Review : Dead End Drive-In (1986)

Dead End Drive-In, one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films, is an ozploitation film from 1986, directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith. Forget what you think about exploitation films, this one has substance ! But before diving into the review, I just need to point out how brilliant it is that an exploitation film, targeted at drive-in audiences, takes place…in a drive-in !

In a near future, violent gangs have taken over Australian cities and are causing havoc. To solve this issue, the authorities have decided to lure the delinquents into drive-in cinemas, turning places of entertainment into concentration camps. A couple, Crabs and Carmen, are one of those youngsters, trapped inside a drive-in. While Carmen seems to adjust to her new life, Crabs can only think about escaping.

Dead End Drive-In

Dead End Drive-In was a big surprise. Often marketed as an action-packed ozploitation film, it is actually devoid of action for the majority of the film as it focuses on its social commentary. The film draws an alarming portrait of society in the 80’s as it touches on subjects such as the environment, government policy, crime and much more. Its message is made even stronger by the fact that the filmmaker, while creating a very original environment, still anchors its story into reality. Set in the not-so-distant future, the way society and crime are depicted in the first act of the film does feel realistic. It also heavily contrasts with the main location in the film : the city is shown at night, everything appears dark and gritty, while the drive-in is a colorful environment.

The main appeal of the film is, of course, its setting. It is such a fun and original concept to use a drive-in cinema in such a way. I was particularly impressed by the set design as it is both dull and colorful. The vibrant colors contrast with the concrete and the result is a brilliant mixture which emphasizes the gap between the government and those young criminals. Nothing looks more amazing than drive-in neon lights, especially to a non-american such as myself, who has never experienced watching a film in a drive-in cinema (we never had those here).

The characters are, for the most part, over-the-top in their behavior and personalities. The main character, Crabs, is a very endearing young man, who seems to thrive in adversity. Always teased for being weak by his family, he stands up for himself in this new contained environment. However, I found his girlfriend, Carmen, far less interesting. She seems to adjust a bit too quickly to this unexpected situation whereas Crabs is easier to identify with since he is as confused as the viewer by all this.

Dead End Drive-In is famous for its final car stunt and it does live up to its reputation. The final act is where the action scenes take place and it does not disappoint. Without spoiling the ending, I thought it concluded the film perfectly. Overall, Dead End Drive-In was an excellent surprise. Anticipating a mindless low-budget action fest, I was pleasantly taken aback by an intelligent, well-made and well designed film with a heavy focus on its social message. An excerpt from a definition of the term “ozploitation” reads : “ […] presenting the Australian landscape and environment as an almost spiritually malign force that alienates white Australians and frustrates both their personal ambitions and activities and their attempts to subdue it.” (source : Wikipedia). This perfectly applies to Dead End Drive-In, making it the perfect ozploitation experience.

Arrow Video is releasing Dead End Drive-In on September 19th, 2016 in a gorgeous amaray edition (if you are a regular reader of this website, you know a dedicated article about the packaging is coming very soon). The 2K restoration looks great, it is sharp yet the grain is still visible (if an exploitation film is not grainy, it is not true to its nature, in my opinion).There are not many special features included in this edition but they are very interesting, particularly the documentary by Brian Trenchard-Smith (the director) on Australian stunt performers.

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Review : Frontier(s) (2007)

Frontier(s), directed by Xavier Gens, was released in 2007 and definitely deserves its place in the French Extreme wave. Though this brutal film is well made and has a lot of qualities, I didn’t enjoy it. It falls in the category of films which qualities I recognize but are not my taste. If you watch my videos, you know where I stand : I love blood and gore, I don’t like extreme and disgusting movies. For me, Frontier(s) falls into that category.

Paris is burning as a political announcement results in a series of violent riots throughout the country. A group of thieves find this to be the perfect opportunity to stage several robberies. Chased the police they find refuge in an inn which, instead of a safe haven, turns out to be a place of nightmares as it is run by a family of neo-nazis with an extreme ideology and violent tendencies.

