HOLLOW (2010) Review

Directed by Michael Axelgaard
Written by Matthew Holt
Starring Emily Plumtree, Sam Stockman, Jessica Ellerby, Matt Stokoe, Simon Roberts
Debuted at FanTasia International Film Festival. Find out more info on the film, when it will be released, and where you can see it here.

”Found footage” films are my guilty pleasure. I know folks may be getting sick of the genre, but I get sucked in every time. I love the way the handheld camera literally places me in the film and since I am a moviegoer who strives on being able to be transported to another time and place, the genre gets me every time. HOLLOW is a new film making its way around festivals this year and if you have a chance to catch it, please do so because it is an engrossing and effective little found footage gem.

The film follows two young couples with a complex relationship. The success of this film rides on the relationship between these two couples, which become more complicated and enmeshed as the film goes on. One couple, played by Emily Plumtree and Sam Stockman, are set to be married. The other is a more strained relationship with the male played by Matt Stockoe harboring a crush on the female in the other relationship. The four venture into Dunwich to visit Emily’s childhood home, a trip she is not all too excited about. The film starts off as most found footage flicks do–with a lot of day-to-day stuff of couples having fun, trips in the car, casual conversation, and a lot of shaky camera work. Things get ominous very quickly, though, when they pass a tree that Emily claims is haunted. Legend has it that couples have hanged themselves from the tree’s branches and that it’s haunted by a hooded figure. The tree is spooky as hell, yet the couple find themselves drawn to it throughout the film, ending in a climax that takes place in a car in the dark that is absolutely terrifying.

As with most found footage films, the limitations to what we see cause the most unease. The poor lighting and unfocused camera only intensify the frights. The couples do a convincing job acting as if they are not acting here, though at the end they do make a couple of dumb decisions to move the plot along. And though it is somewhat predictable how these couples are going to end up given the history of the haunted tree, director Axelgaard and writer Holt make the journey there a haunting one with scores of scary imagery and atmosphere to enjoy. Comparisons to THE BLAIR WITCH are inevitable, but this is more akin to the feel of THE WICKER MAN (the original) than anything else. AS I said, I’m a sucker for found footage films, so this was right up my alley, but if you’re looking for a clean resolution and a steady cam, this might not be for you.

CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1970) Review

Directed by Gordon Hessler
Written by Tim Kelly & Christopher Wicking
Starring Vincent Price, Elizabeth Bergner, Essy Persson, Patrick Mower, Hillary Dwyer, Carl Rigg, & Andrew McCulloch

Though this film is far inferior to Vincent Price’s other witch opus, WITCHFINDER GENERAL, it still isn’t without its own charm. CRY OF THE BANSHEE’s biggest problem is that aside from a freaky howl ringing out occasionally to add tension, there really isn’t a banshee to speak of in this film. Sure CRY OF THE BANSHEE is filled with witches, voodoo, Satan worshipers, mad dogs, mad noblemen, and something that might possibly be a werewolf or a demon, but I honestly don’t think the word banshee is mentioned aside from the fantastically gothic animated title sequence (by Terry muther grabbin’ Gilliam!!!).

Price plays Lord Edward Whitman, a proud man obsessed with ridding his township of witches. CRY OF THE BANSHEE opens with a scene of a witch execution, as WITCHFINDER GENERAL does. But where WITCHFINDER GENERAL moves on to tell a fascinating story of a man and a woman torn apart by an egomaniacal madman, CRY OF THE BANSHEE tells a convoluted story of the destruction of a family by obsession. The main issue with CRY OF THE BANSHEE is that there really isn’t a person one can identify or root for. Price is the head of the family, but early on the viewer is privy to his obsession for killing witches. His actions cause his family to be cursed when he kills the children of a powerful witch named Oona. The witches aren’t ones to root for either, as Oona (played maniacally by Elizabeth Berger in a performance reminiscent of the old creepy lady in Raimi’s recent DRAG ME TO HELL) is pretty evil herself, killing off Whitman’s brood one by one and chanting about Satan whilst poking voodoo dolls with pins. Whitman’s family is not very likable either. Some terrorize the women of the town, forcing them to undress and if they don’t give into their advances they are accused of witchcraft. Others are such milksops that their inaction makes them equally dislikable. Sure some of them disapprove of Whitman’s obsession, but none take action against it. Without a real side to take, you find yourself in the uncomfortable position of wishing the entire cast would just take each other out and be done with it.

I hate to keep comparing this to WITCHFINDER GENERAL, but the fact that both star Vincent Price (who as usual brings it all to this performance, but there are moments where it doesn’t seem like even he knows how to react; the scene where he gets into a fight with his adoptive son and his co-star from WITCHFINDER Hillary Dwyer and then for some reason they all burst into laughter as if it were a blooper reel comes to mind) and both handle matters of witchcraft and persecution almost force me to lump the two together. CRY OF THE BANSHEE handles the matter of the witch hunts with a heavier hand and although WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a more brutal film in its content and storyline, CRY OF THE BANSHEE seems to be more in your face with the brutality with multiple rapes and torture of women on screen simply for the sake of showing a couple more boobies.

The one thing CRY OF THE BANSHEE has going for it is that it has one hell of an ending. It’s choreographed in an almost DePalma-esque meticulousness as events unfold into a truly horrific finale. Though far inferior to Price’s masterpiece WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the ending of CRY OF THE BANSHEE makes the film definitely worth a watch.

BLACK DEATH (2010) Review

Directed by Chris Smith
Written by Dario Poloni
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, David Warner, & Kimberly Nixon

I went into BLACK DEATH not really expecting much. I knew it starred Sean Bean, but having seen THE HITCHER remake, I know that his appearance in a film doesn’t always mean it’s good. But being a sucker for knight movies, throw in hints of witch-hunting and the Plague and it seems like a pretty potent stew. What I had seen of the film didn’t really do it justice (see the trailer below). Turns out BLACK DEATH is actually a pretty fantastic film. It won’t blow the barnacles off your whale, but it is a lot better than it seems.

The film centers not around Bean’s character, but Eddie Redmayne’s Osmund, a young monk who is secretly having a relationship with a pretty young waif named Averill (played by the equally pretty and young Kimberly Nixon). Osmund looks for a sign from God to see if he should leave the monastery pursuing his true love and shedding his monkly vows. And a sign does come in the form of a cadre of swarthy knights lead by Sean Bean’s Ulric. Word arrives to the monastery that there’s a town that is untouched by the Black Plague and Osmund volunteers to be their guide in hopes of finding his Averill and having a save haven to live. Ulric makes a promise to the Abbot (an almost unrecognizable David Warner) to find this town and find out its secret to avoiding the Plague. And so our gang of toughs, lead by a pamby monk, take off and the real movie begins.

This is your typical men on a mission story. It could be set in the Old West (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) or World War II (DIRTY DOZEN) or the swamps of Louisiana (SOUTHERN COMFORT). Like all of those classic team on a mission stories, it stars a group of memorable characters, one tougher than the next, lead by the toughest of them all. BLACK DEATH, at its core, is a guy film about a bunch of guys working together to survive. Director Chris Smith did a great job of assembling a cast of unique and gruff characters and giving them a lot of weird and wild things to face on their journey. The group runs into witchhunters, self-flagellating monks, savages, swamps, and a town led by a witch. Of course not all survive, but the ones who do will probably surprise you.

My favorite part of BLACK DEATH comes during the closing sequence, but it’s an ending that will definitely split the audience in half. Right after the “climax” of the film, BLACK DEATH sort of becomes a totally different movie and rushes in with a whole new concept that, to me at least, was even more fascinating than the first hour and a half of the film. Though it may have been a missed opportunity to make an intriguing follow-up, this change of events for one character certainly leaves you wanting more. I wasn’t expecting this sort of TWILIGHT ZONE twist ending, but it’s a fun one and worth revisiting should Mr. Smith care to do so.

