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The Unsettling

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A couple’s guilt around a tragic event in their lives fuels this supernatural horror from Anglo-Ghanaian Director, Harry Owens. The couple in question are Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba), who arrive in Los Angeles to recuperate after a terrible loss. Although they appear to love each other, it becomes clear that there is much that is left undiscussed.

Kwame has found them a property they can relax in and immediately gets to work trying to instil normality back into their lives; encouraging Abena to make homecooked meals and, more awkwardly, trying to instigate some form of sexual contact. Abena, meanwhile, wants to explore Los Angeles and have an actual vacation. And therein lies the rub, for Abena this is simply a holiday, but Kwame has ideas of setting down roots in America.

Abena’s displacement in a new country is further heightened by the bumps and creaks that echo though their new abode. While hubby-dearest is quick to dismiss his wife’s concerns that all is not right in the house, Abena becomes more and more sure that there is something in its walls that wants to hurt her.

Those looking for the next Blumhouse production are going to be left wanting. Owens’ focus here is on Kwame and Abena and how they navigate a new chapter in their lives. Ever the outsider, Abena acts the dutiful wife when it appears she would like to do nothing more than tear strips off her husband. This all comes to a head when their friends, now ex-pats, Anthony (Benedikt Sebastian) and Vivian (Aussie Libby Munro) come to visit. As a therapist specialising in trauma, Vivian can see the pain in Abena that Kwame either doesn’t, or refuses, to see. There is obviously some connective tissue between what stalks Abena in the house and what weighs heavy in her heart. Does this mean that everything that’s happening to the couple is merely a manifestation of their guilt? Well… sort of.

 

The Unsettling is well shot and for the most part blends African culture with a more western gothic aesthetic. Owens doesn’t rely on cats inexplicably jumping out of closed cupboards or other cheap tricks to elicit a scare out of his audience. In fact, at times he appears to bait and switch the viewer, setting them up for a scare they’re sure is going to happen, before slamming on the brakes. With no release, we’re left wondering – and in some cases, fearing – when he’s going to do the big reveal.

However, once Owens shows his cards, the film loses something in the final act as it dips into Insidious territory. It just doesn’t quite gel together and the final reveal, which has echoes of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, doesn’t have the impact that you might be hoping for.

Despite solid performances by the leads and a strong start, there’s something about The Unsettling that leaves you wanting more and not in the way you’d expect.

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Memory

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In Memory, directed by Tina-Maria Feyrer, we are told that there is a spot in the Austrian countryside where the Devil, disguised as a peacock, as was the fashion at the time, tried to seduce three maidens bathing on the shore of a lake. The women, sensing that something was wrong with the peacock eyeing them up, swam further into the lake and were never seen again. Some say at night that the Devil still stalks the forest surrounding the lake, looking for his next conquest.

Several hundred years later, four young up-and-coming directors rock up at that very same spot to take part in a reality TV show called Director’s Cut. Hosted by a man who is more The Emcee from Cabaret than he is Sonia Kruger, the quartet are offered the opportunity to win financial support for their own feature length film. All they have to do is produce their own short film from which the winner will be decided. Simple as that. Well, they also have to resist the temptations of water nymphs, the Devil and each other. Otherwise, it’s smooth sailing.

Our youthful, oversexed filmmakers lounge around the pool discussing their psyches and the process of creation and destruction, stopping only to drink and fornicate when the mood chooses. They initially seem immune to the surreal things that happen around them until one of their number starts showing symptoms of not being well at all. From there, reality blurs and the film becomes a montage of seemingly disconnected scenes.

Despite the semblance of a plot, Memory is more art installation than horror film. It’s what would happen if Nicolas Winding Refn decided to put all of Bret Easton Ellis’ work into a blender and distilled it to its most potent nihilism. There is no one to root for here, but then that’s likely the point. When they’re not trying to jump into bed with each other, our four leads try to outdo each other as to who is the more profound in the artistic stakes.

So, if it’s not really plot driven, does it still engage? Unfortunately, not really. Despite the myriad of colours and sound, Memory feels slight and soulless. The images Feyrer conjures up are dreamlike, but like many a dream, you forget them once they have passed. You can see what is trying to be achieved, but it never seems to quite make it over the finishing line.

Perhaps projected on an across all four walls of a room in a gallery somewhere, with its soundtrack bouncing around, Memory would be more of a sensory overload. Restricted to the one screen however, it just doesn’t appeal.

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The Return of The Japanese Film Festival

With the Japanese Film Festival launching its full 2021 program, the popular film festival looks set to emerge from the pandemic with a slew of pop extravaganzas, heartfelt dramas, bold documentaries, and some rather eclectic fare from the archipelago’s rich disruptive cinematic archives.
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Red River Road

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Outside of Boston, a family of four isolates in their summer home while the world goes through a pandemic. That alone will sound familiar to anyone who has experienced, well, the last two years. For this family though, there are no comforts like trying to complete Netflix or doom scrolling twitter. The pandemic in this reality concerns a virus that is spread via the internet, causing people to hallucinate and die. Social media has become a hotbed of misinformation that the human brain can no longer work out what is real and what is not…

Yes, that all sounds extremely heavy handed and on the nose. It’s the kind of narrative that plays out in the discourse of both the extreme left and extreme right. To be fair to Red River Road though, the allegory is perhaps the only real weakness of the film.

Directed by Paul Schuyler, making his feature length debut, and starring his entire family including the pet dog, Red River Road is a tight piece of filmmaking that does a lot with its meagre budget. Filmed over the course of ten days, when Schuyler and his family were locked down themselves, the film manages to do a lot of world building when there is only ever four people (and a dog) on screen at any one time.

Schuyler plays Stephen, the patriarch who wants to keep his boys (Quinn and Shaw Schuyler) safe from the supposed dangers of a Boston under lockdown while they wait for everything to calm down. The family as a whole, is dependent on the care packages that ‘They’ leave for them outside the house. It’s never made quite clear who ‘they’ are, but all signs point to a government that is going to extreme measures to keep everyone locked up.

Stephen’s wife, Anna (Jade Schuyler), is beginning to suspect that life may never get back to normal, and it’s clear that the lockdown is weighing on her heavily. When one of her sons is injured cutting a bagel, her reaction is indicative of someone who feels that they are no longer in control of their life.

Red River Road has a throbbing sense of unease running throughout the first half of the film that suggests that Anna might be right, and the world is indeed hurtling toward unknown territory. And then Stephen makes a discovery and the family begin to think that they can’t trust each other. However, as has been stipulated, are these truths? Could the family be having a mass hallucination brought on by the virus? Schuyler happily plays around with the idea of truth and reality, and he’s clearly a massive Lynch fan.

What Schuyler has achieved with the tools he had is certainly to be commended and the film is a testament to independent filmmaking. Not everything he throws at the wall sticks but what does is certainly memorable.

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The Brilliant Terror

Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Horror, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Non-horror fans, and genre snobs in general, will tend to look at movies like The Stall (2013) or I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday (2017) and opine “a real sicko must have made that” or perhaps ask “who the hell is that movie for?” For director/special effects creator Mike Lombardo – one of the main subjects of agreeable documentary The Brilliant Terror – this is par for the course. In fact, Mike fairly regularly gets death threats for making movies that assorted online wingnuts don’t care for and feel their dissatisfaction is best expressed through promises of graphic violence. Lombardo tries to shrug this off with dogged affability. Hey, it’s a living.

The Brilliant Terror focuses on the creative efforts of the so-called “grassroots horror” movement. These are films made so cheaply that a “shoestring budget” would be a considerable step up. Frank Henenlotter’s conjoined camp classic Basket Case (1982) looks like The Lord of the Rings trilogy compared to most of these flicks. And yet, the creators themselves are almost uniformly thoughtful, passionate and genuine types who simply express themselves through a rather niche form of creative expression. After all, who else but someone truly committed to their craft is going to lie in an ocean of (fake) blood on a toilet floor in the wee hours, shooting a short about a Lovecraftian incursion into a toilet stall? You don’t see Paul Thomas Anderson getting up to that kind of gear!

It’s not that the movies in The Brilliant Terror look particularly good, mind you, but that’s beside the point. This is a documentary in line with the likes of American Movie (1999), with some wry observations and hilarious anecdotes. There’s stuff about Gitchy (2009), a short about a morbidly obese clown who tickles people to death. “It’s huge in the tickle fetish community” director Thomas Norman assures us. There’s a nice cameo from horror author Brian Keene, getting slathered in blood and gore for Fast Zombies Suck (2015) and the welcome revelation that instant coffee makes for “good coagulated blood!”

The Brilliant Terror is a niche proposition. Well, perhaps a niche inside of another niche is a more apt description. However, it’s an appealing enough portrait of people who love horror enough to express it no matter what constraints – budgetary, personal, professional – stand in their way and that kind of passion always makes for an enjoyable watch.

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Masking Threshold

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There’s a common discourse around self-diagnosing, and how it’s inherently a terrible idea. You wake up with a sore ankle and two minutes on Web MD later, you’ve convinced yourself that you have seconds to live. Having access to everything all of the time is probably not conducive towards rational thinking. That’s certainly the case in Masking Threshold, from Austrian director Johannes Grenzfurthner (Glossary of Broken Dreams).

The film’s unnamed protagonist (played by Grenzfurthner and voiced by Ethan Haslam) is an IT worker with a complex diagnosis of tinnitus. Well, complex to him at least. Through his narration, we learn that the protagonist has spoken to many a doctor about his tinnitus, only to be told that there’s not much that can be done. Despite what the experts have advised – including several suggestions of therapy – the IT worker refuses to believe that there isn’t something unique about his condition.

Over the next 90 minutes, the protagonist takes us through numerous experiments and papers he’s read online that, to him at least, point to something much bigger going on in his ears. In minute detail, he tries to convince us that his tinnitus changes when there are certain objects in a room: plants, bananas, super glue and so on. Shut away in his tiny basement with his makeshift lab, he just knows that he’ll get to bottom of it all. There is, after all, a meaning behind everything.

Masking Threshold’s worst horrors come in the final act, when the protagonist makes a monumental leap of faith about his condition that pretty much cracks his sanity in two. And bear in mind this is a man we’ve seen boil his own urine.

Before then, this is almost a powder dry film, as we watch the protagonist become obsessed with minor things that would ordinarily go over the heads of others. A brief visit from his neighbour doesn’t seem to persuade him that his time might be better spent outside. When he uploads his ‘findings’ to YouTube, the derisive comments from the public only seem to fuel him further.

The languid pacing is a deliberate play by Grenzfurthner, which lets you marinate in his character’s worldview, before he finally turns up the heat. When the protagonist starts experimenting on ants and slugs, it’s clear to see where this is all going, but it’s still shocking.

Grenzfurthner’s use of extreme closeups adds to the increasing uncomfortableness of the protagonist’s ‘research’. The director makes the audience a part of these unconscionable deeds even when we try to look away. Yes, at times, the heavy use of medical terms and theories becomes impenetrable, and this will be off putting to some. However, it serves the purpose of showing how everything in Masking Threshold is this man’s world now. He is so entrenched in his work that he ignores his mother and his boss’ calls, just so he can take the next step towards self-actualisation. His conclusion is that he gets ‘it’, he knows what’s happening in the world, and he’s just waiting for everyone else to catchup. Sound familiar?

Masking Threshold is a stressful and grimy look at obsession. Its one-of-a-kind presentation will make you squirm and get under your skin long after the film is over.

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