The Neon Demon (2016): Slow and Weird (Review)

Elle Fanning The Neon Demon

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is, beneath its slow weirdness, a cautionary tale and a horror film that creeps up on the viewer. At just under two hours the film seems much longer and it seems to be almost a love letter to Italian maestro Dario Argento’s Suspiria

The action in this tale of a young talentless beauty “I got looks (sic) and that’s worth money” who attempts to break into the modeling business in Hollywood, is a 180 degree twist to the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone vehicle “La La Land.”

Unfortunately the film moves at a snail’s pace and Refn tends to drag out his visuals that bit too long.  The director specializes in scenes that take forever to get through, sometimes with minimal dialogue, and while it works on some films, like “Drive” and Only God Forgives it only serves to frustrate and bore in The Neon Demon.

The acting, which is spot on by Elle Fanning as the new kid in town, along with Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks (in a blink and you’ll miss her cameo) is a bit hit and miss.  The only other performer who raises the bar is Jena Malone (The RuinsSucker Punch). Desmond Harrington (Wrong Turn, Ghost Ship) looks ill and the two other models are wooden in every sense of the word. 

Reeves is particularly good as the douche motel manager “214 has got to be seen” who seems too impressed by the 13 year old “Lolita” who just checked in.

Fanning, who is starting to steadily outshine her sister Dakota, is brilliant as the slightly vapid teen who wants to become famous and rich on the virtue of her looks alone. As the character tells her male friend, she cannot act, sing or write, so it is her natural beauty that must pave the way to her fortune.

Unfortunately, there is an all too familiar sense of doom to the youngster who seems to be heading on the right track. Everyone she meets is weird or at the very least damaged and we can feel that this will not end well for anyone.

Refn has pulled out all stops here. There is a taste of lesbian necrophilia, some cannibalism and scene that seems to suggest that female models are not better than dogs. (Think of canines and their disgusting habit of eating regurgitated “food.”)

The entire film has a “bad dream” quality to it that is in keeping with Refn’s near somnambulistic delivery, started with Ryan Gosling’s almost narcoleptic performance as the driver in “Drive” and continued with his later role in “Only God Forgives.”

Fanning’s character is, like Gosling’s, almost silent when it comes to everyday conversation. The young thing clearly is not thinking deep thoughts and if she were, could not explain them anyway. Jesse (Fanning) is slow on the uptake which makes her “end” not too surprising.

If there were any message at all with Refn’s latest effort it is clearly that “beautiful” people are not, as a rule, the sharpest tool in the shed. Ambition needs some smarts to back it up and Jesse lacks the knowledge to really survive.

The ending is shocking, to a degree, but somewhat anti-climatic. The film is worth watching, especially if one is a Refn fan, and is available on Amazon Prime, if you are a member, or can be streamed/rented, if you are not.

The Neon Demon may not give you nightmares but the 3.5 star film will make the viewer think. On a sidenote, Keanu Reeves plays an unpleasant character very, very well: “Wider…”

The Windmill (2016): Dutch Homage to Hammer (Review)

The Windmill, aka The Windmill Massacre

Written and directed by Nick Jongerius, The Windmill, aka ‘The Windmill Massacre,” is no Amsterdammed. This is no taut thriller dressed up like an 80’s cop/horror film.  Jongerius gives us what could be construed as a loving homage to those ’60’s and ’70’s Hammer horror films. Classics like “The Vault of Horror” or Dr. Terror’s House of Horror,  for example, where the cast all find they have died and are about to meet their just deserts, are given a nod here.

A disparate group of foreigners, a few Brits, an Aussie, a French woman and a Japanese man on a mission, all take a “Happy Holland” tour of local windmills.  Unlike the anthology films of the ”70’s, these victims are not overly heavy with an abundance of backstory. This is no in-depth retelling of their various peccadilloes that have landed them in this predicament.

We get flashes of their “sins” but that is all. (Except for Jennifer – Brit actress Charlotte Beaumont who plays a murderer from “Down Under” – who has quite a bit of backstory presented in fits and starts.)  There is no real location given in the film, although we get the impression that the events are unfolding in and around Amsterdam. 

Abe, the driver, takes his charges to at least one windmill and then on the way to another, the bus breaks down. The group narrowly escape getting injured when the vehicle falls into a canal and later on, after an abortive attempt at finding help, they all walk to another windmill off the road.

Before the reach the windmill, they find an abandoned structure that is filled with old papers. One of the papers tells of a story where a miller sells his soul to the devil. Shortly after, a very big man with a scythe and great huge wooden clogs on his feet makes an appearance.

As the tourists begin to die, the Japanese man decides that they are at the gate of hell and that he must perform a sort of exorcism.

The film itself is nothing to really get too excited about but it works, after a fashion, and we manage to get caught up in the Australian girl’s story.

While this is not an anthology theme, per se, it does feel like one. Enough so that one is thrown immediately into Hammer territory. The Dutch actor who plays Abe (Bart Klever) performs his part well and later on the film  itself gives us a satisfying O.Henry type twist.

(Hammer also specialized in these sort of endings, although each anthology managed to turn the story in its protagonist as well.)

For those who have been to Holland and seen the windmills, the tale of the devil’s miller makes a certain amount of sense. Those wooden towers with their creaking blades do seem a bit creepy and the setting in this film is spot on.

Jongerius gives us a taste of horror that borders on the religious. (Each “victim” is a sinner who did something horrible to someone else, in most cases murder, and are now going to pay the piper for their previous transgressions.)

The Windmill Murders is a solid four star film. The effects are, for the most part, practical and work very well. The movie was filmed in and around Loenen, in The Netherlands, and as a location the area was perfect for the storyline.

There were a few odd moments, for example the hookers at the small red-light district were actually not in their windows at all but standing in the doorway, and the milled flower flowing down the chute was behind glass, like a tourist mill, but apart from these instances the film flowed well.

It is on Netflix at the moment and is well worth a look. It won’t give you nightmares but it will make you jump here and there.  There is a certain amount of bloodshed and a decapitation. There is no nudity and not one sex scene.

Check out the trailer below and then head over to watch this Dutch homage to Hammer anthology horror.

I Baked Him a Cake (2016): Short and Disturbing Horror (Review)

All images courtesy of Samantha Kolesnik

Written by Samantha Kolesnik (proving that “The Price of Bones” was not a fluke at all) and directed by  Vanessa Ionta Wright (who killed with her Stephen King adaptation  of “Rainy Season“) I Baked Him a Cake is a gloriously dark and foreboding bit of short horror cinema that catches the viewer’s interest and holds it throughout.

Starring Fleece as the mother and Lillian Gray (in her third role as an actress) as Lenora, the film does not bode well for the kid’s father, apparently, as the girl’s mum busily tidies up as Lenora bakes her dad a birthday cake. 

From the start, where the youngster goes into a bathroom that looks more like an abattoir,  we are aware that there is much more going on here than just a domestic spat gone wrong. Underneath the stern and somewhat unloving exterior of the mother, there seem to be control issues.

When Lenora wants to use the toilet, mum is reluctant to leave the room. The child remonstrates with her parent and the way she delivers the line seems to indicate that this is a longstanding problem. Just this scene alone brings up all sorts of questions about the relationship between these two.

Before the girl bakes the cake, Mother is industriously cutting up body parts and the shadow work in the one scene is brilliantly macabre. (There is also a touch of dark comedy in this particular shot, with a stubborn bone having to be snapped in two…)

Fleece manages to really disturb as the murderous mum who is not overly loving toward her child nor, apparently, her husband. Gray gives the concerned child she plays a depth that, combined with Fleece’s performance, also leads the audience to wonder what the real story is behind the missing father issue.

At seven minutes,  Kolesnik and Wright pack a lot of nuance and disturbing imagery into a very short time to brilliant effect. We almost begin to fear for little Lenora before the movie finishes as we also question just what really happened to daddy?

There is no clear implication that Mother did the dad in. She just sets about cleaning up a very bloody mess and at one point hands Lenora a black plastic bag full of what we know to be filled with viscous objects from mummy’s “work.” Once again there is that disconcerting feeling that there is much more going on here.

The cinematography by Henrik A. Meyer is crisp and dark. The camera zeroes in on Mother’s face and we see, with his focus on her un-wielding features, that this “working mother” is a very cold fish.

By the end of the film we are more worried for Lenora than we are for “Daddy” and the result is an unsettling experience that titillates and leaves the viewer asking questions about what is really happening here.

I Baked Him a Cake is a solid four star film. The juxtaposition of the child making a cake and her mother cleaning up a homicidal mess is a fascinating one and also adds much to the mystery of how these two female characters really get on.

Kolesnik and Wright make a brilliant team here and one hopes that they produce more films together in the immediate future.

I Baked Him a Cake Teaser from Vanessa Ionta Wright on Vimeo.

Green Room (2016): Anton Yelchin and Imogen Poots Nailing It (Review)

Anton Yelchin as Pat

Written and directed by “Murder Party” and “Blue Ruin” auteur Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room has the sad distinction of being the last film released starring Anton Yelchin before his untimely death on June 19, 2016. The film follows the misfortune of a struggling punk band who stumble onto a murder while playing at a skinhead roadhouse.

Saulnier, whose debut feature length film was the brilliant low/no-budget offering “Murder Party,” has a knack for making American film that have a distinctly English feel to them.  Taking a note  from such talented Brit filmmakers like “Dog Soldiers” (Neil Marshall, who wrote and directed the werewolf picture, specialized in violent and terse thrillers like Doomsday and the gloriously scary, and all female, The Descent before moving onto mainstream television.)

Yelchin plays the meekest member of a punk band who later teams up with Poots as they fight against a group of white supremacists tasked with killing them.  Patrick Stewart plays wonderfully against type as the club owner who calmly arranges for all the witnesses of the murder to be disposed of.

Green Room, for the most part, takes place in a claustrophobic setting. The band members plus one, Poots’ character Amber, are trapped in a club (roadhouse) in the dressing room, aka green room as Darcy (Stewart) and his Aryan lackeys work out how to kill them all.

The band, which consists of three young men and a female guitarist, and Amber work together and the film is really all about survival. Everyone does a great job in their respective roles but Poots and Yelchin almost effortlessly nail their performances from word one.

Poots boasts a sort of “bowl” band cut and pigtails that makes her looks like a demented Pippy Longstocking’s wannabe while Yelchin appears to be almost emaciated. At one point early in the film Pat (Yelchin) takes Sam (Alia Shawkat) on the back of a folding bicycle and he looks so rail thin that one wonders how he pedals the thing with her balanced on the back. 

All  the band look thin and somewhat wasted, as behooves a young musical group struggling to find gigs, food and petrol. Wisely, the film spends little time on white supremacy themes and opts instead to have Darcy remind his club members to “remember, it’s a movement, not a party,” as the only reference to their leanings.

There are pit bulls, the usual “pet dressing” of these members of society, and they are used against the young band members throughout the film. Saulnier, who has already proven that he can do comedy horror on a budget, with “Murder Party” and a quirky, bloody, crime thriller (Blue Ruin) has now shown what he can do with a horror/thriller.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire film is Darcy’s unflappable calm as he plots the demise of so many people. He even instructs, via a seemingly throwaway remark, how to kill the people responsible for the whole “cluster-f***” in the first place.

The soldiers who willingly go after the targets are also unsettling but as they are really quite two dimensional they serve more as bogeymen cohorts rather than the real deal, like Stewart’s character.

Green Room looks top notch with its grimy sets and gritty decor. Black walls with graffiti scrawled everywhere and a dressing room that looks too disgusting to walk through add to the grungy feel of the bar where the band play.

Once again, the late Yelchin proved just how versatile an actor he really was by playing a more unconventional lead character. Saulnier even allows his lead to be somewhat horrifically injured, a move that causes the audience to wonder of the actor’s character will make it past the first reel.

The band comes across as a real group of musicians who are working hard to make it happen. Kudos to all the actors for finding the truth of characters that could have been flat two dimensional people without a perfect marriage of script and actor.

Green Room is a solid 4 star film. It entertains and keeps the audience close to the edge of their seat as the characters are hunted down through the film. The movie can be seen on Amazon.com, as part of the “Prime” stream and if you have not already done so, head on over to watch this one.

Rainy Season (2017): Stephen King Short and Oh So Sweet (Review)

Rainy Season poster

It is all too seldom that one finds a short, or any length, film based upon a Stephen King story that immediately grabs the viewer and says, “Yes!” King wrote Rainy Season back in 1993. It worked, as lore would have it, as a cure to the author’s writing block and it is a sharp and concise homage to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but set in King’s beloved Maine.

Vanessa Ionta Wright, who wrote the screenplay, gives us a film that does justice to the King short story and looks, quite simply, stunning. Everything about the film screams big budget, the sound, the colors and the sets all feel about as mainstream as you can get without the big price tag. 

The storyline follows King’s; a young couple head to the town of Willow, Maine to stay in an old boarding house. The husband is writing a book and the couple may be young but they have a disturbing past together that is only hinted at.

Anyone who has read King’s short story will remember the climax and the very “Shirley Jackson” feel of the somewhat random unfairness of it all. Wright’s intimate cast of four let us in on that theme and they all fit perfectly.

For example, the barefoot old man (Kermit Rolisonrolling his bugle cigarette sounds like he is reading from a script; because he is. The young couple do not heed the muddled warnings from the older couple (Rolison and Jan Nelsonbecause they are distracted by their recent past and their discomfort at being outsiders.

Brian Ashton Smith is John Graham and Anne-Marie Kennedy is his wife Elise. They have an uneasy chemistry.  Holding hands like a full grown Hansel and Gretel entering the scary woods, the pair clearly love one another but there is something dark underneath their affection.

Both actors show the pain beneath the surface very well and this also helps to sell the final moments of the film.

Above all else, though, Wright spoils us with an almost perfect cinematic version of the short story. The greens are vibrant, the sounds of the countryside are alive and, almost, overbearing and the house is a perfect fit for the tale that is told.

The film’s effects are all, from the look of it, practical and they work brilliantly.  Between cinematographer Mark Simon’s skillful avoidance of catching the creatures full on and the sounds being made by them,  we can identify the things immediately.

Rainy Season is low key horror that builds steadily and the director uses sound masterfully to provide an almost perfect payoff at the end. Just as the country noises punctuate the film’s events, they also work to make this low budget “Dollar” production practically sing.

This is easily one of the best adaptations of any Stephen King story on offer. Wright, who wrote and directed the film as part of the author’s “Dollar Baby” program, obviously “gets it.” She is clearly a fan of King’s work. Take the start of the film as an example.  The camera zooms in on the radio as John Graham fiddles with the knob.

The car’s make is in  big cursive letters on the front of the radio, “BUICK.” This has to be a huge nod and wink to King’s “From a Buick 8.” It could be said that this reference is a connection, of sorts, to the things found in Rainy Season

Buick

Rainy Season is hitting the festival circuit at the moment (2017/2018) and it is our prediction that this will be a massive award winner. Wright, who was the Graphic Designer on the superb 2016 short The Price of Bones, is definitely one to keep an eye out for.

This film is a full 5 star offering. It is a visual treat as well as a splendidly paced and plotted dramatic horror film. We would be willing to bet that Stephen King must love this adaptation.

Have a look at the trailer and see what you think.

Official 2017 Rainy Season Trailer from Vanessa Ionta Wright on Vimeo.