Wednesday, October 11, 2017

#2,441. Ava's Possessions (2015)

Directed By: Jordan Galland

Starring: Louisa Krause, Whitney Able, Deborah Rush

Tag line: "She can handle her spirits"

Trivia: The film had its world premiere on April 26, 2015 at the Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival

This 2015 movie begins where most other possession-themed horror films end: with an exorcism.

A priest (John Ventimiglia), standing at the foot of a bed, is grasping his prayer book, ordering a demon to leave it’s host while the relatives of the possessed girl, whose name is Ava (Louisa Krause), stand in the background, watching silently. Ava, strapped to her bed, is growling and thrashing about as she drifts in and out of consciousness. The entire scene is shot POV, from Ava’s perspective, and moments before the priest finally banishes the evil entity back to hell, Ava (still under demonic control) turns towards a mirror, smiles at her reflection, and says “Hello, gorgeous!

Along with setting up the story, this opening lets us know that writer / director Jordan Ballard’s Ava’s Possessions is going to be as much a comedy as it is a horror film.

Now that the devil inside of her has been vanquished, Ava is ready to get on with her life. But a lot happened during her 28-day possession, most of which she doesn’t remember. For example, as a result of her recent erratic behavior, Ava’s friends are convinced she’s the queen bitch, and want nothing to do with her. Neither does her longtime boyfriend, who apparently dumped her for hooking up with another guy in front of him, and seeing as nobody called her in sick poor Ava is probably unemployed.

What’s more, Ava is in trouble with the law (it seems she did some very bad things while under the influence of that demon), and could be looking at some serious jail time.

Her parents (Deborah Rush and William Sadler) tell Ava she should look at this whole possession episode as a “wake-up call”, while her sister Jillian (Whitney Able) and Jillian’s fiance Roger (Zachary Booth) do their best to support Ava in her time of need. Meanwhile, J.J. Samson (Dan Fogler), the lawyer hired by her parents, tells Ava that, if she wants to stay out of prison, she’ll have to join a support group for the recently possessed, which meets in a local community center once a week and is run by a guy named Tony (Wass Stevens).

But that’s not all; while cleaning her apartment one night, Ava finds a blood stain on her carpet, as well as a man’s watch with a name engraved on it. To try and determine what might have happened (and whose blood it is), she eventually meets up with Ben (Lou Taylor Pucci), an art dealer and the son of the watch’s owner. Alas, Ben has no idea where his father is, nor can he answer any of Ava’s questions.

Then, on top of everything else, the demon that possessed Ava has started coming around again, and is doing everything in its power to “re-enter” her body. Can Eva fight off this evil spirit, or will she once again fall under its spell?

Ava’s Possessions is a clever, sometimes funny look at what happens to the possessed after the demon has been expelled, and features a solid performance by Louisa Krause as the title character, who tries to get on with her life while at the same time realizing nothing will ever be the same again. In addition, the movie has a few laugh out loud moments (most of which come courtesy of the support group Ava joins); a perplexing mystery (To figure out what happened in her living room, Ava is forced to visit some seedy areas of town); and a few legitimate scares (one involving a little girl on a staircase sent a shiver up my spine).

There’s even a scene in which Ava helps Hazel (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), a fellow member of her support group, get back in touch with the demon that once controlled her. Ever since her possession ended, Hazel has felt like something is missing form her life, and is convinced that she and her malevolent spirit were meant to be together. By looking at demonic possession from many different angles, Ava’s Possessions manages to distinguish itself in a subgenre that, in recent years, has been done to death.

Alas, Ava’s Possessions ultimately bites off more than it can chew (along with the comedy and horror, Ava has a brief romantic fling with Ben) and when the end credits roll some of the film’s subplots are left hanging. But as a unique spin on the possession subgenre, Ava’s Possessions has plenty to offer, and is guaranteed to entertain.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

#2,440. A Dark Song (2016)

Directed By: Liam Gavin

Starring: Catherine Walker, Steve Oram, Nathan Vos

Tag line: "Not everything can be forgiven"

Trivia: Director Liam Gavin only had 20 days to film inside the house

A Dark Song, the 2016 horror / drama by writer / director Liam Gavin, is in no particular hurry to get around to its more horrific elements, yet I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “slow burn”. That term suggests a movie that is gradually building towards something, which, in a way, this film is; a woman, unable to deal with a tragic event from her past, enlists the help of an occultist to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, all to ask a favor that only Gods or demons could possibly grant her. As you can imagine, the ritual to accomplish this amazing feat is quite involved, and takes months (as well as a decent portion of the movie) to complete.

But from its very first scene, director Gavin infuses the movie with a sense of dread that remains constant throughout. So, even as we’re waiting for its supernatural elements to come into play, A Dark Song still manages to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is reeling from the death of her only son, and with the help of Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), a well-respected master of the occult, she is hoping the spirits will allow her to once again speak with her deceased child. Armed with a detailed list of specifications (which Solomon provided), Sophia rents a house in Wales and prepares herself, physically and emotionally, for a ceremony that, if successful, will grant her unusual request.

Despite Solomon’s numerous warnings that the ritual will be long and unpleasant, and that they will be tampering with very dark forces, Sophia remains steadfast in her determination to see it through to the end. But as the weeks drag on, Sophia begins to wonder if Solomon sold her a bill of goods, and is unable to contact the netherworld as promised, while Solomon himself becomes increasingly convinced that Sophia’s true intentions are much more sinister than she’s letting on.

For the majority of its runtime, A Dark Song is a two-person show, and as such a lot was riding on the performances delivered by its stars. Luckily, both were up to the challenge. Walker is excellent as Sophia, the strong-willed woman who nonetheless turns herself over, body and soul, to a man she hardly knows, while Oram is pitch-perfect as the wise but ultimately flawed Solomon (an accomplished master of the dark arts, he is also an alcoholic, something he himself admits could hinder his ability to complete the ritual; and at one point Solomon even lets his sexual urges get the better of him, resulting in what is undoubtedly the movie’s most uncomfortable scene). The love-hate relationship that develops between the two characters proves quite fascinating, giving A Dark Song a dramatic flair you don’t find in many horror films.

In addition, the tonal score composed by Ray Harman helps to build, and then maintain the movie’s ominous mood; and once the ritual is in full-swing, A Dark Song takes a few unexpected, yet ultimately creepy, turns, combining more “traditional” ghostly elements (mysterious voices, doors opening on their own, etc) with some that are quite unique. 

The one issue I had with A Dark Song was its climax. I give writer/director Nevin points for creativity (it’s not a finale you’ll see coming), but when you take into account all that went before it the ending came across as a bit too tidy. 

Fortunately, it’s not enough to ruin what is an otherwise exceptional film, and thanks to the stellar performances delivered by its two leads A Dark Song is one horror movie I’m anxious to check out again in the near future.

Monday, October 9, 2017

#2,439. Under the Shadow (2016)

Directed By: Babak Anvari

Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi

Tagline: "Fear Will Find You"

Trivia: The film was actually shot in Jordan

I’m definitely a “list” guy. I love movie lists of all kinds, and am especially fond of yearly top 10 lists, where critics and fans alike clue us in as to which films were their favorites of that particular year. Of course, there’s a downside to compiling such a list: odds are you missed a few of the movies released over the previous 12 months, and it’s possible that a film you haven’t seen might have cracked your top 10 had you watched it in time. Such is the case with the 2016 horror flick Under the Shadow. Simply put, it is a tremendous picture, and had I caught up with it there’s no doubt it would have made my Top 10 Horror Films of that year.

In fact, Under the Shadow is so good that it may have filled a spot on my Overall Top-10 as well.

Tehran, 1988. The Iran-Iraq war rages on, and has now reached the city (Iraq pelts the Iranian capital with missiles on an almost daily basis). After being refused a chance to continue her medical training (due to her past political activism), Shideh (Narges Rashidi) slips into the role of a housewife, and when her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is drafted into the army, she and their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) find themselves all alone in a spacious apartment (for their safety, Iraj begs his wife to take Dorsa and move in with his family in the country, but the stubborn Shideh refuses to abandon her home).

As the days pass, Dorsa begins to complain that she’s afraid, and doesn’t want to be left alone or sleep in her own bed at night. When Shideh asks her why, the young girl confesses that one of her playmates, the nephew of their landlord, told her that a Djinn, a malevolent spirit that haunts the living, has found its way into their building, and is looking for someone to torment. Shideh tries to calm her daughter’s fears by explaining that ghosts are a myth, but when Dorsa’s favorite doll goes missing, the poor girl is convinced it was taken by the Djinn.

Try as she might, Shideh cannot find the doll, and after a few creepy experiences of her own, she begins to wonder if Dorsa’s Djinn is, in fact, make-believe, or if it is very real.

Over the years, I’ve grown weary of jump scares, especially when they're combined with a dream sequence. Yet writer / director Babak Anvari has managed to incorporate both of these now-tired clichés into Under the Shadow and make them damn effective to boot (I jumped each and every time I was supposed to, and because the film’s overall style remains consistent throughout we’re never quite sure when Shideh is awake and when she is dreaming).

The war also plays an integral part in the story, bringing an added level of tension to what is ultimately a very intense situation. To escape the bombings, the building’s other residents temporarily move away, leaving Shideh and her daughter to fend for themselves (Shideh has promised Dorsa they won’t leave until they’ve found her beloved doll). In addition, one of the film’s most memorable scenes involves an unexploded missile that crashes into the upstairs apartment, leaving a crack in Shideh’s ceiling that takes center stage once the supernatural thrills are in full swing.

Also worth noting is the film’s strong central character (wonderfully portrayed by Narges Rashidi), and when you take into account the setting and the time period in which this tale is set, the fact that the character is female is doubly impressive. I’m not sure if the laws have relaxed over the years, but in the ‘80s all Iranian women were required to wear a chador in public, and after a particularly harrowing encounter with the Djinn, Shideh grabs her daughter and rushes outside, only to be taken into custody by the military and threatened with a whipping (because she didn’t cover her head before leaving the apartment). The Djinn proves to be a formidable foe throughout Under the Shadow, but for progressive-minded women in 1980’s Iran, tradition and law could sometimes be just as frightening.

That said, the most notable aspect of Under the Shadow is undoubtedly the entity that haunts both mother and daughter. Over the course of the film, we do learn a little about the Djinn; according to legend, it moves with the wind, and there’s no telling where it will turn up or who it will bother. Also, Djinns supposedly steal a prized possession from the person or persons they’ve focused their attention on, and until that item is recovered the Djinn will be able to track their victim’s every move (it can follow them to the ends of the earth, if necessary). 

These bits of ghostly trivia aside, we know nothing about the spirit that has settled in Shideh’s apartment building, including what form it will take (mostly seen as a floating chador, it can also resemble people they know) or why it chose Shideh and Dorsa as its prime targets. From start to finish, the Djinn at the center of Under the Shadow remains an enigma, and this makes it all the more terrifying.

As we mentioned in our year-end show on Horror Movie Podcast, some truly excellent horror films were released in 2016, which made compiling a top-10 for that episode a bit of a challenge. Still, I have no doubt I could have found room for Under the Shadow on my list had I seen it in time.

My Overall Top 10, though (which includes all genres), is another matter entirely. 

Right now, The Witch is resting comfortably in the 10 spot on my 2016 list, and while I really enjoyed Under the Shadow, I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I prefer it to director Robert Eggers’ indie sensation. 

One day in the near future, I hope to watch both The Witch and Under the Shadow back-to-back, to decide once and for all which movie will fill that final spot on my 2016 list.

But regardless of which one I ultimately choose, The Witch is an extraordinary motion picture.

And so, for that matter, is Under the Shadow.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

#2,438. Raw (2016)

Directed By: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

Tagline: "What are you hungry for?"

Trivia: Supposedly, over 30 people left the cinema when this movie was shown in Sweden. Two people fainted and a few others threw up

It’s been ten years since the release of Inside, and nine since Martyrs hit the scene, but with 2016’s Raw writer / director Julia Ducournau has proven the French still have an “appetite” for the extreme (pun intended… and my apologies).

Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian, is one of many new students at a prestigious veterinary school, the very institution her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) now attends. At first, Justine, who is incredibly smart and a little shy, has a hard time fitting in; aside from her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), she hasn’t been able to make any friends. 

Then, during a freshman hazing ritual, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit liver. Having never consumed meat before, she has an allergic reaction and breaks out in a nasty rash. But this tiny piece of liver does more than make her itch; it changes her life. All at once, Justine develops a yearning for meat (mostly raw), and it isn’t long before her newfound appetite takes her down a disturbing path.

Is Justine truly a freak of nature (as she believes), or did she come by her bizarre new cravings honestly?

Raw is a visceral genre film of the highest order, a picture drenched in blood and dripping with carnage. But like Inside and Martyrs before it, Raw is much more than the sum of its gore sequences; whereas Inside was ultimately about dealing with loss, and Martyrs presented a search for a higher truth, Raw tells the story of a girl who has found her true self. Having escaped the strict regimen imposed on her by her vegetarian parents, Justine consumes meat for the first time, and it has an overwhelming effect on her.

Suddenly, Justine can’t get enough raw meat, whether human or otherwise (a scene involving a severed finger is arguably the most uncomfortable in the entire film). But it’s more than just the food she now eats. Justine’s personality also evolves; the withdrawn, demure girl who arrived at school gradually disappears, and an outgoing young woman exploring her own sexuality takes her place (Justine even manages to lure the openly gay Adrien into her bed). Eating meat hasn’t just expanded her dietary options; it’s unlocked her true potential, and as we will discover later in the film the cravings Justine now experiences have had a similar effect on others.

Ella Rumpf delivers a solid performance as Alexia, the elder sibling who tries (and more often than not fails) to take Justine under her wing, but it’s Garance Marillier’s turn as Justine, the frightened teenager forced to confront some unpleasant truths about herself, who steals the show. Early on, we sympathize with Justine, a brilliant but reserved student whose experience with raw meat sparks an emotional evolution within, transforming her from a girl into a young woman ready to face the world. Marillier perfectly conveys these two extremes of her character’s personality (introvert and self-confident party girl), and despite her abnormal “appetites” Justine remains, at all times, the film’s most sympathetic character.

Simultaneously savage and unflinching, Raw is guaranteed to give your gag reflex a workout. But it also relates what could very well be the most unique coming-of-age tale ever conceived, and this particular aspect of the movie will, I’m sure, prove every bit as memorable as the moments that will make you turn away in disgust.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

#2,437. The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015)

Directed By: Oz Perkins

Starring: Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton

Tag line: "Abandoned as a child. Raised by the dark"

Trivia:  When co-star Emma Roberts read the script for the movie, she couldn't sleep afterwards because it scared her so much

We realize early on in The Blackcoat’s Daughter that something terrible is going to happen. From the word “go”, writer / director Osgood Perkins (son of Psycho’s Anthony Perkins) fills us with a sense of dread, yet somehow manages to also pique our curiosity; a tragedy is about to rock the girl’s school at the center of this 2015 horror movie, and we are more than willing to sit patiently and watch it play out.

It’s the end of February, which means it is break time for the students at Bramford Academy, an all-girls Catholic boarding school situated in Upstate New York. During the course of the day, most of the young ladies are picked up by their parents, and head home to enjoy their week-long vacation. But when the last car pulls away, it's discovered that Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka) have been left behind.

The headmaster, Mr. Gordon (Peter James Haworth), is unable to contact the girls’ parents, and assumes they are either on their way or got the dates mixed up. So, until their families arrive, Rose and Kat will have to remain at Bramford, where Miss Drake (Heather Tod Mitchell) and Miss Prescott (Elana Krausz), a pair of nuns who reside at the school full-time, will look after them.

But their parents aren’t coming; Rose told her father and mother the wrong date so that she could break the news to her boyfriend Rick (Peter Grey) that she’s pregnant. As for Kat, she had a vivid dream in which her parents were killed in a car accident, and she is convinced they are no longer alive. Fortunately for her, Kat has made a new “friend” at Bramford, an invisible entity that whispers in her ear, possesses her body and her mind, and makes her do some very, very bad things.

Meanwhile, miles away, a girl named Joan (Emma Roberts) climbs off a bus and is soon after approached by the kindly Bill (James Remar), who offers to give her a ride. Bill tells Joan that he and his wife Linda (Lauren Holly) travel to the New York area every year around this time, and he would be more than happy to take her wherever she wants to go. Joan says she is heading to Portsmouth, but to get there the three will have to pass through Bramford…

By following two storylines, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, along with its more horrific elements, proved to be a fairly perplexing mystery. Throughout the movie, we wonder how (and if) these two separate tales are going to intersect, and if Joan is connected in any way to either Kat or Rose. Perkins does eventually fill in some of the blanks (one major twist is revealed a bit earlier than it should have been), but as with any good mystery he doesn’t lay his last card on the table until the very end (and trust me when I tell you, that final surprise is a doozy!)

All three of the film’s young leads are excellent in their respective roles. Though her character remains an enigma through much of the movie, Emma Roberts still manages to make us care about the clearly disturbed Joan (we’re led to believe she’s escaped from a mental facility); and while Lucy Boynton’s Rose starts out as a typical, self-obsessed teenager (ignoring Mr. Gordon’s instructions, she leaves Kat by herself one night to visit her boyfriend), she soon realizes that something is very wrong with her young schoolmate, and becomes genuinely concerned for Kat’s well-being.

The standout performance, however, is delivered by Kiernan Shipka, whose character has made a pact with a demon. We sense in her very first scene that Kat can see things others cannot (while meeting with the school’s resident priest, played by Greg Ellwand, Kat glances out the window and smiles as if acknowledging a friend, despite the fact nobody is there), and her behavior becomes more erratic as the film progresses. 

At times an inquisitive teenager (she is intrigued when Rose repeats a rumor that Miss Drake and Miss Prescott were spotted one evening performing a satanic ritual), Kat is also the most frightening character in the film, a young girl who not only befriended an evil spirit, but happily invited it to take over her body. Though only 15 at the time, Shipka gives a performance in The Blackcoat’s Daughter that would make an actress with 20+ years experience green with envy.

All this, as well as the film's wintry setting (while the weather itself doesn’t figure prominently in the story, there’s a general feeling of isolation that goes hand-in-hand with a snowy landscape), some fine music (provided by Elvis Perkins, Osgood’s brother), and several truly shocking scenes work in unison to make The Blackcoat’s Daughter one of the best horror movies I’ve seen this year.

In fact, I’ll make a prediction: when we finally close the books on 2017, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is going to rank high on my top 10 list. Take it to the bank.

Friday, October 6, 2017

#2,436. Asmodexia (2014)

Directed By: James Rasin

Starring: Candy Darling, Andy Warhol, Holly Woodlawn

AKA: In Peru, the movie's title was changed to Disciples of Evil

Premiere: Premiered at the 2014 Brussels Festival of Fantastic Films

Asmodexia is a movie I happened upon by chance; the trailer for this Spanish horror film is one of several featured on the DVD for Inner Demons and played just before that 2014 movie started. Based on this preview alone, Asmodexia looked like it might offer a different spin on the possession subgenre, and I figured it was worth a watch.

Yet not even the trailer could prepare me for how unique this film truly is, and while I was definitely drawn into the movie and even blown away a little by the various twists and turns its story took, I ultimately admired Asmodexia more than I actually liked it.

Eloy (Lluís Marco) and his granddaughter Alba (Clàudia Pons) travel the countryside, helping those who have been possessed by malevolent spirits (While Eloy is definitely the driving force behind this mission of mercy, It’s Alba who dispels the unwanted entities). The two make their way from village to village, reuniting with many of Eloy’s former followers as they cleanse the possessed, while Ona (Irene Montalà), herself a past disciple of Eloy’s, rots away in a mental institution, where sinister forces have been making their presence known on an almost daily basis.

Eloy believes the sharp increase in supernatural activity (which coincides with the end of the Mayan calendar) signifies the beginning of what he calls a “New Resurrection”, one that is destined to change the world. But as this day of reckoning approaches, Eloy and Alba must confront a select few who have sworn to do everything in their power to prevent the “second coming” from ever happening.

Directed by Marc Carreté, Asmodexia is a movie that demands both your patience and your undivided attention as it pieces its rather complex story together. Soon after the opening sequence, during which a possessed woman gives birth, Asmodexia branches off in a number of different directions; along with Eloy’s and Alba’s exorcisms, the film dedicates a fair portion of its time to Ona and the spirits that have invaded her mental facility; and there’s another subplot involving Ona’s sister Diana (Marta Belmonte), a police inspector who, like Ona, once followed Eloy and is now trying to figure out what is happening, and why.

Each of these storylines unfolds slowly, so much so that by the time the movie reached the one-hour mark I still had more questions than I did answers (a video from several years earlier, which features Eloy, Ona and Diana, is shown at various intervals throughout the film, giving us hope that there is, indeed, a common thread connecting the movie’s characters while at the same time offering very few clues as to what might have transpired between them).

It isn’t until the last 10 minutes or so that Asmodexia finally ties everything together, and the finale definitely took me by surprise. Yet even as I sat there, marveling at how effectively the film had pulled the wool over my eyes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the journey itself wasn’t as satisfying, and that director Carreté as well as his co-screenwriter Mike Hostench had guarded their secrets a bit too jealously early on, giving us just enough to keep us watching but not nearly enough to make us care about what was going on.

And that, I’m afraid, is how I felt once Asmodexia was over: I was impressed, but I didn’t really give a damn.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

#2,435. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Directed By: Ana Lily Amirpour

Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh

Tag line: "The first Iranian Vampire Western"

Trivia: Ana Lily Amirpour teamed up with Radco to develop a series of graphic novels to accompany the film

To call director Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night “unique” is an understatement. Though shot in Northern California, the movie is set in Iran (all of the characters speak Farsi), and tells the story of a female vampire (decked out in an Iranian chador) who feeds on the male “undesirables” of Bad Town, an industrial community that, despite being a prime area for oil drilling, is home to some very poor people (the setting gives the film a western vibe, which explains why it has been described by some as an “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western”). What’s more, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was shot in stunning black-and-white, and even features a romantic subplot (involving the vampire).

Oh, and there’s a scene where the chador-dressed vampire rides a skateboard… can’t forget that.

Its unusual qualities aside, however, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an engaging, often moving, and sometimes spooky film about two very lonely people who, though quite different (he is alive, she is undead), fall deeply in love with each other.

Arash (Arash Marandi) is a young, hardworking Iranian landscaper who can’t seem to catch a break. He lives in a desolate area of Bad Town with his heroin-addicted father Hossein (Marshall Manesh), who owes so much money to drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains) that poor Arash is forced to surrender his beloved car as payment for his father’s debts. Hoping to get his vehicle back, Arash steals a pair of diamond earrings from Shaydah (Rome Shadanloo), the daughter of the wealthy family that employs him, but when he goes to Saeed’s apartment to swap the earrings for his car he finds Saeed dead on the floor, blood dripping from an open wound in his neck.

Saeed, it turns out, was the latest victim of an attractive female vampire (Sheila Vand) who roams the streets of Bad Town at night, preying on criminals and lowlifes (the vampire marked Saeed for death after watching him physically assault Atti, a prostitute played by Mozhan Marno). 

Sensing an opportunity to make some serious money, Arash steals Saeed’s drug supply and starts selling it himself. At a night club, he even gets to impress Shaydah by giving her a complimentary ecstasy pill. But when she rejects his advances, a sullen Arash leaves the club and, during his long walk home, comes face-to-face with the vampire, who he falls in love with almost instantly. The vampire invites Arash back to her room, but finds she’s unable to turn the lovestruck young man into her next meal because she, too, has developed feelings for him!

In many ways, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is more like an arthouse film than it is a genre flick. Along with its exceptional black and white photography, the movie is deliberately paced; director Amirpour never rushes things, and even throws in a little slow-motion from time to time. The setting is equally as strong, and the often deserted streets of Bad Town perfectly emphasize the loneliness that plagues the film’s various characters. 

The cast also does a fine job, especially Sheila Vand as the vampire, who even when she’s not speaking is saying plenty with her eyes (when alone in her apartment with Arash, she stares for a moment at his exposed neck, and we immediately sense the conflict that is raging inside of her).

As for its more horrific elements, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is, first and foremost, a drama (with a touch of romance), but does feature a handful of frightening scenes (one in particular, where the vampire stalks a young boy played by Milad Eghbali through the darkened streets of Bad Town, is incredibly creepy). 

I also liked how the vampire could conceal her fangs until she absolutely needed them (seeing them “pop out” during the scene with Saeed was arguably the film’s coolest surprise), and throughout the movie we’re never quite sure when and where the vampire will attack, making the film a bit more suspenseful than it might otherwise have been.

In the end, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night may not be as scary as, say, Nosferatu or Salem’s Lot, but it is a wildly original motion picture, and horror fans would be doing themselves a disservice if they passed up a chance to see it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

#2,434. We Go On (2016)

Directed By: Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton

Starring: Annette O'Toole, Clark Freeman, John Glover

Tag line: "Some doors, once opened, can never be closed again"

Trivia:  Won Best Film at the 2016 Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival

Most phobias and fears that we humans suffer from can be traced back to the exact same thing: we are afraid to die. And in We Go On, a 2016 horror / thriller co-directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, we meet a man so consumed by the thought of his own mortality that he's willing to pay top dollar to anyone who can prove there is, in fact, life after death.

Miles (Clark Freeman) is afraid of many things: cars, airplanes, trains, and, most of all, dying. In the hopes of proving that death is not really the end, Miles places a classified ad offering a reward of $30,000 to the first person who can convince him, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the afterlife is, indeed, real. 

After reading through dozens of replies, Miles, joined by his skeptical mother Charlotte (Annette O’Toole), visits the select few he believes have the best chance of proving there’s more to life than what we experience while we’re alive. But it isn’t until he hooks up with Nelson (Jay Dunn), a Los Angeles-based janitor, that Miles finds the answers he’s looking for.

Instead of giving him peace of mind, however, this revelation only manages to make Miles’ life more complex, and a lot more frightening, than it was before.

Despite being a small, independently-produced film, We Go On tackles some big issues, the loftiest of which is the question of whether or not life continues after death. It is a query that the lead character, Miles, is desperate to answer, and in the first half of the movie he meets with a variety of people who claim they can give him what he wants, including Dr. Ellison (John Glover), whose approach is very scientific; and Josephina (Giovanna Zacarías), a clairvoyant who (if she is to be believed) is hounded by spirits night and day, some of which ask her to do terrible things. Along with being quite fascinating, these early sequences are also unnerving (even those that Miles’ cynical mother, played so well by Annette O’Toole, exposes as frauds will, for a while anyway, have you on the edge of your seat).

Then, once Nelson the janitor enters the picture, We Go On becomes more of a straightforward horror film, and because we’re so wrapped up in Miles’ quest, we suffer the terrors he experiences right along with him. Though he does a fine job throughout the entire movie, Clark Freeman is especially strong in the movie’s second half, when the one fear his character didn’t have when he started this journey of discovery, i.e. - a fear of ghosts, becomes the only thing keeping him up at night.

We Go On isn’t perfect; a scene in which Miles, who had never been behind the wheel of a car before, teaches himself to drive is definitely far-fetched, and we’re not quite sure how Nelson managed to get in touch with Miles in the first place. These (admittedly minor) quibbles aside, however, We Go On is a horror film that dares to ask some big questions while also delivering a fair share of supernatural thrills, making it, for me, one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

#2,433. Killbillies (2015)

Directed By: Tomaz Gorkic

Starring: Nina Ivanisin, Lotos Sparovec, Nika Rozman

Tag line: "The hills are alive, with the sound of... salughter!"

Trivia: Played in Romania at the 2015 Dracula Film Festival

There are certain preconceptions that cannot be avoided when you hear a title like Killbillies. I know, because I had them myself.

But take everything that popped into your head when you first read that title and throw it out the window.

For one, Killbillies is not a comedy. It is a deadly serious horror film.

Second, it is not set in Wrong Turn country, nor does it feature anyone who lives in the same neighborhood as the yokels from Deliverance. Killbillies is set in Slovenia.

That’s right… Slovenia. And if some sources on the internet are to be believed it is the very first feature-length horror film ever to emerge from that Central European Republic.

So, now that I’ve told you what this 2015 movie is not, let me tell you what it is:

Killbillies is a somewhat predictable horror film that was clearly inspired by such classics as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, yet thanks to its unique setting and a handful of truly brutal sequences there’s enough here to, at the very least, make it worth your while.

Though she’s decided to get out of the profession altogether, fashion model Zina (Nina Ivanisin) signs on for one last photo shoot, and with fellow model Mia (Nika Rozman), makeup artist Dragica (Manca Ogorevc), and moody photographer Blitzc (Sebastian Cavazza) she travels deep into the wilderness, where the picturesque mountains will serve as the perfect backdrop for their photos. 

But before Zina and the others can get any real work done, they’re approached by a pair of deformed locals, Francl (Lotos Sparovec) and Vintlr (Jurij Drevensek), who, after knocking Blitcz out, drag the four off to a remote location and lock them in a dank basement. Realizing these sadistic hillbillies have no intention of letting them go, Zina formulates an escape plan, all the while wondering why they were kidnapped in the first place.

The set-up is fairly basic, and while the Slovenian movie-going public may not have seen anything like Killbillies before, horror fans from most other countries know exactly what's going to happen the moment Francl and Vintlr enter the picture. Along with being a bit obvious, the movie features a chase sequence that is far too long (it fills the majority of the film's second half, and despite a few tense moments I found my attention waning as it seemingly dragged on forever).

Yet while Killbillies certainly had its problems, there were things about the movie that impressed me. First off, the setting was magnificent; the mountains that filled the background of most scenes were stunning, and to see such brutality play out in this idyllic location was a new experience for me. Also, the reason why Zina and her pals were abducted (which is revealed in one of the movie’s more grotesque scenes) was a definite surprise. I also liked the look of the hillbillies, whose mutated features reminded me of the baddies in the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes

More than anything, though, Killbillies proved to be as blood-soaked as many of the films that inspired it, with gore sequences that, while not flawless (it was sometimes easy to spot the make-up), looked pretty darn good (one scene in particular, which featured a beheading, was handled perfectly by director Gorkic, who showed us just enough to make this kill effective).

A routine yet interesting bit of bloody mayhem with a very unfortunate title, Killbillies is a movie that most horror fans will likely enjoy, and the gorehounds will absolutely love.

Monday, October 2, 2017

#2,432. The Hallow (2015)

Directed By: Corin Hardy

Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton

Tag line: "Nature has a dark side"

Trivia: The film was shot on location in Ireland, because the director wanted the film to feel as real as possible

Steeped in Irish folklore, The Hallow is an intensely engrossing creature feature. But more than anything, this 2015 movie is proof-positive that, even in the computer age, there’s still plenty of room for practical effects.

Hired by a logging company to survey a lush Irish forest, Adam (Joseph Mawle), along with his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) and their infant son Finn (Wren Hardy), takes up residence in a remote cottage on the edge of the woods. Despite some local opposition, as well as a cryptic warning from their nearest neighbor Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton) to stay out of the forest, Adam carries on with his work, and while doing so discovers the woods are home to an unusual fungal-based parasite, one so strong it can control the mind of anyone it infects.

But as the young family will soon realize, the forest harbors even greater dangers, and while common sense might tell them that ancient folklore is the stuff of fantasy, some fairy tales should be taken very seriously.

The opening scenes of The Hallow, which include Adam’s survey of the forest and his exploration of an abandoned house in the middle of the woods, are beautifully handled by cinematographer Martijn Van Broekhuizen, and establish just how isolated Adam and his family are from the rest of the world. As for its story, writer / director Colin Hardy sets it up wonderfully at the outset; along with Adam’s discovery of the parasitic fungus, the young couple learns that Donnelly’s adolescent daughter Cora vanished in the woods years earlier, and he is convinced she was taken by the forest’s creatures (Changelings, Fairies, Banshees, etc.).

The second half of The Hallow is more action-oriented, and takes place over the course of a single night, when Adam and Clare figure out for themselves that Donnelly’s “monsters” are not only real, but also trying to kidnap their infant son, Finn! At this point, the ominous tone that director Hardy had been building in the films first half becomes all-encompassing, reaching a fever pitch as Adam and Clare fight to keep their child safe from the onslaught.

Yet, for me, the film’s most noteworthy accomplishment is that its various monsters were created (for the most part) via practical effects. Drawing inspiration from Ray Harryhausen as well as the horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s (Alien, The Thing, Evil Dead II), Colin Hardy relied heavily on practical effects throughout The Hallow, and the skillful work done by his team brought the creatures convincingly to life. In addition, this approach helped make the entire movie more powerful (and more frightening) than it might otherwise have been (using practical instead of CGI allowed the actors to physically interact with the monsters, bringing an intensity to the performances that might have been lost had the characters and creatures been spliced together on a computer screen).

This, along with a few interesting plot twists (including one that calls Adam’s sanity into question) and even a healthy dose of body horror, makes The Hallow one hell of an effective monster flick, not to mention a movie that every fan of practical effects should stand up and applaud.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

#2,431. The Vatican Tapes (2015)

Directed By: Mark Neveldine

Starring: Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michael Peña, Dougray Scott

Tag line: "For 2,000 years the Vatican has recorded evidence of evil. May God have mercy on their souls."

Trivia: This was the 1st film in which its director did not work with a co-director

The state of modern horror is such that when I first heard about 2015’s The Vatican Tapes, I assumed it was going to be yet another found footage-style exorcism film. Well, I was wrong; aside from a handful of CCTV shots and the occasional webcam, The Vatican Tapes offers a straightforward narrative, and is not “found footage” in the least. And while the movie does feature a few standard clichés (jumpy video, demon faces that pop up out of the blue, out-of-body experiences, etc), director Mark Neveldine and screenwriters Christopher Borrelli and Michael C. Martin also mix things up a bit on their way to a climax that, quite frankly, was much bolder than I was expecting.

But are its unique qualities enough to make The Vatican Tapes a film I’d happily recommend to horror fans?

No, I don’t believe they are.

On the surface, Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley) seems like an average girl. She loves her father, military officer Roger Holmes (Dougray Scott) as well as her live-in boyfriend Peter (John Patrick Amedori), and, if the turnout at her surprise birthday party is any indication, she has plenty of friends. But soon after the party, Angela’s life is turned upside-down; a simple cut on her finger (suffered while slicing her birthday cake) becomes infected, and she’s checked into a nearby hospital for the night.

But this is only the beginning, and when Angela’s state of mind deteriorates rapidly, Father Lozano (Michael Peña), a Catholic priest, believes she may actually be possessed by a demon. To help Angela, the Vatican sends Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson) to perform an exorcism, but neither he nor Angela’s nearest and dearest will be prepared for what happens once the ceremony begins.

Overall, the film’s cast does a fine job. Olivia Taylor Dudley is likable as the victimized Angela, who is host to something she has no hope of understanding, but what truly impressed me was the actress’s ability to explore her character’s darker side (we get a sense of this early on when Angela, while recovering in the hospital, takes an unauthorized stroll through the nursery). Unlike other exorcism films, Angela’s transformation from lovable daughter and girlfriend to out-of-control psychotic is quite subtle, and there are times we’re not convinced she’s possessed at all, making those moments when the evil does rear its ugly head all the more unsettling.

Also good is Michael Peña as the priest who befriends Angela and her family; and Peter Andersson as Cardinal Matthias Bruun, the Vatican representative sent to perform the exorcism (we learn that Father Bruun himself was possessed at an early age, yet this first-hand knowledge of demonic forces doesn’t give him much of an advantage over the being that’s invaded Angela).

The Vatican Tapes also boasts some memorable scenes, including a very intense car crash (which was done practically, and not via CGI) and Angela’s above mentioned trip to the nursery (I cringed when she picked up a newborn baby, mostly because I wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it). And while the exorcism scene itself isn’t anything special, the finale certainly threw me for a loop, and I found myself wishing that the movie ran a bit longer than it did (I really wanted to see how the Vatican’s “Warriors of God” would have responded to what transpired at the end).

But while The Vatican Tapes does have its strong points, it came up short in one important area: it wasn’t scary. Yes, there are moments that will make you jump, but for the most part I was more intrigued by what was going on than I was frightened (and this is coming from someone who is usually susceptible to exorcism movies; I wore a rosary around my neck for 3 months after watching The Exorcist for the first time).

The Vatican Tapes is well-made and quite clever; it is a good film. But if it’s a terrifying experience you’re after, I don’t think you’ll find it here.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

#2,430. Fatso (1980)

Directed By: Anne Bancroft

Starring: Dom DeLuise, Anne Bancroft, Ron Carey

Tag line: "Starving for a great movie?"

Trivia: First feature release from Mel Brooks' then new production company "Brooksfilms"

I remember watching Fatso on cable TV in the early ‘80s. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, it was one of the very first movies I saw after we subscribed to the service. It’s certainly not a well-known film, but Fatso is nonetheless notable for several reasons:

1 – It was the only movie that Anne Bancroft (who also wrote the script) ever directed

2 – It was the first film that Mel Brooks’ production company, Brooksfilms, ever produced (the 2nd would be The Elephant Man), and… 

3 – It was one of the few times that perennial supporting player Dom DeLuise played the lead in a motion picture.

That third point is, for me, the best thing about this 1980 comedy / drama. Regardless of whether he was playing second fiddle to Burt Reynolds (The Cannonball Run) or Mel Brooks (The Twelve Chairs, Silent Movie), Dom DeLuise was always a funny guy. In Fatso he got a chance to try his hand at drama as well as a little romance, and proved he could handle both just fine.

When their beloved, yet morbidly obese, cousin Sal drops dead at age 39, Antionette (Bancroft) orders her brother Dom (DeLuise), who is also overweight, to see a doctor and follow a prescribed diet. The problem is, Dom loves to eat, and has ever since he was a kid. Still, to make his sister happy, he promises to obey the doctor, and with the help of his younger brother Junior (Ron Carey), Dom sticks to his new diet.

For about a day!

It seems that, no matter how hard he tries, Dom just can’t lose weight. Then Dom meets Lydia (Candice Azzara), a pretty blonde who recently opened a gift shop a few blocks away. Dom eventually falls for Lydia, and when the two of them are together, he’s never hungry. But will he ever be as thin as his siblings hope, or is Dom content to live out his days with Lydia as a jolly fat man?

As you’d expect from a movie directed by Anne Bancroft, Fatso features a number of actors who worked regularly with her husband, Mel Brooks; aside from Bancroft and DeLuise, it co-stars Ron Carey (High Anxiety, History of the World Part 1) as Dom’s younger brother, as well as Sal Viscuso (Spaceballs), and Brooks’ writing partner Rudy De Luca (who co-wrote High Anxiety, Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It) as two of their cousins. With a cast like this, there’s no doubt that Fatso is a funny film, and there are moments that definitely made me laugh (DeLuise shedding tears as the nurse rattled off a list of foods he’d have to avoid while on his diet is a comedic high-point, as is the scene in which a desperate Dom chases Junior around the apartment with a knife, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t turn over the key to the cupboard).

Along with the humor, Fatso is occasionally romantic, with both DeLuise and Azzara doing a fine job as the socially awkward misfits who fall head-over-heels in love with one another. As a drama, though, the movie is less successful; we know why Dom eats (during the opening credits we see that, whenever a young Dom was upset, his mother would stuff food into his mouth to make him happy again), but the film never fully explores the issues that cause certain people to over-eat.

Despite a few rough edges (the pacing suffers occasionally, a direct result of some scenes running on a bit too long), Fatso kept me entertained, and the fact that Dom DeLuise is the featured star is reason enough to see it.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

#2,429. The Brothers Rico (1957)

Directed By: Phil Karlson

Starring: Richard Conte, Dianne Foster, Kathryn Grant

Tag line: "Three hunted men and their desperate women..."

Trivia: Mimi Aguglia, who plays Argentina Brunetti's mother, really is her mother

There aren’t many memorable lines in The Godfather Part III (at least not as many as in The Godfather or The Godfather Part II), but there’s one piece of dialogue from that 1990 film that’s been quoted quite often: after spending a great deal of time and money trying to legitimize his family’s name and sever its ties to organized crime, Michael Corleone, played once again by Al Pacino, finds himself drawn into yet another mob war, with rival Dons hoping to bump him off and take control of his holdings. As he makes plans to retaliate, Michael, in a moment of desperation, says “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in!

But as we see in 1957’s The Brothers Rico, a film noir directed by Phil Karlson, getting “out” of organized crime is never really an option. At least it wasn’t for Eddie Rico (Richard Conte), a former bookkeeper for the mob who, three years earlier, decided to go legit. Since that time, Eddie and his wife Alice (Dianne Foster) have been living the good life in Florida. Eddie started up a dry cleaning business that is making boatloads of money, and the couple is days away from adopting their first child. For Eddie, crunching numbers for crime boss Sid Kubik (Larry Gates), a man he and his family lovingly called “Uncle Sid”, is a thing of the past.

Then, early one morning, the phone rings. A man on the other end says that, at Uncle Sid’s command, he’s sending a guy to Eddie’s dry cleaning business, and this mysterious visitor is to be given a job so he can "lay low" for a while. Though confused by the request (which was unexpected), Eddie does as he’s told.

But it doesn’t end there; later that day, Eddie is instructed to hop a plane to Miami so he can meet face-to-face with Uncle Sid. It seems that Eddie’s two brothers, Gino (Paul Picerni) and Johnny (James Darren), took part in a recent gangland shooting, with Gino pulling the trigger and Johnny driving the getaway car. What has everyone (including Uncle Sid) worried is that Johnny has disappeared, and because Johnny’s new wife, Norah (Kathryn Grant), is the brother of Peter Maleks (Lamont Johnson), a lawyer working for the District Attorney, Uncle Sid is concerned that Johnny might try to swing a deal with the D.A. and turn states evidence. Eddie doesn’t believe it for a minute, and assures Uncle Sid that Johnny is no stool pigeon. Uncle Sid agrees, but still wants Eddie’s help in finding Johnny and convincing him to leave the country until things cool down.

Though Alice begs him not to get involved, Eddie flies to New York, then to Arizona, following various leads in an effort to locate Johnny. But is dear old Uncle Sid really interested in helping the Rico boys, or are Eddie and his brothers suddenly in the greatest of danger?

Best known for his role as Don Barzini, chief rival of the Corleone family in 1972’s The Godfather, Richard Conte actually had a long and prosperous Hollywood career, appearing in (among others) film noirs like 1948’s Call Northside 777 and House of Strangers in 1949. In The Brothers Rico, Conte delivers an exceptional performance as Eddie, a strong family man who is nonetheless a bit naïve when it comes to his “old way” of life. Eddie truly thinks Sid wants to protect his brothers, even when it’s obvious to both Gino and Johnny (as well as the rest of us) that “Uncle Sid” isn’t the honest, upright mobster Eddie believes him to be. When Eddie finally figures things out, it hits him like a ton of bricks, and the fact that he may have helped track down his kid brother so he can be eliminated is more than he can stand. Conte appears in damn near every scene of The Brothers Rico, and his performance is proof positive that he was just as good a leading man as he was a supporting player.

Whether you like the film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s or not, The Brothers Rico is a taut, expertly-paced thriller about family loyalties and organized crime that also features a strong turn by its star, and that alone makes it worthy of your time.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

#2,428. Airport (1970)

Directed By: George Seaton

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy

Tagline: "The #1 novel of the year - now a motion picture!"

Trivia: Dean Martin received 10% of the film's gross, which added an additional $7,000,000 to his salary

Released in 1970, Airport set the stage for that decade’s other big-budget disaster films, and thanks to its star-studded cast and a plethora of thrills the movie even managed to garner a whopping 10 Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture (which it lost to Patton).

With a fierce snowstorm raging outside, Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster), the top dog at Chicago’s Lincoln International Airport, has been working non-stop for days to ensure his airport runs as smoothly as possible. But it hasn’t been easy. For one, a Boeing 707 belonging to Trans Global Airlines took a turn too quickly on runway 29 and is now stuck in the snow, forcing all traffic to be diverted to runway 22. In addition, Bakerfeld’s brother-in-law, pilot Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), has been openly critical of how the airport is being run during this emergency, and has sent a report to the Board of Operations detailing his concerns.

Then, on top of everything else, there’s a good chance that D.O. Guerrero (Van Helfin), a passenger on a Trans Global flight to Rome (piloted by Capt. Demerest himself), is carrying a bomb in his briefcase, which he intends to detonate once the aircraft is over the ocean. With hundreds of lives at stake, Bakersfeld, Demerest and their team must work quickly to turn the plane around and, if possible, subdue Guerrero before he flips the switch. But can they do so without raising the suspicions of the already-nervous would-be bomber?

The first half of Airport is dedicated to building its characters. Lancaster’s Mel Bakersfeld essentially runs the airport, and his long hours have led to some friction between him and his estranged wife Cindy (played by Dana Wynter). During the storm, Bakersfeld has spent a great deal of time in the company of co-worker Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg), and has discovered that he’s developed feelings for her as well. 

As for Bakersfeld's brother-in-law, Vern, he's having an affair with pretty young stewardess Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), who shocks the hell out of the philandering pilot with a little announcement right before their flight to Rome takes off.We even get to know the wannabe saboteur, Guerrero, an unemployed construction worker with money troubles who hopes a large insurance policy will finally give his long-suffering wife Inez (Maureen Stapleton) the kind of life she deserves. The main actors, as well as the supporting cast (especially Barry Nelson as Vern's co-pilot Anson Harris, who plays an important part in the films second half), do a fine job fleshing out the movie’s many characters.

In addition to its personal dilemmas, Airport reveals, quite convincingly, how difficult it must be to keep an airport operational during a snowstorm. Along with the plane blocking runway 29, which top technician Joe Petroni (George Kennedy) is trying to movie, Tanya must deal with a stowaway on a recent Trans Global flight from L.A., an elderly woman named Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes, who won an Oscar for her performance). If Ms. Quonsett is to be believed, she’s been sneaking onto flights for years to visit her daughter in New York. Then there’s the problem with runway 22, which is situated next to a small neighborhood. The residents of this community are none too happy that planes are landing so close to their homes, and have threatened to file a $10 million dollar lawsuit if the runway isn’t closed by midnight. As with the characters, these various subplots are engaging enough to keep us watching Airport until the main story gets underway.

Which happens soon after the flight to Rome takes off; Mel, Tanya and a few others figure out what Guerrero is up to, and alert Capt. Demerest and his crew, who now have to get the upper hand on the would-be bomber without causing a panic among the other passengers. It’s a tension-riddled second half, and thanks to all that went before it, we’re pulling for everyone to make it out of this predicament alive.

By focusing as much as it does on its story’s dramatic elements, Airport isn’t as action-packed as the disaster-themed films that followed in its wake, such as The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake. But this 1970 movie is still plenty entertaining, and there’s no denying it got the genre off on the right foot.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

#2,427. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)

Directed By: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper

Starring: Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Martin Sheen

Tag line: "The magic and madness of making Apocalypse Now"

Trivia: Fragments of Orson Welles' radio broadcast of "Hearts of Darkness" are used as a narrative device

“My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It *IS* Vietnam. It’s what it was really like… it was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the Jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane”Francis Ford Coppola discussing Apocalypse Now at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival 

Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel Hearts of Darkness, Apocalypse Now had been in development since the late 1960s, when John Milius first wrote its script (at that point, there was talk about shooting the movie in Vietnam, with George Lucas directing). It was shelved until 1976, when Francis Ford Coppola, the driving force behind the project, decided to direct it himself. With the U.S. military refusing to support a film about the Vietnam War, Coppola struck a deal with Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, who agreed to lend the production troops and equipment. Shooting began in the Philippines in February of 1976 and was scheduled to last a few months, but due to inclement weather, trouble with the actors, and other issues, 236 days would pass before Apocalypse Now finally wrapped.

For Coppola, these production woes were only part of the hell he experienced while making the movie. Deciding to use Milius’s original script as a guide, Coppola ended up rewriting much of it, turning it into a story about warfare in general, and the effect it has on both the individual and society as a whole. But as shooting dragged on, Coppola realized Apocalypse Now was falling short of his ultimate goal, and on top of everything else he had no idea how to end his movie. Over time, the director became increasingly convinced he was making, as he put it, “A $20 million disaster… a failure”.

Using footage shot by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor (who was by his side throughout the production) as well as conversations she had with her husband about the film (which she secretly recorded), Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse takes us behind-the-scenes of Apocalypse Now, pulling the curtain back on its troubled production and the personal trials and tribulations of the man who made it.

The problems that plagued Apocalypse Now started almost immediately; Harvey Keitel had been cast in the pivotal role of Capt. Willard, but after a few days’ shooting Coppola wasn’t happy with Keitel’s interpretation of the character, and decided to replace him. So Martin Sheen was brought in, but Sheen himself would suffer a major heart attack during production, resulting in further delays. In addition, the Philippines were rocked by an enormous typhoon, which shut Coppola and co. down for two months (so sets could be rebuilt). Not even the equipment on-loan from the Philippine army was reliable; right in the middle of shooting an important battle sequence, five helicopters were called away to fight rebels in the nearby hills. On top of all this, Marlon Brando was insisting he start on-time, and threatened to pull out of the project (and keep the $1 million that Coppola paid him in advance) if his scenes were pushed back.

At home, the trade papers reported on the never-ending insanity, mocking Coppola and his many delays with headlines such as “Apocalypse When?” and “Apocalypse Forever”. Before long, even those involved in its making wondered if Apocalypse Now would ever see the light of day.

And then there was Coppola, writing notes on cards and toiling away at his typewriter, trying desperately to turn Apocalypse Now into a personal endeavor, yet realizing he was coming up empty at the most crucial times. He argued with Dennis Hopper (who played an American photojournalist and one of Kurtz’s disciples) about what his character should say, and spent days on end discussing Kurtz with Brando (both actors would ad-lib their lines). An entire scene set on a French plantation, which Coppola had hoped would link the country’s past with its present (a glimpse, as it were, into the history of warfare in Vietnam), didn’t work as the filmmaker intended, and once shooting on this sequence wrapped he announced to the cast and crew that he was cutting it, and they should forget it ever happened. We sense Coppola's frustration in moments such as these, as well as the many talks he had with his wife; at one point Coppola even said he wanted to kill himself.

In my opinion, Apocalypse Now is one of the all-time great war films, and Coppola’s message about the nature of warfare rings loud and clear. This is what makes Hearts of Darkness such a fascinating documentary; it is proof positive that even in the midst of chaos, something truly extraordinary can be achieved.

As for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, it is, without question, one of the most revealing documentaries ever produced about filmmaking, and stands as a testament to both the artist and the creative process in general.