Archive for September 5, 2016

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By and large, most of the horror offerings to come out of Spain in the wake of that country’s post –[REC] genre boom have been hit-or-miss affairs in and of themselves that tend to offer more by way of visual and thematic than actual storytelling interest, but stripping things away and getting back to basics can sometimes yield interesting results, and it doesn’t get much more basic than the set-up offered by director Rafa Martinez (who also co-wrote the script along with Angel Agudo) for his 2015 low-budgeter, Sweet Home (now available via Netflix streaming; no word yet, at least that I know of, on a Blu-ray and/or DVD release in the US) : young real estate agent Alicia (played by Ingrid Garcia Jonsson) happens upon a seemingly-abandoned apartment building and plans a romantic late-night rendezvous there with her boyfriend, Simon (Bruno Sevilla). What they don’t know, though, is that the owner of the property has been clearing it out on purpose to sell it off, and that there’s one tenant left who just won’t budge, so he’s decided to remove them from the premises the old-fashioned way : by hiring a gang of thugs to bust down the door and murder ’em. Alicia and Simon see it all go down, and soon find themselves in a white-knuckled struggle for survival against axe-wielding pscyhos — and if they can’t get the job done, then a a muscle-bound brute known only as El Liquidador (Oriol Tarrida Homedes) is always available as a last resort —

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“Survival horror” is big these days, of course, and Sweet Home (shot, for the most part, in English, apart from an opening scene that would greatly benefit from having some actual subtitles included) gives us a reasonably unique Spanish twist on tropes that are threatening to become over-used here in the US, with just a dash off Roberta Findlay’s Tenement thrown in for good measure. It’s obviously in no way particularly original, but so what? As long as the ride is a rocky one, there’s not a lot more you can ask from a premise like this.

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So — is it rocky, then? Oh, my yes. Very much so. Martinez throws you in at the deep end and doesn’t let up. There’s no such thing as a tension-free moment on offer here — even the quiet ones are fraught with peril — and if genuine suspense (admittedly at the expense of just about everything else) is your bag, then you’re going to find a lot to like in Sweet Home. Our protagonists just plain aren’t gonna live unless they can get out the door, but given that their pursuers know the layout of the building much better than they do, and that they have numbers on their side, and that El Liquidador is waiting in the wings, well — I don’t know how you say “it’s not gonna be easy” in Spanish, but it’s not.

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Mindless thrill rides — when done with a suitable amount of style and panache, of course — are almost always fun, and Martinez, aided and abetted by a fine cast, knows exactly what buttons to push and when to make sure you never get too far from the very edge of your seat. I’ve seen better and more involving horror films this year, sure, but none more out-and-out thrilling. This is 80 minutes of bad road you definitely want to buckle up for.

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I admit, when I first saw 2016’s The Curse Of Sleeping Beauty in the Netflix horror streaming queue (it’s not yet available on Blu-ray or DVD but did, at least according to the poster, receive a theatrical release — somewhere), I assumed it was a product of The Asylum, given that they have a penchant for cranking out low-budget Brothers Grimm-based crap. They’re not the only ones doing so these days, however, and it turns out they’re innocent of the charge of having anything to do with this one, as well — which is, believe it or not, kind of a pity, since then it would have had a chance to be of the “so bad it’s good” variety. Instead, this filmed-on-the-cheap-in-the-Philippines snoozer from director/co-writer (along with Josh Nadler) Pearry Reginald Teo doesn’t manage to pass “go” and collect its $200 and remains firmly in the “so bad it’s still just bad” camp.

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Based on a comic by I’ve never even heard of, much less read, of the same name by Everette Hartsoe, The Curse Of Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a bland,personality-free zone named Thomas Kaiser (played by Ethan Peck), a painter who has been haunted by dreams of an ethereally beautiful woman (India Eisley) who he can’t seem to shake from her slumber no matter how hard he tries. Then one day, in the “real” world, his uncle kills himself and he inherits his run-down mansion that’s been in the family for generations. Upon making a cursory examination of the property, he learns of an ancient curse placed upon it, and finds himself thrust, unwillingly at first, into the role of a dual protector : he must assume his familial responsibility of keeping the demons trapped within the estate at bay and find a way to wake the eternally narcoleptic princess (whose name, we learn, is Briar Rose — go ahead, I cringed, too) at the same time. He’s got help in the form of friendly realtor Linda (Natalie Hall) and paranormal investigator Richard (Bruce Davison — a guy who’s made a career out of “you just never know where he’s gonna turn up next” roles), but he’s got his magical work cut out for him, that’s for sure.

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Teo’s visual ambition far exceeds his grasp here as he tries to construct one memorably dream-like image after another but lacks the budget to realize any of them. To the director’s credit this doesn’t result in anything downright embarrassing, but it does get frustrating, as well as repetitious, to see him try and do things that he just plain can’t. The first half of the film is an especially rough slog, particularly since Peck is relied on so heavily to carry things and is in no way up to the task, but once events start moving at a more bearable clip, it’s the biggest case of “too little, too late” you can possibly imagine — Briar Rose may have a stupid name, but she’s got the right idea : sleeping through this movie is your best option.

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Still, all that bullshit is worth it if we get a decent resolution, right? Sorry to say, but don’t hold your breath on that score, either. The Curse Of Sleeping Beauty delivers audiences one final insult by setting things up for a sequel that I can’t imagine anyone actually wants. Hint to Teo and company : if your goal is to get us to come back for a second flick, you’d better make damn sure we care about what happens in the first one. This is just basic “Storytelling 101” stuff, but this film fails at that as surely — and as completely — as it does at everything else.

 

 

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When a horror flick advertises the fact that its writer/director tandem (Jay Lender and Micah Wright, if you must know) has previously worked on Call Of Duty : Black Ops II and Spongebob Squarepants  you know you might be in for something a little bit different, I suppose, and 2016’s They’re Watching (now streaming on Netflix and coming next month on Blu-ray and DVD), despite being yet another entry in the “found footage” genre, is certainly that. Lender and Wright both have a background in comic books, animation, and video games, and bring a definite comedic and OTT sensibility to the proceedings here, but be forewarned — if you’re looking for a traditional scare flick, this is anything but.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Despite some questionable tonal shifts and beyond-dodgy FX work, I found Lender and Wright’s low-budget opus to be reasonably entertaining throughout and a solid send-up of the entire wretched “Reality TV” industry, with just a dash of Cannibal Holocaust thrown in for good measure. A rundown of the particulars should clue you in on why I say that : American artist Becky Westlake (played by Brigid Brannagh) was featured some months back on a show called “House Hunters International” looking for a reasonably-priced home to share with her largely-absent soccer player boyfriend. They settled on a dilapidated “fixer-upper” (to say the least) just outside a remote village in Moldova (although the film was actually shot in Romania), and now the crew from the show are back to do their follow-up piece. The house, thanks to work both lined up and, in some cases, even performed by local real estate agent/handyman Vladimir Filat (Dimitri Diatchenko) looks positively gorgeous, and life in the Eastern European hinterlands seems to be nothing but smooth sailing for Becky. Until her television pals start fucking everything up.

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Veteran camera operator Greg (David Alpay) and hot young intern Sarah (Mia Faith), who seem to be on the verge of having a May/December fling, decide it would be a good idea to add some “local color” to their video travelogue by filming the funeral of a recently-deceased child, but their attempts to do it on the sly are wrecked when their bitchy producer/host boss, Kate (Carrie Genzel) radios some instructions to them over a walkie-talkie that, if they had any sense, would have been shut off. The townsfolk are justifiably incensed, but the village police constable (Mircea Constantinescu) manages to step in just in time to prevent any bloodshed — for the time being.  Still, constant earlier whining from the principals already mentioned as well as bad-attitude boom operator (Kris Lemche) has already laid the groundwork for a “revenge of the local yokels” come-uppance, and considering that these pampered American dilettantes can’t even seem to comprehend how they’re supposed to survive without a Starbucks nearby, it honestly couldn’t happen to a sweeter bunch.

On the plus side, when they do all finally get their due for being a bunch of smug, privileged assholes, it’s prolonged and bloody. On the minus side, the CGI effects are so lousy that they threaten to detract from the entire thing, despite the fact that it’s all essentially being played for laughs. You can’t have everything, I guess.

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I can’t fault anyone in front of the camera — or behind it — for not trying, though. They’re Watching is definitely a film that gives its best from top to bottom and is only hindered by lack of resources rather than lack of will. Unfortunately, Lender and Wright haven’t quite figured out how to hit that “sweet spot” where they get their low-rent production values to work in their favor, and that results in their film having something of a SyFy Saturday night movie aesthetic to it, but the fact that the whole enterprise has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek more than makes up for most of its technical shortcomings. In short, if you’re prepared to have fun, this flick is more than happy to show you as good a time as it can with what it’s got.

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I’d be lying through my teeth if I said there was anything particularly revelatory on offer here, it must be said, but solid performances, gallows humor, competent direction, strong (if broadly-drawn) characterization, a welcome absence of “shaky-cam” nonsense, and a downright gleefully sardonic tone make They’re Watching stand out from the rest of the “mockumentary” pack and even border, at times, on being almost memorable. I’m glad I took the time to check it out, and you’d be well-advised to do the same.