Starring Robert Hands, Evan Bendall, Michaela Prchalová
Directed by Ruth Platt
For over 20 years, the Slamdance Film Festival has provided low-budget indies and up-and-coming filmmakers a means for notable exposure, running on a parallel schedule to the famed Sundance Film Festival each year in Park City, Utah. The appealing thing about Slamdance for a site like Dread Central is the breadth of film genres that tends to be featured over the course of its three-day run, which often includes a handful of films in horror and its related genres.
One of these entries that is sure to make a splash this year is Ruth Platt’s The Lesson, which saw its first Stateside screening on the second night of the fest (January 23rd). Coming off of a positive run at the 2015 FILM4 FrightFest in London, this psychological horror entry from English actress-turned-director Ruth Platt may wear torture porn trappings, but it has much more to say — and satirize — when all is said and done. A tale of a psychological break, the failings of the education system, and the detrimental indifference of youth culture, The Lesson is far more significant in its underlying purpose than its oft violent execution might suggest.
The Lesson follows Fin (Bendall), a 16-year-old who lives with his brother, Jake (Tom Cox), and Jake’s girlfriend, Mia (Prchalová), who often acts a surrogate mother figure. Along with his uncouth cohorts, Fin embodies the heart of “chav” culture, a pejorative term associated with a rebellious youth subculture in the UK marked by boorish behavior and violence. Fin and his crew spend their days wreaking havoc upon schoolmates and instructors, seemingly on no real path for life success and without any sense of accountability. Mr. Gale (Hands), an English teacher at the end of his rope, is about to change all of that, however. Tortured daily by his students and the futility of the daily grind, Mr. Gale finally snaps on one unsuspecting evening, encountering Fin and his most raucous companion Joel (Rory Coltart) on the way home from an outing. After knocking out and abducting the two teenagers, Mr. Gale takes them to a makeshift classroom of his own creation — a den of torture in which he vows to teach the boys a lesson they will never forget.
What works brilliantly in The Lesson is Platt’s ability to immediately establish a morally challenging environment in which it’s hard not to see both sides. Where Fin and Joel’s insufferable juvenility grows frustrating quite early in the film and Mr. Gale’s futile attempts to get his students to care are heartbreaking, you would expect the tables to turn completely once violence is ultimately inflicted upon the boys in the latter’s torture chamber. Curiously enough, this is not quite the case, as there remains a level of understandable reason — albeit very twisted reason — to Mr. Gale’s cause.
Robert Hands is fantastic as the beleaguered teacher, bringing the character to life with a nuanced performance that captures both a pitiable dejection and an impassioned, but maniacal kineticism; he makes it quite difficult for the audience to root against the bad guy. Bendall also brings a youthful complexity to Fin, whose intelligence is evident as Mr. Gale’s literature and philosophy lessons grow more treacherous. As truths about his tattered upbringing are revealed, you come to sympathize with Fin’s bleak mentality on life in his rural black hole of a town; ultimately you root for his latent intellectual faculties to kick in, not only to save his and Joel’s lives from Mr. Gale, but to also save him from such a dead-end societal cycle, too.
Platt’s direction is taut and claustrophobic, and she often puts the audience in Fin’s chair in the most suspenseful of moments. There are a number of scenes featuring Mr. Gale’s weapon of choice — a nail gun — that will raise blood pressures all around, toying with anticipation in the most effective ways in his grimy den. For being a film that is heavy on torture, however, gore lovers may be notably disappointed in the lack of on-screen violence that Platt elects to show. While there are certainly some unsettling and visceral moments, the horror here is more dependent upon tension and suggestion rather than outright blood and guts.
The Lesson progressively unfolds as a rather atypical horror story, and more often than not, Platt’s subversion tactics are quite effective. I was quite amused by the use of dark humor in her script, which sneakily serves to satirize much of the situation at hand, making subtle statements about the roles of both students and educators in modern society and the cyclical disappointments experienced on both ends when people fail the system. The Lesson occasionally dips into arthouse territory as well in favor of straightforward horror tropes, particularly in a couple of ways that serve to represent Mr. Gale’s mental instability and Fin’s own frenzied state. These moments may not work for some who tend to feel hoodwinked by such cinematic devices, but I rather enjoyed Platt’s decisions on both counts.
Though mostly consistent in its script, tone, and performances, The Lesson does feature a few tiresome, drawn out moments in Mr. Gale’s torture den and some visual perspective shots here and there that come across as more amateur than auteur. The final scene also feels slightly unnecessary and may confound some in the audience as well; I personally think the film could have ended about five minutes sooner on a particularly striking shot featuring two of the lead characters (you will definitely see what I mean if you catch the film). Ultimately, though, these minor gripes do not take away from the fact that The Lesson is a wonderful exercise in tension that is rich with substance and is sure to stir up conversations. Platt comes out swinging as an intelligent directorial force with this debut, and I look forward to seeing more of what she has to offer the genre in the future.
Did you have a chance to catch The Lesson at Slamdance or Film4 FrightFest? Sound off in the comments below or tweet me (@TheAriDrew) and share your thoughts!
The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
The Good Friend Book Review – A Slasher Story for the Facebook Generation
Written by Marcus Sabom
I’m not usually a big fan of murder mysteries, but Marcus Sabom’s novel The Good Friend has certainly done a lot to make me reconsider my stance on the genre. Sabom, who is currently turning the book into a film, appears to have a real gift when it comes to keeping the reader on the edge of their seat
Usually, if you were told that a book contains an ensemble cast of four central characters instead of one main protagonist, you’d probably lose interest right away because we tend to connect with singular point of view characters more than we do with ensembles. However, Sabom proved me wrong in this regard, because each of the four leading women in The Good Friend were such engaging people with such real problems that I never felt like there were too many characters and plot threads to keep track of.
To give a brief overview of our four principal players, we have Sarah, who wants to be in a meaningful relationship after her asshole boyfriend dumps her, Alana, a slightly older woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a manipulative husband who tries to turn her kids against her, Megan, who has to deal with crazy stalkers, and Rita, who is traumatized by a vengeful psycho named Caleb after he attempts to belittle and humiliate her.
With this being a book set in modern times, they naturally use social media to broadcast their problems to the world. Now, we all know about the dangers of chronicling every step of our lives on social media, but Sabom takes things to a whole other level. Because after the aforementioned women post about their troubles on Faceplace (which is basically Facebook, but with a name Mark Zuckerberg can’t take legal action against), a masked killer begins to permanently put an end to their man problems. Whoever the knife-wielding psycho is, he’s clearly a mutual friend of all the women, because he obviously looks at their posts.
One of the only male characters in The Good Friend who wasn’t a complete asshole was Detective Jack Miller, a cop investigating the case of the misandrous serial killer. Miller is described as occasional leaning towards antinatalism, the belief that people should stop reproducing because the human race should not continue to exist. I’ve also always believed that human beings should stop reproducing because we are beyond saving, so I’m glad that Sabom was able to tap into an area that deserves far more open discussion rather than being a social taboo.
The book itself is just under three-hundred pages in length and uses relatively large text, so most readers will probably get through the whole thing in about three days. Whilst the prose was certainly easy to digest, there were a number of errors and typos that would be painfully obstructive to most of us, the most obvious being that it confuses the phrase ‘couldn’t care less’ with ‘could care less’, which, as you know, means the exact opposite.
However, if you’re looking for a easy to digest murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend is certainly an ideal recommendation. At the very least, the book should teach you not to make negative posts about people on Facebook or other social media sties, because a knife-wielding killer might be looking at your status.
An easy to digest slasher story that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend serves as a perfect reminder of the darker side of social media.
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