Movies · Reviews

Stanley Day 2: International Thrills and a Commentary Track Like No Other

By  · Published on May 3rd, 2015

Day 2 of Stanley Film Fest 2015, the first full day, began like any other but ended with a near victory for our team at the Dead Right Horror Trivia contest – a team that also included the likes of Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) and Leon Vitali (Barry Lyndon), because that’s just the kind of thing that happens at film festivals apparently. Sure I was but one cog in the vast machinery of The James Earl Jonestown Massacre, but I was the only one who knew Everett McGill’s (The People Under the Stairs, Silver Bullet) name, and that has to count for something in this crazy, messed up world world we live in right? We tied for 2nd place, but we won where it mattered – in our hearts.

But before trivia, there were movies! I’d previously seen a few of the films that played Friday, and have already reviewed two of them. The Invitation (my review) was my favorite out of SXSW earlier this year, and so far it’s holding on to top honors here as well. It’s a deliciously crafted slowburn that weaves together twin threads of suspicion and paranoia to tell a tale of grief, loss and recovery. There are laughs and brief moments of respite from the building dread, but it excels at slowly increasing the tension as it heads towards a final, thrillingly-crafted denouement. There’s nothing subtle or slow about Deathgasm (my review), and instead the film delivers a high decibel blast of big laughs, messy gore and satanic shenanigans. It’s yet another fun genre mash-up from New Zealand and a guaranteed good time for those of us who know the danger of playing records backwards.

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I’d also previously seen the excellent and grimly-affecting Belgian thriller, The Treatment, but I hadn’t had the chance to review it until now.

Detective Nick Cafmeyer (Geert Van Rampelberg) is a cop with trauma-filled baggage. As a child he watched helplessly as his brother was abducted, never to be seen again, and as an adult he uses that pent-up rage to fuel his efforts in capturing bad guys. His latest case strikes too close to home though when a child is kidnapped with circumstances that bear a high degree of similarity to his own brother’s abduction. Nick’s prime suspect is the same man suspected of the earlier crime – a man who was released from custody for lack of evidence but who over the years has continued to visit Nick only to stare and taunt him in silence.

His investigation veers off the beaten path and away from official lines of inquiry, and it immediately becomes clear that his already short fuse is close to blowing up at any second. Van Rampelberg makes that initially inner anger and desire for closure palpable as events bring them closer to the surface, and he captures the intensity of his character and the crimes at hand quite well. The character of Nick isn’t fully convincing, but that’s due entirely to what we don’t see as opposed to what we do – Nick is solely focused on the case across the film’s entirety leaving no time for viewers to see and experience him outside of that tightly-coiled rage. A rare glimpse of him hanging around friends offers no break as the situation demands he stay ‘on’ at all times.

That flaw in Carl Joos’ script (from Mo Hayder’s novel) is a rare misstep in an otherwise suspenseful and grueling experience. There are some exceedingly grim actions here, both on display and (thankfully) inferred, but the film maintains a stark beauty about it thanks to Hans Herbots’ steady direction and camera. We move effortlessly – perhaps on wheels coated with the grime of the villain’s crime – between rural, urban and suburban locales, and while each is distinct they share a sheen of terrifying potential.

The Treatment is a perfect viewing for fans of equally excellent and similarly dark-themed films like The Prestige, Prisoners and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Like those films, it’s also a slow-burn that holds the attention through growing suspense and the promise of devastating reveals. Fair warning though, the third act is especially twisted to the point that were the film ever to get an American remake the events that unspool in the final thirty minutes would be jettisoned immediately.

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Shrew’s Nest is a Spanish thriller about two sisters, the man they both love and the madness that may just doom them all.

