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.

FORMULA FOR A MURDER (1985) BY ALBERTO DI MARTINO

Reviews

Alternative Titles: 7, Hyden Park: la casa maledetta; Formula per un assassinio; Das Haus der Verfluchten; Formule pour un meurtre
Director: Alberto De Martino (as Martin Herbert)
Writers: Alberto De Martino, Vincenzo Mannino
Year: 1985
Starring: David Warbeck, Christina Nagy, Carroll Blumenberg, Rossano Brazzi, Loris Loddi

Synopsis:
Joanna, who is wheelchair-bound after a horrific childhood attack, is a philanthropist who has funded a sports centre for paraplegics. She now plans to donate a large part of her wealth to the local church, but visions of a priest-looking figure carrying a blood-soaked doll start to haunt her…and whilst the apparitions seem to stem from Joanna’s traumatized psyche, they soon become horribly real! [Taken from the Shameless 2014 DVD release]

Review:
Opening with an almost dreamlike quality we witness a priest suspiciously approaching a young girl before throwing her doll away, perhaps symbolising the loss of childhood that is about to occur. Jump twenty-five years into the future and now grown up the young girl Joanna (Christina Nagy) is a paraplegic and keen archer, who is also romantically involved with her sports coach Craig (David Warbeck).

While this opening act provides us with some exposition and helps to frame the context in which the film will build on, such as Joanna’s precarious health; her relationship with best friend Ruth and the whirlwind romance with Craig, it is functional at best. The opening thirty minutes plod along barely managing to hold your attention and when the first act of real violence finally wakes us director De Martino does not take long to reveal the killer leaving the only mystery remaining being the motive. However even that doesn’t last long as we witness a tale of betrayal and greed that would be at home in any classic anthology horror movie.

Despite these pacing issues and a simplistic plot the script actually contains a few nicely written pieces of dialogue and a couple of moments of genuine quality as Warbeck plays psychological mind games in a bid to induce his sinister motives. Not to mention the possibility fans have to discuss the empowerment Craig feels when dressed up, seemingly changing both his manner and confidence. Although whether this was a premeditated decision by the film makers, Warbeck’s own contribution or simply pure luck we will sadly never know.

Now as stated the plot is a bit simplistic, especially for a mystery-thriller, and in a bid to throw a bit more complexity into the mix we have the additional character of Ruth. It transpires that Ruth is from the same city as Craig and is as equally cold-hearted and calculating as her City-mate. Although Joanna herself has a few surprises as well just to keep things interesting as the story eventually picks up in the final third with one scene in particular reminiscent of TORSO and many slashers of the period. If there was one criticism of the finale however it is almost regrettable to say but the sight of Joanna escaping from her would be killer slowly in a motorised wheelchair is almost comical and borderline implausible but thankfully De Martino has an answer for that and saves the day.

Credit has to go to the cast for making a hum drum affair just that bit better, with Warbeck in particular showing just why for a while he was so highly regarded before dropping into B-Movie obscurity. It is also surprising that the attractive and competent actress Carroll Blumenberg never went on to have a career in acting.

Sadly though FORMULA FOR A MURDER is just a bit bland for the most part and the slow build of the first act seeks sadly is not justified by the admittedly strong final act. Essentially FORMULA FOR A MURDER plays more like a TV movie, which perhaps says something about the state of the industry at the time. Those looking for a convoluted giallo won’t get it and there perhaps isn’t enough brutal violence to sate the fans of the more hardcore late eighties Italian output. That said if you can find it cheap enough, and often you can get some Shameless DVDs for just £3 it may be worth picking up as a curiosity.

Those with a keen ear might also pick up on a few seemingly familiar tunes within the soundtrack. The music was composed by Francesco De Masi, who might be a familiar name to fans of NAPOLI SPARA!, THE NEW YORK RIPPER and ESCAPE FROM THE BRONX. 

In fact those who are fans of Lucio Fulci’s misanthropic New York tale are certain to recognise the similarities between that films theme and one utilised in this movie while in the city. It is fair to say that it not so much informs it but rather is the basis of it. Unfortunately for De Masi his attempts to tweak what he had previously done fail to impress leading me to suspect that this was just a payday for the man but thankfully the score picks up and is quite strong on the whole.

Overall this film is perhaps more suited to being a short film in a collection and if you want to check out a superior tale of greed and betrayal (and is another one where you know who the killer is to boot) then I suggest checking out Luigi Cozzi’s THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN.

Version Reviewed:
I reviewed the 2014 Shameless DVD release which does look and sound fantastic. It comes with an anecdotal audio commentary from the Director of Photography Gianlorenzo Battaglia which is essentially a Q&A interview combined with his recollections of the filming as it plays. That is if Gianlorenzo actually remembers anything about this film as he goes on to say he has worked on a lot of films (including some fantastic ones like DEMONS) so couldn’t possibly remember much about each film, for example he doesn’t remember David Warbeck and keeps providing confusing and conflicting information on where scenes were shot. I guess he was the only person available at the time.

