Starring:Sean Rogerson, Juan Riedinger, Ashleigh Gryzko

Directors: The Vicious Brothers

 “I don’t know how much longer we can last. We’re not alone in here anymore.”

Paranormal investigation show, Grave Encounters, is now on its sixth episode and presenter Lance Preston and his team are locking themselves in the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital for the night. Expecting the kind of anti-climatic experience which has let the show down so far, the team find quite the opposite.

I’m a big fan of the increasingly prolific ‘found footage’ genre of horror movie. For some reason, its ratio of good to bad is unusually impressive. So I was very much looking forward to Grave Encounters, the debut from writer/director team The Vicious Brothers (who are not brothers and do not have the surname Vicious). Based on those often cheesy TV ghost-hunting shows which have found popularity over recent years, Grave Encounters simply takes the format and demonstrates what would happen if these people actually found something during one of their episodes. The filmmakers also expressed a desire to take a genre that is by nature often restrained to maintain realism and throw something a little more excessive into the mix. In this regard the filmmakers succeed, although not always to the movie’s benefit.

Grave Encounters takes it slow at first, giving us time to get to know Lance Preston, played with an amusing earnestness by Sean Rogerson, and his team of pantomime presenters and technicians as they settle into the impressive location for the night. The problem is that they are so convincing as they kind of people who usually front these shows that they are also, inevitably, rather irritating; all pretentious looks and solemn pronouncements. You are waiting for them to find out what being scared really is, and therefore never completely on their side when things go to hell.

It is when the hospital haunting begins in earnest that Grave Encounters both scales its heights and scrapes its lows. Those who have grown weary of the lack of incident in these types of movies will find much more going on during this one. In fact, the filmmakers seem at great pains to ensure that, if nothing else, their movie will never be accused of being boring. Where most other entries in this genre are content to tickle the back of your neck, Grave Encounters simply slaps you round the head. It is not subtle and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, with some very effective frighteners but also a few scares a little too heavily signposted to truly shock. It doesn’t help that one of the main scares appeared in the trailer.

Who ya gonna call? Art students!

There are a few inspired moments amongst the horror movie clichés and classics, particularly in the way that the movie plays with your expectations as morning arrives, very little has happened and you wonder where the movie will go next. However, one thing Grave Encounters can lay solid claim to is the fact that it is a whole lot of fun to watch. Once the action kicks off it barely relents and the last forty minutes provide a breathless ride that will have you either jumping, screaming, laughing, or all of the above, depending on how you take to the various shaky-cam assaults which the hospital throws at our not-so-intrepid TV crew.

Grave Encounters is probably not one for the high-brow horror enthusiast. Yes, there is the odd CGI embellishment. Yes, it wants to entertain rather than convince. It’s a bit of a crowd-pleaser with a hit-and-miss, kitchen sink approach that may grate with some. However, watch it on its own terms, don’t take it too seriously and the chances are you’ll have a blast.

Rating – 3 Stars
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Starring:Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis

Director: Jim Mickle

“I hate vamps.”

America has been laid waste by a plague of vampirism, giving rise to scattered pockets of humanity trying to survive the growing number of infected. When young Martin loses his parents in a vampire attack, he is rescued and taken under the wing of a hardened drifter known only as Mister. The two travel north toward ‘New Eden’, adding to their number while trying to survive both the vampires and a ruthless Christian cult, known as The Brotherhood, who believe the vampires are God’s instrument of Judgement.

Rejoice, for vampires are the bad guys again. No place for pale-faced, brooding teenagers or angst-ridden guys in long coats here. Just vampires the way they should be; ravenous, snarling animals who wouldn’t even know where their navel is, let alone want to spend hours gazing at it. It’s a mark of how far the vampire genre has drifted that a movie where they are actually monsters should be so refreshing. The second feature from director Mickle who, having started out as a Key Grip (you know, appears in all the credits and no-one knows what it is) gives hope to would-be directors everywhere, takes the vampire back to its parasitical roots.

Coming off like a cross between The Road and Zombieland, with all the gloom of the former and none of the humour of the latter, Stake Land is a rather bleak viewing experience. That isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable, on the contrary, but its apocalyptic and violent landscape makes for a rather dark hour and forty minutes that some may find hard to equate with entertainment. Not being one of those ‘some’, of course, I enjoyed it. Much like The Road, it’s this bleakness that gives the rare moments of lightness in Stake Land such a power when they come; a smile, discovering a friend is still alive, a gift. Against such a backdrop of hopelessness and horror, such moments of humanity take on a greater resonance and Stake Land never loses sight of this fact.

Like many good horror movies, Stake Land shines a light on humanity and finds the horror from within as well as from without, its prime focus being on fundamentalist religion as represented by The Brotherhood. Religion and apocalypse are willing bedfellows and it is hinted at several times that The Brotherhood are largely responsible for the spread of the plague due to their penchant for dropping vampires into populated areas, thereby delivering God’s wrath. In this world, vampires are weapons of mass destruction and the terrorists’ weapon of choice. It’s an inspired twist.

Dave couldn’t figure out why no-one was giving him any loose change

Co-writer Damici turns in an understated performance as the taciturn Mister, a character who says little and gives away less. So much so, in fact, that as the movie ends we know as much about him as we did when the movie started. He’s tough, morally immutable and kills vampires. You need know nothing more about Mister, it seems, but the lack of growth or exploration may leave some feeling a little short-changed. Joining him along the way is an almost unrecognisable Kelly McGillis as a nun, Sister, who brings some balance by representing the best of religion and also provides an amusing rhyme with Mister.

Stake Land is a good addition to a genre that has long been suffering from tediously romanticised visions of its creature. Reclaimed from the teenage market, the vampire finds its teeth again. It’s brutal, violent and sometimes scary, but there is an honest, human heart beating at the centre of Stake Land which is more potent and more real than a thousand Twilights.

