DVD review: Prospect (2018)

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Prospect (2018)
Signature, certificate 15 (out 22 April)
Originally written for Infinity magazine

Fellow fans of the lamentably short-lived science fiction series Firefly (2002-3) and its spin-off movie Serenity (2005) will find much to enjoy in this extraterrestrial western, expanded by writer-directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl from their 2014 short of the same title.

Teenage spacefarer Cee (Sophie Thatcher, tv’s The Exorcist) accompanies her prospector father Damon (Jay Duplass, The Oath) to an alien moon in search of highly sought-after crystals, but they’ve no sooner struck lucky than Damon dies in a shoot-out with rival miners and the pragmatic Cee finds herself teamed with one of her father’s assailants, Ezra (Pedro Pascal, Bloodsucking Bastards and Game of Thrones).

The duo’s unsteady alliance takes up much of the film, and both lead actors are excellent in their roles. Although the last of their confrontations with the satelite’s other inhabitants does get a little confused (as tends to happen with nocturnal firefights), Cee proves herself to be a young lady with true grit and saves both their skins, a satisfactory conclusion to a cosmic tale which proves refreshingly down to earth.

Secret Agent Man

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This past month, I’ve watched all 39 episodes of the original 1960-62 run of Danger Man, which is both a great showcase for its charismatic star Patrick McGoohan (who’d turned down the role of James Bond in favour of the far more believable John Drake) and a crash course in the strictures of tight television thrillers. It’s amazing how much can be squeezed into 25 minutes if you follow Fritz Lang’s approach (cf The Big Heat) and only include scenes which are crucial to narrative, characterisation or both.

Blu-ray review: Replicas (2019)

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Replicas (2019)
Lionsgate, certificate 12 (out 29 April)
Originally written for Dark Side magazine

Actors have occasionally been accused of ‘phoning a performance in; with this largely lamebrained excuse for a science fiction thriller, Keanu Reeves (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Matrix trilogy) goes one step further and texts most of his. “We are going straight to Hell,” says fellow scientist Ed as the pair start playing Frankenstein with the newly-deceased remains of Reeves’ wife and children; the rest of us are already there.

At a secret lab on a remote Latin American isle (presumably chosen for that Jurassic Park vibe), Will Foster (Reeves) is using a holographic display cribbed from Tony Stark to implant memories into android brains. After a traffic tragedy wipes out his family, he and Ed (Thomas Middleditch, The Final Girls) clone new bodies to create a fresh off-the-peg domestic unit. So far, so crazy, because a shortfall in the number of amniotic pods Ed could rustle up has already forced Will (or Bill: the film can’t decide, which is typical of Chad St John’s confused screenplay) to jetison his younger daughter.

Reeves demonstrates how deeply this is affecting him by delivering every line like he hasn’t slept for a fortnight (if he’s suffering from insomnia, perhaps he should try watching this film). Meanwhile, his resurrected wife Mona (Alice Eve, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Men in Black 3) is proving memories can’t be buried like last week’s trash, forcing Will into a conversation which is one of the few unexpected moments in this $30M b-movie. Enter the lab’s administrator (John Ortiz, Kong: Skull Island), who forces Reeves to channel his inner John Wick and take the action up a gear to protect his faux family.

Unfortunately, the film’s closing 30 minutes are still hobbled by the lethargy and gormless technobabble of the opening 75, leaving us with a fractured and deeply unfocussed narrative. Its moral perspective is further skewed by the finale, in which the allegedly deleted daughter rematerialises and an android version of Reeves begins offering the resurrection tech to any elderly millionaire with a yen – and sufficient spare yen, or dollars, or rubles – to reboot.

Reeves is reportedly back with Alex Winter right now, shooting a third Bill & Ted. Let’s hope his time-travelling includes telling Replicas director Jeffrey Nachmanoff to order a few critical rewrites and maybe get himself a more convincing lead actor (seriously, Jeffrey, your faith in Reeve’s “dramatic chops” is deeply misplaced).

Extras: commentary by Nachmanoff and executive producer James Dodson; “making of” documentary, including interviews with Reeves and his production partner Stephen Hamel, who came up with the initial story; deleted scenes.

Blu-ray review: Crucible of the Vampire (2019)

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Crucible of the Vampire (2019)
Screenbound, certificate 15
Originally written for Dark Side magazine

The sad truth is, the British horror industry has sunk to such depths that almost any halfway competent entry is greeted with disproportionate excitement, and whilst Crucible of the Vampire is by no means as instantly forgetable as some recent releases, its overall impact is that of a damp squib rather than the fireworks we all hope to see again.

When archaeologist Isabelle (Katie Goldfinch) is dispatched to a remote country house to evaluate a potential addition to her museum’s collection, she soon runs foul of the item’s current owner, Karl (Larry Rew, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans). At least his wife Evelyn (Babette Barat, who seems to have stepped out of a Ken Russell romp) and daughter Scarlet (Florence Cady) seem friendlier, the latter far more than usual in polite company. Meanwhile, resident gardener Robert (Neil Morrissey, I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle) offers moral support amidst a few dark hints about the estate’s health and safety record.

Pretty soon, Isabelle (a virgin, we helpfully learn via an oddly intimate conversation with a barmaid) is having curious dreams and encountering the stately manse’s spectral squatter. Luckily for her, Scarlet is happy to offer solace in her own bed, as well as a rather restrained sapphic seduction and a somewhat over-enthusiastic hickey.

It doesn’t take a graduate of Karlsbad University to see where this is going: the local Satanists want to use Isabelle’s virgin blood (lesbian sex doesn’t count, apparently) to restore the vampire in Karl’s upstairs bathroom to full strength and, well, the rest of their scheme is left unstated because Isabelle is soon channelling her inner Lara Croft and inserting some overdue dynamism into the film’s closing act.

This is director Iain Ross-McNamee’s second feature (his first was 2015’s ghost story The Singing Bird Will Come), co-written with Darren Lake and John Wolskel (whose Vampire Motorcycle credit no doubt explains Morrissey’s fleeting and frankly superfluous participation), and displays logistical assurance which sadly is not matched by any noticable skill in creating either tension or atmosphere. Like the photography, much of the drama is disappointingly flat, encouraging one’s mind to wander off piste and query why Scarlet, a vamp in both senses of the term, wanders happily around her home’s more sunlit wings, yet her presumed ‘siress’ flares like a Roman candle as soon as she exits the front door.

The great problem when reviewing a film such as Crucible of the Vampire is that the intentions of cast and crew are never in doubt: they clearly wanted to make a memorable British chiller in the vampiric vein of Dracula AD 1972 (with a PG-friendly dash of Lust for a Vampire). Unfortunately, the script simply doesn’t deliver the goods, and everything from that point onwards is rendered anaemic as a result.

Blu-ray review: Kin (2018)

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Kin (2018)
Lionsgate, certificate 15
Originally written for Infinity magazine

Despite the presence of headliners Dennis Quaid (Innerspace, The Day After Tomorrow) and James Franco (Spider-Man, Oz the Great and Powerful), Kin feels oddly more suited to small screens than the large, with an open-ended finale which leaves you anticipating (albeit not rooting for) a spin-off tv series.

When the recently-widowed Quaid’s estranged elder son (Jack Reynor, soon to be seen in Scandi folk horror Midsommar) gets out of jail, he might be forgiven for thinking strained family dynamics are the biggest problem on his plate. Unfortunately, Reynor is in debt to a local gangster (Franco), adopted teenage son Myles Truitt (last seen in Black Lightning and here making his feature debut) has salvaged an extraterrestial weapon from the site of an unexplained alien shoot-out (seriously, it’s time for a moritorium on that cliché) and Quaid has the misfortune to walk in on Franco’s gang as they’re robbing the construction company he works for. The two brothers escape, joining forces with a kind-hearted stripper (Zoë Kravitz, X-Men: First Class and Mad Max: Fury Road), but Franco is soon hot on their trail, as is a team of aliens eager to retrieve their bad-ass bazooka.

Although competently executed, the resultant road movie is crushingly familiar, and that’s not because I saw Bag Man, the 2014 short by Kin co-directors Jonathan and Josh Baker from which it was expanded. The old Not the Nine O’Clock News song ‘Nice Video, Shame About the Song’ springs to mind; in this case, decent enough performances and special effects, pity about the plot and script.

Little White Boxes

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I see this over and over again. A couple of years ago, I was able to buy a bunch of Kate Bush CDs for half the price of downloading them (I already had the LPs). Tonight, I spotted YouTube selling the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation — or rather, the temporary ability to download a digital version — for £24.99, whilst eBay can get you a Blu-ray boxset for just £17.98, a saving of more than 28%. I find this insane, but then I live in a house full of stuff rather than a white box with a chair at one end and a hungry screen at the other.

Art for Art’s Sake, Money for God’s Sake

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I’m on the mailing list for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions (it’s a long story) and was slightly taken aback by the latest brochure’s US$3000 estimate for Storm Trooper, a near-lifesize portrait by French artist Thierry Guetta (aka “Mr Brainwash”). Even ignoring the subject’s stature (I was reminded of Leia’s line to Luke in Star Wars: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”), this is pretty run-of-the-mill fan art and not even an original piece (just how limited an edition is this “digital print .. signed in ink on the left arm”?). The auction’s next Monday, but I don’t think I’ll be bidding.

Blu-ray review: Swamp Thing (1982)

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Swamp Thing (1982)
88 Films, certificate 15 (out 25 March)
Originally written for Dark Side magazine

The opportunity to write and direct a screen adaptation of the Len Wein / Bernie Wrightson horror comic came at an interesting juncture in Wes Craven’s career. Having navigated his way out of hardcore pornography through exploitation cinema (The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) into the horror mainstream (Deadly Blessing), Swamp Thing allowed Craven to demonstrate his ability to handle action scenes, location work, special effects and a relatively tight $2.5m budget. Unfortunately, despite bringing the project in on schedule and within Avco Embassy’s cost estimates, it would be nearly three years before A Nightmare on Elm Street earned him wider recognition (by which time any comics fans picking up Swamp Thing on VHS would probably wonder why it diverged so much from Alan Moore’s 1983 reboot).

The movie was clearly aimed at a family audience, although 88 Films has chosen to go with the ‘European cut’; this version features brief nudity excised from the original US theatrical release, most notably a sequence in which its well-endowed heroine Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape from New York) skinnydips under the no doubt sexually frustrated gaze of mutated biologist Alex Holland (stunt man Dick Durock, who stepped in to play the beast of the bayou after Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) found the costume too clumbersome). Heading the cast as the urbane mad scientist Anton Arcane is Hollywood veteran Louis Jourdan (1977’s Count Dracula), who was most likely fulfilling a contractural obligation when he reprised the role in Jim Wynoski’s decidedly less effective 1989 sequel The Return of Swamp Thing.

In the excellent commentary track hosted by Sean Clark (Horror’s Hallowed Grounds), Craven readily admits there were problems with the production values – Jourdan’s climatic transformation into some kind of sword-wielding werewolf is more comical than comicbook – but Swamp Thing remains a fun romp, much of its charm lying in its being produced in an era before computer graphics became a kneejerk panacea for lazy film-makers.

Extras: slipcase, 16pp photobook and A3 poster (limited edition only); commentary by Wes Craven, which drops out during the nude scenes; interviews with production designer Robb Wilson King, critic Kim Newman; original trailer. The HD restoration is very nicely handled and my only regret is that 88 Films weren’t able to import the additional commentary by makeup artist William Munns and interviews with Adrienne Barbeau and Len Wein which appeared on Shout Factory’s 2013 Blu-ray (although that release omits Ms Barbeau’s steamy ablutions).