Written with the insightful input of fellow Dundead 2017 survivor, Claire Grey.
If Salem’s Lot suffered from a glaring lack of Stephen King’s influence, Firestarter contains a veritable smorgasbord. King is fond of writing supernaturally-gifted children, particularly when they wreak terrible vengeance upon those foolish enough to anger someone with magical powers. 9-year-old Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) follows in the fine tradition of Carrie White as a girl who can cause incredible destruction with a mere thought, though she is considerably more innocent and less bitter in spite of her tragic past. After the murder of her mother, she and her father Andy (David Keith) are pursued and eventually captured by a shady government organisation controlled by Martin Sheen’s Captain Hollister, who hopes to turn the little girl into a living weapon.
This is a film of two very distinct halves. The first is a desperate chase as Charlie and Andy evade those hunting them, sometimes by taking refuge with kindly strangers (especially farmer Irv (Art Carney), hands-down the best character in the film, who reacts to a large group of feds threatening a child by grabbing his shotgun and yelling patriotically at them) and sometimes by simply immolating every adversary within a 50-foot radius. The second half is a study in questionable scientific ethics and a fundamental misunderstanding of child psychology, both of which are of especial importance when your subject can casually shatter the laws of physics by setting solid ice on fire. Spectacular pyrotechnic special effects aside, the literally explosive finale mixes tragedy with triumph as Charlie unleashes her full potential. For her, the use of her powers represents loss, both of her own self-control and of the connections to others that made her feel safe and secure enough not to lash out. Despite no real attempt at a sequel hook, it would be fascinating to see how the world would continue to spin while it contains such a god-like figure (a sequel miniseries called Firestarter: Rekindled was released in 2002, but does not take this particular tack).
While some would indeed venerate Charlie as some kind of deity, this would not be a good thing. Lead-henchman-turned-real-villain John Rainbird (George C. Scott) clearly holds this view and is truly appalling as a result, planning to murder Charlie in the hope that she will grant him a transcendent death by fire. His enthusiasm for her pyrokinesis might be disturbing enough on its own, but his obsession with her borders on the romantic, or even sexual. This makes his attempts to befriend her under false pretences, from the vantage point of the audience, even more skin-crawling. Scott is a tremendous villain, more frightening when he smiles than when he scowls because his grin hides an utterly psychotic preoccupation.
Firestarter is a little cheesy (even resorting to ridiculous sitcom “wobble” effects to indicate the onset of a flashback), but effective and sincerely moving in its father-daughter relationship. The movie’s success hinges greatly upon the performance of a very young Barrymore, and while she is not perfect, she shines when exerting her blazing wrath. The film is a clear influence on Stranger Things, and though Barrymore might not be quite as good as the absurdly talented Millie Bobby Brown as the girl with the gift, this is hardly an indictment and she is admirable for her younger age. Firestarter is a marked improvement in the King movies at Dundead over the interminable Salem‘s Lot, and an entertaining and underseen film.
The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a notable inclusion at Dundead for being the first film screened at the festival to star a bona fide native, veteran Dundonian actor Brian Cox. Cox and Emile Hirsh play father-and-son pathologists who are called to work late when an anonymous young woman is brought in from a local multiple homicide. Upon closer examination, her body becomes a mess of contradictions and conundrums, and each new discovery brings more troubling questions than the last. The efficacy of the horror in the film will probably scale with the quite how uncomfortable an audience is made by cadavers, and the slicing-and-dicing thereof. Otherwise there is not a huge amount to recommend, except perhaps a chance to witness the dumbest twist in a horror movie since Orphan.
A twist that comes from nowhere is at best a pointless contrivance, and at worst a fatal blow to any sense of plot coherence. If events do not follow logically from one another, what reason is there to be invested in the story? The best twists are based on information that passes largely unnoticed on an initial viewing, but which in retrospect is almost blindingly obvious. If a twist has been developed properly, it ought to be theoretically possible to discover it prior to the reveal, and satisfying even when it comes as a surprise. The turn in The Autopsy of Jane Doe is an enormous leap based on roughly two pieces of evidence, and is itself a rather tired and faintly offensive cliché. That something supernatural is going on is apparent and might have been compelling if given a more original and reasonable cause. The reason actually proferred is just disappointing.
Despite some positive buzz beforehand, “disappointing” is an apt one-word review of this movie. Charismatic performances from Cox and Hirsh are let down by almost non-existent characterisation, a thin story, and an over-reliance on lazy jump-scares, accompanied by needlessly deafening orchestral stings. It is tempting to quip that when you delve beneath the surface there is nothing much to be found, but in all honesty the film is all surface, most of it done before and done better. Fans of surgically-exposed viscera might find something to enjoy here, but even this feels less gratuitous than it could have been. A below average horror that just an injustice to its stars.
A minuscule budget need not be a barrier to quality. Clerks relied on a great script and an appeal to a specific and familiar life experience to achieve its success. Mad Max used adrenaline and sadistic violence to overcome its financial limitations. Even the previous day’s Egomaniac, for all of its flaws, is not hampered specifically because it appears to have been made for roughly fifty quid. The Chamber is similarly basic, taking place primarily in one very unconvincing set, and has none of these saving graces and less. This is cinema at its most futile and wretched, failing to live up a fraction of the supposed potential of its flimsy premise and ending up truly awful. The kindest compliment that can be paid is that hating it is moderately enjoyable.
