The Sacrament

Director: Ti West (2014)
Starring: AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Gene Jones
Find it: IMDB

I feel as though I like the idea of Ti West more than I do any film the man has ever actually made. Starting his career with the underwhelming House of the Devil and a dud sequel to Cabin Fever, West has done nothing but disappoint this humble horrorhound. Sure, his films are pretty and steeped in love for the genre, but too often they lack a personality of their own - being too beholden to the past and the artifice of horror cinema. In theory, I should adore his filmography. In reality, I am left indifferent to it.

West returns with The Sacrament, a faux-documentary which sees a two-man documentary crew (of real-life team VICE) investigate the initiation of a man's sister into a mysterious cult. Travelling to the camp in an unnamed, very rural country, the three men quickly set about snooping. At first, everything seems idyllic; missing Caroline (Amy Seimetz) is happy and well, the villagers cheerful and friendly. Granted an interview with head honcho 'Father' (a magnetic Gene Jones) the guys are left almost convinced that everything is as Father would have it appear. Almost.

Predictably, affairs take a turn for the worse when a local girl comes begging to the guys for help. From there, a series of massive overreactions leads to exactly the sort of thing one has been expecting all along. Clearly taking its inspiration from the real-life Jonestown Massacre, the ensuing events are not difficult to predict, even if West wholly fails to make any of it feel plausible or justified by the situation and characters. His actors take up much of the slack - most notably Jones, a cross between John Goodman and Michael Parks in Red State. His smooth charisma makes it a little easier to believe that the events of The Sacrament could actually somehow happen. I mean, they really did, in Jonestown, but West isn't good enough to harness that in his storytelling.

The Sacrament is a compelling, oddly watchable toy documentary, made more valuable for its performances and visual flair. It's undeniably overhyped, but it bears investigation, nevertheless. 

Willow Creek

DirectorBobcat Goldthwait (2013)
StarringBryce Johnson, Alexie Gilmore
Find itIMDB

Searching for Bigfoot, an amateur documentary maker and his girlfriend travel to Sasquatch territory, hoping to find evidence of his existence. What they find instead is a host of kooky locals, a tasty-looking burger and all-too-real terror in the woods. It's The Blair Witch Project, but with Bigfoot. Maybe.

While not being massively aware of Bobcat Goldthwait beyond Police Academy (I'm probably too English), I had enjoyed his flawed but entertaining serial killer satire God Bless AmericaHe returns as director with Willow Creek, a found footage style horror film, played straight, for the most part. Buzz for the film had been good, leading me to expect something along the lines of Troll Hunter or VHS: that is, found footage that doesn't make me want to poke my own eyes out with Bigfoot-trodden branches. Alas, I found myself disappointed yet again.

Once more, we're left with a horror film which takes forever to get going and then spends the rest of its time either running around in the pitch darkness or cowering in a tent. Then there's a burst of action five minutes before the 'surprise' ending and why the fuck are they still filming this. It's virtually identical to The Lost Coast Tapes (not that I remember The Lost Coast Tapes) but will do much better thanks to its bigger-name director and nifty camerawork (one lingering static shot is particularly effective). While not bad, Willow Creek resembles at least fifteen other horror films I've seen in the last five years - almost as though Goldthwait wrote the script on tracing paper.

Reading reviews after having watched it, I gradually began to feel out-of-touch, cynical and like I was missing out on something. I feel like I watched a different film to those who raved about Willow Creek, saying things like "move over Godzilla" or "proves that there's life in found footage horror yet". Its climactic scene in the tent is very good and Alexie Gilmore has a wonderfully expressive face for horror films, but I saw nothing else that set Willow Creek apart from the rest. The song which plays over the end credits is the best thing about it.

Willow Creek is a disappointing misstep in an interesting and original directorial career from one of indie cinema's more exciting voices. Thankfully, enough people think that this film is groundbreaking, scary and good that Goldthwait should emerge from it completely unscathed.

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2 - Draconian Days

Director: Jake West (2014)
Starring: Lots of Talking Heads.
Find it: IMDB

A second instalment of Jake West's video nasty documentary, detailing the plight of horror fans and the movies they loved during the 1980s. Where Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape gave a good overall look at the furore, Draconian Days goes a little more in-depth, exploring the finer details of censorship and the various agencies responsible. And, like the first film, I got angry just watching it, so there's that too.

Draconian Days is a fair representation of why I don't read British tabloid newspapers. There are other reasons (Hillsborough lies, casual racism, telephone hacking scandals, casual misogyny and terrible writing being but a few) but, by and large, the newspapers' coverage of 'video nasties' in the 1980s is more or less representative of how the British right-wing press covers everything; with a web of fabrication, exaggeration, moral panic and loud outrage. That said, your mileage may vary, depending on how much you enjoy Page Three and cheap holidays.

Which isn't to say that horror at the time was doing itself too many favours. Lurid cover art, vivid titles and scenes of extreme violence did little to sway public opinion to the positive, giving such figures as Mary Whitehouse and the censors plenty of ammunition when it came to getting the things banned. Ex-head of the BBFC James Ferman is the film's antagonist focus - a complicated fellow who may have had his heart in the right place but fudged it through elitism and being out of touch (famously worrying about the effect a film like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might have on the lower classes). Even he thought that the Child's Play/James Bulger connection was bullshit though - so he can't have been all bad.
Tip: Your Scum newspaper will probably burn easier.

For those unaware of this period in British history, Draconian Days should make for fascinating viewing. It's not quite as lively as its predecessors - and there's less star-power to its collection of talking heads - but it is well made, informative and passionate about its cause. Above all, it serves as a reminder of how dangerous moral panic and scapegoating can be. "Yo Joel," nobody asks me. "You watch all this horror shit, but what actually scares you?" Honestly? Nothing scares me as much as the mob mentality; that state of braindead zombification served up by those who would have us stop thinking, blindly idolise our military and live in constant terror of paedophiles and Muslims. Shut up, eat your free mince pie and look at the tits.

The tits.

For the sake of ALL our kids.... burn your tabloid newspaper today.

Godzilla (2014)

Director: Gareth Edwards (2014)
Starring: Godzilla, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston
Find it: IMDB

Thankfully, Matthew Broderick takes the day off for this Bueller-free reboot of the giant lizard creature feature. You can see the studio hive mind at work in everything about Godzilla 2014 - a film which very noticeably does everything it can to distance itself from its notoriously shitty predecessor. Respected genre director Garth Edwards (of not-bad found footage Monsters acclaim) takes the helm, being about as far away from Roland Emmerich as one could get (short of hiring, say, Lars von Trier instead). In place of Broderick, they've gone with an actual good actor instead, and brought in Brian Cranston - because you don't get much more respectable than Breaking Bad these days.

Surprisingly, they didn't go with Aaron Paul as Cranston's onscreen son (Godzilla, bitch!), instead opting for Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the hero. Kick-ass? Sadly not. Alas, he's the film's weakest link, sticking out like a sore thumb among the likes of Cranston, Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen. Still, it's not as though Cranston is firing on full cylinders here either; continuing to disappoint in roles that aren't Walter White or Malcolm in the Middle's dad. The fact is, the actors and actresses are just set dressing, biding time until Godzilla and friends turn up.

Which they do, in a surprisingly convoluted manner. Eschewing 1998's simple Godzilla-on-the-rampage story, Edwards's version seems more inspired by Pacific Rim and older, traditional Godzilla movies - instead pitting 'zilla against a species of other giant monsters. Some will be disappointed by the film's lack of destruction and Godzilla trashing shit, but for everyone else, there's a genuinely interesting story and plenty of beast-on-beast action.

What's really surprising is that Godzilla isn't ashamed of its own B-Movie ancestry. I had assumed that this reboot would be the sort of film that never namedrops its own star ("the 'S' stands for hope") and instead strives for gritty post-Nolan realism in everything it does. Thankfully, this isn't the case (evidenced in its fun opening credits sequence) and Godzilla proves to be every bit as daft as it should be. If anything, Ken Watanabe says "Godzilla" too much for his own good.


Wait, what?

Escape From Tomorrow

Director: Randy Moore (2013)
Starring: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez
Find it: IMDB

Learning of his redundancy while on holiday, crap dad and husband Jim (Abramsohn) proceeds to have a mental breakdown in Disneyworld, Florida; getting shitfaced, sleazing on a pair of underage girls and bickering with his horrible wife. Temporarily losing his daughter and dragging his son around in pursuit of tween totty, Crap Dad is quick to learn that even the happiest place on Earth can be spectacularly shitty when the pressures of everyday life begin to seep in. 

Filmed on the sly in Disneyworld*, Escape From Tomorrow is as brave a horror/thriller/comedy as they come. Given Disney's reputation for being infamously sue-happy (and I'm not just talking about Mary-Sues), it's a surprise that this thing ever saw the light of day. Still, kicking up a fuss would likely give it even more publicity, so maybe The House of Mouse's letting it slide is for the best. Especially once you stop to consider how the film itself doesn't exactly live up to its own promise...

Make no mistake, it does some things very well. Its early depictions of Crap Dad losing his mind are particularly good - the audience discomfort felt simply watching a family holiday going awry is far more effective than the later surrealism and scenes of out-and-out fantasy. Abramsohn does well as Crap Dad, garnering audience sympathy even while doing some pretty terrible things (one of the young girls he sleazes upon even has braces, for Pluto's sake) and acting like a general tit. Schuber is given an even more thankless job portraying his wife - rarely presented in a sympathetic light, and often acting as the film's 'villain'. I had hoped for Mickey Mouse wielding an enormous chainsaw, but that's fine enough, even if Moore does go too far in his demonization of Emily.

Look, never mind the review. What follows is a selection of images which will guarantee you go away wanting to watch Escape From Tomorrow, regardless of my opinion on the thing:

Ultimately and ironically - considering the central message - Escape From Tomorrow suffers from too much imagination. It tries to do too much with too little, resulting in a messy final quarter and nonsensical ending(s). That's a shame, since it looks wonderful and has some really great ideas up its sleeve, not least its long overdue critique of the Disney corporation. An enjoyable if flawed oddity, Escape From Tomorrow is an impressive piece of semi-guerrilla Indie filmmaking. I mean, I'd rather watch Enchanted, but it's a nice distraction.

*Apart from the bits that weren't - shot either on traditional sets or in a studio, against green screen.

The Frozen Ground

Director: Scott Walker (2013)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens
Find it: IMDB

Nicolas Cage is almost-retired cop Jack Halcolmbe, working hard to bring serial killer Robert Hansen (Cusack) to justice after the man kidnaps, tortures and murders a number of young women, flying them away in his little aeroplane and burying them far away from prying eyes. When prostitute Cyndy Paulsen (Hudgens!) comes forward with evidence that could get Halcolmbe his search warrant and conviction, the cop must attempt to earn her trust before the killer can strikes again.

A true story about a real-life serial killer and his victims, starring Nicolas Cage as the man responsible for bringing Robert Hansen to justice? Fan as I am of The Cage, this could have gone terribly wrong - after all, serial killer biopics are hardly the place for bizarre screeching, gurning and bad hair. Thankfully, for respectability's sake, that's not what we get with The Frozen Ground. Cage gives his most restrained performance in years, playing Halcombe as grim, stoic but good-hearted. Even the hair isn't too bad. Cusack, meanwhile, fascinates as the monster of the piece, playing a role miles away from his usual comfort zone. This reunion doesn't have quite the same bombast or quotability as their Con Air, but both men are better here than they have been in years.

Cage and Cusack may be the stars, but The Frozen Ground doesn't skimp on its talent elsewhere. Indeed, its cast might be one of the most bizarre I've ever seen in a crime thriller. There's Vanessa Hudgens (actually very good) as traumatised Cyndy, Radha Mitchell (always great) as Halcombe's wife, Hank from Breaking Bad as another cop, Transformers dad Kevin Dunn as a police Lieutenant... and 50 Cent as Cyndy's pimp. Mister Cent is, of course, completely awful, but is only in about two scenes, so doesn't get to distract from much.

By cluing the audience and its hero in on the killer's identity from the start, there's a directness to the story and sense of urgency which remains throughout; well-paced and fraught with tension, even during the characters' downtime. Some Nicolas Cage aficionados may be disappointed in his dialing it back here, but in his doing so, The Frozen Ground becomes one of his best films in recent years.