Friday, 29 June 2018

Xtro

Cast: Philip Sayer, Bernice Stegers, and Danny Brainin

Director: Harry Bromley-Davenport 

87 minutes (15) 1982
Second Sight 
Blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

British cult sci-fi shocker Xtro is one of the weirdest genre flicks made in its decade. Young Tony (Simon Nash) survives a UFO encounter but his dad Sam (Philip Sayer) is abducted. Three years later, there’s a victim of inter-species rape, like the poor heroine of Inseminoid (aka: Horror Planet, 1981), which results in a rebirth for amnesiac Sam, returning home and doing abnormal stuff, like melting phones and eating snake-eggs, and then eventually decaying in the manner of those doomed astronauts in The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), and The Incredible Melting Man (1977). This extra-wide raft of genre references distinguishes Xtro from other movies of its type and era - Italian grue-fest Contamination (1980), to name just one - and Xtro’s cult-worthy status is wholly assured because it becomes rather more than just the sum of its varied visual riffs and astute thematic borrowings.


The development of a hybrid life-cycle here is much more like Alien (1979), meets an X-rated updating of b&w classics, such as It Came From Outer Space (1953), and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958), than anything that resembles the tame fairy-tale quality of Spielberg’s ET. Quiet domestic routine clashes wildly with exploitation scenes that soon turn incredibly, yet memorably, strange. The telekinetic Tony starts a spinning-top without touching it and so begins this decidedly odd movie’s surrealist farce, with over-sized toys coming to life for menacing and homicidal effects. 


Despite its copious use of black-comedy relief, there’s a somewhat naturalistic and serious drama, and extreme SF-horror (almost but not quite on a par with John Carpenter’s The Thing), here that is struggling to escape from the schlocky conventions of typically bloody alien-sleaze pictures, and the movie’s jumble of conceptual effects, and off-kilter ideas (including a life-sized ‘Action Man’, and a gnomish clown), grants its numerous artistic ambitions an unforgettable melting-pot of humorous scenes implanted in a strong and spooky, albeit disconnected, narrative.


Xtro is also notable for introducing future Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, here playing French nanny Analise (“You’re always lying down,” quips Tony). Harry Bromley-Davenport went on to make sequels Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1990), and Xtro 3: Watch the Skies (1995), both of which were watchable enough, although they lack the bizarre grotesquery of this first outing. Still, I do hope that Second Sight will release HD editions of those movies, too.


Fully restored for this limited edition, the movie's use of colour and sound is exemplary, and the disc release also features a new director’s version, alongside the original, plus a wealth of extra featurettes, including Xploring Xtro (57 minutes), an excellent retrospective and highly detailed documentary short.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Lodgers

Cast: Charlotte Vega, Bill Milner, and David Bradley

Director: Brian O’Malley  

90 minutes (15) 2017
Thunderbird DVD Region 2
[Released 25th June]

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary  

Brother and sister, Edward and Rachel are cursed twins stuck together in an old haunted house in rural 1920s Ireland. Troubled by debts, the rundown estate appears in jeopardy from sinister forces clearly that are far greater than house-keeping money problems, and there is something of an unholy evil lurking beneath a trapdoor in the hall. 

The Lodgers is a ghost story based on wholly traditional themes, such as Poe’s absurdly morbid Fall Of The House Of Usher, but it’s also a movie that’s infused creatively with decidedly modern imagery, including nudity with some hints of incest, mixed together with excellent visual effects. These occasionally graphic sequences complement the production’s lavish or creepy cinematography, which owes quite a lot to genre iconography of The Grudge franchise.


Much like The Others (2001), this eerie but compelling romantic mystery unfolds slowly to reveal its dark secrets that include a remorseless family curse of suicidal drowning. A concerned but intrusive, and somewhat predatory, Mr Bermingham (a great cameo from David Bradley, of TV vampire series The Strain), is obviously doomed. 


Elsewhere, after he is branded as a traitor by local villagers, crippled war veteran Sean (Eugene Simon), pursues Rachel, but soon becomes involved much deeper in her situation than he wanted or expected to. Packed with telling details, characteristic nuances, and mortal perils, The Lodgers doles out a sumptuous compendium of murmuring anxiety and bloodless frights.  


Of course, this all ends with coldly irrational passions and watery supernatural violence. Irish location shooting in Wexford (where the haunted Loftus Hall mansion is claimed to be 666 years old!), benefits from set-pieces of dramatic irony, and ensures this movie is very welcome and worthwhile viewing for any fans of strange and shadowy cinema. The Lodgers presents the right kind of stylish blending of ethereal beauty and gritty realism, and the winning combination grants this chilling fable of immortality, between the wars, all the striking atmosphere and grimly fatal charm of the very best modern fairy-tales.




Saturday, 2 June 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Ki Hong Lee, and Kaya Scodelario

Director: Wes Ball

137 minutes (12) 2018
20th Century Fox
DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A free-range Cube? Lord Of The Flies meets the Predator franchise? Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner (2014), posits a novelty secret mission for new-kid-on-the-block, the amnesiac Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, TV series Teen Wolf), who’s freight-lifted up into a walled glade where an odd assortment of boys survive in this exclusive prison as modern Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe recruits for a bizarre Spartan programme, while living in social fear of giant cyber-spiders that lurk just beyond their secure garden’s perimeter. Even with its rather simplistic narrative rules, this brisk adaptation of James Dashner’s YA novel still takes young hero Thomas half an hour to get his Theseus on, and slay the metaphorical minotaur in this pseudo-labyrinth. Of course, everything changes for the boys’ hormonal captivity when the first-and-last girl arrives.

Maze Runner
Lurching out of religious-allegory mode, from its edenic-purgatory version of a creation myth (“People needed to believe we had a chance of getting out.”), The Maze Runner copycats big-story beats from other juveniles like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Ender’s Game, with its adolescence-is-a-battlefield motifs. But with only two good ideas to rub together, the maker’s apparent mistake is taking a patently ridiculous and clich├ęd sci-fi adventure seriously. In more experienced hands, with a finely inventive adaptation, and/ or better direction, the somewhat uninspired comic-bookish antics of this dystopian rebellion might have been considerably more fun. Happily, sequel movie Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2016), expanded on the sci-fi milieu’s possibilities to reach far beyond the confinements of predictable genre nonsense.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
After Patricia Clarkson’s mastermind delivers her video testimony packed with mega-plot exposition, the sequel picks up right from where Maze Runner left off, and Scorch Trials intensifies the melodrama, of various teenage rebel heroes versus corporate villainy, with some increasingly sinister experiments. Thomas rescues Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) from a WCKD hi-tech med-lab where Janson (Aiden Gillen) runs a top security orphanage for the ‘lost boys’. The lads promptly escape from a lock-up style detention centre into the post-apocalypse desert that’s plagued by midnight lightning storms, some captured zombies, and even free but nightmarish un-dead like writhing mutant creatures from hell.

“Do you ever get the feeling the whole world’s against you?” sums up typical adolescent mentalities that are a guiding principle of this wholly perilous gamer scenario. New temp heroine Brenda (Rosa Salazar) is repeatedly endangered just so that the faithful Thomas leaps into action, but he fails to save her from the probably infectious bites, or a drunken house party. Shouting, gasping, frantic chases, and casually repetitive yet monstrously tense confrontations continue, until a betrayal and the shoot ‘em-up fighting in a desert camp settles a few scores.


There was a year’s delay in production, after the star was injured on a movie set in 2016, before this adventure trilogy concludes with Maze Runner: The Death Cure, where the heroic Thomas follows-up his proverbial ‘good speech’ from the climactic action of Scorch Trials by leading a Mad Max styled raid on a WCKD corporation train to free one carriage-load of prisoners. Later, breaking into the enemy’s sprawling walled-city of an ultimate enclave proves to be a rather more troublesome feat of daring for the young heroes.


From the first movie’s glade, Gally (Will Poulter, Son Of Rambow) returns and he grants Thomas an opportunity to unite the various gangs of survivalists to sneak through tunnels into the wicked WCKD city and rescue their captured friend Minho (Ki Hong Lee). However, the boys start off wrongly by kidnapping their apparent opponent Teresa. The Death Cure offers fairly standard action movie thrills and chills about the resistance to a totalitarian regime that turns into a “you guys are nuts” rebellion, a movement that’s partly dictated by the anarchist revolutionary fervour of grotesquely scar-faced Lawrence (Walton Goggins, TV series Justified) who helps greatly to drive the main plot forward. In the end, this movie trilogy really concerns the little people that twin capitalist menaces of big money and corporate greed always exploits and then forgets about.


Hijacked as a getaway vehicle, a bus is hoisted skyward by a giant construction crane to provide unsubtle spectacle and a fresh perspective, amidst vigorous urban pursuits and street-level shoot-outs. It’s surprisingly effective as a standout combination of stunts and special effects. The director Wes Ball went from making short films to blockbuster movie production in one ambitious leap. His competence at orchestrating grand effects scenes is never in doubt, but he tends to lack something vital when it comes to getting strong and compelling performances from a predominantly young cast in leading roles. Death Cure is too frequently melodramatic for any sense of realism or actorly conviction, as every twist and tragedy gets hammered home with tearful mistakes and regrets. Often, these heroes kill to learn the truth and then want to kill again because of new knowledge, too. Juvenile love, nowadays, seems unfortunately to be about the end of the world.


In retrospect, The Maze Runner trilogy is particularly worthwhile because Ball insists upon taking all of its gross absurdities seriously. There’s no escape mechanism of humour, with jokey asides and comic relief, to break from a constant mood of sinister sci-fi and rousing action sequences. In many ways, the casual genre references of The Death Cure, ranging from Aliens to Titanic (hmm, I wonder if Ball is big fan of James Cameron’s movies?) help to make certain its explosive finale is both spectacular and suspenseful.