Starring:Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey

Director: James Wan

‘I went into Dalton’s room. There was something in there with him. It was standing in the corner.’

When the Lambert family move into their new home, their son Dalton falls into an unexplained coma. Soon after a series of strange occurrences force the family to flee, believing the house to be haunted. However, they soon discover that the malevolent forces attacking them are not connected to the house at all.

The poster for Insidious reads ‘from the makers of Paranormal Activity and Saw‘, which is a little like claiming to be from the makers of Star Wars and 2010: A Space Odyssey, so different are they. However, despite the connection to Saw being more direct, with the same writer and director as the first (and only decent) instalment in that series, Insidious sits much more in the supernatural arena of producer Oran Peli’s runaway haunted house hit.

Any genuine horror movie buff knows that sitting down to watch an American-made horror is an activity invariably undertaken with a sense of exhausted pessimism. The odds are high that the quality will be low, so Insidious marks a most welcome spark of life for the genre. Like Poltergeist without the schmaltz, Insidious is by no means original but it does what it sets out to do with an unusual amount of success. For the most part, anyway.

Like all good haunted house movies, Insidious starts off slow, building tension and throwing in the occasional scare before the story picks up and takes off. It is within these first two acts that Insidious is at its best, with James Wan delivering an effectively spooky atmosphere as well as some genuinely chilling moments. Clearly, Wan knows his horror movies and understands how to move his camera to build expectation and make you believe that something horrible is about to happen. However, there are enough pay-offs, including a great face-in-the-window scene and a look-behind-you moment that makes the blood run cold, to prevent you ever feeling cheated.

The cast, not quite A-list but certainly of a higher calibre than most horror movies get lumbered with, all carry themselves with suitable conviction and earnestness, most especially the excellent Lin Shaye as the regulation eccentric psychic brought in to solve the supernatural problem. With a gas mask, of all things. And a horror movie soundtrack hasn’t made such an effective use of head-splitting strings since Janet Leigh decided to hose down in Psycho.

The Lens Cap Moment. We’ve all had one.

Unfortunately, Insidious does let itself down a little with an overblown third act. Having managed to spend the last hour staying just the right side of silly, the movie goes for broke with mixed results. Making the mistake of over-exposing a threat that had been wisely used sparingly up until that point, Insidious loses some of its ability to scare. It resorts to an unnecessary ‘throw-everything-in-and-hope-it-works’ approach which has as many misses as it has hits. But at least it has hits.

All in all, Insidious is definitely one of the better horror movies to emerge from Hollywood in the last few years, further marking out writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan as talents worth following in a genre which is screaming out for just such a thing, and serving as suitable compensation for starting the dreadful Saw franchise.

 

Rating – 4 Stars (just about)

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Starring:Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana

Director: Joe Wright

“What did your mother die of?”
“Three bullets.”

16-year-old Hanna has been brought up in the wilds of Finland by her father, Erik, and trained as an assassin to prepare her for the day she is ready to leave and explore the world outside. When that day comes, Hanna finds herself hunted by intelligence agent Marissa, who is intent on stopping Hanna discovering the truth about herself.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what an action movie made by a director previously known for period dramas and Jane Austen adaptations is like, here you go. Joe Wright, who gained much acclaim for 2007′s Atonement and not so much acclaim for 2005′s not-as-good-as-the-Colin-Firth-one version of Pride & Prejudice, wanders from his comfort zone for this bizarre mix of spy thriller and Grimm’s fairytale. Welcome to the weird world of Hanna.

As with last year’s George Clooney vehicle, The American, those who choose Hanna expecting a fast-paced, thrill-a-minute action flick are going to be a little disappointed, not to mention somewhat perplexed. Hanna seems intent on defying expectations from the off, but that doesn’t mean it fails within its chosen genre. It just does things a little differently. Rather than assault us with a barrage of action scenes, Hanna sprinkles them sparingly on an otherwise thoughtful and languid story. So, when events spring to life, accompanied by the pounding Chemical Brothers soundtrack, you are obliged to take notice.

Following the current trend for using Europe as the setting for espionage movies, Wright still manages to make his movie look different to the rest. From the opening moments in Hanna’s beautiful snowbound home to the bookend scene in an abandoned carnival in Berlin, Wright lends the movie an almost otherworldly quality. This is the world we know, but just a little off-kilter, a little surreal. It is the perfect palette for painting this dark fairytale.

Hanna’s ‘I Hate Ska’ T-shirt didn’t go down well in Camden

Saoirse Ronan is a commanding presence in the title role, able to display all the wonderment and emotion on Hanna’s face as she discovers the world, and then switch it all off when the killer emerges. Eric Bana is his usual likeable self as Hanna’s protective and equally dangerous father. Tom Hollander is frankly bizarre, and not very threatening, as a bleached blonde, possibly gay, rent-a-thug with neo-nazi skinheads in tow. However, the genuine threat comes from Blanchett, clearly enjoying herself in the ‘wicked witch’ role as the sinister, embittered and manipulative agent hunting Hanna down.

If there is a fault in Hanna, and unfortunately it’s a pretty big fault, it is one of style over substance. While the movie looks lovely, and clearly draws from a plethora of influences, it is strangely difficult to find any emotional attachment to the characters, especially Hanna herself. This often leaves you with one foot out of the picture, less invested in the fate of the characters than you should be. It’s an odd development for a director more recognised for character-driven pieces.

Still, for its beautiful visuals, cracking soundtrack and the simple pleasure of watching a 16-year-old girl opening a can of whup-ass on a bunch of tough guys, Hanna is well worth your time.

Rating – 3 Stars