Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here. Across the pond last week was the UK’s Film 4 FrightFest and my friend Dr Karen Oughton was there checking out as many films as she could (and you’ll realize that’s a lot when you read her reviews). So check out what Doc Karen has to share. I’m dying to see some of these films myself!
On with the horror reviews!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
REWIND THIS! (2013)
ODD THOMAS (2013)
BIG BAD WOLVES (2013)
REWIND THIS! (2013)Reviewed by Dr Karen Oughton (Twitter @DrKarenOughton)
REWIND THIS! is director Josh Johnson’s love letter to the glory days of VHS. Incorporating everything from interviews with film makers such as Charles Band to some truly awesome clips from video calamities, it explores the cultural history of the home movie as well as giving fans ample opportunity to reminisce in a wonderfully honest way.
What marks REWIND THIS! out from other recent documentaries on VHS is its refreshing lack of artifice. The fiction is left to the tapes we’re told about. Beginning with footage of a collector stalking a flea market and finding inexplicable but expected numbers of TITANIC videos (the ship that won’t sink, indeed) and moving to incredible research into people promoting retrospective events, a lot of love has gone into this. Contributors range from fans facing the camera while lounging at home with their socks in shot to distributors and journalists showing off full walls of their ‘trash’ treasure trove. These are not the normal talking heads and they are taken from the world-wide market. Every single one of them is engaging whether it’s because of their sheer mad love of the films or because of their knowledge and more detailed accounts of the facts and figures behind the video revolution. There are also the likes of Frank Henenlotter who do both, and for the big guy who did that BASKET CASE bedroom scene, he has a lovely little giggle and is a particular joy to watch.
Impressively, the film is expansive in its outlook. While it does cover the better-known genre titles including Elvira’s work, it also covers adult film (BEAUTY HUNTER makes a welcome appearance) as well as outright daft stuff such as Leslie Nielsen’s BAD GOLFING MADE EASIER and the see-it-to-believe-it BUBBA UNTIL IT HURTS. If you don’t fall off your chair laughing, you haven’t got a funny bone. This is in addition to action film, a lovely section devoted to passion projects, one on cover artwork and one focusing on the resurgence of the collector’s market particularly via those who are discovering the films anew.
It is fair to say that while the reminiscences are enjoyable either through funny stories, information or sentimentality, the film is a trifle long. One of the few overtly artistic touches – extra-diegetic music – comes in about three quarters of the way through, showing how long the point of the importance of the physical format is laboured. Conversely, it would also have been interesting to have seen the section on the video preservation developed a little more, but these are relatively minor quibbles.
Ultimately, REWIND THIS! does a great job of explaining how every little glitch and fade-to-grey revealed a story of the person who had watched it and the culture it came from. They are our diary entries recorded in the reels of people who said better than us what we wanted and who we wanted to be. Streaming may make it easier to access film, but the message is hauntingly clear: REWIND THIS! – and pass it on.
ODD THOMAS (2013)Reviewed by Dr Karen Oughton (Twitter @DrKarenOughton)
We got a Johnny Cash soundtrack, a sassy little brunette called Stormy, dialogue that comes straight from a superhero comic and a short order chef who flips burgers like Tom Cruise makes cocktails and does daring do for dead people on the side. ODD THOMAS, based on the stories of Dean Koontz, is a strange mixture of action caper, romance, comedy and ghost story that is a lot of fun despite its slight overdose on schmaltz.
Anton Yelchin is Odd Thomas, or Odd as he’s generally known. He is what comic book superheroes might really be made of and has rapid fire banter and smooth moves that look slightly studied – he’s got a heart of gold yet has to try to be the person he needs to be and is a lot more like one of us than most crime fighters. He’s what we’d like to think super heroes actually are. Odd is a crime fighter because of a talent – he sees dead people and tries to bring their killers to justice. Because of this, he tries to keep his life simple in every other way in the small, apple-pie sweet American town he lives in. Yelchin invests the role with perennial geniality and a determined confidence that never hides his own insecurities, particularly in his slightly wonky smile and movements that are sometimes delayed by a millisecond. You really root for his character because of his ordinariness in what is at once an ordinary and fantastical setting.
Odd is partly interesting owing to his uncomplicated relationship with said sweetie, Stormy (played by Addison Timlin). She matches his snappy dialogue and can do wonders with a Whippy at the local ice cream bar. It makes a refreshing change that their relationship grounds the film in a sense of love rather than angst, meaning the possibility of something actually going wrong in one of Odd’s escapades becomes both horrific and predestined – at times, watching Odd Thomas feels like Spiderman directed by Walt Disney himself, so much does the film double cross your expectations. Addison is effective in the role, but it must be said that she sometimes slips into type, becoming a sexy side-kick to Odd rather than a believable companion, which impacts on their interaction when the going gets tough. Willem Dafoe is the standout of the supporting cast as a caring cop.
