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Film review: Hardcore Henry * and Before I Wake ***

By Preston Wilder

We don’t get many films like Hardcore Henry at the multiplex: ultra-violent, unabashedly laddish, clearly destined for some form of cult-dom. Oh, and of course it’s also Russian – which some may deem unimportant in these globalised times, but it makes a difference. The film doesn’t cheerlead for Putin’s Russia, painting Moscow as a grim place – corrupt cops stop you in the street, violent skinheads roam the parks – but it does exhibit most of the unattractive traits ‘Putinophobes’ tend to associate with that government: thuggishness, brutality, casual homophobia. There might still be a thrill in embracing it as a blood-splattered, adrenaline-fuelled ride, an homage to your inner 14-year-old – but it’s just so ugly, both in visuals and cynical attitudes.

It’s pretty insane, though. How insane? Well, take the fairly typical passage in which Henry, our unseen hero – a mute cyborg whose point of view we follow throughout, seeing only what he (or his camera) sees – is accosted on a bus by his friend Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and told, in excitable semi-incoherent fashion, what the plan is: Henry has to find a certain man, kill him, rip his chest open (!), pull out his heart, and eat it! Ha ha, no, not really, babbles Jimmy, you don’t have to eat it – just grab a power cord that’s next to the heart, and pull it out. “That’s gotta be the gayest jacket I’ve ever seen!” adds Jimmy while our hero is processing this information, and leans out the window to jeer at a man wearing some kind of asbestos suit. The man responds with a flame thrower, setting the bus on fire.

The whole film is like that, a wild and senseless ride – and that’s not even counting the extreme violence (a head is blown clean off, another bisected by a metal tray, a knife is plunged in someone’s eye, a man’s penis crushed, etc etc) and creative uses of pliers. “I’ve lobotomised everything non-essential to soldiers,” says the mad villain (sadistic, telekinetic, floppy fringe of blond hair), speaking of his army of super-soldiers – and something similar may be said of the movie, which is not so much mindless as mind-deadening.

The look may be unusual, but it’s also self-defeating. Watching a procession of eye-straining wide-angle shots with a constantly shaking, juddering camera saps the viewer’s patience; combine it with the in-your-face callousness and belligerent sense of fun (sample line: “You’re half-machine, half-pussy!”), and the film is an unpleasant experience. There’s intelligence here, even a sense of cinephilia – there’s a glimpse of a poster for the 1947 Lady in the Lake, which pioneered this first-person style before it was taken over by videogames – but the film dies by its own amoral emptiness. “The last 15 minutes have been a f**kin’ rollercoaster of emotions for me, mate,” Jimmy at one point. Maybe, but not in a good way.

01Before I Wake, on the other hand, is nakedly emotional – and, along with Oculus from a couple of years ago, establishes director Mike Flanagan as a maker of wrenchingly dramatic horror films, dealing in issues like bereavement and childhood trauma. Our heroes are Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane), a couple mourning the accidental death of their son – though actually our hero is Cody (Jacob Tremblay, the kid from Room), a very special eight-year-old whose dreams come to life as he’s dreaming them. When he’s having nice dreams, Mark and Jessie’s home is filled with Disney-looking butterflies and realistic visions of their son Sean; when Cody’s gripped by dark thoughts, however, his nightmares are personified in a skeletal figure called ‘Canker Man’, who wraps his victims in a kind of ectoplasmic cling-film.

This is the ultimate psychological thriller, taking place inside a child’s head (it might’ve been called ‘Night Fears: The Movie’). It’s also psychologically astute, allowing for multi-sided characters: as in Oculus, our heroine’s obsession makes her seem damaged as well as sympathetic (Jessie’s the protagonist, Mark being something of a withholding manchild). She loves little Cody, whom the couple are foster-parenting – but also uses his gift for her own purposes, showing him a DVD of Sean just before bedtime so he’ll dream of her son; “It feels like abuse,” Mark rebukes her, and he’s right. Cody is similarly complex, hating himself for what he does. Horror often deals in evil kids, but this is something subtler – a conspicuously good kid whose fears get warped in evil ways.

The film is often clumsy (as in the support-group scenes) and teeters on the brink of being tasteless, exploiting grieving parents and traumatised children – yet it’s a legitimately thoughtful movie, unlike Hardcore Henry which spits on any shred of compassion. There are jump-scares in Before I Wake, cheesy creepy bits (a glass breaks, a closet shuts by itself, a mysterious silhouette stirs in the shadows), not to mention a Gothic finale probably inspired by Insidious. It’s a horror film, like it says on the package – but horror isn’t just about ‘boo!’ moments, true horror comes from callousness and dehumanisation. There’s only one horror film in this article.

 

HARDCORE HENRY

DIRECTED BY Ilya Naishuller

STARRING Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett

Russia/US 2016                           96 mins

 

BEFORE I WAKE

DIRECTED BY Mike Flanagan

STARRING Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay

US 2016                                       103 mins

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