Wake in Fright (1971) This obscure drama from Australia, directed by Ted Kotcheff and written by Evan Jones (based on a novel by Kenneth Cook), was thought to be lost for years until a copy recently surfaced. Thankfully, it’s now available on DVD for all to watch and debate. It’s a fascinating, disorienting portrayal of one man’s bewildering, downward spiral. Gary Bond plays John Grant, a vacationing schoolteacher on his way to Sydney to visit his girlfriend. After he loses his money in the small outback town of Bundanyabba, he plunges headfirst into a nightmare he can’t escape. The tension is palpable in the early scenes, and never lets up, as the protagonist wallows in a pit of despair, alienation and madness. Donald Pleasence is great in a supporting role as the cynical 'Doc' Tydon, a learned man who’s checked out of society and embraced the harsh, ugly lifestyle of the locals. It’s a memorable, unsettling experience, that’s sure to win new fans along with some detractors (thanks to a disturbing kangaroo hunt sequence).
Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming
Juan of the Dead (2011) Before you think, “Oh no, not another zombie movie,” give the Spanish/Cuban-produced Juan of the Dead a try. Writer/director Alejandro Brugués puts a new spin on the tired zombie invasion formula with a tale about ne’er-do-well Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his pals surviving an undead apocalypse on the streets of Havana. Juan becomes an entrepreneur in the face of adversity, offering to kill loved ones for profit. While there’s nothing particularly new about the zombie action scenes, there are some inventive gore effects for anyone who’s keeping score. The real draw, however, is the interaction between Juan and the small band of survivors he’s managed to cobble together. It’s gratifying to see him evolve throughout the film, as he tries to mend his fractured relationship with his estranged daughter, and how he matures from someone without a clue to someone with a plan. Juan of the Dead doesn’t re-invent the zombie genre, but it fits nicely within, comparing favorably to some of the better examples. It’s also quite funny, peppered with clever nods to other zombie flicks, including Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive (aka: Brain Dead), and Zombie. Check it out!
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD
[REC]³ Génesis (2012) While I consider the original [REC] to be one of the most effective and genuinely creepy entries in the overcrowded “found footage” genre, I wasn’t a fan of [REC]², which seemed to exhausted the goodwill generated by the first film. The first sequel beat the premise to death, relegating its characters to running around aimlessly, and adding a pseudo-theological twist that added nothing to the story. Consequently, I faced the latest entry in the REC series with a mixture of trepidation and a smidgen of hope that director/co-writer Paco Plaza would come up with something new. In this regard he succeeded. [REC]³ Génesis starts out as just another found footage film, with a wedding being captured on video, but as things start getting out of hand it switches from the first-person POV to a more conventional narrative. The scares are only sporadic, and the stabs at humor are hit and miss at best, but I admired the attempt to try something different this time. [REC]³ Génesis gets a modest recommendation.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
The Liability (2012) Adam (Jack O'Connell) wrecks his mob-boss stepfather’s Mercedes, and winds up driving for a hit man as a form of punishment. John Wrathall’s script, which is never as wry or edgy as it aims to be, takes many twists and turns but never really adds up to much. Most of the characters are rough sketches, at best. Tim Roth, as the hit man Roy, does the best he can with what he has to work with, but his character makes too many dumb mistakes for someone who’s supposed to be a grizzled veteran. Peter Mullan has a nice, albeit one-note, supporting performance as Adam’s ruthless stepfather. Adam, on the other hand, isn’t very likeable, and just comes across as obnoxious and obtuse. All things considered, it probably would have been better if Roy had simply shot Adam early in the film so we would be done with his character. The Liability had all the components for a slick action thriller, but in the end it just seemed underdeveloped.
Rating: ** ½. Available DVD