Friday, 24 October 2014

Dead Mines

There’s just over a week left until Halloween, so it’s time for the annual Week of Horror! From here until the 31st (apart from the 25th), there will be a post everyday on a different horror film!

There’s a strange fascination the horror industry has with our enemies from World War 2, particularly when it comes to the human experiments that were performed by our enemies at that time. These are usually attributed to just the Nazis, usually just to make us hate the genocidal maniacs just a little more, though the occasional film does remember that there were atrocities committed by other nations during the war, including the Japanese.
‘Dead Mines’ (Steven Sheli, 2012) is one of those few, though, in reality, it does very little with its slight twist on the premise.
‘Dead Mines’ follows a small group of treasure hunters and mercenaries as they search Indonesia for Yamashita’s Treasure, fabled to be a collection of riches that the Japanese General hid during the Second World War (it’s actually assumed to be in The Philippines, but I guess Indonesia is close enough). Under the guidance of Japanese Scientist Rie (Miki Mizuno), the team enter into an abandoned mine that was refitted by the Japanese Army as an experimental facility. As they enter, they are attacked by unknown assailants and trapped in the mine as the entrance collapses. However, there is something far more sinister lurking in the mines…
As you may have worked out, there isn’t exactly much here that can be considered original in any way, as it is simply a slight retooling of a popular subgenre with a Japanese wash. As said, the film doesn’t even do much with its changes from Nazis to the Japanese, which is something quite disappointing in the overall scheme of things. It also leads to a lack of anything all that interesting in terms of design work or scripting, lending the film an overall feeling of dullness.
 I will give credit where credit is due, the director has done a good job in adding plenty of diversity to the group. We have annoying white rich American guy Warren Prince (Les Loveday), his Chinese girlfriend Su-Ling (Carmen Soo), as fore mentioned Japanese Scientist Rie, British Engineer and ex-soldier Stanley (Sam Hazeldine), and a series of Indonesian/ Multi-ethnicity soldiers led by Captain Tino Prawa (Ario Bayu). That’s a pretty decent spectrum for any film, and none of the characters are treated derogatorily for their race or stereotyped, which is a nice change of pace.
                Unfortunately, as a result of having a large-ish cast and not enough screen-time, several of these characters are whittled down to just a few personality traits. Worst offence here is Su-Ling, who is defined only as Warren’s girlfriend and doesn’t do much during the film’s runtime until near the end, where her actions are entirely based around her boyfriend. Two of the soldiers, Djoko and Ario (Joe Taslim and Mike Lewis) aren’t given a whole lot to do either, though they at least interact with several members of the group and get the seeds of personalities.
                The overall plotting of the movie is actually pretty solid, with the film hitting the right milestones at the right times, providing decent pacing and a good sense of progression. Unfortunately, this is hampered by the actual direction of the film and lack of any clear understanding as to how Horror works.
Like most examples in this sub-genre, the film falls flat as it relies more on being visually disturbing than actually horrifying. The situation is never made relatable, the characters never really close enough to having actual personalities or a point of relation. The matter isn’t helped by the location being too unreal, and little effort has been made to make it more believable (perfectly demonstrated by the cave systems which are clearly very fake).
                It also isn’t helped by the film’s lack of composition and lighting. Everything in this film is far too bright and visible, so we can see the monsters clearly, taking away from any attempt at horror. There are a few, rare moments, where the direction of the film is actually good, but mostly it just sort of lingers in the mediocre or bad areas, providing a visually dull film that never knows how to handle lighting.
                The soundtrack doesn’t do the film any favours either, as it sounds as though it’s stuck in a different decade than the rest of the film, often coming off as a seventies or eighties soundtrack, and never quite fitting the tone of the scene or the film as a whole. It also seems to have been written without knowledge of the film, and plays up the sci-fi sections too much, which then contrasts with the more traditional Asian sections of the score.
                The rest of the sound design really isn’t worth noting, as it falls downhill quite quickly after the cave-in. Nothing is ever really done to invoke a sense of horror, which could have been easily rectified, especially as the monsters pass through tunnels under the characters – scurrying sounds could have been played throughout, growing in frequency and urgency. This could have been easily played off early as simply rats, but lends a greater urgency when you know that there are monsters in the tunnels.      
                This is one of the more frustrating films to talk about, as it had such potential and is handled competently, but falls below the average because of a few things. The film really needed a greater focus on lighting and design (both visual and sound). With a few minor tweaks this could become a better film, and possibly even a good one had there been a greater attempt to inject more imagination into the plot than ‘Japanese – Samurai’.
                ‘Dead Mine’ isn’t a terrible film, but nor is it a good one. It falls into a great many of the usual horror film problems whilst managing to avoid a few others. It could have been a great film, but instead is left in the pile of mediocrity.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Seance: The Summoning




            Before I start with this film, let me state a simple truth – I am not religious and am not particularly a fan of religion in general. However, usually I can look past and ignore overly religious elements in fictional work in favour of the story and themes inherent in that work – ‘The Exorcist’ is a good example, or Dante’s ‘Inferno’. It’s a lot harder to do that here.


            ‘Séance: The Summoning’, a 2012 film by Alex Wright, is about four friends that decide to do a séance in a morgue. Okay, there is a reason behind this, in a way – Eva  (Nanzeen Contractor) claims to be able to communicate with the dead via arcane ritual, and her friend Marcus (Chris Olivero) wishes to film this and use it as a his student film. Also tagging along is Joey (Bobby Campo), a sceptic and Eva’s ex, and Sara (Devon Ogden), a born again Christian (what she’s doing at a séance is anyone’s guess).  
            The reason they’re at a morgue is because Marcus is a security guard there and can give them access, with the reasoning being that there will be more spirts there. Now, I won’t say I’m too well versed on this matter but surely spirts tend to linger where they died, and not where they’re bodies are? Or they go to heaven/ hell or whatever afterlife they believe in? Haunting a morgue sounds really rather boring.
            Anyway, they explore the morgue, and get down to the Séance. In a panic, Joey breaks the ring of hands that is supposedly keeping them safe after witnessing a black mist, and we learn he’s a natural spirit talker, which he tries to hide. As a result, a demon manages to possess him and trap the others in the morgue to torment them, planning to eventually kill them all.
            Okay, the plot is really generic. That’s fine, it happens. However, this film has a bonus on its side – the setting. Morgues are creepy places, and they can be put to effective use. ‘Séance’ doesn’t do that. In fact, the morgue setting is, by and large, irrelevant to the film, and there would be no real difference to the plot had it been anywhere else. This is most frustrating when we are told that the morgue houses a large collection of bodies of vagrants and homeless people, and we are shown the corpse of a mutilated woman – all of these things could have been brought back into the film in unsettling ways, especially if you imagine the many horrific ways people can die in urban life.
            But no, the morgue setting is simply wasted.
            It should also be noted that this is a morgue-cum-funeral home, as it also has a display room for coffins and a chapel. The morgue is also located in an abandoned building that is severely deteriorating. This is what’s known as ‘not having the budget for a set’.
            Now, if you’re wondering why I had that little paragraph about religion, here’s why – about halfway through the film, after Joey is possessed, Sara explains the importance of Christ and that faith in Christ is the only way to save themselves, both spiritually and physically. What follows is 40 minutes of bible quoting and ill-researched moments of religious insults and preaching (particularly in regards to abortion being a sin and forgetting that the bible preaches genocide and mass murder).
            Again, I wold be fine with this if it was handled well. It is not. The film ham-fistedly throws Christianity into our faces and makes a whole deal about how it is the only way to be saved. At no point is there any alternate method considered, at no point is it thought that any other religion could be fine. No, Christianity is the only way to live.
            On a similar subject, the writing in this film is just terrible. Characters seem to gain and lose character traits in an instant, and motivations become unclear immediately. We are supposed to sympathise with these characters, some of whom are given backstory, but the delivery and writing is so blunt and poorly delivered that it fails to work. It also doesn’t help that the film favours the ‘tell, don’t show’ approach to things, and fails to present any visuals to half of the dialogue aside from people talking. In the case of Joey and Sara’s tragic pasts, we are simply told them – there is nothing to show that they are being haunted by their pasts. There are no flashbacks, no signs of them having troubled lives, and their stories are told simply through description and nothing more. It’s poor filmmaking.
            Speaking of, the direction is below par as well. Whilst it’s competent, there are many shots that drag on for way too long, and a great deal of visual repetition. It’s also very clear where practical props are going to be used as the director makes a point never to position the camera where it will not see the props. The amount of tension that’s lost because things occur off-screen is beyond imagination.
            It is also clear that the director (who is also the writer) does not know how to handle his characters. Scenes where violence and tragedy occur are ignored immediately afterwards where the characters have calm conversations and act as if nothing’s happened. There is no immediate sense of shock or loss, as the dialogue tends to ignore these aspects until it fits into the script better. Having a character burst into tears several minutes after an event has occurred and after conversation is not good scripting.
            In terms of bad character writing, Sara takes the cake. From the moment of the possession, she becomes solo focus for much of the remaining runtime, and suddenly becomes cool, calm and collected and can handle any situation, including producing medical knowledge on the proper way to reposition bone and splint broken legs. Her new-found knowledge and demeanour comes out of nowhere and doesn’t work with the character presented earlier.
            Finally on the character front, apparently demonic possession just turns you into a very hammy actor. There is nothing particularly menacing or dramatic about somebody making exaggerated faces or waving their tongue at you.
            The films audio department is just as dodgy. There is no effort in making the audio mix unnerving or creepy, or even in providing unsettling gore sound effects. The sound feels lacking and unfinished, as if they didn’t think of adding in any sound and did so at the last minute upon noticing how empty the film felt. There are a few licensed songs which aren’t too bad (depending upon music taste), but are ultimately forgetful. The film’s original soundtrack is incredibly poor with no consistent theme or even consistent usage – it often plays at the less intense moments, or is absent when needed most. Sound design in horror films can elevate the core body into something truly disturbing, but here it feels as though the creators just weren’t trying.
            ‘Séance’ is the worst kind of film – one that provides you with hints and ideas how it will bend the genre clichés, but instead dogmatically follows it. Worst of all, it carries a very ham-fisted, right wind Christian propaganda message to it and damns anyone that disagrees with it – a matter made worse by the fact that the character who gets possessed manages to point out far too many actual truths and good arguments against religion, but the writer punishes him for it. This is a movie designed to appeal to the Christian core – also known as the people that don’t watch horror. Séance is an insult, underwhelming film that cannot be recommended unless you wish to torture yourself. The power of Christ compels you to go watch something better.     