Set design and editing are a major and successful component of this film and part of what helps it to be knowing and innocent at the same time. We are shown in the first few scenes that crime happens and it is not a perfect world. However, the strong colours, environment and lighting show you the place from the perspectives of the townsfolk – despite its problems, they do their best to try and make it the ideal home. As a result, while often darkly comic, scenes set in the less than safe locations immediately take on a darker tone showing the concerns of the characters despite their wisecracks.
Unfortunately, the problem is the film seems at different points to be trying to appeal to vastly different audiences. Half the time, it seems to be aiming for a very family-friendly vibe, with a hero who helps with the cooking and a girlfriend who charms every cute kid she speaks to. The next second, it’s flashing up references to real life serial killers including the Unabomber and cannibal Jeffery Dahmer and a detour down far darker alley. The problem is the film is simply too sweet for serious bloodshed, particularly as it mimics an America that has so recently reeled from real life tragedy of the type it teases and it evidently knows it. It feels slightly disjointed despite its other qualities as a result.
ODD THOMAS offers a knowing romp through comic tropes that focuses far more on the characters working together than on angst. With some strong central performances including the endearingly wonkily-grinning Yelchin, it’s a great super hero film particularly for non-genre fan audiences – moving, fun and just that little bit Odd.
BIG BAD WOLVES (2013)Reviewed by Dr Karen Oughton (Twitter @DrKarenOughton)
Serial killers are a familiar theme for horror films. They are frequently either real-life and sombre or madly cackling creations such as Freddie Krueger. BIG BAD WOLVES, on the other hand, presents a grim story about childhood, desire and retribution that is what the old fairytales warned us about before we chose to sanitise them. It follows a detective as he tries to bring an alleged child rapist, torturer and killer to justice after a little girl’s headless body is found strapped to a chair, her bloody legs spread wide open in middle of the woods. It’s nothing less than a punch to the gut that leaves you reeling by mixing the subgenres together and subverting just about everything you think you know about what you want from the film.
The best thing about BIG BAD WOLVES is undoubtedly its tonal changes. They mirror what we might imagine to be the feel of such a horrendous investigation. On some occasions, the men seeking retribution are seen as fathers from a recognisable (and comic) world of ‘Take Your Child to Work” days and untrustworthy estate agents. At other times they are weary, determined and don’t bother playing by the rules due to a belief in simply getting their jobs done. For most of the movie, the characters seeking revenge feel workmanlike rather than emotive, but this is makes the story believable rather than melodramatic and means their departures into other emotional territory become stupefying. The problem they find is that child killers tend to arouse heated emotions and they soon resort to actions that never quite made it into the police policy handbook. As a result, their purportedly perverted prisoner is released from custody and is therefore extremely unwilling to co-operate with their investigation.
Much of the emotional focus is on Dror, the suspect in the crime. He is weedy, wears glasses and clings desperately to the last few wisps of his gingerish hair. He looks shifty, but certainly not like our standard cultural ideas of serial killers. Actor Rotem Keinan gives his school teacher a stoic authority and sadness as the father of a ballerina daughter who is adamant that he has nothing to do with the murders. Despite the torture meted out to nail him to the crime, he is a comparatively quiet figure who remains the epitome of reason and self-control despite the madness of the men around him who are desperate for vengeance and answers.
The script is also absolutely fantastic. This is both from a character development point of view and because it is so heavily grounded in real life. It references the ongoing conflicts between local ethnic groups that really do form day-to-day violence in Israel and which in turn form a backdrop for the fictitious but extraordinary incident of the serial killer. These are in turn off-set by representations of normality such as watching the ochre sunset from a porch while sharing a crafty cigarette.
What’s more, the cinematography underscoring these changes is often startling and reinforces the roles these characters are given or are forced to play by the circumstances around them. It is fascinating how one character can appear to change from a resilient renegade to a powerless witness with little more than an alteration in camera angle and lighting, but this film achieves it and when it does you don’t quite believe what you are seeing.
BIG BAD WOLVES plays with representations of interchangeable fears of anger, evil and the unknown. Ultimately, it reiterates the more-recent purpose of fairy fables to provide a pattern of responses for life’s uncertainties and atrocities. They were cautionary narratives loosely disguised by metaphor and it’s up to us to work out who is the wolf, who is the pig and who’s telling tales as we go along. With a superb crew from writer-directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado through to the conflict’s “Man on Horse” (Kais Nashif), BIG BAD WOLVES is a very difficult watch, but it’s brilliant.
Interested in illustrated films, fringe cinema, and other oddities?
Check out Halo-8 and challenge everything!
Find more AICN HORROR including an archive of previous columns on AICN HORROR’s Facebook page!