Celluloid Screams 2012, Day 2: CITADEL Is A Towering Achievement
The retro horror anthology V/H/S operates on a fairly dumb conceit that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, it's overly long and the five shorts that make up its two hour running time are often a case of love 'em or hate 'em. A gang of lowlives are hired to case an old man's house and retrieve a mysterious videotape, during which time they watch several of the cassettes that litter the place - it's contrived and not a little silly, but other than that this is an often terrific little collection that's definitely deserving of the hype it's picked up off the festival circuit (you can read Ryland's thumbs up review of V/H/S for ScreenAnarchy here).
A gory piece of urban fantasy, a young couple on a disturbing road trip, a killer stalking obnoxious teens, an online chat session gone spookily awry and an empty house that's not so empty - all of these use the lo-fi found footage gag in slick, surprising and effective ways (I hugely disliked the obnoxious teens, but that section still employs a fantastic visual gimmick). Genuinely terrifying in places, with some great CG and effects work, this is a cracking anthology as well as a great experience taken in one sitting, and quite possibly one of the highlights of the year. Check it out.
Cell Count, Todd E. Freeman's goopy little love letter to the glory days of 80s body horror and medical experiments gone terribly wrong, was clearly the work of a devoted fan - but all the enthusiasm and bizarre creature designs couldn't lift a lacklustre script and an ending with all the emotive force of a wet paper bag. A man agrees to accompany his wife as they take part in a radical new treatment for her terminal illness, but they swiftly discover the high-tech facility where they're incarcerated is more of s very exclusive prison camp, and that the cure they're expected to undergo may prove worse than the disease.
There are some fine ideas here (a couple of seriously creepy FX), and definite talent, but the script torpedoes any headway they might make - a mad scientist who's painfully transparent, supporting characters who're little more than ciphers, awkward pacing that ping-pongs between character building and throwback running and screaming that's more annoying than frightening. It's almost worth it to hear "What happened?" "My dog just exploded", but the countless howlers, cracks in the budget and a terrible ending (as if Freeman and crew simply ran out of money) don't exactly tempt one into repeat viewings, let alone coming back should a sequel end up getting produced.
Ciaran Foy's grim urban horror Citadel is one of the most nakedly personal genre films in years - as a young man the director was apparently unlucky enough to get mugged by a gang of youths who threatened to stab him with a dirty syringe, after which he developed crippling agoraphobia that took him a long, long time to overcome. Foy ramps up the trauma still further for his debut feature as Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), desperate to escape a run-down hellhole of an inner city housing estate, is powerless to protect his heavily pregnant wife as a gang of savage hoodie-wearing kids pounce on the very day the couple plan to leave. Her baby survives, she doesn't, and Tommy retreats indoors, almost paralysed by fear, with his little girl the only thing that keeps him going.
When the kids return and snatch his baby, Tommy consults a mysterious drunken priest at the local hospice who seems to know the gang are far more savage than they seem - and that there's only one way to get the little girl back. Foy clearly pours his heart and soul into the project and Barnard is often heartbreaking in the lead. Despite Foy's background, though, you can't help but wonder if his film is a tad too grim - Heartless and Outcast have already trod very similar territory but explored the idea of compassion as well as chasing after closure. Nonetheless, it's a great, great debut and well worth watching for genre fans after something a little darker.
I'm a little surprised James seemed so disgusted by Chilean shocker Hidden in the Woods when he caught it at Frightfest this year - this relentlessly over-the-top piece of exploitation seemed too dumb to offend anyone, by and large. Maybe I'm just desensitised? The story of two girls kept prisoner in the backwoods by their monstrous father, and how they ultimately attempt to escape, director Patricio Valladares piles on the gore and sleaze with unrepentant glee. Butchery, cannibalism, rape, incest, abuse - but it's all pitched as one big cartoon redneck hyuck, hyuck, hyuck and so devoid of any shades of gray - no ambiguity here at all - it's nigh on impossible to take this stuff seriously.
"Glee" doesn't imply it comes across as malicious, either - Valladares doesn't seem to be particularly misogynist, just silly. (Unless you find exploitation cinema intrinsically misogynist, but that's a whole other argument.) All the men are leering simpletons devoid of the slightest bit of decency, and women are there to be beaten and violated not so much because Valladares thinks that's what women deserve, more he simply thinks it's what you need to make for good theatre. Hidden in the Woods is reasonably well made for what it is, and the cast throw themselves into their roles with surprising energy, but by and large this is just tits, blood and taboo-breaking without a thought in its ugly little head. Avoid.
Day 3 of Celluloid Screams sees indie horror darling Resolution plus Brit found footage chiller Entity, the bizarre religious parable The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh and more. Last daily roundup is on its way.
Celluloid Screams 2012 ran from 26th-28th October at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, in the UK.