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Lost Episode/ Pennhurst

           ‘The Lost Episode’ (Michael Rooker, 2012), or ‘Pennhurst’, is a film about a real place – Pennhurst State School and Hospital (also known as the Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic). This is actually to the film’s disadvantage, as there is a much more interesting story in the film’s location than the film bothers to give, though it does, at least, acknowledge the fact that Pennhurst has been the site for many ghost-hunting shows and myths.
                The film itself follows a group of teens that enter the asylum to look for ghosts. During this hunt, one of the teens decides to tell a story about a TV crew that went ‘missing’ whilst recording an episode (hence the title ‘Lost Episode’). During these flashbacks, we also get a little history lesson about the asylum, most of which is true, but there are some embellished elements as well.  
                To start with, there is nothing inherently wrong with the plot – after all, there are several movies which revolve around groups of people talking about events (‘Rashomon’ comes to mind, as well as ‘Batman: Gotham Knight’). Unfortunately, instead of having something half-way interesting such as people telling contradictory tales, we are given a story which the narrator cannot, under any possible means, have known about.
                Further embellishment is needed here. The kid says he was told the story as he has connections to the police, and they told him the story (which was relayed by the survivors, an immediate contradiction to the ‘whole cast and crew died’ thing). The problem here is that there are sections of the story that no-one that survived will know about, as they were not present and were not told about these events. Ergo, the kid cannot know about some of the parts of the story, especially not the parts where none of the film crew noticed that something was wrong in the first place.
                The entire film is like this – there are constant logical failures and errors that make the entire film beyond idiotic. This ranges from the fact that it treats the crew of this TV show as if they are actual ghost hunters, something that is stupid in and of itself, to contradictory logic in the hauntings themselves. One that first point, having watched episodes of ghost hunting shows, it’s clear that they are faked and are incredibly well planned frauds, so the fact that the crew of this fictional show have a psychic that is, apparently, psychic makes the whole thing more ludicrous.
                As far as the paranormal activity presented in the film goes, the entire thing makes very little sense. If Pennhurst is so obviously haunted by actual, tangible ghosts (pretty sure that’s a contradiction), then why did none of the other shows capture footage of this, and why has no-one else died as a result? What is so special about this crew that the ghosts appear to them?
                It seems as though the creators of the film also realised that his was a stupid idea, so they also incorporated a killer doctor into the film. This is the only excessively embellished part of the actual Pennhurst story, as there was, allegedly, an actual mad doctor that worked at the asylum (that could be simply fiction, but I digress), but the doctor presented here is simply another blow to any kind of believability the film has.
                You see, this doctor wants to ‘help’ people (aka kill them) in order to cure them of their many dysfunctions. However, the problem arises in the fact that (spoiler alert) he’s human, and seems to have a knowledge of everything that happens in the asylum and the ability to teleport around. He know of the deeds the film crew perform, and punishes them supposedly appropriately (only one of these ‘karmic’ deaths makes any sort of sense), and otherwise seems to possess an inhuman strength. However, as I noted, he is human, and has lived in the asylum for a very long time - the asylum closed in 1987, and the film takes place in the 2000s, making the character at least mid-thirties or forty, so the doctor has lived in the abandoned ruins for 20 odd years with no-one noticing. He would have also had to find some sort of food source as well as water, which means he’s probably been eating small animals and insects and drinking rainwater. This would make the man a feeble, sick wretch that would have barely any coherent thought yet alone operate age old medical technology (which doesn’t even have electricity despite being able to electrocute people).
                If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned a single character’s name yet, that’s because this 70 minute film has a cast of almost 20 characters, very few of whom actually address each other by name. As it stands, I doubt the actors involved really want to be remembered for appearing in this travesty anyway.
                There is also an opening kill (of course there is, the film follows the guidelines on how to make crappy horror films). This scene is one of the best in the film, and is still terrible, whether it be a result of the acting, the camera work or the audio. However, it is the only time where a character motivation is addressed and presented to the audience. It’s just a shame that it has absolutely nothing to do with the film on any level.   
                On technical level, the film’s only accomplishment is that the camera crew can operate their cameras. Every single visual element of the film is a mess –composition is terrible, effects are non-existent, shots are held for too long or too short, there isn’t enough variety in the camera work and the visuals are just unappealing. Almost every shot in the film is de-saturated to the nth degree or too dark to tell what’s going on.  The film attempts to use day-for-night shots but fails to generate a difference between day and night, resulting in general confusion as to what time of day or night it actually is. There is a moment in the film where one of the teens asks why the TV crew have flashlights during the day which led to slight confusion as the light levels are identical between both sections and both groups use flashlights.
                This is also one of the few schlock horror films I’ve seen where they’ve managed to fail at creating a sex scene (and yes, there is a sex scene). The scene itself is really stupid in the first place – a TV cameraman finds an incredibly beautiful (ghost) woman in the asylum, and she has sex with him because… well, just because. First off, I doubt there would be any exceptionally beautiful woman in an asylum in the first place, and, if there were, they probably wouldn’t remain that beautiful for too long. Second, the scene does not involve the stripping of clothes or the undoing of trouser flies. Instead, the woman is already mostly naked aside from a hospital gown and underwear (lacy, tight panties that are most definitely from the modern age) and she pushes the still dressed man onto a gurney and grinds his… navel, by the looks of things. The entire scene is beyond laughable, especially when the woman randomly turns into a pot-bellied middle aged man after a minute or so. The entire sequence feels like an attempt to one-up Kubrick’s adaptation of ‘The Shining’. Rule one – never reference a better film in your crappy one.
                As far as audio is concerned, the film doesn’t do anything other than have audio. The soundtrack tends to play at the wrong moments or fail to play at all, and all the sound effects are either too loud or non-existent. The song in the credits is perhaps the best thing about the audio track. I’m also pretty sure they reused several screams in succession.
                All in all, ‘The Lost Episode’ (or ‘Pennhurst’) is a really bad film. It is excessively bad, with nothing redeeming to say about it. It seems to exist as a ‘how not to make a horror film’ guide. I’m also pretty sure that the framing story was added later when they realised the run-time was too short to qualify as a feature length film. This is certainly something I could never recommend, unless you want to sit down and insult the film.