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Dominic Corry: New horror films of note

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry examines four horror films that caught his eye on DVD.

Daniel Radcliffe stars in The Woman in Black. Photo / Supplied
Daniel Radcliffe stars in The Woman in Black. Photo / Supplied

I love a good horror film. But as we all know, 95 per cent of horror films are terrible. Which is why I pay attention when one comes along that exudes some element of pedigree, or displays a notable point of interest.

The last few weeks have seen several such films released on DVD in New Zealand, and I'm going to assess their quality here.

The Woman In Black got a lot of attention when it was first announced as it marked Daniel Radcliffe's first post-Harry Potter leading role. It's the second film adaptation of Susan Hill's1983 book (the previous being a 1989 TV movie), which has often been described as the quintessential English ghost story.

The film came out in cinemas in England and America, but apparently didn't do enough business to warrant a theatre run here, and has gone straight to DVD. It's a fate that befalls all but the highest profile horror films in this country, and it's depressing that such movies don't seem to attract a large enough audience here to justify a theatrical release.

The Woman In Black is exactly the kind of "classy" horror film that would've been heaps of fun to watch with an audience.

Set in Edwardian England, Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young London lawyer sent to a remote village to sort out the will of a recently deceased old spinster. The villagers attempt to send him on his way, but he persists and starts seeing a mysterious woman dressed in black around the place.

Even though I've seen the long-running - and fantastic - London stage adaptation of the book and thus knew what was coming, I still got a couple of decent scares while watching The Woman In Black. A wonderfully classic English gothic tone permeates the proceedings, which feels appropriate considering it was co-produced and released by the recently resurrected English horror studio, Hammer Films.

Jane Goldman, screenwriter of X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass, wrote this adaptation and it was directed by James Watkins, whose last film was the nasty English thriller Eden Lake. They take some clear influence from the modern J-Horror trend and insert plenty of 'tangible' - and often icky - horror elements into the film. Which is to say, it's quite a literal film that doesn't rely upon subtlety for its scares. But it works for the most part.

The best thing in the film is Eel Marsh House, the sprawling, overgrown estate that Kipps spends most of the story knocking about in - it's an old gothic mansion sitting atop a small island solely accessible by a causeway that is only traversable in low-tide.

The location is exploited excellently in the film, and it helps that Radcliffe spends most of his time alone there with nobody to talk to - any time he opens his mouth, I kept expecting his overly familiar voice to shout "expecto petronum" or something.

The Woman In Black doesn't feel like the final word on whether or not Radcliffe can carry a non-Potter film, but while he acquits himself with dignity, his youthfulness works against him. Still, it's a decent horror that is very much worth watching if you like old fashioned ghost stories enhanced by a little modern technology.

The next new horror film I will be discussing is The Awakening, which is only set about a dozen years after the events of the The Woman In Black, but feels several generations removed. It's a wonderfully made ghost story with a more mature tone than The Woman In Black, and is all the more impactful for it.

Luminescent English beauty Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona, The Town) plays Florence Cathcart, a committed debunker of psychic phenomena in post-World War I London. Dominic West (The Wire, The Hours) plays a teacher from a young boys boarding school plagued by apparent ghost sightings.

Florence hesitantly accepts the job of travelling to the remote Cumbrian school to expose what she believes is undoubtedly a hoax. Issac Hempstead Wright, recognisable to Game of Thrones fans as crippled Bran, plays one of the students.

Like The Woman In Black, The Awakening makes magnificent use of its main location - an enormous, looming old mansion surrounded by thick forest.

The Awakening also has a more measured approach to its scares, and exploits the damaged psyches of its main characters to great effect. It even manages to do something interesting with an increasingly ropey horror trope - a scale model of its main location with little figurines representing the characters. Guillermo Del Toro's 2001 film The Devil's Backbone, set in a boys orphanage, is occasionally evoked.

Hall's performance here is paradoxically one of great strength and heart-breaking vulnerability - even factoring in the film's eloquent direction, she is what makes it work. This is one of the best films I've seen this year. I just wish I'd gotten to see it in a theatre, but alas it too went straight to DVD.

Julia's Eyes, a new Spanish horror "presented" (but not directed) by Guillermo Del Toro, did get a theatrical run here, but it was so brief I missed it.

Del Toro also presented my favourite modern horror film - 2008's The Orphanage (also from Spain) - and that film's star Belén Rueda here plays the lead role of a woman who is slowly going blind while investigating the mysterious suicide of her twin sister.

There are some really cool ideas in Julia's Eyes: One of the best being how once Julia goes fully blind, the film imposes her lack of vision on the viewer by not showing the faces of any of the other characters she encounters - the head is always just out of shot or obscured behind something. It's unnerving and effective.

There's also some nice thinking behind the way nobody - even the sighted characters - can seem to see the bad guy because he's one of society's anonymous souls. Just an average nobody. Someone that nobody ever pays any attention to, so he can slip amongst the shadows. "He has no light" says one character. It sounds kooky here, but it works in the film.

The denouement doesn't quite live up to the set-up, but Julia's Eyes is definitely worth-watching, particularly if like me, you've been lapping up Spain's recent genre cinema offerings.

Which brings us to the final new horror film of note I wish to mention - the very strange beast that is Detention, which also went straight to DVD after playing at a few film festivals around the world.

The set-up of the film presents it as a horror film in the Scream mould - a serial murderer who dresses up like the killer in a popular series of slasher films starts slicing up some sass-mouthed teenagers.

But that's really only the first 30 minutes or so - the film soon starts taking wild twists and turns involving time travel, multiple timelines and some of the most strained zeitgeist-grabbing ever put on film. I mean, there's an in-film Wiki. At one point a cop actually says "Worst. Motivation. Ever". It's that kind of movie.

The DVD cover puts rising The Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson front and centre, but the main character is actually Shanley Caswell's Riley, one of those tart-tongued "attractive loser" characters that has long been rendered obsolete by broad pop culture awareness.

Director Joseph Kahn - who made the little-remembered Martin Henderson/Ice Cube 2004 motorcycle action movie Torque - lights every shot like it was the climax of a Tony Scott film. It makes for a pretty movie, but the insane plot zig-zagging and constant bids for youthful relevance are off-putting and misguided.

At one point, a teenage character actually references Torque in a casual manner. Because yeah, that's what all the kids are talking about. A little-remembered Martin Henderson/Ice Cube motorcycle action movie from 2004.

Despite the fact that it co-stars Dane Cook, I wanted to like Detention. But it's way too ADD and massively OTT.

If you're looking for a decent new horror film to watch and you're not a technology-thrashing, energy drink-swilling 14-year-old with flouro wrist-bands, check out one of the first three movies I mentioned. If you are, watch Detention.

* Seen any of these four films? Agree/disagree? What other good horror films have come out recently?

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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