All of these films are in subgenres that mean could be so easily disregarded or ignored (particularly since they are all fairly low budget), but when actually given the chance they are actually rather good.
The Unfolding (2016) opens with a quote from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man’. It’s a moody section of a poem that perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come.
Although it’s shot in a semi-‘found footage’ style, the movie doesn’t fall into too many of the usual traps. The Unfolding, instead, is a haunted house tale, which may provoke feelings of déjà vu from fans of the Paranormal Activity series at times, but is unique in that it’s mixed with the impending dread of the possible end of the world. Sure, there are hand-held and static time-coded cameras, but the addition of sound effects and a score certainly give it the feel of a ‘proper’ film. And it’s all the more engrossing for it.
Researcher Tam (Lachlan Neiboer) and his girlfriend Rose (Lisa Kerr) are spending time in a remote house in Dartmoor to interview the owner of a house that has been the focus of some strange goings-on. As they get to the house, they are met by the man, who’s packing his car. He explains that he has to leave, to get back to his family ‘due to all the stuff that’s kicking off’ in the outside world. He hands Tam the keys, and gives him free reign of the place, “I’m not staying another night in there…” he tells them. Is it really the thought of impending nuclear war that has spooked him or has the house more to do it with it that he is letting on? Well, despite Rose’s misgivings about spending time at the house without the owners present, Tam is insistent that they do in the hope of discovering some evidence of psychic activity.
They don’t have to wait long, as they wake in the morning to find the kitchen ransacked and the house’s entire collection of cutlery embedded in the wall as though something has had a violent temper tantrum.
Their relationship is strained when they experience some terrifying occurrences. A friend, Harvey (Nick Julian), arrives and is instantly accused of playing tricks on them. But he’s not behind the sinister and creepy goings on (despite later pulling a ‘jump scare’ prank). Harvey decides it’s time to bring in Professor Chessman (Robert Daws, somewhat of a TV regular from series such as The Royal and Poldark), who in turn sends for a medium, Muriel (Emmerdale star Kittie McGeever), into the house who senses the presence of someone called Lucasta. The academic mournfully recounts the story of the unfortunate woman who had lived there before; abused by her uncle and whose children had either died in childbirth or were murdered.
Attempting to move Lucasta into a peaceful spiritual realm, they unfortunately release something much more malevolent. As the Professor puts it, “What was evil then is still evil today”.
First time director Eugene McGing has been quite prophetic in setting the film in October 2016; not because of the supernatural elements - although they work remarkably well - but with the impending and occasionally subtle disintegration of the outside world. As the Professor says himself, “The house is acting as a psychic beacon - events happening in the outside, are amplified in the house”. In the real world, it’s already been a mournful year for many; just look at the high profile deaths and the recent political turmoil, not to mention the ongoing threat of terrorism. While our protagonists are fighting against unseen spirits in the house, outside, things are becoming apocalyptic. Making the film using the now-standard ‘found footage’ techniques allows for a sense of urgency and palpable terror. As mentioned, this isn’t presented as that sort of movie, though. It’s very much a ‘proper’ film and highly rewarding, being full of dread and truly ominous moments. The occasional references to ‘what’s going on out there’ keep the mood on a knife edge and tensions running high. Come the climax, all hell is literally breaking loose.
The already tired and overused ‘rom-zom’ subgenre gets a shot in the arm with Kyle Ranking’s Night of the Living Deb (2015). Yay. Yet another play on the classic title, this has got to suck, right? Well, actually, no. Although Shaun of the Dead did it years before, Deb succeeds with likable characters and some genuinely funny moments and sparkling dialogue that it’s forgivable.
Socially awkward Deb (Eagleheart’s Maria Thayer) hooks up with the best looking man in Maine, Portland, on the eve of American Independence Day, but upon waking the next day she overhears Ryan (Michael Cassidy) trying to arrange an escape plan. Bumbling her way through an embarrassing exit, things go downhill very quickly when they find out that a zombie apocalypse is happening all around them. The two polar opposite characters - Deb is a scatty TV news camera operator and Ryan a coconut milk-drinking free thinker hoping to get away from his family business of water production - they decide to team up in order to get to their loved ones. Despite her quick wit and bumbling demeanour, she quotes Longfellow and has is smart as a button when the shit hits the fan.
Even with the familiar tropes, Night of the Living Deb is a fun and surprisingly engaging spin on the old formula. Helped in no small part by Maria Thayer being a joy to watch, and the legendary Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) owns the screen as Ryan’s morally corrupt but family orientated father. If you think the subgenre reached its pinnacle and was finished after Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright had finished with it, Deb comes along and proves there’s still a little life in the corpse of the romantic zombie comedy yet. It may not be as outright gory as Shaun, but it does have its fair share of exploding heads and splatter shots. There are a few nods to undead films of the past, but they are much more organic than in fare such as Shaun and Dead Heads. The laughs come less from forced situations and more from inappropriately natural dialogue from Deb and Ryan. In short, it’s a joy that has been criminally overlooked.
In a complete change of tone and direction, Estranged is a terrifying family drama that demands viewing. The first feature of Adam Levins, it is the film M. Night Shymalan’s The Visit so desperately wanted to be and should have been.
January (Amy Manson) and her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) are involved in a terrible motorbike crash while traveling in Brazil, which results in the young woman temporarily unable to walk and suffering from acute amnesia. Callum takes her back to her family in a remote stately home in the middle of England to recuperate and hopefully gain some of her memory. Although she is received well and given care, she begins to be curious as to why she left in the first place. Had something terrible occurred to cause her to run away?
The mood is tetchy as soon as she arrives, and her father, Albert (the ever-imposing James Cosmo), isn’t helping the situation, particularly as he asks Callum to leave while attempting to teach him how to shoot. January’s brother and sister, Laurence (James Lance, who, not matter how many times we see him in other productions, will forever be bellboy Ben in I’m Alan Partridge…) and Kathrine (The Descent’s Nora-Jane Noone) add to the unease with a double act of creep and creepier, while mother Marilyn (Eileen Nicholas, Trainspotting) is a quiet nervous wreck, almost apologetically subservient to Albert. The house is rustic but sprawling, and only a butler, Thomas (Craig Conway) to keep things going. Clearly put-upon, he’s there through family heritage, too. No one seems to want to talk about why she ran away, and it gets worse when she wakes one morning to find Callum gone.
A patient and rewarding film, Estranged proves that you can tell a compelling and shocking story without going overboard on visual effects and jump scares. Sure, there’s some (bad) CGI gore later on, but this is a study in character, pace, and unknown terror. A little like the classic 1961 film The Innocents, January is haunted by a past she doesn’t know, or at least that the brain trauma has blocked out for her. When we (and, indeed, the unfortunate girl herself) discover the truth, it only gets worse. By revealing the ‘twist’ halfway through, we get to see characters truly revel in evil and engage in some genuinely horrific acts. It’s unfair to reveal more, but rest assured, it’s startlingly unpleasant and deeply upsetting. Just like horror films should be.
All of these movies, as mentioned, were released through the FrightFest Presents VOD strand, and will be among a season of films screened on Horror Channel this August to celebrate the annual festival of fear.
You can tune into Horror Channel on Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138.