Montse (Macarena Gómez) knows only the inside of her apartment, the same apartment where she herself was raised, as an undiagnosed onset of agoraphobia has left her unable to step foot beyond her front door. She keeps busy as a seamstress and designer for a handful of neighbors, but she considers her primary job to be that of guardian to her younger sister (Carolina Bang) ever since their father disappeared during the war. The girl has just turned eighteen, and Montse is worried that she’ll soon begin dabbling in fleshy sins and develop a desire to move away from home. She already suspects the girl is lying to her about her time spent at school or work during the day, and her fears find fruit with the arrival of Carlos (Hugo Silva).

He lives one floor up, but after tripping on the stairs and knocking on Montse’s door for help he awakens to find himself under her care. After years of of mundane, self-imposed confinement she’s confused and intrigued by this new presence. She soothes his pain with lies and morphine, but the situation grows even more complicated when her sister discovers the man, the ruse and a growing affection of her own.

Filmmakers Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel deliver a convincing period thriller – something of a feat as it takes place almost entirely within the sisters’ apartment – focused on the damage caused by both sins and good intentions of the past. Flashbacks to the girls’ younger years offer a glimpse into a childhood lorded over by a domineering father (Luis Tosar) and the absence of a mother. Montse was forced to take that role on in some regards, and the result was the obliteration of her own childhood.

The woman we see before us now is damaged, shattered and clinging to a thread of hope that it’s not too late to make a life of her own outside of these walls, and Gomez makes her the film’s star attraction. Her eyes are haunted with the past, her nerves anxiously betrayed by repetitive affectations and this one chance at emotional survival remains elusive thanks to the meddling of her sister and others. Unsurprisingly, Carlos also has some objections of his own, and watching Montse brighten with mad possibility only to have reality crush it into dust is an exercise in tension and acting.

Shrew’s Nest is most typically compared to the likes of Misery, and there’s certainly that element at play here, but for better or worse the focus here is on the abductor, not the abductee. We care little for Carlos, and through her actions come to care less and less for the unnamed sister. This leaves Montse as our emotional connection, and while there’s no doubt she’s mad Gomez finds the heart beneath the bloodletting.

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Friday also saw the world premiere of Director’s Commentary: The Terror of Frankenstein.

Terror of Frankenstein was released in 1977, and one wonders if it would have been forgotten to the ravages of time if it hadn’t been for all the real world deaths associated with the film. Now, decades after this somewhat faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic tale hit theaters – and mere months after one of its cast members was executed for murder – the film’s director, writer and star sat down to record a commentary track that promises to reveal the truth behind the tragedy.

You’d be forgiven for wondering why you haven’t heard of the murders, the trial, the execution or even The Terror of Frankenstein, because only the actual film is real. This feature is the brainchild of Tim Kirk and Rodney Ascher, and the concept is absolutely brilliant. The original film plays onscreen, audio low but audible, while our “filmmakers” comment on the production. Voice actors perform the commentary, but none of the cast and crew names have been changed. Like many commentaries, it begins with them sharing how the film came to be and identifying the various faces who appear onscreen as fantastic performers, prima donnas, forgettable extras – — and murder victims.

Slowly the pieces come together about how certain aspects of the production may have played a hand in a developing a madness on set that quickly moved behind the camera. Every new face brings a pause, and many are followed with a veiled reference to that person’s perverse proclivities or violent death months or even years after filming ended. It’s blackly comic fun as each new face appears only to have it revealed that they were marked for death.

Unfortunately though this unique concept soon wears incredibly thin in its execution. The narrative payoff for the series of deaths is minimal – although it is entertaining hearing them accuse cast members by name of murder and pedophilia. The bigger issue though is found in the vocal performances. Both men (voiced by Clu Gulager and Zack Norman), and to a lesser degree Vitali who shows up towards the end, lack anything resembling a natural-feeling or conversational tone. They’re reading lines of dialogue, and it couldn’t be more obvious. Worse, once the emotions ramp up they’re reading them poorly.

Director’s Commentary: The Terror of Frankenstein is a fantastic idea hurt by lackluster execution. I’d love to see someone with a stronger story and less obvious voice actors tackle the concept again.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.