Tuesday, 6 November 2018

FrightFest Halloween All-dayer 2018

I’ve never been to the FrightFest Halloween all-dayer before and I wondered to myself why-ever not? Of course, being a FrightFest veteran and in the age of binge-watching, an all-dayer isn’t much so much of a challenge. The weather stayed fine and Leicester Square itself is all closed up whilst they construct the Christmas fair, but that didn’t put off the street performers. 

Ian Ratnay (FrightFest organiser) told us that actually the Empire Leicester Square had forgotten to book the superscreen for the event earlier that week. 
Issa López – the delightful director if ‘Tigers are not Afraid’ was there to help with introductions - sat in front of me and I could see her nodding vigorously when Julia Ducournau’s ‘Raw’ was mentioned onstage as part of the recent golden of horror. 
Craig Conway’s young son was there and in the Q&A for ‘Mara’ asked “Why do you always make my dad kill himself?”
There was a robot in the foyer. 


Julian Richards, USA, 2018

I don’t think I can do better than the FrightFest synopsis: “A stillborn baby girl is abducted by a deranged morgue attendant and brought back to life by electro-kinetic power. On her sixteenth birthday, traumatized Tess escapes captivity and sets out to find her birth mother leaving a trail of horrifying violent destruction and chilling chaos behind her.” Well, first electro-kinetic power brings back the stillborn baby and then she’s abducted, but who’s quibbling? Despite the warmth and appeal of Barbara Crampton and Michael Paré – she’s the mother who hasn’t recovered from the stillbirth while he’s the detective that seems to be sent to every odd murder that’s going, but smart enough to work out what’s going on seemingly with a Google search – this is standard fare with negligible dialogue, chills and acting. Refer to Richards’ ‘Summer Scars’ instead.

Matt Harlock, 2018, UK

A short film about a troubled teen joining an estranged uncle – the always charismatic Paul Kaye - for work experience on a road crew only to find that this is cover for battling portal monsters. This is a prime example of how to deliver enough characterisation and ideas in the short format so that you can easily see it leading to a bigger project. An highly agreeable horror short.  

Isaac Ezban, 2018, Canada

A group of friends discover a portal to other dimensions in their basement and use its temporal shifts to gain the edge in their respective careers. With ‘The Similars’ Ezban showed that he was fascinated with and quite a dab hand at alternative realities, although this was written by Scott Blaszak. This starts with the premise that when faced with a time-bending advantage, a group of average friends will only use it for self-service. And there’s always one that will cause trouble and ruin it all. When the rules are established, it isn’t hard to see where it will go, but there are enough twists and turns to always keep it lively. Thoroughly enjoyable if undemanding, sci-fi concept drama.


Clive Tonge, 2018, UK

Criminal psychologist Kate (Olga Kurylenko), investigating a seemingly cut-and-dried case of a woman murdering her husband, doesn’t quite believe it and becomes convinced it’s all to do with the sleep demon called Mara. Then follows a series of frights with an obvious Asian horror influence, but earlier on many of these scares are edited so quickly or darkly lit that there’s a blare of music and you might be wondering what you’re meant to be jumping at. It’s all centred around sleep paralysis, but the truly terrifying nature of that condition isn’t really captured by this formulaic horror: all it does here is evoke a captive audience without any other insights or true inventiveness.

Craig Conway injects life into proceedings, being an actor who can play frightening hardmen whilst projecting their insecurity, fear and lost decency: it’s easy to image he’s stumbled in from a more genuinely pained horror. Kate seems to solve things by defying orders, going where she shouldn’t and generally carrying on in tired film-trope maverick style, suffering many warnings from the disapproving and gruff Detective (Lance E Nichols); luckily she doesn’t seem to have a caseload to distract her. 

By the time Mara appears in full, she’s memorable enough but nothing new to lift this from the routine.

The Predicament

Three people on a supply-run in a zombie apocalypse find themselves trapped in a car surrounded by the undead and with no keys. It’s the kind of drama that plays out all the time in a post-‘Walking Dead’ world but doesn’t really amount to much more than an aside that’s too long.


Paul Hyett, 2018, UK

Bobbi Johnson (Hannah Alterton) is the author of a zeitgeist-defining novel sitting down to write a second, but she has writer’s block. The passive-aggressive publisher strongarms her into using a super-PC to write, but as the deadline looms, things become more unreal. 

Bobbi is constantly set at snark and pissed off, so she quickly establishes herself as mostly one-note and irritating, although as things plunge into oddness more Alterton is able to show more range. Yet we never get a sense of what makes Bobbie tick, not really; we never leave the flat so who knows where she gets her inspiration? We don’t truly know what this book is, or what the first novel was. Not matter what else happens in the film, perhaps what is most fantastical is that her writing has caused defiant riots:* so the reality starts from the unlikely. She is stalked by an unstable fan that delivers self-harm videos through the letterbox – in Haneke ‘Caché’ style, by VHS. Which doesn’t really make sense, although it feeds into the fetishising old technology and forms. For example, Bobbi’s a fangirl of the classics because it seems those were pure where nothing else matches. She is harassed by the unfeeling publisher whose artificial nature is symbolised by her plastic surgery. Subtle it isn’t, but it does have a few decent gags: one of the best jokes is that the futuristic writing programme changes the gender of her protagonist from “she” to “he” without Bobbbi’s consent. 

It’s like a lower-key version of Aronovsky’s ‘mother!’ with its wide brush-marks of symbolism and claustrophobia, but not quite so successful in detail (an audience member in the Q&A asked what the meaning of the blackening of her fingers meant, perhaps not quite aware of its association with ink stains (I guess), which sits awkwardly with the neon high-tech keyboard imagery). This is a world where your favourite famous author pays a housecall (“Gilmore Trent!!”, Bobbie greets). But it's a piece that oddly looks back, thinking the past is the era of authenticity.

It’s critical of the industry and technology killing creativity but all it leaves us with is a typewriter and Bobbi’s history as an ex-squatter junkie as badges of authenticity (the fucked up are always more authentic). And what will she do with a typed manuscript? Does she intend to let it go unread, wallowing in the poetic tragedy of its unacknowledgement? But if she is going to publish, she is going to have to engage with the industry and/or technology eventually, with editors if not editing software. I mean, this absurd technology doesn’t actually stop her from writing something good, it seems. The film is dismissive of the huge unwieldly software without quite addressing the advantages of technology: more artists than ever are creating, present and out there with apps that help and with many self-publishing platforms (like Lulu for writing and SoundCloud for music, for example). More bedroom artists are being seen and heard than ever. (I prefer to be more positive than to gripe.)

But I liked it the more gonzo it went, following its polemic into the ridiculous. Peter Taylor’s cinematography and Peter Hyett successfully keep Bobbie’s flat colourful and interesting and it never falls into the dourness that would make this claustrophobic. But ultimately I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s moaning in its bubble without fully addressing the full range of possibilities. In this way, it comes across like one of those unfulfilled unsigned artist rants on social media against the system that often lapses into ALL CAPS. 

* This reminds me of Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday’ where a recital of a poem stops a home invasion, which made me laugh out loud.

– Den blomstertid nu kommer

Victor Danell/Crazy Pictures, 2018, Sweden

Here is one of those films where it is advisable to go in knowing nothing. I’ll just say this was the best film of the day and you should forsake this review now and try for yourself.

The first half is a slow build-up detailing hapless Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot) and his fraught homelife when growing up with a volatile and damaged father. His only reprieve is in his crush on Anna (Lisa Henni). There is the measured pace and slightly dreamy visuals to make this seem like a typical bildungsroman. Alex grows up into a pretty unlikeable and damaged guy himself and then, halfway through, it reveals itself as a disaster film where Sweden faces a mostly abstract attack. Indeed, if you are luckily enough not to know how things will be, when cars start crashing and piling up on the bridge, the gradual feeling of Holy shit! rewards all the patience of the sombre build-up. Of course, any trailer is going to give something away with the one I saw tried to be as coy as possible, but I also saw a poster that had “Disaster movie!” broadcast as loudly as possible; so this is another case where I am so glad I saw this at FrightFest when I had no idea what was coming so that I could experience the reveals and gradual realisation along with the characters. If you are primed to expect a disaster movie, the effect is likely to wondering when things are going to get going. Let’s just say there nothing earlier on to hint there will be exploding helicopters, or that the chainsaw gift will come into play later. If it all ties up a little to neatly on the sentimental side, there’s enough Swedish dourness and surprising action to make this a full course of entertainment. 


Carlos and Nicolás Onetti, 2018, Argentina-New Zealand

There’s a trend of 80s homages now (and as tiresome as this has become, there are many good evocations), but the Onetti brothers instead make a film that harks back to and feels like the second tier gialli of the 70s. The blaring colours and grainy edge, the continuous recourse to eye close-ups, a slightly choral and funky score, the detached dubbing always seemingly heard a yard in front of what’s seen: it’s all here. It’s a commendable mock-up and looks like the real thing. It’s the wackily rendered tale of a magician seemingly stalked by a murderer and a man that always smokes. Notably much of the twist plays out around the end credits. It’s bizarre and colourful enough to always be intriguing but never quite transcends its pastiche.

And so in retrospect: 
If I seem to be harsher of ‘Peripheral’ than others, that’s because there’s more there to argue with. 
It’s true that I felt much else was standard and noted the lazy writer’s technique of good people trespassing where they shouldn’t and stealing and breaking-in just to keep the plot points coming. 
I probably enjoyed ‘Abrakadabra’ more upon reflection as an aesthetic piece even if I have little nostalgia for what it pastiches. 
When I realised that ‘The Unthinkable’ was turning into WTF?! much of the second half went on my scenes-and-sequences-of-the year list. When the hairs on the back of my neck slowly started to rise as the pile-up piled on, I put it immediately on that list.

Friday, 2 November 2018


Panos Cosmatos, 2018, USA-Belgium-UK

Anyone who had seen Panos Cosmatos' ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ would have known to expect ‘Mandy’s primary colours and filters, stifling and measured immersive mood and hallucinogenic vibe. ‘Rainbow’ (2010) was faux-80s before that was even a trend, convincingly capturing the spirit of trippy 80s straight-to-video cult favourites, and – if judging from social media reactions – Cosmatos has certainly made an instant genre classic with the revenge excess of ‘Mandy’. Of course, he has Nicolas Cage to boast of here and Cage’s participation for sure means this will immediately have crossover appeal, reaching many that would not otherwise have known they would enjoy such an exploitation homage seemingly wrapped up in candyfloss, just as it’s being melted.

It starts off mellow enough with that just-coming-from-the-hippy-Seventies vibe that coloured early 80s genre. Red (Cage) is living an idealised away-from-corrupt-civilisation life with his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in a nice secluded house in the horror trees and a Timotei commercial.  Even here, the rooms of the house seem to change and swim alive with colour and shadow changes. Then, as Mandy is asserting her feminine freedom with a roadside walk, she catches the eye of a deranged cult leader passing by in a van and disaster is then sure to happen. The cult pay the dreamy couple a deranged visit that intends to leave both of them dead. But Red survives and then embarks to a rampage of vengeance that incorporates porn, chainsaws and (alien? demon?) bondage bikers.

Those who come for the “Nicolas Cage: he so nuts!” will not be disappointed; not least of all when he goes bonkers in a bathroom that looks like a set from Anna Biller’s ‘The Love Witch’. But it’s Linus Roache as Jeremiah Sand who surely takes the biscuit and initially muddies the waters between outrageous hamming and fearless acting. The men gleefully overact and the women look beatific and dreamy. There’s certainly a theme of machismo and ego in here beneath the filters: Sands’ homicidal rage is triggered by having his power, supremacy and sexuality laughed at; there’s a spike-penis; oh look, his chainsaw is bigger than Red’s chainsaw (but it’s all down to how you use it); and, of course, all that pink and red. It’s a ridiculous parody of male potency in action films.

There perhaps seems a little calculation in the clunky dialogue seemingly deliberately aimed to trigger laughter (“That was my favourite shirt!”; “You’re a vicious… snowflake.”) or seemingly fanboy-pleasing moments like a chainsaw duel, but there is so much genuine oddity on display that it’s easy to just enjoy the excess. It’s certainly a riot. Also, the craziness dials up after Red’s escape, so that there could be a reading that this is all just the revenge dream of a dying man (the stab in the ribs is totally forgotten); but the trippiness and lunacy has long been established beforehand and seems to refute this. Each shot is designed to add to this otherworldliness, no matter if the scene is pretty scenery or chainsaw battles. And yet it’s all filtered through a melancholia that both grounds and accentuates the outrageousness. 

…And then Red is doing a spot of ironmongering, making an axe that looks like a ‘Flash Gordon’ prop. Well, of course.

It’s a somewhat tired trope now, but the 80s aesthetic is thoroughly convincing from the hammy dialogue and the question of how generous should you be to the acting, to the intertitles coming in type of fonts that used to grace the covers of bargain bin horror paperbacks; and every now and again, there are animated dreams, sci-fi interludes, a quick vision of cars buried in a wasteland like a detour from ‘Mad Max’, or a melting face (a nod to a excised effect from ‘Rainbow’?). And of course, with ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ Cosmatos can be said to have been doing this throwback agenda in earnest earlier than others, but the narrative and novelties of ‘Mandy’ will probably prove more accessible for those that found ‘Rainbow’ too thin and slow. 

Some films excel on aesthetic alone – Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ immediately comes to mind – and Cosmatos delivers such a heady phantasmagoria of homicidal hippydom and Heavy Metal revenge fantasy that a viewer can just sit back to be happily submerged. Benjamin Loeb’s cinematography and the editing by Brett W. Bachman and Paul Painter are joys in themselves, creating an overwhelming mood that seems at odds with the straightforward revenge narrative. Oh, and the soundtrack by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson is a treat, all retro-synths and prog-rock thickening the mood. Rarely does this kind of story get this kind of lavish visual treatment and that’s at the root of it’s fascinating kaleidoscopic appeal. It’s a riot in all kinds of ways.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Halloween (2018)

David Gordon Green, 2018, USA

Without being remarkable, David Gordon Green’s continuation of the vast ongoing franchise has a little to please everyone. Although this leaves it open to accusations of being baggy and overstuffed, this is probably a canny move as - as is usually the case with these franchises – it seems an audience doesn’t really want something so different: regard the greatly maligned Myers-less ‘Halloween III’ and the much hated Rob Zombie ‘Halloween’* which, if nothing else, were truly taking a different tact. Green’s entry – written with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley – leapfrogs over the other sequels and versions and gleefully dismisses the sibling twist of ‘Halloween II’, starting with as clean a slate as possible. Producer Jason Blum prefers the term “reinvention” rather than “reboot”, but contorting over semantics is unlikely to really fool anyone. Endorsed by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter himself – executive producing and reprising his seminal score – and coming with a distinguished indie director, this certainly comes with as much creator approval as possible for a decades-old product. 

So it’s clean and bright and a little shaggy around the edges, as typical of American indies; meaning it replaces the precision tooling of Carpenter’s original – which, of course, is a genre masterpiece – with a more loose-limbed vibe. This means that there isn’t the sustained stress, suspense and squeeze Myer’s first appearance, but it would surely be foolish to expect to imitate that. Even so, the sequence where in more-or-less one take Michael strolls around the suburbs, wandering into houses and slaughtering residents is a set-piece that comes close. The many call backs to the first film mean fans can have fun spotting Easter eggs, but these are often more than just homages: the Michael-Goes-About-His-Business sequence also mirrors the lurking p.o.v. from the original; and when Laurie is shown mirroring Michael’s poses from the first ‘Halloween’, it goes to indicate how much she is claiming that story as a survivor. She’s been preparing to fight back this time. 

Laurie Strode** has been busy training and arming herself for Michael’s return at the expense of healthy relationships with her family. But this is far from only Laurie’s story: there’s a lot of subplots and a lot of characters where it seems this time Michael’s story is trying to cover as much slasher ground as possible. There are three generations of women to deal with: Laurie, her estranged daughter and her granddaughter. As with most slashers right now, it comes loaded with post-modern self-awareness of Clover’s Final Girl which leads the action by the nose and means to get maximum play. Curtis has certainly been on the promotional circuit highlighting this as a film very much attuned to the #MeToo movement and relishing the kickback, making this very much a film of the moment. But although he was always a threat of male violence, unlike many of the slasher sub-genre he helped inspire, Michael was surely a symbol of The Unstoppable Killer Out There rather than of rampant misogyny (he has always been indiscriminate with his kills). But there is no doubt that this one stems more from revenge fantasies than fear of the bogeyman.

The film begins with a couple of obnoxious podcasters that come to provoke Myers, the kind of critique of a mercenary media that ‘Natural Born Killers’ traded in; then there’s a somewhat off-centre subplot with Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) which certainly fulfils the Gothic protestations that Dr Loomis brought to the original. But mostly what will stand out from this grab-bag of pleasures and diversions is the humour. This is the kind of casual humour that has run through much of Green’s work, not least his work on the amiable series ‘Red Oaks’. The scene where the boy complains to his father that he’d rather really be at dance class than going hunting is a nice nod to how far expectations of gender roles have moved on since the original was unleashed; and it’s not the only humorous moment that then segues into horror that means business. Many audience criticisms I have read seem to object to this, but slashers and horror have always run close to humour, just perhaps not so overt comedy: the criticism is that the humour undercuts the horror, but perhaps the only ill-judged moment is when the smart-mouth of the babysat kid undermines the horror of the closet scene (which is a great scare that is spoilt anyway by being in the trailers).  

There’s a moment when a youth shrugs that Michael’s original kill count isn’t so remarkable in an age when horrific mass killings seems like a monthly event (fortnightly? weekly?); the hoopla around Myers seems like hyperbole. In the original ‘Halloween’ he newly represented the fears that Something Unspeakable was out there threatening the cosy suburbs; indeed, he was bred in the suburbs. But this ‘Halloween’ forgoes the supernatural slant of the original, the move into The Shape: here, he is the returning trauma that must be confronted. It’s entertaining, if not particularly scary, but with enough of a nasty streak and kills to be occasionally unsettling and with humour to keep things on their toes elsewhere. Ultimately, it heads for what, in this scenario, ends up being a happy and triumphant ending. This is the age where getting your own back is in vogue, and that’s always been as prevalent in horror as bad luck. But, of course, there is a just a little ambiguity… there's a franchise to think of, after all.

* ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ has received a lot of reappraisal over time and is certainly regarded more highly now. I have always liked it and the laser-in-the-face and the masks still remain two favourite horror scares. I also have a lot of time for Zombie’s ‘Halloween’, although I doubt that would win me any friends.
** John Kenneth Muir painstakingly decodes Laurie Strodes name to argue that she was always going to be a winner.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Jack Arnold, 1954, b/w, USA

The classic Universal man-in-a-suit creature-feature. We are barely five minutes and we get from God creating the Earth and evolution (??) to a monstrous webbed-hand fossil and - shock! - a similar hand rising from the depths to claw the river’s edge. Then there’s early unintentional humour in some of the dated exposition, most of all when our protagonist explains evolution and the purpose of his research into fossils and aquatic life to the very friends and esteemed colleagues who probably have a very good idea already what he is about. 

But then we are in the Amazon jungle, which has to be credited with retaining the film’s eeriness. Our expedition party is in search of the rest of a fossil found earlier, from a type of monster that is still alive which we see surprisingly early on; no long-held suspense and reveal for this monster-suit. And it’s a seminal monster suit, designed by Milicent Patrick* and convincingly swam by Ricou Browning with the creature played by Ben Chapman on land. Certainly the creature is more fluent underwater and a little jerky up above, but its gaping visage is never less than compelling. From out of the depths the creature comes, representing all the carnal jealously, rivalry and violence barely repressed between David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his employer Mark Williams (Richard Denning), both of whom it seems the love interest Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) has a soft spot for. 

The famous girl-and-monster synchronised swim hints at sexual symmetry and it is apt that monster often turns up and breaks out when hot personal topics get discussed. Its subtext isn’t hard to trace. Even early on, drifting down the Amazon and indulging in love talk, David says their romance may take a lifetime and Kay’s response of a kiss is interrupted by a primal jungle growl; and this isn’t the only time flirting causes prominent animal cries on the soundtrack. It’s even a feminine boat “Rita” that takes them to the mysteries of the Black Lagoon. Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’ takes this sexual tension to its logical, comical and icky conclusion, whereas Del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ sees it for romance, gliding over the barely repressed violence lurking under this scenario. And then there's Eric Langberg's thorough reading of the creature as a gay icon.

Arnold was exemplary at this, as evidenced by the many genre treasures he directed in the 50s. There are all the joys of period genre hokeyness but his work is never stupid or laughable. They may be B-movies but there is the sense he always had his eye on the big themes. For example, not only is there the Freudian stuff going on, but there are also issues of colonialism and exploitation  - the creature as nature fighting back - at the edges of all this. 

And after defining many genre tropes and highlights, Arnold can be found directing for a lot of famous Sixties and Seventies television series like ‘Rawhide’, ‘The Brady Bunch’, ‘The Bionic Woman’, ‘The Love Boat’, etc. He was a director that went where the work was, but his contribution to smart period science-fiction and horror is incontestable: Arnold is responsible for ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (which Joe Dante notes is one of the few pacifist sci-fi movies of the era, along with Arnold’s ‘The Space Children’), ‘Tarantula’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘The Black Lagoon’ films, which surely makes him genre royalty. 

You probably wouldn’t even call ‘Creature’ Arnold’s best because he delivered so much that was good to consider, but it’s knowing and sly – screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross – and beautifully filmed, even with blunt-force horn blares of creature feature thrills (the first time he appears underwater and we see the face is a sincere jump scare), which of course are all part of what we came for. Quintessential monster movie fun.

* “The designer of the approved Gill-man was Disney animator Milicent Patrick, though her role was deliberately downplayed by make-up artist Bud Westmore, who for half a century would receive sole credit for the creature's conception.”  - Wikipedia  
Milicent Patrick working on The Creature

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Jack Arnold, b/w, 1957, USA

Jack’s Arnold’s classic adaptation of another of Richard Matheson’s genre-defining concepts: exposed to a cloud of radiation and insecticide, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) starts to shrink, and nothing seems capable of stopping this process.

The effects – supervised by Clifford Stine – include glittery torsos, trick perspective shots, split-screen, primitive super-imposition and decent back-projection. The cat attack is a highlight, not forgetting the spider battle, but the whole scale of the project and realisation is impressive: giant drips of water (water-filled condoms), out-sized phones, monolithic stair cases, etc. Its sheer scope remains impressive.

And, of course, this all directly relates to his loss of masculinity. Richard Christian Matheson (the author’s son) says that he thinks Arnold saw in the book “this idea of masculinity being a kind of falsehood, a kind of vulnerable construct, and I think he was very fascinated by that.”* We first meet Carey charmingly bullying his wife into getting him a beer and strikingly peaks in the image of Carey trying to lay down the law from a doll house balcony. Perhaps the film misses a trick in excising the daughter character for the book and therefore establishing his virility. Evidently, he comes from a period mindset where the privilege of male dominance is a given and his shrinking loss of it is more than he can bare. He goes from a man that assumes his privilege is to get his wife to get him a beer – the punishment for this casual misogyny being that he gets exposed to the radioactive cloud that will lead to him shrinking – to self-pitying and then to a diminutive figure fighting living in a matchbox and for resources and survival in the basement. Only when Carey has fulfilled the manly business of surviving and killing and anoints himself triumphant over the universe of the basement is he ready to stop mooching and embrace his fate. The novel makes even more explicit the concurrence between Carey’s increased bitterness as his size diminishes: as Ryan Lamble says: 

“As Carey dwindles in size, so too does sense of power and self-esteem, until he becomes an embittered, deviant character who comes to hate the people he once loved.” 

It’s a vivid metaphor for toxic masculinity that never seems to date.

Wonderfully self-obsessed with its own high-concept, it remarkably takes this to its logical conclusion whilst moving through stages of kitchen sink drama, Atomic Age fear and pseudo-science, metaphysics and body-horror, primal man adventure and monster movie. We have Matheson’s fidelity to his own text to thank here (although the book doesn’t end with “With God, there is no zero”, that punchline is allowable as a concession to a happy ending), but also Jack Arnold’s strong refusal to have a trite ending with something like a serum returning Grant to his original height. 

Carey's transformation is as transcendental and as complete an odyssey as Kubrick’s ‘2001: a space odyssey’, with his established masculinity as a conditional. The closing voice-over speech can be taken as ‘50s cornball pseudo-religious sentimentalism, or evidence of Carey’s delusion and instability of sanity as he shrinks way into … nothing? The infinite? 

* Arrow blu-ray: 'There Is No Zero: Writing The Shrinking Man an in-depth conversation with author Richard Christian Matheson about his father and the creation of the original Shrinking Man novel'.

The Commuter

Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018, France-USA

Poor Liam Neeson: he can’t even get on a train without having to punch his way out.

Jaume Collet-Serra starts vividly enough by rendering Liam’s morning routine in jump-cuts that vary time and moods to give a summary of the everdayness of this family man/insurance salesman/ex-cop (that should come in handy). But Collet-Serra films always have dashes of playfulness such as this temporal trick amidst genre obviousness. At best, this keep things alert and entertaining; elsewhere it means a simple shot down train carriages has to be a trick shot and that it all peaks in a hilariously ridiculous and overblown CGI train crash. But this opening does play on the fact that, despite how big and efficient in a fight he is, there is a vulnerable quality to Neeson, something unassuming that allows him to be relatable and the ridiculous scenarios to spin from an overwhelmed centre.

 So Liam is made redundant but doesn’t have the nerve to tell his wife, and on his way home on the train, Vera Farmiga approaches him. But she’s not looking for a nun (that’s a ‘Conjuring’ reference), but rather someone to complete a task she proposes: find someone that isn’t a regular commuter on the train, tag them with a GPS and walk away with the reward of $100,000. Yes, he’s in a high-concept scenario and it’s soon evident that he’s way in over his head with the malevolent and seemingly mysterious omnipotent manipulators not giving him an inch to get out of it. In fact, so seemingly all-powerful are these puppet-masters, killing people at will and seemingly having foot-soldiers all over the place, that one wonders why they don’t already know who this “Prin” is and why they’re taking so much trouble to frame Liam. But once it’s clear that all this will be solved by punchy action rather than mystery convention, airtight suspense logic isn’t really needed. It's like the good-clueness-man-in-peril Hitchcockian suspenser shoved into a Nineties actioner. 

Indeed, it’s not particularly good but it seems redundant to chastise a film for the very dumbness it’s very self-aware of and playing with. Even the train crash comes on like a kid bashing toys together.  But there’s a side of the film that seems to be trying for a more mature suspense-genre guessing game and tapping into contemporary paranoia that bigger powers and terrorists are all out to get you. But this paranoia is typically taken for granted as a truth in the genre. All it takes is one kick-ass guy to sort it out.

There are faces and names you’ll recognise but they really don’t have much time to mark themselves out; rather they add some semi-prestige as Liam punches his way into greater absurdity, through the implausible conspiracy theory that seems to refute itself as it goes along. You could probably shove this train through the plot holes. It’s the exact same trouble Liam had in ‘Non-Stop’* except, you know, on a train: if I was him, I’d avoid public transport and stay clear of mobile phones.

·         * For a review of ‘Non-Stop’, just change “train” for “plane” in this review.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Silent Running

Douglas Trumbull, 1972, USA

If there was ever a hippy science-fiction, this is it. But although it’s feel is quintessentially Seventies, its ecological message feels more contemporary that ever in an age of Global Warming. 

On a spaceship around Saturn, Lowell (Bruce Dern) and a team of ever-changing colleagues mind the cargo of samples of Earth’s terrain, now that Earth culture itself is apparently totally synthetic. Whilst Dern is thoroughly in love with these nature domes, his colleagues are less impressed, thoroughly immersed in the artificial world they have left behind. To them it’s a job; to him it’s a cause. The catalyst for this is when they are ordered to destroy the domes so that ship can be returned for more commercial use. Dern finds himself taking drastic action to preserve the last vestige of an Earth he doesn’t really care to return to.

Trumbull’s spaceship effects are exemplary, as you would expect from he who worked on ‘2001: a space odyssey’, and worth the price of admission alone. The model work is  The shot of the spaceship against the rings of Saturn is gorgeous. This is the kind of sci-fi that looks lived in, where the hardware is dirty and scuffed and all the more working class for it. The film starts with pretty pictures of plants and wildlife before revealing its all on a spaceship. Characterisation is straightforward: we know his colleagues are wrong’uns and probably doomed by the way they recklessly speed their buggies around inconsiderately. Dern kills his colleagues – more from the desperation of the moment than premeditated – and thinks he can survive alone on the space station with Huey. Dewy and Louie the maintenance robots. But humans are predominantly social and nature turns out to just simply not be enough. Then, if there’s any doubt of the film’s hippy-leanings, Joan Baez sings about children running free.  

But it's mostly Dern's one-man show, and he does a fine job of articulating the regret beneath the fortitude. Mostly, it’s Dern’s relationship with the pet-like robots which he and we anthropomorphise that give the emotional charge. "Amazing companions on an incredible adventure" the poster blurb says. They are diminutive and just this side of cutesy, falling just short of R2D2 twittering – although at one point one nudges the other when the human is approaching. Even so, he can’t quite make them human enough; after all, they don’t talk. As a kid, I used to cry at the eventual perpetual oblivious solitude of the robot at the end. Its sentiment is on its sleeve and powered by emotion and human failing rather than swamping man with metaphysics and his smallness in the scheme of things; indeed, Trumbull apparently made this as reaction to Kubrick’s ‘2001’. It’s probably this sentiment that leads Mark Kermode to say it’s superior to ‘2001’, as that is more his taste. It certainly means this is a less questioning work when the answers are so clearly evident: nature good; business bad; robots cute; boorishness bad; anthropomorphising good; etc. But it is more morally complex than that – as John Kenneth Muir details - as Lowell cannot reconcile his actions with his morality and humanity. 

“Silent Running asks viewers to countenance a man who wants to save the last forest of Earth, and does, but pays too a high a personal and moral price to achieve that noble end.” 

(But more than that, I wonder how it takes Lowell, as an ecologist, so long to realise that sunlight might be important to the growth of the forest. After all, the ultraviolet lights are right there.)

Nevertheless, that its agenda is so emotionally transparent and achieves its effect with a little anthropomorphising blunts its edge and – as a retort to ‘2001’ – leaves mankind foolhardy, desperate and emotionally fallible. In that sense, it's more of the Ray Bradbury strain of sci-fi. As a comparison, ‘2001’ is the more optimistic vision – one of transcendence – and ‘Silent Running’ as a riposte is left wanting by reducing humanity to self-destruction. Nevertheless, as a science-fiction vision and cautionary tale about man’s casual indifference to nature, it’s vivid and highly enjoyable and earns its place as a Seventies genre classic.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

I Was Born, but...

 大人の見る絵本 生れてはみたけれど Otona no miru ehon -
Umarete wa mita keredo "An Adult's Picture Book View — I Was Born, But...”

Yasujirō Ozu, 1932, b/w, Japan

One of the great things about Ozu is that he proves the failing of much cinematic and soap opera drama in that their tendency is to always, always fall into melodrama. The quietness of Ozu’s dramas may look as if nothing much is happening, but a relatively still surface does not mean it is untroubled beneath. Hierarchy and manners and social mores barely seem to keep frustrations and anxieties and unfairness at bay, but time and again Ozu’s characters rely upon those traditions to hold things together and to bare compromise.    

Ozu’s silent masterpiece “I Was Born, But....” starts off as a kind of Japanese “Our Gang” frolic but ultimately shifts into something far more resonant and troubling. It is troubling in its outlining out of the hierarchies of society that allow for bullying, humiliation and the compromise of character. Even in the more slapstick and amusing first half, this is already being sketched out in the tale of two young brothers dealing with bullies when they move to a new town. Although not exactly the timid sort, the brothers avoid school to avoid the bullies until they employ the services of a bigger bully – the local delivery boy – and mercilessly move into the role of gang leaders. It’s all about power games. 

The coming-of-age story takes a darker turn when the brothers attend a home-movie screening in which their father – a mild and fair man – is seen goofing around, seemingly to gain favour of his boss. The boys are humiliated and furious and confront their father with accusations of being a loser and unworthy. If you would ever think a verbal confrontation to lack power when conveyed by inter-titles, “I Was Born, but...” is probably the film to prove you wrong, for so fluid and engrossing is Ozu’s set-up and flow that the seriousness of the argument and the clash of generations is indeed distressing. Father turns to sake and the boys put on a hunger-strike. There is no harmonious ending here, not even a true acknowledged truce, just recognition of human weakness that lasts a lifetime and shapes character. And life goes on.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Conjuring 2

James Wan, 2016, Canada-USA

Oh, surely full of the kind of stuff that a horror audience usually both laughs at and with: although not really marred by bad acting, it has bad dialogue and an over-earnestness that only amplifies the condescension of the conceit that this is a “true story”. Oh, it’s bad with a lack of focus because it’s so busy squeezing out a franchise. The popularity of the extending empires of James Wan’s ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ is probably down to the most obvious mainstreaming of horror slickly reduced to the noise/jump scares: not that horror fans don’t like them too, but they also act like your unhip uncle’s idea of “scareee” and “spookeeee”. They don’t care for depth, just noise/jump-scares that are supposed to sate that most superficial and perpetual horror qualification of “Was it scary?” Now, there is nothing wrong with just being a vehicle of dispensing horror vignettes – the recent ‘Terrified’ and ‘The Grudge’ series does that nicely – but for any artistry Wan has, there is something phoney at work here. 

‘The Conjuring 2’ feels like his laziest yet, not really providing a truly distinctive scare or surprising set-up and frequently veering into unintentional comedy. The use of “I Started a Joke” to accompany the emotional moment when the girl is found falsifying the possession is hilarious – and then it rains for some pathetic fallacy; but I laughed out loud from the first chunk of dialogue when Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is conducting a séance in Amityville (!) and tells those around the table, “Envision yourself in a halo of glowing white light. It will protect you.” It’s too professional to be in ‘Troll 2’ territory but it’s wading in the same shallow waters. But then again ‘Troll 2’ was sincerely intended, not realising how deliriously stupid and delightfully inept it was being*; ‘The Conjuring’ franchise by contrast is deeply cynical, peddling noise scares as fear and the “True Story” as some badge of validation, ransacking the grift of a couple of con artists for material.

It cares not for the truth: if it did, “Annabelle” would be a seemingly innocuous rag doll and the original “demon” Valek plaguing the Hodgsons wouldn’t have been swapped for the more franchise-friendly Nun; not that Valek was “the truth”, but just that his replacement by the Nun shows how fast and loose this will play with the source. And it also shoe-horns in The Crooked Man. The thing with ‘The Exorcist’ however silly it may be (and silliness is a general genre ingredient), there is no doubt that it absolutely and vividly believes in itself and so the silliness doesn’t matter; it doesn’t register because it’s too busy being unnerving. But yes, streaming trivia pop-up does say this is "loosely based" on the Warren's Enfield investigation and it's probably redundant to expect credibility. ‘The Conjuring 2’ is so starkly a shrug at the lowest common demands of horror tricks it has the conviction of someone jumping from a closet shouting “Boo!” and then getting all unconvincingly serious and earnest about the motivation.

With ‘The Conjuring’, there was at least no doubt that James Wan could stage and frame a scare, but aside from a prolonged Nun sequence in this sequel, this just feels indifferent and baggy. It’s unnecessarily over two hours long, which I guess allows for the inclusion of Patrick Wilson’s Elvis impersonation and gives him time to knock up a painting of The Nun (!) (“Hey, I know I’m no Picasso but I didn’t think it was that bad.”). It also allows a brief trip to Amityville at the start, but despite a pleasing reveal of the iconic Amityville windows (which can be seen as a nice nod to horror aficionados) it appears that that “true story” was just another set-up for The Nun.

In Enfield, Wan seems to have no idea that the cramped interiors of an English house would allow for all kinds of memorable claustrophobia and cramped cold corners: instead, we get a house with the most unconvincing interior; it’s too big and no poor family on their last pennies would not have such a place (and the “Trivia” pop up when streaming points out that the spooky chair’s corner changes size repeatedly). What’s amusing is that the film closes with a series of pictures of the real Enfield haunting and Hodgsons which imply the actual cramped conditions. And what about that seemingly permanently flooded basement? …and why don’t they just get rid of the apparently possessed chair? I’m sure the Warrens could have found space for it in their lounge.

And it’s a shame because Wan has proven he can set-up trashy scares (even if he then hammers the point home) and the cast of kids all seem to be acting with a great conviction even as the dialogue lets them down. It’s bright and glossy enough, but it’s unconvincing and has that unintentional comedy in that special way that horror can provide.  

·        See Michael Stephenson’s ‘Best Worst Movie’ on the making of ‘Troll 2’.