where a pregnant lady gives birth in a sea of her own blood which makes perfect use of practical effects and animation. The acting during this short story is superb and the cinematography shines through from start to finish.

The follow-up segment is a tale under the name of ‘The Snake With A Poison Tongue’; also directed by Domiziano Cristopharo. There is a change of pace and tone as the theme of the previous short switches to a supernatural element with a strong emphasis on ghosts. A tourist who is desperately looking for a place to stay finds a motel run by a creepy owner and begs him to let him stay for the night. The owner advises that the motel has been closed for a year but the man takes the benefit of doubt due to desperation and stays anyway. While the ‘Reveniens’ story was fast paced and crammed full of action set pieces, ‘The Snake With A Poison Tongue’ is a slow burner.  There is plenty of mystery surrounding the location and the eccentric owner and things do ramp up at a gradual pace, you just have to stick with it. The tourist develops a leg injury which worsens as the story progresses, while the behaviour of the owner and the atmosphere of the motel is ever-changing. 

There is a ghostly figure of a woman with a black veil appearing sporadically. It took a while for this segment to get under my skin but when the plot began to thicken I really became immersed in it. There is a strong theme of history repeating itself which resonated with me and kept it interesting.  The plot twist is carefully and perfectly executed and it will catch you off guard. If you pay close attention, you will spot many horror references, in particular a nod to Italian synth gods Goblin’s Zombi theme in the score around the town scene.

The third and final segment is called ‘Jinxed’ and is a directorial collaboration between Domiziano Cristopharo & Lorenzo Zanoni. A runner stumbles upon a crime scene where he finds the body of a murdered woman. As an opportunistic thief, the runner decides to help himself to a necklace belonging to the dead woman with the hope of giving it to another woman as a gift; unaware that in doing so he has opened a curse. Despite its short run length, this short had alot of tension and returned to the pacing of the first segment. Much like the first two short films, the locations are diverse and interesting and the stories are unique. The acting was great and the claustrophobic scene in the camper van was a distinct highlight.

‘Tales To Tell In The Dark’ is a strong horror anthology which keeps you guessing. It pulls together everything we love from the golden age of Italian Horror and encases it in a shell of modern Indie Horror. The emphasis on atmosphere and original storytelling continues to bring new life to Indie Horror.

Score: 4/5