Monday, 22 August 2016

Cross My Heart and Hope to Die

Ti kniver i hjertet
Marius Holst, 1995, Norway

Although the US packaging tries to sell this “in the tradition of My Life as a Dog”, this is in fact more akin to darker strains of ‘The Northeners’, or even ‘The Slingshot’. As pastiche of moods and genre trappings, including rites-of-passage, mystery, domestic tragedy; complete with cellar secrets, dangerous staircases, bogeymen caretakers, enigmatic delinquent strangers, stolen cars and river corpses. Most of these are in fact false leads, of which the opening narration and uplifting song are just the first; and although the hints of peripheral horror are never consummated, ‘Cross My Heart and Hope to Die’ is at pains to estrange and alienate its young protagonist from his peers and family, and to inflict near irreparable damage to his relations to both. Here is loneliness and the mundane horror of the adult world. 

The set-up is typical: it’s the 1960s and young Otto (Martin Dahl Garfalk)  is at a loose end for summer, being an outcast from his peers. And then… Moderate and whimsical as the tone might seem, like Otto it is unlikely that any audience will walk away uplifted. It culminates in a mash of near hopes and irresolution. It is not always successful, moving from the sunny pranks and smiling face of Otto to the muted finale, but it possesses flashes of brilliance, of which perhaps most hypnotic is Otto’s decent into a dream-like near-surreal costume party, only to burst the bubble with his first proper sexually charged indiscretion. Or even a trip to a train station that inexplicably becomes emotionally charged with rain and alienation. Otto’s world is packed with red herrings; his attempts to join his peers are scuppered by his ability to always do the wrong thing; his childishness is dealt merciless blows, and if he ends the film more adult, this is no comfort. Fear of the dark, blind piano tuners and games of blind-man’s-bluff accompany the quasi-voyearism subtext, but if this is about the seeing the truth ~ don’t always trust what you see, he is predictably told ~ then it is hard to tell exactly what the truth amounts to. Then the worst happens, but not necessarily the way you think. It is true that families can fracture and reunite, that innocence is not enough and will not survive and that Otto’s secrets really don’t amount to much. But if there really is no answer, the discovery of the questions here remains a intriguing and occasionally baffling mood-piece where the threads of growing up do not necessarily lead to answers.


Dominic Shena, 2001, USA

Despite ‘Swordfish’s opening call to arms, in which it attacks Hollywood for producing vacuous rubbish, the film really has nothing to say: it follows standard action formulae; its terrorist and conspiracy theories are worth only the space on the back of a matchbox. What is presented instead is a stream of action set-pieces: the opening shocker robbery; the mid-way car chase; the flying bus routine. That’s the undemanding thrill quote fulfilled, then. All these are executed with trendiness and slickness and incredible mass-destruction and grand unseen body-counts, and they create the necessary diversion from the very average plot. The film’s post-modern, self-reflexive quoting of films really provides little more than the idea that our bad guy has got all his terrorist set-pieces from other, better movies. But in the argument about Hollywood endings, ‘Swordfish’ concludes that an action audience actually really wants a mass murderer to escape. If they’re John Travolta, that is.  

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Great Expectations

Alfonso Cuarón, 1998, USA

Contemporised version of Dickens’ classic updates marshland and London to Florida and the New York art scene. The film looks great and green, it is lush and holds many memorable moments, not necessarily Dickensian. The updating also means that it is more sexuality; there’s a redundant voice-over; there’s a grungier and funkier backing score; the convict-benefactor is involved with the Mafia, etc. There’s much to enjoy in the transposition of the earlier scenes to the Everglades, where the endless expanses of water maintain the book’s Gothic eeriness; or with Nora Dinsmoor’s mansion turned into a virtual swamp, and the later Thames scenes to the city underground trains. But there is less sure-footedness in the later New York scenes. The main problem is that all the central weirdness of the original text is increasingly swamped under American romantic conventions ~ and romance was arguably not Dickens’ main interest for “Great Expectations”, more a reader’s lure. It also means that many of both the peripheral and central eccentrics from the novel have disappeared and that Pip/Finn’s reunion with his convict-benefactor, now incarnated as the perfectly menacing-fatherly Magwitch De Niro, is a rushed affair. Luckily, a final ambiguity remains between the lovers ~ who here no longer remain totally unrequited. Ethan Hawke makes a rockier, less bewildered Finn/Pip; Paltrow is a fair femme fatale and Anne Bancroft’s Dinsmoor-Havisham is fine. 

The pace is beguilingly moderate and the presentation is consummately pleasing on the eye. It works on a drift rather than the cut of the narrative. It has a bad reputation and indeed it is Dickens for the MTV age, perhaps, but Alfonso Cuarón knows what he’s doing. So, not necessarily good Dickens, but a decent tale nonetheless. 

Salem's Lot

Tobe Hooper, 1979, USA
This scared the hell out of me as a kid, so I will always have a soft spot for this Stephen King adaptation that tells of a small American town gradually destroyed by vampires. This deterioration is watched by typical King heroes: a successful novelist and a teenage horror fan. Central is the old Madsen house with a gruesome, haunted reputation and the arrival of antique dealer Straker (James Mason) and his employer Barlow (Reggie Nalder). Overnight, the vampire is delivered to the quiet town in a crate and the deaths begin.

With two genre heavyweights Stephen King and director Tobe Hooper at the helm, expectations were high for this adaptation. The general consensus amongst critics appears to be that King’s novel suffered from the limitations of television, but the novel was never particularly explicit in its horrors. It was more interested in the menace, in atmosphere and weakening community. In this way, the TV film format
seems ideal for King’s picket fence society threatened by the supernatural. The wide cast of secondary yet vividly drawn characters that populate King’s fiction often offer a soap-like backdrop, yet there may be something to Peter Nicholls’ accusation of David Soul being a “predictably wet bit of television casting.”1 It is up to James Mason to deliver the acting delights in a nicely ambiguous turn as Straker. And it is also true that the moments of horror  that crescendo to a freeze-frame might hint at CBS censorship more than subtlety and yet the lack of gratuitousness doesn’t make any less scary. The same year, John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ created a similar community under supernatural threat horror, yet also demonstrated how a film may be both bloodless without compromising its violence too far.

Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot’, as Kim Newman has written, is a “respectable rather than devastating” adaptation that lives under the “baleful shadow of ‘Psycho’.”2 He identifies the more typically Hooperesque moment as that when a husband catches his wife and her lover and humiliates them with a shotgun. The feel of this scene - with the over-wrought facial distress and violence implied by editing rather than by outcome - is certainly more akin to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ than the rather plain direction elsewhere (don’t forget that ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was relatively bloodless too). For a moment, it seems as if it might transcend the Seventies TV demeanour and head into the  grimness of the period’s more notorious horrors. Nevertheless, there is enjoyment in its long running time and slow build-up of character and incident that is closer to the novel than the 112 minute film that was subsequently edited from the miniseries.

‘Salem Lot’s greatest improvement upon the novel is in its use of the Glick brother vampires. In the novel, what mostly happens off-stage and is known through exposition is here given an unforgettable visual rendition. The vampire boys float outside windows, scraping on the glass, demanding to be let in. It is perhaps the film’s most memorable and chilling image, although certainly not it’s only one. I remember as a young teenager watching ‘Salem’s Lot’ and being terrified, not only by the vampires-at-the-window moments, but also at the graveyard cliffhanger and the Mr Barlow reveal. I remember being excited that it was on television a second time (this was in the prehistoric era where there was no guarantee such a thing would ever surface again) and watching from behind a cushion because I knew it was going to be scary.

The film’s greatest deviation from the novel is in its conception of Barlow the vampire. Hooper has opted to make Barlow a homage to Max Shreck’s ‘Nosferatu’: he is no longer the pretentious, condescending orator of the book; he is now primal and animalistic with Straker now his mouthpiece. Barlow’s entrance is another unexpected shocker, but his appearance gains the story little more than monster-make up which is nevertheless a strong defining image. It is at its best when Barlow invades an ordinary domestic dinner scene. Its ambience and shock moments certainly worked on me again and I am sure this particular mini-series traumatised a generation of horror fans. Those Glick brothers…

In many ways, ‘Salem’s Lot’ is a successful King adaptation. Despite its TV conventions, ‘Salem’s Lot’ manages some rawness, black humour and shocks. It is at least frightening and atmospheric and has aged better than the televised and fondly remembered version of ‘It’. It’s a long way down from here to ‘The Lost Boys’. There is no vampire genre deconstruction as in Romero’s ‘Martin’, but ‘Salem’s Lot’s greatest strength is in allowing the vampires the vivid visual set-ups and juxtapositioning them against the otherwise naturalistic framing. Vampires sitting in rocking chairs and coming to life on autopsy tables will still provide the delights for genre fans. I will always be fond of this TV shocker.

·         Larry Cohen made A Return to Salem’s Lot, another television horror in 1987, but its relationship to the original novel and film was highly tenuous.
·         The 2004 remake of ‘Salem’s Lot’ with Rob Lowe and Donald Sutherland is slicker but it does nothing to improve the story.
·         Stephen King’s anthology ‘Night Shift’ contains a short story that vaguely follows up ‘Salem’s Lot’ called ‘One for the Road’. Typical of the collection, it is a slight, only mildly satisfying short.

1              Peter Nicholls,  Fantastic Cinema: an illustrated survey, (Ebury Press, London, 1984) pg. 145.

2               Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies: a critical guide to contemporary horror films, (Harmony Books, New York, 1988) pg. 54.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Bone Tomahawk

S. Craig Zahler, 2015, USA-UK

There’s a reason that S. Craig Zahler's ‘Bone Tomahawk’ turned up on a lot on horror blogs. It packs a considerable punch and by the time you get there, you have been lulled into a false sense of security so it strikes all the more; that is, you probably will think you know its limits, although the opening throat cutting should have been a clue to what is to come. Where Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ plays with the genre of the spaghetti western, all full of colourful characters trying to outdo each other, recent films like ‘The Homesman’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’ all come from a more neo-realistic, revisionist slant, mired in the heartache and consequences of violence and showing up ‘Eight’ as a dress-up pastiche. ('The Revenant' falls somewhere in between all these.) Even the affectations of ‘Slow West’ point towards an emotional realism. However, Katie Rife suggests it makes more sense through the lens of Italian Spaghetti Westerns. But when ‘Bone Tomahawk’ gets to its third act, anyone familiar with Don’t-Go-There horror will know the geography, and this is a truly creepy and horrifying example. This is walking in the same doomed trail as ‘The Offspring’, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Humains’, but in keeping its western neo-realism paramount it is all the more convincing and disturbing. 

A gang of men go in search of feared tribe of “Troglodytes” – the film is careful to separate this clan from Native Americans, although how successfully is perhaps open to question – when they appear to have abducted a woman from the town. Kurt Russell leads the ill-matched rescue team, composed of a rambling “back-up deputy”, an obviously bigoted gunman and the kidnapped woman’s husband. As “backup deputy” Chicory, Richard Jenkins steals the show by providing the film with most of its humour: his non sequiturs are one of the film’s great sources of pleasure, but look closely and don’t be fooled: he maybe past his prime but he’ll deliver as best he can when needed. His friendship with Kurt Russell’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt glues everything together and the writing never lets any narrowness of character create limitations. For example, Matthew Fox as the mercenary John Brooder goes someway to suggesting that beneath his brutality is something good struggling to get out; or Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer manages heroism in a role that could have quickly become annoying – the crippled but stubborn-no-matter-what character. 

Elsewhere, Freddy Waff’s production design is also notable for being so credible (and perhaps it is inevitable that the cave scene will look most like a set) and Benji Bakshi cinematography supplies the  crisp visuals and pretty Western vistas (and has a western ever felt so chalky?); Jeff Herriot’s and S. Craig Zahler’s score is mournful and unobtrusive. And although all these details are consummate, ultimately ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is a story of strong meat, centred on themes of duty and sacrifice. The troglodytes are genuinely scary, frightening embodiments of male violence unmitigated by the civility of the other characters of Bright Hope that are just as defined by it. It is happy to have a slow build-up of characterisation to ensure its gratuitousness had maximum impact. A great and gruelling show.

Stranger Things

Matt & Ross Duffer, 2016, USA TV

When I first saw Franck Khaulfon’s remake of ‘Maniac’, there was a delirious thrill as soon as the synth score by Rob kicked in: this was a new thing, to hark back to the 80s synthesiser soundtracks with such flare. But everyone seemed to be taking their cue from Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ and it soon became a trend, doing the retro-thing, to great effect in ‘It Follows’ and more self-congratulatory with ‘The Guest’. But what seemed to be happening was that, given license by contemporary culture’s constant cashing-in on what was popular and homaging it to death, was that the new wave of horror-makers that grew up on and were influenced by eighties genre fare were regurgitating their influences. And signposting it.

So in that sense the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix TV series ‘Stranger Things’ seems a logical culmination of this trend, a total product of the times with its foundation as a homage being its whole appeal. It’s not just set in a certain period in time, like for instance the wonderful ‘Freaks and Geeks’ or the pleasant ‘Red Oaks’, but the references to Eighties’ horror genre is paramount. Never has it been so hard-pushed that the nostalgia is the lure – even from  the title’s font. Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg are obvious influences, but Joe Dante’s doesn’t seem to be quoted in reviews as much as he ought to be; and then there are references to ‘Alien’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ and a wealth of others. As Scott Tobias notes: “Stranger Things exists in the same world as the movies to which it pays homage.” (The Vulture is a good place for pointing out the references.)

But additionally and most importantly, the Duffer brothers get the emotional tone of the genre right and manage not to let all this post-moderness and reminiscence get in the way of the story. In this way, it becomes its own thing too and not just merely a litany of references. The premise is simple: a boy goes missing mysteriously and at the same time his friends find an odd uncommunicative girl in the woods when searching for him. An unremarkable suburb subsequently becomes involved with government conspiracies and attacks from another dimension. But don’t worry: people of a certain age can wallow in recognising the Eighties details, can obsess over the music (and how no American kid would yet know of The Smiths; or how certain songs used came out after the date the story is ostensibly set, and whether this matters if the song is non-diegetic, etc.) as fans can count the movie references.

But modern TV is surely an influence too, for we expect a higher quality of writing, acting and characterisation now than ever before and the show delivers. There are a few thinly drawn bullies on the side but mostly the characters make their way to fuller personalities.  It’s in the way Mike (Finn Wolfhard) gives way to his temper at times; it’s in the way that Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is introduced as the standard washed-up policeman but proves anything but; it’s in how Steve (Joe Keery) is your standard pushy and horny jerk but sees quickly that Nancy (Natalia Dyer) brings out the best in him (and the final shot of him wearing a cheesy Christmas jumper must be one of the show’s best jokes). It’s how the show gets on with characters believing in what’s happening and not dwelling on denial: there is great satisfaction to seeing different character factions realising the truth of it all independently. 

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven is exceptional, emoting a whole spectrum despite having the least dialogue, stealing the show with silences and pained looks. David Hopper is winningly gruff and practical, his resigned and accepting look when he realises Well, I’ll have to punch my way out of this one a small highlight. Winona Ryder starts at hysterical as a mother who has just lost her son, crying into Christmas lights and making holes in walls (yes, ‘The Shining’), but her performance settles in with the context of increasingly being believed. And Gaten Matarazzo has proven a fan favourite as Dustin, the voice of mediation between his friends as well as being smart and goofy in his own right. Even the doomed Barb (Shannon Purser) has generated her own fandom. 

Yes, it’s mostly predictable but there’s a steady pace to keep it all going and it leaves enough unanswered to remain intriguing. It’s biggest misstep is when Nancy climbs into a organic hole in a tree which is obviously a portal to another world – as you would – and there is trouble with the end where the boys’ grief at losing Eleven is apparently all but forgotten when they have Will (Noah Schnapp) back; but in the latter example surely it would take half an episode to untangle and pace everything just right. For the most part, it manages to be scary and on the right side of its tropes.

Chuck Bowen thinks it all contrived, which it is, but doesn’t quite incorporate how enjoyable the ruse is as well, so it’s not quite “pointless”. It’s immensely likeable and therein lies it well-deserved appeal and achievement. This, then, is good fanboy product, nodding to the tropes just enough without getting so caught up that it’s forgotten that the thing needs its own identity too, despite following the beats closely so that nothing truly surprises, but it does go some way to answering What if the characters in John Hughes film were, you know, realistic? And there is plenty of pleasing kids cycling around for adventure, which will likely please fans of ‘E.T.: the extra terrestrial’.* A film peer like ‘Goosebumps’ is mostly successful at capturing this teen-horror spirit where, although you know it’ll all be okay in the end, there is still room for the dark stuff. 

'Stranger Things' is too busy harking back to be seminal in any way, but it is fun.
·         *          As a kid, ‘E.T.’ didn’t do anything for me – no I didn’t cry and I didn’t really like the alien. These days, I’m prone to think that I’ll appreciate the domestic stuff, should I watch it again, but even as a kid I thought Spielberg’s sentimental side a turn-off.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Penda's Fen

Alan Clark, UK, 1974

When I think of Pebble Mill, I think of being a kid in the Seventies and the show ‘Pebble Mill at One’, a lunchtime current affairs and entertainment programme. I think of safe daytime TV. Pebble Mill used to be studios outside of London that produced far more than just that, though. Under producer David Rose (whose track record is quite something, including giving us Terence Davies amongst others) Pebble Mill gave us ‘Penda’s Fen’ in the ‘Play for Today’ strand, directed by Alan Clark and written by David Rudkin. Despite its look of rural England and rolling hills, it’s anything but cosy lunchtime viewing.

Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is an uptight youth, mouthing conservative opinions, but his burgeoning sexuality increasingly makes him introverted and questioning all around him. Politics, sexuality, institutions, community and individuality, changing names, kindness and cruelty, art – it’s all here. It’s a quite an abstract piece and Alan Clark himself proclaimed that he didn’t know what it was about, but as a portrayal of an adolescent’s maturation set against his surroundings, rarely has a bildungsroman been so multifaceted on screen. At first the atmosphere is certainly tinged with the kind of abstractions that signalled the era’s uncanny horror, with Hammer Horror being a touchstone as well as the eeriness of serialised M.R. James’ stories and the elliptical narratives of such as Jerzy Skolimowsi’s ‘The Shout’ or Weir's 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'. (And to those ends, there’s a startling hand-chopping dream sequence.) At first, the moments where Stephen seemingly has visions seems to indicate that we are indeed in the realm  of the horror, of perhaps mental illness, but these prove to be simply manifestations of his imagination and alienation, of his thinking process. Through them, we see him discussing with deceased classical artists, envisioning demons and angels, and ultimately meeting Penda, the last pagan King. If it seems atypical of Clark’s work – as he is mostly known for neo-realist depictions and aggressive dramas – it is still characteristically tied to the sociological and English identity. It depicts rural villages as home to just as much personal internal narratives as anywhere else. 

It’s wordy and weird and Rudkin’s remarkable script is a dense tapestry of religion, philosophy, mythology, sexual awakening, socialist politics and the arts, all the realms Stephen has to explore to unlearn the misconceptions and prejudices of his life so far. There is a wealth of difference between when we first meet him spouting disapproval all around him and the youth who later gushes that he wishes a childless woman will have lots of adopted children because she is interesting, embarrassingly effusing like it’s the first time he’s acknowledged and used his own capacity for generosity. He goes on to realise then that he is multi-faceted and contradictory and he embraces all of that: this journey of self-discovery is just the start. When we leave him, he is a far more introverted and sympathetic character than when we met, but there is a sense of sadness as well. He has been humbled by the scope of himself. It is quite a remarkable chronicle of one person’s journey to self-awareness. 

Thursday, 4 August 2016


Director Hou Hsaio-Hsien talks "The Assassin".

"Cancelled" podcast on "Eerie Indiana"

BFI Horror film list, and I won't argue with much of it.

...and David Lynch.

Sunday, 31 July 2016


Todd Haynes, 2015, UK-USA

Right from the start, Todd Haynes taps into the set decoration all around us by revealing that the pattern on the opening credits is in fact a drainage grill. There is a mauve tinge to shadows and a velvety green that touches everything as if that is the colour of nostalgia. The look of the film is dipped in the colours of old fashion photos, sumptuously tinting everything. In this world that is nothing but a film set for our dramas, this story belongs to two women: it’s the 1950s and Therese (Roony Mara) is a shop girl not quite sure of who she is, and then there is Carol (Cate Blanchett) who is older and more certain but struggling to be so against a disapproving world. And they meet when Carol is buying Christmas gifts from the store Therese works in and a romance begins.

Todd Haynes goes one step further than the gorgeous affectations of the Douglas Sirk influenced ‘Far From Heaven’, extending a confident casualness with another period that characterised his exceptional TV adaption of ‘Mildred Pierce’ to achieve something far more naturalistic here. No need for the narrative layers and tricks that distinguished his ‘Velvet Goldmine’ or ‘I’m not Here’.  Edward Lachmann’s cinematography is vibrant, giving each colour a luminance of old photography stock, of a past derived from the era’s commercials. Or think of Edward hopper’s paintings. Adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel ‘The Price of Salt’, Phyllis Nagys’ script leaves much unsaid, because people know the inherent meaning behind words, and letting looks do just as much heavy lifting. But there are still memorable lines: “I love her.” “I can’t help you with that.” Or, with a first look at a lover’s body: “I never looked like that.” The cast excel. Through Rooney Mara, you can feel the trouble Therese is having finding and being herself, often hiding behind a misunderstood coyness. As Carol, Cate Blanchett’s performance is endlessly beguiling with her resolve, beauty, smarts and elegance. 

And amongst this, Carol, is negotiating the sexism and homophobia of the era whilst increasingly sure of her identity. The story detours into a road movie and pays a pitstop at film noir (there’s a gun) which all helps to broaden the genre and narrative before settling  again on what might be called a woman’s picture – but it does so with subversion. Rarely has the details in a film told so much story (the way Carol puts on her shoes when she’s caught with Therese, for example). This is surely the most mainstream film Haynes has made, being ostensibly a straightforward forbidden romance, but the fact that it can treat its gay theme with such casualness and be accepted on those terms is surely a sign that we and cinema have come far with the subject. This is seductive and jazzy where Abdellatif Kechiche’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ was confrontational and punky with similar themes.

The direction and script navigate all these elements so effortlessly that it shows that rarely does a film of this kind display such adultness, dignity and grace. It’s a film for people who have lived and matured and gone through troubled times. A film to lose yourself to. Enthralling.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Satan's Slave

Pengabdi setan
Sisworo Gautama Putra, 1982, Indonesia

Satan’s Slave” doesn’t waste any time getting into a very chilly scene of a ghost at the window, tapping for attention. But this ghost wants to draw its victim outside rather than ingratiating itself in. It’s the ghost of the mother of a girl and her younger brother Tommy, who takes the loss badly by turning to the black arts. Or at least he buys some horror magazines and acts alien and aggressively towards his sister. A fortune teller in trendy 60s glasses floats around them like an aged film star reading over-sized cards and making creepy phone calls just to keep on performing. Tommy also takes to riding a motorbike through cemeteries, just like Mike from “Phantasm”. It’s all the fault of the housekeeper brought in to do the late mother’s chores, but she has something more Satanic in mind: to punish those that don’t believe in Allah enough, it would seem.

Satan’s Slave” is an apparent Indonesian version of Don Coscarelli’s  “Phantasm” (1979), riffing on its dream-logic but hitting more closer to  Lucio Fulci’s randomness and precarious dramatics with a thick pretence to the Gothic. People take their time to answer doors which are being benged on by someone outside.. Blood drips on family portraits. Night-time shots outside the house are always accompanied by eerie howling (wolves? neighbourhood dogs?). People throw pillows at ghosts/zombies A manservant wheezes and worries. A blank-faced housemaid who is so obviously in on the malevolence that she comes with “Evil” music cues every time that she appears. It wins points on being bonkers, an electronic score (interrupted by a bout of disco) and remains notable for its version of Horror seen through a Muslim perspective. But any early promise dissolves and “Satan's Slave” just about scrapes through on its daftness.