Frontier(s) references a lot of classic films of the genre and it will remind you of Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Though it is clearly inspired by those classics, it doesn’t limit itself to rehashing them and is definitely unique. Though the writers attempt to add layers to the plot, for instance adding a political background in the first act of the film, the story has been told countless times before : a group of teenagers are targeted by a family of degenerates. I also found Frontier(s) to be a complete mess when it comes to the story it is trying to tell. There are too many elements added, ideas are introduced left and right and some aspects did feel irrelevant to the main storyline. For example, I didn’t find the characters being neo-nazis to add anything to the overall story. It did feel like the director couldn’t decide if he wanted his characters to be neo-nazis, cannibals, degenerates or cult fanatics so he decided to use it all which results in a complete mess.

A positive aspect of Frontier(s) is its characters. In most horror films, characters are unlikable and annoying and it is hard to care about their fate. Though the main characters are indeed a bit annoying, you do not dislike them to the point where you are rooting for them to be butchered. I especially liked Karine Testa ‘s performance as Yasmine, the main character. Her acting was sometimes over-the-top but I thought she did a fine job at portraying fear and especially mental breakdown.

From a cinematography standpoint, Frontier(s) is a well made film. The practical effects are very effective and the kills are creative, which is always a good thing (especially when you watch a lot of horror movies, the kills can become repetitive so it’s always a nice touch when filmmakers are creative). I didn’t like the way the action scenes were edited, it is too fast paced and cut really fast so it’s not enjoyable to watch. There is a lot of action in the film but, unlike some movies, it doesn’t mean there is no tension (there is plenty). Now, let’s address the gore. It was too much for my taste, hence why I didn’t the film. Frontier(s) is bloody, disgusting and gross. To sum it up : it is a very nasty film. In my opinion, it tends to be gory for the sake of being gory. The director wanted to add as much shock value to his film as possible and he definitely succeeded.

It isn’t an easy task to review a film you didn’t enjoy but still find to be of good quality. Though I didn’t like the film, strictly because of my personal taste, I can say it is a good film, despite its many flaws. I recommend it if you enjoy films like Hostel, have a strong stomach, like bloodfests and don’t mind poor writing.

Review : Inside (2007)

It is Christmas Eve. Sarah, recently widowed, is pregnant and awaiting her ride to get her to the hospital to give birth to her child. In the middle of the night, a mysterious woman knocks on her door…and seems to know a lot about Sarah. This is the beginning of a nightmarish and bloody evening as Sarah fights for her life, trying to escape this woman who loves to play with scissors and only has one idea in mind : get Sarah’s baby…no matter how !

Everything about Inside is extreme : the story, the characters…and the amount of blood. I think the effects guy got a discount on fake blood and decided to use as much as he possibly could. But this is not a bad thing. With such an amount of blood and gore, it is difficult not to cross the fine line that can turn an extreme film into a cheesy film. Inside is never cheesy, and the gore and blood actually helps tell the story. The cinematography is also very good and there a lot of great shots, especially of La Femme before she penetrates into Sarah’s home.

Inside is filled with tension and has a great unnerving atmosphere. The build-up of the tension is done perfectly : it is not too slow nor too fast. You gradually get more tense until the action begins and the thrills don’t end until the credits start rolling. I particularly loved (and was terrified by) the reveal of La Femme when she finally enters the house. I don’t want to detail that scene in this review as I believe you should experience it yourself.  A majority of the scenes will make you cringe and I am quite certain some of them will be watched through your fingers, while you cover your eyes ! I am a horror geek so I am used to violence, blood, gore etc…Inside is one of those rare movies that still gets to me and scares me despite having seen quite a few horrific films.

More than the bloody scenes, what is terrifying about Inside is the story and the characters. This is a the story of a woman who wants to take a baby out of another woman’s belly. Writing that sentence alone sends chills down my spine. Inside is about motherhood and we get two different portraits of very different women. Sarah is not a bad mother but you can feel her resentment for her unborn child, who is a constant reminder of the tragic loss of her husband. It is hard to blame her as she is grieving the death of the love of her life. On the other hand, as insane as she is, La Femme’s motivation is, in essence, understandable as well. Both women ultimately want the same thing : Sarah doesn’t want this child (as shown by the fact that the baby’s room is not ready just hours before the birth is scheduled) and La Femme wants Sarah’s child. I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible  in my reviews so I will not write further about this but just note that there is more than meets the eyes : Inside is not a mindless bloodfest, it has an interesting story and developed characters.

Every aspect of Inside is brutal and it does give meaning to the word “extreme”. But the film is not just extreme, it is also…extremely well made ! I highly recommend Inside but be careful if you have a weak stomach. This is the film I recommend every time someone asks me which French Horror film they should watch first.

Review : Them (2006)

Them was directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud and released in 2006. It is a thriller rather than a straight horror film but it is still terrifying. I have always found the concept of home invasion films absolutely horrifying. A home is a safe haven, a place where you feel secure and comfortable. So, the idea of someone violating the one place that is your own and where you are supposed to feel safe is scary. Them is a very effective home invasion film but also much more.

Clementine and Lucas, a young French couple, have been living near Bucharest for a few months. Clementine is a teacher and Lucas is a writer, working in their home in the countryside. One night, people break into their house and chase them with the intention of harming them. Ensues a deadly game of cat and mouse.

The opening sequence establishes that something bad is lurking around, in the night. But you almost forget about it while the movie gives a portrait of the main characters : a nice and happy couple. The actors give good performances, are believable as a couple and come across as genuinely nice people. Having them live in a foreign country was a very smart idea as it increases their isolation (new culture, new language, new home…). A lot of aspects are unknown to them and it conveys this uneasy feeling that communication with the outside world is limited.

The main tool used to convey fear is sound. It is super effective and never fails to scare you…and no, there are no jump scares ! This was a genius idea as the identity of “them” is unknown throughout the film so you barely see the invaders and the characters have to rely on sound to hide from or locate the enemy. Every scene is designed to scare the viewer and it works perfectly. There is no gore but the directors prove that you don’t need blood to make a frightening film that will keep the viewer from sleeping peacefully afterwards !

Them uses a primal sense of fear and the level of tension never decreases. It is constant and keeps getting worse. The scariest aspect of the film is that everything feels extremely real. You will have no trouble putting yourself in the characters’ shoes. I also liked that they react to this dreadful situation as you’d imagine anyone would. They are not heroes, they are normal people facing an abnormal event and trying to survive this unexpected madness. The chase is simply fantastic : Clementine is being chased by “them” and, as the viewer, you do feel like a prey as well, imprisoned by the directors and living this nightmare with her. The ending is, in a word, brilliant ! My jaw dropped the first time I watched Them. I will not spoil anything in this review, as I do believe this a must-watch, but the film does end on a high note.

Them proves that blood and gore are not what makes horror films scary. The premise is terrifying and the result is a film filled with tension which I recommend watching in the dark for an even better viewing experience. Part of the French Extreme New Wave, what I found extreme here is not the imagery but the story itself. Brilliant work for a directorial debut !

Review : High Tension (2003)

High Tension, released in 2003, was directed by Alexandre Aja who is famous for being the director of The Hills Have Eyes remake. The film is about two girls, Alex and Marie, who are about to spend the week-end at Alex’s parents’. The house is isolated and located in the countryside, near a cornfield. What starts as a peaceful week-end quickly turns into a nightmare when a sadistic killer targets them.

I cannot avoid starting this review by bluntly announcing that I hate almost everything about this film. I usually enjoy Alexandre Aja’s work but High Tension was an immense disappointment. I don’t recall hating a movie so strongly. I have seen my fair share of bad movies but High Tension is, while not a bad film, an atrocious experience. I will give my general opinion on High Tension and end this review with some spoilers to detail why I disliked the film so much.

High Tension is a failed attempt at emulating the thrills of better slashers. Though Aja’s love for the great classics of the genre is apparent, the film is a mediocre hommage to them. While movies like Friday The 13Th get away with kills that defy the laws of nature, High Tension doesn’t because they simply take you out of a movie you struggle to get interested in to begin with. The kills are unoriginal, but what is even worse is the perpetrator of those kills. The killer has no charisma and is simply a fat, sweaty and gross redneck. A slasher with a boring antagonist…brilliant.

The acting is also atrocious, especially from Cecile De France, and the poorly written dialogue doesn’t help. But my main issue with the film is that it is illogical and plain dishonest. A lot of scenes make no sense, are irrelevant and unnecessary and the twist at the end renders the entire film useless and meaningless. I advise you stop reading here if you have not seen High Tension as I’m about to reveal major plot points so I will conclude this paragraph by recommending not to waste your time with this film.

