Monday, 19 April 2021

'Black Test Car' and 'The Black Report'


 Black Test Car

黒の試走車 – Kuro no tesuto kâ

Director: Yasuzô Masumura

Writers: Kazuo Funahashi, Yoshihiro Ishimatsu

Novel: Sueyuki Kajiyama

1962, Japan

‘Black Test Car’ looks like Sixties New Wave shaded by Film Noir, and it certainly uses this look and urgency to dress up its tale of industrial espionage as a spy thriller. Two companies engage in dirty tricks – blackmail, bribery, bullying, pimping, spying, etc – to beat the other to the punch in developing a sports car. But of course, it’s much deeper than that. The fanatical company loyalty is akin to blind patriotism, and indeed there are CEOs with military backgrounds and the whole rivalry is played out like a warzone where ethics are seen as naïveté. And of course, this is conflated with capitalism. Jonathan Rosenbaum speaks of how Masumura portrayed this as a madness.*

JapanonFilm equates Asahino’s closing moral speechifying as typical of this genre of drama, condemning their tactics as concomitant with gangsterism, but also in a specifically Japanese context. 

“But he adds the unexpected twist of comparing the company to the Army and telling his boss he might as well “put on khaki.” Masumura and his screenwriters are not necessarily representative of the society as a whole, but the very idea that the previously god-like Army could now be considered worse than the yakuza in a mainstream entertainment movie indicates just how far a large segment of public opinion has swung by 1960.”

Aside from this insanity of unquestioning devotion, the correlation between sex, work and money is brazen. Masoko (Junko Kano) sensuously kissing a jewelled ring after she’s been pimped out by her boyfriend to obtain industrial secrets is typical. Inevitably, when business is so dominated by men, toxic masculinity is rife; but as Rosenbaum notes, everyone here is villainous. It’s not quite like ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’ where the women are superior, ethically speaking, but ‘Black Test Car’ is even more obvious that the women know that their gender compromises their opportunity and choices. The men have no such mitigating motivation: their company loyalty is corrosive.  

It’s not so subtle and doesn’t need to be, with characters often talking in exposition (or at least the subtitles do: “Here is your spying money,” is a highlight). The settings are boardrooms and clubs and bedrooms, but the sequences are often rapid, the pace persistent, the plotting and double-crossing keeps coming, so it’s always compelling. The black-and-white compositions and suits give this an element of surface cool even as the centre gets increasing warped and destructive. 

The word “black” became synonymous with corruption in Japanese culture, with Deiei’s Tokyo studio releasing a whole series of films under this rubric. Made during a booming period in Japanese cinema, these films reflect post-war social changes and anxieties about such economic booms – such as the car industry – and wrestled with ethical struggles with new and old systems. Masumura’s follow-up to ‘Black Test Car’ was ‘The Black Report’ (aka. ‘Black statement Book’), a similarly thorough and cynical text on the legal system.


The Black Report

Aka. Black Statement Book

Kuro no hôkokusho

Director: Yasuzô Masumura

Writers: Yoshihiro Ishimatsu, Yasuzô Masumura 

‘The Black Report’ starts with the beautifully composed aftermath of a murder, the scene decorated with flowers. The mixture of death and decoration is almost giallo-like. Both ‘Test Car’ and ‘Report’ begin with their most striking images – the car covered in a tarpaulin to disguise its design and the murder scene – that imprint themselves in the memory from the outset as the film goes into more offices and meetings to tell its tale. ‘The Black Report’ is less jazzy than its predecessor, but courtroom dramas have a built-in suspense mechanism.

Again, as things unfold, Masumara’s style is rapid with barely a diversion or segue. Just clean cuts, parcels of information developing the narrative with each scene. There’s so many details – this affair, another affair… no… Yes?... that another film might take half hour dispensing where Masumura takes ten minutes. And then, the trial falls apart as the angle of each testimony changes. One side has the ideal of law and the other sees it as sport. 

Both these films end with triumph and defeat as equal, as much losing when winning, creating a picture where truth and fairness are impossible within a crowd of personalities and perspectives, weaknesses, plots and corruption. Comeuppance is waved tantalisingly at the audience before the deadline is missed and the idealist becomes the scapegoat. 

And yet although fatalism and sleaze caps the narratives, so does acceptance and both films finish with the idealist going on to do presumably future good works, presumably wiser from their experience. Despite the beautiful high contract black-on-white on display, this is definitely a frustrated world of grey. That element of “unfairness” that I always find so memorable in a film does not register here: one of the notable achievements of these films are that they refuse to fall on either side of nihilism or wish-fulfilment. They resound with something far more complex.

* ‘Black Test Car’, Arrow release: ‘What Matsumara Does With Our Madness’: John Rosenbaum. 


Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 6: 'Keeping Company', 'Paradise Cove' & 'You're Dead, Helene', 'Minimally Invasive'

 Keeping Company

Director - Josh Wallace

Screenwriters - Josh Wallace, Devin Das

Starting off on the more goofy end of horror, with humour quite broad, but hammering its satire harder and harder until we get bloodstains on white business phones. Trying to have the same bite as, say, ‘I Care a Lot’: it even has that "I'm a shark" bullshit. In this world, parents are monsters, meat is fast food capitalism, life insurance is just a scam, workers become unwitting murderers. It just doesn’t have that virtuoso streak of ‘Society’s finale or a footing in reality that might make the characters more engaging; or the gleeful silliness of ‘TerrorVision’; or, if we’re talking cannibalism and What Lies Behind Suburban Surfaces, the drollness of ‘Parents’. It becomes wearisome, even if it has a good pace.

Paradise Cove

Director - Martin Guigui

Screenwriter - Sherry Klein

2021, USA

I liked Martin Guigui’s ‘The Unhealer’, but although it starts with a clean and fresh air, ‘Paradise Cove’ just sticks to the clichés until there’s nothing to it. A couple buy a beachfront house to renovate, only to discover there’s a dotty homeless woman under it that just won’t leave. Any hope that it might take a surprising turn from all the other Eighties thrillers that are just like this and keep on coming are quickly disabused as soon as the knife goes in. A pleasing coastal setting make it nice to look at, but that’s no surprise and can’t stop plot holes and the central problem that, if they know she comes and goes and overhears them as she does, why not just leave? They don’t even discuss it. For all its gesturing at social conscience, it just becomes another tale of the privileged finding out that all their prejudices against the homeless aren’t unwarranted. 


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Michiel Blanchart’s ‘You’re Dead, Hélène’ is tale of being haunted by a dead girlfriend that just won’t quit when you’re trying to move on. It’s funny, but deftly handles shifts in tone to horror and romantic sentiment. 

Adam Harvey’s ‘Minimally Invasive’ has that one-location horror scenario that short films do so well. A nervous patient undergoing a routine operation … well, that’s all you probably need to know. The helplessness and squeamishness are all present and correct. It’s blackly comic fun.


endnote...

And I don’t know what happened because I thought I had bought the whole Grimmfest pass, but I hadn’t and therefore missed what I have seen called the best of the festival ‘Rendez-vous’, as well as ‘Sleepless Beauty’. More than that, I didn’t know that there was also free shorts until midway through the festival and thought I had time to watch… but I misjudged and then they were gone. So I missed a whole chunk. Silly me. 


Monday, 5 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 5: 'Trans', 'Red River Road' & 'Nova', 'Strayed', 'Hey' it's me'

 


TRANS

Director-writer: Naeri Do

2020, The Republic of Korea

Time-loops, electricity and biology, bullying, temporal displacement, murder and nihilism. In a world of high school bullying, Minyoung Go (Hwanf JeJeong-in) is experiencing a time-loop. There’s a guy that sits in the desk in front of her that has an artificial – bionic? – arm. Someone has been murdered outside the school, fried to a crisp. Another guy, Taeyong (Kim Taeyoung) having saved her from bullying, shows her that he has a lab in back home and introduces her to transhumanism. He weds this to adolescent nihilism, thinking himself superior and humankind trash and over. This is not ‘Weird Science’.  He even has a giant Tesla Coil thing set up in the desert. The narrative crashes along and doubles back on itself, leaving behind quickly what might appear to be a Making Superheroes At School revenge set-up. There’s still the dramatics of characters conflicting, but then there’s identity merging, and then we get to time travel… It’s heady, and you’d best keep up, and elements of fun come with playing electric guitar to Tesla Coils. Although there’s a Hard Sci-Fi feel to the philosophy, characters are just left confused and desperate in the wake of superpowers and multi-dimensions, which seems appropriate for bullied teenagers biting off more than they can chew. And where else can you go with angsty teens other than being swamped with Big Science they think they understand?

Red River Road

Writer/director - Paul Schuyler

2021, USA

A real family affair, made wholly by the Schuylers under lockdown conditions. This brings, of course, an authentic family feel to the characters and the setting – oh look, nerd stuff! A whole room dedicated to DVDs… and film reels as decoration! Action figures! – which helps no end with identification and investment. This wave of made-at-home films, long and short, are showcasing the innovation and DIY drive of filmmakers more than ever. Of course, it helps if you have the decent script and ideas. A short like ‘Thrall’ uses it limitations and assets and flourishes with themes, for example: at first, I probably thought it was standard fare, but upon reflection found it properly meaty. ‘Red River Road’ (the Schuylers’ actual road) deploys its scenario discreetly: Anna’s (Jade Schuyler) paranoid pillow talk early on may initially seem the result of a anxious nature, but it proves to be a vital junket to what’s going on; and once there’s the knife accident, things come into focus even more. With a solid family foundation, the film can take its time to drip-feed details that there’s a pandemic out there, spread by the internet that messes with reality. There’s even microchips in necks and rotary phone calls to imply government control. It’s right of its moment.

‘Red River Road’ succeeds with its depiction of a warm family dynamic and its portrayal of slipping reality, lack of control, fear of the intangible and mounting loss. It would be harder to find a more personal film capturing the anxieties and abstract doom of the pandemic lockdown era. It even uses family film footage for the flashback/whatever. A budget may even have been a hindrance to the vision.

 

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James McAbee’s Nova’ is just what the short form is for: a rotating shot showing off special effects. Impressively executed and designed, we can fill in the backstory ourselves. 

Sarah Bonrepaux’s ‘Strayed’ condenses abstract fear of the self, of being debilitated when you’re in your prime.

The Sposato’s ‘Hey, it’s Me’ meets the criteria of its lofty sci-fi time-spanning demands by focusing on one person, offering some retro-futurism and keeping it things colourful. The Grimmfest summary cite ‘The Twilight Zone’, and it certainly has that feel. Fully satisfying.

 

 

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 4: 'The Other Side', 'Mara' & 'She Cries at Night' and 'Southkorea Ghost Story'


THE OTHER SIDE

“Andra Sidan”

Directors & writers: Tord Danielsson, Oskar Mellander

2020, Sweden

A Swedish version of the standard mainstream horror tropes, set in a country where people don’t have strong indoor lights, or if they do they don’t turn them on. But this does mean some nice shadow-play and lighting in an otherwise non-Gothicky setting (the bar of light coming from an open bedroom door across the hallway is imprinted on my memory). It’s about how a woman must prove her worth as a stepmother to a child by facing off the bogeyman creeping in from next door. Luckily, a few declarations of love seem to do the trick. Perhaps this could have been a little more subtextual for effect. And it tends towards that thing of setting up something up for just one scare and abandoning it: in this case, surely she would/could have used the baby-cam for greater results? But there is a wonderful performance from the five year-old Eddie Errikson Dominguez (the directors’ experience in children’s TV paid off here) and it does a good job of converting a modern and clean house into a scare-space, and although quiet-quiet-BANG! doesn’t usually work for me, I did jump a couple of times.


MARA

Writer & director: Alexey Kazakov

2020, Russian Federation

Trying to blag and gaslight his way out of a traumatic incident that has broken up his marriage, architect Andrey (Semyon Serzin) seeks the help of Mara (Aleksandra Revenko): she gives him a mushroom that makes his wife, musician Olya (Marina Vasileva), forget that incident. For payment, Mara asks Andrey to housesit her amazing New Agey apartment. Of course the mushroom works and of course nothing is as it seems.

An intriguing updating of making a pact with a witch that gradually becomes more psychedelic as it goes on, incorporating body horror, fairy tale nods, war flashbacks, Giallo palette, and the Kremlin. Andrey’s selfishness and weakness grounds it all – he’s not malevolent, but acts unforgivably through not accepting what has happened. With bravery and cowardice as key horror and fairy tale themes, ‘Mara’ makes the horror of the self and it’s failings central, as well as guilt and culpability (he’s spent all this time thinking of what he should have done, but when he’s given the chance it pleasingly doesn’t have the desired result, adding even further layers). It’s a fairly heady mix. David Dent sees this as misogynistic, and of course there is the manipulative female witch, and it’s true that Olya is more idealised than fully fleshed out, constantly manipulated, but the film doesn’t condone that: but it struck me that it was more about the failure of Andrey as a partner and punishing him for facing up to reality. And that’s where the fairy-tale-horror stuff comes in, and for that, as a horror based around mushrooms, it’s offers something a little different.

 

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Stephen Parker’s ‘She Cries at Night’ provides simple creepy scares – you can’t go wrong with creepy crying and squeaky doors opening by themselves – when a couple try to recover from the loss of their child. As always, the supernatural preys on grief and offers them something crying at night… There’s a nice offhand chemistry between the two leads, some mild scares and a sense of what always sticks with me in horror: unfairness.

Minsun Park and Teddy Tenenbaum’s ‘Southkorea Ghost Story’ tends towards the more goofy end of horror, at least initially when Lyrica Okano visits Magaret Cho and finds herself victimised by cultural rituals and mad motherdom. There’s some dry playing and some memorable use of acupuncture for this satirical take on cultural belief systems.

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 3: 'Final Days', 'Sweet River' & 'The Fox', 'Ecdysis'

 FINAL DAYS

aka: ALONE

Director – Johnny Martin

Writer – Matt Naylor

2020, USA

Johnny Martin’s remake of Il Chos’ ‘#Alive/#Saraitda’. But with Americanisation, most of the quirky and goofy angles have been smoothed off and the zombie apocalypse is just an excuse for our isolated protagonist to Meet Cute with the woman across the way. With no competition to speak of, things are a sure bet for him. He’s seemingly a bit narcissistic as well, so there’s the added bonus that the end of civilisation allows for a bit of self-improvement too (from coward to action hero being dominant). There’s a bit of clunkiness to the South Korean protagonist in the original (I’m a Ah-in Yoo fan) that adds a little individuality to an otherwise fairly average scenario, but in ‘Final Days’, when Tyler Posey is losing it (but he will still talk to himself so the audience knows his plans), he just looks designer handsome haggard; and Summer Spiro hardly looks troubled by all the death and destruction at all. There’s very little zombie nastiness because it’s not about that, although the characters do try to go all ‘Oldboy’. corridor scene at one point. ‘The Night Eats the World’ is a far bolder articulation of this premise. Things are given class with a cameo by Donald Sutherland, but it’s all a bit average.



SWEET RIVER

Director - Justin McMillan 

Screenwriter – Eddie Baroo, Marc Furmie 

2020, Australia

Ghosts have always been explorations of unending grief and guilt and barely repressed Secrets Of The Past In The Present, both personal and social, and they’re all that here. It’s pleasant to see the trope of spooky children’s laughter being met here with the gruff no-nonsense Aussie “Oy?!” And that’s emblematic of some friction between the engrossing and naturalist social milieu on display and the fact that ghosts are rendered in far more tropey fashion. However, Lisa Kay puts in the mileage as a woman returning to the town where her young son was murdered to search for the body, grief making her belligerent, and the evocation of a town devasted by tragedy is rich and compelling. As soon as someone says that “this has to come to a stop”, you know you’re in the realm of town secrets, and the town’s story and performances are strong enough to lift this above it’s more obvious elements.

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Kate Hamish’s ‘The Fox’ starts off with bedtime stories and promises of ghostly or monster doings, but it isn’t quite that. Rather, Hamish uses tropes to hide and then expose the shattering of a family. It’s most distinctive in its setting South East Asian horror with Australian context. Nicely filmed, it pleasingly swerves this way and that to its revelations.

Pavlov Sifakis’ ‘Ecdysis’ is nothing if not ambitious: as the Grimmfest synopsis says of this zombie short, “Profiteering from a pandemic, using it to trample over human rights and freedoms, and sacrificing public wellbeing to keep the wheels of capitalism rolling ever more efficiently... Who could ever imagine a government doing anything like that? It's like something out of a horror movie...” Certainly, real-world comparisons and context give it a kick, but such scope doesn’t quite fit comfortably in its short runtime. 


Saturday, 3 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 2: 'Threshold', 'Clapboard Jungle', 'Thrall', 'Weirdo', 'The Bef'


 THRESHOLD

Directors - Powell Robinson, Patrick R. Young

Screenwriter - Patrick R. Young

2020, USA

Leo (Joey Millen) is called for help by his junkie estranged sister Virginia (Madison West) and when he arrives, she seems be going cold turkey or having a drug-induced fit. But she says she says she’s no long an addict: rather, she is cursed, and she’s bound to some other guy and can feel what he feels. And so the siblings embark upon a road trip to find the man she has a symbiotic link to.

It becomes pretty obvious early that this will be a film about their relationship, filmed guerrilla style and improvisationally. And to this, Millen and West acquit themselves admirably. But this isn’t ‘Before Sunrise’ for the Satanists subgenre. As the road movie goes on, it becomes obvious that the supernatural element that hooks isn’t given focus. Indeed, per the Grimmfest Q&A, the finale was apparently made up the night before, and the directors kind of feel the ending is just a tag-on to the improv road movie chamber piece. Promising relationship study that doesn’t possess enough meat on its bones, and that doesn’t realise that the strong premise ought to focus and reveal much more about its characters.

 

CLAPBOARD JUNGLE

Director & screenwriter - Justin McConnell

2020, Canada

 And to my nit-picking about the narrative of ‘Threshold’, and any I may have when I eventually see ‘Lifechanger’, is of course inconsequential against the effort it has taken to make a film of any kind. I mean, 'Threshold' is obviously an admirable achievement even if I, personally, don't think it fully lands. A film like McConnell’s ‘Clapboard Jungle’ reminds of that, the effor tit takes to make a film and get it seen: it's the tale of how he took years to make ‘Lifechanger’. I have two film-making friends, both tell me differing experiences which is probably in accord with their personalities – and neither are really like the filmmaker here - but Justin McConnell’s experience does tally with anecdotes I’ve heard. If McDonnell’s documentary returns again and again to his angst and self-doubt and travelling to festivals, that’s the nature of the experience (he was far more fun and at ease in the Q&A). Where McConnell is smart is that he intersperses his autobiographical experience of the film industry with bigger players and cult names – hey!! Dick Miller! Hey, Lloyd Kaufman!! George Romero!!! Etc – which gives wider context and experienced opinions. So, if you are a desperate artist of any kind, McConnell’s tale is going to be relatable and even informative about the harsh reality of how much the business end defines artistry.

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Xanthe Pajarillo’s short film ‘Thrall’ is suely typifies the sort of film that is being made under lockdown, utilising the claustrophobia of the times and equating that with inescapable domestic issues. A young woman tries to maintain her personal life via the modern technology of her phone whilst looking after her mother. The fear and stifling nature of dementia-possession and of it being transmissible is all there. Found-footage has surely moved into Home Footage, which has its own problems (she allows two security camera’s in her bedroom? Does she know?), although we can perhaps dismiss the query of Who’s Watching. But ‘Thrall’ has the advantage of the short form to cut to the nub and has all the themes fully present – even touching on social care – that makes it full-blooded rather than just a horror snapshot.

A horror snapshot is what’s given with Ashlea Wessel’s ‘Weirdo’. We join a boy as he is presumably waiting for the bullies to leave before he starts home but school. But a bully catches him up and, as the Grimmfest summary says, “When an odd boy is confronted by a bully, conflict leads to a grim conclusion.” A washed-out palette and generally downbeat feel draws on all the High School misery films we’ve seen, and we can fill in the backstory and what this snapshot implies for the future easily. It only needs to chill.

Eric Burleson's ‘The Bef’ is a piece that is even tricker with playing with audience sympathies: a boy is pushing a toddler around, and even changes it’s nappy. But it seems he’s being pursued… Again, using the short form to deny the audience any comfortable, easy resolution, leaving a troubling stirring of themes of abuse, complicity and the taboo breaking that horror specialises in.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights: 'The Night', 'The Barcelona Vampiress', 'Imaginary Portrait', ''Echthaar'

 THE NIGHT

Director: Kourosh Ahari

Writers: Kourosh Ahari, Milad Jarmooz

2020, USA-Iran

‘The Night’ opens with an excellent set-up with a party of friends, effortlessly conveying relationships that are obviously long-term and no inclined to punctuation for the audience; these are people who have known each other a while, are perfectly aware of one other’s foibles. And this continues when the focus narrows to the couple Babek (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Nioushi Noor), and Iranian couple living in the USA. Their marriage feels lived-in, no room for niceties, the underlying love taken as a given, the selfish traits and admonishments casual rather than argumentative. He, a little boorish; she a little needling. In this way they feel real. And of course, they have secrets, albeit ones that are well telegraphed. 

So when they decide to stay in a hotel to resolve a marital disagreement, they are prime material for supernatural forces to exploit their human weakness. A hotel at night is always going to be evocative: pretty but impersonal. There’s a lot to enjoy in the slow-burn and perhaps ‘The Night’ is less riveting and more conventional when the situation is revealed, but the mundane fall-out of secrets and trauma are more convincing here for being organic as opposed to high dramatics. And there is enough creeping dread and surrealistic touches to keep this intriguing. 

[Spoiler alert:] However, the final note that you can never escape purgatory unless you face yourself is elegantly rendered and speaks of horror of a deeper, personal nature: one where you can’t escape your self-denial. 



THE BARCELONA VAMPIRESS

La Vamipra da Barcelona

Director: Lluís Danés

Writers: Lluís Arcarazo, María Jaén

2020, Spain

IMDB says “In early 20th century Barcelona, little Teresa goes missing shocking the country. When police start investigating Enriqueta Martí, the "Vampiress of Raval", they cover a much more sinister affair.” But that isn’t quite the plot. This is the story of a troubled but apparently gifted journalist Sebastià Comas (Roger Casamajor) mired in the case of Enriqueta Martí, motivated by personal guilt at the death of his sister. But, like Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell’, and films such as ‘The Limestone Golem’ or Lang's ‘M’, Arcarazo and Jaén’s script is more interested in cultural context, commentary and corruption. Comas’ journalism is soon mutilated to fit an agenda and he crumbles even as he tries to cling to a truth he is told no one wants. The people want the “morbid”. 

With strong themes and despair established, Danés goes out to play with aesthetic: black-and-white and vintage cinema quirks launching into colour for the nightmarish, or red dresses; there are real sets and cut-out sets. Sometimes sets drop into Derek Jarman minimalism even as the affectations of Guy Madden comes to mind. But this is not to compensate for a lack of script and plot, which is always intriguing even if Comas’ doesn’t see the depth of corruption that the audience has long guessed. In fact, on first watch, the post-modern visuals may distract from how solid the characterisation and thriller elements are. It’s premise that unreliable narrators and biased storytelling and corruption make the truth an almost impossibility to reach is timeless.

It’s a fascinating film where all the artifice isn’t allowed to get in the way of a solid, sad tale of scapegoating.


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The advantage of short films is that coherence is not necessarily as predominant a requirement as with long-form. Felipe Martinez Carbonell’s ‘Imaginary Portrait’ and ‘Echthaar’ by Dominic Kubisch and Christopher Palm both capitalise on the nightmare logic that short horror films can excel in. Both are often gorgeous to look at and a little open-ended that will not frustrate a briefer tale.

‘Imaginary Portrait’ is a picture of a girl trapped at home under the oppression of her father and grandfather. It’s often elegantly presented but not afraid of a monstrous figure walking in the background. It easily conjures outrage and creepiness. 

'Echthaar’ has gorgeous monochrome photograph and some vintage pop songs to distinguish it. It packs a Fifties setting, hairdressing and the eeriness of display dummies and jukeboxes into a tale that doesn’t have to make sense, simply beguile. It has a little of that dark, surreal humour that reminds of ‘In Fabric’


Tuesday, 23 March 2021

The Devil Rides Out

 


Terence Fisher

UK, 1968

Screenplay: Richard Matheson

A Hammer highpoint, from its vivid opening credits ‘The Devil Rides Out’ hits the ground running and careens along with the pacing of a tense thriller. Richard Matheson – always a reliable voice – streamlines and improves on Dennis Wheatley’s original tale of the diabolical (he even sent Matheson a thank you note). 

Christopher Lee as Duc de Richleau presides over all, such a mammoth presence that they have to send him off for research just to let the other characters do their thing. Lee’s air of superiority and arrogance remain, as with any of his villainous roles, but here every “You fool!” is offset with a little doubt and vulnerability too. There’s the aura of a repressed warmth. It’s there from the first scene where he smiles to himself when watching his friend fly in, or the simple fact that he does all this to save his friend. Whereas Peter Cushing’s earnestness is casually convincing and brings gravitas and credibility to the absurdities, Lee seems like he would slap it into you. He is hellbent that you take this seriously, even as some of the dialogue, out of context, could be unintentionally funny; even when a shocking reveal is chickens in a basket, or trying to stave off the apparition of a black man, and even when the effects are less than stellar. For every telling delivery of a line about how his friend should take any of his cars, there’s Lee barking when answering the phone.

To counterpoint, Charles Gray is great casting as Mocata, Richleau’s flipside who oozes privilege and arrogance and carves his place as Lee’s superior effortlessly, as sinister as Lee is brash.

The classism and patriarchy are deeply ingrained in everything. Every man speaks to the women with a certain condescension. The accent of the English gentry is good for that. This is about two men of a certain age and class playing out their games of Good and Evil on the younger generation (Youth: don’t meddle with adult things you can’t hope to understand). But it’s the innocence of childhood that thwarts the forces of darkness, however much the adults flounder about. However, Sarah Lawson does get a central celebrated scene, dealing with a visit from Mocata, and Nike Arrighi as Tanith has all the mystery as a seeming conduit for Morcata. It’s decidedly old-fashioned and as Patrick Mower says (in the Studio Canal release’s extras) they felt it was so at the time, but he now sees it as aging well. It’s become a cult classic.


 

It has several memorable set pieces: the rescue from the Black Mass; the car chase in antique vehicles; Mocata’s hypnotism attack on Marie Eaton in a plush lounge;, and, of course, a night spent in a protective circle enduring a supernatural assault. And of course, the reputation of ‘The Devil Rides Out’ is that the effects let it down, but the strength of the story and execution makes the imagination compensation for what’s lacking. For my money, The Goat of Mendes hits the mark: simple but eerie.

And it has an ending that kind of ignores all the bad that’s gone on so that things can be idyllic again, which certainly seems in keeping with religious denialism. It’s a bit of an anti-climax: Richleau really doesn’t do anything, and the devil worshippers just wait for the recital that’ll bring about their demise to finish. But it’s true that the Hammer Horror feel, which Terence Fisher established from the start with ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, is that the excellent production and art design by Bernard Robinson, James Bernard bombastic score, some old-fashioned Englishness and the pure insistence of moodiness overcomes any obvious weaknesses. (I like the observatory.) With a swift pace and consistently dispensing with memorable set pieces, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ is great occult entertainment. 






Monday, 22 March 2021

Aquaman

James Wan

Screenplay: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick & Will Beall

2018, USA-Australia 

There is something playful, even positively camp, about James Wan’s approach: I always feel that he wants you to have a good time. But it also reduces genre to tick boxes and a lot of cliché. Wan’s approach is the kind of thing that parody movies and sketches are made of. You know the “Superhero landing” that’s often lampooned? That’s in earnest in ‘Aquaman’. Perfunctory and condescending narration; nicely filmed and often very pretty (genuinely, because you are dealing with coastlines, and artificially); all the tropes ticked without irony or stretch; often dialogue so bad it’s chuckle-out-loud. There’s a lot of unintentional humour here. Fifteen minutes in – and it’s an unnecessarily long film – and you might think: “Is it going to be this way throughout?” And it is. 

This is the one trying to give Aquaman some slacker cool, and the size and tattoos and handsomeness of Jason Momoa certainly helps. There’s a big softy charm to him beneath the fistfights. But there’s no quirks for him to work with. He trades apparent witticisms with Mera (Amber Heard) because he has unreconstructed machismo, sort-of flirting, and he has to reluctantly accept his legacy as The Reluctant Chosen One, etc… It’s CGI big, bright and boomy, but did it really take two screenwriters and three more credited with story to generate something so average? But that’s a feature of so many lacklustre blockbusters: maybe it takes several writers to knock off a script’s originality? It’s like the flipside of Zack Snyder doing superheroes. Dogs will be the comic relief kind that make comedy noises when appropriate. There’s some perfunctory family stuff, a bad guy with a grievance, etc etc. The camera never stops still as if scared there if trying to find something of weight to perch on. Perhaps they thought TV Tropes was a guidebook? It’s like a pop song that’s been autotuned and produced until it’s devoid of true character.

It’s a shame because this looks like it could have been fun, not just skimming the surface. Still, a lot of others had fun with it's gleeful silliness. The rooftop chase-fight is the high-point. Without the constraints of deploying plot, James Wan’s cinematic ability is given free reign and there’s a physicality in the middle of all this CGI. Remember when the aerial gliding shot in ‘Suspiria’ provoked gasps? Now, everyone has a drone and stunning aerial shots. But Wan shows some flair here, zipping across town to show two different melees. It’s a scene that has focus, is fun, that uses Wan’s razzle-dazzle to facilitate the action and narrative and not just to distract from its bombastic paucity. Otherwise, it’s a lot of CGI thrown at the screen. Compare with the underwater combat between Aquaman and his villainous brother, King Orm (Patrick Wilon): it just doesn’t have the same grip. 


And this is also speaks to the fact that the film never really finds a convincing, distinctive underwater aesthetic, which is surely a serious flaw. I mean, they float and swim, but there’s always the need to remind yourself it’s underwater and not just in space or flying around. The final battle is humungous and there’s fun to be had with shark-riders and… seahorse riders… underwater lasers… but none of it really feels tangible, it’s just paced too fast to touch. 

As typical with these blockbusters, you have loved names in the cast to bolster proceedings (Willem Defoe?), but it’s one of those excursions that makes everyone look a little sketchy. Nicole Kidman does whole kind-of saved-mermaid romance trope, skips through exiled warrior queen with funky armour, but changes into motherly robes to fill a maternal role as a healer by the end. 

It’s watered-down, lukewarm entertainment, spilling all over the place. Yeah, I went with a dumb end-of-review pun. 

But you have roaring sharks. 

And percussionist octopuses. 



Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Amusements

 Some distractions:

Seven years making 'Sator'.



"Crash: The Wreck of the Century"  by Jessica Kiang



This is Jimmy Andrex's excellent review of the excellent book by Martin Christie, "Electronic Music Travels", which I have a personal stake in as someone who has attended and even performed at the Electronic Music Open Mic nights. Oh, and Martin is a friend too. I think the book is looking for a second print run. Here is me being serenaded with "Yes sir, I Can Boogie" by Jan Doyle Band at the last London EMOM hosted by Martin in 2019.



And here is an excellent economics lesson from Jimmy Andrex:




And an essential tale of horror:



And ending with essential electro-sounds from MHO:

Saturday, 13 March 2021

I Care A Lot


Writer & director: J Blakeson

2020, UK-USA

Starts with one of those narrations where the protagonist-villain is spouting that sociopathic bullshit about people being one of two types, predators or victims. Yeah. She’s a “shark”. But it’s unnecessary, as so many narrations are, because we can see immediately what kind of woman Marla Grayson (Rosamand Pike is). She’s scamming the legal system into putting elderly people into her care homes, enabling her to fleece them of their homes and money.

But then she plays her trick on the wrong old timer (a game but somewhat side-lined Dianne Wiest), whose son (a constantly stewing Peter Dinklage) is also a reprehensible gangland criminal. Mark Kermode says that the film plays with allegiances, but never once did I root for Grayson. What we are left with is knowing that, whatever happens, the bad guys will win. And they do.

The stipulation that a fiction’s protagonist should be “likeable” is, of course, absurd. What they must be is interesting and even, you know, complex. ‘I Care a Lot’ truly pushes that to its limit, because there really isn’t anyone to root for. Of course, it helps that there’s Rosamind Pike whose superficial smile is the stuff of nightmares, giving a sexy authority to her moral vacuity. And there’s Peter Dinklage, where you can feel the gears grinding beneath the surface. Both are brilliant turns. But what you need is an interesting plot if are at odds with the characters, dialogue and twists and turns, and the film has that enough. But what we also have is a plot that hinges upon henchmen not checking their victim has drowned and being unaware that they are being obviously tailed all night, it seems.

But the fact that ‘I Care a Lot’ doesn’t ask for your empathy for its protagonists no doubt contributes to the strength of negative reactions on Amazon commets: “Stupid movie” and “Waste of talent”, that kind of thing. But ‘I Care a Lot’ isn’t that, of course: Blakeson does what he sets out to do, and it’s stylish, well written and paced and always interesting. It’s certainly divisive and frutsrating. The second half moves into a thriller scenario and there is also a hint of the heightened reality here, so perhaps the bleakness and cruelty obscures the playfulness. It feels like it’s in the same semi-absurdist world as, say, Soderberg’s ‘Unsane’. For example, the credibility of Grayson’s scam might be an issue, if you know how courtrooms work, etc. It’s Grayon’s girlfriend (Eiza Gonzáles) who provides a hint of vulnerability and humanity, although this isn’t the would-be tragic tale of how she got swept away by a sociopath. Grayson is such a towering larger-than-life presence that it almost obfuscates the culpability of her enablers.

The final narrative note is a balm because the bad guys triumphing so big is perhaps too much to take for an audience, and films are there to see comeuppance given. But we know bad guys get away with it all the time, heading corporations, corruption, dodgy pasts, becoming president, etc. So that is perhaps the message that hangs: that we are run by crooks. And anyway, she philosophically wins because she had already stated fiercely, under duress, what she thinks of this outcome.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Glasgow FrightFest: 'Vicious Fun', 'American Badger', 'Out of the World'

Vicious Fun

Cody Calahan

Writers: Cody Calahan & James Villeneauve

As it says on the label. A horror magazine journalist stumbles accidentally upon a support group for serial killers, and it’s all in-jokes and horror comedy fun from there. These days in the genre, you’re never far from an Eighties setting and the throb of a synth score, and that’s the aesthetic here. It certainly looks good and colourful.  It covers most of the bases of serial killers – even the anti-serial killer serial killer – and, although it is constantly winking to the audience, it never quite becomes obnoxious or overdone.  Evan Walsh’s central performance as Joel the Horror Journalist is the most winkiest of all, always a bit meta: perhaps his almost-obnoxiousness is a gag in itself, but Joel is also definitely a bit Nice Guy; all he needs is a serial killer to point out his dubious ways. And true to the manner of Eighties horror-comedies, it’s a little clunky in places and most of the killers feel a little short-changed in relation to how good the set-up is. But it’s obvious that the film just wants the audience to have a good time, and that counts for a lot. It has good pacing and moves on when one location has been exhausted; there are several good genre gags (“I’m all my stepdaughter has”; killers appearing from nowhere; a summary of the appeal of the horror genre are all favourites); some nice ensemble work; a little industry satire. And the final drive-in coda is a highlight. 

American Badger

Writer & Director: Kirk Caouette

2021, Canada 

We’re in super-skilled-fighter-saves-sex-worker territory here. But that isn’t quite the whole story. Off-the-grid super-assassin Dean (writer-director-star Kirk Caouette) is meant to seduce Velvet (Andrea Stefancikova) to extract what she knows about the Albanian mob boss she works for and then kill her. But he is solitary and isolated, like an American badger, and inevitably this human interaction gets into him and disrupts the plan. 

The tone is lowkey, washed out and downbeat and possibly a bit introspective for some, but it’s more fascinating than, say, Jason Statham’s ‘Redemption/Hummingbird’. Mostly because ‘American Badger’ lets us know very early on that there are going to be great fight scenes, and here are several. Caouette even cuts away from some to follow the story rather than the action. It’s a somewhat hoary premise (three of the eight films I’ve watched at Glasgow Film Festival feature this criminal-man-perhaps-redeemed-by-female: ‘Voice of Silence’, ‘American Badger’ and ‘Out of the World’) but there’s a pleasing fleet-footedness about the pacing, for however downbeat it is, it doesn’t stress one moment too long unless it’s the fights. And it’s those that really stand out, drawing from Caouette’s extensive experience as a stunt man. The capturing of a drab if cluttered world is assured, where call girls are left in poor imitation of Hollywood dreams, where the rooms they and hitmen live in are messy with just rudiments of character, and where clubs and bars are soulless backdrops to fights. There’s a moodiness here and control that shows Cauoette is no perfunctory director either, lifting it up from the average.

Out of the World

Hors du Monde

Witer & Director: Marc Fouchard

2020, France 

The IMDB synopsis is coy: “A shy man who works as a taxi driver because he can't afford to live as a musician, meets a deaf girl dancer who is attracted to him despite his trouble communicating.” But isn’t so long after our cab driver Leo – a gripping performance by Kévin Mischel – falls for Amélie (Aurélia Poirier) that we’re in ‘The Hours of the Day’, ‘Canibal’ (2013), ‘Henry: portrait of a serial killer’ if not ‘Maniac’ territory here: that is, the humdrum daily routine of killer. He lives and works in his car, but he’s also musician, composing melancholic instrumentals on his laptop of the orchestral kind (it’s good). But as so often happens with film killers, he believes murder is his muse. 

Fouchard’s film unfolds at a steady pace and gets increasingly engrossing as the character study deepens. The film stays close to the Leo’s mindset, incorporating interpretive dance as well as his kills – but how many of the kills are real isn’t quite clear, but he’s certainly guilty.  Leo is totally detached and off the grid, unable to socialise normally: dance turns into confrontation and, in an unsettling highlight, he has to hold a woman at knifepoint for dating advice. Leo doesn’t even know how, but Amélie is a mute dancer and these qualities – her disconnect and talent – entice him and gives him the impetus to try. He’s irredeemable – in an imaginary conversation, he doesn’t even let himself off the hook – but his struggle to try and suppress his nature and routine, to learn the gestures of flirting, are disquieting and gripping. He has a hangdog look that belies his murderous nature. 

In the end, murdering to make music is just his excuse: both offer a release for feelings he can barely control; sadness through music and rage through killing (he has mummy issues). It conflates artistry with homicidal nature – a trope of the serial killer genre from ‘Color Me Blood Red’ to Norman Bates’ taxidermy and many, many others - but the music is something Leo could be if he could get past the violence. Which he can’t.

Fouchard’s film weaves a dark spell, a sense of the claustrophobia of Leo’s mind and desires. ‘Out of the World’s deliberate pace demands attention and faith, but the journey to inevitable tragedy – where the film is the most Autumnally colourful – becomes riveting. It’s a strong, unforgettable and beguiling entry in the artistic rather than exploitational end of the Day in the Life of a Serial Killer genre.