Set in conflict of the Iran-Iraq war, the young and educated Shideh living in war-frightened Tehran becomes forced to succumb to patriarchal dogma after participating in a revolution against Iran’s standing principals. Her husband’s conscription sends his medical experience to the battle front while she settles into her role as a stay at-home mother to their young daughter and despite pleas from her husband, the stubborn Shideh will not vacate her apartment building home even when the threat of an Iraqi attack is imminent. When a dud ballistic missile crashes into the apartment about them, nearly breaking through their ceiling, the fear of a sinister presence circulates amongst the tenants that drives them one-by-one from the building with the prospect of an Iraqi attack to further motivate as a logical decider. An unsuperstitious Shideh remains until her daughter’s imagery whims and unwavering fever begin to form a more terrorizing atmosphere that even has her questioning the shadowy company of evil.
Not many horror films scare nowadays. “Under the Shadow” is not one of those films. The debut feature film of writer-director Babak Anvari posses a rare commodity of grueling fear set inside an already tense backdrop of the 1980’s Iran-Iraqi war. Anvari, the Tehran born Iranian nationality who was engulfed religiously in the culture, borrowed and rendered his from his family’s stories of supernatural pre-Islamic demons whisking through the wind toward those swimming in sorrow and fear; those demons were also labeled djinns. As a child born in the 80’s, Anvari had to rely and family to obtain a sense of the anxious air suffocating those taut by potential missle strikes as well as political and social punitive measures going against the grain. The UK based independent production company, Wigwam Films, financed the BAFTA winner for an Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer as well as receiving other nomination nods in other categories, serving as one of young production company’s shining stars early in the tenure.
Wrought by the explosive squabbles of two sovereign nations and incepted with archaic folklore, Shideh’s bound and torn between reality and the prospect of superstition, a role dutifully played by another Iranian born, Narges Rashidi, whose family moved to Berlin and she studied acting, scoring a minor role in the motion picture adaptation of the science fiction television series, “Aeon Flux,” and in the 2009 comedy-horror “Must Love Death.” Rashidi courts Sheideh approvingly with sincere strife over how women serving beneath men in 1980’s Iran as well as struggling to overcome that internal conflict as the mirror image of herself, meaning her daughter, when a phantom prowler is afoot. Portraying Shideah’s daughter, Dorsa, and the frequent link between the Djinn’s world and her own is Avin Manshadi in her debut performance. Manshadi’s round cheeks and doughy eyes set upon a physique stilling lingering some ounces of baby fat has little range, but most creepy kids and in creepy kid horror films rarely do. Rashidi and Manshadi fend well for themselves as the sole two characters cornered by war and Shideh’s personal vendetta against her country, her husband, and even her daughter to prove she isn’t useless as the motif lets on. “Under the Shadow” rounds out with Bobby Naderi (“Bright”), Aram Ghasemy, Soussan Farroknia, Behi Djanati Atai, and Ray Haratian (“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”).
“Under the Shadow” finds itself in a subgenre nearly all it’s own as the variety of djinn-horror anemically pops up every so often as an unpopular and uncoiled viper, unlike the antagonist powerhouses of zombies and ghosts that’ve reigned supreme over the last two decades, and though Anvari’s film shares little with Robert Kurtzman’s demonic djinn of 1997’s “Wishmaster,” “Under the Shadow” has more in common with the late Tobe Hooper’s last film, entitled simply Djinn, before his death. Both are built on the substructure of an Arabic/Muslin mythology, set on an apartment building locale, and exhibit the malevolency side of the djinn, but Babak Anvari accomplishes a great feat on his very first attempt – a stiffly frightening air of a phenomenally harrowing horror story. Anvari patiently stacks blocks of tension, one on top of another, without a hint of quivering throughout the acts and what’s more astonishing is that all the acts deliver different notes prosed to detail that secures a simmering, shivering plot. To praise Anvari more, the young filmmaker leaves nothing to chance by closing with an open ending for the mind to assemble information and interpret the events; a classic directorial tool used by some of the greats.
Shuttering in the dark has never been so delectable with “Under the Shadow” inside a packed, limited edition Blu-ray from Second Sight Films. The LE runs with only 2000 copies sheathed inside a rigid slipcover with covert art by science fiction artist, Christopher Shy. Global horror aficionados will rejoice to learn that the UK BD disc is region free and presented in a widescreen, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, that’ll be available February 10th. Unfortunately, Second Sight Films provided a DVD-R Blu-ray screener so I’m unable to speak upon the video and audio aside from what’s already been stated. I will say the subtitles were accurate and timely paced. There were special features on the disc, including segmented interviews with director Babak Anvari, lead actress Narges Rashidi, producers Lucan Toh and Oliver Roskill, cinematographer Kit Fraser along with an audio commentary Babak Anvari and Jamie Graham and Anvari’s short film “Two and Two.” Press release also mentioned the release includes a soft cover book with new essays from Jon Towlson and Daniel Bird plus behind-the-scenes photos and concept illustrations and a poster featuring new artwork. “Under the Shadow” must be watched in the dark, alone, and with the volume up, maximizing the crawling chill down the spine and raising all the micro hairs on every square inch of skin.
Anna’s a senior at Little Haven high school whose not thinking about what University to attend after she graduates. Instead, Anna focuses on working all the time as a shoe counter girl at the local bowling alley to pay off a year’s worth of traveling despite her father’s wishes, even working through Christmas, but when a sudden zombie apocalypse derails her and the worlds’ plans, Anna’s friends and father are her first priority. With her father trapped at the high school, Anna and her closest friends must trek and battle through a horde of the undead from the bowling alley before striking out dead themselves. Despite social differences and teenage angst, they must dance and sing to put now frivolous juvenile issues aside and work together if to not become one of the living dead.
Timed just right from 2019’s Christmas holiday season is Second Sight Films’s two-disc set of “Anna and the Apocalypse,” a contagiously fun, well performed, and cheekily gory musical comedy-horror by the United Kingdom’s John McPhail directing a script written by Alan McDonald and the late Ryan McHnery, based off McHenry’s short student film “Zombie Musical.” As true to the marketing behind the film, “Anna and the Apocalypse” is certainly the “High School Musical” with teeth-gnashing, putrid-walking, and flesh hungry zombies. The Scottish bred production comes from Blazing Griffin Films, Parkhouse Productions, Constellation Creatives and Creative Scotland to flash mob dance and sing in chorus through the apocalyptic melee while figuring out their complicated adolescent troubles, such as what to do after graduation, turbulent romantic emotions, and being different and alone.
The ensemble cast is heftily made up of unknown talent beginning with, then 17 year old, Ella Hunt in her debut lead performance as the titular character. Hunt’s a fresh, young face with an astonishing amount of acting range with Anna whose defiant against the wishes of her father, but, deep down inside, still wholeheartedly cares for him as he’s her only parent left alive, and Hunt has natural poppin’ dance moves and pop-star vocals. In Anna’s core group of friends, Sarah Swire’s Steph North stands amongst them as the LGBTQ representative whose strongly portrayed as courageous, caring, and independent while her characterization at the beginning of the films focuses on downing her life to the pit of despair with parents, who Steph claims wants nothing to do with her, are on holiday in Mexico and her romantic partner won’t be spending the holiday with her. Swire’s choreographic and musician background, along with an edgy look, make her a perfect fit for Steph. There’s also Anna’s best friend, a boy named John, played by Malcolm Cummings in his first feature film. Cummings has to be the hapless friend zone boy that remains sidelined when trying to find the opportune time in expressing his true feelings for Anna, but finds himself the third wheel in a high school love triangle conscripted with Nick, a hot-to-trot prick and bully colorfully depicted by Ben Wiggins. Christopher Leveaux and Marli Siu are the gang’s love birds, Mark Benton is Anna’s custodian father, and “Game of Thrones'” Paul Kaye antagonizes with a power hungry assistant headmaster gone crazy!
Honesty, I wasn’t sure how “Anna and the Apocalypse” was going to work, or be successful, or be entertaining at all as a horror movie. Horror-musicals are a rare breed that come with a mind-boggling quantitative algorithm to make them truly work wonders and, somehow, John McPhail dusted off his abacus, powered up his TI calculator, and put note to pen to paper and delivered a holiday spectacular on a horror scale stage. The horror, though very prominent and unmistakable, takes a backseat to the powerful soundtrack by the ensemble cast, ranging from caricatured with Fish Wrap to the desolation of personal connectivity with Human Voice to a couple of Christmas satires to bring a little joy with the merry mayhem. The mayhem is absolute with all the trimmings of a zombie apocalypse, even right down to the military being the butt of a joke when they’re overrun by a slow-moving force, but while there’s some gore early on with a dead head decapitated by a see-saw and a pair of bowling balls pop the top of one alleyway corpse, the blood flows downward to a little more than a dribble and “Anna and the Apocalypse” cobbles together a mere mediocre zombie film from then on out.
Already seen a couple of standard releases from other distributors, Second Sight Films reserved “Anna and the Apocalypse” to the royal treatment with a special features heavy region B, two-disc Blu-ray set containing two versions of the film – the theatrical release cut and the extended version which will include a musical number that didn’t make the theatrical cut. The Arri Alexa SXT shot film is presented in 1080p and in the film’s original aspect ratio, a widescreen 2.37:1, with a featured ProRes 3.2k format that allows upscaling to UHD quality providing a high resolution output that’s clean and bright. The color palate has real vibrancy under the director of photography’s, Sara Deane, direction to use colorful outfits and neoned and darkened sets. Some scenes become a little choppy with some sloppy editing work, but as a whole, the story remains coherent. The English language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 vivaciously energizes the soundtrack with alternative pop numbers, harmonious melodies, and a synchronized chorus, but there are times the dialogue falls into a lossy grey area. A stereo 2.0 track is also available as well as optional English SDH subtitles. The Second Sights Films’ release is chock full of extras with disc one including an audio commentary with director John McPhail, writer Alan McDonald, composers Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, a behind-the-scenes featurette, an alternate opening scene, a deleted song “What Side Are You On?”, a deleted bathroom scene, the Hollywood Ending cast and crew lip dub, footage from the EdinBurgh Film Festival, and, of course outtakes. Disc two includes a brand new feature-length documentary with new interviews by the actors and filmmakers. Plus, the original short film – “Zombie Musical.” A definite definitive two-disc set from Second Sight Films goes hand-in-hand with “Anna and the Apocalypse’s” feel good charm and unruly undead charisma complete with catchy tunes and bloody zombie goons in a modern day holiday cult classic.
In the near future where assistive technology serves as the cultural way of life, a very manual Grey Trace still clings to being self-independent while his loving wife, Asha, laps up and embraces new and innovative tech. When an fatal shooting strikes down Asha and cripples Grey to an automated wheelchair, Grey is forced into a depressive world he no longer recognizes. Desperate to find his wife’s killers, he accepts experimental computer chip implant known as STEM to send the signals from his brain to his extremities; however, that is not all STEM can do. The smart technology can also scan, record, and reactive to all of Grey’s experiences, be a voice of knowledge, and enact super human abilities that will aid in Grey’s vengeance, but without much control over his own body, how much will Grey continue to use the smart device that becomes smarter every minute.
In a cinematic age when remakes, re-imaginings, and sequels really do rule supreme, a breath of innovation and compelling storytelling in Leigh Whannell’s 2018 science fiction, action-noir “Upgrade” is a technological advance that’s feels lightyears ahead in comparison. The “Saw” and “Insidious” writer, who indulges in all of horror’s gracious qualities, tackles the future with a synergetic and brutal vengeance film on indie-budget proportions; however, “Upgrade” feels no where near being low budget in a futuristic world that includes monochromatic self-driving cars, bio-weaponized forearms and hands, and a robotic protein shake slingers for those meal replacement pick-me-ups. With the assistance from Blumhouse Tilt, a Blumhouse production sublabel that seeks to release projects onto multi-platforms, Whannell gained freedom to script, in every sense of the world, his own vision of cyborg horror and crime thriller.
Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, an analog man living comfortably in a digital world. Trace is a dying bred as the technology ecosystem slowly creeps into all that earned by hard work, even in his small classic car restoration business. The “Prometheus” star tackles a unique physicality aspect of an action film that involves the robotic responses of hand-to-hand combat while also being the emotional punching bag of pelted heartache and turmoil. Portraying his character as a man’s man, Marshall-Green has to find humility in not only unable to self-serve himself as a cripple, but then also rely on the one thing he withdrew himself from for help….a machine. “Upgrade” primarily focuses on Trace to even having the camera affix to his character during fight sequences, but though most of the narrative is through Trace’s vindictive narrative, a cascading effect of his destruction brings one of his nemesis’s into reactive defense. Fisk, Benedict Hardie from the upcoming remake of “The Invisible Man” that’s also directed by Whannell, is a mysterious soldier of fortune whose backstory, that salivates at the tip of the tongue to be told, is only sampled at best with his cybernetic implants or why he was even chosen to be a deadly, robotic killing machine. Perhaps Fisk’s backstory, and those of his fellow veteran comrades, are another misrepresentation or the maltreatment of veterans by conglomerate, privately owned tech and weapon companies that lean more toward involuntary experimentation rather over anything else that’s an allegory of owning a person, a piece of property, as we also see with STEM attached to Grey Trace’s spinal cord. “Upgrade” rounds out with performances from Melanie Vallejo, Harrison Gilbertson (“Haunt”), Betty Gabriel (“Get Out”), Kai Bradley, and Simon Maiden as the voice of STEM.
Shot in urban Melbourne that’s quasi-reflective of the gritty streets of Chicago, Leigh Whannell aimed for a fatalistic mystery that breaks down relationship barriers and sustains a punitive jurisdiction of grime. Whannell surely achieves the desired affect that goes from a classy futuristic society to the bottom barrel of human existences that have been tainted by the dark side of tech including addiction and dangers of being fully aware as a sanctioned being. “Upgrade” capitalizes on every inch of its capital to enlarge the quality of a miniature budget and utilizes local talent, who, aside from Logan Marshall-Green, never wane from their unnatural American English accents, to offer heartfelt human performances despite their mechanical transitions. “Upgrade” isn’t “Robocop” or “Nemesis,” but rather more “Terminator” where organic and inorganic don’t exactly coincide to benefit as a single entity. Unlike the autonomous killing machine portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, “STEM” acts like a computer virus working off commands, coding, and complex algorithms to infiltrate and deploy executions to subverse the man over the machine and Whannell’s concept brilliantly contextualizes that dynamic without having too much exposition to divulge and is easily computed without having to be deciphered from binary code.
Coming November 18th is Second Sight Film’s limited edition Blu-ray release of “Upgrade” presented in full HD, 1080p, and clocks in at 100 minutes under a region B UK coding. Unfortunately, a screener disc was provided for review and so I will not be critiquing the video or audio quality at this time so this review is solely about the film only. A static menu including chapters were available on the disc as well as bonus features including a commentary by writer-director Leigh Whannell, a new Second Sights’ interview with the director about his envisioning and how it came to fruition, more new interviews with producer Kylie Du Fresne, cinematographer Stefan Duscio, editor Andy Canny, and fight choreographer Chris Weir. All the interviews showcase depth with the material to their respective roles and opinions about “Upgrade.” Don’t think it necessary to refer filmmaker Leigh Whannell as the “Saw” guy now that “Upgrade” has completely overshadowed the franchise in a single sitting entertained with action, gore, and a heart-rendering story. Surely to be Whannell’s break out film from the horror genre.
Peter coerces his begrudging wife, Marcia, to forgo the luxurious hotels and chauffeured holidays for a long weekend of camping on a remote beach in Australia. An enthusiastic Peter packs the jeep with thousands of dollars worth of outdoor gear, including a surf board, a spear gun, and a hunting rifle. Marcia loathes the outdoors, can’t stomach the very thought, and she lets Peter know her distaste of his plan every other second while on holiday. Yet, this trip for them isn’t just a routine getaway, but, instead, a trip to get away from the swinging friction of close and very intimate friends, to rekindle their relationship, and save what little is left at a frayed string. The already awkward and complaint-riddle holiday turns from bad to worse when nature looms a foreboding shadow over the estranged couple, unleashing one ill-fated omen to the next that checks their nonchalant attitude toward nature with eco-radical discipline.
“Long Weekend” is an eco-horror film by “Innocent Prey” director Colin Eggleston. Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps, birthed the horror subgenre with his 1963 film “The Birds” that led to such films as “Day of the Animals” and “Grizzly.” Nearly 15-years later, Eggleston hones in on his inner Hitchcock by expanding the background on why nature turns cold and unsettlingly supernatural like. Working off a powerfully detailed and haunting script by “Razorback’s” Everett De Roche that circles around two characters like a hungry vultures, Eggleston vitalizes De Roche’s script with a paper to screen bleak, unsettling imagery on a monumentally minimalistic scale. “Long Weekend” could be considered a Hitchcockian film, and most likely is, but can stand firmly by itself as an extension on how mother nature can be a bitch when push comes to shove.
Two characters and the wilderness. That’s all “Long Weekend” boils down to on brass tacks, leaving two actors on the line to act off each other and off of the ominous presence that has fully engulfed them on an isolated stretch of beach and shoreside forestry. “The One Angry Shot’s” John Hargreaves tackles the conceited Peter with a full-bodied combination of heedless gusto and desperation that Hargreaves can seamlessly become lost in Peter’s self-worth. The Sydney born actor is paired with an English actress by way of Briony Behets from the 1980 film “Stage Fright,” a film also co-written by Colin Eggleston. Behets’ Marcia epitomizes the stereotypical enigma that men all think is the inner workings of a woman’s brain; Marcia is hot and cold with fleeting moments of passion for Peter, yet ready to kill him in the next scene. Behets converts the baffling intertwinement of Marica’s energy and channels it well into the dynamic that is their failing marriage.
What’s really special about Eggleston and De Roche’s film is the overloading symbolism. From subtle to simple, “Long Weekend” has the money betted on working on an underlying moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene in each act; a method tirelessly schlepped through with many modern features of today. Using non-threatening animals, such as a small possum and a sea cow or dugong, to be part of a menacing force driving the ominous presence across the narrative just sets the feng shui mindset of an unadulterated evil genius. Instead relying heavily on a physical entity, Eggleston heavily coincides creature imagery with the use of audible creature cues, whether a baby-like wail in the distance or the overpowering cacophony of animal growls and sneers, to invoke panic, fear, and paranoia to divide the already fragile pair into an atomic disaster of their undoing. “Long Weekend” will overshoot some viewers as piecing the puzzle together can be a slow and long process, but one aspect is certain, the off-camera animalistic stare has a powerful affect.
Second Sight delivers the ozploitation classic, “Long Weekend,” onto Blu-ray home video for the first time in the UK this November. Unfortunately, a review DVD-R disc was provided for this critique and audio and visuals components will not be covered. Bonus material was included on the review disc with audio commentary with executive product Richard Brennan and Cinematographer Vincent Monton, an Umbrella Entertainment produced panel discussion with film historians Lee Gambin, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Emma Westwood, and Sally Christie, Uncut “Not Quite Hollywood” interviews with Briony Behets, Vincent Monton, and Everett De Rocha, an extensive still gallery with an John Hargreaves audio interview, and original theatrical trailer. “Long weekend” is man versus nature at it’s best with sheer, unrivaled terror in a quaint eco-horror thriller package with a powerful message that nature will seek extreme judgement against Mother Earth criminals.
A father mysteriously goes missing when visiting aliens violently abduct him from his serene cottage home. Thought to be a deadbeat husband and father for abandoning his family, the man returns three years later at the doorstep of his wife’s London flat. A bewildered and conflicted wife struggles with his return while the live-in boyfriend makes it clear that he wants the man out, shelling out a vicious cold shoulder whenever in the same room, but the returned father seeks to resume his patriarchal position amongst his family; however, he’s not exactly the same person he used to be as he garnishes an exterior shell of a human and the interior of a hostile extraterrestrial with ulterior motives. His return has nightmarish affects on his traumatized son whose becoming a device of deviancy at the hand of his father’s otherworldly influence, issuing carnivelesque ill will toward other flat tenants. By the time the boyfriend suspects something, the not-so-friendly alien might have already established the intended invasion into a family so eager and willing to accept their sorely absent loved one.
Perhaps one of the most out of this world science fiction horror films ever made that’s set on Earth, “Xtro” is the Don Coscarelli-like bizarre horror film from British filmmaker Harry Bromley Davenport. Co-written the story with Michael Parry (“The Uncanny”), Davenport’s blended American and British financed 1982 unsettling venture was penned by Iain Cassie (assistant director on “Schizo”) and Robert Smith. Honestly, no other film comes within a comparison zone of “Xtro’s” sheer creativity that doesn’t just redesign the genre or it’s tropes, but, rather, embraces a new kind of fragmented oddity by telling an uncomfortable story consisting with the graphic birth of a full grown adult, the flesh crawling sensation of an adult man bending down to child level to drink from the bare skin of a child’s shoulder, and the exhibition of the dark pageantry of humor underlined death. Over an umbrella of horror shades metaphorically a fairly common family crisis baseline premise of an inattentive father’s return home to try to reinstate himself with conflicted wife and eager son only to, once again and concretely, destroy them internally.
Philip Sayer sets foot into the duplicitous titular space invader. The trained veteran actor had experience from the stage that translated to what could be considered performance art in “Xtro” to embodied a creature on the inside to his humanity on the out. Sayer costars alongside an unseasoned child actor, Simon Nash, as the young Tony and the pair make a inharmonious father and son with cankerous performances by Nash who doesn’t exactly fit, when considering accent and even appearances, his portrayed parents. Bernice Stegers is the other half of Tony’s folks and the “Macabre” star does a phenomenal job as the stiffly conflicted mother and wife Rachel Phillips, straining toward more what’s best for her love life rather than to the care of her son. The live-in boyfriend Joe, portrayed by Danny Brainin, limps by as a fairly useless character who doesn’t contribute either way to a conclusion. Other than providing a minor tether to Rachel Phillips life to normalcy, Joe can’t swallow his emotions and the best the character can offer is to abandoned his girl and son, another frail male in their life. Brainin’s performance is good for the character’s weak minded attitude. The cast rounds out with Maryam d’Abo (who goes onto to be a bond girl in “The Living Daylights”), Peter Mandell, and Anna Wing.
Though thought provoking and wildly entertaining through soul rattling imagery, “Xtro” is by far from a perfect film. Sure, the Tom Harris special effects pull at innard chords you may never knew you garnished and certain scenes would be the subject of mysterious gif images in the dark corners the internet that proclaimed creatures do live unknown amongst us, but the British science fiction horror film, a video nasty of the time, just might have been too absurd in the nonconformist form that struck unpopular opinions with audiences and critics because the villain wasn’t necessarily tangible and wielded a blood stained machete and more so involved obscure telepathic references that were non-explicit. There’s literally no connective tissue which makes this film so beyond the mind’s grasp. “Xtro’s” niche saw non-homaging aspects, but had familiar flavors such as a bit of Peter Jackson humor, a dry slapstick that’s hard to enjoy, but fascinating to take in at the same time. That’s the whole idea behind “Xtro” was to create an off-structured horror film that pushed the limits while not just replicating other great horror movies.
New Line Cinema’s “Xtro” is coming to a limited edition Blu-ray set from UK distributor Second Sight. The newly restored extended presentation of the transfer will also have option alternate ending plus will also be accompanied with the original video version. Unfortunately, a screener disc was provided for this particular review and comments about the image and audio presentations will not be commented on. The disc did include extras such as a brand spanking new 57-minute documentary that included new interviews with Harry Bromley-Davenport, Mark Forstater (producer), Bernice Stegers, Susie Silvey, Tim Dry (Tik), Sean Crawford (Tok), Robert Pereno, Alan Jones and Craig Lapper. Also included is a new featurette with Dennis Atherton, Harry Bromley-Davenport and Mark Forstater, ‘Beyond Xtro’ – a new featurette with Harry Bromley-Davenport and Mark Forstater looking ahead to new reboot, ‘Xtro – The Big One’, including exclusive test footage, ‘Loving The Alien: A Tribute to Philip Sayer’ featuring exclusive Brian May music tribute, and ‘Xtro Xposed’ archive interview with Harry Bromley-Davenport. A venturous Robert Shaye at New Line Cinema wanted to match wits with his own one-two punch version of a video nasty. The result was an out of body experience alien feature with unapologetic tastes and unafraid wills to push the shock market limits. “Xtro” might be one of the billions of stars in the film archive, but at least it’s one of a kind.