Wednesday, 6 October 2021

"A Small Fortune"


Kevin (Stephen Oates), running from his bloody destiny in A Small Fortune.

A Small Fortune

Writer/Director: Adam Perry. Cast: Stephen Oates, Liane Balaban, Andrea Bang, Joel Thomas Hynes, Matt Cooke, Bill McFadden. 2021.


When you live in Prince Edward Island, it can be difficult to receive an Island-made film without preconceived notions, for better and for worse. Happily, in the case of Adam Perry’s A Small Fortune, it fits neatly into the 'pleasant surprise' category. 


What struck me first after a viewing of A Small Fortune was how engrossed I became in the plot and how invested I became in the characters. For most of the film’s 91 minutes, I forgot that I was watching an ‘Island film’ (actually a PEI-Newfoundland co-production), no matter how much the place and its people are at the heart of its story. And that’s a very good thing. It’s a film that, first and foremost, is interested in fulfilling the requirements of a thriller. And it’s that commitment to genre that is key to its success. 


A Small Fortune gives us antihero Kevin Doucette (Stephen Oates), an Irish moss farmer in Skinner’s Pond, Prince Edward Island (the film was actually shot in French River, PEI), finding it hard to make ends meet, not surprisingly. Kevin’s wife Sam (Liane Balaban) is pregnant and not making much money working as a home care worker. One day, while mossing (did I just make up that term, or is it a thing?), Kevin stumbles upon an answer to the couple’s prayers — a bag of big money washed up on the shore.

Being a thriller, the not-so-rightful owners of the money come looking for it, guns at the ready. And while avoiding the bad guys, Kevin also has to sidestep his suspicious spouse and a couple of local cops. True to the demands of a PEI neo-Noir, destinies are preordained, people die, and characters learn uncomfortable truths about themselves. 

The notion of ‘traditional versus contemporary’ is also ever-present throughout A Small Fortune. It’s there in the outdated nature of Kevin’s work, and it’s there in local law enforcement, which is made up of by-the book Susan Crowe (Andrea Bang), who is both new to the police force and new to the community, and Jim Bradley (Matt Cooke), a local who knows how to local. 


It’s also there in the character of Omer Tom (the late Island icon, Bill McFadden). He’s an Irish moss dealer, among other things, who knows that his time, and his kind, are coming to an end. After all, as he asks Kevin, what are you going to do when I’m gone?


Although it’s a question that resonates for the duration of A Small Fortune, the answer, of course, is in Kevin’s connection to PEI. Whatever your experience of Canada’s smallest province, it’s hard to deny its magnetic pull that is hard to escape for many. It is, in the end, a place that feels like “home” perhaps as only an island can, even if what you make of that connection is not necessarily logical. 


That sense of place plays a large role in A Small Fortune, and the connection to it is reflected in the film’s spent fall setting. It’s a side of Prince Edward Island we don’t often see on film, one that is typically reserved for the lived experience of Islanders who reside in-province year round, long after the tourists have packed up and gone home. 


What this means is that the Island is presented here in a way I’ve not seen it represented on film before. You won’t find any scenic drone shots of shoreline in A Small Fortune. Instead, the brittle, long grass of fall and the frigid shoreline set the atmosphere and the stage for what’s to come. Cinematographer Jeff Wheaton introduces Prince Edward Island as a fresh character — no mean feat, that — one that both hints at the beauty of the place and showcases its ruggedness.


The human characters in A Small Fortune fare just as well. Oates, Balaban and Hynes (the bad guy with the most screen time) create a tension-filled triangle, and at least two characters you care about. Hynes is absolutely terrific, but you don’t exactly root for him, after all.   


Bang and Cooke are also excellent as, respectively, a fish-out-of-water cop trying to learn the ropes of small town policing, and the long-time cop who has the chops his new deputy desperately needs to develop. The casting of Bang is particularly inspired as her timbre belies the true nature of her character and emphasizes that fish-out-of-water quality. 


There’s also nice work from Celia Owen and Sophia Bell as sisters Gussie and Josie. Comic foils at first, and perpetually mounted on ATVs, they also act as the eyes of the community, observing much of what takes place in Skinner’s Pond.


What can be said about Bill McFadden? Locally, he’s an icon, a larger than life presence that will be felt in the streets of Charlottetown, and throughout the province, for some time to come. A Small Fortune was McFadden’s last film (it’s dedicated to him), and he certainly brings life to Omer, though I wasn’t always convinced by his performance. When he nails it, however, there’s no doubt that anyone seeing A Small Fortune will come away remembering him. His turn as Omer Tom is absolutely a fitting tribute. 


As Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock knew and frequently proved, a plot hole doesn’t matter if you’re wrapped up in the story, and like most thrillers, A Small Fortune has a couple. Almost a trademark of the genre, chances are that your engagement with the film won’t allow you to dwell there, with some pop psychology reasoning giving you enough of a rationale to ignore it. 


Behind it all, I’ve been privy to some of the work that writer/director Adam Perry has put into realizing A Small Fortune, and it’s a testament to his belief in the project, and that of producers and Perry cohorts Jason Arsenault and Jenna MacMillan, as well as Newfoundland-based producer Mary Sexton, that this film haas made it to screens. Perry has some web work to his credit, including the 2009 feature-length web series Jiggers, but here, Perry has strived for more and achieved it. The evolution of his script and his direction are as solid as they come. He has made a film that we can point to and say, “This is what we’re doing in PEI.” On a personal level, it is absolutely a film I wish I’d made.



Wednesday, 22 September 2021

"Let’s Go Play at the Adams’" by Mendal W. Johnson (1974)

Mendal W. Johnson had only one novel published - Let’s Go Play at the Adams’. Two years later, he died as a result of alcoholism. 


Based very loosely on the real life case of Sylvia Likens, Go Play tells a story that, quite honestly, based on description alone, is anything but appealing. 


Barbara, a twenty-year-old college student, takes a job babysitting the two Adams kids — 13-year-old Bobby and 10-year-old Cindy — for two weeks while their parents are in Europe. One morning, she awakens to find herself the captive of the Adams kids and three of their teenage friends. 


At the age of 56, while I still like reading things that push the envelope, I’ve had enough of this kind of story. For those of us looking for something shocking, The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave are rites of passage, for better or worse. Hopefully, we come away from them with empathy, or some sort of catharsis, maybe just the feeling that “we made it through”. 


After being there though the post-9/11 advent of Torture Porn movies (Hostel, Saw), enough was finally enough. The fact is, after awhile the only sane response to these kinds of stories, for me, was to laugh at how over the top they’d become, or to feel depressed. 


What will get me to risk feeling that human beings are shit for a few days, however, is the reputation of the work in question, and that was the case with Go Play. 


Out of print for many years. Grady Hendrix and Valencourt Books have brought Go Play back into circulation via their Paperbacks from Hell imprint. Since it was first published in 1974, the book has been one of those holy grail publications that wasn’t always easy to get your hands on, and that had a reputation for being both a difficult read, but well worth it. After having finished it just last night, I agree that it’s both.

The beginning of the novel very much has the feel of the time it was written. It’s almost like an S. E. Hinton novel co-written by a sociopath. 


I don’t want to say too much about what happens in Go Play — it’s pretty much a single scenario that plays out over a few days and gets progressively worse — but I will say that it’s the manner in which it’s written that gives it its true power.

It's horrific without being exploitive. The cruelty, the nudity is not there to titillate, it's used to describe, to add pathos. Johnson also very much gets into the heads of all six of his primary players, and makes them seem very real, both as individuals, but also when the young captors act as a unit under the guise of the Freedom Five. This makes the scenario, the dynamics, and everyone’s actions all the more believable. 


It’s also very much a story about hope, despair and the apathetic (fatalistic?) nature of cruelty. In fact, it was this hope-despair dynamic that had me hooked by the novel’s midpoint, and led me to cram-read the second half of the book in one sitting. Much like the captive Barbara, I just had to know what her fate was going to be. 


At its end, the book transcends everything that’s come before it. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense that many people use when writing about horror novels. I mean that it veers into a type of poetry, almost taking the reader into the realm of Kubrick’s 2001 ending. 


As a result, Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is absolutely that difficult but nastily worthwhile read that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to the right people. You know what I mean. This is a novel that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.  


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

More Favourite Horror Movies, Alphabetically: The Thing

 The Thing

Dir: John Carpenter. Cast: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Donald Moffat, David Clennon, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, Thomas G. Waites, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Joel Polis. 1982.

John Carpenter’s version of The Thing is an argument in favour of the power of special effects. Though all the elements of filmmaking are firing on all cylinders and absolutely doing their jobs here, it’s the SFX that overwhelm and horrify. 


I saw The Thing twice in the theatre during its initial release in the summer of 1982. I don’t remember that first screening, but I do remember the second. Lured back into the theatre by what I’d already experienced the first time around, I convinced a friend who hadn’t seen it to accompany me. At some point during the movie she leaned over and whispered to me, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to hold my hand.” 


The Thing features an all-male cast, save for Adrienne Barbeau as the voice of a computer. I really think, intentional or not, this serves not to reinforce the machismo of the 80s action movie, but rather to add to the coldness and hopelessness predominant in the frigid atmosphere of the film. 


The Thing is about an American research station located in Antartica that has to defend itself from a shapeshifting alien that sometimes looks like some of the crew. It’s a full on jump into the depths of paranoia. But the practical special effects here, by a very young and not overly experienced at the time Rob Bottin, show us things that we truly haven’t seen before, and maybe since. It’s the closest we’ve come to putting onscreen the sort of creatures writer H.P. Lovecraft imagined. 


That’s not to say that The Thing is all effects and nothing else, but I can’t think of another film, with the exception of possibly The Exorcist, where its effects matter so much, and at times, all the other aspects of filmmaking seem to be in support of the SFX with the primary purpose of getting the story onto the screen. 



Tuesday, 7 September 2021

More Favourite Horror Movies, Alphabetically: Targets

Targets

Dir: Peter Bogdanovich. Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O’Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich. 1968.

Targets is a remarkable film, and no less so for how it was made. Producer Roger Corman allowed director Bogdanovich to make a film if he would use Boris Karloff during the two days the actor owed the producer, if he would incorporate footage from Corman’s The Terror, and if he came in under budget. What Bogdanovich was able to create adhering to these guidelines is not only a clever achievement, but it resulted in an under-seen horror classic. 


Like Hitchcock’s Psycho eight years earlier, Targets announces the death of classic horror and the birth of its contemporary counterpart. Here, rather than modern day murder in the shadow of a gothic mansion, it takes the form of a gothic horror personality making an appearance at a drive-in where contemporary horror muscles in in the form of a hidden snipper, poised to kill as many as possible. 


In part inspired by the real life horror of sniper Charles Whitman, who found his victims street level while hidden atop a tower at the University of Texas, Targets itself fell victim, though to bad timing. Released shortly after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. was in no mood to see this reality reflected on the screen, and it was not a box office hit. Pity, as it's both an extraordinary movie, and a warning of things to come.


Monday, 30 August 2021

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Tales from the Crypt


Tales from the Crypt


Dir: Freddie Francis. Cast: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ian Hendry, Partick Magee, Ralph Richardson. 1972.

While Hammer Films was transplanting their gothic horrors to modern day settings in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s, amping up the nudity and violence, and adding doses of tongue in cheek humour, their fellow UK horror specialists Amicus Productions was making a name for itself by focusing on anthology horror films such as The Vault of HorrorAsylum and From Beyond the Grave, among others. And while personal favourites may vary, Tales from the Crypt is readily mine. 


Taking its name and stories from classic EC comics, as did Vault of Horror a year later, Tales from the Crypt sees five people who, on impulse, decide to tour nearby catacombs in order to kill time. Once in, the Crypt Keeper tells each a story highlighting his or her misdeeds. 


The second story - Reflection of Death - is the weakest of the five tales, but it’s entertaining nonetheless, and for my money, the other four stories are as good as this stuff gets. Gruesome and ghoulish, Tales from the Crypt is thoroughly entertaining and utterly satisfying.


Friday, 27 August 2021

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: The Shout


The Shout


Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski. Cast: Susannah York, John Hurt, Alan Bates. 1978.


The Shout would make a perfect and gloomy double bill with Andrzej Żuławski's excellent Possession, featuring a truly outstanding performance from Isabelle Adjani. The Shout, however, is a unique, unusual, and intimate horror film in its own right, that builds in volume, and echos long after it’s over. 


It tells the story of a couple who lives in rural Devon; he’s a composer who works with weird electronic sounds. One day a stranger (Bates) comes into their lives. He claims to have learned a shout from an Aboriginal shaman that results in the death of those who hear it…


Watching the The Shout is like watching a couple’s relationship implode in slow motion. All the hints are there, too large to ignore, and popping up like warning signs as things become inevitable - the subtle clues that their connection is in danger, the suspicions that something not right is going on, the feeling of being forced out. 


In fact, it’s the central relationship between York and Hurt, and the third that Bates brings to the dynamic, that truly gives The Shout its impact. These three actors deliver outstanding performances that bring the viewer in when it’s required, push us out when necessary, and keeps us guessing and hoping for 86 minutes. 


There are other things at work here too, concepts that are undercurrents, or maybe more fittingly, tones that add weight to the slow motion catastrophe taking place in front of us, and which, as only viewers rather than participants, we are unable to do anything about. For example, the natural world is very much present and at odds with the artificial world (the unnaturally natural shout vs. Hurt’s electronic recordings). Present too, is the way the old world, represented by the shout itself, becomes at odds with that most British of sporting events, the cricket match.   


It’s the nature of the shout and its impact on our modern world that has me thinking that The Shout very much belongs to the category of Folk Horror, an enticing and unsettling type of horror film that hints at the power of things we have buried long ago, not because they were useless embarrassments, but because they were all too powerful. 


Thursday, 26 August 2021

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Scream of Fear


Scream of Fear (aka Taste of Fear)

Dir: Seth Holt. Cast: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee. 1961.


The best of Hammer Films’ Mini-Hitchcocks, Scream of Fear is a tight, black and white psycho-thriller in which wheelchair-bound Penny returns to her father’s home after years away at school. Of course, all is not right. 


The less said about the plot the better, so suffice it to say that it’s got shocks, eerie imagery, terrific performances and a brisk pace. It truly stands out from others of its kind - Nightmare, Hysteria, the much loved Paranoiac (that mask!), et al - in terms of delivering plot and effective twists.


Director Holt would make two more Hammer Horrors - The Nanny starring Bette Davis, and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, his final film. Holt collapsed and died on set as shooting neared completion. 


Wednesday, 25 August 2021

More Favourite Horror Flicks, Alphabetically: Repulsion

Repulsion

Dir: Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux, Ian Hendry, John Fraser. 1965.


With the desire to reach an English-speaking audience, Roman Polanski followed his Polish feature film debut Knife in the Water with this low budget horror film. The popularity of the genre and the minimal budgetary demands of the concept created by Polanski and writing partner Gérard Brach meant that they were able to eventually interest a studio in backing the film. 


Repulsion is the first of what’s come to be known as Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, followed by Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. A then unknown Catherine Deneuve is Carol, a young Belgian newcomer to England who shares an apartment with her sister Helen. Though Helen is sexually active, Carol is detached and uninterested in the advances of men. When Helen leaves on vacation with her lover, the true extent of Carol’s detachment emerges, as Carol finds the world around her filled with decay and sexual menace. 


Following a simple but effective narrative, Repulsion does a stellar job of bringing the viewer into the mind and world of someone suffering from a psychotic breakdown. In Carol’s refusal to share what she’s experiencing with those around her - strangers appearing in the apartment, being attacked in her home - we feel her loneliness, even though people are everywhere around her. She is so out of step with those others, however, that she is absolutely in a world of her own. It’s that connection that the viewer feels with Carol that gives this film its unique perspective, and that adds additional weight to what she - and we - experience in Repulsion.