The Holiday Horrors

You know how it is. You go on holiday to get away from it all and just chill, and no sooner have you made yourself comfortable than some damned vampire nicks your sun lounger, a serial killer kicks sand in your face, and the foreign food has you trotting to the toilet like a zombie in a Danny Boyle movie.

Better to stay home and watch DVDs depicting other people’s holiday nightmares, which is what I did.

The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively is Nancy who, after the death of her mother, has dropped out of medical school and gone off to Mexico in search of a dream beach her mother told her about (stuff we learn about mostly through Nancy’s phone conversations with her family). Having found the isolated and nearly deserted beach, she sets about surfing and chilling, only to get attacked by a great white shark when she stays for one last surf after everyone else has gone home. Wounded and stranded on the floating corpse of a whale the shark has killed, she must find the determination and will to survive. There’s not a lot to this tale. It’s a simple idea that puts its finger on every possibility of the framing scenario and expertly wracks up the tension. Nancy digs deep inside herself and comes up with various plans to get her closer to the shore, moving from whale corpse to rocky outcrop to buoy, but the last swim is beyond her ability to outdistance the shark and high tide is her enemy, with every attempt to get help from others ending in disaster for them. Of course she eventually figures out a way to take out the great white (I hope that doesn’t count as a plot spoiler). Lively emotes well, and you can believe in her emotional turmoil and the way in which she eventually faces up to danger, and the shark doesn’t look ridiculous, which is always a good thing in these sort of movies. I have reservations about the deserted nature of the beach (somewhere this beautiful would have been turned into a tourist destination long before Nancy arrived) and I’m not sure how Nancy intended to get back from her seaside sojourn, having hitched there. Those quibbles aside, this was a neat little movie, ingenious and with enough excitement to justify time spent watching it, a solid entry in the (wo)man versus nature subgenre, though I won’t be in any hurry to see it again.

Black Rock (2012)

Sarah guilt trips her old friends Abby and Lou to join her on a camping expedition to a wooded island that was the playground of their youth. There is tension between Abby and Lou owing to boyfriend problems in the past, and Sarah is hoping to bring them all together again. They discover that there are three men on the island, one of whom they knew back in the old days. Ex-soldiers returned from Iraq, the three are hunting and happy to party, but when flirting goes too far Abby accidentally kills Henry, and the three women end up being hunted by the remaining two men, from which point on we have a struggle to survive, informed by a kill or be killed mentality. Again it’s a very simple scenario, the writers trying to inject a bit more human interest and make their characters more fully rounded via the tensions between the three women, who have to work out the problems of their past if they are to survive in the present, and by giving the men a back story which saw them dishonourably discharged, with the hint of wartime atrocities committed, something about which they feel very resentful. Interesting also that they avoided the tropical island option, but disappointing that having denied themselves the prospect of our three heroines running round in bikinis they then inserted some gratuitous nudity (we have to get out of these wet clothes and run round the forest at night in the nuddy). I loved the end play, with the women turned into shrieking, primal, bloodstained maenads, and the closing shot of their grim faces and thousand yard stares brings home something of the horror of what they have been through. It was a good film, a taut thriller whose ambition never outstretched its reach, and I liked it a lot.

The Ruins (2008)

Scott Smith’s novel was one of my favourite horror outings in recent years, so I had high hopes for the film and I’m happy to state that I wasn’t disappointed. Four young Americans on a trip to Mexico go with a German into the jungle to visit the newly discovered ruins of a Mayan temple. However once they reach the site the locals turn up in force and won’t allow them to leave, killing anyone who attempts to step away from the vegetation overrun ruins. With one of their party injured in a fall and the others facing a shortage of water and food, the Americans begin to think they might die here. It’s only the start of their troubles however, as it turns out that the plant which has covered most of the site is in fact cannibalistic and intelligent, its spores infecting their bodies. The locals act as they do to keep it quarantined. There’s a fascinating concept here, with the introduction of another form of intelligence, one that is inimical to mankind, or at the worst sees us simply as a means to propagation. The underlying mood of the film is one of bleakness, as the tourists’ situation deteriorates, with the hoped for help not arriving, and acts of bodily mutilation forced upon them, while internal tensions run high. By way of reservation, I have to wonder why the locals didn’t simply kill them when they first stepped on the site, instead of allowing them to die slowly with the chance that they might escape, and I also wonder why nobody has tried to burn the plant. Such matters are a side issue though. If you accept the framing scenario then what follows is a masterful study in horror, with a bad situation steadily growing worse and a sense of hopelessness taking root in both the characters and the viewers. It is a film that is remorseless and bleak, at least until the final chapter when it varies significantly from the book (there were other changes, but mostly in the identity of the victims and of no real consequence), when we get the sort of upbeat ending that cinema audiences are supposed to need, which was a pity and against the run of play. Overall though I thoroughly enjoyed this film, albeit ‘enjoyed’ might not be the right word. It’s easily the best of this bunch, rising above its shortcomings to provide a startling and original horror story, one that will reward further viewing.

Uninhabited (2010)

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef contains over six hundred coral islands. Marine biology student Beth and boyfriend Harry are to spend ten days on one of them, but no sooner have they arrived than they get indications that they are not alone – footsteps in the sand, sounds in the night. Searching the island they find a hut in the middle of the forest, containing strange drawings and a journal that tells of a woman raped by seven men and how her vengeful spirit haunts the island, killing men. Beth believes, while Harry prefers a more prosaic explanation, but either way someone or something is out to get them. This film blindsides the viewer with the words ‘Based on Actual Events’ emblazoned on the cover of the DVD box, the actual events in question consisting of the fact that there was an island with a hut and a journal, at least according to the director, but nothing more than that. This misdirection means that we can’t entirely be sure where the film is going, if the menace our couple faces is supernatural or human in nature, and I have to admit that it worked rather well, though at the same time I didn’t feel the film’s makers were playing entirely fair. No matter as I rather liked it, without being blown away. The scenery is breathtaking and the hut in the woods thing introduces a Blair Witch note of uncertainty and menace into the proceedings. The actors seemed a bit stilted at the start, but grew into their roles, with Beth as the cautious one and Harry the hothead. I have to admit I didn’t entirely like their characters – a small thing, but when they first arrived and toddled off leaving their ferryman to unload all of their stuff from his boat, I thought they were arseholes – but then, that’s not necessary to believe in them, or feel concern at what happens to them. There’s a feminist subtext of sorts, with male abuse of women one of the foundation stones of the plot, both in the past and present. The ending is bleak and ambiguous, which I liked. Overall it was a small, unambitious film that was very good at what it did, without being an outstanding film of its type.

Donkey Punch (2008)

Tammi has been done the dirty on by her boyfriend, so gal pals Lisa and Kim whisk her off to Spain for a weekend of fun and sun. They meet up with four young men who are crewing on a luxury yacht, and while the owner is away the crew will party. Out at sea, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, an orgy ensues, with good girl Tammi abstaining. But one of the girls gets killed, courtesy of the eponymous donkey punch, and then when the guys want to cover up what happened to save their skin, the girls find themselves in danger and have to fight to survive. So basically then it’s Black Rock relocated to a luxury yacht, with a lot more nudity and character complications. There is definitely an element of exploitation here, with the sexual element confirming all our worst fears and highest hopes about young Brits abroad, the sort of antics the tabloids and reality TV shows revel in exposing. Allow for that though, and what you get is a very tense thriller, with a claustrophobic, almost hallucinatory feel to the setting and plenty of twists and turns in the plot, as the advantage swings first one way and then the other, with everybody’s motives and madness coming into play. The characters are well drawn, especially the four guys (the girls are not quite as well rounded), with particular kudos to Tom Burke as the embodiment of Essex Boy that is Bluey, and Julian Morris as Josh, a conniving little shit, who is clever and manipulative, but at the same time a tad naïve. There isn’t anything really new or striking here, just the same old given an ‘adults only’ makeover, but it has characters you can believe in, even as you disapprove of what they do, and on occasion root for. And it keeps you continually off balance, even though the ending has a certain sense of inevitability about it. Interestingly it was part funded by the National Lottery (so that’s where all my money went to), making me wonder if there was a Daily Mule inspired public outcry at the time regarding the use of Lottery funds to finance pornography. I do hope so, as that alone would have made the whole project all the more worthwhile.

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