As well as the standard Shameless extras of a theatrical trailer and showcase real. Where Shameless have improved on their initial offering (and of course it greatly depends on the materials available) is in the inclusion of both English and Italian audio with English subtitles where required. Finally if you are or were lucky enough to pick this up new you would also receive a Shameless yellow mac, not the same as that worn by Warbeck but just as snazzy so when you need a light rain poncho you can be as sleazy as you want.

Finally be warned however the cover for the Shameless release does indicate somewhat about the actions of one of the characters but considering the film is over twenty years old we can forgive them for that.

The Devil of Kreuzberg (2015) BY Alexander Bakshaev

Reviews

Alternative Titles: Ein Schoener Film
Director: Alexander Bakshaev
Writer: Pippo Schund
Year: 2015
Starring: Sandra Bourdonnec, Suleyman Yuceer, Sofia Velasquez, Naiden Angelov.

Synopsis:
Linda and Jakob are happily in love until one night Jakob begins to have horrific nightmares in which Linda appears as a darkly seductive creature. Tormented by these visions, Jakob asks his best friend Kurt to murder Linda for him, thus beginning a slow descent into madness. Unbeknownst to the two men, Linda is acting under the control of an ancient family curse. Will her love for Jakob overcome the powers of death? Will Kurt give in to his violent urges and kill to protect his friendship? Is there a way to escape the Devil of Kreuzberg?

Review:
Upon first impression THE DEVIL OF KREUZBERG can be perceived as discordant and perhaps even unsure of what it wants to be but after repeated viewings the power of the film begins to shine through providing a very rewarding experience for those who are patient while helping to ensure that the film stands the test of time.

This is because the film works on multiple levels – from the subtle and sensory to the direct and grindhouse-esque. While a special mention also has to go to the varied and tremendous soundtrack which changes between the jazz of the 70s gialli and a more electronic score reminiscent at times of Angelo Badalamenti mixed with Goblin.  While in regards to the acting, as you would expect from a low budget indie film it does vary although overall the vast majority of the cast put in promising performances with Suleyman Yuceer as the worlds most depressed hitman Kurt putting in a particularly noteworthy performance.

And despite the dialogue itself being merely functional and at times quite forced this does not prove to be an issue thanks to a story that is both intriguing and strong enough to carry the film, which at its heart is about need. Here the screenwriter does excel as they juxtapose the need of Jakob with that of his on-off girlfriend Linda, who herself  is battling an inner conflict as she tries to repress who she is and what she must do and this sets up a very interesting story dynamic making the viewer question the very concept of love and its actions.

In order to do this director Bakshaev leans on the neo-giallo approach of Cattet and Forzani (AMER, THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS) as well as even David Lynch (TWIN PEAKS, BLUE VELVET) and presents the narrative through a combination of sleazy realism and more tonal surrealism and it is to his great credit (and that of the cinematographer) the beauty of some of the shots achieved on this budget.

Dancing scenes aside THE DEVIL OF KREUZBERG is discordant, surreal and gritty but with that it is also rewarding as it manages to take it’s influences (including the Hammer horror films) and mould them into something original with the ambiguity between the psychological and supernatural used with great effect. 

Apparently costing only £3,000 the film deserves praise for trying something new, thinking out of the box and on the whole delivering, all while marking out director Alexander Bakshaev one to look out for, especially if he gets to operate with a bigger budget.

Version Reviewed:
We reviewed an online screener version of the film. However a limited edition DVD-R of the film can be purchased from Carnie Films.

Please note that although the IMDB lists the runtime as 65m we watched and reviewed a shorter version with a running time of 48m 34seconds. It is unknown what version of film exists in this longer cut.

On the road to hell

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The Italian film industry appears to be on something of an upward trajectory, after years of decline followed by mediocrity things finally seem to be happening both in terms of quantity and quality being received and seen beyond its home country.  While the likes of Paolo Sorrentino and Luca Guadagnino are the current darlings of the critics and are surely recognised by film fans across the globe, there are many more directors that you should be aware of and today I want to talk to you about one who is a rising star of the independent film scene and new generation of film makers – Roberto D’Antona.

Often the restrictions of operating within the fringes of the industry necessitate the taking on of several guises and Roberto D’Antona is no exception as he is often seen both behind the camera (as a writer and a director) and in front of it (in a lead or supporting role) for his films, and in fact may already be recognisable to many of you thanks to his role as ‘Condom’ in his brothers violent crime comedy 2015 film INSANE, but perhaps most likely for his involvement in the recent Tv series THE REAPING or the feature length film THE WICKED GIFT,  both of which he starred, wrote and directed. So it is no surprise that his latest film FINO ALL’INFERNO aka ROAD TO HELL is no exception.

The international trailer for ROAD TO HELL has just been released and it looks like it could be one of the best Italian genre releases in years. In the film three robbers, fresh from committing a crime, cross paths with a seemingly cursed woman and her son, all while a mob boss and a secretive organisation give chase in what looks to be an insane and ever escalating violent situation.

Judging by the trailer, whatever you want from a contemporary Italian genre piece is in here and I am hoping that it turns out to be be the stylish, batshit crazy violent Italian genre modern classic that we have all been waiting for.

Additionally I have never heard the word “cazzo” said so much in such a short space of time.

Check out the trailer below and follow the film over on Facebook.