Sunday, 13 October 2013

Tod Slaughter haunts my murky memory.... (or at least a few of the same streets).

On the mysterious Bushey Studios, the kind of place where both I and Tod Slaughter stalked....
Currently I am working on a book on killers in film, and this has lead me to perhaps England’s first real horror star, a master of melodramatic villainy, Tod Slaughter. Slaughter was total crowd-pleasing ham of the stage and then, during the 1930s mostly, of the cinema; if you weren’t literally hissing and booing him, then he wasn’t doing his job. He was mostly recognised for his “Sweeney Todd”, but he also played dastardly bad guys called “The Spinebreaker” and “The Wolf” and so on. I would even go so far as to say that his smarmy grin and murderous cackling are the kind of thing that inspired Batman’s nemesis, The Joker.
But anyway, I was surprised to discover that Slaughter made some of his films at Bushey Studios. Well, I grew up in Bushey in a tiny dead-end street: at the bottom was a field where they kept a horse called Trigger, fields that I would also cross to get to school. These were also the fields that spread to the end of our garden: we had a long, long garden (so it seemed to me) and at the bottom we had a gate in the fence that opened out onto those fields and we used to go blackberry picking there. But, across those fields was a wooded area and in that wooded area was a great burnt out building. I recall walking through once with my mother on a public trail when I was probably around six years old, and I remember looking at this building and my mum telling me that these were Bushey studios that had burnt down. That charred husk did intimidate and frighten me, standing there amongst the trees in the clearing as evidence of the destructive power of fire … but the truth is that memory is a faulty thing, of course. I have tried to look up the history of Bushey Studios but there seems to be very little out there; I’ve searched online and looked through my books, but I can’t find much at all except that they were originally built by renowned local artist Hubert von Herkomer and ran from 1913 to 1985. They were known for quota-quickies and sex comedies… yes, Bushey sex comedies, if you will. Some commentators say that Tigon did some projects there. They were also, at one time, the longest standing studios in the world, it is said. But it would seem to be that its history is quite a lost one. Perhaps I will find some decent account one day.

Well, since my charred vision would have been around the early 1970s and the studio went on long after that, I largely suspect my memory is at fault. Nevertheless, I have never quite forgotten that chill I enjoyed thinking that a burnt-out film studio seemed quite a creepy and fearsome thing. This is also just to mention how surprisingly close to home the finds can be when researching this sort of thing. I’m not especially a Slaughter fan, for there is too much fakery about him for my taste, but nevertheless it’s fun to know he did his villainy in the same murky realm as my childhood memories.
But anyway, here is a little passage on Tod Slaughter from my book, not a definitive edit by any means, but a taster.
Tod Slaughter is the throat-cutter - naturally.

The truth is that Tod Slaughter probably did not possess the oddness of Lugosi nor the subtlety and skills of Lorre and Karloff to have matched their career highlights. He is very broad, twiddling his moustache and skipping from murder scenes uttering “Heheheheh!”; and he was so famed for this that one can safely draw an evolution from Slaughter to The Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. He practically comes with speech-bubbles. Slaughter represents the kind of performance that would carry well in melodramatic theatre, utilising the kind of easily identifiable techniques outlined by the dramatist André de Lorde in his guide for actors. For example:
The eyes. – Half-closed: malice, disdain. Lowered: great respect, shame, etc.
The Body. – With shame, and often with terror, the body is held in, the back is curved, the arms held tightly by the sides … with fear and with repulsion, the torso is held back.[1]
And so on. Indeed, it is a style suited to the physical nature of theatre: the distance between stage and audience does not especially allow the remarkable nuances possible with the close-ups of film and television cameras. But this is also an actor’s short-hand indicating what and who they are, quickly and symbolically, which for example creates necessary urgent recognition within the confines of one-act plays of The Grand-Guignol. They play upon and reinforce the gestures and style of what popular culture identifies as indicators of good and bad characters and of heightened emotion. It simplifies. 
Slaughter himself is quite a heavy-set looking man, not particularly rotund, but more forceful than naturally imposing, pushy rather than intimidating. He lets his head dip so it is more in line with his shoulders, reducing his natural height as if his greed and murderous ways have left him hunched over with evil-doing. He looks conflicted between toadying and a barely repressed urge to pounce. Often this angling forward, his constant leaning in towards his co-stars, is matched with the ever-present and false upward grin which also forces his eyebrows upwards in his long, slightly jowly visage. It is indeed the kind of face that you imagine belonging to the well-fed, patriarchal and corrupt country squires that he often played; indeed he was already into his fifties when his screen career took off. Jonathan Rigby’ description of Slaughter’s essence is particularly English in flavour:
With his George Robey eyebrows, jug ears and prominent belly, his villainy is redolent of boiled beef and carrots gone rancid […][2]
But in some ways, his face is too plain for the pantomime villainy he trades in: there’s a kind of softness there that perhaps projects that he really is only play-acting; it does not really possess the vividness or distinctiveness of his peers. His face does not have the brooding of Legosi, nor the pathos of Karloff, for example; this is why he pushes his face to such extremes. There are moments when his physical technique is quite remarkable, as in ‘The Crimes of Stephen Hawke’ where – to aid his double-life – he seems to cause his body to shrink to half its size in order to appear to be a feeble old man. Nevertheless, this is a broad transformation from one archetype to another.
That smile is simultaneously shark-like and earnestly welcoming, both obsequious and devious. Occasionally he relies upon menacing moustaches, which he troubles and twirls, and those wide grins and bugged-out eyes to convey the malformed souls of his schemers and murderers. He is outsized in his films because those around him are often such dull foils, just as Sherlock Holmes is so brilliant because others are so slow on the uptake. He may have liked to brag of his character’s murderous ways when promoting his films, but there is never any doubt that he is merely playing at being despicable. The phoniness is essential to enjoying him.
Yes, you may hiss the villain.

