Monday, 21 May 2018

Ghost House (Thailand/USA 2017: Dir Rich Ragsdale)

Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie Strode in Rob Zombie's Halloween reboot movies) is Julie, who is about to have a very bad number of days when she and boyfriend Jim (James Landry Hébert) tour the Bangkok area of Thailand. Hoodwinked by a couple of Brits into investigating ornate shrines deep in the woods, the young couple are caught up in a nightmare when Julie becomes haunted by a frightening figure who can only be seen by her. Jim faces a race against time to find a cure for Julie's deepening psychosis before he loses his wife to irreversible insanity.

Rich Ragsdale's second feature (his first, 2005's The Curse of El Charro wasn't well received) is a curious thing; a well made, superbly photographed ghost story which borrows a lot of elements from other films but has enough verve and spirit to be, if not original, then certainly worth your time.

Ghost House has a very keen sense of place and its adoption of Thai belief systems is essential to the story (unlike, for example, a film like The Forest, with its rather lurid appropriation of a well known and very real suicide location in Japan). Ragsdale isn't beyond a bit of exploitation himself however, with footage of various undernourished and disabled locals thrown in for verisimilitude, and a story which on more than one occasion strays into 'superstitious villagers' territory.

While her boyfriend Tim is somewhat lethargically played by Hébert, Taylor-Compton is extremely effective as Julie. Trapped in her own private hell with the sometimes extremely frightening apparitions visible to no-one but her, it's a step up from most genre movies in that you genuinely feel for the character - clearly her role in the Halloween movies was a useful training ground. At times Ghost House resembles a more serious Drag Me to Hell - the story has its roots in MR James's story 'Casting the Runes' via its 2017 adaptation It Follows. The movie has drawn some criticism for its rather overly used shock haunting shtick, but I disagree. The menacing of Julie by the avenging spirit takes on a rather relentless feel, and the visions of the spectre (which for once isn't overly cursed by expository explanation) are genuinely unsettling.

Ghost House does well with its obviously limited budget. It may not be offering anything particularly new, but its combination of eastern myth, magic and traditional frights worked for me.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

From the Archive: Reviews of 3 Dead Trick or Treaters (USA 2016), Beacon Point (USA 2016), Beyond the Grave (Brazil 2010/2015), Deep in the Wood (Italy 2015), The Dooms Chapel Horror (USA 2016) and LA Contagion (USA 2014)

A further selection of film reviews that either didn't make it 'to print' or are otherwise no longer available on line.

3 Dead Trick or Treaters (USA 2016: Dir Torin Langen) Director/producer/ writer/ cinematographer Langen specialises in ‘weird’ short films, so what better vehicle for him than to pull a number of them together as a ‘portmanteau’ movie? It’s a similar idea to his Late Night Double Feature released last year, although the angle here is that the whole film (and each of the segments within it) is completely without dialogue. It’s not silent though - there’s a music soundtrack, and the characters in each of the stories grunt, sigh and make all the usual human sounds - except speech. Admittedly this takes some getting used to. The framing device around which to wrap the stories (two of them are from Langen’s back catalogue of shorts – the rest were presumably made for the film) has a paperboy stumbling on the graves of three murdered trick or treaters; hence the rather awkward title. 

Each of the headstones has a piece of paper attached containing a short story, which leads us into the various Halloween based story segments: ‘Fondue’ featuring a young couple who trick or treat at a remote house and get more than they bargained for; ‘Malleus Maleficarum,’ where a sacrificial offering gets cold feet about his fate; ‘Stash’ which has a trick or treating gang needing more than candy to keep them going; and ‘Delivery’ where two cops are given a bung to find another use for the body at a crime scene.

The films are pretty slight, opener ‘Fondue’ being the weakest, but the film begins to pick up pace as successive segments get stronger and the viewer adjusts to the dialogue free approach.  So why no speech? It could just be a gimmick, but as most of the characters in the stories are couples or partners, I think Langen is also saying something about how people non verbally communicate.

Anyhow I quite liked 3 Dead Trick or Treaters. It’s a bold attempt to do something different, and Langen wisely keeps the movie short – about 75 minutes. My only comment would be that there’s not enough variety of locations – drab and miserable though they are – so the segments end up looking a bit indistinguishable.  Nice job though.

