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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

Smaller studios and mid-budget mainstream films scatter and run for cover as the dominant force in popular cinema makes its presence felt once more: yes, Marvel return with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a somewhat baroque title which nevertheless is certainly appropriate for the film. That said, there are a number of factors which may combine to have some viewers expecting things which aren’t quite there in the movie: given the striking level of ambition some other Marvel productions have shown, perhaps this is only to be expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in leading-man mode as surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, who is generally acclaimed for his role in saving the universe a few movies back but still not entirely happy in his personal life (as is practically obligatory for a Marvel character). The doc is also afflicted by bad dreams, specifically one about a young woman being pursued by malevolent supernatural forces while being aided by a slightly different version of him.

Well, the girl from the dream crashes a wedding reception Strange is at, pursued by a big gribbly demon, and naturally he saves the day and rescues her (with a little help from Wong (Benedict Wong), whom these movies have done an impressive job of making into much more than just a sidekick). She turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a unique individual in that there is only one iteration of her in the entirety of the multiverse of parallel worlds, and she has the gift of being able to travel between the different worlds almost at will. Naturally this makes her a person of interest, especially to a powerful and ruthless supernatural being who wants to kill America and steal her power.

Well, Strange and his various allies (in addition to Wong, he goes to the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help) aren’t going to stand for that sort of thing, but needless to say they find themselves hard-pressed and Strange and America have to flee through a series of other parallel worlds, some of them jarringly odd, others rather familiar. But can they find a way of saving America’s life and defeating their adversary for good?

As noted here passim over the last decade or so, it’s quite rare for Marvel to turn out a movie which is not a solidly constructed and imaginative piece of entertainment – crowd-pleasers are what they do, and anyone who usually enjoys a Marvel film is likely going to enjoy this one too. Expectations are probably higher than usual for this one, partly because it’s directed by Sam Raimi (who has previously made some of the best Marvel superhero films ever), but also because it’s following on the heels of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another film with Cumberbatch which was deeply involved in matters multiversal.

Well, there are elements of Multiverse of Madness which certainly seem to be informed by Raimi’s CV as a director, but rather further back than his Spider-Man trilogy: there’s much more of a horror movie vibe to this film than anything else Marvel have done on the big screen recently. Some moments in the film are unexpectedly grisly and macabre, although I wouldn’t describe it as actually being any more scary than most mainstream films.

The multiversal element of the film is likely to be one of the things that may throw and possibly disappoint especially ardent viewers: following the cameo-stuffed pleasures of No Way Home, there has been a lot of excitable on-line chatter about just who could be turning up in this film. It’s tricky to talk about this without risking spoilers, obviously, but expectation management might not be a bad idea here – the closest thing the film has to a big gosh-wow moment won’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the publicity for it. The rest of its surprises are clever, but you really need to be a devotee to get all the references and jokes, to the point where a Disney+ subscription is almost obligatory. This is certainly the case with a major element of the film’s plot, which is arguably lacking in the dear old objective correlative if you haven’t seen the applicable streaming series.

This is possibly a problem for the film, as it makes a big deal out of seeing alt-universe versions of familiar characters, certainly at the expense of other possible ways of exploring the multiverse concept. Strange is repeatedly asked if he’s really happy, and you might expect the film to explore the possibility of a world which has a Strange-iteration who genuinely is content. There’s dramatic potential here, obviously, but the idea is never really gone into – a typhoon of CGI and fan-friendly death-matches are what the script plumps for.

Long-term viewers might also be inclined to raise an eyebrow at how a character who was originally presented as powerful but not exceptional has, over the course of their last few appearances, become a virtually unstoppable force of reality-warping cosmic power, but that’s what the script here requires, I guess: in the same way, while the comics version of Doctor Strange is so nebulously omnipotent he’s often sidelined, treated as a plot device more than a character, the movie character is much more fallible and limited much of the time. He spends a lot of this film looking worried and running away – but, as I say, it’s all about the requirements of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie has a charm and energy of its own, especially in its weirder moments. This is what you hire Sam Raimi for, after all. What’s perhaps a little unexpected and quite pleasing is the fact that – for all its metaphysical extravagance – the impulse driving the plot is firmly rooted in recognisable human emotions and drives. This gives the actors something they can really work with – and while Cumberbatch is as good value as ever at the centre of the film, what’s really eyecatching is a very impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen, almost certainly the best she’s given in a Marvel movie. The various ghoulies and spectres the film summons up are very insignificant compared to the moment of genuine emotional anguish at the heart of the story. It’s this which holds the film together and keeps it satisfying even when some of its peripheral pleasures threaten to become rather unravelled.

This even extends to the ending of the film, which comes close to being a less-than-fully-satisfying cliffhanger (maybe even more than one). If this latest phase of Marvel films is heading in a particular direction, what that direction is is by no means clear yet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mid-table entry for this franchise (perhaps just a little higher than average), but I don’t imagine the huge audiences Marvel movies routinely attract will be disappointed by it.

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Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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When a film opens with a bunch of characters arriving at a place called the Hill of Death, you can be quite sure that one of two things is on the cards: a film with a potentially smug sense of its own ridiculousness, or something which is going to be painfully on the nose from start to finish. When the main character, a sickly-looking Jared Leto, is told ‘Maybe you should see a doctor!’ and responds ‘I am one,’ any hope that we may be in for Option One quickly fades.

For yes, this is Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius, here to tide over anyone who objects to having to wait four-and-a-half months between proper Marvel comic-book movies. Leto is playing Morbius, whom we quickly learn is a polymathic genius afflicted with a genetic disorder causing agglutination of the blood cells (or something like that, anyway). We even see him getting a Nobel prize for his work on artificial blood. It is also established, without a great deal of subtlety, that he is largely motivated in his studies by his desire to save his best friend (Matt Smith), and that the pair of them have been mentored by the doctor who’s been looking after them since childhood (Jared Harris – this is a good movie if you drew ‘Jared’ in the name sweepstakes).

Well, this being a Marvel movie (even an ‘in association with’ Marvel movie), Morbius’s plan is to pop off to the Hill of Death and capture a load of vampire bats, which in the world of this movie are apparently savage, pack-hunting apex predators, not the mostly-harmless and actually quite altruistic little creatures you and I share a biosphere with. He then decides to inject his own body with vampire bat DNA in the hope it will cure him. What could possibly go wrong?

I mean, it’s not the dumbest superhero origin story in history, but still. Even the fact that the human tests have to take place in secret, on a freighter in international waters, does not lead the brilliant brain of Morbius to clock that this is a bad idea. On the other hand, this does enable a bit of early mayhem as we are invited to assume the freighter crew are all despicable bad guys whom Morbius, now afflicted with the curse of blood-lust (not to mention the curse of being followed around by intrusive CGI swirls), can off with a clear conscience.

Yes, Morbius now has superhuman speed and strength and some of the powers of a bat, though IP law means the film tiptoes very carefully around what the obvious code-name for him would be. He has bigger issues than plagiarism to worry about, however, as the synthetic blood he is using to keep his hunger at bay is losing its efficacy, while his best friend has got his hands on the serum too, and quite fancies all the superpowers and CGI too…

So, just to recap, Morbius has speed and strength and can (somehow) fly, and he has sonar, which soon develops into full-blown super-hearing. I imagine that for most of the film the main thing his super-hearing is picking up is the sound of Sony frantically grabbing at every Marvel character they still have the rights to and shoe-horning them into this film.

For the uninitiated: Marvel Studios (the makers of the ‘official’, and generally pretty good Marvel films) have managed to reclaim the rights to most of their characters, in some cases by simply buying the companies that had previously held them. However, Sony have managed to hang onto the Spider-Man characters, and Spider-Man’s appearances in MCU films have been the result of finicky horse-trading between the two companies. Hence the two Venom films with Tom Hardy, and now this vehicle for Morbius, a character declared by one website to be no less than the nineteenth-best Spider-Man villain.

Needless to say, they crowbar a reference to Venom into this movie, from which I suppose we are invited to assume that this is set in the same world as they are. There is also some multiversal madness with a late showing by Michael Keaton, well-known for playing another kind of bat man, but here reprising his role as the Vulture from an MCU movie a few years back. It all feels rather contrived and put me much in mind of Amazing Spider-Man 2, which seemed so obsessed with setting up spin-offs and cross-overs it almost forgot about the movie in hand. It is clear that linking to the massively popular MCU films is very important to Sony’s plans, but also that they’re quite prepared to abandon sense and logic in order to do so.

It’s not like Morbius doesn’t have its own problems, not least that he isn’t an especially interesting character to begin with. He laments his fate and broods on rooftops a lot, and frankly it’s been done before, a lot. He gets the line ‘Don’t make me hungry, you won’t like me when I’m hungry,’ which made me laugh if only for its sheer impudence, but apart from that this is a fairly earnest film populated by dull characters who never do or say anything unexpected, saddled with borderline-inept storytelling: great chunks of exposition are handled by more on-the-nose voice-overs.

The biggest problem is that the film’s script serves its structure, rather than vice versa. Stuff happens for no real reason other than to progress the very thin plot – the disposable mercenaries on the freighter is one example of this, Matt Smith’s character deciding to go all in on being evil is another. Police check the surveillance cameras in a car park, but apparently not the ones in a hospital. Even the structure itself is not that great – it vaguely reminded me of Josh Trank’s reviled Fantastic Four movie, in that watching it I had the odd sense of having missed a big chunk of the story – it seems to have part of the second act missing. Suddenly we were in the final battle of the film and I was genuinely wrong-footed, but not entirely ungrateful.

It probably sounds masochistic of me to say this, but sometimes it’s nice when a really bad superhero movie comes along, because it surely makes one appreciate how solidly entertaining the Marvel films usually are just that little bit more. This has a silly story, thin characters that even a good cast can’t do much with, too much intrusively garish CGI, and a general refusal to acknowledge its own daftness. Morbius is definitely not of the first rank, and is comfortably quite as bad as the last couple of X-Men movies. The degree to which it succeeds or fails should tell us something interesting about quite how far the magic touch of the Marvel marque extends.

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George McCowan’s 1972 film Frogs doesn’t exactly have a fridge title, as our amphibious friends are certainly heavily featured throughout it – but at the same time it really feels somewhat misnamed. Certainly for a horror movie, which is what this theoretically is – it doesn’t achieve quite the immortal bathos, title-wise, of The Killer Shrews, but it’s getting there, especially when you consider the poster is theoretically attempting to communicate that this film is supposed to be a scary one, jokey slogan notwithstanding.

Now I don’t think much of the poster for Frogs, and yet it does seem to have embedded itself in the minds of people who’ve seen it, even if they haven’t seen the whole movie. I mentioned I’d seen Frogs to a couple of friends of mine, quite independently, and they both mentioned the poster and – in one case – they were able to describe it in some detail. It is certainly eye-catching but I would suggest that it doesn’t quite capture the tone of the movie, which is admittedly rather odd.

The movie itself starts off looking more like a wildlife documentary, as various swamp creatures are given their close-up; within the film itself, their snaps are being taken by photojournalist and ecology expert Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), who is canoeing around the swamp in question. Snakes, lizards, frogs, all of them get their picture snapped. But gradually the images change to ones of pollution in the swamp: garbage, pollution, and chemical waste. Yup, we are in one of those nature-bites-back eco-horror films.

Now, let’s be fair, while this is a cinematic tradition going back quite a long way, it is also one which it can tricky to pin down. One very accessible list of eco-horror films includes things like the original Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon, both of which are  – I would say – rather different animals (sorry). I’m thinking of things without your actual monsters, just normal creatures which have become extremely irascible, and with some sort of obvious message about the environment incorporated into the story, although this is possibly optional – most people would credit Hitchcock’s The Birds as having a significant influence on this sub-genre, although part of that film’s eerie atmosphere comes from its refusal to explain just exactly what is really going on.

Frogs is a bit more on-the-nose in this department, as well as many others. Pickett Smith gets dumped into the swamp by a speedboat driven by a couple of the ugly rich, but they are duly apologetic and take him back their family’s palatial plantation house, where the whole clan is gathering for the birthday of the patriarch, a fierce old man played by Ray Milland (whose presence in a film of this calibre is somewhat mystifying).

It turns out there are various elements of toxic family politics in play, to say nothing of the fact that the family business has been dumping pollution into the swamp on, for want of a better expression, on an industrial scale. It’s a miracle that the croaking of the frogs surrounding the house is as deafening as it is…

This is the kind of movie which has a slow build-up, or would have if it ever felt like it was actually building up to anything – the pacing remains stolid and stately throughout. Various scenes of family members engaging in soap-opera bickering are intercut with Smith wandering about doing odd jobs for Milland’s character, and of course numerous close-ups of frogs: these appear at the top of many scenes, with the camera pulling back to reveal the human beings going about their business and blithely ignoring the ubiquitous amphibians. But Smith discovers that one of Milland’s gofers has met with a mysterious death in the swamp…

To be honest, the movie is just marking time until it is able to get busy with the set-piece deaths of various unsympathetic rich people, and finally this moment arrives. One young man is out in the forest when he accidentally shoots himself in the leg; strange animate moss appears to engulf him, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s tarantula-infested moss. Another of the family is working in a greenhouse when a lizard deviously knocks over several containers of poison, creating a toxic miasma which bumps him off. A butterfly-loving matron unwisely chases a rare breed and ends up falling into leech-infested waters, from which she emerges only to be bitten by a rattlesnake. Her husband, when he goes in search of her, falls in the swamp and is attacked by an alligator. And so it goes on.

The astute reader may well be reading this and thinking ‘moss, tarantulas, lizards, leeches, snakes, alligators… there’s something missing from this picture.’ And this is absolutely the case: for a horror movie called Frogs, which features an apparently man-eating frog on the poster, all the heavy lifting when it comes to actually killing off the cast is done by other herptiles and species resident in the swamp. In other words, the characters may be croaking, but they’re not being croaked by the frogs. I can only assume that the frogs had a much better agent than the rest of the wildlife in the film.

The one positive thing about this anomaly is that it does make Frogs marginally more interesting than would otherwise be the case. This is a movie without many (or perhaps even any) layers of subtlety to it. The subtext and a general sense of how it’s going to go are obvious to the switched-on viewer very early on, and it’s not even as if the story is especially well-executed: there’s a lot of lousy acting, especially during the death scenes, and while Elliott has presence, it’s not as if he does a great deal (he may just be trying to keep a low profile so people don’t mention his presence in this film in a disparaging context should he get all tetchy and start grumbling about Jane Campion movies many years later). Milland’s okay, but clearly knows he’s slumming it. Bits from near the end of it jump out at you – someone gets killed by a turtle, for God’s sake, Elliott hands a pump-action shotgun to a small child during their low-octane escape from the frogs, and the film’s three non-white characters all apparently die together off-screen –  but this is a film with only one real idea to it, and one which it doesn’t communicate with much in the way of grace or deftness.

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I had an evening to myself. I could have done anything. They were showing the 50th anniversary revival of The Godfather just fifteen minutes’ walk away. I really had no excuse not to enjoy this classic of American cinema again, beyond piddling little concerns like already having been out to the movies twice that week. So I stayed in and watched Zombeavers instead. What can I say? I don’t know what came over me.

Zombeavers, directed by Jordan Rubin, doesn’t so much have a plot as a collection of bits nicked from other genre movies and repurposed for this one. (In case you were wondering, in genre terms I’m pretty sure this is attempting the tricky challenge of being both a horror movie and a comedy film.) There’s a sense in which watching it for the first time doesn’t really feel like watching a new movie at all, because virtually no element of it is actually unfamiliar.

It opens with a couple of low-comedy stereotyped rednecks failing to notice a barrel of industrial waste falling off the back of their truck when it hits a deer (which gorily explodes all over the windscreen) – this is essentially the first scene of Eight Legged Freaks, too. The barrel drifts down a river during the opening credits, coming to rest in a peaceful lake, not far from the dam of some cute looking, obviously fake beavers. At this point it springs a leak and starts spraying green slime.

Ho, ho. Genre boxes continue to be ticked as we meet three college girls about to set off for a quiet break in the country. As you might expect, one of them is sensible and studious (she wears glasses), one is essentially defined by her boyfriend problems, and the other is kind of a bee-hatch (as I believe the kids nowadays put it). They are respectively played by Rachel Melvin, Lexi Atkins and Cortney Palm. Off they go to the countryside, engaging in the obligatory modern sexually-explicit banter all the way.

But something is up at the peaceful lake which is their destination. We the audience have already figured this out, as we have seen a fisherman have his rod dragged out of his hands by something in the water, and then be set upon by something lurking in the bushes. Some sort of quota is met as Palm provides some T&A by taking her top off when the girls go swimming.

You can’t do much of a horror movie with just three main characters and a few supporting yokels, so the boyfriends all turn up despite being told not to. This is because Atkins’ boyfriend has just cheated on her, a subplot designed to create tension within the group – this is about the most subtle element of the film and it’s still something of a genre cliché.

The sense of déjà vu becomes crushingly relentless as Atkins prepares to take a shower, but finds herself ambushed by a beaver. But it is not a beaver as we know it, as it has milky eyes and a taste for flesh. In short, it is an undead beaver, which the assembled young people only just manage to stuff into a bag and batter into submission.

I expect that most people, at some point in their lives, have asked themselves the question, ‘If I were making a low-budget movie featuring undead beavers as a major plot element, how would I go about realising this?’ The makers of Zombeavers decided to go with glove puppets. The glove puppet zombie beaver is actually a reasonable success, as this is supposed to be a comedy film and it is almost certainly the funniest thing in it so far. However, it is not that funny.

It turns out the industrial waste has produced a whole lake full of undead beavers, which are now hungry for the flesh and blood of blandly attractive young American folk. Even worse, they find themselves trapped, as the zombie beavers have blocked the road back to civilisation by felling trees across it. Barricading themselves into the cabin is not an ideal solution as the beavers show every sign of being able to chew their way through the walls. What are a bunch of extremely thinly-scripted young people to do in this situation?

Well, anyway: this is a crappy movie. In my defense, and it’s a thin one as I will freely admit, I was lured in by the commercial, which focused very much on the glove puppet zombie beavers. These are, I will say again, the best thing in the movie. Are they sufficient reason to watch the whole thing? I suspect not. I would say, just watch a clip, maybe one of the sequence where they start gnawing up through the floorboards and get splattered by two of the surviving cast like a gory version of whack-a-mole. Just watch that and then do something more worthwhile with the rest of your evening, like staring at the wall.

You can see that the intention with this movie was to do something along the lines of The Evil Dead meets The Killer Shrews. The Killer Shrews, I should say, is not a great movie. It has bad acting, risible monsters, and contains problematic racism. But not only is it just as funny as Zombeavers, it also works better as a horror movie, because it’s doing its best not to admit to being a lousy low-budget film. It confesses to its weaknesses because it has no choice. Zombeavers, on the other hand, doesn’t include rubbish glove-puppet monsters because it has no choice, and then try to work around them as much as possible. It has rubbish-glove puppet monsters because it thinks this will be funny, and the camera dwells on them cheerfully for this reason. What’s killingly funny in an unintentional comedy doesn’t work nearly as well in an actual comedy.

Part of the problem is that Zombeavers can’t decide whether it wants to be a spoof of low-budget horror films or an actual horror-comedy itself, because they’re not the same thing. It’s much more committed to traditional elements of the form, like excessive gore and gratuitous sex and T&A, than a film like The Final Girls (a genuinely funny and inventive take on horror movie conventions), but this feels like an attempt to impress through excess, something which is an extension of the film’s attempts to get laughs by shocking the audience. There are times when it’s just trying to be funny, but there’s never a moment when it’s sincerely trying to be genuinely scary.

It kind of stumbles through its hour-and-a-half or whatever the run-time is; the glove-puppet beavers run out of mileage before this and so they have to resort to a gag where anyone bitten by a zombie beaver doesn’t just turn into a zombie, they turn into a zombie with huge buck teeth and a big flat tail. Again, once you’re past the initial gag this doesn’t really go anywhere, and the human-beaver hybrid prosthetics are a lot less funny than the glove-puppets were.

The problem, finally, is that Zombeavers is so knowingly and carefully stupid that it doesn’t work as anything but a trashy, lowest-common-denominator comedy, but it’s not consistently funny enough to work as one of those, either. You can see the cast trying to do their best with it, and the gag reel at the end certainly indicates they had fun making the movie, but even including the gag reel was probably a mistake. It’s never a good thing when the people making a movie are clearly having more fun than you are watching it. This movie is just about as stupid as the title suggests, but a lot less entertaining.

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One of the mistakes it is quite understandable that normal, ordinary people make is looking at any British-made horror or fantasy film from the 1960s and assume it was a Hammer production. It happened just the other night: the light of my life got home to find me watching Gordon Hessler’s 1969 movie Scream and Scream Again and said ‘Another Hammer horror?’ (I should explain that I have been trying to rectify some of the gaps in her cultural background by watching some of the House’s output with her – our domestic bliss was somewhat rocked when she gave Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde a higher score than Countess Dracula, but you can’t have everything.)

How does one begin to explain the subtle differences in style and approach that exist between movies by Hammer, Amicus, Tigon, and American International, to name just the major players? Actually, Scream and Scream Again is even more of an oddity as it’s effectively a co-production between Amicus (who were essentially producers Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg) and American-International. Both parties brought along some of the top talent they had a history with, and the result is a film which sounds absolutely fascinating and intriguing on paper. But…

The movie opens with a man going for a jog somewhere in London. The picture abruptly freezes for a caption stating ‘VINCENT PRICE’. Confusingly, however, the jogger is clearly not Mr Price. Nor is he ‘CHRISTOPHER LEE’ (the next name to appear), ‘PETER CUSHING’, ‘ALFRED MARKS’, or any of the other people in the credits. This is bad form, credit-wise, I would say, but by making the viewer confused and probably irritable this early on it does quite a good job of establishing what they can expect from watching Scream and Scream Again.

The most striking thing about the film, in terms of its story, is the extent to which it happily runs with a number of wildly disparate plot-threads which seem to be going off in all directions, with no connection whatsoever. One of these concerns the jogger, who has some sort of seizure while running and wakes up in hospital. A sort of gruesome running gag ensues where he keeps waking up in the same room, being visited and ministered to by a beautiful nurse, and then discovering that he’s freshly missing a body part (first one of his legs is gone, then both of them, and so on – he eventually ends up as a severed head in a cupboard).

Also trundling forward is something about the various deeds of Konratz (Marshall Jones), whom we eventually discover to be a government torturer for a totalitarian state somewhere in eastern Europe. Just to make things extra baffling, the soldiers of this notionally Communist country all wear SS uniforms with the swastikas swapped out for an icon a bit like a trident. It seems that Konratz’s superiors aren’t delighted with him, something he deals with by doing a version of the Spock nerve pinch on them – at which point they take on an attitude of glazed paralysis before dribbling blood from their ears or mouth and dropping dead on the spot. This would be fine were they not played by actors of the calibre of Peter Sallis or Peter Cushing, both of whom are much more interesting to watch than Marshall Jones. Cushing has one short scene in the whole movie, despite being third billed.

Not doing much better is a second-billed Lee, who features in a few short scenes about international espionage and sending spy planes into enemy airspace. You can sort of imagine how this might end up linking up to the storyline with the mysterious behaviour of Konratz, but the connection doesn’t appear until deep into the third act.

The bulk of the film concerns another plot thread, which deals with an apparent serial killer at large in London – the killings end up being called ‘the vampire murders’, which is probably asking for trouble given the movie has Lee and Cushing in the cast. Leading the investigation is Alfred Marks, who in a sane world would be top-billed as he probably has more screen time than anyone else in the film. The trail keeps leading back to the private clinic of scientist Dr Browning (a relatively youthful-looking Price, certainly compared to his appearance in Theatre of Blood only a few years later), who swears to know nothing about them.

Time and some rather exploitative fem jeop prove him a liar, of course, as the killer – whose name is the not entirely menacing ‘Keith’ – is pursued back to Price’s lab. Keith is played by Michael Gothard, an actor with an interestingly angular face who did well in a few supporting roles like this one between the late sixties and the early eighties. Yes, Keith has been topping swinging dolly-birds and drinking their blood, although given he turns out not to be an actual vampire it’s not clear why this urged has gripped him. Vampire or not, he turns out to be a rather unusual fellow, and this proves to be key to all the various mysteries and confusions in the story. (My Former Next Desk Colleague once produced deep confusion in me when he described this film as ‘the one where Ian Ogilvy rips his own hand off’. I naturally thought he was mixed up and referring to Blood on Satan’s Claw, although in that one it’s Simon Williams who dismembers himself – easy to get all these leading men mixed up, isn’t it? Suffice to say he was thinking of… mmm, spoilers.)

Having lived through Scream and Scream Again the temptation is to look back on it as a relatively clever film which isn’t afraid to leave the audience in suspense as to what’s going on. But then your memories of any gruelling experience are likely to be coloured by relief at actually getting to the end of it, and watching Scream and Scream Again was pretty hard work. Quite apart from the disjointed nature of the plot – and the connection between the different storylines, when it comes, feels more like a slightly desperate ad hoc cobbling-together rather than a blind-siding revelation. It involves androids, acid baths, and the secret take-over of the world – apparently, at one point Subotsky’s script included aliens, but all explicit references to this were snipped out, leaving the actual identity of the villains obscure, to say the least.

Part of the reason that vintage British horror movies have endured so well is the fact that they feature such distinguish casts, people with the ability to lift and compensate for this kind of material. You would have thought that a film with Price, Lee and Cushing at the top of the bill would have little to worry about in this department – but none of them get much time on screen. Cushing is off by himself in his own little scene, and while Lee and Price do theoretically appear together, they’re only on camera at the same time for a matter of seconds. Even so, it’s an instructive display of different performance styles: Lee is all impassive intensity and playing it for real, while Price is basically just hamming it up with immense virtuosity. But it’s such a short scene it has no chance to save the film.

Scream and Scream Again feels shallow and chaotic, almost as if the people making it weren’t entirely sure what it was supposed to be about. There are certainly some talented actors involved, but never as much as you’d like them to be. The action sequences just about function, but the rest of it is fairly impenetrable and unrewarding.

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If you’re one of those people who takes their cinema seriously, sooner or later you develop a list of directors who you follow – you keep an eye out for a new film and do your best to get to see it. Sometimes, though, you find yourself having seen most of someone’s filmography without having consciously made an effort to. So it is with me and Guillermo del Toro – I always feel slightly smug about having gone along to del Toro’s debut, Cronos, at the art house in Hull. Didn’t see Mimic or The Devil’s Backbone, I admit, but after that I’ve pretty much seen the lot, with the exception of Crimson Peak. This is usually the point at which I mention my regret at the del Toro films I haven’t seen, because they haven’t been made – his take on the Hobbit trilogy, and his adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Having won Best Picture for his last film, The Shape of Water, you might have expected that the world would have been at del Toro’s feet and he would finally have managed to persuade a major studio to finance the Lovecraft movie. But no. (The latest word seems to be that the director is looking to do a version of the story with Netflix.) Considering that his past work has been nothing if not eclectic – it includes an idiosyncratic take on the vampire myth, one of the best Marvel Comics adaptations of the 2000s, a magic-realist fable about the Spanish Civil War and a big-budget homage to Japanese tokusatsu movies – it’s pushing it to describe any new project of his as an unexpected choice, but Nightmare Alley very nearly qualifies.

Nightmare Alley started life as a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham; the 1947 film adaptation starring Tyrone Power is not especially well-regarded or well-known – I had no awareness of it until the advertising for the new movie started to appear. Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, whom we first meet burying a body under the floors of a remote farmhouse, which he then proceeds to burn down. Clearly he is a man with a Past. He leaves all of this far behind and travels across the country, eventually finding himself drawn to the bright lights and questionable pleasures of a travelling carnival.

Carlisle persuades the proprietor of the carny, Clem (Willem Dafoe), to give him a job, and he makes friends amongst his new co-workers – fortune-teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner, alcoholic former mind-reader Pete (David Strathairn). He also finds himself very much drawn to the carnival’s ‘electric girl’, Molly (Rooney Mara). Carlisle’s quick wit and natural savvy leads him to quickly discover many of the dark secrets on which the functioning of a carnival is based, but one eludes him – Pete’s old code-book, the basis of a potentially brilliant and lucrative act. Pete refuses to share it, insisting it is dangerous – successful mentalists invariably start to believe they really have special gifts, which inevitably results in a sorry downfall. But that won’t happen to Carlisle – will it?

As I mentioned, virtually all of del Toro’s past projects have been tied to the horror and fantasy genres one way or another, so it is a little unusual to find him at the helm of a psychological thriller with a distinctly noirish edge to it (indeed, a special edition of Nightmare Alley in black and white played a few engagements just to emphasise the connection). However, this is a thriller with particularly grotesque and macabre elements to it – the story itself is a cautionary tale of hubris and nemesis, the dark side of human nature and the underbelly of the entertainment industry, but del Toro’s handling of it takes it right to the edge of being an actual horror story in earnest.

Certainly, in the carny-set portion of the story, which makes up the first half of the film, there are various subtle references to Tod Browning’s Freaks, almost as you might expect, but these take the form of half-glimpsed things in pits and cages and assorted bottled nasties, rather than the actual human deformities so prominent in the 1932 film. It feels very much like a gothic melodrama, populated by all the stock characters you might expect – though brought to life with great skill by script and performers.

Only in the second act of the story does it really begin to resemble a film noir in earnest – Carlisle finds himself moving in higher echelons of society, only to find that the possession of wealth and taste does not necessary make their owners any less flawed or morally compromised. Here we find Cate Blanchett, seemingly channeling Veronica Lake as she gives a magnificent performance as a crooked shrink, and a rather scary Richard Jenkins as a millionaire with a dark past. It seems like there’s little to connect the two parts of the story, but this is a smartly structured script – the first half is carefully setting up everything that will happen later. The result is a film which develops a powerful sense of its own inevitable momentum – you know that things are going to go wrong, and go wrong bloodily, and the canny viewer will likely also be able to figure out well in advance what the final pay-off of the film is.

Del Toro handles proceedings with his usual powerful visual sense and aptitude for atmosphere, and the film is well-played by its ensemble. In some ways it does resemble a traditional awards-season studio movie – a lavish period-set adaptation with an all-star cast, and nobody taking an extended nap or having sex with a car – but it also has the slightly askew feel to it of the director’s other work, as well as being a skillful genre pastiche. On paper it sounds like an oddity more than anything else, a coming together of various talents, ideas, and sources that don’t sounds especially cohesive. But the result is a film which is always striking to look at, and quickly becomes an enthralling, if dark, story. Del Toro’s great achievement with The Shape of Water was to dress up an obviously derivative fantasy-horror story in such arty trappings that the academy voters forgot they were giving the Best Picture Oscar to a genre movie. I could imagine something similar happening with this movie too.

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Normally at this time of year you can rely on some worthy, solid, essentially safe and wholesome big movies to come out, as we begin the run-up to awards season – grand studio historical epics, biopics of the great and politically acceptable, you know the sort of thing. Maybe we’re still dealing with the long tail of the pandemic, but it seems to me there’s very little of that ilk doing the rounds – the big franchise movies from Christmas are still hanging around, along with West Side Story (this is exactly the sort of film I would usually expect to get a New Year release, but it came out in early December for some reason).

Perhaps for this reason, the arrival of a few more challenging and experimental movies in January feels like more of a strict detox than usual, and no cinematic experience currently available in cinemas is more bracingly astringent than Julia Ducournau’s Titane (in English, Titanium), winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes last summer.

Ducournau caused a bit of a stir a while back with the release of Raw, almost certainly the best French-language feminist cannibal social allegory of recent years. The new movie is bolder and more eye-opening in every way, but still recognisably the product of the same sensibility.

Here I find myself somewhat torn – it’s clear that Titane has been carefully assembled with the intention that it will have a certain impact upon the unsuspecting viewer. Going into too much detail about the film, certainly its opening movement, will almost certainly lessen some of that impact. But how to talk about it intelligibly otherwise? Hmmm.

Well: throbbing metal certainly features prominently, usually closely juxtaposed with all-too-icky human flesh – this finds its fullest expression in a sequence at a rather grim, toxically masculine car-show, with the toned and slender forms of the dancers undulating around and across the less yielding but equally enticing bodywork of the vehicles. The movie has a sort of auto-erotic fixation which has led many critics to compare it to the work of David Cronenberg.

Progressing alongside this is an equally provocative but seemingly more human storyline about a troubled young woman named Alexia (Agathe Rouselle). Finding herself needing to drop out of sight rather urgently, she takes the unusual step of disguising herself as someone who disappeared ten years earlier and claiming to be them, inexplicably reappeared. It struck me that this was possibly inspired by the real-life case of Frederic Bourdin’s impersonation of the missing Nicholas Barclay in 1997, but the movie ups the ante a bit by having Alexia choose to steal the identity of a young man named Adrien.

Here, if not earlier (and, to be honest, it probably was earlier), the film casts loose from the anchor of reality in a way likely to challenge most viewers. Adrien’s father Vincent (Vincent Lindon) turns up and is allowed to take Alexia home with him that very night. She has clearly received only the most cursory of medical examinations (for reasons which should be obvious), despite being in obvious need of attention, and throughout the rest of the film the police show no interest in questioning ‘Adrien’ about what happened to him or where he’s been for the last decade. It is, in short, not remotely credible as a naturalistic piece of storytelling – but then by this point we have already had a sequence in which someone has sex with a car (that preposition is not a typo), so you could certainly argue that Titane parts company with naturalism and credibility very early on.

This continues, as we learn more about Vincent’s job as the local fire captain. The fire departments of southern France seem to be run rather like feudal seigneuries, based on this film: Vincent announces to the other firemen that ‘Adrien’ will be joining the crew, despite not having interviewed for the job and not having any proper references – I believe this is known as le nepotisme in France. Slowly, the twisted relationship between Alexia and Vincent develops – but it’s obvious that this state of affairs can’t last…

This warped psycho-drama isn’t a million miles away from the kind of thing I could imagine appearing in a drama by someone like Almodovar, but this is very clearly a horror movie, and an uncompromising one. The opening movement is a succession of set pieces which seem designed to provoke a visceral response from the audience. I went along to the lunchtime showing at my local cinema and, as you would, took my lunch. When it seemed like the film had finally calmed down a bit, I relaxed and reached for my bag.

In the time it took me to eat a couple of sandwiches and a biscuit, the film managed to cram in a sado-masochistic lesbian sex scene, someone doing something incredibly icky and intimate to themself with a knitting needle, three graphically violent murders, and two semi-naked women grappling almost unto the death. This was some going. I should also mention that the film features as a motif grisly things happening in bathrooms – almost to the point where just the sight of a tap made me rather twitchy.

I’m probably making it sound like Titane is nothing more than a violent assault on the senses with only a perfunctory excuse for a plot to hold the various set-pieces together – almost like an art house, critically-acclaimed version of a film like Hellraiser II. As noted, it is openly and intentionally non-naturalistic in its plotting, and downright surreal and fantastical in some of its story elements. But there is more to it than just provocation and a desire to shock; it deals seriously with issues of identity, gender, and grief; in a weird way it is a much more humane film than it probably sounds. The performances from Rouselle and Lindon are remarkable – Garance Marillier from Raw has a supporting role on this occasion. (There is also a carefully-deployed element of black comedy which pops up at the moments you would least expect.) Nevertheless, it is a movie that many people will likely find too repellent and extreme to fully engage with. For everyone else, this is a startling, powerful, and memorable film.

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Making a strong if slightly oblique challenge for the title of Weirdest Christmas Film of the Year (and a decent tilt at Weirdest Film, full stop) is Valdimar Johansson’s Lamb (Icelandic title: Dýrið). It seems like a lifetime ago that the less-mainstream offerings at this time of year around Oxford used to include vintage offerings like Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves and it is nice to see a film very broadly in the same vein turning up now.

Quite what kind of a movie this actually is takes a while to become apparent (and some might say that the question is never entirely resolved). It opens in the heart of a howling blizzard, only the vague dark shapes of a herd of horses visible in the distance, only hoarse, inhuman breathing audible above the wind. Whatever is abroad in the snow, it is quite literally frightening the horses.

The sheep at the nearest farm respond to all this in their usual largely-inscrutable fashion, but it is clear that something has taken an interest in them. Completely oblivious to all this are the farmers running the place, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and his wife Maria (Noomi Rapace): they seem outwardly content, but there is a sense of regret clinging to them which the film takes its time in exploring. (Though this is one of those movies which doesn’t seem to be in a great hurry to do anything.)

Spring arrives and with it lambing season; Ingvar and Maria devote themselves to this crucial time in their usual reserved way. (Rapace does her own veterinary stunts at this point, dragging lambs out of the back ends of sheep with her usual sublime composure.) But then one of the sheep produces a lamb sufficiently out of the ordinary to cause both of them to flinch and gasp.

What exactly makes this lamb so unusual is kept obscure for a while, but they take it into the house and bottle-feed it. I seem to remember from episodes of Blue Peter, or possibly One Man and His Dog, that this is not completely out of the ordinary where sheep farmers are involved. However, the lamb, which they name Ada, is soon sleeping in a cot and being snuggled by the couple as they watch TV. Warmth and delight seem to have entered their lives along with the new arrival. Ada’s birth mother, if that’s a term you can properly use to describe a ewe, is less happy about this, and is often heard plaintively calling for her offspring.

It very slowly and very gradually becomes apparent that Ada, while by no means a human being, is certainly not what you’d call an ordinary sheep, either – she is a mixture of the two which manages to be both unsettling and rather cute at the same time. Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from the tension between the surreal image of, essentially, a lamb-headed toddler, and the completely oblivious responses and behaviour of the two adoptive parents. The narrative driver of the second act of the film is the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a rather shifty former rock star, and even he takes an age before he comes out with the obvious question.

As I say, the issue of exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be is a reasonable one. If we’re going to be reductionist about things, then it’s a subtitled foreign film with a stately pace and limited use of music, which happened to win some kind of award at Cannes – which lands it squarely in art-house territory as far as most people are concerned. Certainly there is an indifference to conventional exposition here that is rarely found in mainstream cinema. On the other hand, judging by the trailers which preceded Lamb to the screen – and long-term readers will recall my thesis that films are almost always accompanied by trailers from the same genre – this is either an arty drama, a full-on horror movie or another superhero-horror fusion (the trailers were for del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Irish folk-horror film Unwelcome and the latest Marvel spin-off Morbius, which must count as a mixed bag by anyone’s standards).

All this really only matters in terms of giving you an idea of what the experience of watching Lamb is like. I wouldn’t describe it as a horror film per se, although there is certainly some bloody violence before the end and an ominous atmosphere for much of proceedings. Perhaps there is a note of self-conscious pretension to it that some viewers may find rather disagreeable; it is one of those films where you get the sense that everything has been thought through thoroughly in advance. On the other hand, for a film which seems intended to be taken as some kind of fable rather than a naturalistic drama, exactly what it’s supposed to be about is not particularly obvious. It initially seems to be some sort of parable about human exploitation of the natural world, and the inevitable cruelty and disregard for other forms of life which is involved; this may still be the case, but the arrival of Haraldsson’s character in the second act (this is such a formally stylised film it even comes with its own chapter headings) rather clouds the issue. There is also an element of (surely intentional) ambiguity around the climax of the film.

As I have suggested, Lamb is one of those films which can’t help coming across as intentionally weird, perhaps even somewhat affectedly so. It’s also a bit on the slow side, perhaps relying on atmosphere to do the heavy lifting where many films would opt for more incident and plot development, but it doesn’t quite drag – the striking landscape of a remote area of Iceland helps a lot in this respect. And the performances are all quite effective: Rapace is the star name, and she is convincing in a tricky (to say the least) part, but the two men are also quite convincing. It goes without saying that the visual effects used to realise the more outlandish elements of the film are also excellent. In the end, though, this is primarily an arthouse movie rather than anything more conventionally entertaining; it’s the kind of film that requires thought, not to mention the viewer dealing with it on its own terms. If nothing else it is a well-made curiosity.

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Some movies acquire their own folklore as supposedly ‘cursed films’, beset by more than their fair share of accidents and problems. The most famous example is probably The Exorcist, doubtless because of its subject matter – one cast member died and various others suffered on-set accidents. Other films which infamously suffered production difficulties, up to and including injuries and deaths, include The Matrix Reloaded and (most recently) No Time to Die. (Though there’s a facetious case to be made that pretty much every big film over the last almost two years has cause to consider itself cursed.)

Slightly more abstractly, there’s an argument to be made that, for many years at least, the entire notion of doing a sequel to Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film Ghostbusters seemed to labour under some kind of baleful influence. The original film is terrific, let us be in no doubt on this point, but the direct sequel was notably poor, and the 2016 all-female reboot, whatever its merits or otherwise as a film, is likely to be best remembered for the incredibly toxic reception it received from some sections of the fanbase. Hostile early reviews for the latest attempt at a continuation, Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, suggested that a good Ghostbusters follow-up might simply not be possible.

Reitman the Younger’s movie opens with a bit of scene-setting spookiness out in America’s heartlands which is not, to be honest, a model of clarity when it comes to establishing exactly what’s going on, although anyone familiar with the 1984 film will be able to figure out some of the key details (how well versed you are in the original will probably have a direct bearing on how good a time you have with Afterlife). The obfuscation is mostly intentional, as a lot of the film is structured as a mystery anyway.

From here we are plunged into the lives of a struggling family whose only hope of getting out of their dire financial straits is the fact that mother Callie (Carrie Coon) has recently inherited a farm from her estranged father. Living there will entail relocating to Oklahoma, which does not fill the hearts of her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) with joy. (Phoebe is brilliant but socially awkward, while Trevor is in training to start work as a Timothee Chalamet impersonator.)

Nevertheless, off they all go to the sticks, to the small town of Summerville (one of the iron laws of cinema and TV is that whenever somewhere has a name incorporating the words Summer, Sunny, or Pleasant, it’s practically a guarantee that this is ironic and someone is in for a pretty grim time: see The Wicker Man, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pleasantville, Point Pleasant, etc). It duly turns out that the house and other buildings on the farm are filled with spooky old junk, up to and including backpack cyclotron proton generators and an ancient hearse with a rather odd colour-scheme.

Summerville is also afflicted with regular earth tremors, despite being nowhere near a seismically active zone, a fact which puzzles local seismologist and useless summer school teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) – his idea of occupying his students is to let them watch cheesy 1980s horror films (one of these is Cujo, which seemed to me to be an oblique acknowledgement of how much all the small-town Americana of the film is derived from Stephen King).

It transpires that the events of the 1984 film have become a cross between an urban legend and folklore, and Grooberson is savvy enough to recognise that some of the junk Phoebe and Trevor have discovered is equipment from the original Ghostbusters team. It transpires that their grandfather was indeed a Ghostbuster, and he relocated here, alienating his friends and family, because he believed the world still faced an even greater threat…

Some of the initial reviews of Ghostbusters: Afterlife were not afraid to put the boot in with what some might call excessive force: ‘a stinking corpse of a movie’ is one phrase which stuck in my memory. Well, fair enough: I can see why there are elements in this film which might alienate some viewers – the way its respect for the 1984 film sometimes seems to border on actual fetishization of it being perhaps the most obvious one. Props, costumes and throwaway gags are swooningly dwelt upon, and while it’s not unusual for the plot of a sequel to largely be a retread of the original, it is rare for this to happen quite as openly as happens here: there are most of the same monsters and villains, and some of the original sets and dialogue is revisited. If you’re the kind of person who feels that digitally resurrecting performers who have passed on breaches some kind of boundary of taste and decency, this is also a film which will give you pause.

I suppose you could also argue the film is chasing an audience in the way it apparently attempts to co-opt some of the style and atmosphere of the popular entertainment series Stranger Things (Finn Wolfhard apparently appears in this programme). My ability to comment on this is quite limited, as I am that person you may have heard of who has never seen Stranger Things (though from looking at its pop-cultural footprint I feel I have a pretty good idea of what it’s all about). Certainly the movie is less of a comedy than the original, and the emphasis is very much on the younger characters until the very end.

While it’s true the film gets off to a slow start and takes a while to find its groove (I was almost moved to hug Paul Rudd, figuratively speaking, when he eventually appeared – for he’s just a reliably entertaining screen presence), in the end I found it to be rather charming, occasionally very funny, and in a couple of places actually quite scary. The change of scene and introduction of the new group of younger leads, not to mention the way the film is structured, means it has a wholly different energy, atmosphere and tone to the 1984 film – although perhaps this is what makes the brazen recycling of plot elements more palatable. It certainly feels it’s working hard to establish itself as its own thing before it wheels on the ‘special appearances’ by most of the original cast.

In the end it’s the warmth and occasional poignancy of the film which really makes it work, and much of this is channelled through an extremely winning and impressive performance by Mckenna Grace. I was certainly filled by a rush of fondness for the original movie; Afterlife may fundamentally be fuelled by a mixture of sentimentality and nostalgia, but that can be a potent combination when it’s employed as effectively as it is here. It’s not in the same league as the original film, but a worthwhile addendum to it.

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