New Zealand horror comedy Dead (2020) concerns David “Marbles” Malwich (Thomas Sainsbury), a stoner who has opened the doors to communicating with the dead after combining marijuana with his late father’s neurological medicine. Content with merely helping the living say goodbye to their dear departed ones so that the latter may move on rather than undergoing a ghost-into-ghoul transition, Marbles initially refuses to help the spectre of recently dead policeman Officer Tagg (Hayden J. Weal, who also directs the film) track down the serial killer who murdered him.
Marbles soon does the detective work, though, assisted by Tagg’s foster sister Yana (Tomai Ihaia), an alcoholic lawyer currently under house arrest because of four DUI charges. When Marbles makes the connection that all of the killer’s victims were gay, he goes undercover to a gay bar, where he discovers his indebriated mother Janine (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) dancing and evidently looking for a new husband in absolutely the wrong locale.
Sainsbury, who cowrote the screenplay with Weal, does a great job of playing Marbles as a likable underachiever, and Weal is equally fun as the commitment-phobic Tagg, who spends most of his screen time without the bottom half of his uniform. The supporting players are wonderful. The emphasis is on humor, but there are enough supernatural and serial-killer horror elements to keep fright-fare fans happy. The screenplay is nicely paced and has a big heart at its center, making Dead a highly watchable and strongly recommended effort.
Writer/director Jud Cremata’s teen horror feature Let’s Scare Julie (U.S., 2020) was filmed in one continuous 80-plus–minutes take by cinematographer Chuck Ozeas, eschewing several filmmaking rules in favor of keeping the camera and viewers in the middle of, or as close to, the proceedings as possible. This attempt at intimacy works in the film’s favor quite often, relying on the adage that what we imagine ourselves is scarier than what is shown on screen. That philosophy may be strained a bit here, but the sense of dread that pervades the film from the beginning and a couple of effective, well-earned jump scares in the third act help make up for some of the more ambiguous moments.
The story involves a group of teenage girls who meet together one night at the house where Taylor (Isabel May) lives. Her recently orphaned cousins Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson) and Emma’s seven-year-old sister Lilly (Dakota Baccelli) have recently come to live with Taylor, who has invited her prank-loving friends Madison (Odessa Adlon), Jess (Brooke Sorenson), and Paige (Jessica Sarah Flaum) over to meet and get to know Emma, which doesn’t start off well as the girls play a home invasion prank on Emma and film it for possible posting on the internet. The girls learn that a teenager named Julie has just moved into the reputedly spooky house across the street, and her father has left her alone for a while. Everyone except Emma and Lilly don creepy masks to go frighten Julie and then come right back, but as anyone familiar with the basics of horror might guess, their plans go fatally awry.
Some obvious edits take away from the single-take effect — supposedly Cremata and crew filmed the movie four times, each one in a single take — but the style is intriguing to watch unfold, nevertheless. Some of the dialogue, especially during the first act as characters are introduced, seems improvised, as the actors talk over one another often and lines are occasionally difficult to make out.
The ensemble cast is solid, especially after the initial scenes where members are sometimes over-eagerly trying to establish who is naughty and who is nice to the point of being borderline annoying. Johnson gives an outstanding turn as the mourning daughter and audience surrogate Emma, and May is also impressive as a young woman who waffles between being the voice of reason and the pranks ringleader.
Overall, Let’s Scare Julie is an immersive horror movie experiment that is not without a few flaws, but is well worth a watch.
Dead and Let’s Scare Julie screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest’s Digital Edition 2, which ran from 21st–25th October, 2020. Let’s Scare Julie is scheduled for Digital HD release on Q1 December 2020 from Signature Entertainment.