Archive for October 14, 2017

Well, shit — if the title of writer/director Faisal Saif’s early-2017 Indian horror Islamic Exorcist isn’t enough to grab you, then I don’t know what more it takes. But is there anything more to this film beyond an arresting name? Thanks to Amazon Prime’s streaming service, I’m pleased to report that I’m able to answer that question —

Before we get to all that, though, the basics : intrepid journalist Natasha Choudhary (played by an actress who goes only by the name of Meera) has taken a keen interest in a local family tragedy, that of Ayesha Khan (Kavita Radheshyam) and her husband, Sameer (Nirab Hossain), who adopted an infant child named Anna after Ayesha’s sole pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The couple had plenty of love to give, and seemed to be getting ahead financially, so it looked like many fulfilling years were in store for one and all — and who knows? Maybe there were some good times — but lo and behold,  Sameer ended up claiming that Anna was possessed by a demon and shooting her through the head.

There’s at least some money behind this production, and it shows : a nicely creepy incidental music score, appropriately gloomy and  borderline-unearthly lighting,  artistically-composed shots, and fairly competent practical and CGI effects that enhance the film rather than serving as its backbone are all welcome and appreciated feathers in Saif’s cap, but it’s his strong script and uniformly good cast that really make the difference here.

Admittedly, this is a slow-moving story, but it’s quite expertly constructed, with Saif alternating between his present-day investigation and flashbacks that “fill in” the many intriguing “blanks” that worm their way into the backs of our minds from the outset. Characters are fully fleshed-out and all evince a reasonable amount of complexity (with one major exception, which I’ll get to momentarily), the progression of events unfolds with an admirable amount of tension, and everything holds together on both logical and emotional levels as things more lurch than careen toward inevitable disaster. Incredibly solid performances, especially from Radheshyam, anchor the whole tragic affair, and for a movie that telegraphs its ending more or less right out of the gate, there are even a number of genuine — and genuinely shocking — surprises to be found along the way.

One rather large flaw, though, is the two-dimensional nature of Anna’s characterization. The little girl who plays her is, as near as I can determine, uncredited, and she’s really not given much to sink her teeth into, even for a child actor : she’s essentially relegated to the job of going from damn bad to even worse, with not much by way of a “normal” existence prior to her possession being shown. Making her somebody we can relate to on at least some level would have made for a much stronger overall story, but unfortunately, she’s not afforded anything like the nicely-realized treatment that anyone else is. A curious decision on Saif’s part, to say the least.

Obviously, I can’t even pretend to be able to speak to the film’s authenticity as far as how the Islamic faith deals with suspected cases of possession, but given that it only took about a minute and a half on Google to learn that Saif is himself a practicing Muslim, I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s done his homework on the subject. Even if he’s faking it all, though, it honestly doesn’t matter : Islamic Exorcist is constructed well enough, on levels both artistic and purely technical, that you’ll find yourself more than willing to go with its flow — heck, I daresay you may even find yourself more than a little bit haunted by it afterwards.

Here’s one I’m predisposed to like right off the bat : writer/director Paul Foster’s 2017 indie horror Unwanted, a well and truly “homemade” effort shot in Pittsbug (no “h”), Texas, earlier this very year for a whopping $8,900. My love for “micro-budget” filmmaking is well known around these parts, of course, but East Texas has held a special fascination for me for the past couple of decades ever since reading cartoonist Michael Dougan’s outstanding books I Can’t Tell You Anything and East Texas : Tales From Behind The Pine Curtain, both of which made this uniquely off-beat part of the country seem something of a world all its own. Surely, then, this one must have at least  something to recommend in its favor almost by default, right?

Still — there’s no point getting ahead of ourselves, is there? I mean, plenty of films with more going for them “on paper” have failed to live up to expectations, and given that the cast of this one was made up entirely of inexperienced actors, and that Foster himself had never made a movie before, well — there’s really no reason to bank on anything special going on here, am I right? So let’s just say I went into this hoping for the best, but not especially expecting anything.

Given all that, then, the fact that Unwanted is a decidedly mixed bag should not only come as no surprise, but might even be considered something of a “win” for Foster, his cast, and his crew. The premise is about as basic as it gets — young couple Ryan (played by Ryan Miller) and Shannon (Christa Watson), who are searching for their dream house, stumble upon one that’s available for a song and has been on the market for a looonnng time. Too good to be true, right? Well, when a deal this good lands in your lap you generally don’t question it, and so our lovebirds scrape together everything they’ve got and take the plunge.

Big mistake — of course.

Look, Foster does what he can with what he’s got, and it’s not his fault that “what he’s got” isn’t very much. I guess he hustled up what little financing he could by means of Indiegogo, and it’s a good bet that most of it went to securing rights to shoot in the Holman House, a local historical landmark. Certainly not much was spent on the cast, as both leads clearly have a lot of learning about their craft yet to do (in fact, some of the supporting players, particularly Deborah Johnston who plays a character called Carolyn, seem to have a bit more in terms of natural acting ability), but I give them credit for coming up trumps during the film’s more tense scenes — when said “tense scenes” actually happen, mind you.

Which brings us to the biggest “knock” that Unwanted has going against it, namely : this isn’t a “slow burn,” its pacing is downright glacial. When you’ve got no money for effects and are basically entirely dependent on things going bump in the night, you’d damn well better have some tricks up your sleeve to keep audiences interested, and Foster can’t compensate for his financially-dictated “minuses” with any particular “pluses.” Sure, he stumbles his way into some genuinely effective shots and generally speaking his camerawork is never what you’d call incompetent by any stretch, but when you’re doing a “creaky old haunted house” flick, you’d best make certain that every creak comes across loud and clear, and this film’s sound quality is so uneven and haphazard that it really undercuts everything our nine-thousand-dollar auteur is trying to achieve. His heart’s in the right place, to be sure, and I’ll give him an “A” for effort, but in terms of execution, shit — I hate to say it, but he’s firmly in, oh, I dunno, let’s call it “C-minus” territory.

Still, far be it from me to say that his film was a complete waste of everyone’s time to make — although it may be a waste of your time to watch. Foster at least seems to have a grasp on what he wants to do, and given the resources to do it, he may just come up with something reasonably good. Ditto for the most of the actors, who could rise to the level of “passable” with some more lessons under their belts. This isn’t an especially good flick by any stretch, but it doesn’t scream “seriously, people, don’t quit your day jobs,” either — which is just as well, I suppose, because I can’t imagine that any of them actually have.

I’ve certainly seen people with less do more than Foster is able to achieve with Unwanted, it’s true, but what the hell — I’ve seen people with more do a lot less, too. No one involved with this production should feel either ashamed or embarrassed, but the flick is nothing to necessarily be proud of, either. It just kinda — is. And what it “is” happens to be slow, plodding, and generally uninspired — but not without its moments. I just wish there were a lot more of ’em, and that they started in a lot sooner.