SHANDA’S RIVER (2018) BY MARCO ROSSON

Reviews

Director: Marco Rosson
Writer: Nicola Pizzi
Year: 2018
Starring: Marcella Braga, Claudia Marasca, Margherita Remotti, Diego Runco

Synopsis:
A professor, Emma, travels to the small Italian town of Voghera, in order to study the story of the witch Shanda killed in the 16th century. Soon after arriving however Emma finds herself trapped in a nightmare where she forced to relive the same day, the day of her death, over and over again.

Review:
SHANDA’S RIVER opens in the 16th Century, as a terrified woman is pursued and strangled in the woods and the quality immediately struck me as being much better than I had expected.

This sequence over and we jump to the modern day as Emma, a history professor writing a piece on women who were sacrificed in inquisitions style hunts, arrives into the small town of Voghera in order to meet a tour guide named Julia.

Visually the film does not take long to start incorporating historical flashbacks into action, hinting at perhaps some occult ritual sacrifice or injustice, almost as if Emma is remembering a past life. To further add to this, as viewers, we learn that these scenes are tied to the river in which the tour is to incorporate but Emma is not the only one interested in the areas history.

Daniel, a Croatian Investigative Reporter, has paid his way onto the tour at the last minute and appears to have in mind a story about contemporary ritual killings somehow being linked to the site. These sorts of hunches never really work out well do they.

On the way to the tour we get given the Shanda backstory, but soon out in the rural countryside things appear to go wrong as the car breaks down and some hooded assailants appear and our tour participants find themselves waking up tied to a tree – here things start to go a bit WRONG TURN or at least they appear to start to. For writer Nicola Pizzi clearly had other ideas as he deviates from the normal taking things into time-loop territory along the lines of FINAL DESTINATION (stay with me), GROUNDHOG DAY and perhaps more recently and relevant HAPPY DEATH DAY – with this twist marking something quite different than the occult mystery or slasher that I had expected from the trailer.

As you can tell from these cinematic references there is an element of premonition and repetition that comes into play, and for our lead character Emma, hell certainly is repetition. However every time her day restarts she learns a little more, but with this gain in knowledge she appears to be losing a little bit of her sanity as she begins to question are any real consequences when the end result is the same, much like Francesco in DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, leading to a realisation and choice of what to do in order to free herself from this curse of simultaneously not being able to die yet being condemned to be killed over and over again.

Director Marco Rosson is smart in how he portrays this, and although he has plenty of opportunity to show blood and violence, he does not over indulge and that is to the benefit of the film as it allows the narrative to maintain a strong narrative flow rather than becoming reduced and stifled by constant bloodshed that adds no value to the film.

Smartly written and cleverly constructed, SHANDA’S RIVER shows great maturity by the filmmakers and a sense of intelligence that is not often displayed (or rather successfully conveyed) in these types of productions. It would not surprise me if the film was picked up for a bigger budget remake (and on a personal note a new title for marketing) giving it the resources it deserves.

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Now let me clarify the film looks very nice, and it is terrifically edited but there are a few moments that show its independent status. Although inconsequential in the grander scheme of things viewers will notice a few audio level issues (most notable in some dialogue scenes) and a few cinematography issues which have very little to do with the skill level of the crew but are common amongst all films of lower budgets.

SHANDA’S RIVER was a very different film than I had expected and all the better for it. A clever, intriguing plot that manages to seamlessly incorporate genuine tension, scares and intrigue; however I am still baffled by the animal magnetism that journalist Daniel appears to possess. That remains the unsolved mystery.

Version reviewed: 

I watched an online screener with English audio. SHANDA’S RIVER was released on Friday 16th March 2018 on blu-ray and DVD and can be ordered from the European Cine Museum store and other online outlets.

THE MAN WITH MY NAME (2017) BY SIMON O’NEILL

Reviews

AKA: L’uomo con il mio nome
Director:  Simon O’Neill
Writer: Simon O’Neill
Year: 2017
Starring: Simon O’Neill, Ruggero Deodato, Luigi Cozzi, Catriona MacColl

Synopsis:
Irish writer/director Simon O’Neill investigates the career of the only Simon O’Neill more popular than him on the IMDB – who just so happens to be the Italian scriptwriter Giovanni Simonelli.

Review:
After a brief introduction on who he is (he’s Simon O’Neill) and who the other Simon O’Neil’s are on IMDB we get started with a whistle-stop tour of some of the career highlights from Italian scriptwriter Giovanni Simonelli aka Simon O’Neill.

This straightforward opening sets out the premise quite clearly, instantly drawing loose comparisons to the British TV series ‘ARE YOU DAVE GORMAN?’, but although THE MAN WITH MY NAME is centred around this novel concept it is certainly not limited to it.

With the purpose of this documentary now explained we take to the road in a bid to hunt down more information on Simonelli, beginning in the most unlikely of places – Luton!

Here Simon meets a talkative Ruggero Deodato and they discuss not only the translation of an Irish name but also the use of pseudonyms in the Italian industry during the sixties and seventies. This is an area we all know a bit about but in my opinion is never discussed enough, and so it is a pleasant surprise that this topic forms a significant part of the documentary as Catriona MacColl, Luigi Cozzi and (archive footage of) Antonio Margheriti, a frequent collaborator of Giovanni Simonelli, all go on to discuss the necessity of changing one’s name in order to boost the chances of success, be it with English-speaking audiences or even Italian.

On an unrelated note, one thing that does come across during the discussion with Luigi Cozzi, is how alive he becomes when talking about film and the industry. As always he is captivating and so easy to listen to, cementing his place as one of the sweetest guys in horror and sci-fi.

Back to the documentary and at this point it is in danger of being sidetracked away from the actual premise but through a Simonelli related story, Cozzi brings things full circle and we are back on track.

Lead first by some archive footage of the man himself, the late Giovanni Simonelli, we are soon joined by his son who seems genuinely surprised and curious that a random Irish man was making a short film about his father.

Although clearly shot on a very low budget, THE MAN WITH MY NAME works not just on an endearing labour of love level but because, no doubt thanks to Simon O’Neill’s professional experience, it provides a tightly edited and terrifically structured look at both an unsung member of the Italian b-movie scene and also the nuances of working in the fringes of Italian cinema as the brief running time touches on additional topics such as the anglicising of names and the disdain of native audiences for the work of their own countrymen. It is also refreshing for once to not have the subject as a Dario Argento or a Lucio Fulci, but rather someone who perhaps is not well known even though their films are.

A celebration of Italian b-movies and those who helped bring them to us, THE MAN WITH MY NAME is light-hearted, fun and guaranteed to put a smile on the faces of fans of Italian genre cinema. Admittedly for some this may come across as too lightweight, but it was never meant to be a detailed analysis and should not be judged as such.

Sure if it had bigger budget then it would look more polished and ok it could have featured more clips and longer interviews but that is not what this is necessarily about nor is it really in the spirit of what I believe Simon O’Neill set out to achieve.

The Man with My Name is currently on the festival circuit. Find out more information on the official website.

Version reviewed:

An online screener of the film.

VAMP STALKER (2017) BY EROS BOSI

Reviews

Director: Erosi Bosi
Writer: Eros Bosi
Year: 2017
Starring: Eros Bosi, Serena Meloni, Giovanni Tasca, Maurizio Bolli

VAMP STALKER is the latest short film from upcoming Italian writer-director Eros Bosi and continues in the same vein as his previous horror-comedy EVIL SELFIE.

Opening with a young woman, Serena Meloni, going to watch a horror film at a local cinema, it doesn’t take long after sitting down for her to notice a pale-faced guy, played by writer/director Eros Bosi, beginning to watch her rather than the film. Turning to face her admirer she notices not his looks but his sharp fangs and that is enough to cause her to quickly leave.

Panicked she soon realises that she did not leave alone as our young Dracula gives chase but every time it looks as if he is about to catch his prey she manages to avoid his grasp, building the tension until a delightful twist turns what could have been a linear two-dimensional horror into a comedy in the same vein as the the terrific WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.

This tonal shift and payoff works well thanks to the build-up being played straight, and in doing so allowing the resulting vampiric love triangle to act as a catalyst for the remaining hilarious action. On the subject of comedy this is a genre that often struggles to cross cultural borders but here the comedic dialogue comes across as intentioned thanks to being based in horror lore as opposed to some geographical understanding.

Furthermore this short film also utilises much physical comedy which is borderline splatterstick thanks to action such as an offending finger getting bitten off, an eye getting gouged out and, well, I don’t want to say what is done with a snooker ball. Although where VAMP STALKER does fall down is in regards to the brief physical confrontations which come across as too restrained and fake with the ultimate result being that it takes the viewer out of the whole experience. The humorous violence being unrealistic is one thing, that is all part of the low budget package that we know and love but sadly that does not extend to hand-to-hand combat.

This however is only a minor and brief issue and all is quickly forgotten thanks to the films charm, which is no doubt enhanced thanks to the love of the genre from Eros Bosi, who goes as far as to reference contemporary Italian horrors E.N.D by Domiziano Cristopharo (via a poster) and NON NUOTATE IN QUEL FIUME by Roberto Albanesi (playing in the cinema) within the brief ten minute run time.

Employing a nice level of genre self-awareness and plenty of humour, for what VAMP STALKER lacks in budget it more than makes up for in fun, similar to those VHS amateur pioneers back in the early eighties. The horror-comedy genre is a notoriously hard one to get right and it would be interesting to see if the young writer/director can make that step up when the time comes to make his first feature film as he manages to get the balance spot on here.

Version reviewed:
I watched an Italian language online screener of the film.

WAX (2014) BY VICTOR MATELLANO

Reviews

Director: Victor Matellano
Writer: Victor Matellano, Hugo Stuven
Year: 2014
Starring: Jimmy Shaw, Jack Taylor, Geraldine Chaplin, Antonio Mayans

Synopsis:
Journalist Mike gets an assignment to spend one whole evening in a spooky wax museum documenting any strange occurrences while presenting the stories behind many of the notorious figures immortalised in wax. Initially believing to be alone inside the place, Mike eventually finds himself being terrorised and wondering if he survive the night?

Review:
WAX wastes no time getting started and within thirty seconds of the pre-credit sequence rookie director Victor Matellano, in his first feature (excluding the documentary ZARPAZOS! UN VIAJE POR EL SPANISH HORROR) gives us breasts and what appears to be the beginnings of a torture porn flick in the vein of HOSTEL and LIVE FEED.. 

After this opening sequence the style shifts away slightly from the generic, contemporary torture horror, but for better or worse decides to keep in the boob shots, as it elaborates on the story of our antagonist, the insane sadist Dr Knox (played by Jack Taylor – HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES; CONAN THE BARBARIAN; THE NINTH GATE; GOYA’S GHOSTS; PIECES) who is seeking to test the limits of human endurance. Unfortunately it becomes apparent that Matellano had not decided exactly what type of film he wanted to make. A horror sure, but as it flits around from one style of presentation to another the whole thing just appears a little confused as WAX presents us with torture porn, classic 50’s horror and found footage horror all with no real cohesive structure.

Moving forwards into contemporary times, we learn our journalist Mike (Jimmy Shaw – LORD OF ILLUSIONS) is being cajoled by a forceful TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin – THE ORPHANAGE; THE WOLFMAN; CHAPLIN) into an assignment at a wax museum. The script however does not settle for just the basics but also goes on to tell us that Mike has a kid, an irrelevant point added in simply as a device to try and force us to feel some sympathy and affection for the man ahead of what is sure to be an ordeal. Although it does not work and the character ends up merely being a conduit for our fear, aided and evidenced by the (justifiable) employment of found footage shots.

Now despite the earlier confused identity of the film, WAX does begin to show promise as it slowly reduces the torture porn element into the background and starts to focus on more creepy scares and tension as Jack Taylor’s Dr Knox starts to channel a more modern and much more extreme Prof. Henry Jarrod, as played by the legendary Vincent Price, in the 1955 version of HOUSE OF WAX, with the character going as far to actually state his admiration in the film for him. Meta indeed. Speaking of Jack Taylor, I was actually a little unsure about him in this role based on the trailers but he turns in a strong performance as the cultured sadist while Jimmy Shaw as our scared journalist turns in a competent performance that allows you to believe in him even if you are not fully invested in his predicament.

Once we reach the final act both the film and Matellano are in full flow and he begins to craft some genuine moments of tension that had me on the edge of my seat. Meanwhile the setting of the Wax Museum at night is just perfect, allowing for dark corners and inconclusive shadows to pull your gaze – ideal for a game of human cat and mouse. And despite once again seemingly becoming a little muddled at points, one element that was introduced had me scratching my head somewhat as I tried to work out how it was logically possible thereby reducing its impact, WAX does has a satisfying ending overall.

Similar in some sections to a range of films such as HOUSE OF WAX, FEED, HOSTEL and LIVE FEED as well as taking in the concept of reality TV, Victor Matellano manages to make the most of a low budget and ends up creating a film that will entertain many but ironically due to its attempt to please as many genre fans as possible its lack of cohesive and consistent identity also serves to hamper the film, alongside a couple of minor editing issues. That said for fans of foreign horror WAX is worth checking out as a curiosity and for the cast – just don’t go expecting a revelation or a hidden gem.

Oh and if your thinking this review is sans Naschy (until now) the reason is because you would not even know that he is in it. One final point of interest surrounds actress Geraldine Chaplin who near the end of the film pauses to look at a wax statue of Charlie Chaplin – her actual father.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 2015 RedRum Spanish blu-ray release and as you would expect from a modern film the audio and picture quality is top notch. The film benefits from audio options in English, Spanish and of course, Catalan while subtitles are provided in Catalan. However not all of the extras have these same options.

Talking of extras, aside from the almost always pointless photo gallery we are also treated to the original trailer (in Spanish) which while quite graphic, focuses primarily on Jack Taylor and certainly whets the appetite for the film. Additionally the disc also contains a teaser trailer, presented in English, which frames the film more in the vein of the found footage genre.

Further extras include deleted scenes which are only very minor and the a behind the scenes featurette entitled Mysteries of a wax museum. Sadly this is primarily in Spanish (or Catalan, sorry I don’t know) and so I haven’t a scooby what was being discussed. All in all though it is a decent package and if you can pick it up cheap it’ll keep you entertained for its short running time.

VERONICA (2017) BY PACO PLAZA

Reviews

Director:  Paco Plaza
Writers: Fernando Navarro, Paco Plaza
Year: 2017
Starring: Sandra Escacena, Bruna Gonzalez, Claudia Placer, Ivan Chavero, Ana Torrent

Synopsis:
Madrid, 1991. A teen girl finds herself besieged by an evil supernatural force after she played Ouija with two classmates.

Review:
VERONICA is supernatural film that is unsurprisingly claims to be based on true events, something that the majority of films in this sub-genre purport to have. As with all of these instances unless you are familiar with the real-life tale it is, as a result, difficult to judge how much artistic licence the film makers take.

Now this is important because it may add context or realism which may help elevate the film and ensure that what we as a viewer witness is the true terror that unfolded. However no matter whether you believe or not, we are ultimately watching a piece of fiction (as opposed to a documentary or re-enactment) which has the primary aim to entertain…or perhaps scare in the case of horror.

It is exactly because of this latter point that VERONICA fails to hit the mark; while starting off promising enough there are too many dragged-out periods which seek to build context and develop character but merely succeed in stifling any momentum and boring the viewer as quite often we just don’t need that much information. As a result VERONICA would be a much better film had director Paco Plaza cut at least twenty, possibly even thirty minutes from its overlong run time (of 1 hour 45).

In regards to these moments of character development credit has to be given to all of the young actors for their performances in this film as no matter what issues may lay with the film, the acting is not one of them and the difficult family life is conveyed with much realism. However this aspect is fast becoming a repetitive theme in the sub-genre and gives the film a sense of over-familiarity with easy comparisons being THE CONJURING 2 from 2016, INSIDIOUS 3 from 2105 and THE BABADOOK from 2014. All of which deal with a struggling lone (female) parent who is unable to cope with and to understand what is going on even before the spirit enters the scene. 

And this is perhaps the main issue that I had with the film. For all the positives and  the few genuinely good moments, ultimately the attempts to inject some emotional connection seem too forced and there was very little to make the film stand out against its peers, ultimately leaving it feeling like a competent rehash of older ideas. And by older we do not even have to go back even five years.

Overall VERONICA is a disappointing effort from the man who brought us the fantastic [REC]3: GENESIS (and additionally co-directed the first two of the series) and is hard to recommend. However if you are a big fan of the paranormal/possession sub-genre then there may be just enough in this film to make it worth investigating.

Version Reviewed:
This was reviewed based on the Netflix (UK) version of the film.

NYCTOPHOBIA (2017) BY FRANCESCO LONGO

Reviews

Director: Francesco Longo
Writers: Francesco Longo, Paolo Mercandante
Year: 2017
Starring: Roberto Ramon, Michael Segal, Roberto D’Antona

Synopsis:
When the darkness comes at night a man is tormented by visions of the past but are they only visions or something more?

Review:
The third in a trilogy of short films looking at phobias (with SKIZOPHRENIA, 2014, and CLAUSTROPHOBIA, 2015, coming before) from upcoming director Francesco Longo, NYCTOPHOBIA unsurprisingly focuses in on the fear of darkness and wastes no time with preamble, immediately introducing us to our main character, the man, as he returns home and gets ready to go to sleep. While attempting to doze off the film INSANE plays, a nice nod not only to co-star Roberto D’Antona but also perhaps indicative of our man’s mental state and with it perhaps an analogy of what is about to occur – namely a psychological journey in which the darkness may or not be playing tricks.