Beacon Point (USA 2016: Dir Eric Blue) I am, I must confess, an absolute sucker for films set in the woods. And when the forest looks as lush as the woodland featured in Beacon Point, my critical faculties are reduced further. No matter, for despite all the gorgeous foliage on display, this is a good film. Nothing particularly original happens, but it’s beautifully photographed, credibly acted, and keeps the viewer on their toes.

A group of hikers assemble at a trail point in the Appalachian mountains (although actually filmed in Georgia), all set for a 90 mile 10 day hike. Unfortunately the trail leader Drake, who was to escort them, has just been rumbled by his boss as he’s had some previous jail time, and is fired. Drake protests and in the ensuing struggle accidentally kills the boss. Drake then shuts up the office, complete with corpse, joins the hikers and makes like nothing’s happened.

The hikers are the usual group of strangers thrown together – city type Zoe (whose strange dreams presage what’s to come), Dan, a nerdy guy who’s made a mint but lost his wife to another man, and brothers Cheese and Brian. Led by an obviously unstable Drake on a trail that he seems to be making up as he goes along, the group encounter a strange totem pole deep in the woods. This is the catalyst for odd things to start happening, and before they know it they’re being spied on by unknown, possibly alien eyes, encountering dead bodies, and mistrusting each other.

The standout performance is Rae Olivier as resourceful Zoe, a character who makes the transition from ditz to heroine of the hour pretty convincingly, but all of the cast handle their roles well, with special mention for John Briddell as crazy ranger Drake.  

Beacon Point director Eric Blue has taken the time in his first full length feature to flesh out his characters well, although the events don’t make a lot of sense – is it sci fi, is it horror, is it a psychological thriller? It’s nevertheless a tense movie which uses its woodland locations to great effect and doesn’t take itself too seriously. 

Beyond the Grave aka Porto Dos Mortos (Brazil 2010/2015 Dir Davi de Oliviera Pinheiro) “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” Any movie that opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche is probably not aiming for the drive in crowd, and Brazilian director de Oliveira Pinheiro – who also wrote and produced the film - certainly isn’t. Quite who he’s aiming to please though is the question. And beware – if you’re watching this one it’s best to arm yourself with a bit of plot beforehand, as the action on screen isn’t going to help you any. So here goes. 

There’s this taciturn officer called, er ‘Officer’ who’s on the track of a Fallen type shape shifting demon called 'The Dark Rider'. The only way that the audience knows that someone’s been taken over is a general air of meanness and rheumy glowing red eyes. Now the officer is tracking the demon across what I think is a post-apocalyptic landscape – there’s a DJ on the radio taking about ‘the final days’ – and there are also some particularly lethargic zombies hanging around too, although why they are the way they are isn’t really explained, but they’re linked to the demon. And that’s kind of it.

Beyond the Grave is best described as a Robert Rodriguez movie – say Once Upon a Time in Mexico – slowed right down to an almost funereal pace but with all the gun toting and sweatiness intact, to which is added a bit of laconic Lucio Fulci-style undead action. It’s bizarre, intense, pretty pointless, and very, very slow. Narratively it’s baffling – characters die, then come back to life (and not as zombies). After a while I sort of went with it and quite liked its sense of existential gloom.

Beyond the Grave (or to use its original Brazilian title Porto dos Mortos) was touring the festival circuits as early as 2010, but as Pinheiro funded 50% of the movie himself I guess he’s keen to recoup as much as he can for as many years as possible, hence its re-release. I think the best summary I can make of the movie is someone else’s – a ‘paranormal western.’

Deep in the Wood aka In fondo al bosco (Italy 2015: Dir Stefano Lodovichi) Despite the holiday setting and certain plot strands hinting at supernatural elements operating within the story, this Italian movie is in truth a rather dark but entirely secular thriller, atmospherically set in winter in a small village in the Dolomites, concerning the disappearance and reappearance of a small boy.

Tommi is a 4 year old who one night, in the middle of the annual Krampus celebrations (a seasonal festival where locals dress up as the legendary 'Christmas Devil’), goes missing. Five years later he is found, barely alive and with little memory of his past. The 9 year old Tommi is returned to his (now estranged) parents Linda and Manuel, but his mother Linda remains unconvinced that the boy in her care really is her son. A clearly traumatised Tommi struggles to be re-integrated with his family, while at the same time the village’s popularly held belief that the boy had actually been murdered by his alcoholic father Manuel (unconvicted following a trial but still under the shadow of suspicion) is overturned. Who then was responsible for Tommi’s disappearance, if indeed the boy in question is Tommi?

Deep in the Wood scores strongly on location and atmosphere. The claustrophobic wintry mountain village setting is perfect for reflecting the insularity of the village folk, all of who seem to live uneasily with each other. Teo Achille Caprio, as the 9 year old Tommi, delivers a creepy performance recalling Swann Nambotin as Victor in the 2012 French TV series The Returned. While overall Deep in the Wood has some gripping moments, unfortunately the story and eventual explanation strains credibility almost from the start. Would a mother, despite Linda’s obvious mental health issues, really not recognise her own son after a five year gap? From this point on I found the soap opera-esque plot machinations all rather convoluted. I also found it difficult to believe that the level of secrecy which is essential to the plot would have been sustainable in such a small community.

Perhaps more problematically, the film’s set up – the Krampus costumes, Tommi’s eerie quietness and bouts of violence - strongly suggest that the story behind the disappearance and re-appearance was to have a much less prosaic explanation than the one eventually offered up – ingenious as it is, it comes across as a disappointment and reflects poorly on the whole movie.

The Dooms Chapel Horror (USA 2016: Dir John William Holt) A great although rather exploitation-style movie title for what is quite a subtle film, although it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a character study or creature feature.

Kyle returns to his Kentucky home town after an 11 year absence with girlfriend Mandy in tow. He left as a small boy, blamed for being neglectful of his farm duties which resulted in the death of his brother Ryan in a threshing accident. On returning he is still vilified by the locals who clearly have very long memories.

The setting for the movie is rural – rotting cars, poorly maintained housing, and swathes of long term unemployed men shooting pool and looking mean; very similar to Debra Granik’s 2010 movie Winter’s Bone or indeed last year’s Oscar hopeful Hell or High Water then. Kyle and Mandy bring their film making friend Tanner with them to document Kyle’s search for the truth. For Kyle means to protest his innocence and find out what really happened to Ryan, and hooks himself up with a body camera to film his conversations with the locals. What he uncovers (a weird cult and a strange beast in the woods) brings a change of pace from slow build up to final reel explosion of violence.

The Dooms Chapel Horror combines faux documentary footage and first person hand held filming to create a mix of styles which help to build up the story. While it’s all cleverly done, the creature elements jar somewhat, and there’s a generally laconic air to the proceedings which makes it a bit of a tedious watch at times. Hats (or should that be Stetsons) off to first time feature director John William Holt for trying something that isn’t just a load of kids running around in the woods, but ultimately this is an interesting movie rather than a very good one.

LA Contagion aka Killer Party aka The Shower (USA 2014: Dir Alex Drummond) Wow, way to go through the naming wringer! Dating back from 2013, this comedy, about a baby shower party that turns into a fight for survival against a group of ‘infected’ neighbours, is equal parts US TV show Modern Family and The Crazies.

The various couples at the party are introduced to us via title cards, and some attempt is made to establish the characters, who are mainly actors and writers in ‘the business’ (the hostess is a theatrical agent). The standouts in this motley crew are waspish party organiser Joanne (Suzanne Sena) and her put upon assistant Beth (Stephanie Tobey), a clown hired for the party (Tony Rego, who’s much funnier after he becomes ‘infected’ – I think that’s the point) and wannabe Republican candidate Zach (Paul Natonek), who speaks entirely in political platitudes.

The ‘infected’ aren’t zombies as such (in fact it’s often quite hard to tell them apart from the uninfected) and we don’t really know why they have turned, but once the carnage begins, it’s clear that director Alex Drummond  has seen Shaun of the Dead more than once or twice. Not much happens from this point on, and there’s a lot of talking. The assembled guests and their kids gradually run out of food as they continue to hole up in the house and battle the one or two ‘infected’ that make it over the threshold, necessitating a foraging trip to a neighbour’s house to plunder their cupboards. The body count is high and the gore is Pythonesque and ludicrous (an ‘infected’ little girl is clearly laughing as she’s filmed eating entrails).

