EVIL in the Family Tree Makes for a Terrifying “Reunion” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Recently separated from her philandering fiancé, a pregnant Ellie moves in with her estranged mother, Ivy, whose staying at Ellie’s recently-deceased grandparents family home and packing up home furnishings to put the house on the market.  Strained with going through a pregnancy alone and tirelessly working on her theoretic book of modern medicine deriving from the roots of barbaric magic and medieval practices, Ivy pledges to take care of her while providing space to let Ellie continue research work, but the house lends to the painful memories long thought suppressed in Ellie’s mind, manifesting visions of her adopted sister, Cara, who died suddenly in house when they were children.  As the visions become more prominent, stronger, and real, Ellie questions her remorseful memories and her mother’s recollection of events that sheds light on her family’s horrendous secret of anatomical science.

From the start, the realization that Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” isn’t going to be a happy one comes as soon as Ellie crosses the threshold into her late grandparents’ home and is immediately swathed with a blanket of unsettling ambiance.  The “Wellness” and “Free the Deed” McHaffy writes-and-directs his third film with a steadfast sense of dread in the New Zealand mystery-thriller that tackles human inbred themes of long suffering guilt, prenatal anxiety, and the role of an estranged family during a time of need.  McHaffy compounds layered fears by compositing them with the confines of an old dark and creaky house witness to all the past secrets.  “Reunion” is a production from a conglomerate of New Zealand and U.S. companies that embark on independent filmmaking endeavors by Greyshack Films, the strong female character supporting Miss Conception Films, Overactive Imagination, and Water’s End Films in association with New Zealand Film Commission, MPI Media Group, and Department of Post.

“Reunion” obviously isn’t going to be your typical relative gathering shindig with your bad joke-telling uncle wisecracking over his 10th Miller Lite or a nose picking brat of a cousin cheating at horseshoes near the pit; instead, “Reunion” a tightknit cast playing the roles of mother, father, daughter, and adopted daughter drawn together not by the sake of longing for bloodline companionship but by necessity and circumstance and imploding by the unfun games of revelations hidden inside the closest deepest and darkest of descendants. “Witches of East End” stars Julia Ormond in a nearly unrecognizable far cry of her more glamourous bewitching role in Joanna Beauchamp on the FOX produced Lifetime Television series. The English actress, who hails from Surrey, assumes the matriarchal presence of a helicopter mother overextending herself beyond the limits of her control in order to seize some kind of power she once had living in the archaic house. Ormond bounces off mother-daughter indignities with her sole child, Ellie, played by Emma Draper in her first feature lead performance. Thick tension between them causes reserved friction Ormond and Draper do well to nurture throughout while a stammering posture by “Lord of the Rings” actor John Bach as the wheelchair bound infirmed father adds a whole new layer of irregular rigidity to Ellie’s nerves and to Ivy’s patience. Aside from being blood related, father, mother, and daughter also have another thing in common – present in the moment of the death of Cara (Ava Keane). Peeling back each emotion output struggles, in a good way, to grasp the character mindset made murky by uncontrollable shaking and crying, sneaking and conniving, lies and deceits, and the disillusioned rambles that vortex around the house without pure clarity. “Reunion” rounds out the cast with Nancy Brunning, Cohen Holloway, and Gina Laverty as young Ellie.

Jake McHaffy’s “Reunion” has the hairs on the back of your neck standing from beginning to end with prolonged foreboding leading up to a shocking finale.  Between the manic and enigmatic performances from Julia Ormond and Emma Draper, a chance to rekindle the past feels like a distant thought and a lost cause being blockaded by the past’s poignant trauma they share.  McHaffy isn’t hesitant about revealing a stymieing history with flashes of image splices and flashbacks cut with an antiquated VHS-style playback producing a statically charged visual incumbrance.  The stress and strain burden’s Ellie’s pregnancy, dam breaking flood of memories, her research into the occult, and the surrounding chaotic state of the house contributes to teetering mental stability creating a visceral unintelligible and augmented reality that is too real for Ellie to keep an authentic perspective and the longer she stays and the more she’s immerse into Ivy’s poisonous maternal supremacy, only fabricating a new and scary world can Ellie dig herself out of her family’s troubling past.  There’s much going on in McHaffy’s story to be bog down fully understanding what you’re seeing and trying to piece together the puzzle is nearly impossible – I, frankly, still don’t understand much of it – but the beleaguered attention of beguiling imagery and that overwhelmingly wild ending entrusts “Reunion’s” place in psychological terror. 

Modern gothic has never looked this good as “Reunion” rises to be a stalwart of horror. 101 Films and MPI Media Group has released “Reunion” digitally this month of March, one year after the start of the pandemic that has kept families away from each other and when eases of restrictions set in that’ll shorten the gap between estranged loved ones that becomes a distressing reunion in itself. Quite a masterful brush stroke from director of photography Adam Luxton building the house into the frame and framework of the story, which goes hand-and-hand with a house that’s deemed a toxic surrounding symbolized by the black sludge that drips out of the sink and into Ellie, as well as crossing video outputs and weaving them in as well. Luxton’s imagery has formulation maturity that combines hard and soft lighting, blurring, a range of depth shots, delineated night scenes, and the capitalization of utilizing the clutter of boxes and knickknacks to tell an eclectic visual odyssey culminating toward an all-consuming finale. The 95 minute runtime film is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio with no bonus scenes during or after the credits. “Reunion” creeps unsuspectingly into the skin, eyes, and soul as a metastasizing slow growth of appalling family drama.

All Hail the EVIL Slumbering One! “Sacrifice” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Years after being quickly whisked away to America as a small child from his remote Norwegian island birthplace, Isaac returns nearly 30-years later with his new, pregnant wife, Emma, after the death of his mother leaves the empty family home in his inheritance.  With their heart set on fixing up and selling the house before the birth of their child, Isaac and Emma learn that marketing the seaside and scenic estate comes with a tragic past when the local sheriff discloses the brutal murder of Isaac’s father inside the home.  The dreadful information and the bizarre locals with their customary traditions doesn’t alarm Isaac who, instead, feels a strong connection and is drawn to staying whereas Emma, plagued by terrifying nightmares ever since stepping onto the island, is eager to sell and return to American as soon as possible, fleeing a community that worships an aquatic deity beneath the water’s surface.   

Based off dark fantasy and science fiction writer Paul Kane’s short story, “Men of the Cloth,” found in the author’s “The Colour of Madness” collective works, “Sacrifice” is an alienating folklore horror bound by the influence of a Lovecraftian core under the direction of a filmmaking due in Andy Collier and Toor Mian.  As their sophomore film as collaborating directors, following their 2017 psychological cop horror “Charismata,” Collier and Mian tackle Kane’s short story head-on by changing only a few details, such as location, family structure, and the title from formally known as Kane’s “The Colour of Madness” to “Sacrifice”, but keep rooted the foremost principles of “Men of the Cloth’s” cultish discomfort that’s greatly inspired with the otherworldly sensation of an amiss atmosphere akin to Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man.”  Filmed around the idyllic and mountain enclosed shore town of Bjørk, Norway and in the town of Volda, Norway, the 2020 film seeks to plop strangers into a strange land as a production of the London-based companies, Loose Canon Films and Hydra Films RKM, in association with Dread.

Over two years ago was the last time we reviewed a Barbara Crampton movie with “Death House,” that included a plethoric cast of her all-star genre brethren with Kane Hodder, Bill Moseley, Dee Wallace, and others, and, now, Crampton makes her glorious return to the Lovecraftian turf that nostalgically brings most of us horror fans back to the New York-born actress’s “From Beyond” and “Re-Animator” days.  “Sacrifice’s” Cthulhu spirit finds Crampton playing a small town Norwegian sheriff, Renate Lygard, in which Crampton, under the training of a dialect coach, surprises us with a fair Norway accent as she provides a quasi-warm hospitality set of manners upon island outliers in Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) and Emma (Sophie Stevens) Pinkman. Hughes and Stevens nudge their way into a solid man-and-wife, but their dynamic density becomes crispy at times and pale from their initial arrival soon after rustling with the natives. The lack of vitality doesn’t stem from the wedge being driven between from the lure of Isaac being called by the natural phenomena of the Northern Lights, the drunken friendly benevolence of Gunnar (Lucas Loughran) and Ledvor (Jack Kristiansen), and the full frontal skinny dipping of Renate’s beautiful daughter, Astrid, an eye-opening film introduction from Johanna Adde Dahl; instead, the Pinkman’s bond held together about as tight as using kindergarten grade craft glue that bled into the performances as well that came off stiff and unnatural. Aside from Hughes and Stevens hailing from the United Kingdom and Crampton from the U.S., the remaining cast was curtailed to Norway nationals, as such with Loughran and Kristiansen, rounding out the cast with Erik Lundan, Dag Soerlie, and Ingeborg Mork Håskjold.

“Sacrifice’s” cult mania lays on a thick coating of grass roots that really set the tone for an foreboding outcome.  An idyllic Norway fishing village propped between the eclipsing mountain range and marine inlet intrinsically obscures an already unspoken secret that’s only been rendered on the faces and actions of the residents.  At the center of village’s idiosyncrasies are the two hapless protagonists venturing into unknown territory with only an inherited house in their back pocket and a vague sense of youthful recollection; this sets up for an obvious antagonism theme of locals with a sense of xenophobic nationalism, especially against two Americans.  The initial friction opens the flood gates for cultural customaries to be weaponized against Isaac, who wants to strongly embrace his heritage, and Emma, who can’t seem to grasp the village’s peculiar beliefs and even goes as far as being naïve of and mocking the village’s traditions and deity.  The tension is compounded by the ominous presence of the labeled slumbering one, sleeping beneath the glossy surface of the inlet waves, but conjuring up tangible and intense nightmares that plague the every island inhabitant, a mystery Emma can’t explain, won’t entertain, and ignores exploring that turns Emma floundering more into Isaac’s sudden disinterest in her albeit soon-to-be-parents.  “Sacrifice’s” climatic, tell all scene harbors more secrets regarding Isaac and Emma’s purpose on the island that are to be interpreted by the audience, but don’t connect back to any string along clues leading up to a poignant and sharply-shocking ending.  Instead, “Sacrifice” acutely wraps up not only the story but also the characters like a paper wrapped fish at the fish market ready for sale without any huff about where, why, and how that particular bug-eyed fish became the gutted victim of man’s delicacy.

“Sacrifice” shores folklore horror swelled with Lovecraftian roots and is docking digitally today, March 15th, in the UK courtesy of 101 Films. The film has a runtime of 87 minutes and is presented in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio, shot on a Sony CineAlta Venice camera. Co-director Andy Collier tackles his first credit director of photography gig with interesting shots looking up through all different angles and vessels that hold water. Whether boiling eggs, taking a bath, or in small cove, Collier, and Mian, put eyes on the bottom surface, promoting all varieties of water within it a lurking presence and the imagery is done extremely well with depth and space to pull off the illusion. A fair amount of soft lighting, moments of bright primary color glow, and the specs of well-placed lighting to barely illuminate a scene is broodingly worthwhile. Tom Linden’s original score is fiercely compliment as a folklore staple, harsh-chord intensity that lingers well after the boiling blood levels drop to a mere tentacle dwelling simmer. There were no extra features or bonus scenes included with the digital screener. While the build up didn’t pay off at the bloody end, the two-tone terror of “Sacrifice” wrecks the nerves and frays warm pleasantries with wicked wallowing, slumbering, nearby in the shallows.

When EVIL Strikes a Family Hard is When Fission Divides and Conquers. “Nuclear” reviewed! (101 Films / Digital Screener)

Emma witnesses her troubled brother violently beating their mother while dragging her through the woods.  After he leaves, Emma and her injured mother escape to the countryside, driving through the night until coming upon a village house, next to what was once a large power plant that now sits vacant, to squat for a few days.  Emma comes into an encounter with a local boy a little older than herself with a free spirit for illegal extreme sports and taking dangerous risks to new heights.  What was intended to be an isolating refuge has turned into an alluring interest for Emma who admires the boy’s nomadic lifestyle, but while her mother’s physical injuries heal, a lingering trauma begins to emerge and Emma’s violent brother is also hot on their trail seeking them out.

Lately, our reviews have been on a stretch of psychological thrillers by first time feature film directors expressing a compelling narrative in the worst of situations; we’ve tackled the unhealthy family relations while battling acute mental illness with Joe Marcantonio’s “Kindred” and have taken a step back in time into the Cold War era with isolation tension and uncontrollable violent outbursts in the “Darkness in Apartment 45,” directed by Nicole Groton.  Well, we’re going for the hat trick with Catherine Linstrum debuting her written and directed psychological drama, “Nuclear,” that deals with the fallout of an estranged, threadbare family under the looming shadow of a defunct nuclear power plant, upending a whole new meaning for the term nuclear family.  Co-written with longtime collaborator, David-John Newman. “Nuclear” is a radiating co-production funded by the British Film Institute, Fields Park Media, and Ffilm Cymru Wales, and Great Point Media with Stella Nwimo serving as producer and Paul Higgins as executive producer.

Much of the narrative hinges on Emma, “Locke & Key’s” Emilia Jones, as a 14-year daughter at the center of her brother’s terrible misdeed that sparks a flight of escape to the country and then befriends an eccentric boy who pulls her toward a more grounded frame of mind despite his extreme antics.  The boy, charmingly played by “1917’s” George MacKay, is exactly the distraction Emilia needed while sheltering in refuge. MacKay boyish good looks accentuates his character’s overweening attitude that renders a thin layer of mysteriousness about him as the boy,, and when I say boy I mean young man not much older than Emilia, lives out of his van near the power plant and does backflips on a stone bridge. With such a small cast, one would assume the boy would have interactions with Emilia’s mother or brother, but that’s not the case as the film purposefully uses evasive maneuvers intended not to mingle the boy with Emilia’s mother, played by another Resident Evil Jill Valentine actress (see review of “Darkness in Apartment 45”) Sienna Guillory, and brother Oliver Coopersmith (“It’s Alive” remake), who are weaved into different stages of Emilia’s cerebral reactions to events that unfold unexpectedly. Floating through the story, like a supernatural Japanese house wife, is Noriko Sakura who, much like most of the other characters, plays that is unidentified, but Sakura’s wraithlike presence attaches itself to Emilia’s mother as a telltale sign that something isn’t quite right with the mother’s mental state.

“Nuclear,” in regards to the term, can be interpreted and dissected on many levels within the film; two possible, and perhaps the more obvious, espies are a nuclear family (as a pun on the phrase that denotes nuclear fission) that goes through a chain reaction of dependent events after a horrible event and the other would be the blatant power plant sitting idle and empty in the background, a symbol of a ruin that once harnessed power and gave energy to all and an allegory to this young teenager Emilia’s handling of the crime committed against her one and only protector- her mother. “Nuclear” is very much a young girl coming of age film that strikes chords of self-reliance and free choice while also strumming to disconnect from her parents and family, but she must face them first in order to really let go of the past. But does Catherine Lindstrum pull all the elements together? Lindstrum’s brain-teasing drama will ultimately confuse the general masses. Hell, “Nuclear” even confuses me by not sewing the last threads to connect the stitches of hecatomb effects as the principles players somber through an inexplicit tapestry that’s not clear, present, and often feels distant. The end result does evoke a sense of a coming of age story, but how that adolescent scores through tribulation is about opaque as murky water.

 

“Nuclear” is a twisting cerebral topography tale comprised of seasoned actors and promising young talent from the United Kingdom being distributed courtesy 101 Films, releasing digitally November 9th. Behind the camera is French cinematographer Crystel Fournier with a harsh realism that delivers a natural, but bleak tone full of shadows and gray contrast. Fournier captures and differentiates Emma’s solitude and isolation, especially when she, inadvertently, searches for answers through the motif of faith centric crosses and messages that surround her in and out of the cottage. Stephen McKeon’s score compliments Fournier’s atmo-melancholic with beautiful synth piano and Celtic akin violin compositions. There were no bonus features included with this digital screener and there were no bonus scenes during or after the credits. Don’t expect a mushroom cloud of edge-of-your-seat drama and psychological torment, “Nuclear” is the breadth of anticipation of the Cold War, never knowing what, when, and where to expect the bomb to drop in Catherine Linstrum’s debuting quandary.

Dark. Alone. Evil, Deformed Children. “Confined” review!

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Julia Streak begins a nightshift security position at a grand and abandoned apartment complex in the city. The job is her last chance to prove that she can take care of her daughter, Clara, after a bout with a psychotic illness. Paired up with Cooper, a wheelchair bound antisocial security guard whose been overseeing the estate since the beginning, Streak and Cooper begin their first shift on the job together in the dark and elaborately minacious building. When Streak discovers and opens up a mysterious locked door that leads to a subterranean maze of disheveled and vacant rooms void of security cameras. What Streak discovers will force her to battle with her own inner demons and struggle with a maddening presence that truly terrifies her.

“Confined,” the UK title of the American 2015 film, “The Abandoned,” is the debut directorial of NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate Eytan Rockaway and penned by Ido Fluk. The cast is blend of well-known veteran actors with lesser-knowns who’ve been in the industry for a number of years. “The Lost Boys” and “Sleepers” star Jason Patric co-headlines as the crippled Cooper and he stars alongside Louisa Krause, an actress observed more frequently in independent features, as the disturbed and desperate Julia Streak. Then there is low and raspy voiced actor Mark Margolis, better known for his Emmy nominated role in “Breaking Bad” or, as I remember him from, as the merciless landlord from the first “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” film. Margolis dons an excellent creepy homeless man looking for a place to crash during a deathly cold and rainy night. To round out the cast is the authoritative appearance of Ezra Knight, whose seen more video game and television show work than his share of feature films.
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Rockaway’s directing style works mediocrely with the story’s threatening nature, establishing a catacomb-like surrounding in Julia Streak’s discovery during “Confined’s” second act, but compared to the setup of characters in the beginning, Rockaway has an inconsistency. Rockaway flourishes better with his use of angles, his ability to frame medium and close up shots, and his eye for soft color tones, that when all combined, setup for an effective foreboding mood. The second act takes a on another role that diminishes the first act’s sheer mysticism and menacing structures of the Julia character and her motivation for this newfound position as a security guard. Even though the darker scenes add fear to any horror movie, the darker scenes in this particular semi-supernatural feature are a technical mishap that become more of a hinderance to the story than being a horrific bonus.
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The story doesn’t exactly come through in the end either. The Fluk and Rockaway rendition of one woman’s disturbing breakthrough attempts to enter the challenging and conflicted mind of a person dealing with real and hidden demons, but falls annoyingly flat, not really delivering that “ah ha” moment or twist at the end. An experiment wash came over the last fifteen minutes or so when Cooper and Streak are in the dreadful basement, fighting off the presence in the old upscale apartment complex. The U.S. title, “The Abandoned,” fits more appropriately to the story than does “Confined” as abandoned is a double, if not triple, entrendre with the apartment building being abandoned, the abandonment with the basement presences, and with Streaks own issue with abandonment. Confined is far from being a terrible title, as I do believe confined has it’s own underlining meanings in the film, but just not as provocative.

By far, Jason Patric’s character, Cooper, adds a little liveliness to the feature. I’ve never experienced Patric’s ability to be on the level of cold and sarcastic. Truly a treat up until the story’s momentum changes that focuses more on Streak. Louisa Krause didn’t transcend enough belief in Julia Streak. I thought her performance was overly stale and her character was also poorly written to the point where I thought Julia Streak should have characterized as a 13-year-old girl. Streak is suppose to be a strong, feminine character and that does come through at certain points, even if those points during the film seem pointless, unnatural, and meaningless. Yet, Streak, for a kick boxer and as a mother fighting for her daughter, is fairly weak, whimpering at times during peril. She also doesn’t follow the job’s guidelines, showing that the job she needs to be there for her daughter is not necessarily important enough to keep.
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“Confined” is a release of the UK distributed 101 Films and was produced by the rather young production company C Plus Pictures here in the States. 101 Films graciously provided me with an online screener, so I can’t comment on the bonus features or the audio or video quality. “Confined” has its own demons in the form of plot holes and some unfinished revisions, but has more life by means of the more experienced actors in Patric and Margolis. Check out the atmospheric “Confined” for yourself and maybe your interpretation would be more open minded than my confined outlook that abandoned all hope near the finale for this feature.