Imagine watching three of the most imbecilic people you’ve ever met having the same furiously inarticulate argument over and over again, pausing occasionally to attempt to choke one another, while their friend slowly bleeds to death on the floor. This nightmarish scenario occupies the lion’s share of the film’s mercifully brief running time. When a drone crash-lands off the coast of North Korea, three of the least-convincing American soldiers in human history enlist the help of the only Swedish submarine pilot in the Yellow Sea to retrieve it before it falls into enemy hands. When the only marginally competent member of the team is killed thanks to his colleague’s impressive stupidity and the submersible is crippled, the survivors must find a way back to the surface before they become victims of their own ineptitude and psychological instability.
Because the movie’s 90 minutes contains, charitably, 10 minutes of actual plot, the script elects to simply run in circles for extended periods of time. It does this by making the characters uniformly loathsome and irrational. Here are people entrusted with a vital mission, whose failure could spark a global war who, in any sane world, would not be trusted to operate safety scissors without grievous collateral damage. When opportunities for pointless violence are exhausted, the audience is treated to one of the shortest and most contrived romances ever captured on film. It ought to go without saying that assumed mutual heterosexuality and geometrically-compatible genitalia are an unconvincing foundation for any meaningful relationship. The utter needlessness of this plot thread would be actively offensive to the viewer’s intelligence if its resolution by heavy metal door weren’t so unintentionally comical.
Other films at Dundead have been underwhelming or forgettable, but The Chamber transcends these mediocrities to become genuinely atrocious. There is some indulgence in gleefully despising it, but even this is not enough to merit a half-hearted recommendation. This is, without a single doubt, the worst movie I have seen in three years of Dundead, and ranks as one of the worst movies I’ve seen in my whole life. Ineffective, unavailing, and thoroughly shite.
Creepshow is a stunning contrast to Salem’s Lot in being the perfect late night movie. Every day of Dundead 2017 ups the ante for endurance, adding another film to the schedule, yet day three ended on a definite high. Creepshow is hilarious, ridiculous, gratuitous, and as an anthology, offers the chance to simply nap through the segments you don’t like without missing out on the whole story. The film comprises five widely divergent shorts, all in the vein of classic EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. An absurdly arch family of toffs are attacked by their zombie uncle in his never-ending quest for cake. A buffoonish farmer stumbles across a glowing meteorite that spurs an uncontrollable infestation of alien foliage. A revenge plot goes horribly wrong when attempted drowning inadvertently causes the rise of undead seaweed monsters. The beastly occupant of a forgotten crate breaks loose to gnaw its way through several people at a university. Finally, a reclusive and pathologically fastidious millionaire is aghast to discover his hypoallergenic apartment overrun by large and very carnivorous cockroaches.
The film’s tone ranges widely from merely absurd to flatly ludicrous. Even in a movie of broad performances, Stephen King’s part as hapless human flower-bed Jordy Verrill is delightfully silly, essentially showing what might have happened if Ralph Wiggum moved to the country and discovered agriculture. Despite the cartoonish flavour to his section, it is arguably the darkest of them all, not least because it ends with the distinct implication of a grassy apocalypse. At the other end of the spectrum is Leslie Nielsen’s jilted husband Richard Vickers, who is almost threatening in his signature deadpan manner. His tale is a little too real before it lapses back into chucklesome excess, rather like the late legend himself. A slightly sick sense of humour and tolerance for farce is the price of entry, especially as concerns extremely disproportionate retribution for the crimes of being mildly obnoxious and irksome.
Creepshow is not completely successful. “Something to Tide You Over” skews a bit too authentically nasty and suffers as result. The movie also ends on a dud, as “They’re Creeping Up on You” is very one-note and not very clever, and is only as frightening as the audience’s distaste for household pests. This being said, the full gamut of phobias is well catered-for: rotting zombies, creepy crawlies, toothy monsters, grass, demanding relatives, and being buried alive. The film is not especially gory, accentuating the comedy more than the horror, and the title is an apt description of the result. You’ll be more creeped out between hearty guffaws than truly terrified. This is enjoyable schlock, and knowingly so. It lacks the satirical elements more common to director Romero’s other horror works, and the deeper themes of King’s, but the whole thing is daft, colourful fun. While the randomly inserted comic panels don’t add much, the bright palette clearly indicates to the viewer to leave their analytical brains at the door and to just enjoy. Creepshow was a great piece of programming to finish the third night of Dundead, and was a bloody good time.
Directed by Mark L. Lester
Written by Stanley Mann (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Starring David Keith, Drew Barrymore and Freddie Jones
The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Directed by André Øvredal
Written by Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing
Starring Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch and Ophelia Lovibond
The Chamber (2016)
Written and directed by Ben Parker
Starring Johannes Kuhnke, Charlotte Salt and James McArdle
Directed by George A. Romero
Written by Stephen King
Starring Leslie Neilsen, Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau