Cabinet of Curiosities
This latest installment of overlooked films is a selection of low budget gems which contrast starkly with the overblown blockbusters which squander hundreds of millions. A good script, committed cast, some creative flare and time honoured low budget filming tricks can make for a memorable experience. One genre which has historically impressed on a low budget is horror, in its myriad forms.
Minks (Christian Redl) is a veteran homicide detective, Schrader (August Diehl) a rookie blackmailed by Minks into transferring into homicide rather than the desk bound computer crimes unit, is his partner. Together they are investigating a series of grizzly murders, with skin being removed from the victims. This leads to the shady underground world of the literal skin trade, tattoo collectors. With the help of the beautiful Maya (Nadeshda Brennicke) the pair try to track down the killer responsible.
Writer/ Director Robert Schwentke’s ‘Tattoo’ is a grim, gritty gem of German cinema with a more than a touch of neo- noir. The opening scene, a shot of a naked woman stumbling down an inky black road, blood dripping down her legs from a gory wound on her back before getting rammed out of shot by a truck, sets things up in a short, sharp, shock manner. Things don’t get any lighter either, the almost omnipresent night and hammering rain make for an oppressive and chokingly bleak atmosphere which manages to out do even David Fincher’s Seven. Redl’s Minks is a grizzled and haunted individual and Diehl’s Schrader is seriously out of his depth away from the comfort of his office as the pair try to unravel the nightmare they’ve walked into. One scene with Schrader stumbling blindly through a pitch black sewer tunnel with his flash light the only source of light will make your skin crawl. Brennicke stands out like a beacon amidst the gloom and almost constant darkness. It’s interesting that such an oppressively bleak and dark film would come from the director of The Time Traveller’s Wife which is a profoundly stark contrast .
American Mary (2012)
Mary Mason (Katherine Isabelle) is a medical student on her way to becoming a surgeon. The path to living the American dream is strewn with obstacles though as her financial woes are not only distracting her from her studies bringing conflict with her tutor Dr Grant (David Lovgren) but also mean the bills are piling up. Taking on a job as a dancer through sheer desperation she meets club owner Billy (Antonio Cupo). A chance to make some quick money using her skills patching up a torture victim in the basement of the the club is further compounded by a brutal and disturbing encounter at a party. Mary soon finds opportunities for both work and revenge in the body modification community, and is soon altering her aspirations whilst altering her clientele and taking Dr Grant’s lessons to heart.
Katherine Isabelle already known to fans of cult horror for her role as Ginger in the memorable Ginger Snaps films eclipses her previous character here and is sure to be remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’ from now on.
With an endearing and powerful performance Isabelle’s Mary starts off a naive student desperate to please. Whether it’s her Nana who is constantly calling Mary for updates on her progress, unaware of the bleak reality of her financial hardship or her tutor the arrogant Dr Grant (an antagonistic and callous turn from Lovgren). As the story unfolds Mary becomes something entirely different.
With her sheer black hair, bright red lipstick and ice-cool demeanour along with her fetish inspired wardrobe it’s not hard to fall for Mary and Cupo’s Billy quickly becomes enamoured – but doesn’t act on it through fear, as Mary asks him over a drink at the bar one night “People say I scare you is that right?”
There’s more going on besides body horror though with some black humour to be found, one scene has a client in Mary’s apartment/bodyshop stating “I want something unique I think I’ll get some piercings and a tribal tattoo” prompting her to have him thrown out and also being justified in her actions by hulking doorman and muscle Lance (Twan Holliday) relating a tale of how a relation was callously murdered and how he wishes he knew Mary back then.
Shot on a low budget but still looking slick and polished there’s shades of Takashi Miike’s Audition, Mitchell Lichenstein’s Teeth, Mary Harron’s American Psycho and David Cronenberg’s body horror all shot through with the Soska twins aesthetic vision.
On the eve of D-Day Allied commando’s Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) and Sergeant Joe Tane (Karlos Drinkwater) are on a covert mission to the Channel Islands to sabotage a German gun emplacement. Whilst carrying out their mission, part of a plan to distract Hitler’s forces in time for the Normandy assault, they unwittingly stumble upon a Nazi plan to use occult forces to win the war.
The Debut of director and co-writer Paul Campion is a taught, tense, atmospheric and grimy example of how low budget horror films can be vastly superior to their big budget counterparts.
Hall and Drinkwater are instantly likeable and believable as WW2 commando’s and their banter is natural and really sells the idea that they’ve been through plenty of scrapes side by side. When the pair find themselves having to traverse a mine field despite it only being minutes into the proceedings there’s a palpable feeling of tension and that tension only escalates as they go about their mission.
The pair split up with Hall’s Ben wanting to investigate eerie moans emanating from the tunnels of the emplacement. Thinking them to be the cries of allied soldiers being tortured and wants to do the right thing ,whilst Drinkwater’s Joe wants to get the hell out of there after completing their mission.
Shot primarily on location at Wrights Hill Fortress (a 1940’s coastal artillery battery in Wellington, New Zealand) with it’s numerous underground tunnels and rooms making for an ominous and atmospheric environment. Which is only amplified by the ruined bodies and occult symbols daubed on the walls amidst the Nazi propaganda.
As a counter to Hall’s engrossing turn as Captain Ben we have Colonel Klaus Meyer an equally impressive Matthew Sunderland. The sole survivor of the encampment who doesn’t take kindly to Captain Ben’s appearance tying him up. Then interrogating him in a rather twisted manner by burning his only photo of his dead wife Helena.
The final character is played by Gina Varela, who is a demoness summoned by Meyer’s squad using a book they found whilst waiting for supplies to turn up. Meyer underestimated her ferocity and power and before long the whole squadron is dead . The demoness has been feeding on the corpses of the dead thanks to Meyers help takes on the appearance of Ben’s dead wife, Helena. Then begins to try to seduce and confuse him into freeing her from the iron shackle she is trapped in.
It’s this triangle that makes up the absorbing core of The Devil’s Rock with Hall’s Ben caught between the metaphorical rock and a hard place.
Varela stands out in her portrayal switching between malevolent, seductive and helpless, seamlessly. Credit must given to the Weta Workshop team for the amazing prosthetics seen when she adopts her true guise. Despite Varela being half or fully naked for the entire running time there’s no element of exploitation here. Campion is not interested in pandering to the horny teenager demographic instead opting for close up shots and concentrating on her devious portrayal of emotion.
A group of students – loner Stephen (Jackson Rathbone), Quaid (Shaun Evans) and Cheryl (Hanne Steen), set out to research fear and what causes fear conducting numerous interviews with various people. Among the many people interviewed by the team is Abby (Laura Donnelly) who suffers from crippling insecurity due to a birthmark covering half her body. Stephen and Cheryl are happy with the project. However the eccentric and unstable Quaid isn’t happy at all and wants to get serious about things with unpredictable and disturbing consequences.
This is one of a number of films based on the short story’s by master of the macabre Clive Barker (in this case “Dread”). A gripping and disturbing psychological horror which definitely isn’t for the squeamish. With solid performances from the cast Evans does a good job portraying the enigmatic but unhinged Quaid. Whilst Rathbone’s Stephen is disturbed by the darkness in his new friend. Steen’s Cheryl sees Quaid for the parasitic menace he is with all her warnings falling on deaf ears. Donnelly’s Abby, while essentially a supporting character, is one of the most interesting. Quaid’s “experiment” with Cheryl really shows his disturbing intent. Following Cheryl’s earlier confession of being abused by her father after he returned from his shifts down at the local meat packing plant putting her off meat for life; he resorts to locking her in a room with no food besides a prime beef steak sat in the middle of the floor, as an enraged Stephen watches the video footage with disbelief Quaid calmly looks on as the distressed Cheryl regresses more and more.
Focusing on a distinctly more human element of horror and therefore more disturbing. Writer/director Anthony Diblasi doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Barker’s source material with Evan’s Quaid a spine chillingly sadistic sociopath.
Fritt Vilt (2006)
Friends Janicke (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), Morten Tobias (Rolf Kristian Larsen), Eirik (Tomas Alf Larsen), Mikal (Endre Martin Midtstigen) and Ingunn (Viktoria Winge) journey into the mountains for a snowboarding trip deliberately avoiding the popular tourist spots. After making their way up into the mountains to take advantage of the virgin snow and fresh powder one of the group injures themselves after a jump goes wrong. Up in the mountains with no signal for their phones and several hours trek away from their car. They take refuge in an abandoned hotel nearby and then things start to go very wrong.
Aside from scenery and setting, which is a breath of fresh air, the huge difference between Cold Prey and so many other slasher films is it takes time to establish it’s characters. With two couples and a odd man out, making up the group of friends. Building up a creepy atmosphere and tangible feeling of tension that doesn’t go away. Director Roar Uthuag doesn’t linger on or show too much of the killer. This isn’t gore for it’s own sake and has a very restrained approach not relying on blood and viscera filling the screen (in a refreshing change to the norm for contemporary horror) but rather a vicious cruel streak. As demonstrated in one scene where two of the friends look on helplessly from the hotel as one of their friends is overpowered and has their neck snapped in a cringe inducing manner – out in the snow after making a run for their gear to make an escape.
World cinema has long been a place which rewards those willing to look and this Norwegian entry into the slasher sub genre (which spawned 2 sequels in a classic slasher manner) is one of the best examples of this.