Saturday, 31 October 2015

Lead Me Astray (2015) - Movie Review

In another dual example of "Australian indie production" and "I didn’t know what I was getting myself into", we have today’s film. Now, between its one-night-only screening in my area and its local production, I knew that I had to check it out. What I didn’t realise was that it was an official red carpet premiere. Almost everyone is in black tie, and there I am in my green pocket-T, hoodie and jeans. I’ve always felt out of place in film circles, but this is the first time that I’ve had that fact hit me square in the face; this is the kind of situation that separates the hobbyists from the professionals (or, in my case, the fanatics). So, when faced with the crowd of people who came to see this movie, I just shuffled into the cinema as soon as the doors opened and found my seat, doing as best I could not to draw attention to myself. With how similar this situation has started out, was this going to result in another Quarantine Hauntings bout of shame, or am I in for another beast altogether?

The plot: Alexis (Jace Pickard) lives a relatively stable life with his girlfriend Lacey (Alannah Robertson), something that comes crashing down when a confrontation with a young thug brings Alexis to kill. When Lacey is kidnapped by the thug’s colleagues in retaliation, Alexis is forced to action once again and his mysterious past is brought screaming to the surface, even after he and Dr. Seward (Tim Page) had tried so hard to repair the damage it had done to him.

Much like Quarantine Hauntings, this is an extremely local production made on a microscopic budget, only we’re dealing with an even smaller wallet size here at only $10,000; approximately one-sixth that of QH. To put this into perspective, Clerks, an American independent classic that is filmed primarily in a convenience store, was shot on a budget of approximately $27,000. Considering all of this, the film looks remarkably good in terms of production quality and its monetary constraints only become evident in a few regards. For example, every time the cinematographer (also director/writer/producer/editor/actor Tom Danger) decides to use a panning shot, it appears that random frames are missing from the take. Not only that, the sound mixing is inconsistent with moments of clipping, hissing and painfully noticeable dubbing, and the limited access to actors shows through when you have them portraying characters that are clearly much older than they are, without the aid of prosthetics to go full Benjamin Button on the situation. Somehow, unless we’re talking very specific and/or illegal circumstances, I doubt that the mother of a 3-year-old would still have braces.

However, this is a legitimate case where these flaws can be forgiven when brought into perspective considering the budget, as most of these problems are purely technical. Even with this in mind, it seems like Danger and co. knew how to put their money to good use: The shooting locations are well-utilized, even considering a pivotal scene is shot in a Blockbuster video store, the camera stock looks decent and the lighting, while haphazard in the exterior shots, shows a lot of attention to detail and a lot of Dario Argento worship that ends up working in the film’s favour for the interior shots.

And speaking of Argento, this is a film that very much wears its influences on its sleeve for all to gander at. Whether it’s the aforementioned lighting that echoes Argento’s coloured gel trademark, a book by Argento clearly visible in the shots taken of Alexis’ home, the shameless name-dropping of a couple of John Carpenter’s works, right down to a rather obvious bit of character influence with Dr. Seward being this film’s Dr. Loomis. In fact, that last part kind of throws my previous nit-picks about the accessibility of actors into question, as they seemed to have spent enough time to find an actor who looks rather similar to Donald Pleasance. He even gets a monologue where he talks about Alexis’ mental condition that feels pulled right out of the original Halloween.

However, even with all that said, this goes beyond simple mimicry and actually manages to create a distinctive identity for itself. It may take lighting tips from Argento, but the lack of access to the more showy examples of light cues gives it a grungier texture, making locales like the abandoned prison where the majority of the action takes place look even more unnerving. As for Dr. Seward, his relationship with Alexis almost makes this come across as a more what-if story concerning the silent slasher of the 80’s: What if that same killer got the psychiatric help they clearly needed and their doctor became their closest ally? Now imagine if this same idea wasn’t done by Rob Zombie and actually pulled off competently, and you have a good idea about how this turns out, thanks in no small part to the cast involved.

The acting is wobbly at first, but seems to improve alongside the rest of the film as it progresses. Pickard’s quite prominent lisp is distracting in earlier scenes, particularly when he’s conversing with Robertson, but whenever things get intense and he needs to show that he can fight, he more than delivers and only grows more primal and vicious as the tension rises. He pulls off the dichotomy of appearing meek one moment and ferocious the next with astounding ease. As much as I want to complain that Robertson does nothing but cry in her scenes, she still shows all of the emotional duress her character is under well; that, and she is genuinely proactive in a few key scenes.

Tim Page as Seward, when coupled with Addi Craig as the child Alexis, makes for easily the best moments in the film. He delivers the main monologue detailing Alexis’ condition and what happened to him with the right emotional punches to keep what is essentially a big exposition dump from descending into tedium. He also has remarkable on-screen chemistry with Craig, making their dialogue comes across as remarkably realistic given the circumstances of their meeting. I would also feel remiss if I didn’t highlight Craig for being easily one of the best child actors I have seen in a long time, balancing naivety, confusion, rage and even a few drops of menace in his scenes astoundingly well.

Greg Eccleston is… just plain weird in his role as a detective that interviews Alexis and Lacey after the Blockbuster incident; probably because his wisecrack about the state of DVD stores nowadays reaches the stage of ‘insensitive yet depressing true yet funny’. While the majority of the thug antagonists are just okay, Logan Webster as their leader does come across as intimidating at points. When he’s first introduced, the first shot we see of him is amazingly creepy. Once you see him and his mask up-close, though, that creeping sensation gives way to awkward giggles. Then, as the get-up starts to become familiar, his demeanour and his banter with Alexis ventures right back into creepy again.

This film’s moral stance(s) are probably the most interesting part of the entire production, on a purely critical basis. It brings up the old vigilante question of what gives a single person the right to take the law into his own hands and peppers it with conflicting perspectives that, ultimately, highlight our own hypocrisy surrounding the matter as a whole. It’s a safe bet to say that human society as a whole has moved past the 'eye-for-an-eye' mentality that it once clung to. However, while we aren’t likely to admit it, there are occasions where we genuinely feel like death is the only punishment that fits a certain person’s crime. Take someone who harshly protests the use of capital punishment, then bring that person face-to-face with a convicted and unrepentant murderer; chances are, when confronted with someone of that calibre, they’ll end up thinking twice.

Not that this is cut-and-dry what the film’s stance is overall, as we see Dr. Seward in deep internal conflict over wondering when a person crosses the line into becoming abjectly 'evil' when it comes to taking a life. All of this comes to a head in the film’s climax, where this question explodes into the kind of irreversibly grey tone that will keep the conversation going long after the credits roll. This is the kind of writing that makes me forgive a lot of the technical faults this film may have, as its heart is most certainly in a solid place in terms of pure filmmaking.

All in all, this is the kind of film that shows the guerrilla approach at its best, taking what little resources are available and pushing them to their breaking point in order to make the director’s creative vision work. Even with the moral questions of the script, the commendable acting (despite the stunt work being a bit shaky) and the grimy set design, this film succeeds on a purely visceral and emotional level, following in the footsteps of its stylistic predecessors and tapping into our instinctive sense of dread to create something truly amazing to behold. This is easily one of the most chairarm-clutching sits I’ve had the fortunate to get all year. Even with the technical hiccups and awkward writing moments, out of execution alone, this film shines and knowing that it managed to do this much on as low a budget as it had, honestly, makes it even better.

[2017 Update] It took a while but, finally, Lead Me Astray is available for home viewing through Ozflix. If any of the above sounds even remotely interesting to you, please, check out the film proper because this is an Aussie production that definitely deserves to see some profit.

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