Under The Shadow

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2016’s Under The Shadow (written and directed by Babak Anvari) is a chilling Iranian/British indie horror that will scare you and move you in equal measures. Set in Tehran during the mid-80’s War of The Cities, a mother and daughter face a haunting, demonic presence alone in their increasingly deserted, war-torn neighbourhood. As one of 2016’s few great horrors, Under The Shadow is a subtly executed, brilliantly performed, thematically rich and terrifying yet genuinely moving film.


 

Under The Shadow utilises a classic ghost story format in a more modern historical context and appropriately uses the Arabic jinn (demon) of Arabian and Islamic mythology (a refreshing change from horror’s overwhelming use of Christian mythology) as its central antagonist. When strange things start to happen a superstitious neighbour warns the protagonist, Shideh (Narges Rashidi), that her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), is being haunted by a jinn. However, as the film progresses it soon becomes clear that Under The Shadow is digging much deeper than your average ghost story. The film consciously explores its historical context, drawing themes of religious dominance, patriarchal oppression, governmental tyranny, motherhood and wartime plight, blending these elements to create a truly sumptuous, multifaceted horror. It seems to be no mistake that the evil entity appears often as a faceless chador clad spectre, and that the sense of entrapment and paranoia rises as Shideh’s liberties are increasingly curtailed by squads enforcing theocratic law. Clearly the filmmaker has something to say, yet respectfully leaves the ball in the audience’s court to decide what it is. Saying that, Under The Shadow is not a film that necessarily requires such scrutiny to be enjoyed. It is in this ability for the film to remain effective and, most importantly, scary when viewed at a surface level that reveals the brilliance of Under The Shadow as a horror.

Set against a scoreless soundtrack, with only ambient creaks and blowing wind to accompany each scene, Anvari has achieved a remarkable feat of foreboding tension without the use of music, relying instead on jarring camera work, spooky “did you see it” subtleties, oppressive narrow sets and a small, talented cast. The tension carefully builds and is overcast by the rising threat of Iraqi missile attacks, allowing for the film to exist in a near constant state of fear. The scares are carefully selected and unexpected, executing just enough jumps without the horror overspending itself. The use of space to create a sense of foreboding danger and increased isolation and abandonment is expertly crafted, with shots becoming more unsettling and enclosed as the threats increase. This accumulates to an incredibly well-paced film, giving the sense of a rich, slow burning horror to a surprisingly compact and sleek 1 hour and 24 minute film.

Under The Shadow has mostly been compared to 2014’s Australian horror masterpiece The Babadook with its undercurrent themes of motherhood, trauma and loss and use of expressionist visuals, and certainly these films share a lot in common. Despite this, Under The Shadow has its own, unique tone to it and is well worth viewing as a separate piece of work and not necessarily lesser version of The Babadook. It is not necessarily original in its possessed child, demonic presence format, yet stands out from many of the other bland horrors of that ilk stylistically, as well as in its strongly thematic content. Under The Shadow is out on DVD and Netflix now, and will stand up at a movie night for all film fans alike.

Very cool, S x.


Reviews written by Stefan Filby at Dudes Have No Choice. 

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I Am Not a Serial Killer

I Am Not A Serial Killer

I Am Not a Serial Killer, directed by Billy O’Brian, is a gruesome and horrifying yet touching and hilarious small town murder mystery with echoes of FargoDisturbia and Donnie Darko. A creature feature-cum-slasher flick set in the midst of a moving family, alternative coming-of-age drama, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a superbly acted, expertly crafted piece and is one of the best independent films of 2016.


I Am Not a Serial Killer (based on the novel by Dan Wells) follows a series of violent, animalistic murders in a small Minnesota town through the eyes of troubled teenager, John Wayne Cleaver. John, a diagnosed sociopath coping with high school bullies, an absent father and homicidal fantasies, becomes morbidly fascinated with the murders and obsessively investigates them with a haunting, cold emotional detachment, eventually finding himself in over his head. The storyline is a playful twist of good and evil, with a hero who may not feel love and a villain driven by love, to gruesome ends. It subtly explores humanity through the eyes of an perhaps inherently inhumane person, with a healthy splatter of truly original horror and a wickedly wry sense of humour.

The story’s anti-hero is wonderfully portrayed by Max Records (Where The Wild Things Are), who relishes in the character’s lack of compassion with a hollow-eyed serpentine smirk as he describes what he would really like to do to the school bully at the Halloween party. Acting alongside film veteran Christopher Lloyd seems effortless for Records, and he navigates the character of John empathetically with depth, subtlety, humour and a general creepiness. Rather than employing the all too common horror trope of a two-dimensional, mentally ill “psycho”, I Am Not a Serial Killer stands out by deeply humanising John. Ironically, it is because the character of John is performed and directed with so much compassion and understanding that the implications of living in a tight-knit community with friends and family, whilst feeling or caring nothing for other people becomes poignantly clear. It is also the main character’s lack of human compassion that allows for such a successful merging of genre, as any potentially clichéd family drama tropes are immediately deflected by the fact that John really feels nothing for those that care for him, which is a disturbing concept in itself.

As a horror, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a multifaceted take on the genre, utilising 70s/80s stalk and slasher suspense alongside Cronenbergian body horror and more. The scares come frequently enough, with a balance of sudden jumps and shuddering creeps. Witnessed through John’s perspective, the vicious kills are depicted with a cold, objective lens akin to a nature documentary. Watching the murder of a human through John’s cold eye is interpreted more similarly to a lion taking a kill, and its through this perspective that the slow burning, chilling tone of the film builds to its violent, icky yet emotional climax.

Aesthetically, I Am Not a Serial Killer has a somewhat grungey, Lo-Fi edge to it. Filmed on gorgeous, grainy 16mm celluloid, the film opens to a moody, bedroom rock tune (composed by North London band King Bomba) over a shot of a long haired, hoodie clad John furiously peddling through town, setting the film up with a fuzzy and almost slacker-cool vibe. Props, costume and set-wise, the film could be placed anywhere from the 90s to now, save for a few on screen smart phones, which really adds to the sense of middle-of-nowhere, forgotten town claustrophobia. The SFX is monstrously thick, sticky and oozing and looks utterly grotesque under the Fujifilm grain. The camera revels in the sticky pools of bubbling black and fleshy red gore (not to mention the bubblegum pink formaldehyde from John’s family mortuary), which complement the film’s overall Lo-Fi indie aesthetic and throwback qualities.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is a sumptuous celluloid nightmare and is one of 2016’s best releases, both in and outside of the horror genre that has, frankly, been largely unoriginal and disappointing this year. Max Records as John Wayne Cleaver is an absolute treat and this emerging talent is certainly one to look out for, as well as being supported by an excellent cast. It’s a slightly tricky film to find, and has had on and off releases at various film festivals so keep an eye out; you wont be sorry.

Very cool, S x.


Reviews written by Stefan Filby at Dudes Have No Choice. 

(Oh my God it’s…)Elvis & Nixon

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Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star, respectively, in the film Elvis & Nixon (directed by Liza Johnson), which tells the bizarre true story of when Elvis Presley turned up to the White House out of the blue requesting to meet President Nixon as “a matter of national security”. The lead roles are well performed and humorous, yet the film lacks depth and focus, missing out on what could have been a great exploration of two very different American icons meeting at the height of their fame.


Michael Shannon navigates very well as Elvis Presley through the first half of the film, of which is essentially a montage of reaction shots, with woman and White House officials gasping “oh my God it’s Elvis!”, which is a joke that soon wears thin. After a repetitive and drawn out first act of Elvis sauntering around Washington, and White House officials scrambling to convince Nixon to meet The King, we finally have it; Elvis is in the building.

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The famous picture of Elvis meeting Nixon.

The leads expertly perform their characters, with the awkward, hunched shouldered Nixon affectionately played by Spacey and Shannon delivering a somewhat lost and delusional yet charismatic and unpredictable rock star, and the meeting of the two has some very funny awkward fumbles and conflicts of power and masculinity. However, with too many badly landed gags (not to forget the presence of Johnny Knoxville in a bad 70s wig) the climax of the film soon starts to resemble a bad Saturday Night Live sketch, which is a shame because with Spacey and Shannon’s chemistry it could have been great.

Elvis & Nixon had everything it needed in its performances to be a much better film, yet it lacked good comic timing and, most predominately, direction and focus. It’s hard to tell if the film is about either the historical meeting of two American icons, a clearly unstable Elvis dealing with his fame or the effect that this fame has on the people in his life. Whilst some scenes scratch the surface of these subjects (the most memorable being a touching moment in which Elvis speaks of his twin brother who died at birth, exploring for a second the complexity of Elvis’ character) they usually end with just the one scene and aren’t followed through with enough commitment. This results in a patchy narrative, held together at the seams by the film’s leads who’s strong performances are not supported with enough weight behind the thinly penned script. The nostalgic sets, costumes, and music may be evocative to an older audience who remember the era best, but for a younger audience a lot of what could have been a much better film will probably wash over them.

Very cool, S x.


Reviews written by Stefan Filby at Dudes Have No Choice.

Where to Invade Next

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Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore’s latest feature, takes the premise of Moore “invading” other countries (Italy, France, Finland, Slovenia, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Tunisia and Iceland *breathes*) to steal their sociopolitical ideas and bring them back to the USA. On his trip Moore visits Italy and explores labour rights, looks at school meals in France, visits a Norwegian prison and learns of the education system in Finland, as well as a few more stop offs, comparing these ideas against the sociopolitical state of The USA. It is snappy, wacky and optimistic, but presents an incredibly and perhaps ignorantly narrow scope of the world.


Whilst the ideals that Moore is exploring are beautiful and compelling, and will often make you reflect on your own country’s state of affairs, what we are essentially given here is a bloated, 2 hour long Buzzfeed article titled “X Reasons Why THESE Countries Are Better Than The USA”, delivered by the sometimes funny but often grating Michael Moore. There is a lot to take away from this documentary in its exploration of how and why these countries have achieved such things but Moore often only grazes the surface before jetting off to his next destination, carrying his ironic Star-Spangled Banner over his shoulder. Its not really the bitesized information given that makes this documentary seem somewhat pointless, but the over-simplification and perhaps ignorant viewpoint given of these countries. For example, whilst in France Moore says something along the lines of “the French are lovers, not fighters“, disregarding, perhaps, France’s military history.

The Eurocentric, Eurosimplistic tone of Where to Invade Next paints a pretty picture of the rest of the world, showing quaint German factories and beautiful French children in order to dramatically juxtapose these images against a USA that appears to be imploding on itself, whilst disregarding the multiple crises faced everywhere else.

This is not necessarily a bad film, and is a fairly well crafted piece that guides the viewer slickly from destination to destination with funny and emotive scenes along the way, as well as some level of insight into the countries and their inner-workings. It is, however, simplistic in content and after some time, irritating in tone. It is a film made for Americans to show them that they can do better at home, with the “look, Europe is so cute!” perspective that Europeans despise so much. And if that wasn’t enough to capture the USA audience that the film is intended towards, Moore concludes that all of the wonderful, liberal and progressive ideas shown in these countries are, after all, American ideas!
Where to Invade Next has a somewhat funny, light-hearted world view with a gentle level of escapism and is a refreshingly optimistic approach that remains, however, over-simplistic and sometimes irreverent to its subject matter. Michael Moore can do, and has done better.

Very cool, S x.


Review written by Stefan Filby at Dudes Have No Choice.

The Witch

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The Witch is a masterful display of moody, unsettling arthouse horror that is deeply immersive in 17th century New England folklore. It’s impressive attention to historical detail, stark reminders of the abhorrent Salam Witch Trials and the agonising unravelling of an isolated family in mourning not only paints a bleak and terrifying period piece, but is also reflective of modern day scapegoating culture and paranoia of an outside evil recruiting those within our society.

(Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Witch and other films!)


“Good horror is taking a look at what’s actually dark in humanity, instead of shining a quick flashlight on it and running away giggling”, says The Witch writer and director Robert Egger in a recent Guardian article, and he couldn’t be more correct. Of course, there is a mastery involved in the nerve-wracking jump scares, freakish effects and disturbing storylines that gives the horror genre such a unique stance in filmic culture, where its only limitations are that of the human imagination. However, the films that really get under your skin and into your thoughts at night reflect very real horror that is closer than we expect, or wish it to be.

Take, for example, George A. Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 film “Night of The Living Dead”, which tells the story of survivors of an undead “ghoul” outbreak hiding within a rural farmhouse. Made during a chaotic time in American history, in which civil rights advocates clashed with right wing racists; a time that saw the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Romero’s story of a group that should be united against a mutual threat’s inability to work together and subsequent defeat against the ghouls is the perfect allegory for a time in which society was divisive and at war with itself.
Romero’s 1979 zombie flick follow up “Dawn of The Dead” also reflects sociopolitical affairs, foreseeing the greed and mass consumerism of Reagan-era USA, as survivors hide from a zombie threat inside a shopping mall, both sustained and consumed by the retail world around them.
Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 sci-fi gothic horror “Alien” sees a crew of mineral miners aboard a commercial spaceship forced to outrun a terrifying alien beast, which is later revealed to have been deliberately brought on board for the needs of “The Company”. Alien is, amongst other things, a tale of the expendable nature of workers in the name of corporate greed and indeed reflected the burgeoning greed of Wall Street and other financial centres in the 1980s.
Even a beast stalking the waters of a New York seaside town can be a manifestation of sociopolitical issues. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” (made towards the end of the Vietnam war) shows young Americans picked off by a giant shark as the town’s authorities underestimate the threat at hand, refusing to acknowledge their failures to protect the citizens until one too many people die, and society demands change.
Real world issues and the darkness of humanity can also be seen in more recent horror. “It Follows” (David Robert Mitchell, 2014) is about facing the reality of ever-impending mortality and “The Babadook” (Jennifer Kent, 2014) is about overwhelming grief at the loss of a loved one. Great horror carries more to it than big jumps and gory effects, and The Witch definitely follows suit.

