The Shed – Review

Directed by Frank Sabatella

Written by Frank Sabatella & Jason Rice

Rating: 2 out of 5.

When a vampire hides out in the shed, your premise teeters on the brink of ludicrous rather than serious. Frank Sabatella’s The Shed (2019) though has serious chomps to take out of the social paradigm of bullying, abuse, and snap judgements, it’s just a shame this all gets wrapped up in the wrong delivery. Stan is a young man (though seven years too old for a high-schooler) who grows up under the vigilant ‘boomer’ antics of his Grandfather, a crotchety, one-note character who seems determined to berate Stan despite the traumatic deaths of his parents.

Life isn’t any easier at school, as Stan and best friend Dommer are the outcasts, the weirdos, and traditionally far too square-jawed and attractive to convey this. They suffer from the norms of high school, love lost, bullies and a suspiciously missing faculty, the pair come to realise that a vampire has taken up residence in Stan’s shed. An apparition of unmitigated power, particularly of violent masculinity, this beast tempts Dommer into aiding him to unleash his bloodlust onto the bullies who have driven Dommer to the point of derangement. All the while, Stan figures out how to keep the town safe, remove the threat and of course, secure the attention of love interest Roxy.

When your film dedicates itself to a body count, the inclusion of unpleasant characters come par of the course. Where The Shed drops the ball is in creating such one-dimensional supporting characters, that even forced empathy cannot rally the audience to support the slaughter of bullies or mourn the loss of the only decent humans. After twenty minutes of watching, the only character worth concern is the pet dog. Cody Kostro’s Dommer starts thoroughly unlikable and attempts to forge a connection with the audience fail. Entirely down to the writing, Kostro turns in a harrowingly visceral performance once the taunts and assaults get too much for him, he snaps, and what follows is a performance deserving of a better film.

Equally, the chemistry between Stan (Jay Jay Warren) and Roxy (Sofia Happonen) develops well, at first seeming bland and an obligatory male gaze, Happonen turns in a fleshed-out performance, or at least as far as she is able, given the scenario. There’s a running problem where much of the setup is hashed to begin and develops over time, but not in the correct manner, while the payoff of characterisation emerges, it comes from nothing, especially from bully Marble, played by Chris Petrovski, who is fundamentally flat until the stand-off he has with Kostro in the film’s most potent moment. The characterisation and direction haven’t led to this naturally, instead, the writing conducts a reversal and the actors happen to turn in a deeper performance.

Here The Shed demonstrates its most substantial issue. Often in cinema, a solid start is the norm, and a weak ending follows. Sabatella’s writing subverts this, and the film’s setup is ineffective, but the thought process behind the latter half is frustratingly powerful. That of a ‘monster’ in the shed, a being amalgamed from uncontrollable rage which calls to the downtrodden, the abused and hurt. This symbolic nature of unleashing said monstrosity to punish, at the cost of our decency is fully stripped by the feeble setup and inability to connect. Such a powerful metaphor for those of us who dreamt of a power to defeat bullies, only to recognise our shift into the monster, squandered.

Disregarding the semantical nature, this tension fuels the ending, and there’s a sobering moment before the climax where the assaulter and his victims have a final confrontation. Dommer carrying a firearm, the victim turned assailant now devoid of empathy or reason, as the music cuts the emotions heighten, and the acting is nothing of what it once was. If anything, this brutally frank scene on the warping of a victims mindset is made for a far superior film which didn’t need the supernatural aspect.

But, at its core, The Shed is a horror film, and as such the supernatural aspect is integral. It’s a shame that despite the cleverness in the lore, particularly the toying with lighting, isn’t capitalised on correctly. The vampire is revealed excessively early, blowing any payoff later into the film. Even after revealing the look of the being, which has adequate make-up, the film continuously shows the creature, gradually stripping any tangible fear the audience may have. Traditionally, vampires are ‘the other’, the foreigner, the unknown monster. The unfamiliar element here is potentially masculine aggression, but Sabatella isn’t tying this into the vampire lore, this could have been any movie monstrosity.

Neither ridiculous nor gory, The Shed seems unsure of which avenue to remain in. It certainly contains the levity, satire and jokes to call itself an attempted comedy, but the teenage angst and more serious notes towards bullying suggest an attempt at a severe notion beneath the traditional horror angle. Sabatella is conflicted, wanting to cover too many bases, and unfortunately ends up creating murky waters in what was tremendous potential. There are certainly fangs, but they don’t draw much blood.

Review originally published for In Their Own League:

Lycanthropy – Short Film Review

Written & Directed by Alexander Black

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The world isn’t black and white, nor is it a true ‘grey area’. More often than not, in the world of crime and abuse, there’s regularly a slash of crimson added into the mix. People don’t always agree that the punishment fits the crime, especially when it involves minors. Alexander Black’s short-film Lycanthropy deals with the unpleasant reality of child pornography and its impact on those who are duty-bound to confront it.

Detective Chief Inspector Kessler, your typically smarmy and overconfident police offer, begins to take matters into his own hands. He’s disenfranchised by the organisation he works for and, as we discover, is suffering from some separation issues altering his thought process. The disappearance of a young girl infuses him with a bloodthirst which stretches the hunt beyond the professional and into the primal.

Quite literally ‘seeing red’, a distortion of sorts overcomes Kessler as the events twist in his mind, seemingly under extreme pressures from a failed marriage, substance abuse and his failings in finding the girl. This dynamic split, which offers the film’s title, reveals itself both from an editing perspective and performance. It’s one of the more well-done aspects of Black’s production, and while the wolf imagery is a touch on-the-nose, Paul Duncan’s conveyance of his descent into an unhinged mindset (especially through simple lines such as “I didn’t do this”) has enough emphasis in the correct place to reinforce the question of just who is the monster here, and who precisely is in control.

Beyond performance and direction, Lycanthropy’s score plays a large function in the storytelling. Rob Northcott’s musical composition is fitting of a thriller-detective piece, but contains an infusion of sharp notes when emotions are taut. Further, canny use of sound effects in the editing process proffer clues and further insights into the characters’ actions, and for the keen listener an answer to the film’s cliff-hanger. This is perhaps best demonstrated in an otherwise mundane, anticipated scene, where Kessler laments his failed marriage and the time not spent with his daughter, only for the radio to distort the abuses hurled at the inspector, revealing how unstable he is becoming.

It strikes as peculiar that with such delicacy taken in the scoring, Black’s writing can dip, and degrees of subtlety vacate Lycanthropy. There’s a short timescale to get plot points across to the audience, but the golden rule of ‘show don’t tell’ is broken frequently. Does it distract from the overall film? Not necessarily. Is it understandable that a short will cut to exposition? Assuredly. There are just occasions in which a look – or even audio cues – are enough without needed reinforcement.

There’s a solid foundation for the world-building at play here too, as the film’s cinematography is impressive. Kurt Riddell’s photography conjures the tone of a modestly budgeted televised show. Kessler has room to flex his body, to allow a physicality to emerge in tandem with his deteriorating sanity. Lighting often reflects the tension, for the most part bordering on monochromatic, devoid of colour in the sea of browns and greys. This, of course, makes for a stark impact at the splices of wolf footage, the symbolic bestial nature of Kessler’s rage emerging.

Lycanthropy ticks all the boxes for a television pilot, with a sense of checking popular responses and tropes, but there is uniqueness. Black’s short film captures a twofold, malformed monster emerging from the depths of human capability. There are the abhorrent actions of a man exploiting minors, and the defragmenting sanity of someone who places a personal vendetta upon the crime. Lycanthropy frames itself well, and despite procedural moments, is a tightly constructed film which delves into depravity more than the viewer may care to venture. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Extraction – Netflix

Directed by Sam Hargrave

Screenplay by Joe Russo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Hiring an unsavoury sort of chap to secure to the safety of a loved one has seemingly grown into its own genre these days, hasn’t it? From director and stunt-coordinator Sam Hargrave, Netflix is looking to secure viewership with the draw of high-stakes action, visuals and the mighty shoulders of Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth stars as Tyler Rake, an air soldier-turned mercenary, tasked with securing the son of India’s largest drug-lord, who has been kidnapped by his competitor.

For the most part, banking on Hemsworth and Hargrave has served well for Netflix. What works in Extraction lies squarely on those concrete shoulders, a safe foundation. The audience is quick to side with Hemsworth’s role. It’s a magnetic performance, which draws us in both to the mystery of Rake’s previous actions and the ongoing mission, excessively bolstered by spectacular choreography and the attitude Hemsworth exudes, particularly through his interactions with old colleague Gaspar. 

These scenes are touching, character building and reinforce Netflix’s firm grip on their good luck charm David Harbour (who plays Gaspar), but they’re few and far between. They should be seen as anchors showing where Hemsworth’s character has grown across the film, but instead are moments of forced exposition to attribute ‘depth’ between body counts. It’s frustrating, as from a casting perspective, Hargrave and the Russo brothers lay superb foundations. Priyanshu Painyuli takes a turn as a sadistically narcissistic villain, while Golshifteh Farahani deserves a larger role as Rake’s mercenary partner who unequivocally steals the final moments of the film. Although it is young actor Suraj Rikame whose minimal screentime as Farhad makes a significant impact. A teen born into an internal drug war, Farhad is a harrowing reminder of the perversion of adolescence into soldiers.

At times, Hargrave mistakes excess for edginess, cluttering otherwise impressive one-take shots and stretching them beyond technical impressiveness into cartoonish violence. It’s staggeringly well-choreographed, as shots follows Hemsworth through buildings, switching points of view in seamless transitions over stairwells, through windows and flipping over shoulders. Fundamentally, the skill of this lies in stunt choreography, which is no shock, considering director Hargrave’s domination of stunt-coordination of mammoth Hollywood films.

This does raise questions regarding an infusion of choreography from a movement expert’s perspective, and from that of the cinematography. Despite managing to keep up with the pacing, this latter aspect isn’t framed particularly well throughout and tends to home in on Hemsworth’s mug, rather than the action at hand. Certainly dynamic in composition, but narratively successful? Dubious.

Any argument made of Extraction’s ‘awareness’ in its grotesquely unnecessary violence and quips is at fault. This springs from the unease of a director who seems unsure whether to push for a pastiche or to deploy a genuine bloodthirsty depiction of modern civilian warfare, landing somewhere in the middle and echoing an extended gaming cutscene. Occasionally, it works, showcasing the brutality of drug wars. The issue arises when Extraction steps beyond realism and makes obvious moves to intensify violence, which removes tension and strays into a fantasy level of conflict.

Extraction is already proving itself as a successful piece of Netflix’s arsenal, but when placing it on the table against similar in the genre, it’s vastly overcast by superior films. Hemsworth turns in a solid performance, but did Netflix necessarily intend to bank on another ‘white saviour’ narrative? Extraction isn’t bringing much to the table, but if this was all the film is guilty of, it’s safe to say Netflix is deploying all tactics and star power to stay above its growing competition – and for now, it’s working.

Extraction is available now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review: