Friday, 17 May 2019

My second appearance on the You Total Cult podcast

I am on the final episode of the You Total Cult podcast where we get together to watch one those so-bad-it's-good films, 'The Children of Ravensback', or just 'The Children', if you prefer. 

In the 1990s, when films were still banned, I used to go to a film fair where you could get all those illicit VHS copies. I bought a rough fourth or fifth generation tape of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' from there, for example. Anyway, I bought 'The Children' mistaking it for 'Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things' and was most disappointed when I watched it. But then, I showed it to my friend James in outrage and he fell about laughing. So I showed it to others and then we had about two or three parties where a gang of us got together to watch it and laugh. 

I hadn't seen it for decades, but it was released last year by Troma and so it was time to revisit. It is a film where the effects highlights are fingernails turning black and the funniest child dismemberment ever.








Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Tekkonkinkreet



Tekkonkinkreet 
Tekkon kinkurîto 
鉄コン筋クリート

Taiyō Matsumoto, 1994

In Taiyō Matsumoto’s Manga, two boys named Kuro and Shiro – “Black” and “White” - live in Treasure Town, under the delusion that they “rule” it as a delinquent duo called “The Cats”. However, the Yakuza have designs on converting this part of town into a theme park where money can be made. Whilst White’s babbling seems to be getting worse, Black takes on the Yakuza who unleash superhuman assassins and causes all kinds of trouble.

Of course, Black and White are Yin and Yang: White says numerous times that he has the screws that Black doesn’t have and vice versa. White is seemingly mentally challenged, digesting the world as a toddler who has just discovered he can count and make up songs even though he is about ten. Typically, this subjectivity is equated with innocence in a crazy world, but as these brothers are rendered through symbolism and archetypes, this is less reductive than it might have been. Their friend, the old man on the street, says that he doubts White would have survived if it wasn’t for Black. For Black’s part, he is old beyond his years, bloodthirsty and fearless to the point of foolishness. There is the typical philosophising that runs through Manga, but ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ stops short of the mawkishness that often mars Manga narratives and drags it into tedium; or rather it doesn’t dwell on its sentimentality so much that it gets in way of the action (indeed, each chapter is called a “skirmish”). 

‘Tekkonkonkreet’ is a mispronunciation of the Japanese word for concrete. Its superficial look is all-smiling and hectic, but this is misleading: the tone is despairing and downbeat and Kuro/Black really isn’t a smiley kid, being the dark half of the duo: violent, dour, psychotic: his smile is closer to the psychosis of Snake, the ever-grinning bad guy. Matsumoto’s artwork is often giddy, full of the upper regions and taking a bird’s eye view of the city of Takaramachi – “Treasure Town” – since The Cats seem to be able to defy gravity somewhat and constantly perch and live on rooftops. It’s often overcrowded, angular and slightly off-kilter from realism. Several characters – not least the central boys themselves – come with a streak of the surreal and superpowers, offset by the sad-sack slouch of many adults.

The mash-up of slightly Chosen One kids adventure and surreal Yakuza yarn give this an originality that the story would lack if these elements were independent of each other. Black and White are immediately arresting characters and the relatively straightforward telling means it’s direct and compelling right from the start whilst the art is packed full of dynamism. A. E. Sparrow writes:

"Indeed, it's the blending of traditional Japanese manga, European art-stylings and an indie-comic sensibility that push this book into a realm all its own."

It’s fierce and sentimental in equal measure, but it reaches a balance of surrealism and Manga nihilism that always fascinates. And the collection of the serial, ‘Tekkonkinkreet: Black & White’ is gorgeous.




Tekkonkinkreet

Michael Arias, 2006, Japan

Michael Arias’ film adaptation of ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ does the source full justice. The animation is often breath-taking, keeping the vertiginous perspective of Matsumoto’s original art. For example, the introductory longshot through the city alone is stunning. And likewise, although the design of the faces is cartoonish, the detail of the backgrounds is so chock-full that it surely would mostly prove impossible to take it all in. It often emulates elaborate crane-shots or follows the characters through the streets in a chase sequence, mimicking beats from the action genre and giving the film a more cinematic quality, opening up and getting intimate with the city. 

One of the reasons it succeeds is that it doesn’t mess with the story so much. There’s no need. However, it starts with The Cat’s the conflict with Dusk and Dawn which strikes as a wise choice, starting with a conflict that plays a future part in the plot instead of a random skirmish, but otherwise it hardly deviates. 

It’s an essential companion piece to Matsumoto’s graphic novel. The tone is downbeat but there’s joyful delirium in the art and Arias’ adaptation maintains that. ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ is familiar in its tropes but filtered through an oddness that makes it quite unique and hanging around the upper echelons of its peers. 


Sunday, 5 May 2019

Amusements

Darks Corners' excellent essay on the horror films of FW Murnau.



Talk Talk live in Montreaux, 1986.



Rob Doyle on Philip K Dick's "Valis"

The art of 

Piotr Jabłoński




Lunar Engine live

A collection of live recordings and a demo from Lunar Engine from years ago. Free download.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Piercing



PIERCING

Nicolas Pesce, 2018, USA

Nicolas Pesce’s follow up to ‘The Eyes of my Mother’ is another oddball affair and likely to prove unequivocally divisive. But if it’s one thing that seems clear just from these two features is that Pesce is following his own agenda and doesn’t mind being an acquired taste. His explorations into horror are the ingrowing kind, thoroughly opposed to the mainstream. 

“Can we eat first?”

‘Piercing’ begins with a striking montage of building miniatures. Like the Onetti brothers’ ‘Abrakadabra’, its aesthetic is clearly a homage to the ‘70s giallo, another growing genre trend after the wealth of ‘80s reverences. This means it also reuses music from ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ and ‘Tenebrae’: I guess that maybe we can thank Quentin Tarantino for making reusing the soundtracks from other films a trend – sometimes incongruously.* 

And then it becomes instantly queasy arthouse horror with a twitchy man hovering over a toddler with a knife. He doesn’t do it, but the urge is strong, so he rents a hotel room with the intention of murdering a prostitute. Like performance art, he mimes the murder for practise.  But then Mia Wasikowska turns up at the door and… things don’t go as planned. 

Christopher Abbot seems about to deliver a consummate performance of the meek-seeming killer, but Wasikowska then introduces something more playful and equally dangerous. If not dangerous, then unpredictable. The actors relish turning the tables on one-another within Naomi Munro’s sumptuous, slightly unreal art design. And all the time, the tone of Seventies giallo frames it all, the bold colours, the simultaneous perversion and flippancy.

Based on Ryū Murakami’s novel, ‘Piercing’ plays with assumptions until the audience is in the submissive role of wondering just who’s in charge. Rarely has S&M been played so openly and brazenly with the viewer as Pesce artfully removes one block after another from underneath until we are left as uncertain as can be. This is sly, adult material and very stylish. Steve Abrams is frustrated by 'Piercing' and that's as it should be, surely.  Of course, the ending will be the decider in dividing opinion, but it is completely in keeping with the S&M agenda and leaves the audience teetering on the edge of satisfaction. 


Yes, I am aware that Cattet and Forzani’s ‘Amer’ utilises the music of other films but that feels more in the service of giallo mash-up that ‘Amer’ is and not in the service of their vinyl collection.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

10 Shocks & Scares

Here are 10 of my favourite shocks & scares, both drawn out and skin-jumpers.


1. SHOCK 
(Mario Bava, 1977): 
Boy-into-man jump-scare.
So simple but so effective.

2. WILLOW CREEK 
(Bobcat Goldthwait, 2013): 
In the tent.
When I saw this at FrightFest, a woman screamed and usually this might encourage a chuckle from others, but by that time the tension had us wound so thoroughly that nobody murmured a thing.

3. The OTHERS
 (Pedro Amenabar, 2001)
The curtain.
Just a little thing, but thoroughly chilling.

4. TERRIFIED 
(Damien Rugna, 2017)
The man under the bed and/or the corpse at the table.
A truly effective and fun dispenser of fright scenes.

5. JAWS 
(Stephen Spielberg, 1975)
Shark reveal.
Well, not seeing Bruce has been pretty damned scary up until that point, and then...

6. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON 
(John Landis, 1981)
Home invasion dream.
Never fails to unnerve me and scared me shitless as a boy. I mean, I was already freaked out by the moors scene, but then...

7. Dr WHO: The Talons of Weng-Chiang 
(David Mahoney, 1977)
Mr.Sin.
Old-school scary puppet. Terrified me as a kid and once Mr. Sin’s true nature is revealed – something to do with being a pig-creature – as an adult I found something viscerally repulsive in him too.

8. The HAUNTING
(Robert Wise,1963) 
Whose hand? 
Well, the whole thing really, but this one moment is a classic.

5. THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL 
(Mike Flanagan, 2018, NetFlix series)
The car jump-scare.
This is a jump-scare in the tradition of “Boo!” that the ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ franchises pedal, but this one actually caught me out. And that’s because it seemingly comes as a reaction to sibling squabbling and thereby also has resonance. It’s headlong to disappointment from then on and therefore far inferior to the other entries here. But it gets a mention because it fully worked on me and I jumped mile. 

10. SUNDAY’S CHILDREN

(Daniel Bergman, 1992)
The swinging ghost.
Directed by his son, but written by Ingmar Bergman whose work has always seemed just a shadow away from horror. These moments often come without warning in otherwise perfectly realistic domestic dramas, and they’re all the more shocking and scary for being unexpected. 



Sunday, 14 April 2019

Pet Sematary




Pet Sematary

Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Wydmyer, 
2019, USA


A generic loving family buy a huuugge piece of Stephen King real estate, which means their land also includes an old Indian Burial Ground that brings the dead back to life. Within minutes, they’re experiencing jump-scares – a passing foreshadowing truck – and are quickly alerted to the “Pet Sematary” when a procession of horror kids marches through their land for a burial. It seems the estate agent missed out mentioning the “semetary”. These horror kids wear creepy masks and are all over the trailer, but actually, once they have proven their worthiness as memes and Halloween dress code, they disappear from proceedings. The burial ground has a wall of fallen trees that looks just as fake as the “scary tree” from ‘The Conjuring’, and beyond this is where the true zombie-making dirt lies, in the immense misty swamp and Native Land beyond.


Another remake (surely “reboots” are for reviving old franchises?) of a middling favourite, but it seems redundant to complain when Horror has always been the most cannibalistic genre, constantly reviving and regurgitating old titles. The trailer is, in fact, one of those that tells you everything and kind of misleads at the same time. We know it’s not Gabe as the zombie-kid this time because of the trailer and the poster, so the fake-out in the film that puts him peril is made somewhat redundant. In fact, there’s an underlying feeling that the whole enterprise seems to be ticking points off instead of getting under the skin. It’s a fair distance from the condescension of the aforementioned ‘The Conjuring’, but it’s on the same post code. The theme of grieving-leading-to-horror doesn’t feel more than a trope being perfunctorily marked so we can get on with the horror set-pieces. The only truly chilling moment is the bath-time corpse staples, and that’s in the trailer anyhow. Oh, and also the final moment and its implication, even though any chills are subsequently blared out with a cover of The Ramones' ‘Pet Sematary’.

With a little more emphasis on theme the horror would have been deepened. This is how films like Hereditaryand ‘A Hole in the Ground’ create more resonance and praise. For example, the death of a student and Amy Seimetz’s flashbacks and visions of her dead sister are almost affecting but give way to just being horror jump-scares. Being brought back from the beyond apparently makes the dead – who are seemingly an interconnected resentful mass – metaphysical and homicidal and therefore potentially intriguing, but this avenue also gets stunted. For a spook-kid given a low horror-voice to angrily lament and goad, there is the sense that Jeté Lawrence is capable of far more and therefore underserved: Jeff Buhler’s screenplay seems to be giving her generic horror kid dialogue but Lawrence’s performance seems far more soulful and insidious. The adults are solid but unremarkable. (But Peter Bradshaw is more positive.)

Kölsch and Wyndmeer’s previous film, ‘Starry Eyes’, is far more convincing in its psychology and, of course, there’s plenty of room to argue if Mary Lambert’s 1989 ‘Pet Sematary’ is better. There is a sense that a more troubling and vivid film is trying to emerge. And, just like King’s novel, it bails on truly expanding on the consequences of all this (it’s nasty but where does it go?).


Thursday, 11 April 2019

Kin


KIN

Josh and Jonathan Baker, 2018, USA 

Against a backdrop of low-income struggle and a scenery of deserted buildings, black teenager Eli goes scrapping and finds an alien rifle. Meanwhile, his white brother returns from prison to a tetchy father’s homecoming but still has issues with local and lethal lowlife. 

A Tough Love father, a wayward but fun older brother and a stripper with a heart-of-gold. A hint of “chosen one” syndrome. And a ray-gun. With all these elements, the Baker brothers’ ‘Kin’ acts as a full-blooded young male adult fantasy. In this sense, it’s best evaluated as young adult fiction that still has a lot of maturing and self-reflecting to do.

Besides this, the problem seems to be for many commentators that it’s also made up of a blend of genres and the argument is that it satisfies none. Part indie crime drama, part road journey, part sci-fi, part coming-of-age family drama. But such a mash-up is fine by me and keeps things on its toes. It reminds me of such eighties favourites as ‘Tron’, ‘The Last Starfighter’ and ‘Flight of the Navigator’ where a slightly dull and tatty real world gives way to special-effects and Chosen One excitement. I’m far more likely to raise an eyebrow buying into the idea that a ragtag group of bad guys would attack a police station; or that it probably stays too long in the nudity free strip-club where Jimmy (Jack Reynor) acts like an asshole and gets them into trouble. But the genre-blending that might not quite gel and yet marks it out as likable entertainment is surely a central pleasure of genre b-movies: the lack of genre mainstream conformity often redeems the failings and rough edges.

I’m amused at ‘Kin’ acquiring a “not present” grade on commonsensemedia for “consumerism” as we spend a long time in a strip club (but no actual stripping): surely the selling of objectified women qualifies? And then, of course, the central theme of “a magic gun makes boy heroic” is greatly problematic. The film is weak in self-reflection in these areas and leads Glenn Kenny to see it as “insufferable, self-seriously combining shut-in nerdiness with wannabe macho pyrotechnics.  It’s Bro Cinema in all the worst imaginable senses of the term.” Well, I wouldn’t say insufferable, more that it has b-movie charm despite these obvious flaws. I certainly found it less obnoxious than McG’s ‘The Babysitter’ (2017, NetFlix), another male teen fantasy (again, ‘Kin’ reminds me of those eighties young adult flicks). I also probably find it a less stupid male teen fantasy than ‘John Wick’. It helps that it is boosted by the inclusion of two veterans that know this turf well with Dennis Quaid and Jesse Franco, but it’s the unassuming appeal of Myles Truitt as young Eli that grounds the freewheeling drama.

Even with its streak of immaturity, ‘Kin’ still contains comic fun and charm, even if it is distinctly less than its promise.



Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Bird Box



BIRD BOX

Susan Bier, 2018, USA

The high concept end-of-the-world scenario this time is Sandra Bullock is pregnant but seemingly not quite the maternal type, preferring to paint and stay home rather than go out and start mothering (it’s the art/motherhood conflict). Then the apocalypse happens and people start seeing something that makes them either suicidal or homicidal. So don’t look… although it seems that whispers of temptation from your subconscious has a lot to do with it too. Soon Bullock is holed up with a house of mismatching and bickering survivors, including the archetypal John-Malkovich-is-an-asshole type.

It’s like the Talk Talk song Happiness is Easy  which points out that a part of religion’s key allure is the faith that the afterlife is better – so why not kill yourself? The threat in ‘Bird Box’ seems to be not only that the vision is sublime, but also the appeal of an (empty?) promise that you get to see your deceased love ones. Which casts Bullock’s trajectory to motherhood as a struggle against violence – to herself and others. The family dynamic becomes literally blindfolding yourself and trusting to luck. Or to the kindness of the narrative. And it plays on the themes of kindness and empathy whilst also check-listing that no-good-deed-goes-unpunished. But as the cast is whittled down, all this is filtered to Bullock opening her eyes to motherhood.


‘Bird Box’ was/is a NetFlix phenomenon, the self-perpetuating kind made possible by social media and memes and the “Bird Box challenge” (where you can play at being blind!). It’s just dangerous enough to mark genre credentials and yet safe enough to be a crossover hit – for the big screen, it was rated “R”, but it’s average stuff for a horror fan. More than many NetFlix originals, this feels like a TV movie.

Based on Josh Malerman’s novel, this will inevitably be compared to A Quiet Placein that survival depends more-or-less upon denial of one of the senses. But blindness is surely harder to convince with because, even if we accept the rapids, when they are fleeing through woods and not constantly tripping or running into trees it relies more on suspension of belief. Perhaps the “blind” car expedition for food is the best horror set-piece as it taps into something truly unpalatable – as well as being great promotion for proximity sensors. Bier doesn’t take us close to the detail of being blind, mostly rendering the experience from mid-shots or in brief cuts, such as small moments of blindfolded camera; she never truly finds a way of solving the problem of characters not being able to see in a visual medium which deflates any terror.

‘Bird Box’ is serviceable and slick then, if average, and the blindfolds provide a vivid meme that audiences have already run with. But there’s not enough in the execution to overcome its obvious weaknesses –where it differs crucially from ‘A Quiet Place’ – or the questions that Amy Nicholson lists: 

"However, the back of the audience’s brain is stuck trying to figure out things like: are the monsters hunting their prey, or is it just impersonal? How do the roommates get rid of the corpses? And how offended will the American Psychiatric Association be that Bird Box’s secondary fiends are mental patients who, according to the film, can’t be driven crazy by the creatures because they’re already insane?"


And now falling into the mode of cheesy reviewer’s-punning-punchline: you’ll be looking for more.



Thursday, 28 March 2019

Us


Us

Jordan Peele, 2019, USA-Japan


Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ starts with the Reagan-era commercial for “Hands Aross America”  playing on a tv set with ‘C.H.U.D.’ on the VHS pile beside it, and this juxtaposition proves a big clue to the film’s agenda – ripping the trick from ‘Climax’. Oh, should I then write that as ‘U.S.’? The focus of many reviews will be on the film’s sociology and politics, and Amanda Marcotte provides a useful and direct analysis that ‘Us’ concerns the uprising of the consequences of Reaganism. Peele says ‘Us’ is not about race this time, and it’s true that its metaphors are set more on class, but of course class will always feature race. The director of ‘Get Out’ is unlikely to ever be able to escape the shadow of that debut, but it is also unlikely that he would want to. Just to say that having a black family as central protagonists in a horror film seems quietly ground-breaking enough (see Shudder’s ‘Horror Noire’ for a fine run-through of the dearth of black representation in the genre). 

But why both ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’ will have longevity beyond being attuned to their contemporary contexts, their eras and political climate, is that they deliver their horror wholeheartedly and with panache. ‘Get Out’ had the don’t-go-there premise, the dark secrets of a superficially benign community and the mad scientist trope. ‘Us’ has the doppelganger, the monsters underground, home invasion, the bodysnatchers and repressed coming up from the tunnels. Both films are stuffed full of all this horror stuff so while all the social commentary and poignant analogies are taking most of the attention, these tropes are providing all the fun. And they are fun films too: they are good with the natural humour. Maybe ‘Get Out’ suffers from having an obvious comic relief, but the humour in ‘Us’ is far more organic and fulfils much of the crowd-pleasing. 

I saw a Twitter witticism by someone that he had just overdosed on ‘Us’’s metaphors and had to lay down. Surely some will accuse Peele of trying too hard, of being too full of itself, but going off the rails and reaching too far is what horror does and Peele has a fine sense of the balance between fun and symbolism. After all, it’s not as if Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is subtle. Peele is obviously wallowing and enjoying the tropes so if you read this as cliché, it’s not going to exceed disappointment. And there are all the references and rips from other films – there’s ‘Climax’ at the start, there’s ‘Funhouse’, even the red of ‘Don’t Look Now’, if you like, or Myer’s boiler suit, and the glove that is both a reference to Freddy and Michael Jackson – and on it goes. Typical of contemporary horror, the Easter eggs for fans are plentiful. 

And that Peele delivers good, solid and relatable characters that are far above the genre standard shouldn’t be undervalued. One of the notable touches is how he has characters in such outrageous scenarios talking in a more realistically casual manner that isn’t quite typical of the genre. It helps the whole cast deliver memorable performances whilst still working as archetypes (the man-child horny husband, the indifferent teen, the unfulfilled trophy wife, etc.). Lupita Nyong’o especially gives exceptional lead and support performances, proving again that the genre is giving women some of the best roles around ~ but everyone gives great twin performances.


The doppelgangers are, of course, the Ids of the characters: the brutish father, the creepy grinning daughter, the animalistic and destructive son. It is with the son, Jason (Evan Alex), that there is perhaps one of the films greatest subtleties: at a crucial moment, he seems to realise that Pluto (his double) is the worst of him, but that they come from the same stock and so intuits Pluto’s trap, that he can control his “tethered”, then apparently melding with Pluto to thwart him. And although everyone gives fantastically physical and otherworldly Id-performances, it is surely Evan Alex’s scrambling around like a monkey or a spider that remains most memorable, and so at odds with the more prosaic character of Jason. Even Umbrae’s (Shahadi Wright Joseph) smile-like-a-horror-icon and Red’s horror-croaky voice are pulled back just at the moment of being over-done. 

But like ‘Get Out’, ‘Us’ almost sabotages itself with an unsubtle moment where everything stands still for exposition. These moments are untypical of the fluid flow and fine judgement on display before and after, but it seems there is so much to get in that Peele hasn’t yet quite figured how to avoid these moments of obviousness. But nevertheless, much else is so strong that surely this weakness can be forgiven. 

It’s not so much about the twist which any genre-savvy viewer will suspect/know – so it’s barely a twist at all, maybe – but how the film plays with that throughout and what it goes on to say: it’s about how, given the chance, she came from the underground and learnt all the signifiers and mannerisms to be the thing above ground, in a comfortable middle-class and loving family. Did we think she was just playing a part, because she really did seem to care about the kids, etc.? No, she undoubtedly really meant it. Give the underclass a chance and they’ll be indistinguishable from the privileged. Hell, they might even achieve “Hands Across America” where the privileged failed.

It's a little uneven, a little mumbled, but‘Us’ is a far more open work, far
more willing to let the audience pile in with interpretation where ‘Get Out’ was more definite. It’s chock-full of social commentary and symbolism that can be parsed long afterwards. It helps that there are many striking images to hang it all on and that it’s all nicely and sharply filmed – already I note costume companies are taking the film’s get-ups as Halloween options. Peele offers another meal of genre tropes to interrogate another perennial topic of sociological horror, but does so with humour, vigour and with a sense that the genre can stab and viscerally reveal subjects in ways that others cannot.