We Summon the Darkness – Review

Directed by Marc Meyers

USA/ 2019/ 91 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Satanists get a bit of a bad reputation, don’t they? Whether it’s John Carpenter’s hideously underappreciated Prince of Darkness, or the more recent The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the blurring of humanity and its association with the Devil is as ancient a narrative tool as possible. Then there were the slasher films of the late seventies through to the early nineties, a genre which gluttoned itself with zealous-religious killers. Marrying the two together made just about as much sense as it does now, as We Summon the Darkness begins with news reports of satanic cultists slaughtering innocents across eighties America, just as three young women embark on their road trip to the biggest ’80s metalhead gig around.

Unfortunately for our lead, Alexandra Daddario once more showcases her inscrutable taste in film choices. It’s by far the most cohesive performance in the film, principally for how out-there Daddario pushes the character, plunging headfirst into the eighties schlockfest of video nasties and cultist slasher flicks. Continuing this, Daddario’s co-stars Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth are giving tremendous energy to the film – Forsyth as a young runaway, who turns to the girls for support, brings an unexpected dynamic to the film. The imbalance between performances occurs with the men, where attempts are made at gender reversal and a comment on the ‘lamb to slaughter’ nature of women in preceding slasher films. The execution fails to convey this naturally, stemming from the meek direction, flimsy writing, and vacant performances. While the women can capitalise on their antagonism, the guys just aren’t bringing anything memorable to the table.

This gender reversal is almost well-constructed, exhibiting an otherwise unexpected depth. Placing the men as powerless, now-stripped pieces of gaze material to be massacred is a clever aspect to take, but the film doesn’t run with the concept for long. The revelation that a patriarchal cultist is manipulating these young women removes the agency they have, going against what has been set up.  While the notion of a female killer is far from original, the trio had potential as a unique force, particularly in the droning era of post-modern slashers where remakes from the golden ’80s era are cycling the motions. There’s a small, niche territory of genuine pieces which distort the conventions such as The Guest orIt Follows, and We Summon the Darkness had the promise to join these and reclaim the genre from television, which seems to have taken up the mantle. 

Giving Marc Meyers credit, We Summon the Darkness superficially achieves what it sets out to in capturing a distinctly cult/slasher flair. Ridiculous, and borrowing heavily from more engaging films, We Summon the Darkness drapes itself in attempted pastiche but fails to cover itself in much bloodshed. For a script that has glints of wickedness, it plays it remarkably safe. The threat posed to the trio is almost immediately doused by the inadequacies of the cultists, whose ineptitude and inexperience, while a plot point, serves little in the way of horror. An inexperienced killer should be terrifying, their motivations clouded, but instead, it strips any power from the points the film is attempting to make.

Beneath the slasher homages and incessant borrowing from the horror library, We Summon the Darkness wastes rich potential as it falls victim to its execution. Leaning on the angle of nostalgia, suffering from tedious performances, and a substantial lack of terror means any attempts at a neo-slasher going for the throat of misogyny is all but put to rest by Meyers’ inability to brandish these weapons effectively.

We Summon the Darkness is available on Video-On-Demand Now

Review originally published for The Wee Review:https://theweereview.com/review/we-summon-the-darkness/

The Willoughbys – Netflix

Based on the book by Lois Lowry

Written by Kris Pearn & Mark Stanleigh

Directed by Kris Pearn, Cory Evans & Rob Lodermeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

At one point or another, we’ve all fallen out with our folks, maybe to the extent we wish we had been adopted but hopefully not to the extreme where we send them on a deadly holiday. The Willoughbys, however, are perhaps as dysfunctional as it is possible to be. As twisted as they are colourful, this update on A Series of Unfortunate Events focuses on the titular Willoughbys and their pursuit of a loving family. From the mind of author Lois Lowry, directors Kris Pearn and Mark Stanleigh have adapted the original book for Netflix in a bid to increase the platform’s original children’s content. 

Tim, Jane and the twins Barnaby A and B are frequently starved, left to sleep in the coal bin and generally made to feel like they are burdens on their mother and father. Their parents are neglectful, callous and, worst of all, can’t even grow a proper moustache. After encountering an orphan and sending it to live with Commander Melanoff, an eccentric candy factory owner, the children forge a relationship with their nanny, the cheapest one their parents could find. Animated with weaving motions, where the illustrations offer weight to the characters, much of the story focuses on physical humour and offers levity to the often macabre narrative.

Detaching themselves from the story (for the most part), The Willoughby’s narrator is a blue tabby cat, an otherwise unassuming character who provides off-the-cuff remarks with a voice courtesy of Ricky Gervais. While that may put some viewers off, it should be known that Gervais’ performance is limited and also one of the film’s better casting choices. His narcissistic tones suit the animation of the feline prowler, while his performance, as expected, is certainly the most recognisable and little is done to distinguish the fact it’s Gervais. Love him or loathe him, there’s an element of comedy brought to the performance, and a genuine sense of romanticism for traditional storytelling.

Of the four children, Tim and Jane are voiced by Will Forte and Alessia Cara respectively, and the twins by noted voice artist Seán Cullen. With this Cara’s first foray into the animation genre, the singer effortlessly captures an authentic sense of childlike innocence and thirst for adventure and contributes the film’s sole musical number – a touching song, with haunting edges contrasting against the bouncy nature of the score. Really, though, as one would naturally expect, Jane Krakowski and Martin Short catapult the film well above the heads of the kids and directly into the notorious realms of adult humour as Mother and Father. The pair are despicable and have a dimension of sliminess that just cannot be resisted.

The intention to maintain this bright, almost patchwork style of animation works marvels with the deceptive nature of characters. Craig Kellman’s character creations, recognisable from his work on Hotel Transylvania, avoid the pitfalls of visual bluntness. While animated films are notorious for drawing attention to antagonists with obvious designs, The Willoughbys staves off this idea for the most part. Our antagonists are evident from their actions, not their aspects, and our misunderstood supporting cast members are redeemed too with words and deed. It enables a more precise lesson for children, where a character’s motivation speaks louder than their image.

Across the board, fragmentation occurs when The Willoughbys is considered as a whole as opposed to scene-by-scene. Segments of the story are undeveloped, emphasising mundane details or characters, but these loose threads in an otherwise fantastical and inventive tapestry cannot detract from the overall aesthetic, which rivals any major feature churned out from juggernauts of the children’s media empire.

Marrying whimsy with the brutality of a classic Dahl tale, The Willoughbys may conjure perceptions of a flimsy (and perhaps cheap) children’s amusement tool, but Netflix stands toe-to-toe with the Mouse and the Moon and far outshines Illuminations with their recent addition to the animated library.

The Willoughbys is available to stream now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-willoughbys/

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: https://theweereview.com/review/lycanthropy/