This isn’t a great film. It would have made a smart short feature but too little happens and there are simply too many cast members with nothing to do, who just snark at each other. I like the suburban look of the thing though and the clown character raises some chuckles due to his ineptitude – I laughed when, after a night of action, the cast survey a garden full of badly made balloon animals, and one character remarks drolly “the clown was busy last night.”

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Slasher.com (USA 2017: Dir Chip Gubera)

In America a serial killer is stalking women via dating apps, using a variety of aliases. Against that backdrop we meet Jack and Kristy, a young couple who have been chatting online and have decided to meet for the first time - they seem to be ok, right? A squeaky clean pair whose nervousness about meeting up in real life is compounded by the rather ambitious decision to make their first date a country cabin rental.

The cabin owners are the folksy Myers family who welcome the newbie daters perhaps a little too enthusiastically. Momma Myers (a rather ripe turn from 1980s/90s exploitation star Jewel Return of the Living Dead Shepard) serves up the home cooking, while larger than life husband Jessie is rather pre-occupied with the Myers' daughter, precocious Southern belle Caitlin.

I'm guessing that you won't be surprised if I tell you that this movie doesn't unfold with Jack and Kristy having a lovely weekend of creature comforts, recreational activities, conversations round the dinner table and good ol' country fare; although these elements do all crop up - just not in the way the young couple would have liked. For yes, the Myers household has adopted the 'family that slays together, stays together' motif as a lifestyle choice, and half way through things get very hairy for our young lovers.

Momma and Jessie get to know Jack in Slasher.com
Slasher.com, despite its clunky title (which recalls William Malone's pitiful 2002 Feardotcom, a film I had rather hoped to permanently forget about) is actually a lot of fun, a Southern backwoods exploitationer with a distinctly EC comics flavour.

If young couple Jack (Ben Kaplan) and Kristy (Morgan Carter) are a rather simpering pair - although there's a reason for that - they're more than made up for by the colourful Myers clan. Shepard's larger than life performance is huge fun, but R.A. Mihailoff and Rebecca Crowley are also good value as Jessie and Caitlin respectively.

Shot on a low budget in Columbia, Missouri, Chip Gubera's latest feature (actually filmed in 2016) is a film that doesn't take itself too seriously - perhaps unsurprising for a director whose first feature, Song of the Dead (2005) was a zombie rock musical, and who has turned his hand to not one but two wrestling horror movies. Slasher.com has some story twists that you may be able to see coming but are no less pleasurable for it, and the whole cast look like they're having a good time. Not bad at all.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Pyewacket (Canada 2017: Dir Adam MacDonald)


The Dark Eyes of London site has been a rather singular pursuit of mine for the past five years, but I'm not immune to accepting the odd guest contribution from time to time - gives me time to go and make a cup of tea. The following has been written by Richard Halfhide, who has his own site, the extremely informative and highly commendable All Slights Deserved.

The name ‘Pyewacket’ first appeared in The Discovery of Witches, a 1647 pamphlet published by Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General. Described as having an appearance that “no mortal could invent”, Hopkins claimed Pyewacket was among a motley assortment of colourfully-titled familiar spirits (among them ‘Vinegar Tom’ and ‘Sacke and Sugar’) that a witch in Essex summoned forth following the witch hunters’ usual methods of persuasion, thereby earning herself a trip to the gallows for her troubles. 

Fortunately, those dabbling in witchcraft today have less to fear from Puritan reprisals, but far darker consequences may still ensue, according to the latest effort by Canadian writer/director Adam MacDonald. It’s the story of Leah (Nicole Muñoz), an angst-ridden teen whose fraught relationship with her recently widowed mother (Laurie Holden) reaches breaking point after the latter decides they should relocate to a remote house out in the sticks. Determined to be rid of her antagonist, and inspired by a recent meeting with an occult author, Leah casts a spell that inadvertently summons the titular entity.

Nicole Muñoz as Leah in Pyewacket
Unsurprisingly, what follows is very much a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Pyewacket’s malign influence is first teased by a series of inexplicable incidents, leading up to more sinister occurrences. Claustrophobic camerawork does an effective job of drawing us into Leah’s darkening, increasingly introspective world. Yet there’s an annoying tendency for scenes to be a little too tight, when character development and horror alike might have benefitted from being drawn out. 

As the troubled teen, Muñoz performs ably, while Holden, best known for her appearances in The Walking Dead, has the ideal face for her ambivalent role, particularly in the latter stages. Unfortunately the script really doesn’t really give them enough to delve beneath the surface of their dynamic and the dialogue is sometimes wincingly clunky, making it difficult to feel much sympathy for either.  

There is, however, a foreboding atmosphere to the cinematography and Pyewacket’s first appearance, a shadowy presence in the corner of a room, is well executed. While it’s been bracketed with the new wave of Canadian cinema, the tone (visually and figuratively) put me more in mind of US indie psycho-thriller Super Dark Times. But whereas that film had the confidence to let the dread simmer into a toxic brew, Pyewacket seems to feel obliged to add further ingredients. One particular later scene featuring a Skype conversation is a serious misstep; a sop to a commercial formula that does the story no favours when it would have been better to explore Leah’s growing sense of alienation.

Ultimately, it comes across oddly like a torn-from-the-headlines TV movie, as though the story had been inspired by an actual incident, albeit with some added sensationalism. This may have been the intention, but it feels like a clumsy compromise of plot over substance. As an exploration of the relationship between a mother and daughter, Pyewacket is clearly geared towards a very different audience than Greta Gerwig’s whimsical Lady Bird, but that doesn’t mean richer characterisation is off limits.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Wish Upon (USA/Canada 2017: Dir John R. Leonetti)

“By the Director of Annabelle’’ runs the advertising strap for Leonetti’s latest film. This wouldn’t be much of a recommendation (I found Annabelle a fairly turgid movie and an unnecessary franchise extension from The Conjuring) except that last year he also made the flawed but downbeat Manson murder story Wolves at the Door which was a real change of pace.

Wish Upon surprises by being something different to both these movies – in fact it’s closer to Wes Craven’s later output in its glossily lensed combination of teen trauma and mild horror. Although we’re safely back in the world of PG-13 shocks, there’s something quite unsettling in the way the sinister elements are superficially handled – and the complex ‘will they, won’t they’ kill sequences are indebted to the Final Destination movies.

Joey (The Conjuring) King plays Claire Shannon, a high school student with problems: she’s being systematically bullied by class ringleader Darcie - in part because of her dumpster trawling dead-end ex musician father, and also because of her association with ‘loser’ friends Meredith and June. Claire is also still recovering from the shock of witnessing her mother’s suicide at a young age. When her father gives her an old music box found in a skip, which includes an inscription – in ancient Chinese - that promises to grant the owner seven wishes, before you can say ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ Claire deals with Darcie, inherits a fortune, gets her dad playing saxophone again and nets the class hunk.

But of course all this comes at a price – for every wish granted a repayment in blood is required. And part of the fun of the movie is working out who’s going to be the next sacrifice and how it will happen.

As mentioned, despite the high death rate, there’s nothing in any way graphic about the film – perhaps the scariest thing here is the appearance of Sherilyn Fenn as a neighbour, who at the age of 51 is either the result of a very effective old age makeup job or has had rather a tough life. Fenn’s fate – by waste disposal (and you can pretty much predict how that works) – is just one of a number of elaborate death setups triggered by the demon in the box requiring wish granting recompense. 

These and other scenes – Joey’s father getting the band back together and treating us to a sax solo, and the way that Claire and her friends dismiss with a quick ‘whatever’ the deaths all around them – left me rather uncertain how seriously I should take this film. 

But there’s no mistaking that, despite its multitude of WTF moments, Wish Upon remains an entertaining movie, if ludicrous in set up. It also has an ending that, even if you do see it coming, is pretty shocking after the light-heartedness of the previous 80 odd minutes. Very very cautiously recommended.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Ghost Stories (UK 2017: Dir Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman)

Dyson and Nyman's adaptation of their successful stage play of the same name positively drips dread and ennui. It's a film version of reading one of those ghost story collections published by Pan or Fontana back in the 1970s: contemporary but with gothic touches, strangely quaint but with an undercurrent of pathos and terror which, like the ever present dampness of the film's locations, gets under the skin.

The title is possibly an homage to Masaki Kobyashi's 1964 portmanteau film Kwaidan - 'Ghost Stories' being the English translation of the word - and adopts a similar approach, albeit with a wraparound story almost stranger than those around which it entwines.

Professor Philip Goodman (Nyman) is a professional debunker of fake mediums. Raised in a strict family, he has learnt to be an unbeliever, despite being Jewish. Courtesy of a cassette tape delivered to his house, Goodman is led to a reclusive psychic investigator, Charles Cameron, living in an isolated caravan. Once there he is given a folder containing three case studies that Cameron feels may alter Goodman's traditional sceptical stance.

The three stories told by each of the subjects - Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) - are slight, little more than brushstrokes of accounts, all geared towards a specific supernatural incident which in each case causes mental damage to the three men.

The success of Ghost Stories for me was not in its plot - the details of which I am unable to give away, but which I found the least satisfying part of the film - but in its characters. Nyman is well cast as Goodman, his hangdog looks and panda eyes a testament to a life not well lived. Glimpses into his childhood show a tortured and confused soul - the transition from boy to adult in the film is for once entirely believable, and his wrestling with his Jewish faith against his chosen profession provides an additional complexity. Similarly the three case studies present equally bleak characters: Paul Whitehouse is a coiled spring of inner anger and confusion as a night watchman stalked by something in an abandoned women's prison; Alex Lawther superb as a highly strung young man in a house full of spirits, who also encounters something spooky in the woods; and Martin Freeman as the smug businessman haunted by real life tragedy and a vengeful poltergeist.

The stories within stories are eventually resolved into a conclusion I found a little disappointing, mainly because it's a device that's been used many times before. But it didn't really matter. What Ghost Stories gives viewers in feel, location and mood - particularly those of a certain age - is a passport back to some of the eerie touchstones of the 1970s, already well documented influences on Dyson and Nyman's writing. Public Information Films (Dark and Lonely Water in particular), The TV series Hammer House of Horror and the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas offerings are all clearly inspirations. As you would expect from the film's writers, the pathos inherent in The League of Gentlemen series is also very prevalent. It's a film of strong but hidden emotions, of words remaining unsaid and very English understatement. You might come for the scares, but you'll leave with the sadness.

The Facebook Reviews! Part 2

Beyond the Door 2 aka Shock (Italy 1977: Dir Mario Bava) First time for re-viewing this since I saw it at the cinema in 1980 twinned with a heavily snipped version of Vicente Aranda's The Blood Spattered Bride (1972), under its original title Shock. Although it's Bava's last feature directing credit it's much better than I remember and is very creative on a slim budget. Its urban setting pre-empted most of the 'haunted semi' movies of the late 70s/early 80s (it reminded me of an extended Thriller TV episode with added gore, and Bava's son Lamberto, who worked on it, said that his father was very influenced by Stephen King's writing at the time). Poor old Daria Nicolodi goes through it in a way that reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence in mother! (co-incidentally both actors were 27 years old at the time of filming their respective movies). And for those who haven't seen it, there's a sleight of hand trick at the end that's incredibly effective.

Madhouse (Italy 1981: Dir Ovidio Assonitis) The third in Assonitis' run of horror movies as director (preceded by Beyond the Door and Tentacles), Madhouse is slow to start but, as the title suggests, works up a bonkers head of steam. Trish Everly plays Julia whose ten tons o' crazy twin sister Mary is confined to hospital after contracting a wasting disease. Pretty Julia is a teacher at a school for deaf children (there are some sweet scenes with the kids) but her life is in peril not just from her sister, who has escaped from hospital and is hellbent on revenge, but other members of the family too. Madhouse is all about the last half hour really but on the way you get a demonic (ok just angry) mutt, some slow motion running and a soundtrack whose instrumentation largely comprises double bass and syndrum (you know, like the one in the 1980 Kelly Marie song 'Feels Like I'm in Love'). The movie's working title was Happy Birthday and even if you've not seen it you don't have to be a genius to work out how the film's big set piece might be set up. Filmed in the freezing cold in Savannah, Georgia in a rambling old house, Madhouse has just enough going for it to sustain the attention; it's infinitely better than Beyond the Door, that's for sure.

The Party (UK 2017: Dir Sally Potter) Saw this yesterday. I am afraid it left me completely cold, which wasn't the case for the rest of the audience, who collectively found it a hoot. The script had the opportunity to be acidic but Patricia Clarkson's one liners were all undercooked, and Timothy Spall, who I have a lot of time for, overacted for England.

The only vaguely interesting character was played by the gorgeous Cillian Murphy - the rest of it was just an arch chamber piece rattling around in search of a decent one act play. Funniest bit was the audience who presumably didn't know it was only 71 minutes long (perfect for me as I had somewhere to go afterwards) and were audibly shocked when it ended abruptly. I did like the house's walled garden though. Always wanted a walled garden.

Aenigma (Italy 1987: Dir Lucio Fulci) Not nearly as dire as many have made out, this shows a rather restrained Fulci at work in a film which despite its indebtedness to movies like Carrie (revenge on girls who play a near fatal prank - actually the 1978 Carrie ripoff Jennifer is closer to the mark) and the 1978 Aussie movie Patrick (said revenge carried out by comatose patient in a hospital bed) has enough originality to make it watchable. 20 year old Lara Lamberti is pretty good as Eva, a newcomer to a Boston school (actually Sarajevo) where a bunch of girls have previously played a trick on one of their classmates, Kathy (Mijlijana Zirojevic). The prank goes wrong and Kathy is rendered comatose, but the wronged student uses newly arrived sex mad Eva as a vessel to wreak revenge on the girls that put her in her vegetative state.

There's death by snails (which, if you're interested, takes ages), aerobics, and a weird menage a trois involving the doctor taking care of Kathy, Eva (and by default Kathy too). Working with reduced budgets and ill health, it's perhaps a marvel that Fulci's film turned out as well as it did. Best seen as one of the director's many attempts in the 1980s to branch out into different territories, and certainly better than many of his other 'experiments' in the same decade (Conquest, I'm looking at you).

Far from the Madding Crowd (UK 2015: Dir Thomas Vinterberg) Vintenberg's reworking of the Thomas Hardy novel is so polite and anxious not to offend it almost asks for your permission before showing itself to you. Although some of the turns are good - Michael Sheen as the increasingly unhinged William Boldwood steals the show - Carey Mulligan doesn't yet have the range of emotions needed for Bathsheba Everdene so merely comes across as a backs to the land proto feminist, and Matthias Schoenaerts - complete with Mittel European accent - misreads the complex and brooding Gabriel Oak character as requiring the 'strong and silent' treatment. To be honest I wilted a bit when the first title card read 'Dorset - 200 miles from London' and it didn't really pick up from there. This is Sunday tea time stuff and no more, with all the depth of the source material removed in favour of lots of profound turn-of-the-seasons shots and just one more close up of Miss Mulligan framed by the magic hour west country landscape. Disappointing.

Begin Again (USA 2013: Dir John Carney) Call me uncharitable (and I am aware that Begin Again has its fans), but I found this film both uninteresting and faintly nauseating - a movie for those who believe in the ultimate truth and beauty of car advertisements. Mark Ruffalo is a vaguely alcoholic record company mogul who seems to have been responsible for most of the key musical happenings in the western world, but has become disillusioned with his firm's obsessions about getting songs onto adverts and putting media teams behind every signing. His delight at seeing winsome Keira Knightley, singing one of her breathy compositions in a bar, makes the scales fall from his eyes as he realises that he's been missing the essential truth of good honest from the heart music. What's baffling is that Knightley seems to be the first 'singer/songwriter' he's come across - where has he been for the past five years?

If the set up sounds interesting (and it takes 45 minutes to get this far using the old cinematic standby of showing three different perspectives leading to one moment), the remaining hour focusing on Ruffalo and Knightley recording their album alfresco on the streets of New York City definitely isn't. This is essentially a retread of let's-do-the-show-right-here wish fulfillment movies of the past, but lacks any of the grit that underlies the film's message about keeping it real - it's as manufactured as the music it sets out to rally against. Director John Carney should have watched Alan Parker's 1980 movie Fame to get an idea of how to combine urban settings with the euphoria of artistic creation, but this just had me thinking of that advert with the guy hanging out of his impossibly expensive loft apartment to the strains of 'Easy Like a Sunday Morning'. Atrocious.