FrightFest Review: Downhill

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40%
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Predictable

Redeemed only by its madcap sense of the bizarre and occasional good scare, this schlocky horror-comedy fails to either terrify or amuse, stuck as it is in a dull limbo of tired tropes and stale gags.

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BMX biker Joe (Bryce Draper) is haunted by the recent death of a fellow biker buddy, who was fatally injured whilst competing in a race. Joe receives a mysterious invitation from an old friend (Ariel Levy) to attend a race in Chile. It’s a great gig, but he’s conflicted: does he obey the dread in his stomach; or does he come out of self-imposed retirement to ride again? In a move to get him back on his bike, his girlfriend Stephanie (Natalie Burn) has already answered for him. He will ride again. The two of them fly out to Chile, and – upon going for a test ride the following morning – come across a badly wounded man in the forest. As they try to save him it soon becomes clear that he’s infected with some kind of strange virus. Stumbling deeper into the mountains they soon fall prey to a group of merciless hunters who have a dark secret to protect, and they’ll do anything to stop it getting out…

I wanted to like this film, I really did. But after an interminable string of gratuitous boob-shots, unfunny jokes, and incoherent plot-developments I was left cold: feeling embarrassed at its blatant sexism and insulted by its sheer laziness. Obviously it would be unfair of me to judge it on the terms of Citizen Kane or Casablanca; it’s a B movie, and so is only beholden to the low aspirations that come with such limited means. But a B movie can achieve quite a lot within a restricted budget and provide the opportunity to push social boundaries, by exploring the most ridiculous, the most grotesque, and the most zany ideas imaginable. And let’s not forget that one of the great classics of cinema was a B movie itself; Hitchcock’s Psycho for God’s sake!

Self-professed exploitation enthusiasts Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino paid their respects to the B movie tradition by producing a double-bill of glorious nasties back in 2007, contributing one segment each; Planet Terror and Death Proof respectively. Replete with inspired fake trailers directed by the likes of Eli Roth, Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie (all venerated genre-cinema directors in their own right), Grindhouse was a fabulous example of what B movies can be. Then again it had a $53 million budget, so it may not be the best example of a limited-means triumph. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take money to dispense with the casual objectification of women that has always held back B movies, and the fact that both segments of Grindhouse present strong female leads that overcome the misogynists around them is testament to the progressive mind-set of the director-writers. They dive boldly into the murky waters of gender politics and emerge gloriously unscathed. The film somehow manages to be sexy – sleazy even – without ever becoming sexist.

Downhill however does not even attempt a dodge at sexism, jumping in early with a pointless striptease sequence from Stephanie, and in the process nailing its rather unsavoury colours to the mast. Although not entirely successful in its attempt to break with tradition, the hilarious Sharknado at least gave its admittedly scantily-clad female lead some kick-ass, shotgun-wielding skills, with her often stepping in – nay, leaping in – to save the day. Unfortunately for Downhill, Stephanie’s main lines when presented with adversity are “Oh my God!”, “Oh my God!”, and “Oh my God!”; leaving her unable to do much to save her beloved, despite there being numerous opportunities to do so. She eventually does act, but by then it’s frustratingly too late to really have any consequence on the unfolding carnage, and despite some valiant moments she’s left as the frustratingly typecast ‘hot girl’ of the film.

Downhill does have a few redeeming qualities however, and it would be remiss of me not to mention them. The cinematography is really quite good; early on we get some lovely shots of the bikers riding into the setting sun against the stunning backdrop of the Andean mountains. There are some impressive aerial shots of the forest that call to mind – in a smaller way – the opening of The Shining. The zombie make-up was first class (as can be seen above), which when combined with some nifty editing created a few truly frightening moments. And last but not least the lo-fi VFX were fabulously over-the-top, utilising some grisly tummy-bursting Alien-esque sequences and explosive, camera-quaking gunshots. It’s just a shame that director Patricio Valladares left the movie stuck somewhere between an awkward romantic-comedy and an underdeveloped action-horror, not having the confidence to steer it one way or the other. If it was an attempt at a fusion between the two genres – and according to the director it was – then neither element has been fully thought through, resulting in a confusing tone that never settles into any particular style. This is as much Valladares’ fault as it is writer Barry Keating’s, given that the direction is just as slapdash as the screenplay, and makes no effort to reconcile the differences inherent within it.

When I interviewed the director, writer and lead actress afterwards, a sense of the fun that should have characterised the movie came through. They were constantly joking with each other, laughing about the craziness of the two-week shoot, and regaling me with tales from the set. From the sound of things, it was a thoroughly nuts experience. If only the involved parties could have been more united in their vision, then perhaps that wackiness may have come across to the audience more effectively, and resulted in a stronger film all round.

Downhill, directed by Patricio Valladares, is pending distribution, Certificate TBA

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A curmudgeonly Music student who likes to spend his days watching an obscene number of films whilst growing increasingly grumpy with the noise-mongers around him. He has on occasion also been sighted out and about performing with his band Nine Ace Deck, for whom he sings and writes songs. And when not doing either of the above, he takes great pleasure in composing music for the short films of the Wessex Films Society. Make sure to like his Facebook page (above right) to keep up with all the latest ramblings...

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