The Helpers

the-helpers

Like many a low-budget indie horror, The Helpers has followed a fairly conventional trajectory. It managed a limited release in the US, gained a coveted spot at Film4’s FrightFest last November, and now makes a quiet straight-to-DVD appearance here, jostling for attention in a relentlessly oversaturated genre.

The plot, as you might well guess, follows a rather familiar trajectory too. A car, loaded to the brim with drunk and horny twenty-somethings on their way to Las Vegas, breaks down in the middle of the Nevada desert, miles away from civilisation. With no mobile signal (and no spare tyres apparently), the gang happen upon a motel, where some friendly locals ply them with free drinks and rooms for the night. All, inevitably, is not what it seems, and our intrepid gang find themselves on the wrong side of a Saw/Hostel/Psycho scenario.

But really, who gives a crap? A flaw befalling many a cheap-and-cheerful horror, The Helpers spends precious little time on character exposition; the effect being that when our heroes inevitably find themselves in mortal danger it’s perilously tricky to conjure up even a morsel of sympathy for their plight.

The seven protagonists are scarcely distinguishable from one another. The men square of jaw; the women large of cleavage; these are empty shells of flesh masquerading as characters, with no notable characteristics or redeeming features. The villains of the piece are not much more interesting, operating under flimsy motives of revenge for a troubled childhood in an abusive orphanage. You never buy it, and neither do you buy the explanation behind the title – effectively, “you said you needed help, so we’re going to kill you!”

And that’s before we even get onto the ‘found footage’, that now-staple cinematic bandwagon which director Chris Stokes gleefully hops on, with one leg hanging off. From the start, a remarkable amount of footage is notably non-found, begging the question of why they ever bothered spuriously thrusting a handycam into the action in the first place. This half-hearted compromise between conventional and unconventional filming methods serves nothing but a useless diversion from the horror.

With bodies ripped apart and head decapitated, it’s a grim and occasionally gruelling watch, and torture-porn disciples will be gratified by the occasional dip into the gore pool. But really, The Helpers is an inconsequential sort of B-movie: not offensively terrible, but not terribly good. The cast give it a good whack. But The Helpers honestly doesn’t merit elevation beyond its assured bargain basement grave.

Chernobyl Diaries (contains no actual diaries)

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the worst of its kind in history. 300,000 people were resettled following the explosion in reactor four. Thirty-one people died (that the Soviet authorities admitted to), and the fallout of radioactive contamination continues to have adverse effects on the health and wellbeing of the local people and surrounding environment, two decades on. So fair game, apparently, for some hackneyed horror movie schlock in the form of Chernobyl Diaries.

Regardless of whether you think it’s too soon to exploit the memory of a phenomenal human tragedy in service of B-movie jollies, director Bradley Parker distracts you from this ethical conundrum by making a below-average movie; if you’re not offended by the subject matter, you will at least be offended by the quality of filmmaking.

Chernobyl Diaries follows the lost-in-the-woods blueprint so obediently, so fervently, that you almost get the impression you’ve seen the film already. Four bright young things are backpacking around Europe, stopping off at the usual hotspots for foreign travellers: London, Rome, Paris, and, er, Pripyat. While in Kiev, a massive Russian stereotype invites our hapless heroes on a tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but things are not as they seem – the radioactive fallout has created zombie-like creatures who only come out at night, etc.

In reality, the greatest villain here is the shoddy, half-baked script. Our four leads are blander than rice crackers – but at least you’d care about rice crackers. Some laboured early exposition drums up minimal empathy. Then two new characters show up out of nowhere, halfway through, without explanation. Bullseye targets might as well be tattooed to their foreheads. In fact, all of our luckless players are just cheap cannon fodder for the unseen monsters, and we merely place mental bets for who dies next.

There’s really very little deviation from the standard genre boilerplate. Those of you playing Horror Cliché Bingo at home will be able to cross off Creepy Child, Character Wanders Off Into The Dark Alone, Van Breaks Down Miles Away From Civilisation, Torch Runs Out Of Battery, “What Was That?”, “Let’s Split Up!”, and many, many others.

This bumbling cheesiness has its own stupid unintentional charm, and in horror terms, at least, it’s adequately directed. The middle third creates a decent sense of dread: abandoned towns are creepy, and my yellow-bellied viewing companion did spend much of the film cowering under a blanket. But Parker has a weak handle on summoning unpredictable suspense, and builds to a miserably unsatisfying payoff. An alternate ending on the DVD does nothing to save Chernobyl Diaries from itself. Avoid like a nuclear winter.

Tuesday Trailer: Sinister

Sinister, the latest film to be named from a ten-minute thesaurus-based marketing meeting, has been running some fairly tame TV spots recently. Ethan Hawke in various states of distress does not, I’m afraid, adequately sell your horror movie to me. Now Summit have released a red band trailer, the film marketing equivalent of a baby TV spot’s naughtier, swearier, emotionally troubled-ier older brother, to pack a meatier punch. Let’s see if it worked.

(Bear in mind this is all NSFW, so don’t watch the trailer/read the rest of the post if you haven’t yet passed your EBacc.)

There’s Ethan, in remarkably low light, looking distressed again, possibly at the fact that Classically Trained Actor Ethan Hawke has been reduced to starring in October-released horror B-movies that don’t even look that scary.

Ethan’s laptop appears to show Jigsaw, from the Saw films, which would make for a curious new direction for the franchise.

Or maybe it’s Ghostface, from the Scream films. Could this be a franchise mashup? If it is, I’m out now guys. Have we not learned the sobering lessons of Freddy vs Jason? Of Alien vs Predator? Of Sonic vs Mario at the Olympics?

OK, that appears to be a possessed girl convulsing out of a cardboard box screaming the death knells of a thousand tortured souls. That’s…well that’s…fine…would you look at that, I’ve suddenly noticed I’m completely alone in my house. That’s fine, too. BRB, just going to turn another light on.

OK, good, fine, now there’s a creepy infant girl covered in the blood, gesturing silence to her next hapless victim. No problem with that at all. I’m not one to be easily scared! You know I’m sure I had more lights in this house…

Ah, good, now we end on a family of four hung by the neck from a tree. Would you excuse me? I just need to go change my trousers, as this pair I’m wearing appears to be soaked in urine for some reason.

Well, now I’ve composed myself and spoken at length with all my immediate family to tell them I love them, I’m reluctantly impressed, in spite of the crap title. It remains to be seen whether Sinister truly will be able, as one testimonial puts it, “fuck up a lot of people”, but a trailer which manages to scare me into briefly mistrusting my own reflection is damn effective. It’s atmospheric and properly disturbing without containing a single line of dialogue. Amazing what a marketing team (and a capable editor) can do when allowed to show off to the grown ups.

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