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horror

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Terrifying Australian import does for the underground what The Blair Witch Project did for the woods...

The Tunnel (2011)


During the weekend of October 14-16, I was given the rather happy duty of co-hosting the 2nd Annual Telluride Horror Show in Telluride, Colorado. The following review is one of a selection of film features and shorts that I had the opportunity to screen during my tenure as co-host. Keep an eye out for more reviews from the Telluride Horror Show!


It's no secret that contemporary horror films that use the 'found footage' motif owe a substantial part of their inspiration to The Blair Witch Project. Every like-minded movie in the past 12 years has been inevitably compared to that fright-fest in the Maryland woods, a brilliant movie that I personally count among the scariest of all time. As wonderful as the idea is of putting viewers in a position to be 'part of the action', however, it has predictably grown a bit stale of late. As most film fans know, when Hollywood finally comes around to realizing the sudden success of a franchise or movie style, it guts it for profit faster than Freddy Krueger murdering the attendees of a somnambulists convention. How else to explain the reprehensible Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows? Or the massively-overrated Paranormal Activity series, a franchise that has managed to gross hundreds of millions of dollars by hiding its inflexible (and only) plot point and total lack of originality behind a hugely-successful marketing campaign?

In short, a 'found footage' film done well can be incredibly scary; one not done well makes you wonder just how long the subgenre has left in the tank. As with all things in the 'industry', projects and trends require an injection of new life once in a while, lest they wither on the vine to make way for the next big thing. This past weekend, I watched a screening of Australian horror film The Tunnel, which somehow managed what I thought to be a near-impossibility: making 'found footage' feel fresh and new again. If we lived in a just world, where such things that deserved widespread acclaim actually received it, then The Tunnel would (and will) be a huge success. Why? Quite simply, this movie is crap-your-pants scary.

The film centers on a fictional water shortage in Sydney, Australia. After concocting a well-publicized plan to use vast reservoirs of water in the underground tunnels below St. James' Train Station, the government suddenly abandons the operation without fanfare or explanation. Then homeless people who have called the tunnels 'home' start disappearing without a trace. Natasha Warner (Bel Delia), an investigative journalist, demands answers from closed-mouth politicians. When none are forthcoming, she asks for permission to visit the tunnels to cover the story herself, a request that is vociferously denied. Natasha then makes a plan of her own - to sneak into the tunnels with a news crew, legality be damned, and make the scoop of the century. As one would expect, Natasha, producer Peter (Andy Rodoreda), cameraman Steve (Steve Davis) and soundman Tangles (Luke Arnold) get way more than they bargained for once they creep ever further down the winding tunnels below Sydney. As the film's tagline goes - "they went looking for a story, and the story found them".

The Tunnel promotional poster featuring Natasha Warner (Bel Delia)Sound like a pretty straightforward and rote interpretation of the 'found footage' genre? If so, it's only because I'm not doing the plot justice, in the interest of keeping this review relatively spoiler-free. Let me assure you that The Tunnel is anything but rote and monotonous. Writers and co-producers Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey, along with Cannes Film Festival award winner Carlo Ledesma, have crafted a slow burner that actually ... (let me pause for effect here) ... creates characters and insightful exposition before hurling you headlong into a labyrinth of terror. The Tunnel's cast and crew have a clear grasp of what somehow eludes so many other filmmakers - it's nearly impossible to feel fear watching horror movies unless you are scared for the characters. The Blair Witch Project was a great success because of its first 20 minutes, not the last 20. And so is The Tunnel. You get to know both films' characters and care about them. And then they die. That's scary.

This leads us to what will probably be the most controversial aspect of the film - its narrative structure. The introductory scenes, as well as the final scenes, are filmed in the style of a pseudo-documentary for television. In other words, two of the four main characters are being filmed after the horrors of Sydney's tunnels have been braved. So if you enjoy the mystery of 'who will survive & who will die' horror movies, look elsewhere. Barely a few minutes into the film, you are introduced to four main characters - two are talking about the horrors that they survived in the tunnels and two are nowhere to be found. You figure it out. Does this lack of mystery detract from the overall experience? As far as I'm concerned - hardly.

I could go on and on about The Tunnel. The actors are top notch and react beautifully to their surroundings. At no point during the film (and believe me - I complain about this ALL the time), did I grumble about nonsensical reactions by characters. There is no manufactured tension that springs from idiotic plot decisions. The tension is all too real. Nothing is hackneyed or unbelievable, a rarity in the horror genre. Natasha's driven arrogance and willingness to risk her news crew just to 'get the story' is nauseating and shocking, but when she's sobbing in the corner of a filthy, blood-soaked room in a dungeon somewhere beneath Sydney, you can't help but feel sympathy for her, along with a rising dread for the ultimate outcome. Steve the cameraman, played by Steve Davis, was chosen to co-star not because of his acting experience (of which he had none), but because of his experience with cameras. You'd never know it. Peter the producer is fantastic as the man who attempts to take control in an uncontrollable situation. And Tangles is solid as the easy-going 'everyman' who is the first to suspect that they are not alone in the tunnels. By the time the crew begins its trek underneath Sydney, every one of them is a well established and separate entity. With that accomplished, the story falls easily into place.

Really, the only stupid decision that the characters make in the entire movie is entering the tunnels in the first place. You couldn't get me to walk down those damn things if Jimmy Hoffa, Santa Claus, and a winning Powerball ticket were at the bottom. Ledesma, Tedeschi, and Harvey storyboard the outer tunnVarious screenshots from The Tunnel (ft. Peter & Natasha)els as wide and brightly-lit, with an aura of safety. The further in that the news crew searches, the darker, dirtier, and narrower the tunnels get until they feel like something straight out of a nightmare world created by Ed Gein and H.P. Lovecraft. The angles of hallways and ceilings add mightily to the fear creeping around the edges of your subconscious by seeming just plain "wrong", rooms look like they were designed by inmates in a lunatic asylum, and one never knows what might be around the next corner...

A nice touch is added when Peter repeatedly checks a blueprint of the tunnels early on in their travels. But even that goes wrong. Passages start appearing that aren't on the map. Blood stains start appearing on walls. And otherworldly screams start echoing down the abandoned halls. Soon, the blueprint is all but forgotten as the crew (or what's left of them) have no choice but to dash wildly through the tunnels, pursued by a ...thing... that the filmmakers have only described as "the stalker".

If you love 'found footage' horrors in general, I can't see how you could possibly dislike The Tunnel. Everything works. The characters work. The concept works (the cameras need to be on, because the crew needs to have light, etc). The environment works. And maybe most importantly, the monster works, with the viewer seeing just barely enough of it to warrant spine-tingling scares but not nearly enough to kill the mystery.

I eagerly look forward to adding The Tunnel to my film collection, for no better reason than it gives me hope that a possibly-declining subgenre has a hell of a lot of life left in it when it's done right. The cast and crew behind The Tunnel couldn't have done it any better. A straight horror film's primary goal is to scare and scare often. Mission accomplished. After watching The Tunnel, I might not ever visit a basement again.

5 stars

(Visit TheTunnelMovie.net for further information, including how you can help finance this and future projects via Distracted Media's groundbreaking 135k Project.)

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The newest Yamaguchi J-horror teases fun potential, but ultimately falls flat...

Tak Sakaguchi possesses a decidedly-deadly fastball in Deadball


During the weekend of October 14-16, I was given the rather happy duty of co-hosting the 2nd Annual Telluride Horror Show in Telluride, Colorado. The following review is one of a selection of film features and shorts that I had the opportunity to screen during my tenure as co-host. Keep an eye out for more reviews from the Telluride Horror Show!


Whether you love Japanese horror or loathe it, it's hard to argue that the genre is practically the definition of the term 'acquired taste'. Moreover, recent entries seem to have gravitated largely to two different camps - deeply atmospheric (and sometimes plodding) tales, or over-the-top absurdity. Deadball fits firmly, if somewhat uncomfortably, in the latter.

Tak Sakaguchi stars as Jubeh Yakyu, a baseball prodigy with the arm strength of a few Supermans put together. When told by his elderly father to throw as hard as he can during a game of catch in the film's opening sequence, Jubeh inexplicably flies several thousand feet in the air and hurls the baseball with such velocity that it flattens out as it screams towards the ground, creating a crater several hundred feet wide upon impact and killing Jubeh's father in a understandably-gruesome manner.

As silly as it sounds, I almost wish that I could end the review right here and give Deadball a moderately-decent score based on goofy thrills alone. Sadly, the aforementioned opening scene is the apex of the film's fun and campiness. From there on, the movie devolves into overly-complicated subplots and a strange lack of actual baseball playing.

Sentenced to prison for his father's death, Yakyu finds himself at Pterodactyl Juvenile Reformatory, which is headed by a Japanese neo-Nazi whose staff performs body cavity searches on the new inmates that leave little to the imagination. This scene should bring down the house; instead, it is overly-long, repetitive, and boring. What follows is a monotonous slog through a battle of wills between the Pterodactyl headmistress, who wants Jubeh to play for the prison baseball team, and Jubeh, who has refused to play since his father's death. If I had a dollar for every time that "no, I promised to never play again", or some variation thereof, was mentioned, I could retire a rich man.

When Jubeh inevitably (and predictably) gives in after a healthy dose of blackmail, the anticipated game between Pterodactyl and the homicidal harem girls of Black Dahlia's scarcely resembles baseball. And I guess that's the joke. Pitches flung towards the plate routinely turn into rockets, split into nets of razor wire, and explode like super-powered grenades, just to add to the level of nonsensical splatter. And that would have been hilariously awesome if it was done right. But whether there's a major cultural divide between this movie and myself, or the plot has the attention span of Michael Bay at a Shakespearean drama, it was done way, WAY wrong.

With 'deadballs' flying, and the audience anticipating a flurry of gross-out gags and fountains of gore at the climax, the film actually flinches and begins implying deaths off-screen, instead of having the stomach to show them. To put it mildly, that's an odd maneuver for a film that earlier explicitly showed people shoving their hands up peoples' rectums. When the 'game' abruptly ends with the arrival of Jubeh's believed-to-be-dead younger brother Musashi, who is clad in the trappings of a murderous Nazi robot, I started seriously wondering if this second climax was the result of my popcorn having been spiked with LSD. No, I had to remind myself, it's just a Japanese horror film. The ensuing battle between Jubeh and Clockwork Musashi is painful and a 'surprise' ending that finds Jubeh in North Korea with a terrible Kim Jong-Il look-alike is mindblowingly-dumb and a clearly tacked-on afterthought.

Deadball must be great fun for some people, but I found little enjoyment in either the plot or the level of gore and splatter, which turned to be much lower and less amusing than advertised. The audience that I saw it with didn't seem to enjoy it much either. And this is a festival audience we're talking about - a couple hundred people begging for a chance to laugh or applaud, but ending up spending 95% of their time in near-total silence.

The film is hardly an expensive affair, the estimated budget standing at roughly $600,000 (US). And when it comes to movies like this, I don't expect much. But what I do expect from a horror/comedy, that markets itself as having a jaw-dropping level of silliness and absurdity, is a good time. And Deadball just isn't. To be fair, there were occasional chuckle-inducing moments, such as Jubeh's habit of reaching his hand out of the frame and pulling in a lit cigarette. But unless your last name is Zucker, sight gags do not an enjoyable film make. The supporting cast was pretty decent, with several of the Pterodactyl team members showing sparks of comedic flair. And the special effects are fantastic, considering the budget. But the film begs for much more copious use of both humor and blood. The plot, sadly, just doesn't provide it.

Am I being too hard on Deadball? Maybe. But I'd be lying if I wasn't expecting it to be a festival highlight. In truth, it was far from it. I've read reviews that gave Deadball great scores and positive feedback, pointing to its sight gags, inside jokes, and director Yudai Yamaguchi's purposely bad taste and gleeful ridiculousness. Well, I know 'gleeful ridiculousness'. I like 'gleeful ridiculousness'. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is far from 'gleeful ridiculousness'. It is oddly complicated and it is boring - two of the worst sins that a splatter comedy can commit. The plot screams for cheese, goofiness, and over-the-top gore. What viewers get instead is a steady diet of heavy sighs and heavy eyelids.

2 stars

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