Friday, 3 April 2015

CAST NO SHADOW - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The Horror of abuse leads to…HORROR!

Cast No Shadow (2014)
Dir. Christian Sparkes
Starring: Percy Hynes-White, Joel Thomas Hynes, Mary-Colin Chisholm

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Creepy is good, and there's more than enough creepy creeping creepily about in Christian Sparkes' creepy feature length directorial debut, the, uh, well, you know, creepy Cast No Shadow. Set against the isolated, and yes, creepy backdrop of Canada's mega-inbred capital of baby seal mass murder, the picturesque province of Newfoundland, it's a film infused with the kind of horror that was pioneered by legendary producer Val Lewton when he headed up the genre division of RKO Pictures in the 40s.

Now, don't get me wrong, movie geeks, though Sparkes' picture flirts with occasional shards of greatness, I'm not saying it holds a candle to the best Lewton work, for instance: The Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Victim, I Walked With a Zombie and The Body Snatcher, but it's definitely on a par with Lewton's lesser entries (for Lewton, "lesser" means pretty goddamned good) like, for instance, Isle of the Dead, Bedlam, The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship. The bottom line is that Cast No Shadow isn't the kind of picture you're going to kick out of the sack for eating crackers, if you follow my drift.

Val Lewton, of course, pioneered the notion of finding chills in the modern world and, in fact created near-fairy-tale like shockers which plumbed the depths of what scared people the most - mental illness, religious cultism, poverty, infidelity, loneliness, ignorance and, among other transgressive assaults on humanity, superstition. Visually, his work found monsters, not so much literal monsters, but those created by the imaginations of both the characters and audiences - often nestled in pure darkness, shadows and shades of grey.

Not that I saw any direct influence and/or Lewton-esque homages in Cast No Shadow, but it's definitely dipping its Newfie toes into similar black lagoons of horror. (Thank Christ no rotting, waterlogged baby seals bent on vengeance pop out of the murky waters surrounding "The Rock", otherwise I might have genuinely needed a few trips to the water closet.)

On the surface we're handed the simple, but compelling tale of Jude (Percy Hynes-White), a young boy living in a squalid shack masquerading as a home with Angus (Joel Thomas Hynes) his mean, abusive single Dad. Jude whiles away his time exploring the forests and craggy shorelines, mostly alone, but sometimes accompanied by a fair-weather friend or two.

What seems to really scare Jude to his bone marrow are the things which lurk in the dark woods and caves of his not-so idyllic rural environs. There are, you see, witches and trolls galumphing about. Given that the picture's set in Newfoundland, this isn't at all hard to swallow. The beatings Jude suffers at the hands of his Dad or the town bullies (future baby seal hunters, no doubt) seem like kid's stuff to our young protagonist. His waking moments alone in the woods, as well as his life-like dreams are fraught with grotesque creatures of the night.

To most of the local citizenry, including a smug, annoying constable, Jude's just plain apple-don't-fall-too-far-from-the-tree bad, not unlike, for example, his nasty Pappy. If truth be told, when the lad isn't tripping out in the wilderness or his secret lair of magic and make-believe in the crawlspace below the rickety, old family home, he is indeed up to all manner of "no-good". He is, more often than not, lashing out at the redneck bullies who make his life miserable by bashing his slender frame to a pulp. In a particularly satisfying moment, Jude even makes use of a pair of brass knuckles that he's stolen. (If anything, I personally hoped he'd be using them more than once.)

When Dad is inevitably hauled off to the hoosegow, Jude is rightly terrified that he'll be snapped up by the Child and Family Services creeps (which, we all know, don't do a whole lot of good other than shoving at-risk kids into even more vile at-risk situations). He runs off deeper into the maw of the neighbourhood and hangs out at the home of Alfreda (Mary-Colin Chisholm) a craggy, creepily-friendly and highly literate hermit who once was the region's trusted midwife, but now lives in lonely exile within her ramshackle shack - a kind of inbred Newfie Miss Havisham.

Here, for a time, Jude finds solace.

Alas, the secrets of the night, the deep, dark tragedies best forgotten (or better yet, repressed), begin to rear their ugly heads as horrifically as those of the trolls and witches populating the dense corners of the terrible beauty surrounding all who live in this alternately bucolic heaven on earth and roiling, ever-churning pit of hell.

Life in rural Newfoundland is no tray of tea and crumpets, let me tell you.

Though Cast No Shadow has a few misses which negate its hits, the picture has one of the best scripts in a Canadian film in some time. Written by Joel Thomas Hynes, the film's co-star (and real-life father of the film's child-star), it's a script that keeps you constantly guessing. Everytime you're about to wade into familiar waters, Hynes tosses in a big stone which causes the kind of ripples that keep you in a state of never quite knowing where you're going or what you're looking at. When a picture veers in directions I don't expect it to, I always get a nice tingle of happy gooseflesh since this is a rare treat in the movies these days.

I loved the tone, pacing and overall trajectory of the film's style and narrative. I especially appreciated that the movie seems to not be targeted at any specific demographic, confounding all notions and formulas one is normally inspired to yawn over. Whether or not Sparkes and/or Hynes were influenced by the aforementioned Val Lewton seems less important to me than the fact that their picture is mucking about in a similar sandbox.

As a director, Sparkes approaches the material simply and cleanly, as well as garnering phenomenal performances from his entire cast. I have only two major nitpicks. Firstly, the "monster" elements can't really live up to the picture's low budget. I wish he'd gone for even more shadow, more darkness and more fleeting glimpses of the troll than he does. (His witch "action" is far more successfully rendered.)

I do understand why he (or whatever boneheads in the creative process that he was forced to listen to) might have avoided going the distance in this fashion, but I think it would have been more in keeping with the overall mise-en-scene.

And speaking of "going the distance", my second nitpick is that the movie seems a few hairs short of upping the ante on the more violent and yes, even blood-soaked-potential that's inherent in the picture. It tries a bit too earnestly to be tasteful when there are a couple of perfect instances for the movie to have been pitched into the Cronenberg territory of unsavoury viscera.

This is not a contradiction of my first nitpick, either. The fantastical elements rightly needed to be a bit more muted in the realm of darkness and shadow, but the realistic elements of the film's true "horrors" are practically begging to be unleashed. (Even my 14-year-old daughter, who loved the film and related strongly to the character of Jude, felt the movie needed to up the ante on a few of the deep-rooted elements inherent in the story.) That all said, I noted that the credit-crawl included a few of the usual Telefilm Canada-like suspects attached to so many Canuckian endeavours, so I'm happy to place far more blame in that direction than the filmmakers themselves.

One of the nice things about Cast No Shadow is that it manages to exceed, in terms of overall quality, originality and genuinely muted horror, a similar recent release, the ludicrously overrated Aussie film The Babadook. Jennifer Kent's limp psychological chiller, is hampered by a clunky on-its-sleeve feminist bent, an underwhelming screenplay (predictably tarred and feathered with a big old brush of been-there-done-that) and annoyingly adorned with the kind of preciousness that gets pseuds (of all persuasions) hot and bothered that they're seeing something resembling an art film dabbling in the off-the-well-worn-genre-path.

Ugh! There's nothing original about The Babadook and the only and truly horrific thing about it was how the movie features a child who is nerve-gratingly annoying and then, tables turned, a Mom who is even more aggravating than her son. (Throw in an annoying dog and the film's Trinity of Cumbersome Afflictions became even more egregious.)

Not so with Cast No Shadow. You never really know where it's headed. When it does get there, you kick yourself a bit for not predicting it, but it feels good to stuff a few boots in your own ass on that count because you know, deep-down that you've been served up a cool picture from a writer and director who have all the potential in the world to eventually knock you flat.

It's a cinematic cold cock I look forward to with baited breath.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ 3-and-a-half Stars

Cast No Shadow is currently in limited theatrical release via MCE. The picture opens April 3 in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's with a bevy of attached special events:

TORONTO – Carlton Cinema
April 3 – post screening Q+A w/ actor Joel Thomas Hynes, actor-writer Percy Hynes White and producer Chris Agoston
April 4 – post screening Q+A w/ director Christian Sparkes, actor Joel Thomas Hynes, actor-writer Percy Hynes White and producer Chris Agoston

HALIFAX – Scotiabank Theatre
April 3 – post screening Q+A w/ actor Mary-Colin Chisholm
April 5 – post screening Q+A w/ director Christian Sparkes

ST. JOHN’S – Cinema Mount Pearl
April 3 – post screening Q+A w/ director Christian Sparkes, Allison White