BOYS IN THE TREES (Australia, dir. Nicholas Verso)
It’s Halloween night in 1997, and Corey (Toby Wallace) is on the verge of making some big life changes. He’s applied to art school in New York, both because of his love of photography and his desire to get as far away as possible from the Australian town where he has grown up. But his “best friend” Jango (Justin Holborow) wants Corey to join the gang for another rowdy Halloween of terrorizing the locals, and Corey reluctantly agrees. Later that night Corey splits off and runs into his childhood friend Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), one of Jango’s favorite targets. Jonah challenges Corey to a reprise of a game they used to play as kids, setting off on an increasingly surreal journey through the lore of their town. BOYS IN THE TREES is a dark coming of age tale with a surprisingly expansive scope for its confinement to the events of one evening. Wallace and McGrath provide solid leads, and Mitzi Ruhlmann has a small but memorable supporting role as Romany, a classmate of the boys who understands Corey’s desire to flee suburbia for something better. There is plenty of creepy imagery and a palpable sense of bittersweet nostalgia, but at nearly two full hours the film eventually starts to feel a bit too heavy for its own good. Regardless, BOYS IN THE TREES is well worth a look and marks writer/director Nicholas Verso as a talent to watch.
TERROR 5 (Argentina, dir. Sebastian & Federico Rotstein)
The verdict in a high-profile case of government corruption is about to come down, and the city is in turmoil. Protestors gather and the TV crews are out in force, but before the night is out that verdict is hardly going to be the biggest story. TERROR 5 is an anthology of sorts with the outcome of the trial acting as the frame story, but the other stories are presented by cutting back and forth between some of them instead of as their own self-contained sequences. Each one is inspired by a different urban legend, but none of them really seem to complement each other in any meaningful way. Each story is frustratingly inert; nothing here is done particularly well, but the film is technically competent. The ending suggests the culmination of a political commentary that seems totally absent from the rest of the film, which traffics largely in exhausted horror tropes: snuff films, creepy hotels, hard-partying youths, and an army of the walking dead. TERROR 5 never adds up to much, instead feeling like a jumble of disparate elements that never come together.
HOUNDS OF LOVE (Australia, dir. Ben Young)
John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth) live in a quiet Australian suburb in the late 1980s where they have made a habit of kidnapping and killing young women as part of their sexual routine. One evening they pick up Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) just a few blocks away from her mother’s house as she sneaks out to a party. Over the next several days, Ashleigh observes the couple’s relationship and desperately tries to figure out how to use what she learns to escape while her estranged parents attempt to convince the police to do anything to help bring Vicki home. HOUNDS OF LOVE covers some very dark and familiar territory, but it does so with an uncommon artistry. Writer/director Ben Young has crafted a technically impressive horror show, impeccably shot by cinematographer Michael McDermott. Curry is terrifying as John and Booth is scary and heartbreaking by turns, the couple leading a solid cast. This is some extremely dark territory, but its technical merits elevate HOUNDS OF LOVE above its contemporaries even if they don’t necessarily make it any easier to watch.
TWO PIGEONS (UK, dir. Dominic Bridges)
Hussein (Mim Shaikh) is a successful real estate agent with a carefully ordered home life and a complete lack of empathy or morality when it comes to his work. After he leaves for work one day, Orlan (Javier Botet) appears in Hussein’s apartment seemingly out of nowhere. Dirty and unkempt, Orlan sneaks around the apartment and carefully covers his tracks so Hussein won’t notice the intrusion. As days and weeks pass, Orlan starts sabotaging Hussein in subtle ways, earning him the wrath of his live-in girlfriend Mel (Mandeep Dhillon) and creepy boss Gerry (Michael McKell). Why is Orlan doing this, and where will it end? Debut feature director Dominic Bridges gives TWO PIGEONS an elaborately stylized look, which sometimes feels at odds with its dark but occasionally goofy humor. It’s all cold grays and smooth tracking shots, while Botet’s Orlan stalks around in filthy underwear and does unspeakable things with Hussein’s electric toothbrush. Anyone even remotely squeamish about such things should give this film a hard pass, as some of Orlan’s “pranks” are as disgusting as they are impressively imaginative. It’s actually easy to forget the entire film takes place within Hussein’s apartment, which is quite a feat. Botet and Shaikh’s characterizations are well-drawn and the tiny supporting cast all give great performances as well. It’s ultimately a long way to go for its final reveal, but TWO PIGEONS is an intriguing comedy/thriller with an uncommon sense of style.
MEATBALL MACHINE KODOKU (Japan, dir. Yoshihiro Nishimura)
Middle-aged Yuji (Yoji Tanaka) is having a pretty bad week. He hates his job as a debt collector and he’s really bad at it anyway. His aging mother is hitting him up for money, but he just maxed out his bank account. When he finds out he has cancer and only a short time to live, Yuji tries to turn his life around and meets young and beautiful Kaoru (Yurisa) just in time for a gigantic alien jar to fall from the sky and trap thousands of people in the city together. Soon alien parasites flood the streets, turning anyone infected into a biomechanical war machine with no purpose beyond fighting each other to the death. Yuji manages to retain his human consciousness and joins forces with a team of cops to save Kaoru from a city full of monsters. Director Yoshihiro Nishimura may be best known to American horror fans as the director of TOKYO GORE POLICE and HELLDRIVER, but he’s been working in special effects since the 1980s on cult classics from Shozin Fukui’s RUBBER’S LOVER to Noboru Iguchi’s THE MACHINE GIRL and nearly every one of Sion Sono’s films. Nishimura worked on the original MEATBALL MACHINE shorts and feature film, and his return to this world is appropriately bonkers. There is an unbelievable amount of practical gore in this film, complemented by insane puppets and makeup effects and a generous helping of atrocious CGI. Anyone familiar with those earlier films will have a good idea what to expect here: lots of screaming, POWER RANGERS-style fights between monsters (with fountains of gore, that is), and a tender love story buried under all the viscera. KODOKU has more humor than 2005’s model of MEATBALL MACHINE, though, which helps keep things interesting when the film’s absurd oceans of gore threaten to become just exhausting. THE MACHINE GIRL is probably the best entry point to this kind of balls-out modern Japanese splatter epic, but Nishimura’s willingness to embrace the absurdity of the style makes MEATBALL MACHINE KODOKU a welcome change of pace from its contemporaries.
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