One of the strengths here is that the setup is surprisingly very normal and grounded in reality, from the mysterious, unspecified creaking in the dark to the lying silently in bed trying to pin down the logical cause of the noise, helping make the situation more relatable and safe to us…that is until Longo introduces a few supernatural flourishes and things start to get a little creepy.

A menacing tone starts to pervade throughout the film, suddenly we are unsure as to what is real or imagined as things start to go south for our man and surreal for us pretty quickly. It is worth noting here in the realisation or rather visualisation of events that things do come across a little like I imagine they would in the mind of Rob Zombie from the crazy blonde chick to the interpretation of the devil and from this it has to be noted that the success of this film on a personal level may depend on your own stylistic preference for this type of horror. Although for my British readers imagine the writers of PSYCHOVILLE and INSIDE NO.9 playing it a little straighter and that would give some indication of what to expect.

In short NYCTOPHOBIA is a decent watch that will entertain and one that ultimately achieves what it sets out to. It is not a mindless dull literal translation of the concept of a ‘scary dark’ à la recent Hollywood hogwash horror but rather a more thoughtful, internalised and dare I say European approach as to the true horrors brought about by the impenetrable mysterious darkness, one’s own mind…and perhaps some supernatural forces too.

Throughout the films brief run time Longo manages to expertly craft a decent amount of tension within a short amount of time thanks to an intelligent use of audio and strong pacing (aided by the editing choices) although perhaps the narrative itself is a little too obvious for the seasoned horror fan with the turn being seen from a mile away nonetheless this minor gripe does not detract to much from the film.

Oh and check out what time the lead character wakes up. Amityville or Italy – evil is the same everywhere (and disregards time zones).

Visit the films Facebook page here.

Version Reviewed:

I watched an online screener of the film.

MORGUE STREET (2012) BY ALBERTO VIAVATTENE

Reviews

Director: Alberto Viavattene
Writers: Emiliano Ranzani, Alberto Viavattene
Year: 2012
Starring: Mario Cellini, Dèsirè Giorgetti, Roberto Nali

Synopsis:
Two prostitutes, mother and daughter, struggle against a mysterious creature who breaks into their house after their john has left.

Review:
After that brief synopsis there really is very little one can add in regards to the story or narrative without giving anything away about this eleven minute film.  Although the film poster and inspiration might hint at it.

Director Alberto Viavattene reinterprets the general theme of the famous story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’  by Edgar Allan Poe but does so with not only a contemporary kick but also added malice and artistic licence.

No doubt with his hand forced by the short running time Viavattene wastes no time in showing the degenerate filth of modern society and the cinematography perfectly captures this mood with its dark shades and grimy tones bathed in neon red light. However this haste to get to the point may also be a hindrance for many viewers as the brutal events that unfold do so almost without any recognisable context meaning that there is a high probability that MORGUE STREET will be taken at face value as a superficial rape horror, one that will be judged on one base sequence that comes to not only dominate but perhaps define it.

This is a shame because on subsequent watches and analysis MORGUE STREET is much more than this and is in fact a competent (technical) piece of work, particularly its opening act. Sure it completely eschews the traditional mystery element (something that is extremely tricky to replicate in a short film format) and perhaps rather than being seen as an adaption of Poe’s classic it should be taken as a harsh look at the reality of our animal instinct as well as addiction. One in which there very often is no redemption for those who are it’s victims.

Viavattene clearly has talent (which is unsurprising considering he has worked with Paolo Sorrentino and Dario Argento) and is certainly a director to look out for should he ever get his  big break into feature films and although MORGUE STREET no doubt made a good calling card for him it is perhaps the most unconventional, anti-commercial show reel for the cast – all of which put in strong performances, English speaking aside.

Undoubtedly this is a short film that will divide, even for myself on the initial watch I was impressed with the technical abilities but left wondering if certain scenes had to be shown the way they were. However the film stayed with me, there is more going on underneath the surface and one has to give the director the benefit of the doubt.

A grim and stark take on an aspect of modern humanity framed around a brutal and bizarre adaption of a Poe penned story. You can make up your own mind and watch the film here.

Version Reviewed:
I watched a free to watch version hosted by the director on Vimeo. This short film is also accessible via the FilmDoo streaming platform and rather surprisingly it looks fantastic not just for a short film but one that is streamed online. It has English audio.