Monday, 16 October 2017

The Beast - and the joy of erotic offence

The Beast ~ La Bête
Walarian Borowczyk, 1975, France

It’s the typical poster of some beauty in the infernal clutches of a monster/alien/robot. But even with ‘King Kong’, I was thinking, “So he fancies Fay Wray… and…?” But with King Kong, the monster’s infatuation could be attributed to a plutonic obsession with aesthetic beauty (she’s so small, delicate and pretty…). So what’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s excuse, with all that simulated underwater sex? Monster films typically have an “other” inexplicably lusting for a human that it surely wouldn’t be wired to lust after? I mean, wouldn’t that be a form of bestiality? And yes, I know interspecies sex is a thing, but nevertheless... Are these monsters/aliens/robots merely conceptions of male lust that dominates the fantasy and science-fiction universes, and are women just to be in peril? Is this some kind of rape fantasy?

And that’s where we come in with Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’. It’s as if Benny Hill had directed a Hammer horror. Originally conceived as a part of the anthology ‘Immoral Tales’ and then expanded to feature length, ‘The Beast’ is the tale of a woman into bestial fantasises that a monster in the woods chases her and… lusts after her - she likes it really - until she seemingly fucks it to death. The film sets out its agenda from the outset, starting with a prolonged and explicit sequence of horses breeding. It’s this that turns her on, because any hint of sex seems too. Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) comes to a big old estate to be married to a business-man’s son, who is being scrubbed up to be presentable as the issue of his being baptised seems to be a sore point of domestic politics.

Glenn Kenny is surely wrong when he says that Borowczyk is “neither decorative not decorous”: the set design is lush, if filmed without exaggeration; and when he says that “His lighting is generally flat” one can only imagine Kenny has not seen a decent print of ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne’. But yes, there is a straightforward rendering that might be seen as the opposite of the aesthetic of, say, Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’. But he is right when he writes that Browczysk is an artist “whose ability to appal and exhilarate and to make one fall sideways laughing at erotic absurdity will certainly find appreciation from anyone whose taste for the Psychotronic runs to extremes.” The tone is of farce, bizarre pornography, surrealism, of perversion, of a wrongness pummelled down by the ludicrous. There is a whole roster of details to be offended by along with the bestiality: light-hearted rape; a black servant associated with rampant lust; small children stuffed into a closet so that the adults can romp; a pederastic priest – but an assault on good taste is surely the agenda. All of this is filtered through farce, accompanied by incongruous jaunty music to accentuate the comedic. Even the gargoyles rudely and suggestively have their tongues out. But when Borowczyk has Lucy masturbate with a red rose, the film reaches for a merging of the explicit, pleasure and the romantic and arguably achieves a moment beyond just shock into something more complex in effect. When a snail slimes over a deserted slipper, it can be read a metaphor for how the ickiness of nature always overwhelms tokens of civility. 

It’s not a film to look for great performances or characterisation and, as with porn, personalities are mostly condensed to sexual appetites; but there is an underlying precision to Borowczyk’s use of the ridiculous and the explicit that mostly hits its mark. It’s certainly unique. As Scott Nye notes, it draws together “eroticism, sin, horror, repression, vulnerability, and humiliation.”  As well as a somewhat ratty monster costume that evidently fell off a back of a lorry that is another indication that this melange of erotica and the b-movie is mostly comic, if not for many. It surely scores as a logical result of the sexual subtext that underlies so many monster-movies. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

In Between

Bar Bahar

Maysaloun Hamoud (writer/director), 2016, Israel-France

In Tel Aviv, three women share an apartment and try to find their place in a patriarchal society that admonishes them as soon as they show independence. 

A vibrant drama with magnificent performances from the three leads -  Mouna Hawa, Sana Jemmelieh and Shaden Kanboura. Into the world of a sassy, sexy lawyer and a lesbian DJ comes the more traditional girl, and the stage seems set for a conflict of their personalities. But this isn’t the case for they have a greater shared enemy with a culture that demands they repress their individuality and parades them before disapproving men and families. Their affinity as women emerges as stronger. 

Even if there may be a more obvious political backdrop to call upon, Hamoud’s Palestinian drama  is set in the no less political world of gender roles. The conflict between traditional demands and the context of modern society proves their central dilemma. Why don’t they just get married? Layla (Hawa) just wants good time to let off steam from being a smart lawyer and although she can casually tell a colleague who makes advance they should keep their relationship fun and flirty, she’s not above being smitten. Salma (Jemmelieh) is perfectly as ease with herself but being outed is something else. Nour (Kenboura) plays by all the traditional rules – wears a Hijab; is deferential to her fiancé – only to find that that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be treated right. And so there’s no surprises because these are usual dramas – and yes, there will be a dancing-in-the-lounge moment – but it’s energetic and daring as a tale of modern Israeli-Palestinian women trying to kick against an old world conception of gender. Even if Nour’s tale does veer into something touching on thriller, it also clearly heads that way to show that the woman have to bond together and try more desperate measures to deal with issues when it’s obvious that there’s no help forthcoming elsewhere. 

It’s loose-limbed, funny, mature and engaging and although the end leaves them a little stranded, the impression is that these women are just getting started (as the title implies). As if to prove Hamoud right, she has had a fatwa placed on her due to simply making this film about and for women. Dabbed with neon-inflected credits and a dance tunes, the tone is far from downbeat and even if the world seems to be doing these women no favours, their upbeat defiance will surely leave the world trying to catch up with them and not vice-versa.                                

Sunday, 1 October 2017

mother!

Darren Aronofsky, 2017, USA

The trailer for ‘mother!’ was shown frequently at FrightFest 2017 and it seemed to be a home invasion/scary cult ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ kind of thing: I was thinking that the trailer gave away too much. But of course, now I see that is all those things too but that a trailer could not give it all away even if it tried, because Arofonsly’s latest is all allegory and that’s the kind of thing a teaser cannot convey. I went into it with a horror fan’s mindset, feeling unease at the infiltration of the domestic setting between Jennifer Lawrence (“Mother”) and Javier Badhem (“Him”), enjoying the bonkers escalation of events when their siblings turn up. But by the time it becomes clear this is all symbolism and metaphor, such tension dissipates and the main job is to decode and ride the escalation of events as things go off the rails. 

And then, as they are all symbols, it becomes apparent that involvement with the characters as personalities is moot, although Lawrence and Badhem and the cast in general are great: they provide the human ingredient. There is a lot of humour and farce to be had in the scenario of people just turning up all the time – and Michelle Pfeiffer’s increasing scathing looks got frequent laughs when I saw it – and there is a underlying affinity with schlock and exploitation that is surely being lost on people that simply see it as pretentious: this is in accord with Aronofsky’s previous work as much as the religious allusions. It has a visceral full-throttle and swelling trajectory that is surely derived from the horror genre.

When I first came out I said that I didn’t think there was much to decode: but that is obviously wrong and what I think I meant was that it it’s so evidently an allegory that there is no mystery. Aronofsky has posited ‘mother!’ as an allegory for our times: Lawrence represents mother Earth and so on; and then there are the multitude of religious references. But I am of the mind that people think religious references instantaneously meaningful instead of lazy and obvious and I am not the receptive audience for parables. A friend of mine saw it as an allegory for abusive relationships. Indeed, it can easily be seen as a tale of how men use young women up and then just move on: if you find this critical of patriarchy may depend on whether you think Aronofsky is being empathic or guilty of relishing a little too much the suffering of women (I tend to think it’s sympathetic, but like ‘Black Swan’, it treads a fine line). And if one subscribes to its value as parable, it can be read as equally as scathing of how religion abuses women as ‘Martyrs’

As I am not one to think religious insinuation is intrinsically profound, my interpretation was that ‘mother!’ was an allegory for the creative process with Jennifer Lawrence being the somewhat mistreated muse. You let the fans in, they inspire you, they are weird, have a party with and start wars/arguments over your art and eventually they tear it all apart with their cult fandom – they find the unbraced sink of weakness and test it until it brings the wall down – and then you have to start again with a new muse. That such a conceit has been promoted in such a mainstream style amuses me no end. It’s going to be so divisive –and it is – because it isn’t what you expect and behaves more like one of those films that mainstream audiences hate (and where the goal was to get people through the door, the promotion surely worked). It’s certainly a film that grows in stature upon consideration afterwards – if you do like it at all – but as a film that straddles the absurdities of the horror genre and the pomp of art cinema, it’s certainly a go-for-broke effort. 

Sunday, 17 September 2017

One moment in: 'Kaos'

‘Kaos’
Vittorio & Paolo Taviani, 1982, Italy/France

The films of the Taviani brothers are abundant with beautiful images, but when I saw ‘Kaos’ at the cinema, there was one moment that left a long-lasting impression (and for a long time I had to keep it as a fond memory as the film didn’t seem to be available on VHS or DVD). It’s when the family visit a desolate island, away from civilisation, where the beach is made of sand as white as mountains of flour. When the kids tumble down the slope into the ocean, it struck me as one of the most beautiful and carefree images in cinema.

One moment in: 'Exists'


Eduardo Sanchez, 2014, USA

‘Exists’ is a pretty average monster horror. It suffers, as these things tend to do, from unremarkable and frequently annoying twentysomething characters, the kind you can’t particularly be too concerned with. It’s also a shakycam p.o.v. “found footage” film, with all the weaknesses that brings with it. However, it is a bigfoot film and it’s here it wins. When the p.o.v. aesthetic works, its effective to giving in an “insiders” view of horror moments we are familiar with: I’m thinking of the monster’s p.o.v. when they fly off in ‘V/H/S/’ and ‘Jaruzalem’, or the ending of ‘The Borderlands’. In ‘Exists’, there are effective shots of the sasquatch running through the woods to catch up with a victim cycling away, but better than that, and the one shot that means this film will always overcome its weaknesses with me, is that phenomenal, convincing, elongated close-up of the beast at the end. I always thought that Chewbacca was probably the most convincing alien in ‘Star Wars’ and, here, such a convincing man-in-a-suit design creates something truly scary and magnificent in the monster pantheon. All the way through the film, I wondered if we would ever get to actually see, properly, the monster. I mean, it wouldn’t necessarily matter – after all, ‘Willow Creek’ scared me and is probably my favourite Sasquatch film despite the absence of bigfoot sightings – but then when the bigfoot got his close-up, and sustained it, I was mesmerised. Many sasquatch films have kept the beast at arm’s-length, because after all it is just a man in a monster suit and it’s best not to reveal its shortcomings too much, and anyway things are better with a little mystery. But this monster-mask is convincing, scary and is thoroughly able of absorbing scrutiny. 



Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne



The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne

Dr Jekyll and the Women
Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes

Walerian Borowczyk, 1981, France-West Germany

Borowczyk offers Robert Loius Stevenson’s seminal work as a chamber piece where a gathering of the upper class pontificating about metaphysics and transcendence, that kind of thing, find themselves destroyed from the inside-out as Dr Jekyll’s alter-ego uses the event as an excuse to rape and murder.

Where Stevenson’s tale can be seen as good intentions leading to the worst of man, Borowczyk’s version here is more the perverse outcome of the ego and the pretensions of the upper class. There is plenty here that might verge on the unintentionally laughable, not least the dubbing – which always tends to make things unintentionally laughable – some over-ripe acting – which is par-for-the-course in this kind of venture – and its verging on the “Stupid Female” syndrome; and of course then there’s Jekyll’s considerable penis and the sewing machine as an erotic prop. But the atmosphere overcomes such potential weaknesses as well as the sheer audacity, including having Dr Jekyll’s transformation being reduced to flaying around in a bath. 

The framing and the use of light transcend the straightforward imagining of the Dr Jekyll (Udo Kier, who  always seems game for this kind of thing) story as a chamber piece to create a dreamy, painterly and immersive experience. The blue filters for night and the soft golden interiors are a vivid contrast. Sometimes the edges of the frame are soft or dark, making frames resemble a painting, perhaps something by Johannes Vameer who features as an example of “transcendent” art and of a dowry.  The jewellery catches the light and sparkles. It’s like an ornate doily covering an obscene ornament. This mood is helped by Bernard Parmegiani’s electronic score that flirts with the discordant to make the whole thing feel more like a psychedelic excursion of the era typical of, say, Nicolas Roeg than a period piece. 

There is some abstraction to the threat with the group mostly finding violence's remains, the corpses that keep cropping up. They react by hankering down and shooting innocents by accident. The paranoia and frantic responses of the privileged not to mention the hypocrisy makes for ripe satire. Borowczyk ultimately wants to cross genders with this usurping of upbringing and civility and here it truly departs from Stevenson’s agenda, making women just as complicit.

At the end, Borowczyk lets the craziness out, but it consumes itself in the back of a carriage before it gets too far. It’s a perverted comedy of manners, a phantasmagoria of genre absurdities reaching for the sublime, a farce of murder and debauchery.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

FrightFest 2017 - epilogue

This is all about the FrightFest main screen.


More than ever, it seemed that people came to applaud bad guys meeting gory and despicable just desserts, to wallow in the special kind of poetic justice that the Horror genre provides. It was ‘Killing Ground’ and ‘The Terror of All Hallows Eve’ that seemed aware of the consequences and the trauma of horror scenarios where others used the genre to be kill-happy and to generate a high standard of comedy. There was more laughing and clapping with glee than ever this year.


Some random thoughts this FrightFest:

- Hey, the glass ceiling caving-in scene in ‘Cult of Chucky’ verges on the pretty.
- I may not have been persuaded by ‘Death Note’, but seeing it on such a big screen – and it is a big screen – was the best way to see it.
- Yep, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I was the only one that dug ‘Psychopaths’. But it lingered with me and I know I am going to like it more on a second watch.
- …Trying not to be annoyed that I had to work Friday morning and miss three whole films. Do they not know how important this is?
- There’s a lot of sassy kick-ass girls this FrightFest, but for me it’s Harriet Dyer in ‘Killing Ground’ that topped them all. Maybe because nearly all the others were all fantasies of one kind or another ('Lowlife' excluded).
- Started watching ‘Leatherface’ and the guy next to me was still using his phone until the guy further on said loudly “Turn your phone off.” He did and then left halfway through the film and there was just something about this behaviour that made me think “He must be an industry person.” Afterwards, a FrightFrest friend said he recognised him as the producer of ‘Turbo Kid’, which I love.
- ‘The Terror of All Hallows Eve’ really bothered me with its message of “don’t lose your temper to revenge”, which is correct, but you couldn’t blame the kid and he didn’t deserve such a fate. Unfairness is one thing that really haunts me. For example, the characters of ‘Killing Ground’ and ‘Better Watch Out’ didn’t deserve this either, and that’s why these films were the most troubling for me. And that’s why I really liked them.
- ‘The Villainess’ was exactly what I thought it would be, and all the better for that. But the p.o.v. action that defined ‘Hardcore Henry’ I can see becoming old hat as a novelty very soon.
- The standard of writing and dialogue was so high this year, probably due to the demands of comedy.
- Such a litany of great female performances... almost in every film.
- Such good and strong horror comedies, from the satire of ‘Better Watch Out’ to the drunk dad of 'Dead Shack' to the dumb fun of ‘Victor Crowley’. I’m sure I enjoyed the latter more because I was with the right audience. 



The ones I liked best?  

- ‘Psychopaths’ because it was so intriguing and not ashamed of its artiness 
- ’68 Kill’ for being such a fun and mean-edged romp
- ‘Game of Death’ for being sly, cruel and well thought-out
- ‘Killing Ground’ for credible characters and for being genuinely gruelling 
- ‘Lowlife’ for being funny in despair and for having a neat ending without being obvious 
- ‘Better Watch Out’ for such a scathing take-down of certain Christmassy tropes

Second tier: ‘Dead Shack’, ‘Double Date’, ‘The Terror of All Hallows Eve’

See you next year, I’m sure.


Wednesday, 6 September 2017

FrightFest 2017 - Day 5

When I started coming to FrightFest, I remember it started off as an experience of maybe sitting through two or three films before a good one hit the mark. But over the last few years I see it as the reverse, as it being rare to have a truly bad film. I mean, there is usually one but I have to protest that, for all that I may appear picky, I really do enjoy the whole experience and I think a wealth of good-to-great films only make each other look better. In fact, it was last year that I realised that watching decent-to-brilliant films back-to-back was just as tiring as watching a host of bad films: there isn’t much time at a film festival to digest a good film before the next one is upon you. But this year, I found it much easier.

So on to the last day:


STILL/BORN
Brandon Christenson. 2017. Canada

Mary gives birth to twins but one is stillborn. A new spacious home and surroundings can’t quite hold off post-partum depression, especially when odd noises come from the baby monitor and she starts to believe that a witch-like spectre wants her other baby. Odd noises down a baby monitor are, of course, inherently scary and this may be the most creepy film on the FrightFest main screen this year. Christenson doesn’t really fall back on redundant jump-scares so much, but there is a lot of running to the nursery for the spookiness, and it then becomes evident that the film isn’t going to break free from convention. It all ends with a slightly sloppy party scene: (so she just runs to the party from the hospital? Was it just down the road? And she’s sitting there with a knife and they just impotently bang on the glass? Does nobody think to even try to break the glass door? And then he just opens the other door and runs in…? Wait, wasn’t the other door locked?). And then it has one of those it’s-not-over-really codas that really doesn’t resolve anything. So it’s an average scarer that does nothing insightful with such a loaded premise.


LOWLIFE
Ryan Prows. 2017. USA

Interweaving narratives about a series of characters living in the underbelly of Los Angeles. The most striking characters being El Monstruo, a disgraced Luchador who never takes off his mask and deludes himself with his own mythology, and Randy, fresh out of prison with a full-face Swastika. But there’s also Crystal, a recovering addict trying to achieve some kind of pride and morality in running a shabby motel; her estranged junkie daughter; a corrupt policeman; a thoroughly reprehensible hoodlum running an illegal organ donor scheme with the daughter in his sights… And it’s here we come in, starting with the business of Teddy the human trafficker. This opening is nasty and bloody and more in the vein of ‘Sicario’; it doesn’t hint at the black humour and amusements to come. 

The different stories are divided into chapters and play with time so that we gain a fuller picture when scenes are retold and then they converge for the last act. Of course, such a focus on temporal and perspective playfulness and criminal society will be compared to ‘Pulp Fiction’ as if such techniques were never done before, but Tarantino was never this humble in the face of people’s suffering. It probably leans more to indie crime drama than horror and it may be scruffy at the edges but ‘Lowlife’ is a great mixture of crime drama, offbeat characters, gore, amusement and social discourse. It may stem from different vignettes and have five writers, but Ryan Prows keeps it all fluid, bringing it all together by investing in the complexities of the characters, even if they initially seem cartoonish. Prows spoke at the screening of being a fan of luchador movies and trying to put that in a more realistic contexts, which he does to amusing effect as well as El Monstruo being a study in delusion. Then it successfully humanises a guy that’s a walking Swastika and delivers an exemplary performance from Nicki Micheaux. It doesn’t waste time in colouring in Teddy (Mark Burnham), but then it’s not really about humanising the bad guys as focusing on good peole doing bad things to survive. A stand-out curio.


BETTER WATCH OUT
Chris Peckover. 2017. Australia/USA

After his parents go out for Christmas (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton delivering brief but great comic turns) 12 year-old Luke (a startling Levi Miller) is looking forward to being baby-sat for the last time by Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) for he has quite a crush on her and wants to declare his love. But then a home invasion interrupts his plans…

And here I really do want to stop you if you want to enjoy ‘Better Watch Out’ to the fullest. My blog is full of spoilers and I don’t usually pause to give more warning as my “About me” has a big one, but ‘Better Watch Out’ – originally ‘Safe Neighbourhood’ – deserves to be gone into unprepared for its twists. No, don’t even watch any trailers because they are sure to give away a little too much. Just take it that’s good and worth your time. Get the idea? Then I’ll continue, knowing that anything I hint at might give the game away.

During the height of the video nasty craze in the UK in the Nineties, I felt appalled that a film like ‘Home Alone’ was considered suitable for kids with its slapstick approach to using household implements to, for instance, set fire to a man’s head when ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was banned for an ear-slicing you didn’t see – remember one of the chief motivations of censorship was to cull films of bad behaviour that kids might imitate (hence the wholesale removal of nunchuks from ‘Teenage Ninja Turtles’ and so on). Something happens halfway through ‘Better Watch Out’ and it becomes a whole different film that seems to me to be a dismantling of all those precocious brat films and their slapstick violence. And you can even count in that ‘The Visit’ which also starred DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (they were unbearable in that and excellent in this).  I still don’t like ‘Home Alone’, but when ‘Better Watch Out’ kicks into full gear, it gives the lie to all the films that use inappropriate horny behaviour from boys as funny (‘Crazy Stupid Love’ comes to mind) and the preciousness that defines character like Kevin from ‘Home Alone’ that apparently some find cute. 

Zack Kahn’s script – a writer for ‘Mad’, so that should be a clue – is peppered with details that seem innocuous and cutesy at first but are subsequently filled in later to fill in a more sinister back-story (like “sleepwalking”). Bloody-Disgusting thinks that “There is a period of time in the second act where Safe Neighborhood [‘Better Watch Out’] plays things a little too seriously”, but I was disturbed as soon as its true agenda was revealed and perhaps others still found it a romp but as I was tuned into it as a scathing satire (indictment?) of the precocious brat genre, as I was throwing it more into the “budding psychopath” genre, I thought its lightness of tone was deceptive. A black comedy that looks as bright as any Christmas movie but, boy, it has a real mean streak. 

And kudos to the fact that it doesn’t resort to all-out violence on a minor to resolve things: considering that whenever the deserving got their heads pounded in with rocks or whatever the FrightFest audience whooped and applauded approval (even in ‘Killing Ground’), the fact that in this film an off-screen, overheard line of dialogue produced the same loud approving response surely goes to show that it wasn’t just violence the horror audience wants, but to see bad guys get theirs. And ‘Better Watch Out’ has quite a bad guy, one you’ve seen before but maybe not identified in many other family films.


THE TERROR OF ALL HALLOW’S EVE
Todd Tucker. 2017. USA

An outsider kid into horror make-up, models and pranking the locals gets bullied one time too many and makes a pact with The Trickster for vengeance on those who have humiliated him. 

Autobiographical to Todd Tucker – even the workplace full of horror stuff is actually his – it’s a straightforward old-style teen vengeance tale with practical creatures and effects which makes it all the more than winning on that front. Doug Jones gives a creepy and articulate turn as the seducer to the dark side. You would think fifteen year-old horror fan Timothy (not Timmy – Caleb Thomas) would know all about Faustian pacts… and the creature that offers him vengeance is called The Trickster so that is surely a clue? Nevertheless, what marks this out is its lack of jubilation typical of getting-your-own-back narratives: it’s eventually a very downbeat film with the message that if you lose your temper, you might do unspeakable things and lose everything. This makes it haunting and deeply sad in retrospect, which is not typical of these kinds of things that usually like to wallow in ‘Eerie’ comics-style poetic justice. 


TRAGEDY GIRLS
Tyler MacIntyre. 2017. USA

Starts off with a lone car on a bridge and a couple of young people romping in the back seat in a shot that looks as artful as those found in ‘It Follows’. But this is not that film. Rather, it’s about two girls going psychopathic to get ‘likes’ on social media. The girls want to be horror legends so they kidnap an old school slasher to teach them something, but soon see this hunger for this most twenty-first century form of fame as an excuse to murder anyone that challenges them or pisses them off. 

‘Tragedy Girls’ has great central performances by Alexandra Ship and Brianna Hildebrand whose onscreen chemistry anchors the satire and, as Andrew Barker says, “both of which split the difference between Tarantino and Nickelodeon remarkably well.” It riffs on the High School tropes we know so well but here the mean girls are completely without any moral compass as they search for more social media fame as if that means credibility and meaning. But they aren’t regular bullies targeting freaks and geeks; rather, ex-boyfriends and rival cheerleaders have more to fear. It’s fast, bright, witty and well-played so that its messier elements are easily overlooked. 

They overcome the old school slasher they kidnap as if the film is saying the narcissism and ethical indifference of social media generation is a far scarier thing. The film seems aware of this when a teacher berates them for their shallowness, but a film that seems so smart doesn’t quite establish a moral stand: this isn’t the dumb fun slaughter of ‘Victor Crowley’ or the gung-ho carnage of ‘Mayhem’. They slaughter the whole school and get away with it as their cruel intentions are recogisable as American ambition and popular culture. They seem normal. But are we supposed to celebrate their being sociopathic BBFs as that seems to justify it all…? So they’re the bad guys, but is their selfish anarchy of murder to be cheered as asserting themselves?  I could not quite get rid of the bitter aftertaste that the irony of the ending was on the back of a prom load of corpses. Popular but troubled, much like the girls themselves.



Tuesday, 5 September 2017

FrightFest 2017 - day 4

KILLING GROUND
Damien Power. Australia. 2016

Perhaps the one film I saw this FrightFest unmitigated by humour or otherworldly elements that truly tapped into a sense of dread. Here’s another horror to put you off ever going on holiday. A couple go to camp in a remote spot by a lake, but there’s another tent and we see that other family going about their holiday too.  And perhaps it takes a moment to realise that we are in fact alternating between two different time zones, Power crediting the audience with the skills to follow what’s going on even if it is not immediately obvious. 

The slow-burn of the opening half reaps rewards for the last act when tension is held and no easy get-outs are given. As I went in not knowing anything about this, there was even a moment when I thought it was supernatural (the kid toddling in the background seemed otherworldly, and I wasn’t the only one that thought this), but that isn’t the case. Rather, this is as you would expect but it has an excellent ensemble cast with a central couple whose affection is naturally conveyed and some bad guys who fall short of being cartoonishly drawn: in fact, their sadism is all the more discomfortingly for being innate and casual.  It succeeds in being upsetting and convincing. The buzz of talk afterwards in the cinema once the credits ran seemed notably loud for this one. Gruelling.


THE END?
Daniele Misischia. 2017. Italy

A zombie invasion as seen from the claustrophobic point-of-view of a man trapped in an elevator. Claudio’s a bit of a git, so there’s room for a character arc even as the office he sees from ajar elevator doors descends into undead mania: he may not be able to get out but they can’t get in either. Alessandro Roja holds the attention as Claudio, making the most of arguing, patronising and then sympathising on the phone with various people, as Misischia and cinematographer Angelo Sorrentino manage to keep the confines of the elevator interesting. . The title is maybe a bit awkward – apparently FrightFest’s own Alan Jones suggested it from the original Italian title ‘The End in One Day’ - and perhaps implies a bigger scale that is only seen when closing. As an allegory for Claudio’s stalled state – between the needs of his wife and the brain-dead carnalism of the office – it holds some weight but it doesn’t find anything new or creative to do with the zombies and that is a major disadvantage. But as far as High Concept zombie devastation, it’s a decent entry.


DOUBLE DATE
Benjamn Barfoot. 2017. UK

Alex (Michael Socha) is determined to help his pal Jim (Danny Morgan) lose his virginity before he hits thirty. Meanwhile, there are a couple of women who need a virginal sacrifice for a ritual, and they’re running out of time. 

Initially, it’s the kind of boys-stuff premise that would leave me rolling my eyes, but Morgan makes for a likeable protagonist and although Socha starts out as the annoying mate, his cluelessness and Socha’s comic timing soon prove the film’s secret weapon. As with ‘Game of Death’, ‘El Bar’, ‘Mayhem’ and ‘Better Watch Out’, setting a time limit on events keeps thing focused and urgent: the guys meet the girls and think their luck is in, embarking on what they think will be a night of potential fun. This involves a comical birthday celebration and a visit to a hilarious Dexter Fletcher.  Georgia Groome as Lulu gets to angst about what the sisters are doing but Kelly Wenham doesn’t get much else to do but be bad-ass; and it’s true that they don’t really get the comedy.
They know they have the upper hand when the guys are obviously so needy but it’s the awkwardness of the men that proves the true source of amusement. It’s consistently funny and even manages to handle a fight between a man and a woman without making her indestructible or losing his befuddlement. It works as an allegory for thinking losing your virginity will be both farce and horror story (with additional disapproving father-figure) and balances both by being highly likeable. 



MAYHEM
Joe Lynch. 2017. USA

Where the crowd-pleasing is so evident it’s almost desperate. We hate the dog-eat-dog world of office politics, right? Well here it’s aided with a contagion called ID7 that makes the infected super-violent, offering a get-out-of-jail-free card for a tale of butchering your way to the top. Our hero is Derek Cho (Steven Yuen) who supplies the narration/exposition and who we can cheer on as he slaughters those who have framed and mistreated him as the virus takes over and the building is sealed off until the antivirus takes effect. The violence and gore are of the slapstick variety while the satire is just as subtle: the super-violence and caricatures here are the source of laughs. There’s mileage to be had envisioning the office as an arsenal and a warzone but it’s all very obvious, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there’s surely a queasy aftertaste when it posits a world where murder and carnage end up meaning very little. It’s fun while it lasts but it’s not as clever as it perhaps thinks.


THE VILLAINESS
Byung-gil Jung. 2017. Korea

You know all this from the examples set by the likes of Park Chang Wook and ‘Lady Snowblood’: a female assassin out for revenge and so on. It’s brilliantly made and elegant where Western visions of this tend to be blunt; but where this differs is in its use of p.o.v., the kind that defined ‘Hardcore Henry’. This perspective delivers a bravura opening where Ok-Bin Kim mows her way through a corridor of bad guys (then she looks back at the trail of corpses and the audience broke into applause) which we see like a first-person kill-game; then her head cracks against a mirror and the p.o.v. is jolted into a more detached camera as if we are being smacked out of her head. The film never quite tops this moment of fluidity between perspectives again and indeed, later, there is a sword fight on speeding motorbikes whose jaw-dropping qualities are compromised by the fact that the camera can’t stay still enough to show fully the skill involved. But ‘The Villainess’ delivers what you expect – a sniper in a wedding dress, anyone? – even to the point where it’s familiar story of a girl trained to be a killer when she grows up, with all the requisite deceptions, betrayals and unexpected romance, is all a bit more mixed and complicated than it necessarily needs to be. It’s the polar opposite of Hsia-Hsien Hou’s ‘The Assassin’, but it’s fun and often exceptionally well-made, even if it is nothing new and it can’t quite hold the camera still when it needs to.



Monday, 4 September 2017

FrightFest 2017 - Day 3

THE BAR
Álex de la Iglesia. 2017. Spain


A group of people argue and reluctantly collaborate when trapped in a Madrid coffee bar after they see someone shot on the street when leaving. What’s going on outside? How do they get out? It’s the old under-siege narrative that allows for plenty of friction, humour, characterisation, suspense and notable acting and de le Iglesia’s ‘The Bar’ delivers on all this. We know from such examples as ‘Night of the Living Dead’ through ‘The Mist’ to ‘The Similars’ and many, many others that people do not particularly respond well to such stress and this is no exception. There’s a lot of comedy drawn from the religious ranting homeless guy Israel (Jaime Ordonez) and the bar’s owner (Terele Pávez), and it’s of course informed by post-9/11 paranoia (hey, that guy has a big beard!), and naturally spins our initial assumptions about characters. But as rounded as they become, characterisation mostly crashes for the last act in the sewers. What it’s about, rather than the infection/zombies outside which we don’t see, is how such situations reduce people to their worst before their better natures usually kicks in. And it’s surprisingly ikky for a film set in a coffee bar, reminding us how close we are to bodily fluids and base levels, even in an environment that it meant to indicate civility, by primarily using cooking oil and the sewers. 


ALONE
David Moreau. 2017. France

Based upon Bruno Gazzotti’s French/Belgian comic book, a teen girl goes to the funfair and wakes up in a deserted city. Then she meets other teens and they slowly bond as they wonder where everyone has gone and what are the walls of clouds closing in? Moreau directed the thoroughly unsettling ‘Ils/Them’ and this is equally slick but doesn’t quite surpass the limitations of its Young Adult Fiction format. The kids are decently drawn and there are lots of nice incidental details around them; there’s the sensible lead girl, the slightly timid rich kid who seems only too pleased to have a gang of friends to pal around with; there’s the sullen delinquent who has to be won over; etc. The script never loses sight of their youth, having them all wanting to sleep together for safety or the moment where one boy immediately turns to overwrought angst when he thinks he’s been too drunk to remember killing someone. The adventure also knows to tap into the teen fantasies of driving unrestrained through a city and indulging in what an empty hotel has to offer.
But of course there’s a more immediate threat where it seems someone is out to kill them. (And here you should stop reading if you really don’t want spoilers:) But the answer to the mystery is that it’s a limbo is unimaginative and the idea that the afterlife is represented by a white stately home is trite. And then it ends on a cliffhanger that will lead into the sequel and it’s here that I reveal my ignorance of the source material, for where will this go: ‘The Hunger Games’ in the afterlife??


JACKALS
Kevin Greutert. 2016. USA

And speaking of ‘Ils/Them’, few films can match that one for home invasion terrorism. ‘Jackals’ starts strongly with a p.o.v. long take of an entire family being killed before it’s ‘based on a true story’ premise kicks in. A family kidnap their son who has joined a murderous cult intending to de-programme him; but the cult wants him back and pretty soon, the house is surrounded. A few years ago, FrightFest screened ‘Faults’, an insidious and tricksy de-programming drama which teased questions about character and need. ‘Jackals’ is the opposite, a straightforward nocturnal under-siege tale.
The drama and perspective rarely rises upon TV movie-of-the-week with characters acting somewhat stupidly and impulsively from emotion, giving the cult the edge, which somewhat undercuts the tension and undermines dread. Its main interest is in the suggestion that de-programming may not be possible – and certainly it will take longer than given here. But it is solidly made and delivers enough chills to be worthwhile.


ATTACK OF THE ADULT BABIES
Dominic Brunt. 2017. UK

A conversation heard outside the cinema:

Guy 1: … I’ve been hearing about ‘Adult Babies…’
Guy 2: (Shakes head) Oh mate.
Guy 1: Well I guess you have to have one or two films low on the pole…
Guy 2: Ah mate, it didn’t even reach the pole.

Brunt's 'Bait' was decent, but this is a thorough embarassment. 


VICTOR CROWLEY
Adam Green. 20178. USA

The existence of this sequel was a big secret that it was not even being listed in the FrightFest programme (it was called “Hatchet: 10th Anniversary Special event”). Green told the tale of how it was George A Romero himself that told him that the ‘Hatchet’ franchise was bigger than him now and who was he to deny the audience what it wanted? So here it is, and it certainly plays on all the crowd-pleasing notes. It’s almost like a horror version of ‘Airplane’. But Parry Shen makes for a likeable protagonist with the characters being archetypal enough that there’s no need to invest when they are killed off. It takes time to be clever with the revival of Crowley (rather than just having some devil-dog piss in the swamp or whatever) and makes good use of its crashed-plane limitations. There are plenty of genuine jokes (“Sign this!”) and fun to be had for this is the realm where an audience cheers outrageous deaths committed by a seemingly unstoppable celebrity ghostly killer. You know how this goes.


GAME OF DEATH
Sebastian Landry & Laurence Morais-Lagace. Canada. 2017

A bunch of typical young partygoers gather around a pool to kill time with sex, drugs and alcohol and toy with an old fashioned board game that, as soon  as it has drank their blood; it demands that they kill 24 people to “win”. And by winning, it means survival. Pretty soon, after an exploding head, they know it means business. They best get killing quickly.

The FrightFest programme calls it “’Jumanji’ meets ‘Battle Royale’”, but I was thinking it has the downbeat artiness of ‘It Follows’ with the low budget aesthetic of Beyond the Gates’. The character introductions come as moments that blur with a detached knowingness, setting a tone more aligned with indie cinema than ‘Porkies’. There’s the drug dealing pizza boy, a brother and sister with an incestuous vibe, a guy with a dick drawn on his face, etc. This crowd are probably one-step removed from the types you find in ‘Final Destination’ but their mercenary if distressed edge is the kind of casual cruelty that you find in Brett Easton Ellis. A few characters see this as a welcome excuse to let their kill-instinct run free, but rare for this kind of enterprise, the characters try to find some moral solution to their dilemma, especially as this comes from the probable psychopaths, leading to slaughter in a hospice. As the game sets a time limit for the killing, things move briskly and urgently and the 70+ minute running time keeps things tight. It’s a brutal, rapid, and sly and more thought-out than these things usually are.