The Witch, set in the 1630s, tells the story of William (Ralph Ineson) and his family as they are exiled from a Puritan Christian plantation to a small farm on the border of a looming, foreboding forest, literally at the fringes of society. When the baby son, Samuel, suddenly vanishes the family begins to mourn for their mysteriously lost child. At first wolves are blamed, but soon superstition of witchcraft creeps in, and as Samuel was in the care of the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) at the time of his disappearance, the family’s faith in Thomasin starts to wane.

What really makes The Witch interesting and different to a lot of the jump-scare horrors of recent is the we see the monster very early on. There is no big reveal; Samuel disappears in front of Thomasin and is next seen in the arms of an old hag, who proceeds to take the baby to her lair, murder him (off screen) and use his remains for a gruesome potion of some sort. What this early reveal achieves is a stage set for the rest of the film on which the family will act out its sorrow, fears and superstitions, making that the true horror to witness. We know that the witch is real and we have already witnessed her wicked brutality, and there is no hope whatsoever for the baby’s return, so all we can hope for is that the family can move on and thrive. But as the mother, Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) anguish doesn’t subside, the father and eldest son’s (Harvey Scrimshaw) crops fail and the madly aggravating twins (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) start to point the finger at Thomasin, screaming “witch”, the household starts to break down. The accusations, mysterious occurrences, societal isolation and religious superstitions are used as tension building devices towards the true horror of the film, which is the scapegoating of a young girl for the family’s misfortunes.

The parallels that can be drawn against our own society today, as those demonised by society turn away to join groups that provide an aggressive and hateful outlet for their social rejection in a self-fulfilling-prophecy, are clear and horrifying and real. It is not so much the threat of a satanic monstrous hag that we are most confronted with in The Witch, but instead the horror of a family turning against their daughter, laying the burden of guilt on Thomasin for her brother’s disappearance and later even claiming she is the witch herself. In the disorientating violent finale that sees her family killed, Thomasin looks at a society that would sooner blame an innocent young woman for being just that, a woman, and turns her back on it. Thomasin makes a deal with the devil and walks, proudly stripped naked of her modest puritanical attire into the forest of the witches coven, and a sense of empowerment is certainly handed to the audience. However, a reminder echoes in the back of the mind of those profiled and isolated by society today, and the small few that reject a society in which they are, by default, suspect and sign up with evil.


Review written by Stefan Filby at Dudes Have No Choice ©

Attic Abasement – Dancing is Depressing

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Attic Abasement are a moody three piece lofi rock group from Rochester, NY. With a new album “Dream News” due on May 27th on Father/Daughter Records (with two teaser tracks available now) its time to recap on Attic Abasement’s 2010 release, “Dancing is Depressing”.



Dancing is Depressing a scrapbook of flakey beer coasters, strip club matchbooks, crumpled love letters and used tissues. Tales depicting lovers, friends, addicts, depressives and psychopaths at the end of their tether bleed out of the speakers. Like a candle melted down to the base with dying flame, at its most vulnerable yet beautiful state as it sits in a pool of its own sticky fluids, this record depicts downfall with red eyed honesty. You might have caught on by this point that this album is a sad one, however, a level of scratchy comfort lies here. Like an old sweater with ripped cuffs and cigarette burns that you keep forever, here’s Attic Abasement.


Attic Abasement started out as a solo project for songwriter Mike Rheinheimer with a jangled, “boys DO cry” ultra lofi vibe (one record, Don’t Hate Fuck, was recorded on a dictaphone, and “never exposed to the light of digital editing/mixing/mastering or any of that bullshit”). Songs explored an inner turmoil and self-hatred that continued up to Dancing is Depressing. The production, however, improved with Rheinheimer’s deep, grainy voice moodily reverberating through the space left by the evenly mixed yet ruggedly crafted instrumentation.

Lyrically, Rheinheimer laments his body on Dancing is Depressing at it’s weakest, broken form. “Australia”, the record’s first track, opens with the lines:

I can’t think with my dick,

And my body ain’t no temple,

And all my wisdom’s blocked by some lips.

How do I know that I’m alive?

Straight away, “Australia” introduces the record with a central theme of representing the world surrounding Rheinheimer through either his or the song’s characters’ physical experiences. It also explores a personal crisis of masculinity, with the character mourning his inability to “think with [his] dick” possibly exploring a perceived lack of masculinity, and inability to follow his supposed masculine instincts. He then goes on to question how he can feel alive if both his body and intellect are flawed, tying his physical form to his internal anxiety.

The world surrounding these anxieties, however, is not presented as oppressive. Lyrically, we’re looking at a character that accepts his faults and inadequacy within the world. Apart from, perhaps, “Problems Getting Numb” (with lyrics such as “Why won’t you make friends with me? / Why won’t nobody care for me?“) Rheinheimer’s lyrics do not shoot blame for his misery outwards to the rest of the world, but instead appears to accept fault in himself, which is infinitely sadder.

Themes of isolation and physical anxieties are also explored through sexuality and sexual deviance. The male body in Dancing is Depressing is falling apart; a sort of exhausted empty shell, and often reaches out for feeling and sensation in sex. In “Change Machine” Rheinheimer cleverly looks at feelings of loneliness and bodily inadequacy through voyeurism and exhibitionism, with the lines:

I used to jerk off just to fucking people,

Now I jerk off to people jerking off to me.

These lines depict an abandonment of power, with the position of the voyeur handed over to another in exchange for the gratification of being sexualised himself. The anxiety felt by the character is remedied by fulfilling a desire to not just watch, but to be watched as well, possibly by somebody just as self deprecating and alone as he is.

Of the two released tracks from the upcoming “Dream News“, “Guarantee Jesus” stands out. We’re now looking at a somewhat more optimistic band, with guitar, bass and drums symbiotically cruising through the track as Rheinheimer’s vocals groove with the guitar in the verse, then rises in a wailing, uplifting, phrase as the chorus concludes. A refreshing, stripped back and almost soothing introduction to what seems like another great release from Attic Abasement.

Very cool, S x.


If the links in the article weren’t enough, here’s Attic Abasement’s Bandcamp page. You can also follow them on Facebook. Article written by Stefan Filby.

King of Cats – Microwave Oven

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Image Courtesy of Artreeks

King of Cats is a viscous, sticky concoction of lofi indie folk pop peppered with masculine angst, heartbreak and longing, stemming from the weird and wonderful mind of Max Levy. Brighton based, King of Cats dances dangerously on the fringe of art pop, and would potentially take the full plunge if it wasn’t so damn catchy. King of Cat’s latest album, Microwave Oven, offers all the unique delights of 2014’s Working Out, but with a more bold and deliberate expression of his sound. Four albums deep (by the writer’s count), King of Cats has built a dedicated following. But for the rest of you, here’s introducing King of Cats.


Lets get something ironed out first; King of Cats is strange and by pop’s standards, it shouldn’t work. The wailing, quite literally feline-esque vocals cut through the tracks, shaking and breathless, and in all honesty freaks some listeners out. But it does work, oh God it does. Armed with a guitar, a backing band and synths, this music bridges the gap between thought and expression. King of Cats doesn’t hold back on spilling his mind; he describes with detail every sticky anxious mistake he has made, exclaiming with a bleeding tongue raw and visceral depictions of heartbreak, inadequacy and obsession, spitting animalistic metaphors with nuanced meaning.

Whereas Working Out explores the complexities of the male body and masculinity, with much of its angst looking inwards, “Microwave Oven” seems to focus more on friendship and relationships, as well as childhood memories and fears. Maturing from the half fuzzy garage band/half dark folksy vibes of Working Out, Microwave Oven explores a well balanced but more varied style, with heavy synth pop songs preceding soft, melancholy songs of separation, then throwing the listener back into wailing, guttural vocals and screeching keys. This off-kilter nature is almost dream-like, stumbling through the corridor of King of Cat’s mind, opening doors to reveal twisted vignettes of his life.

“Incorrect”, the album’s single (with a delightful video, above, made with help from Joey Fourr) is a wonderfully crafted minimal lofi pop banger, with a super fun and catchy chorus hook. However, the poetic mastery of “Naked Fucking Bodies Flying High” or the moody, quivering nursery rhyme that is “Car Park” prove that this album is worth listening to in its entirety. An open mind and open ears will settle you into this unique artist, perhaps leaving you hooked. All hail the King!

Very cool, S X.


Find King of Cats’ music on Bandcamp and follow him on Facebook for info on shows and what not. Article written by Stefan Filby.