Into the DVD dead zone with Devon’s top film critic Tom Leins

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Sex, Leins & Videotape #2. Paignton’s resident film critic Tom Leins ventures into the DVD dead zone – so you don’t have to!

The idea of a maths-fuelled Spanish language thriller may not be a proposition that automatically sets pulses racing, but Fermat’s Room (Revolver) is a surprisingly engrossing leftfield treat!

Thanks to the ubiquitous Saw and its dubious sequels the ‘locked room’ thriller has been dragged well and truly into the cinematic gutter, but Fermat’s Room is an unashamedly cerebral movie that eschews gory shock tactics and revels in its own fiendish trickery. The plot concerns four strangers – all of them expert mathematicians – who are lured to an isolated rural hideaway by the enigmatic Fermat, in order to take part in a series of head-scratching challenges. Needless to say, Fermat’s games soon take a sinister turn, and the confused participants soon find themselves fighting for their lives. Directorial duo Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena ratchet up the tension to breaking point, and inject their elaborate parlour game with a claustrophobic level of intensity. Intriguing stuff.

Held together by a sensational performance from rising Brit star Jim Sturgess, Fifty Dead Men Walking (Metrodome) Fifty Dead Men Walking is an engrossing thriller set in IRA-stricken Northern Ireland. After a disorientating start, Canadian director Kari Skogland picks up the pace and the movie unfolds in brutally efficient fashion. Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is a cocky hoodlum scraping a living in gangland Belfast. After a few scrapes with the law he is recruited by shadowy Special Branch handler ‘Fergus’ (Ben Kingsley) who persuades him to infiltrate an IRA splinter group and operate as a double-agent. Martin quickly finds himself rising through the ranks, and as his stock rises his duplicitous existence threatens to bubble over into chaos. But when the situation reaches boiling point, will Fergus hang him out to dry? This true story has shades of The Departed, and whilst it never gets close to Scorsese’s masterpiece the fact that it is based on a true story gives it a chilling, stomach-churning edge. An accomplished, adrenalized thriller.

Michael Winterbottom is one of Britain’s most compelling directors, and his diverse back-catalogue is as enjoyable as it is unpredictable. Now available on DVD for the first time is Butterfly Kiss (Second Sight), Winterbottom’s arresting debut feature. The movie follows the exploits of Eunice (Amanda Plummer), a psychotic drifter who prowls the drab petrol stations and transport cafes of the North in search of a mysterious woman known only as Judith. Instead she finds a naïve garage cashier named Miriam who becomes captivated by the mentally-ill stranger. Eunice’s erratic behaviour soon spirals out of control, and the hapless Miriam finds herself dragged along in Eunice’s murderous slipstream. Plummer – her frequently naked torso jangling with piercings and chains – is in aggressively weird form, and lends the movie a genuinely disquieting edge. It may be a million miles away from the politically-charged movies that Winterbottom has devoted his energies to in recent years, but Butterfly Kiss is clearly the work of a maverick director finding his feet. Queasy, amoral and disturbing.

Hollywood’s enduring fascination with glossy remakes of retro video nasties shows no sign of diminishing, and the multiplexes continue to creak under the strain of recycled bloodlust. One remake that didn’t trouble the popcorn-munching masses was It’s Alive (Optimum) It's Alive – an unheralded straight-to-DVD stomach-churner that takes its cue from Larry Cohen’s 1974 cult classic. This time around Bijou Phillips stars as Lenore, the mother who spawns a monster, and her stint in Hostel 2 will have left her well-prepared for the carnage that ensues. When the team of doctors and nurses helping to deliver the demon-child are massacred in the delivery room it becomes apparent that something unpleasant is afoot, and a series of grotesque set-pieces are duly unveiled. Despite a handful of eye-opening scenes, the demonic baby narrative feels instantly unremarkable, and it is easy to see why the movie slipped between the cracks. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad, It’s Alive occupies a bizarre cinematic hinterland that’s undetectable to the casual viewer. If blood-splattered B-movie shlock is your cup of tea look out for It’s Alive in a bargain bin near you some time soon…

Joining It’s Alive in the bargain bin will be Infestation (Icon), a below-par knock-off from the comedy/horror ghetto. Originally screened on the Sci-Fi channel, Infestation is an ill-judged attempt to hitch a ride on Shaun of the Dead’s blood-stained shirt-tails.

Cooper Flynn (Christopher Marquette) is an archetypal slacker who finds himself plunged into a post-apocalyptic hell when giant insects take over the country. Alongside a rag-tag posse of survivors Cooper begins a cross-country trek towards safety. The narrative follows a well-worn misfits-under-siege trajectory, but considering its comedic intentions laughs are seriously thin on the ground. An inebriated late night viewing on Sky would be palatable, but this DVD really would be a waste of your precious time and money. For a short movie Infestation is an awfully draining experience. All in all: frustratingly average.