The performances in BLACK DEATH are solid throughout. All of the actors look authentic—like they’ve been rolling in the dirt and most of them seem like they eat it given their sunny dispositions. It’s great to see Sean Bean in a beard again. No Medieval Ages story is complete without Bean’s whiskers these days. The kid playing the monk who acts as the audience’s eyes and ears is pretty good as well, though at times he looks a bit too much like the creepy ginger Malachi from the original CHILDREN OF THE CORN for my comfort. There’s a shit ton of violence and some pretty groovy gory bits as well here. All in all, if you’re looking for a modern tale that isn’t weighed down with Hollywood stars and CGI, BLACK DEATH is the medieval tale to beat.

BLACK SUNDAY (1960) Review

Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Nikolai Gogol (based on the short story “The Viy”), Ennio de Concini & Mario Serandrei(screenplay), Mario Bava & Marcello Coscia (screenplay)
Starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checci, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici

I can’t say that I am an expert on the work of Mario Bava, but you can’t do a witch-centric column without BLACK SUNDAY, the grandmother of all witchy films. Bava starts out this film in brutal style as the viewer is watches the tail end of a witch trial. A punishment is being enacted upon a so called witch, played by the seductive and deadly looking Barbara Steele. I know us horror fans like to categorize out terrors, but here, Bava blends witchcraft, Satanism, and vampirism all into one gorgeous villainess with Steele’s Princess Asa Vajda. Steele’s cold stare is but one of many mesmerizing aspects of this film, but without Steele’s performance, I doubt as many folks would have seen BLACK SUNDAY.

After a very brutal execution, the narrative skips to 200 years later as a traveling professor’s carriage loosens a wheel by an old cemetery. The professor manages to bumble together a perfect storm of resurrection when he battles a larger than life bat (hokey-looking, but effective), accidentally destroys the cross keeping the witch in check for all of these years, removes the mask nailing her corpse down, then cuts himself dripping blood into her scorpion infected eye sockets. Is it much of a surprise the villainess rises and seeks out her look-a-like descendant to embody her so her reign of terror can begin anew?

Though the story is somewhat hokey horror, Bava amps up the atmosphere and makes every scene ooze with fog, shadows, spires, sculptures, spooky sounds and ominous piano scores. BLACK SUNDAY is somewhat of a perfect bridge between the classic gothic horror movies of old (from Universal and even Hammer) to the more modern horror ushered in by Bava and other Italian filmmakers toward the late sixties and seventies with a more palpable sense of violence and terror. The bloody opening sequence, albeit in black and white, still packs a wallop as the executioner slams a spiked mask over the face of the witch with a large mallet. That’s a level of intensity only hinted at in FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, but one Bava doesn’t shy away from. So while this may look like a Universal film, Bava immediately lets you know this is something much more gruesome with that opening scene.

BLACK SUNDAY is a perfect example of Bava’s talents as a director. One scene in particular reeks with tension as a farm girl is milking a cow in a barn. Outside is a storm and a cemetery. The little girl hears the thunder and moves to the window. Bava follows her to the window then back again to the cow, then Bava leaves the girl to her work and returns to the window to show the same scene, but this time the dirt over the grave is lifting. It’s already been established that the girl is afraid of the dark. Now Bava shows us that there really is a reason to be afraid (even though the body when risen and the devil’s mask is taken off looks a cross between Danny Trejo and Richard Mulligan from EMPTY NEST). It’s a great little sequence that is filled with imposing chills and thrills. BLACK SUNDAY is filled with little moments of brilliance like this.

The hokey gets a bit hokier as the film progresses. Lots of faux battles with the dead, races against time, and evil leerings toward the camera. But by now, you’re sucked in by Bava’s amazing gifts behind the camera. BLACK SUNDAY doesn’t have the most thrilling story, but it looks spookily fantastic and with the eyes of Barbara Steele staring into your soul, it’s a film that sticks with you long after the credits.