Written with the insightful input of fellow Dundead 2017 survivor, Claire Grey.
Egomaniac, of all of the new films screening at Dundead 2017, was the one that I was anticipating most eagerly. Horror and comedy make very comfortable bedfellows, perhaps because both rely upon some kind of transgression to elicit an emotional response from their audience, whether terrified screams or gales of laughter. Both genres catch us in a visceral way and, in the case of horror, sometimes sufficient brutality can be so absurd as to be paradoxically hilarious. A quote, from Mel Brooks’ The 2,000 Year Old Man, illustrates this perfectly: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Egomaniac takes a recognisable situation for many creative types and ratchets it up to a ridiculous extreme. When horror filmmaker Catherine (Nic Lamont) attempts to get her pet project, a romantic comedy set during a zombie apocalypse, off the ground, the incredible condescension and asinine meddling she encounters drive her to full-blown psychosis. She murders every one of her collaborators and films her sanguine breakdown as her latest masterpiece.
The film undergoes a bell curve of quality. It begins with a flash-forward to Catherine’s massacre, at once spoiling the climax and colouring the perception of the character throughout. Seeing Catherine’s travails as both she and her movie suffer greater and greater indignities is the strongest element by far. While heightened, there is considerable truth here too. Kate Shenton is undoubtedly drawing upon her personal experience, not only as a young director, but particularly as a female director. Men might have to see their opus perverted by executive interference, but seeing Catherine personally objectified on top of having her film ruined is genuinely difficult to watch precisely because it is completely believable. The horror in the way in which she is treated by the universally disgusting male characters is more potent than any of the following blood and guts. Wholesale slaughter may be an overreaction to her situation, but only slightly.
Where the movie falls apart somewhat is in the climactic murder spree. Violently shorn of its supporting cast, Lamont struggles to make the final “joke” land. Unlike another recent, female-helmed horror film, Prevenge, none of the violence is actually very funny, and is left feeling rather empty. In particular, Catherine’s murder of the wife of Derek (Simeon Willis), the sleazy movie producer who coerces her into sex, falls with a dull thud as a pointless piece of cruelty that undermines whatever twisted justice that her rampage might have. Finally, since every movie apparently requires a stinger scene, Egomaniac provides what is easily the single unfunniest gag in the whole movie, which is repeated several times just to drive home the failure.
Egomaniac is not entirely accurately named. Certainly Catherine is selfish and single-minded, and art does seem to require a kind a self-importance by its very nature, but the hellish ordeal to which she is subjected ultimately does make her a relatively sympathetic character. As a film, it is rather like seeing a friend’s student project; there is a good idea here and you want to cheer them on, but the crapness is glaring and inescapable. At one point, Catherine is told that her imagination outstrips her ability, and this applies to some degree to the movie itself. While it does run out of steam before the end, the core is very solid, making Egomaniac an endearing and very funny film that is merely good when it might have been great.
John Carpenter is one of the most beloved genre directors of all time for very good reason, and many of the current generation of horror filmmakers are clearly enamoured with him, at least judging from the prevalence of loving homages/rip-offs and the renaissance of synth-based scores. The Void is another clear example of this trend. The movie could aptly be described as a blending of Assault on Precinct 13 and Prince of Darkness, with two healthy spoonfuls of David Cronenberg and H. P. Lovecraft. Unfortunately, The Void is a rather pale imitation, boasting impressively stomach-churning practical effects and little else. A small group of people, including a police officer and his injured charge, several medical staff, and two errant and violent strangers, are trapped inside a hospital surrounded by sinister, robed figures. When the wounded man mutates into an eldritch abomination, they must discover just what in the hell is going on before they suffer the same fate.
Some horror is far worse in concept than in execution. The grisly fates of several characters are blunted by weak characterisation, which turns what should be heart-rending into merely mildly unsettling. The protagonist Daniel (Aaron Poole) begins as a refreshingly human everyman only to morph into a bland and invincible action hero. Kenneth Welsh’s villainous Dr. Powell is generically evil, and is given a motivation behind his abysmal actions that is so pedestrian as to destroy the possibility of any audience sympathy. The two monster hunters are so utterly forgettable that they are credited only as The Father (Daniel Fathers) and The Son (Mik Byskov), and seem to have stumbled in from another film, only venturing into the story at irregular intervals before retreating to wait for their next brief stint of relevance. There are attempts to elicit emotional engagement with these people, but without a reason to identify with them, their success is sorely limited.
The film’s strongest component are its special effects, focussing on elaborate practical effects over ubiquitous CGI. While some of the puppetry and costume work is very apparent, the simple physical presence of the monsters gives the actors something to respond to. Every creature is recognisable as something that was once human, enhancing the horror we feel at seeing something familiar turned into a contorted mass of pulsing flesh and slimy tentacles. One shot immediately evokes Carpenter’s The Thing, as quivering legs force their way out of someone’s mouth. This success with practical special effects makes the film’s final shot more cringeworthy by comparison. Yawn-inducing revelation of the dark secret at the movie’s heart aside, this scene features some of the worst green-screen I have ever seen in a professionally-produced motion picture, made more blatantly awful by the fact that the actors seem to have only the vaguest idea of what they are supposed to be seeing.
The ’80s throwback/Carpenter homage can work. The Guest and Green Room offer ample proof of this. The Void is only mildly interesting, failing to distinguish itself in any way in this burgeoning sub-genre. Personally, the most compelling part of the whole movie is that it offers a long-awaited answer to the question, “Whatever happened to Ellen Wong after Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? She was so good in that!” This is exactly the indictment that it seems and, ironically, The Void just seems empty.
Some movies are perfect for late-night screenings. These can be films with a high potential for audience participation, like The Room, Plan 9 from Outer Space or Rocky Horror Picture Show, or revered crowd-pleasers like past Dundead’s Scream, Fright Night and Escape from New York, or indeed this year’s Creepshow. Given these criteria, Salem’s Lot is a perplexing choice for this nocturnal slot. Originally made for television, this 3-hour miniseries was cut down to 2 hours for this screened version. Novelist Ben (David Soul) returns to his eponymous hometown only to find the populace under attack by a growing plague of vampires. His investigation brings him into conflict with the master vampire and his creepy concierge Straker (James Mason). Meanwhile a young horror aficionado, Mark (Lance Kerwin) seeks revenge against the monster for the deaths of his family.
If this is the streamlined version of the film, the TV version must have been unbearably glacial in its pace. The movie is aggressively staccato, coming to life in brief moments of intrigue set in a sea of tedium. This might be the least “Stephen King” horror of them all, instead settling for an exceedingly generic vampire tale that might have been penned by anyone passingly familiar with the mythology. The notion of bloodsuckers in smalltown America brings obvious comparisons with the aforementioned Fright Night, but where that film is genuinely funny and toys ably with the idea of a genre-savvy character tangling with real supernatural monsters, this one brings absolutely nothing of value to the genre. Every part is stretched to breaking point, leaving little but a crushingly boring experience.
There are a few pleasing nuggets in the film. James Mason’s gloriously hammy acting is moderately entertaining, as are the hysterical reactions of the vampires to the brandishing of a cross. Even David Soul, soporific as he is for most of the running time, becomes more entertaining in his odd, third act mania. While is behaviour is alarmingly erratic, manhandling Mark and almost casually immolating his supposed love interest Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), he at least becomes more dynamic and motivated. The vampires themselves are mostly ridiculous, not helped by fairly shoddy make-up, but the Master himself has a striking and memorable design, marred by his underuse in the story. Clearly inspired by Nosferatu, his burning red eyes mark the film’s high point of horror, where some life (or at least un-death) might be injected into the movie’s plot.
Salem’s Lot has been the worst film of the festival so far, both in itself and as a film-going experience. The painfully slow pacing and the lack of any and all originality dog the movie, and its tempo is completely unsuitable for a timeslot where the audience is already beginning to flag. A (nearly) midnight movie needs to be capable of waking the dead, something which Salem’s Lot simply cannot manage.
Written and directed by Kate Shenton
Starring Nic Lamont, Adam Rhys-Davies and Laurence R. Harvey
The Void (2016)
Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski
Starring Aaron Poole, Kenneth Welsh and Daniel Fathers
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Paul Monash (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Starring David Soul, James Mason and Lance Kerwin