Sunday, 26 September 2021

The Fog


The Fog


John Carpenter

1980, US  

Writers - John Carpenter & Debra Hill

Stars - Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh


Many decades ago, I had a friend who wasn’t into horror, and the genre baffled him and made him afeared by its very reputation (every horror fan has a friend like that), but he was willing to try one out to see what the fuss was all about. You know: “Scare me." So I recommended John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, because that had always scared the jumping beans out of me as a youth. But he just thought it was silly. Even as a late teen, I knew there was a relationship between horror and the absurd that I knew some couldn’t take seriously at all, but I knew ‘The Fog’ would always be a favourite cinematic ghost story of mine.


I hadn’t seen it in a decade at least, although I had seen enough times as a youth already to know all the beats. Even so, it still made me jump twice, much to my surprise (I had forgotten a couple of jolts). It still worked. I was drawn to buy the restoration blu-ray because I knew it would look beautiful when all spruced up. Those coastline shots and the fog rolling in are forever imprinted in my mind.


Early Carpenter is the exemplar of stripped-down genre, even to, and especially because of, the unforgettable economic scores. Carpenter synth score homages are rife throughout the genre right now. It’s contemporary genre filmmakers paying homage to and trying to recreate the genre thrills of their childhood. ‘The Fog’ seems to be the underdog of Carpenter’s early streak, but all the stylistic treats that distinguished him for me as a young audience are all here. The use of widescreen and empty space, the notable framing, the scares, the score, etc. Even the slow pan from Adrienne Barbeau getting out of her car and going to walk down the long steps to the lighthouse felt distinctively Carpenteresque, the way it’s deliberately paced and all-encompassing. It occurs to me that Carpenter was, after Sergio Leone, the second time I was aware of a director’s style, that there was a person’s intent behind how the film looked, acted and sounded; that he was a brand, if you will.


Watching it again after so long, I am struck again by the streamlining of both aesthetic and narrative. Having just seen Jamie Lee Curtis in ‘Terror Train’, it is obvious how her natural intelligence and warmth bring to life and down-to-earth potentially shallow characters, and no wonder she was/is a favourite. The film is notable for its concentration on the female leads (in fact, the men are mostly secondary). It's an ensemble piece in which some characters don't meet one another: it's about scaring scattered characters, going someway to showing the fog's scope.

How bold to have one of its great set pieces where the town goes crazy at midnight run through ominously under the credits. And, of course, there the iconic campfire opening. “Just one more story… before midnight…” (snap!). Perhaps it’s just a scrapbook of various creepy happenings, but each set-piece is memorable.



The ghostly knocks on doors are the immortal scares of timeless classics (not least ‘The Monkey’s Paw’). A washed-up coin found on the beach becomes a plank of wood; a wall explodes to reveal a hidden journal: the randomness of supernatural threats where anything is possible. Barbeau trapped on top of the lighthouse, the blade clanking over the edge of the ladder, is still frightening. But all of this infused with a definite Seventies nastiness: the eye puncturing.


And it’s this last edge that stops it falling totally into old school regal Gothic. And if there’s anything new, its perhaps it this meshing of old and new genre sensibilities: a ghost story told in a contemporary, slasher style. But this might be absorbed as reductive for some. As Alan Jones writes, “Carpenter also relies heavily on cheap scare tactics (supernatural mists and people jumping out of the dark) rather than subtle suspense, but some sequences do turn the tension dial up quite high.”, and in this way it’s a precursor towards the James Wan school of horror. But Carpenter never condescends and this may well be the most “unpretentious” film of his early career, being just a fun ride of a homicidal ghost story.


Of course, beneath it all is the sordid tale of American past, bound up by religion and greed in the gold cross. The town happily whitewashes its wretched beginnings and consigns it to spook stories for kids.


‘The Fog’ remains highly enjoyable and still capable of scaring in that old fireside manner.


And we’ll forget the remake.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

FrightFest online #5: 'Dementer', 'As In Heaven, So On Earth', 'Ultrasound', 'Night Drive', 'Hotel Poseidon'



Writer & Director - Chad Crawford Kinkle

Stars - Katie Groshong, Brandy Edmiston, Larry Fessenden

USA, 2020


A prime example of how the verisimilitude of low-budget hand-held aesthetic can enhance the uncanny of the horror genre (so this is what a horror film would feel like in the real world?). With the documentary feel of Katie’s starting work at a care home constantly interrupted by the flashbacks to a horror film and the prevalence of a soundtrack that always reminds you of a perpetual sinister presence and manipulations. Great naturalistic performances – Katie Groshong is great – exceptional sound-design, a plot that you can untangle afterwards makes this haunting and quite bold.


“Director Chad Crawford Kinkle built the film around his sister Stephanie, who has Down Syndrome and stars as one of the film's leads”, says IMDB trivia, and certainly the film thrives with respect  for its subjects even as it bubbles and then overflows with genre.


As In Heaven, So On Earth

Come in cielo, così in terra


Writer & Director – Francesco Erba

With: Eva Basteiro-Bertoli, Ania Rizzi Bogdan, Federico Cesari, Philippe Guastella, Margherita Mannino

Italy, 2020


Combining found footage, animation, interviews, police procedural, gothic mystery, medieval outrages, religious conspiracies … ghosts? Hitmen? Director/writer Erba throws everything in and perhaps bites off more than can be chewed, but it certainly doesn’t lack for ambition and makes for a fascinating curio. The animated puppet Medieval sequences, which take up nearly half of the film (the film took 5 years to complete) are sublime, and the found-footage hand-held perspectives also hit heights. It almost feels like a portmanteau. Although sprawling and verging on the incomprehensible at times, there are perhaps tonal hiccups and perhaps clear answers come a little later than the viewer wants, there are enough jigsaw pieces that slot together and enough ambiguity that remains to fully satisfy. Erbo’s conviction in telling a quite prosaic tale with myriad styles certainly distinguishes this.





Director - Rob Schroeder

Writer - Conor Stechschulte

Stars - Vincent Kartheiser, Chelsea Lopez, Breeda Wool

USA, 2021


Definitely one of those films that is best going into knowing nothing,


It starts off like one of those ‘The Gift’ (2015) or ‘Pacific Heights’ scenarios, that kind of thing. A guy (a brilliantly brow-beaten Vincent Kartheiser) seeking help when his car blows a tyre is welcomed by an odd couple… I really had to go to the bathroom at an early point (at home: this was digital) and when I came back it had turned into a different film. Unpredictable and always pulling the rug from under the viewer, it has elements of indie people drama, science-fiction and even conspiracy thriller. It’s a delight to just go along for the ride when you know you will only work it out on a second watch, and even then some points are up for grabs. It could easily lose the threads and become baffling, but Stechschulte’s adaptation of his own graphic novel and Schroeder’s intelligent direction keep the viewer on their toes without losing coherence. Tricky, smart, multi-layered.



Night Drive

Directors -Brad Baruh & Meghan Leon

Writer – Meghan Leon

Stars- AJ Bowen, Sophie Dalah


A ride share driver picks up a wild card young woman and a night of increasing craziness ensues. And for the most part, that’s what you think you’re getting, agreeably, with brilliant performances and interplay between Bowen and Dalah. And then, just when you think you have it figured, things take a left turn and all of a sudden, her obnoxiousness takes on new layers and events take on new shades. Darkly humorous, slick and playful, but one you have to stick with.



Hotel Poseidon


Writer & Director - Stefan Lernous

Stars – Tom Vermeir, Ruth Becquart, Anneke Sluiters

Belgium, 2021


This disgusting hotel is full of the deadpan, surrealism and black humour that typifies Roy Andersson, Aki Kaurismaki, Terry Gilliam, Jarmusch without the humour, and something like a Quay bros digression brough to life. Dave plays manager to the dead hotel which is getting a renovation into some kind of failed Lynchian club. It’s the set design, the details, the offbeat dialogue which, the increasingly nightmarish characters and aesthetic that holds the attention rather than a story. This is Dave’s descent into existential hell: everyone else seems to be having a decent time but him. This is a film of the horror of decay and disgust. It’s the sets and the phantasmagorial tricks Lernous pulls to convey Dave’s plotless dilemma that enthrals.

FrightFest online day #4: 'Boy #5', 'Claw', 'Gaia', 'When the Screaming Starts' & 'Shadow of the Cat'

Boy #5


Writer & Director - Eric Steele

Stars - Tosca BellLaura Montgomery BennettBrian Dunne

2021, UK


A traumatised social worker is assigned a boy who believes himself to be a vampire. He’s a sad sack vampire that brings out her maternal delusions. The low budget is forgivable, and the mutation is great, but there’s a fundamentally unconvincing quality that it can’t overcome.





Director- Gerald Rascionato

Writers - Gerald Rascionato & Joel Hogan

Stars - Chynna Walker, Richard Rennie & Mel Mede

USA, 2021


Raptor in a ghost town. This is one of those agreeably light-natured monster flicks where the writing transcends any budgetary constraints. The three lead performances and characters are convincing, likeable and above average; and even the CGI, augmented with model-work, is mostly convincing. The “one year later” overbalances things, but there’s enough goodwill here to make this an undemanding winner.




Director - Jaco Bouwer

Writer - Tertius Kapp

Stars - Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk


After a clumsy set-up to get or protagonist where she’s going – “Hey, a strange man just smashed my drone. I’m just going deep into the forest to get it back.” – forest Ranger Gabi (Rockson) ends up in the care of two survivalists when she is injured. What follows is a mixture of the body- and eco-horrors. And the terrors of fanaticism. It mixes criticism of the technological world, but also of unmoored home-made faiths against the creepiness and aggression of nature. However, its ambiguities trend towards garbled rather than abstract, so it’s intent and sense of striking visuals are what resonate the most.


When the Screaming Starts


Director - Conor Boru

Writers - Conor Boru & Ed Hartland

UK, 2021


Norman just wants to make a documentary about the growth of a serial killer, from aspiration to legend. But Aidan is somewhat a hapless subject, in love with idea of murder-as-fame but not quite killer material. Luckily he and his murder-obsessed girlfriend have the plan to start a cult, a’la Charles Manson (but without the racism). It’s a mockumentary style that owes a lot to ‘The Office’ and so on, but doesn’t convince as a documentary mock-up at all – editing, multiple angles, etc. – but this doesn’t matter so much as there are several good jokes and good ensemble acting (“We’re going to start a family!”; or the game where they have to eliminate candidates for serial killers on gender and race; and although Katherine Bennett-Fox dominates as the real deal, I had a soft spot for Ysen Atour as Jack whose cheeky-chappy London fishmonger exterior hides a repulsive murderer). Although it doesn’t quite say anything deep about the perversity of murder-as-fame, it covers most bases – the losers looking for agency; those looking just for the pose; the oddballs; the truly psychotic – and is always entertaining.


Shadow of the Cat

La Sombra Del Gato

Director - José María Cicala

With – Danny Trejo, Peter O'Brien, Mónica Antonópulos, Clara Kovacic, Guillermo Zapata.

Argentina 202


Starts out with the heightened reality typical of many bildungsroman with young Emma skipping everywhere around her family’s isolated farm and greeting everything with a perpetual smile of the joys of the quirks of her life. Very quickly, it’s obvious ‘Shadow of the Cat’ is going to be visually rich and full of tricks. Then Emma runs away to find the truth about her mother and straight into the clutches of a sect, whereupon we are more into horror-fantasy, the kind popularised more by Guillermo del Toro. It speeds along and its giddy nature is always in danger of incoherence, but it’s pretty, lively and its strangeness and carnivalesque essence are vibrant and entertaining.

Saturday, 4 September 2021

FrightFest Online night #3: 'Dawn Breaks Behind he Eyes' & 'Sweetie, You Won't Believe It'

 Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes

Director -Kevin Kopacka

Writers - Kevin Kopacka & Lili Villányi

Stars - Anna Platen, Jeff Wilbusch, Frederik von Lüttichau

2021, Germany

And here’s the giallo one. Expert recreations of the subgenre are the norm now, and Kopacka’s film is no slouch. The title font is a dead giveaway that this will be a pastiche of retro-styles; both story and cinematic nature will be period pieces. There is great set design and plenty of atmosphere as a couple come to the castle she’s inherited and weirdness ensues. He’s a dick, barely capable of speaking without negativity or condescension; she’s a bit of a selfish ice maiden. And then there’s a sharp turn into a shock-scene and meta. A ghost story? A disturbed tale of a couple? The difference to old giallo to recent neo-giallo is that the latter is more playful where the former can often feels like cut-and-paste held together by great aesthetic: ‘Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes’ goes all kind of places, fakes out this way, piles on layers and gothic restlessness, and probably demands more than one watch to work out. It's almost like a melding of 'Knife + Heart' and the work of Cattet and Foranzi. There’s plenty to delve into here.

Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It

Zhanym, ty ne poverish

Director - Yernar Nurgaliyev

Writers - Zhandos Aibassov, Yernar Nurgaliyev & Daniyar Soltanbayev

Stars - Daniar Alshinov, Yerkebulan Daiyrov & Asel Kaliyeva

Kazakhstan, 2020

To get away from his harridan, pregnant wife, Dastan hastily takes a fishing trip with his two friends at the same time bumbling gangsters who have upset a one-eyed super-killer are out putting the pressure on a victim. And that’s not quite everything. It’s a very blokey-bro affair, with the main dynamics being the squabbling and bonding of the male groups, but the fun is in the piling on of elements and spiralling out of control. The humour is broad but mostly hits (there is always a loss of nuance from verbal gags with subtitles, of course) but there is plenty of energy, slapstick, absurdity and gore to keep this funny and entertaining, and the guilelessness of the main characters negates any real mean-spiritedness. It's crowd-pleasing aspirations are worn clearly on its sleeve and it certainly does that.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

FrightFest online 2021 - night #2: 'Broadcast Signal Intrusion' & 'Coming Home in the Dark'


Broadcast Signal Intrusion


Director - Jacob Gentry

Writers - Phil Drinkwater & Tim Woodall

Stars: Harry Shum Jr., Kelley Mack, Anthony E. Cabral

2021, USA


In the late nineties, a loner video archivist still grieving over the loss of his wife stumbles upon infamous pirate broadcasts, becoming obsessed. Harry Shum Jr makes for an untypical and engaging protagonist, guiding us through every frame and Gentry provides great aptitude and directorial flourish in keeping lively what could have been a more static premise. By always searching for an active approach to scenes, by never quite being obvious, Gentry conveys the increasingly panicky and desperate mindset of it flailing protagonist. Oh, and Ben Lovett's laid back score is a treat, namechecking the beloved conspiracy movies that came after Nixon, etc.

It’s a fascinating film less concerned with resolving than portraying how conspiracy theorists are never satisfied, using their obsession to fill deeper needs and losses. Increasingly, everything becomes ominous; ambiguity is the word until it’s never quite certain what’s a red herring. Maybe a second watch will help or maybe it will just deepen the mystery: this is the horror of never quite knowing, of no closure, of the human condition. But there is something to disturb in a more traditional sense: the broadcasts themselves are unnerving, the stuff of nightmares as creepy masks and distorted playback tend to be.


Coming Home in the Dark


Director - James Ashcroft

Writers –  James Ashcroft & Eli Kent, (Based on the short story by) Owen Marshall

Stars - Daniel Gillies, Erik Thomson, Miriama McDowell

2021, New Zealand


Sometimes, it’s just a pleasure to have a less playful, more straightforward horror, the aim of which is just to upset and horrify. There is nothing new in ‘Coming Home in the Dark’, but it does take it’s time to reveal its full aim. As soon as a couple of men wander sinisterly into an idyllic family picnic in a New Zealand vista, you know what’s coming. But the cat-and-mouse and mind games here are superior to most, due to a canny script and excellent, non-hammy playing by Daniel Gilles. Superior performances all round and the film makes sure it keeps playing its cards right to the end, not necessarily explaining everything. It never quite overbalances itself and therefore stays upsetting to the very end. A beautifully filmed and haunting thriller.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Frightfest Online 2021: 'The Show' and 'Crabs!'

This odd year, where horror fans were surely more psychologically prepared for a pandemic than most, FrightFest chose to go ahead with the physical event.

However, I opted for the online section of FrightFest taking place this week after the usual weekend event. Work by day: films by night.

The Show

Director - Mitch Jenkins

Writer - Alan Moore

UK  2020


‘The Show’ plunges straight into an apparent private detective trying to unravel a mystery of a death, and also in pursuit of a stolen cross; but its true magic-realist nature is revealed when he goes to other detectives that turn out to be kids living a film noir out of their garden playhouse like something from ‘Just Ask for Diamond’. You just know there’s going to be a zany dream with a courtroom trial featuring clowns, as typical of this kind of thing and there is. Full of that achingly self-consciousness English whacky-weirdness where you can feel the dialogue being written even as its said, despite some good lines, so the kaleidoscopic, burlesque nature never quite gels. Although Tom Burke casts a stablising saunter through bizarre characters and mountains of exposition, he is surrounded by variable acting from those that know the notes to hit to those that chew scenery to the bad. And it has moments that arguably flirts with homophobia and tiresome geezer gangster villainy. The carnival nature increasingly mitigates interest and … wait: it’s written by Alan Moore? Well, it runs like the debut of a first-time writer trying way too hard rather than from the pen of a master writer that helped set the context for comics being seen more than a kids’ medium. Who’d have thought?




Writer & Director - Pierce Berolzheimer

2021, US


A creature-feature that more resembles stupid ‘80s teen improbable sci-fi comedies like ‘Weird Science’ rather than fun low-budgeters like ‘Critters’. The main players play it straight whilst the jokey stuff wants to be ‘Gremlins’ (DJing crabs anyone?) whilst heading for Kaiju action. Whether you go with the pointless stupid of course depends upon taste, and whereas a film like 'Dead Sushi' runs out of steam long before the end and a film like 'Cyst' gets it right, 'Crabs!' bid for genuine emotional resonance instead of gags always seems misplaced in such silliness. And there’s no getting around Radu, the single worst and insulting (offensive?) and unfunny character that I have seen in a long time.




Wednesday, 18 August 2021

BIG MONSTERS IN: 'The Suicide Squad', 'Gamera the Brave' & 'Superman: Man of Tomorrow'



The Suicide Squad

Writer & Director: James Gunn

2021, USA-Canada-UK


Superman: Man of Tomorrow

Chris Palmer, 2020, USA

Writer: Tim Sheridan


Gamera the Brave

Chiisaki yûsha-tachi: Gamera

Ryuta Tasaki, 2005, Japan

Writer: Yukari Tatsui


Coming out of ‘The Suicide Squad’, my friend wondered if they had just chosen the stupidest monster they could think of. I had to explain that Starro the Conqueror had a long history in the DC Universe (since 1960). In fact, he was the adversary in the first comic I bought myself from a spinner rack during a caravan holiday: he was fighting The Justic League. I was familiar with comics because I had been reading the ‘Star Wars’ weekly comic, and then monthly, since the film came out when I was seven, so I was aware of Star Lord, The Watcher, Micronauts, Deathlok, Adam Warlock, etc. I mean, I knew ‘Whizzer & Chips’ and all that aimed specifically at kids, but it was ‘Star Wars’ and the support stories that burnt into my mind. I even have a soft spot for the alien attack story in ‘V/H/S/2’ because it reminded me of how unsettled I was by the origin of Peter Quill/Star Lord when the aliens blasted away his parents.  But when I just happened to pick up a comic from the spinner rack, which was my first true Superhero comic as a kid, it was a revelation. The apocalyptic nature of that story unsettled and blew my mind and, if I hadn’t been hooked on comics through ‘Star Wars’, I certainly was from then on.

But yeh, I did wonder why Starro for ‘The Suicide Squad’. But then I also read somewhere that James Gunn – charged with making Suicide Squad cool and saleable after the first botched attempt – felt that Polkadot Man was the most ridiculous DC villain, and then it made more sense: he was going for the naff, ridiculous villains too; for laughs, for the ridiculousness, because they were more expendable. The ones that the main franchises wouldn’t touch Not Harley Quinn of course, but…

‘The Suicide Squad’ starts dark and dangerously enough with Michael Rooker as Savant, leading us into a suicide squad of dodgy comic book villains (hey, I recognise Captain Boomerang!) that are going to be infiltrating an enemy island – but the joke is that they are just the distraction while the real squad is landing elsewhere. There’s a decent vein of dark humour from the start – detachable arms is probably the first big laugh – and the promise of something nasty, which the film delivers on a hit-and-miss basis. The initial competitiveness between Bloodsport (Idris Elba giving a textured performance of self-loathing which provides a lot of ballast) and Peacemaker (John Cena finding the conflicted humanity of a delusional scumbag) decimating what they think are the enemy but in fact are rebels is a typical delivery of black humour with a very sour punchline, for example. And then you have King Shark swallowing people whole, which the film doesn’t hold back from: voiced by Sylvester Stallone may make this a gag, but again the film insists on giving even King Shark pathos and a little misunderstood monster dimension. And of course, there’s Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn which, you know: she’s good. I like little highlights like Harley unlocking her shackles with her toes, showing how she’s formidable as she is unpredictable.

There’s a lot of good stuff here, a few surprises, a considerable cast that sells two-bit, two-dimensional characters, but for some reason there seems to be a magic ingredient missing. It’s too long where it should have benefitted from being snappier, for a start. When we get to Starro, it’s maybe a chapter too long. There just doesn’t quite seem to be the zing of Gunn’s ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’. He ought to be the guy able to elevate the underdog super-characters, but here the moments and incidentals are greater than the whole. But Rob Hunter’s conclusion that “‘The Suicide Squad’ is a Brilliantly Stupid Blast of Big Laughs and Bloody Chaos” also has a lot to it. It’s always diverting and I currently believe that, when expectations won’t interfere with the article at hand, I will certainly enjoy a second watch more, that I am likely to go with Hunter’s conclusion.

Starro has a mistreated monster aspect: he was taken from his normal astral habitat, brought to earth, incarcerated and experimented on. And when he fights back, the American forces accountable decide to bunk from responsibility and leave the natives to their fate. There’s plenty of barbs at the delusion and sheer inhumanity of political plotting here, not least in Peacemaker saying he doesn’t care how many men women and children he has to kill to achieve “peace”. It’s played as a gag, but it points at the wider plotting Amanda Waller leads in the schemes to use and sacrifice The Suicide Squad. It’s the political players that are worse villains than our proletariat villains. This is only reinforced as the film can’t quite avoid the idea that inside every bad guy there’s a good guy just trying to get out. A film of outright villainy will probably be as divisive as ‘I Care a Lot’, so here are a bunch of anti-heroes. Starro’s defeat is agreeably nasty and accents teamwork; and the other memorable moment comes when lots of mini-Starros swarm from the alien’s “armpit”.

But somehow, Starro the CGI creation is less fun than the last act of Kaiku mayhem in the animated ‘Superman: man of tomorrow’. This enlivens a sober if somewhat over-familiar origin story. The parasitic alien comes to Earth via one of crude anarchic bounty-hunter Lobo’s weapons: it possesses an unwitting victim and – with genuine horror edges – feeds on people and grows and grows. It’s big and pink and seems to nod at the Emmerich’s 1998 ‘Godzilla’ design. This is where comics and live-action may conflict: a gargantuan pink Godzilla and alien starfish may work on paper but may be a stretch too far for those not committed gleeful comic book absurdities, colour codes and suspension-of-belief. CGI makes anything and everything possible, but when it runs wild you get vapid ‘Aquaman’; at its overloaded best you get ‘Avengers: Infinity War’; with more focus you get the trippy ‘Dr. Strange’ set pieces that look like Jack Kirby panels come to life. It’s true that, for whatever reason, the animation of Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse’ will always feel more impressive and convincing than Starro’s rampage, although I have no doubt that it required just as much work and devotion by its architects.  It also helps that animation like ‘Superman: man of tomorrow’ feels decidedly cinematic: the shots of Parasite are designed and framed to accentuate its size and awesomeness. Also, the smartness and seriousness of intent, it’s horror and kaiju edges raised this DC animated feature above the perfunctory.

But, you see, Starro itself wasn’t quite as entertaining as the genuine fun of the kiddie kaiju, ‘Gamera the Brave’ either. So, the heritage of this film is the ‘Son of Godzilla’ lineage, but the “Monsters: Fight!” while stupid humans play geek chorus agenda was pretty much a given with the franchise by that point, far from any Atomic horror messages the seminal original may have had. But as far as A Boy And His Kaiju tales go, this kid is less annoying and cloying than many in this franchise. There’s also a fine eye on display by director Ryuta Tasaki – he monsters on the bridge, for example. But what really pleases, and what really matters, is that there are some considerably enjoyable effects. There’s no hope for Gamera – who is, after all, a flying turtle, although better looking that, say, ‘Gamera vs Viras’ (1968) – but his nemesis Zedus has an excellent monster suit, and watching them go at it and ploughing through miniatures is great fun. It’s augmented with CGI, but this is real monster suit and model work stuff, still rooted in the analogue, and for that it’s endearing. Of course, it is steers full throttle into mawkishness, but it is a decent enough, undemanding kid’s film. But it is probably a bit much when it hinges an emotional moment on a turtle butt sticking out of a skyscraper.

And I guess that’s the thing that CGI doesn’t possess. It doesn’t possess the call to goodwill where the audience is happy to make allowances for the shortcomings, in a way that is part of the charm. Perhaps that goodwill is sorely tested by, say, something like the giant plant-alien of ‘Dr Who and the Seeds of Doom’, but the sheer foolhardy ambition of Dr Who’s attempt is part of its entertainment. But I have never felt the inclination to give allowances to CGI in the same way I would Godzilla. Indeed, when we progress into the later instalments, I am often left enjoying just how good the suits are.

Now, there is no way ‘Gamera the Brave’ is better than ‘The Suicide Squad’, but just to say that Starro is less compelling that the practical designs of Zedus, and its absurdity less enjoyable than the animated Parasite. Perhaps its that CGI hues even closer to photo-realism and that we tend to reject the uncanny valley more in live-action films. Is Starro a bit too... goofy? But I never thought I would get to see something like a realist Starro on a rampage in a film when I first picked up that ‘Justice League of America #189’ comic off the spinner rack. So, you know: you kids don’t know how spoilt you are.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

The Man Who Laughs


Paul Leni

1926, US

Writing Credits 

Victor Hugo (novel)

J. Grubb Alexander (adaptation)

Walter Anthony (titles)

May McLean, Marion Ward & Charles E. Whittaker (uncredited)

Paul Leni's film has the appearance of horror but it’s actually melodrama, much like the eponymous Gwynplaine. There’s a classic Gothic set-up: a nobleman is put to death by King James II, but not before the king has sold the condemned man’s son to the Comprachichos, who subject the child to surgery that contorts his mouth into a perpetual rictus grin. And no matter how much melodrama predominates, that visage is a pure horror staple. And yes, it is the inspiration for The Joker and surely ‘Mr Sardonicus’; mouth scarring even features in the 2020 adaption of ‘The Witches’. It’s a variation on Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’: a misunderstood social “monster” period piece.

The pathos and sentiment overwhelm the logic: the crowds suddenly claim Gwynplaine as their own when the whole problem and his complex stems from their constant laughing at him? They suddenly saw the error of their mockery? It also muffles Hugo’s critique of privilege somewhat. Here, political edges are mostly subsumed by the Gwynplaine Against The World angle and his tragedy rather than evoking any true engagement with the class issues. Then it launches into swashbuckling to resolve matters.

 And as Robin Bailes says, in Dark Corners’ thoroughly compelling and informative review of the film:

“On Paper, Gwynplaine is unsympathetic, Dea is uninteresting, and the story follows two people who have no obstacles to overcome expect those that they create for themselves.”

Well, that does sound true-to-life, but the point is made: this shouldn’t quite work for a Romantic melodrama of his nature.  But it is Leni’s direction and the visuals that engross, and it’s those that transcend any discrepancies. For example, the intertitles may be coy, but the camera makes it obvious that lust for the wayward Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) is the motivation for Gwynplaine’s lapse in romantic commitment to Dea (Mary Philbin), as Josiana lies on the bed pre-code seductively. The early childhood scenes in a freezing desolate landscape, marked by corpses hanging and frozen to death, are a highlight (and clearly manifesting young Gwynplaine’s predicament). Later, we’ll get an early Ferris Wheel at the fair. The budget certainly looks on screen.

These silent genre milestones are frequently awe-inspiring for their sets and crowd scenes if weak on the story - 'Metropolis' dazzles in its crowd scenes; 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' for its impressionism and angles; 'The Golem' for these too - and 'The Man Who Laughs' doesn't lack in these strengths. It’s a delightful curio as much as anything: you’ll come for the smile, stay for the Silent Movie romanticism and awe-inspiring set design, be slightly baffled at the pot pourrie of ingredients that somehow work.  It’s that smile and the visuals that stake its legend as a silent classic.