Sharks used to be one of the scourges of the cinema screen. Back in 1975 Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Jaws, from the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, turned the ocean into something fearful and frightening. When I first saw Jaws as a child my next steps into the ocean, on a holiday in France, were far from intrepid. The water barely made it up to my knees before I scurried back to the safety of land. However since then sharks have dissipated from the mainstream consciousness and have become a primarily B-Movie feature, like giant spiders or Tara Reid. Instead of the dread of seeing a fin carving through the water we watch as cheap digital tornados spin sharks round and fling them across green screens towards David Hasselhoff. So imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing the shark return to the big screen with experienced horror director Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Orphan) behind the camera for what looked like an interesting survival thriller.
So Blake Lively has found her way to a secret and highly secluded beach that holds a deep sentimental value for her. She spends the day surfing and on her last wave before heading to shore she is toppled by a Great White Shark and left stranded on a small rock. Thus begins her character’s struggle to stay alive and not become shark chow whilst occasionally talking to a nearby seagull. The first hour of The Shallows is refreshingly interesting and although the film is set almost entirely in a single location the natural beauty of the area is exploited to great effect by Collet-Serra and DOP Flavio Labiano. Blake Lively delivers a terrifically fraught, physical performance and having been entrusted with carrying an entire film on her shoulders she is more than up to the challenge. There was a realistic quality to the films treatment of its high concept design. Woman stranded on rock with a shark circling is an intriguing sentence but not enough to carry a 90 minute movie without some clever nuances to expand the plot. What Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski do cleverly is raise the stakes in a very controlled, convincing manner. The shark becomes almost an inconsequential spectator to the action needing to do little else but sit and wait as Blake Lively’s Nancy has to contend with the exposure to the elements, treating her own injuries with the few items she has at her disposal and maintaining her mental strength throughout as her odds of survival slowly but inevitably decrease making for a taut and impressive thriller.
However the last act takes a rather drastic turn and if you wish to avoid minor spoilers feel free to skip to the next paragraph to get my overall summation of the film. I’m not going to spoil what exactly happens but rather describe the tonal and thematic shift The Shallows makes in its final half hour. Basically having set its stall out as a tense thriller in a thematically similar vein as Rodrigo Cortes’s Buried (which stars Lively’s husband Ryan Reynolds in a similarly demanding lead role) The Shallows suddenly flips into a B-Movie-esque woman vs shark action film. The shark began the film as simply a force of nature, an unseen predator in a domain where humans do not rule, only to turn into a sentient serial killer, a conscious villain who wishes to attack Nancy not out of primal instinct but because the script needs the shark to do so. The film-makers might aswell have given the shark a twirly moustache and an English accent.
The Shallows boasts a highly impressive performance from Blake Lively and an engaging first hour that is just a final act away from being one of the year’s best thrillers. Flavio Labinio’s beautiful photography captures the natural beauty of the exotic locations which contrasts perfectly with the rigours of surviving outside of our controlled environments. A gorgeous looking film, with a few issues towards the end, still worth checking out if you like a good thriller, or watching sharks eating people if you’re into that sort of thing.
James Wan has cemented himself as one of the more impressive horror directors in mainstream American cinema. The Saw franchise as a whole may have swapped out chilling suspense for high octane gore but the first film of the series was an announcement that there was a new name in the horror game and he would be one to look out for. In the last decade he has created a new franchise in the reasonably successful Insidious, had a bit of a failure with the still occasionally chilling Dead Silence and directed the terrific The Conjuring in 2013, a haunted house film crafted with a menacing sense of control. It was his finest work as a director and he returns for the sequel which is based upon the events of the Enfield poltergeist in the late 70s.
As a general rule sequels are inferior to their predecessors, doubly so when applied to the horror genre. Cheap to produce and easy to market they are a lucrative business for smaller production companies. Wan’s previous film Saw spawned six sequels before eventually coming to an end, with more a whimper than a bang, and I can’t imagine that franchise will be gone forever. So is The Conjuring 2 another knock-off imitation of better movies? Thankfully not as with Wan’s slick visual eye at the helm The Conjuring 2 has plenty of chilling set pieces to keep the audience on edge, with the assistance of cinematographer Don Burgess’s gloomy atmospheric take on 1970’s Enfield, he has fun extorting the film’s period setting for all its cinematic worth. There are jumps a plenty, as Wan is like to do, and although it may not linger amongst your psyche as a truly disturbing horror film it’s astute craftsmanship makes it an admirable effort. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return as real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, both comfortably at home in the roles and bringing a charm and thoughtfulness to the couple in the midst of all the ghostly goings on. Youngster Madison Wolfe is brilliant as Janet, with so much of the film resting on her performance it was critical they had an actress up to the task and this girl’s has an abundance of talent and a bright future ahead of her.
There are some qualms with the film, mostly with its narrative structure and some plot contrivances, as well thought out and chilling as some of the haunting sequences are they eat away into the films runtime long before the Warren’s even make it to Enfield. Also there isn’t much in terms of surprise or uniqueness about the movie, except that it’s been very tightly crafted. So what you get is a poltergeist film, a couple of clichés, a somewhat forgettable finale and a rather swelled running time of 2hr 14mins, which you imagine would have been trimmed if the film wasn’t directed by a name director such as James Wan.
All in all it may not revolutionise the genre, it won’t haunt your psyche for weeks to come or stop you sleeping for a night or two but as a well-crafted poltergeist movie it matched its predecessor in quality and is an entertaining feature for casual watchers and horror aficionados alike.
Cyber based horror has become quite a popular subgenre in the last couple of years, 2015’s Unfriended being the other example that comes to mind. Friend Request is directed by Simon Verhoeven (No relation to Robocop director Paul), and is his first directorial feature that is not a comedy, and in the English language.
Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is a popular college student who is highly active on social media, which includes her Facebook account (totalling over 800 friends). She then receives a friend request from Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers) a classmate she barely knows who has no Facebook friends. Out of pity she accepts the request. After being messaged constantly by Marina she decides to lie about going out for her birthday in order to avoid her, however photos from the evening end up on Facebook and soon after Marina attacks Laura at school before filming herself committing suicide, which is posted all over Facebook. Following the suicide Laura and her friends come under attack from a demonic force that appears to be Marina out for revenge.
Friend Request is a pleasantly surprising horror feature, which is well-acted by the ensemble. The dialogue between the characters is quite natural and creates a feeling of camaraderie between Laura and her friendship group in the opening scenes of the film. The overarching themes regarding our reliance on social media and how the platforms can manage and manipulate our lives are quite cleverly staged for the most part. Watching Laura’s social media being hijacked creates a realistic parallel with stories that are relatable for us watching. Sure maybe when it happens to us it isn’t a cyber-demon we went to college with, but having a Facebook Page which serves as an outlet for our thoughts, memories and, well, lives being hacked and seeing spam being sent from a source masquerading under the guise of our identity is an upsetting experience for most. We now see social media accounts as an extension of ourselves, and each other, and Friend Request uses this parallel to make the haunting Laura is experiencing relatable to the audience. However Despite this praise Friend Request suffers from one rather major flaw, it isn’t scary. It’s certainly jumpy, and had me leaping a couple of times with its scary demons occasionally popping out like demented Whack-a-moles. But it fails to create a sense of dread, or withhold an unsettling atmosphere that makes a great horror movie. The concept of fusing witchcraft with modern technology is quite interesting, but has been covered in previous films to better effect and in the final act Friend Request throws aside any attempt of being a disturbing social commentary in lieu of illogical narrative choices, that I will not disclose to any who wish to see the film. The music in the film is scored by Gary Go and he does a fine job instilling a chilling layer of texture in the latter parts of the movie.
Friend Request is an entertaining, thoughtful, film. But it lacks further detail to make it essential viewing, along with not being unsettling enough to be scary on a baser level. Having left the cinema I, in an absent minded fashion, checked my Facebook page almost immediately without thinking, which merited a chuckle. While there is clearly some observant commentary in the film it doesn’t transcend into horror at any point, which is a missed opportunity, but it is still relevant enough to entertain for 90 minutes or so if you’re in the mood for a jump-scare or two.
“Would you like to live deliciously?” This psychological horror, a debut feature of writer/director Robert Eggers, was a success at Sundance last year, winning the best directing award for a dramatic feature. Set in 17th century New England, America, in the early years of colonialism, a puritan family are banished from their plantation for vague, religion based, reasons. They move to an uninhabited area by a large forest. The family consist of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson), and new born Samuel (I apologise to the baby/babies that played the part as I cannot find their names anywhere, my bad). When Samuel is snatched away by unseen forces the family begin to fear they are falling victim to a witch/assorted devilry.
The film manages to maintain a steady, restrained pace throughout without losing the viewer’s focus. I began feeling a haunting unease about five minutes in that barely let up until the end. Eggers control and restraint in his direction kept me gripped, along with a dazzling array of visual imagery that both enthrals and horrifies. The fiercely concise filmmaking keeps the narrative, and motivations of the characters clearly represented, and is complimented by Eggers equally precise script. The family’s unhealthy obsession with sin and their constant fear of its threat upon themselves and each other create a feeling of unease and almost inevitability of the carnage to come. Ineson and Dickie are terrific as the parents portraying the ever growing insanity of an isolated couple, whose guilt for the loss of Samuel, yet to be a baptised and therefore destined to burn in hell if not found, coupled with they’re paranoia towards their children whom they constantly suspect of sin leaves them desolate shards of ever decreasing humanity. Anya Taylor-Joy is also wonderful as Thomasin, the film as a whole portrays her with an ambiguity that Taylor-Joy’s performance compliments terrifically. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography imbues The Witch with natural beauty, compromised by untamed landscapes. The seasonal elements of the winter reflect a mix of beauty and horror, like the witches that the family fear so much. This permeates through the mind so much more powerfully thanks to Robert Korven’s hazardous, unsubtle musical score which assaults the audience with a harsh powerful cacophony of strings.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I really enjoyed this film, and I hope you take the chance to check it out. At my screening I overheard other viewers who seemed less than impressed with what they saw, or simply confused. I feel the Witch could be a highly divisive film, which even for those who dislike it will inspire discussion through its powerfully unerring aesthetic.