THE CRUCIFIXION (2017) BY XAVIER GENS

Reviews

Director: Xavier Gens
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Year: 2017
Starring: Sophie Cookson, Corneliu Ulici, Brittany Ashworth

Synopsis:
When Nicole comes in contact with Father Anton more and more inexplicable events occur. The pair begin to believe that the priest lost the battle with a demon.

Review:
French director Xavier Gens (FRONTIER(S); HITMAN; THE ABCs OF DEATH) returns to directing after a brief hiatus with this Romanian set satanic mystery which was written by American duo Chad and Carey Hayes (HOUSE OF WAX; THE REAPING; THE CONJURING; THE CONJURING 2) who bring with them a recognisable if slightly safe horror pedigree.

Like many supernatural or satanic horror films the film claims to have been inspired by true events, in this case it is the 2004 “Tanacu Exorcism” in which a nun died and Father Daniel Corogeanu was convicted of murder. Inspiration taken this results in the opening pre-title sequence comprising of a priest and a group of nuns forcibly handling a distressed woman, pinning her down onto a cross as the priest attempts to deliver an exorcism which we soon learn went wrong resulting in the death of the afflicted woman and the arrest of the Priest who performed the unsanctioned act.

It doesn’t take long for news to spread across the globe and journalist Nicole Rawlins (Sophie Cookson) seizes this opportunity to push her own anti-religion agenda by begging her editor, and inconsequently Uncle, to give her this story to which he reluctantly agrees on the basis that she maintains at least some journalistic objectivity.

Arriving in Romania, it is clear that Nicole is a fish-out-of-water but thankfully this approach isin’t one that is pursued but rather a more intriguing retrospective investigative narrative. This choice for the opening act works well as it provides all of the relevant exposition without having to have just one character sit down and talk at us for a good five minutes as sometimes happens with this sub-genre of film.

Furthermore it is refreshing for a film to not just be all about the cattle-prod scares and rather than being just another low-substance, high-jump throwaway horror, there are elements that are more reminiscent of demonic mysteries such as CUSTODES BESTIAE or THE NINTH GATE. That is not so say that THE CRUCIFIXION is not packed with jump scares, only that they do not define the film and are at least supported at times by genuine tension.

As the film starts to progress it relegates the incarcerated priest and the dead woman to the background shifting focus to Nicole’s own crisis of faith and as her sanity seemingly decreases the jump scares increase, but thankfully on the whole they work even if a few are a little telegraphed at times. No doubt the increased frequency was to ensure that mainstream horror audiences, that most likely picked the film up due to the marketing blurb pushing recent hits ANNABELLE and THE CONJURING being plastered all over the films promotion, did not feel shortchanged.

Overall thanks to the initial investigative approach and moments of real tension, THE CRUCIFIXION manages to differentiate itself enough from its peers and in the process provide a more engrossing and complete viewing experience than had it relied solely on its use of derivative jump scares and its generic look, in which even the rural Romanian setting could not make the cinematography stand out – after all there is always a farm, a barn and a church in these films.

If you are looking for a decent modern entry into the exorcism genre then THE CRUCIFIXION is for you, it won’t make your top ten of the year but equally won’t be a complete waste your time.

HOUSE OF SALEM (2016) BY JAMES CROW

Reviews

Year: 2016
Director: James Crow
Writer: James Crow
Starring: Andrew Lee Potts, Jessica Arterton, Jack Brett Anderson, Liam Kelly, Leslie Mills, Dean Maskell, Anna Nightingale, Nalân Burgess

Synopsis:
A group of kidnappers become a child’s unlikely protectors after discovering they have unwittingly been set up to take part in a satanic ritual. As they begin to uncover the truth of the house they find themselves trapped, they must battle demonic forces and uncover a legacy of over a hundred years of murder in the name of the Devil

Review:
Coming from experienced short film British writer/director James Crow, HOUSE OF SALEM represents his sophomore feature effort and continues with the rough theme of the occult which could be seen in his debut CURSE OF THE WITCHING TREE.

The film opens in familiar horror territory; a beautiful babysitter (Nalân Burgess) and a young child who clearly has either suffered some early trauma or has some mystery in his past. It is never just a normal kid perhaps with a tough paper round.

Early on we learn that the child, Josh, suffers from nightmares if he does not take his pill and rather unsurprisingly he deceives his babysitter into believing he has taken these bringers of peaceful sleep. Now this action also serves another purpose as we, the viewer, are thrown into uncertainty about whether what we are about to view is real or all in Josh’s head.

Whichever is the case it does not matter and we are not given the time to overthink for very quickly an armed gang, dressed in scary clown masks infiltrate the house and kidnap the boy leaving the babysitter unconscious on the floor. 

After being taken to an isolated rural estate house, Josh starts to hear voices, but not only ones that want to protect him but ones that do not have his best interests at heart. At this point the film slowly develops more supernatural overtones and what was only hinted at before begins to dominate the proceedings as the waking nightmare becomes more vivid. These moments are more than competently handled aiding the unsettling possibilities of both the house and those behind orchestrating the kidnapping. 

Objectively speaking however the opening act is a little slow for my tastes and suffers from inconsistency in terms of quality which reduces the impact and arguably the interest of what has the potential to be an engaging slow burning occult mystery.

Thankfully however by the second act the script begins to find its rhythm as more breadcrumbs are laid and engagement generated in regards to the real mystery behind the safehouse that the gang find themselves holed up in at the request of an unknown client.

Soon all around the property a mysterious symbol begins to appear with increased frequency as do the hallucinations of not only Josh but also those who took him. During this middle act HOUSE OF SALEM really hits its stride managing to create some genuine moments of tension and intrigue but unfortunately the film seems unable to capitalise on this resulting in a final act that was executed perhaps not as well as it could or should have been.

As with many low budget films the locations are limited and although not directly, HOUSE OF SALEM is comparable to that of a siege movie, Perhaps think in terms of the hospital in the terrific American film THE VOID, although much less expansive and a much lower budget. 

One aspect of this almost siege like environment is that it places by emphasis on the acting, simply by default more than anything. This is both a strength and weakness of HOUSE OF SALEM as the few moments of action are unfortunately weak while the acting, which takes precedence is a little inconsistent although Jessica Arterton, Leslie Mills and Dean Maskell put in commendable performances while Liam Kelly in his first credited role as the boy Josh makes a strong start to his acting career.

Despite its promise HOUSE OF SALEM is unfortunately neither claustrophobic or brave enough in its depiction, I am talking both in terms of script and visuals, resulting in an inconsistent movie in which moments of inane and weak dialogue are followed by genuine tension. The pieces for success are all there and James Crow clearly knows his stuff leading me to suspect that these lulls and moments of inconsistency are down more to the transition from short to feature length production.

HOUSE OF SALEM is one of those small independent films that hovers around in distribution limbo for a couple of years after being made, before finally being granted a long overdue release. Thankfully though it manages to avoid being dated or missing a trend and so this delay has not or should not affect its release.

Overall there is still enough to recommend about this sometimes effectively tense movie to make it worth your while picking it up  but if you are looking for an independent occult horror film might I recommend the Italian films CUSTODES BESTIAE by Lorenzo Bianchini or SHANDA’S RIVER by Marco Rosson ahead of this one.

HOUSE OF SALEM is receiving a home entertainment (DVD) and digital release courtesy of Left Films and Wild Eye Releasing coming October 1st 2018 if you are interested.

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.

CUSTODES BESTIAE (2004) BY LORENZO BIANCHINI

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Keepers of the beast
Director: Lorenzo Bianchini
Writer: Lorenzo Bianchini
Year: 2004
Starring: Giorgio Basile; Edo Basso; Laura Bau

Synopsis:
A story of religious revelation and conspiracy is uncovered after a professor goes missing soon after announcing an important discovery to a journalist. Intrigued, the journalist Londero takes it upon himself to solve not only what happened to the professor but the true nature of his discovery.

Review:
Opening with an unsettling audio track, that includes the religious chanting of a choir, we find ourselves in an Udine market during March 2003. Here Professor Dal Colle is immediately drawn to an old set of photographs which he subsequently purchases. 

Despite buying it off a random woman selling a diverse assortment of goods off a table in the market he pays her the princely sum of 60 Euros and is soon on his way. Jumping forwards four days now the Professor is kicking in a decrepit underground bricked up door, behind which he finds what appears to be a chained up corpse. Here writer/director Lorenzo Bianchini is careful not to show us too much with the room being enveloped in darkness allowing us only to see what he wants us to thanks to the brief light granted by a flashing camera.

The same evening a journalist, Londero visits the home of the professor in order to learn and write about this new discovery but before he can find out about the breakthrough they are interrupted by someone at the door. Visibly panicked the Professor hides Londero in a spare room like a cheating spouse telling him to be quiet as he goes to placate the unwanted visitor before suddenly going missing.

This disappearance marks the true beginning of the mystery as over the next few days Londero remains unable to contact the Professor. Attempting to visit him at home he notices  a strange handprint burnt into the lower portion of the Professors door and then later receives a bizarre phone call inviting him  round. Clued up like all amateur detectives or investigative journalists Londero approaches with caution wary that all is not as it seems and it is not long before his suspicions are confirmed.

His investigation soon takes in local parish records, an old photography store in a small town and most importantly a fresco that the Professor was working on. Elements like this hark back, if only loosely, to the gialli of Dario Argento as well as Antonio Bido’s A BLOODSTAINED SHADOW and Pupi Avati’s HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS in the way that images play a defining role within the mystery. In fact these works by Antonio Bido and Pupi Avati also contain the same small town claustrophobia and secrecy employed here and so it is no surprise that Lornenzo Bianchini regards his film as a giallo of sorts. Certainly in the Italian sense of the word it is.

One of the many things that helps elevate CUSTODES BESTIAE above its peers is the flow of the film. As we, the viewer, follow the story alongside our main protagonist, Lorenzo Bianchini ably utilises every story telling device he can to ensure that we never jump ahead of Londero in our thought process – it is almost as if we are a sidekick with him and the few times the film does break from this, often with a POV shot of a mysterious unseen character, it is again in real time, filling in the gaps but providing us with no more information than Londero already has or will have by the next scene.

Allowing the story to develop at roughly the same pace for both the characters and the viewer provides for not only some form of parity between us but also that sense of unease as we are drawn in further and further, attempting to piece this puzzle together before it is too late.

Another notable and commendable device utilised in this film is that of the flashback, often these are randomly interjected and used for exposition telling the viewer much much more than the characters could have or would have known. Not here. At first the flashbacks are quick vague cuts, more for the senses than the mind. We hear screams and the rattling of chains before learning of a fallen priest and only as we discover more through the contemporary investigation of Londero do the meanings and full actions become apparent. This not only keeps us engaged but also has the added practical benefit of both helping maintain the films pacing while providing some visual variety for the viewer keeping the experience fresh.

Throughout the films entire 92 minute runtime the film manages to craft and maintain an eerie atmosphere thanks to the use of cinematography, light and sound.

Meanwhile the mystery itself is fantastically well crafted and it is clear that Lorenzo Bianchini is as talented in writing as he is directing, as he feeds us little breadcrumbs guiding us through the clues allowing us to discover only when he deems necessary. 

Furthermore for a film that is about subtle leading it is not afraid to mix it up with one scene in particular displaying bestial rape and another providing a genuine quick scare showing that CUSTODES BESTIAE can entertain on several levels as it builds up towards its unsettling climax.

However some viewers may find the pace a little slow, especially those looking for something like bigger budget American fare such as THE NINTH GATE or THE CONSIPIRACY which intersperse the main story with much more dynamic set pieces but that is not what this film is about and as a result it is a much more honed (or should that be horned) and unsettling effort.

Made for an estimated €3,000 Lorenzo Bianchini shows that a budget is just a number as CUSTODES BESTIAE is a terrifically crafted story that manages to overcome any budget constraints by focusing on its core values of atmosphere and intrigue. There is no doubt with the volume of cast and direct action that this was always written with the level of finance in mind and it would be fascinating to see what a talent such as Lorenzo Bianchini could do given a larger budget and the same level of freedom.

Highly recommended not just for fans of Italian cinema but also occult mysteries such as THE WICKER MAN and THE NINTH GATE. CUSTODES BESTIAE is a severely undervalued film that for whatever reason is not more widely known but is genuine example of talent over budget.

Version Reviewed:
I watched the 2006 DVD release from RHV which is presented in 1.85:1 letterbox format and with audio options in Italian or Fruilian (regional dialect of Friuli-Venezia Giulia) but thankfully subtitle options are available in both English and Italian.

Rather pleasingly for such a low budget movie the disc isn’t bare. Containing a whole host of extras such as a trailer and a condensed version of SPORCO which has been stripped down to 1m 15secs and I had no idea what the hell was going.

The disc also contains a 25 minute making of featurette (with English subtitles) which although of an appalling visual quality does a decent enough job of documenting the film and the beauty of some of the locations, such as the rural villa of the professor, and shots shine through regardless.

Bianchini discusses the differences between this film and his previous effort as well as introducing the characters and actors behind them. Additionally we are treated to an interesting look into why some of the decisions were made both in terms of story, shot compositions and even the props utilised within the film adding a genuine layer of insight into the making of process rather than just a bland backstage shaky cam footage of the actors.

One of the most interesting things to come out of this is the decision to remain shooting in the Fruilian language – and the risks associated with the use of a seemingly rural, dare we say backwards, identity that may put some off. Bianchini however saw the contrast between the simple vernacular language and the detailed mystery and images as lending the film a certain unease, a conflict in the atmosphere.  Practically meanwhile the use of local actors meant there were no issues with shooting in the dialect as this was their accent, their language and that made for the decision to be even easier. Finally, the choice of shooting in the dialect was not just artistic but financial, because of this the film was able to benefit from the support of the Province of Udine who were the only authority of any kind to lend help to the films production leading to many benefits including access to some fantastic municipal buildings.