Wounds review: Armie Hammer has a boozy breakdown in this wobbly but believable horror

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Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson in Wounds
Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson in Wounds

Dir: Babak Anvari. Cast: Armie Hammer, Dakota Johnson, Brad William Henke, Karl Glusman. Cert TBC, 96 min.

British director Babak Anvari cooked up an extraordinary debut in 2016 with Under the Shadow, the story of a mother and daughter terrorised by both horror and history in 1980 Tehran. He seeks to freak us out again in Wounds, and mostly succeeds: the film's only misfortune is hard-act-to-follow syndrome, rendering Anvari the sudden victim of his earlier hype.

He's still got the goods. This tale of an occult ritual in present-day New Orleans, sucking in Armie Hammer's clubbable barman and his uncomprehending girlfriend (Dakota Johnson), is a midnight movie through and through, culminating in a sequence that's brazenly OTT, revolting and ridiculous all at once: a destination you certainly won't see coming from the casual nighthawk chatter of the opening scene.

A barroom brawl kicks off at the workplace of Hammer's Will, involving a boorish regular and some other guy. But it's the bystanders, a quartet of college kids, you'll want to keep your eyes on: they have the definite look of being up to no good, glued beforehand in bloody-millennial fashion to their smartphones.

After the fracas gets dangerous, one phone slips and gets left behind on the bar floor. Will, taking it home for safekeeping, becomes privy to a bunch of texts and picture messages he'd really rather he hadn't seen: severed heads covered in cockroaches, a spray of teeth gorily scattered. No wonder he starts cracking beer after beer and downing vodka from his freezer to numb the dread.

Hammer, fronting well with his hearty, hail-fellow manner, goes into a downward spiral here that’s surprisingly believable, while the script throws the fraying fabric of Will's relationship into the mix. Because Johnson's Carrie doesn't trust Will – with some justification – she can't take his explanations about the phone at face value, and needs to see for herself. It's a slippery slope from this to staring blankly at her laptop screen, taking on the pallor of boiled pork while the sinister image of a monochrome portal swirls before her eyes.

Much rests on the payoff, which is sufficiently outré to send horror devotees out at least partly sated – hoping, perhaps, that the film's somewhat threadbare mechanics, wobblycam excesses and limited stakes don't bedevil Anvari's next effort too. It's decent but not deep fare, connecting most with the theme of alcoholism as a different kind of tempting but terrible abyss.

Wounds was screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival