Ever since I saw Kamacuras stalking around in the Kaiju movie Son of Godzilla, I’ve had a deep dread of this (let’s face it) fairly timid mantises. Whenever I watched the movie, I must have been at that impressionable age where this triangular headed insect embedded into my mind. Its essentially one of the things that initiated my aerozoophobia.
So imagine my trepidation upon learning that amongst Universal Pictures scifi horror canon during the mid fifties is movie entitled The Deadly Mantis.
Set in the South Seas, a volcanic eruption unearths a 200 foot long praying mantis that has been frozen in ice for hundreds of years.
When one of the remote Canadian outposts fails to return any calls, Col. Joe Parkman (Craig Stevens) is sent into investigate. Upon his arrival, Parkman discovers no sign of life and strange marks imprinted in the snow.
Later, an Air Force plane is grounded by the giant insect and Parkman notices the same slash marks he’d witnessed from the outpost. Only this time who also finds a five foot long spur. Fuelled by curiosity, he hires his top scientist to work our its origin but without success. So, in steps paleontologist Nedrick Jackson (William Hopper) who traces it to the praying mantis species.
When another attack happens at an Inuit village in the Arctic, the press become interested and magazine editor Marge Blane (Alix Talton) talks her way into joining the expedition posing as a photographer.
Its indicative of the time when Marge turns up to the base, all the men are instantly smitten by her presence, but its out hero Parkman that is the most taken by her, and the feeling is mutual between them. As with most trauma based narratives, these events often draw people together and as the the story unfolds between military and mantis attacks, their bond becomes further united.
The films conclusion smacks of earlier giant creature movies, most notably King Kong and Them, where the military bombard the monster with aero dynamic arsenal, this time forcing the Deadly Mantis into the Manhattan Tunnel. Trapped inside, Parkman takes a number of troops inside to kill it once and for all, armed with rifles and chemical bombs.
The feature didn’t live up to its gigantic proportions in the box office however, and failed to ignite massive interest. Looking back at it now, one can’t help but identify with this reaction as i struggled to connect with the plight, nor any fear that it tried to invoke, despite my own animosity.
Much like other sci-fi features of the era it would find itself subject to ridicule in Mystery Science Theatre 3000, a symbol of how these movies were received and the fall from grace that Universal was starting to find itself in.
Sequels. They were the lament of the 80’s. Well – they were endemic enough that it became trendy to complain that they “were never as good as the original”. Which was, and still is (more or less) accurate. But not completely. And the phenomena has morphed these days into Franchise-ism, which is more World Building than straight up sequel-ing. (A loop-hole of lawyer-like proportions that any former president would die for right now).
But another side trend seems to be prequel-ing! From Game of Thrones, to Lord of The Rings to Star Wars, for some reason content creators seem to think we want to know what happened before “once upon a time” rather than after “happily ever after” when it comes to The Next Instalment. So with that in mind, we turn to Esther – or more specifically it’s re-worked title of Orphan: First Kill. A prequel to the 2009 movie, Orphan. And with it comes a highlighted picadillo all prequels face. The age-old problem of aging. (Double edged in a film that is about a fully grown woman, pretending to be 10, in a prequel made MANY YEARS AFTER its sequel).
Before we get into the mechanics of the review itself, it must be said this film seemed to fly under the radar of this reviewer and a lot of the Surgeon’s team of a similar age bracket. Before being told about this movie, I would have said I was vaguely aware of a young girl in pigtails on the poster and that’s about it. She was probably evil and does evil things to her adoptive family ‘cause you know… she’s an (evil) orphan… Probably Satan infused in flavour (judging by the artwork etc). That’s because a story about a pale skinned girl with dark hair appearing at the end of a decade that had already produced The Ring, The Grudge and Silent Hill meant that there was probably a fair amount of “evil kid” action going on in this movie, and fatigue (for me at least) had well and truly set in. (Although in defence of Orphan, it did make a strong enough profit ratio – roughly 1 to 4 in fact – to justify some sort of new chapter).
Anyway. Orphan: First Kill explores the story that saw how Esther transitioned from Estonia to America – a plot hole from the first film that bugged a few people. Apparently. The solution the film makers came up with was inspired – in part – but the real-life adoption case of Natalia Grace, herself a 22-year-old posing as a 9-year-old in a caper that was inspired, in part, by the original Orphan film! (Google it – what an Ouroboros world we live in).
So straight off the bat young (sic) Esther tries to inject herself into the lives of a wealthy American family (the matriarch of which is played by Julia Styles. Good to see her back on the silver screen after getting killed In The Bourne Forgettable in a scene that we THINK was supposed to have some sort of emotional resonance…?) And Esther does so by claiming to be this family’s long lost 10-year-old daughter (the real one having gone missing 4 years before) and thus ensues the usual shenanigans of her pretending to be something she isn’t. How? You may ask (if you don’t know…) Esther suffers from a genetic condition that roughly translates to “proportional dwarfism” meaning she can effectively play someone much younger than she actually is. Added to that, she has a healthy dose of psychopathy so killing in her own best interest/preservation is not a problem for her.
But here’s the thing. And indeed the problem with this type of film. This twist is not (or is no longer) a twist, because we, the audience, already know it. It’s what we here at Surgeons call The Zombie Paradox. For any storyteller trying to make a zombie TV show/movie, they have to contend with viewers who know what a zombie is, and the various associated rules in dealing with them. Which means straight off the bat the story is playing catch up with the watcher and not (as you would want) the other way round. But in the case of Orphan – the ENTIRE film hung off Esther’s strange, dangerous and Omen like behaviour. Is she the child of Satan? NO – she is really 33! Dun Dun Daaaah!
But if that wad is already shot, how do you go about making a prequel?
The only recourse the film-makers basically have is to make Esther the protagonist and not antagonist (d’uh as the working title of the film is “Esther”) but digging deeper into what that means; a balancing act is required. If hers is to be the journey we are on, we need to fear for her when she is threatened and break for her when she is hurt. But she is an unhinged murderer. Not even an anti-hero (like say Dexter is) as she doesn’t kill evil. She kills threats, innocent or otherwise. An exciting writing challenge. If you get it right. But even if you do, IS that keeping in the spirit of the first movie? (See Surgeons of Horror, OUR TOP TIPS ON WHAT MAKES A GOOD SEQUEL).
An additional problem – as was brought up at the beginning of this review when we were all so much younger – is how do we convincingly address the aging elephant in the room? Esther – as a character to be cast – can only really be played by an older woman who physically looks 10, but what are the chances of someone like that who exists, has the right look, and can also act? So you go the other way, and choose someone young who can act old. And since cinema is littered with precociously talented child actors since day dot, the route this film chose back in 2009 was sort of a no-brainer. Especially since the actor in question was the then 12-year-old and fiercely powerful Isabelle Fuhrman. But now we are in (not) the next decade, but the decade after that, and Fuhrman is 25 (just a few years off Esther’s real age) and while she herself still has a youthful exuberance about her (helped no doubt by the fact she is 5’3”…it’s so much harder to play young if you’re 6’2”) ONE look at her in close up it is clear she is no longer a child. So faced with this dilemma what do the film makers do? Why go all Hobbit style and shoot force perspective, CGI and use stand ins. And whilst this worked well for LOTR, that film was 20 + years ago. Our eye had yet to be trained to be CGI cynical like it is now, and force-perspective and other old skool filming tricks were so out of fashion, they were LIKE new! But now we are well aware of such deceits and quite frankly, they really show up. (A bit like when you watch Die Hard now and it is VERY noticeable that’s not Bruce Willis getting thrown through windows or being blown up by flaming helicopters, but his stunt double. We forgave SO MUCH pre-CGI…)
But in terms of Orphan First Kill, the most obvious moments are when we track behind Fuhrman’s body double in WS, and then we cut to her face as we track backwards in Tight MS. A 10-year-old comports themselves differently to an adult. Bones and limbs are in different proportions. Neck and shoulders…it’s all different. A child waddles, an adult walks. And Fuhrman’s face – no matter how many downward angles you employ, or indeed, apple boxes you put under the actors around her – is clearly not a child. And especially when you consider the first movie – where 12-year-old Fuhrman is unmistakably Esther from all angles and frame sizes – it is very conspicuous that the coverage and overall shooting style of First Kill is starkly different. And straight away that means the feel of this film is different.
But is it any good?
Well it must be said – there is a twist at about the halfway mark that isn’t the same kind of reveal that’s in the first movie, BUT it is good enough to make you go “nice one” and sit up for the rest of the film. BUT it also negates certain character behaviours and motivations in the first half, so it also comes across as a twist that is very forced. It also – as a standalone story – really lacks the emotional compression of the first movie. The acts and story beats of the first film does an excellent job of putting Vera Farmiga’s character (who’s journey we are on for that instalment) through the wringer. Helped – as mentioned – by the fact that we the audience just don’t know Esther’s full deal till the end of the story.
So First Kill definitely lacks such layers, and with the aforementioned difference in coverage, it doesn’t feel like it’s a close relation to the other film. Although by no means awful, it’s not really worthy of its 2009 predecessor (post-ecessor?) because there is another 3rd difference that the film-makers seemly lost track of during the whole – how-do-we-make-this-story-&-Esther’s-look-work? – hullabaloo, and that is… it’s also not scary.
Having watched Shudder’s latest exclusive and original feature, Who Invited Them, I was immediately struck with how much I dig Ryan Hansen as a performer. Here he plays Adam, one half of a couple who have recently bought well into an influential neighbourhood. Now wanting to show off this asset, Adam and Margo (Melissa Tang) throw a housewarming party to celebrate with friends and who they consider to be the social elite from their contacts.
Beneath this affable exterior however is a more sinister and unsettling characteristic that they both share, and it is this that writer, director Duncan Birmingham, along with the mysterious “neighbours” Sasha (Perry Mattfeld) and Tom (Timothy Granaderos) wish to expose.
Once the party has settled, Sasha and Tom hang back and slowly work together to find the cracks and flaws in Ryan and Margo’s world to break them. At first, they tease and play with their would-be victims, like predators toying with their prey. Soon, they begin to dial up the trauma and crank up the tension between them all.
It’s fairly slow-paced, but Birmingham’s exposure of society under the lens of a wealth facade is delicately tweaked out to a macabre and destructive end.
Where it mars a little, it’s in some of the forced performances that at times don’t ring true (Hansen excluded) and this jars the flow of the dialogue in places. There are some nice comical moments in the mix of the lurid lamentations. It leans heavily into the unbelievable by the films’ end which some may embrace and others will turn away from.
Who Invited Them? is steaming on Shudder from Thurs1st Aug.
Fifty years ago, horror history was made as an integral part of the genre came to fruition. The Last House On The Left would see the creative combination of Wes Craven as Director for his first feature length film, and Sean Cunningham as producer. Cunningham would of course go on to spearhead Friday the 13th and Craven would herald notable works such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream series to name but a few. Amongst the crew would be another essential creative, serving as production assistant and an uncredited cameo to boot.
It is not just about the crew, all of whom were on the cusp of greatness, but the steps taken to produce a gritty and hard hitting tale of revenge.
TLHOTL was born out of the basis of The Virgin Spring by Ingmar Bergman, and a response to how the bloody realism that Western movies were being depicted by at the time. Craven seeking to distil the glamour attached to such violence and to provide a much more realistic depiction would strike a chord in the popular mainstream. The fact that the vengeance is carried out by the parents would also flip the switch on everyday Americans pushed to the limit of despair, and take on justice of their own proceedings; much like Craven would review again in his follow up feature, The Hills Have Eyes.
Where most movies would look to have the next generation or youths providing the answer to lifes’ torment and with it the hope for humanity, here would see them as either the threat or the victim. It is the parents who take on the role of judgement and through their misguided understanding of their children, seek retribution.
Pivotal to the graphic nature depicted on screen is the portrayal of the antagonists, Krug Stillo (David Hess, who would also provide the soundtrack to the film); Fred Podowski (Fred Lincoln); Sadie (Jeramie Rain); and Junior (Marc Sheffler), who all sink their teeth into their respective roles and ground the violence and despair with disturbing realism. This is further strengthened by the innocent carefree Mari (Sandra Peabody) who falls headlong into a world which she has no control over, and has everything ripped away from her. It should also be noted that some scenes were questionably pushed beyond the limits of decency; a sign of creative freedom at the risk of the players involved. Furthermore, keen observers will recognise familiarity in the lead protagonist Krug’s name, extended to Kruger to take on an alternative threat in the realms of horror in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Its initial release would spark protests due to its content, but the film would gain business at the Drive-In theatres alongside the double billing of Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve. Plus a decent hook tagline of “Repeat. It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie” to draw punters in.
Looking back at it now, TLHOTL has its obvious flaws, namely through some of the performances and the comical tones from the flappable police force. One of whom cinephiles will notice is Martin Kove who would go on to play sensei John Kreese from The Karate Kid franchise. What it does hold is the brutality and uncomfortable scenes that make you shift and squirm in your seat. These moments still are difficult to view even with a modern lens, and this is why it stands strong half a century later.
For a director considered one of a kind, and creating a unique vision for film with the birth of venereal horror, it seems interesting that David Cronenberg should return to the horror genre having been absent from the scene for 23 years. And yet, his latest entry, Crimes of the Future, (which shares the same title as his 1970 feature, but there the similarity ends) bears all the hallmarks of these earlier films in his canon of work combined with his more recent and psychological ventures. Where Cronenberg built his name through the physical and sensual characteristics of humanity, his other fascination in the metaphysical realm and human psyche has risen to the fore.
There are familiar themes at play here with the advancements of humanity through biotechnology in this instance, but still the harbouring of infectious disease to remind us of our own frailty. The twist though is that infectious disease has been eradicated and humankind has been left with pushing the boundaries of morality without the risk of harm that can come about through surgical measures. These actions are now considered an art form; Cronenberg’s playground, a balance of art and physical horror with an intellectual bent, firmly in the mix. Confrontation is always at the heart of Cronenberg’s features, his curiosity to look at the way we shift and squirm a prime scrutiny of his work. In the opening scenes Crimes of the Future forces us into the realms of discomfort when a mother smothers her child with a pillow because she believes him to be inhuman.
In the film’s journey, we primarily follow Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen), who has an accelerated evolution syndrome, where he can develop new internal organs. This leads him to perform live surgical procedures carried out by his partner Caprice (Lea Seydoux). Much like Max Renn in Videodrome, Tenser is driven by his pursuit of truth and this exploration spirals deeper into a loss of control and a fatal resolution.
Tenser weaves his way through an investigation that sees him employed by a governmental agency to infiltrate a group of radicals. This sees him rub shoulders with the National Organ Registry where Timlin (Kristen Stewart) and Wippet (Don McKellar) work. Timlin is immediately enamoured by Tenser and is sexually drawn to him.
There’s also Lang (Scott Speedman) who is the father of the afore-mentioned boy killed by his mother. Lang’s story is also a tragic one, driven to investigate his son’s condition that allowed him to consume plastics with no detriment to the human body.
All these avenues intertwine into one complete examination of the human soul, immersed in a world where the physical is no longer a barrier. With no obstacles in place, what does it mean to be human? A question that continues to guide Cronenberg’s pursuit.
Mortality is and always be the vessel of David Cronenberg’s interests, be it through venereal horror, metaphysical horror, or sensual and intellectual obsessions. His latest vehicle is a culmination of them all, and through his uniqueness Cronenberg manages to project potentially his most complete image of himself, but in doing so, some of that identity gets lost in this portrayal. Without the edges; Without the pointy edges of quirkiness; David Cronenberg, much like his own lead characters, Max Renn; Seth Brundle; Beverly and Elliot Mantle, become lost in his pursuits and finds his own personality engulfed into obscurity. Yet I still find myself drawn by his vision.
Universal Pictures would round out 1956 with another sci-fi horror entitled The Mole People, which these days may evoke visions of The Underminer from The Incredibles.
The production house’s only other genre feature that year was the final instalment to the Creature series, The Creature Walks Among Us. Retrospectively looking back now, I find that The Mole People has little residual effect on my cerebellum. This says a lot about the feature and it’s slow demise from horror into science fiction, a mantle that would give way to upcoming British horror production outfit, Hammer Films.
Loosely based on the concept of a hollow Earth where an alternate human race has evolved and existed deep beneath our planet’s surface.
Part of its dissociation from the audience stems from the narration at the beginning of the movie, detailing the premise of life underground, by Dr. Frank Baxter to add weight to the theory and ironically ground the movie in a hypothetical truth. Instead it just distances us from the story with an unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall.
When the story does pick up however, we follow John Agar as Archaeologist Dr. Roger Bentley who along with his associate Dr. Jud Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont) discovers a Sumerian albino race. This ancient race keep mutant mole people as slaves to harvest mushrooms to er ahem.. serve as a “food source”. Yeah right.
This primitive race is devoted to Ishtar, Goddess of Love, Fertility and War, and it is to this divine presence that they sacrifice young women from their tribe. This also paves way for the love interest in the movie when Bentley falls for intended oblation, Adad (Cynthia Patrick), a fair-headed damsel in distress.
Apart from their blind devotion, these underground dwellers are also addled by any source of light. Their choice of abode, in the darkness, has led them to be afflicted, and it is through the archaeologists’ flashlight which keeps them at bay; at least until the High Priest (Alan Napier) discovers the use of this tool and that their Godly pretence is a falsehood.
It is the film’s climax however that potentially leaves the biggest mark of ambiguity, when fleeing towards freedom and life above ground, Adad who has chosen to joining Bentley and Bellamin, is suddenly stuck down, when she begins to question her intent. A feeling of unease swiftly follows when the realisation that there will be no happy ending, and the wonderment around the exact purpose of the film.
The Mole People is currently available as part of a blu ray double feature alongside, The Land Unknown at Umbrella Entertainment.
On face value, So Vam starts off as a tough watch due to its low budget restraints, but beneath its paltry appearance, there is an important and integral theme at play here.
At its core, the film is a stark and honest depiction of being ostracised by society as told from the LGTBTQ+ community. The tale is all the more stronger as its author and visionary is trans filmmaker Alice Maio Mackay, who adds her own personal touch to finding her own community in an almost unforgiving world. Her directorial debut feature heralds a maturity that belies her age at 17 years, but her voice and position allows the truth of her experiences to shine through.
The scene is set in an Australian town where young gay guy, Kurt (Xai) feels he is constantly an outsider and often the victim of those who ridcule him for his identity. Kurt hangs onto the dream of one day becoming a drag queen, where he can showcase his talents on the stage and live in the big city. What he doesn’t expect is to find his tribe among the vampire kind.
When he is one day stalked and killed by a bloodsucker, only to be brought back to life by a gang of rebellious vampires, hell bent on ridding the old world of bigotry and pain. It is here that he finds a kinship and with it a new found confidence. In finding his way though, he must equally find how his vampire ways must blend with his family and friendship ties. Can these two worlds exist or must he part ways with one over the other?
Director Mackay paints a perfect metaphor for transitions and change for a community trapped by their identity through the tale of vampire mythology. Despite its limitations, there is measure to be had here and a narrative that has been crafted with a learned voice. One that pays dividends to sit up and listen to, marking an exciting entry into the LGTBTQ+. With another film released this year (Bad Girl Boogey) Mackay clearly has plenty more stories to tell. It will certainly be interesting to see how she harnesses her craft further.
For her first solo directorial feature, Rebekah McKendry has chosen a bold and interesting choice to play out her tale. Wisely the setting takes place primarily in one location which helps to keep budget to a minimum, but in doing so you are reliant on the talent on show. Thankfully, McKendry has the physical talents of Ryan Kwanten and the mental prowess of J.K Simmons on show to pull off the narrative.
Speaking of narrative, Glorious picks up with a broken and dishevelled Wes (Kwanten) after what appears to be a messy break up. Heavily hungover, he enters a public bathroom to shake off the blues and find a way back into Brenda’s heart, but what he doesn’t expect is to encounter the omniscient presence of Ghatanothoa (Simmons) coming from the adjacent stool.
This is no ordinary confrontation however; more one that was designed with Wes in mind to carry out a deed that Ghatanothoa relies upon. And with it, Wes is thrown into a world of torment and despair, forced to face his own failures and demons, to overcome them for the greater good. The question is, will he be able to prevail, or continuously struggle against it all and fail at his final hurdle. One thing is for sure Ghatanothoa won’t let it be easy for Wes, locking him shut in the public toilets, to literally sort his shit out.
There is a lot to pack into the short running time, but McKendry wrangles out some solid performances and makes the most of the meagre budget to pull out all the smoke and mirror acts throughout.
The effects are meagre but handled well with flashes rather than all out gore, and this again is a testament to McKendry’s ability to deliver a succinct film.
On face value, Day Shift should be one of those movies that could hook you in with its premise that is essentially a spin on the buddy cop movie, but with vampire hunters instead of cops. It also boasts an intriguing cast with Jamie Foxx and Dave Franco as its leads and with a notable supporting role from Snoop Dogg. The style would try to tap in worthy horror comedies from the 80s but the result is a strange mix of genres that never quite mesh together and seem right,
Down-on-his-luck Bud Jablonski (Foxx), has been serving as a vampire hunter for the last few years in San Fernando Valley. All this time his wife and 10 year old daughter have been led to believe that he is a pool cleaner, and that his odd behaviour has started to take its toll on their relationship. Having already been thrown out of the Guild of vampire hunters because of his unorthodox approach, Bud is forced to go back with his tail between his legs and beg for another chance. Thankfully he is aided by his friend and renowned hunter, Big John Elliot (Dogg) who holds some sway with the company, but there’s a catch. Jablonski must team up with wet-behind-the ears Seth (Franco), a desk clerk who plays everything by the book and is employed to catch Jablonski breaking the rules, so that he can get kicked out of the Guild for good.
The extra barrier and darker threat to Jablonski finding his feet is that he has upset one of the head vampires of the valley, Audrey, now intent on bringing him down and ruining him.
The action sequences throughout the movie are nicely played, so hats off to director J.J. Perry who has crafted his work as a stunt coordinator for a number of high profile flicks including John Wick 2. His knowledge in perfecting stunts on screen really paid off with his delivery for his debut feature in the directors chair.
The issues arise in the lack of chemistry trying to be perfected by Foxx and Franco, but in their defence, the dialogue and screenplay lets them down a little and often misses the mark in the final product. Often it feels like it is all too content in resting on the sizzle of other movies, that it neglects to have a personality of its own.
This is a middle of the road action comedy horror, that offers plenty of bang, but not enough substance to really have any lasting impact on its audience.
Paul W. S. Anderson has divided audiences since his sophomore feature, Mortal Kombat became a commercial success. Since then, he has been commonly associated with his Resident Evil obsession having produced six instalments and directed four.
It is however his third feature film that has arguably gained wider cult status and now celebrates 25 years since its release. It is also the movie that made me sit up and expect great things from him as a director.
It heralds a lot of things for a science fiction horror to warrant the following it currently receives. It has a cracking concept centred in the year 2047, around a rescue mission to the titular spaceship which happens to be carrying an experimental engine that creates a rift in the space-time continuum. The question is not only where did it go? But also, what did it bring back with it when it mysteriously appears again in the orbit of Neptune?
It is further emboldened by a strong cast with Laurence Fishburne as the stoic Capt. Miller, headstrong and in juxtaposition to the unhinged designer of the Event Horizon, Dr. Weir played the always brilliant Sam Neill.
Accompanying the duo is a worthy crew in Kathleen Quinlan’s medical technician, Peters; Joely Richardson’s communications officer, Lieutenant Starck; Richard T. Jones as rescue technician, Cooper; Jack Noseworthy as chief engineer, Justin; Jason Isaacs (a little underused in my humble opinion, but there are a few characters up for the chopping block here) as medical doctor D.J.; and Sean Pertwee as pilot, Smitty. All of who carry around their own personal demons that claw their way to the surface to haunt them, as hell breaks loose.
Initially a box office failure, Event Horizon would find its audience in the home entertainment scene, who would forgive its flaws, predominantly in the final third of the movie, and embrace the special effects on show combined with the psychological breakdown of the human mind… in space!
I, for one, find myself drifting back to this movie time and time again, and consider it one of my guilty pleasures. I still remember the cinematic experience, clearly one of the few who enjoyed it at the time. I also remember a friend of mine from university being deeply moved by the experience, stating it one of the most shocking movies he’d ever seen.
Whatever your experience of it, the cult following keeps on growing and I’m curious to see if Amazon and Paramount will greenlight the TV series that was discussed in 2019, with You’re Next director Adam Wingard potentially overseeing things.
Until then we must continue to claw our way back into the feature film and soak up the crazed ambience, and crackfire performances on show.