I will not underline the film’s homophobia nor its attempt at brutal imagery (the film is not particularly extreme but tries hard to shock the viewer). I simply want to give my thoughts on the most stupid and illogical twist I have ever witnessed. So, as you know if you’ve seen High Tension, Marie is the real killer and the redneck simply the physical representation of her psychotic tendencies. This is simply impossible and yet not what bothers me the most. The reason why I strongly dislike the film is because the twist only means one thing : the movie spent more than an hour lying to the viewer. No, the movie is not smart and did not intelligently trick the viewer. Nothing in the film can justify or explain that twist. Here’s a few examples of what remains unanswered (and simply impossible to rationally explain) : How can Marie drive a truck and be in the back with Alex at the same time ? How can she inflict such injuries on herself ? How can she drive a truck (with Alex in the back) and chase said truck in a sports car at the same time ?

Some scenes earlier in the film also feel irrelevant. For instance, one of the first scenes shows the redneck pleasuring himself with a severed head before throwing it out the truck’s window. This is another proof that the film is dishonest : how can we witness what a character is doing, all by himself, with nobody else near him, if he doesn’t exist outside of Marie’s mind ? Not only is there no indication throughout the film to suggest the redneck doesn’t exist but there are numerous scenes that point towards him being real thus, once again, making the twist illogical and impossible. And finally, one scene perfectly sums up the director’s intention : the scene where Marie is masturbating. This scene brings nothing to the story or the character and its only purpose is to show a girl pleasuring herself. The real intention was to show that Marie has feelings for her friend but it is bady handled. I found the scene where Marie watches Alex take a shower much more efficient in that regard.

The entire film tries to shock the viewer but never suceeds and the result is a film that is not only mediocre from a lot of different aspects but also makes no sense. High Tension is not an extreme film, it is simply dishonest.

Review : Matinee (1993)

Matinee, directed by the great Joe Dante, was released in 1993 and yet, it is a time capsule that will take you back to the sixties ! This love letter to B-movies is an absolute pleasure to watch for any cinephile who loves this particular aspect of cinema.

Gene lives with his mother and little brother in the Key West military base while his father, a navy officer, is at sea. The Cuba Missile Crisis is at its peak but while adults are in absolute panic, Gene only has one thing on his mind : go to the movies to watch Lawrence Woolsey’s latest horror film : Mant.

The opening sequence immerses you right away. It shows the trailer for Mant, the movie our main character wants to see. Lawrence Woolsey, the producer, presents the feature as a cheap version of Alfred Hitchcock. Mant, the film within the film, is in the pure tradition of B-movies from the 1950’s and references the genre several times. The poster is heavily inspired by the poster of Them!, a sci-fi movie from 1954 about…ants ! It is very entertaining to get to see excerpts of Mant throughout Matinee. It seems to be an alternate version of The Fly (1958) as shown, among other details, with the black fabric on the man/creature’s head. All those details about Mant just enhance the feeling that you are watching a film directed by someone who is as passionate as you also probably are.

Setting the film during the missile crisis emphasizes one of the film’s most important message and one that is very dear to my cinephile’s heart : movies can, at least for a short while, make you forget about the worries of the real world. Such an endearing message ! But Matinee has multiple facets : it is a comedy, a drama, a charming coming-of-age story, a portrait of society in the early 1960’s. However, it never feels like a melting pot of random elements : every aspect is essential to the story.

As mentionned above, Matinee also focuses on cinema and this is definitely the most appeling side of the film. There are details throughout to please every horror aficionado : it is set during the Halloween season so there are decorations everywhere, Gene is seen reading horror magazines on several occasions and…his last name is Loomis ! It is also interesting to get a glimpse at several aspects of the independant film industry : movie marketing, promotion, gimmicks etc… I also loved how Joe Dante captures the magic of cinema from the spectator’s point of view. In a world prior to the internet, you can’t help but feel Gene’s anticipation to see this new horror film.
To conclude, Matinee is a beautiful coming-of-age story that every film fanatic should see. Good directing, good acting, lovable characters, references to horror classics… the film has all the ingredients to put you in a good mood as you can’t help but nod when a character talks about what’s so great about cinema