[1]             André de Lorde, ‘Pour jouer la comédie de salon, guide pratique du comédien mondain’ (1908) 83-86 –
               Quoted in Richard J Hand and Michael Wilson, ‘Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (Exeter Performance Studies)’ (University of Exeter Press (1 Aug 2002) pg. 40
[2]        Rigby, Jonathan, ‘English Gothic: a century of horror cinema’, ( Reynolds & Hearn Ltd; 2nd Revised edition, London, 2002) pg. 27


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

"Self-Portrait": a short film

Lewis Rose, 2013

The short film formula is quite ideal for horror: the brief length allows the genre to indulge in its penchant for fun-size nightmare-logic and surrealism. A lack of narrative structure and realism is not necessarily a hindrance to the thing working; the pleasures of the uncanny can suffice. For example:

 My friend Lewis Rose has made a short film “Self-portrait” which lays out in the corners of the horror genre, looking the Gothic part and feeling like a variation on ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’ and reminding the viewer perhaps of a ‘Night Gallery’ skit. But ‘Self-portrait’ is not looking for the imposition of terror and an external threat: rather it finds its horror in basic human anxiety, self-doubt and a simple promise of body-horror. It is even, a little perversely, optimistic and empathising in its conclusions that the broken image is the one worth embracing.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

"Waiting Firecrackers", the Buck Theorem album


As anyone who attempts to make music knows, it usually takes far longer than you anticipated when it comes to recording. A life drama, procrastination, trying to work out what works and what doesn't, these things take time and interfere with getting the thing completed. Well, I have completed my first solo album on which I actually play stuff. I am sure my love of soundtracks and lo-fi production are self-evident if you should take a listen. The running themes, it turns out, are that of a latchkey kid milling about the house and watching B-movies on TV whilst birds tweet outside and also some sci-fi rocket-launching. You get the idea.

It also features a cover version of The Police's "So Lonely", which is in no way my favourite track of theirs but just one I found myself humming around the place and thought I might have a go at. I think I can date The Police as my first favourite band - along with Adam and the Ants - when, one Christmas, my Dad decided that what  needed was "Zenyatta Mondatta". It remains a favoured album and I've been listening to it since I was, oh, twelve.

It comes with a booklet containing photographs and lyrics.
I am, as ever, in great debt to James Eastwood whose opinions and help in recording key parts of the album (his recording set-up is far more sophisticated than my own) meant I actually did this thing.

It's a free download, so help yourself. I hope you enjoy it.


Monday, 2 September 2013

FRIGHTFEST 2013: Post-mortem

I figure “post-mortem” is the kind of thing that horror bloggers write.

Anyway, I am not so sure that I am hard to please. “The Dead 2 India” works for me, despite its flaws being more obvious than its predecessor. Hell, I even dug the “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” episode from “V/H/S 2”, which was probably my guiltiest pleasure of the festival. But on the other hand, the random logic and smugness of “The Hypnotist” and “Odd Thomas” just made me picky and petty. If it was the dominance of rape that marred last year’s selection, this year is was simply tiresome illogical character-cam… but even then “The Conspiracy” tried to do something new and, even more, “Willow Creek” showed how that aesthetic should be done.

But, in the end, it was a better collection of films than I anticipated because there was nothing I was really, really jazzed up to see. Last year I was really eager for “Maniac” and “Berbarian Sound Studio” (both of which were magnificent). But I got plenty of surprises and happily have a handful of favourites.

In no particular order:

·         Dark Tourist

·         Big Bad Wolves

·         Willow Creek

·         Cheap Thrills

…And worthy mentions:

·         100 Bloody Acres

·         No One Lives

·         You’re Next

I changed my mind about “You’re Next”. I had heated discussions with my friend who didn’t take to “Cheap Thrills”. I bitched about “The Hypnotist” and its logic. I thought the audience this year was even more fun than last year and admired how full-on and appreciative we all were throughout the long weekend.

Here is a list of my favourite things from the films I saw:
·         The ‘monster’ designs in “Frankenstein’s Army”.
·         That tent-based long, long take in “Willow Creek”.
·         The quality of performances throughout, even in exploitation fare such as “100 Bloody Acres”, but especially “Haunter”, “Willow Creek”, “Cheap Thrills” and “In Fear”
·         Zombie-cam in “V/H/S 2: A Ride in the Park”
·         That birth scene in “V/H/S 2: Safe Haven”
·         What creeped me most: aliens in “V/H/S 2” episode “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” because it seemed resembled much as I feared when I was a kid (even though it probably isn’t especially good). Also:
·         Guiltiest pleasure: “V/H/S 2” episode “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”
·         What scared me the most: the noises of “Willow Creek”
·         What scared me the most runner –up: the empty Irish lanes of “In Fear”
·         What bothered me the most: “Dark Tourist” and “Big Bad Wolves”
·         Worst monsters: “R.I.P.D2” and “Banshee Chapter”

Favourite visuals:

·         The image of a man wearing a red bullhead (“The Conspiracy”).

·         The hotel (“In Fear”).

·         The avalanche in “The Dyatolov Pass Incident”

·         The monsters of “Frankenstein’s Army”.

·         The opening of “Big Bad Wolves”

Actually, I am not sure a “Favourite Visuals” list is going very far, because there were so many good, individual moments to enjoy. But those are five favourites anyhow. I mean, “V/H/S 2: Safe Haved” was  probably chock full of vivid unsettling images in its short running time than any two or three of the other films thrown together. But there was so much to chose from… the finger moment from “Cheap Thrills”, Chucky inanimate and then the first time Chucky speaks, the wandering dead of “The Dead 2: India”, that moment in “No One Lives” when the killer infiltrates the gang’s hideout and pops out from where he’s been hiding, the first telekinesis assault in “Dark Touch”… and, yes, even the avalanche scene from “The Dyatlov Pass Incident”. I think we were spoilt.

So long, Frightfest 2013. It was a pleasure.

Frightfest Day5

DAY 5: Frightfest 2013

On the last stretch now, but still much to go. There have been ominous mentions that the big screen, with its capacity of holding 1330 Frightfesters, is to be closed down; even though the showrunners aren’t saying too much it would seem it is going to split into two separate screens (at time of writing, official announcement by the Empire is pending). Already I am thinking that Frightfest would be a slightly lesser experience for loss of the big theatre… but that’s just the pessimist in me.

“Dark Touch” has a fine grey Irish atmosphere in which its young protagonist, maltreated and confused, discovers and explores her psychic powers. At first her telekinetic powers are uncontrollable and she reads the phenomenon around her as the house having a rage, but once she is taken in by another family who try to draw her out of herself, Niamh soon works out what she’s about and learns to focus her powers against the abuse and inanity of adults.  Marina Da Van’s film starts well enough and there are a number of decent set pieces when Niamh’s power lets loose, but the film struggles as it goes on: some of the adult behaviour seems a bit daft and certainly there was unintentional humour causing audience laughter; at other times, certain things do not quite seem clear enough. This means that the birthday doll party scene ends up as unconvincing and unintentionally funny because surely the adults would have had more sensitivity than to let Niamh go to a doll party (after she experienced her infant sibling’s death) and perhaps it is not quite vivid enough that she casts some psychic influence over the other kids (otherwise their mutilation of the dolls is ridiculous). Similarly, the finale is agreeably downbeat and striking some resonance with the kids emulating the inanities and casual control of their parents, but it also feels as if some footage making the sequence fully coherent has been left on the cutting room floor. Full of promise, it nevertheless ends up unsatisfying and feeling somewhat incomplete.

On the other hand, lair Erickson’s “Banshee Chapter” – 3-D! – has very little to offer at all except a bunch of tiresome clichés. It has some found-footage/character-cam aesthetic, which means we reach the ridiculous situation where found-footage is in 3-D. This gives way to the director’s camera, but Erickson films with the same swirling and swinging camera as a character-cam, so the entire film feels like “found footage”. It’s a mess. The premise is that the American government experimented on people with mind-altering drugs; Internet journalist Anne Roland investigates (and is badly played by Katia Winter). Ted Levine steals the show as a burnt-out ex-beatnik dopehead but to little avail. The Frightfest programme states that this is “Based on real documents, actual test subject testimony and uncovered secrets about testing run by the CIA”, but if true their main achievement was in summoning post-“Ringu” spooks. Despite the “true story” angle, this is of very little interest, tired and trivial.
“ODD THOMAS” is one of those oh-so-cute supernatural-superhero wish-fullfillment tales that have characters with first names like “Odd” and “Stormy”. Eponymous Odd Thomas is a young man with the ability to do whatever the hell the script needs him to do: he sees dead people and spends his time avenging their deaths (wait, how many would he need to save in small town USA?); but he also sees wraith-like death creatures that are never quite called demons, even though devil worshiping turns up elsewhere; and then there is a guy who apparently wants to be a serial killer even though he is actually plotting to be a mass murderer (the script throws this all together). And then Odd Thomas can see dead people except for when he is being haunted himself… er? The film can barely go five seconds without a special-effect of some kind. It seems to be some teen-orientated adventure but with jokes about Ed Gein’s belts made of nipples and a mall massacre: that weird, particularly American mixing between the daft and the genuinely disturbing without an inch of self-awareness leaves the whole thing a bit clueless and unfocused and a hodgepodge of horror junk that just leaves it as a pile of various crap thrown against the wall. “Odd Thomas” has found far more favour with others than from myself, because diverting as it may possibly be, it just seems to me to be more mainstream filmmakers waving various horror tropes and attributes at the audience and ending up incoherent instead of genuinely and gleeful chaotic. There is little sense it actually knows what it is doing except chucking a bunch of stuff onscreen.  It is based on the novel by Dean R Koontz and directed by Stephen Sommers, and you can take those as warnings.
Jorge Michel Grau’s “We Are What We Are/Somos lo que hay(2010) was the very first film I ever saw at Frightfest, years back. It was the only film I saw at Frightfest that year (because they banned “A Serbian Film” at the last minute) and I thought it was minor classic. Bill Sage’s American re-interpretation is moody, slick and getting much praise, but it is elegant and stylised where Grau’s original is dirty and desperate. The original is about a broken underclass beyond repair, it’s about starvation and struggle where Sage’s remake is mostly about ritual and bullying patriarchy. Sage doesn’t really get into the nasty stuff and the very ritual that ought to show without qualm the exact gristle of the family’s cannibalism is all off-stage, so that we get a sympathetic backstory about the ceremony but not its truth. On its own terms it is a fine variation slice of  American Gothic, but it is a far less nourishing and angry affair.
Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado introduced their “Big Bad Wolves” as a kind of revenge upon their parents who brought them up on Grimm’s fairy tales wherein the monsters are euphemisms and allegories for paedophiles. “Big Bad Wolves” succeeds on that level and many others: as a shocker, as a mystery (did he do it?), as black comedy and as a scathing indictment of torture and men who want to be, in various ways, big bad wolves. After a deceptively elegiac opening, inclining towards fairy-tale, the brutality sets in: the police are beating up the prime suspect in the case of a missing little girl but they aren’t careful and cause the investigation to tank when their ‘interrogation’ is. Meanwhile, the girl’s father has his own plans to make the prime suspect confess. All the clues are there but you may not notice them the first time round for the film moves between black-humoured farce, social commentary, very real horror and stark violence that you may not quite see its greater game.  A brilliantly scripted and cruelly played condemnation of man’s inclination to violence as a recourse and resource.
And so, "Big Bad Wolves" is the very last film to be screened at the Empire's major screen. Festival organiser says he cannot reveal too much but looks forward to something different and better. And why not? I for one will miss the gigantic auditorium.
But I will still be back next year for Frightfest.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

FrightFesat Day 4: 2013

By day 4, the real world is but a dim memory. At this point in the festival, all I am is a creature that moves from film to film with often very brief sojourns into the sunny centre of London for subsistence. Upon reflection, I am finding “You’re Next” a much better and more playful film; “100 Bloody Acres” and “Cheap Thrills” are my favourites so far with “No One Lives” and the cult episode from “VHS2” close behind for sheer entertainment (actually, I really dig the whole aliens-invade-sleepover “VHS2” episode without necessarily thinking it is especially good). What next?

“Missionary” is a dull and clichéd tale of a fanatic seducing his way into a family with idea of turning it into THE perfect family. The spin on this one is that he is a Mormon, but it’s not a film of any insight with this particular angle. Yes, we all remember “The Stepfather” and this kind of film only goes to show how witty that film was and remains. Some mostly decent performances give way to unintentional humour and underwhelming climax, the kind you know will have the antagonist yelling about family – and so it does. This ends up a bore and not the “Godspoitation” flick the Frightfest programme promises.

Jeremy Lovering’s “In Fear”, however, really does work up quite an atmosphere of unease, turning Irish country lanes into an inescapable maze of, well, fear. That the film manages to wring every ounce of tension from what is just a couple going round in circles in a car is quite a feat, helped no end by two fine performances by Alice Englert and Iain de Caestecker. For the most part, the whole thing is increasingly unnerving with the slightest of premises, and certainly knowing that Lovering held back the script from the cast during filming so that they did not know what was going to happen gives the enterprise an interesting edge. Eventually, it becomes more a think piece, not just a scare show, and the otherwise underwhelming title does take on a little more resonance, as in what would you do when in fear? Even if it nudges towards the existential, the highly authentic ambience of increasing isolation and terror is likely to remain long after the film is done.

Suri Krishnamma’s “Dark Tourist” is the kind of film that exists in its own little corner, digging deep into places that few horror films go. It may well compete with “Henry: portrait of a serial killer” as the quintessential study of the serial killer phenomenon, exploring both the reality and the mythology surrounding them. Michael Cudlitz gives the performance of Frightfest amongst a pleasingly wealth of good performance appearing at the festival: he is security guard Tim Tahna who likes to spend his holidays visiting places that were important in the lives of serial killers. The film slowly builds up its shocks but it also pushes for genuine insight and perhaps resolves itself as a horrified cry against the horrors and damage we can do to one another. “Dark Tourist” does go to places where most other films couldn’t even imagine and as both social commentary and disturbing character study, it is exceptional.

I did have a slightly funny experience with “The Conspiracy” because I misinterpreted something that director Christopher MacBride said when introducing it onstage and thought it was  a genuine documentary about people in the conspiracy theory community. It took me a little while to realise that I was, yes, watching a fiction, although I did feel that something about it was a little off. This is a fake documentary/character-cam horror but the angle at which it enters the genre – paranoia rather than slasher or supernatural, for example – does make it stand out. The conspiracy content is fascinating. Eventually, inevitably, the whole character-cam doesn’t really add up as it ends up being part fake-documentary, half horror vignette. But the sequence where they go undercover does provide a memorable descent into horror much in the manner of a “VHS” short. If it is a film of two halves that never quite gel, “The Conspiracy” at least does try to reach into different areas of horror and doesn’t let the character-cam Isabotage its intent (but yes, it doesn’t quite answer who is editing this? when it comes to the apparent “found footage” segment). A solid and slightly unusual, if flawed, experiment.

The above image is one of the most memorable I took away from Frightfest - it's gorgeous - and I wouldn't have usually posted it here for fear it might be a spoiler, but as you can see from above, it is being used for film promotion, so...

“The Last Days” by Alex and David Pastor is an apocalyptic feature, but not in a “The Dead 2: India” kind of way. The premise is that mankind experiences a sudden fear of going outside, which leaves them cooped up and underground and falling apart. One man decides to find meaning in this deteriorating world by resolving to make it across Barcelona to find his girlfriend. It is true that perhaps on paper this sounds less than thrilling, but it feels to me more akin to those 1970s post-apocalyptic films such as “The Quiet Earth”, “A Boy and his Dog”, “The Omega Man”, etc. and led more by concept than action. It has number of memorable action set-pieces, but it spends as much time on the mundane world of work that the characters come from and the dawning of a new age. The directors did send a message to Frightfest that the ending would totally divide people, but indeed it was one that made a pleasant change from the norm and headed towards something with hope and promise rather than endless horror.

Friends had mentioned that I should see Bobcat Goldthwait’s “Willow Creek” and indeed, even though it was a “found footage” film – which already flagged it as potentially another shaky-cam bore – it was also a Sasquatch film. And that interested me because a simple monster flick seemed like a great idea. Also, Bobcat had opened the festival and was very appealing, I had really liked “The World’s Greatest Dad” and I was most curious. “Willow Creek” was meant to be screened in one of the small theatres in the cinema and they had to shift it to a bigger screen due to popular demand. Well let me state from the start that I loved “Willow Creek”. A genuinely endearing couple travel to the eponymous Bigfoot land, out in the wilds of America, to try and have their Sasquatch moment, filming themselves all the while. And indeed, this film is how to film a found footage premise. It looks filmed in-camera (there are only 60+ cuts) and the sound is all diagetic, so you don’t wonder who has been watching and editing and scoring the footage – or why?! It is half exploration and gentle satire of the tourist culture and business of Bigfoot and contains a long sequence that proved one of my absolute favourite sequences of the festival: a long take that surely outdoes even “The Blair Witch Project” and takes its time to deeply reach into your most primal fears. Indeed, a woman in the audience did scream and I found myself seriously unnerved (it also occurs to me that no one laughed that she screamed because we were all so engrossed ans poked by the moment too). Another audience member was overhead saying that it was “so bad it’s good”, but I thought it had excellent and engaging performances by Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson – I cared! – and ended up being intelligent and probing and genuinely scary. I thought it was great.

Friday, 30 August 2013

FRIGHTFEST 2013; day 3

For me, staying to the end of a Frightfest day means having to catch the 1.30 a.m. nightbus home, which is an hour's journey, try to wind down when I get in and then crashing out between 3 and 4 a.m. Then: up for 8.30 a.m. to get myself together and into London for the first film of the next day. After 4 days of this, I tend to lose send of reality and time. Outside, this weekend, it was raging sunshine except for Day 3 when it is raining like crazy. Nevertheless, Leicester Square is both crowded to the brim - especially with the Frightfest crowd adding to the numbers - and very appealing. You have to steal meals and coffee breaks in the 15-30 minute breaks between screening, but it's all good fun. The Frightfest crowd never seems to flag or diminish it's enthusiasm either. it is definitely the kind of cinema crowd you otherwise dream of: silent, attentive; good-humoured, black-humoured, constantly enthusiastic and respectful. Oh, over the weekend there are complaints about some with their phone on, watching with their shoes and sock off and, um, two guys mutually pleasuring one another in the balcony during "R.I.P.D" (!!??), which the organisers have dubbed "The 'R.I.P.D. shuffle", but otherwise it's just the best audience for such films.

“THE HYPNOTIST” is one of those Swedish thrillers currently in vogue, earnestly if unimaginatively directed by Lasse Hallstrom. From the start it has the hypnotist hypnotising a comatose patient – um,er? – to try and get clues concerning the slaughter of a family – hey, how about some actual police-work? The patient is the boy of the family, found stabbed on the floor. But the policeman investigating and the hypnotist are soon troubled by a shadowy figure who kidnaps the former’s son. But actually, despite the gravitas and the fine performances, this is all a bit of silliness dictated by melodrama and the cheap suspense and token emotions rather than plausibility. Where’s the knife? Wouldn’t the knife wounds give away key clues? Wait, wouldn’t forensics pick up more clues from the crime scenes? Um, and since when do policemen take the parents of kidnap victims out on police investigations? Ah, the unlikeliness and the plot-holes pile up and despite its air of respectability, it all just melts into nothing long before an ending that calls for an action set-piece to give the impression of thrills. And, hey, he’s a pretty crap hypnotist, despite what the script says: hell, I could simply say think of a nice place and count back from 5 to 1 and then jump to conclusions. No wonder he was struck off (and indeed, the genuine, ambiguous tale of an incompetent hypnotist involved in a murder case might have been more interesting). Faintly insulting in the way the gungo-ho silliness of the next three films is not.

Richard Raaphorst’s gleefully bonkers “FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY” is sabotaged by its own character-cam aesthetic. Despite later revelations, it doesn’t really convince that this Russian soldier would be carrying around a camera all the time, during battle and all that. It’s a reductive device that undermines so much of the film’s outrageousness. The film is inhabited by incredible monsters and monster designs – ridiculous and creepy and (no CGI!) genuinely visceral creations – but the shaky-cam fails to show the creations to the film’s advantage: you do see them, but you don’t get to linger lovingly on them. For the most part, they are not given the space to really show how great they are: without proper framing, their greatness is ultimately somewhat diminished. Imagine another film where the fight scenes are properly framed and edited so you can really see them at work, fighting the soldiers – indeed, you would be hard pressed to really know what the hell is happening in any fight scene, who is dying and so on. Imagine if the action had been done by Ray Harryhausen, or by Guillermo Del Toro. But when it ventures into Frankenstein’s laboratory, the aesthetic settles a little and the film quite delivers on its bonkers premise. There is much to enjoy and Raaphorst is definitely one to watch, even if “Frankenstein’s Army” doesn’t present the material to its best advantage. The curse of character-held cameras strikes again.

“HAMMER OF THE GODS” seems to come across as one of those balls-out bloody bloke-fests with axes and swords. It is, and full of silliness and incongruous music that lets you know that this is not truthful historical recreation – but as it goes on it chooses to strike off its more tiresome antics and descends into the hell of sibling rivalry and increasingly moodier visuals. Undemanding it may be, but it is straightforward entertainment that is probably better than the lock-stock-and-two-smoking-axes reputation that precedes it.

“NO ONE LIVES” holds its cards close to its chest for a while before exploding in a crowd-pleasing bloody squib of exploitation satire. Watching this with several hundred to a thousand people at Frightfest proved an absolute riot. Once the film reveals its true intent – having set up a couple on the road and a nasty criminal gang destined to converge head-on – then the violence, absurdity and laughs are plentiful. Great, nasty, tongue-in-cheek fun. Certainly a party film.

I am not sure you can really do much with “R.I.P.D”: it’s just mindless mainstream supernatural special-effect extravaganza that seems stuffed with stuff but really has no decent centre or intelligence guiding it. There is a fairly sprightly script with a bunch of funny moments, but the story of a dead corrupt cop who carries on his career in the afterlife – see that title? – has nothing new or interesting in it. The one transcendent moment comes early when Roy Pulsifer wakes up to a frozen scene of a cops-vs-criminals shoot-out. Otherwise: Dead criminals that are more like demons… bad GCI … portals…. Stuff happens… some witty banter… something something apocalypse something… that’s it. Diverting and tedious. Oh it’s in 3D too but not that I really noticed.

EL Katz’s “CHEAP THRILLS” asks What would you do for money? but it works on a grander canvass as an allegory for the exploitation of the desperate man by the privileged. Two unemployed men – one just lost his job, the other a low-level criminal – meet up as old friends in a bar and meet a couple who are evidently absurdly wealthy. Then the wealthy couple start up a game of dares-for-cash and, of course, things escalate from there. This impeccably acted and written chamber piece (script by David Churchirillo and Trent Haaga) works hard to build it all up to its surely inevitable conclusion – these things usually only end up one way, it’s just a question of who – but it never forsakes its humanity or black humour for being just a think-piece. Pat Healy also provides one of my favourite performances of Frightfest 2013.
Day 3 and I am thinking that "100 Bloody Acres" and "Cheap Thrills" are the surprises and gems, especially the latter, with "No One Lives" a high contender. My griping about hand-held-camera and character-cam continues. Directors and actors wander around the lobby... people in crazy costumes and horror make-up abound. It is hard to convey to anyone who isn't in on the fun - those people who say "You're going to a horror film festival?" and look at you as if they may be forced to, you know, have you committed for your own good - just how much of a party and how delightful the whole event is. Almost every film comes with actors and/or filmmakers attached and the love of fiction, film and fantasy runs riot.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Frightfest 2013: Day 2


A film like Renny Harlin’s “The Dyatlov Pass” only contributes to the ever-growing wedge of films who use the found-footage/p.o.v./shaky-cam aesthetic without really justifying why it really, truly had to be done that way. These films almost always cheat to vindicate the character-carrying-the-camera-at-all-times subjectivity. That final random zoom in at the end forfeits the p.o.v. conceit because it is impossible within the context of the film’s internal logic, for example. The story is that a group of privileged American students (*yawn*) make a trip to the Russian Ural Mountains to uncover the mystery of nine Russian hikers who turned up dead there in 1959 in very weird circumstances. There’s a main character who seems to believe that the mystery is down to the military/yeti/aliens/ghosts/et cetera. There is a fair amount of eeriness earned in the first two thirds only for the plot to spiral quite madly in the third, the story seemingly want to incorporate all the solutions all at once. If it could include Nazis, it probably would. And who the hell is editing this footage?

Who the hell is editing this footage? would seem to be the main problem with found-footage/character-cam films. “V/H/S/2” has that problem in spades. General opinion is that is a superior sequel to its predecessor, but it also shares most of the same problems. The wrarparound story is equally weak and badly executed, for starters. The fake V/H/S effects are similarly often unconvincing and obtrusive, allowing scenes to dissolve into incomprehensible shaky-cam and static. The first story of the anthology, Adam Wingard’s “Phase I Clinical Trials” is bad and half-baked sci-fi eye implant reveals meagre ghosts story. Having the film viewed through a miracle eye-toVHS implant causes more questions: where is that audio coming from? Does his replacement eye contain a mini-mic? Things then take a gigantic leap forward with Edúardo Sanchez and Gregg Hales’s zombie-cam gore comedy “A Ride in the Park”: this is the only entry that truly justifies is p.o.v. perspective and explores its possibilities. It’s also very funny. Gareth Evans (of “The Raid” fame) and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” benefit as much from being longer as “A Ride in the Park” does from being brief: “Safe Haven” has a number of surprises and shocks, lashing of gore, some creepy cult going-ons and an escalating sense of absurdity – if you go with it, it’s a lot of fun. But it doesn’t seem to be a tale that benefits exclusively from being hand-held – and, again, who is editing this stuff? John Eisener’s “Slumber Part Alien Abduction” does exactly what it says on the tin: there are some kids, a sleepover, etc. It starts satirically with the kids making their own DIY alien robot film and goes from there. Someone in the Frightfest audience shouted “This is bullshit!” at the screen and your mileage is surely going to vary, but for me the actual alien appearance scores on the scary-enough register. The main issue surely the risk of having much of the episode filmed by dog-cam, which is a perspective that is cute, creative and a bit stupid all at once and which, more damagingly, leaves entire moments unintelligible. Aside from “A Ride in the Park”, there is nothing here truly justifies the hand-held perspective and which couldn’t have been enhanced by straightforward filming. The film itself is diverting fun but just as disposable as its predecessor. I suspect this sequel will, however, hold up better in retrospect.

Vincenzo Natali’s “Haunter” seems to take from a bunch of sources:  time-travel/”Groundhog Day” scenarios, post-Del Toro and post-“The Others” ghost stories, serial killer and supernatural killer tales, et cetera. For the most part it is highly engaging and relatively clever, creepy and atmospheric. If (like “The Dyatlov Pass”)it is over-stuffed, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and Abigail Breslin turns in a thoroughly engaging performance that holds the whole thing together. Inevitably, it stumbles and topples all over the place in the final act where it falls back on “going into the light” clichés. But it’s a very winning if flawed piece with great performances from all involved.

“100 Bloody Acres” is an Australian horror comedy that feels very much in the black humour vein of “Black Sheep” and “The Loved Ones”, and like those films it contains a very peculiar emotional engagement about the
underdogs and rejects of society. It’s well performed by all but Damon Herriman is quietly outstanding as the underappreciated brother in the family business of fertilizer. Will he ever get the recognition he craves for discovering that human bodies make good fertilizer and can save the business? And what to do about the human roadkill in the back of the van and the students he picks up? The stuff between him and Sophie is great. The stuff between him and his brother goes some wonderfully nasty places.



"You're Next" one sheet

The one-sheet for "You're Next" is rather great.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Frightfest 2013

I am at Frightfest 2013, which naturally means a lot of film watching, a lot of death and destruction for the eye and a huge audience applauding that death and destruction, especially when the bad guys get it. It also means night buses home and compromised sleep, but that's the price you pay.


“The Dead 2: INDIA” is a solid, faintly arty follow-up to the Ford brothers’ “The Dead” and it’s likely that if you gave them money to add more countries to their vision of the zombie apocalypse, you may well get a far better on-screen interpretation of Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. Although it is true that some shaky drama and stock characterisation threatens to dampen the fun and the deliberate end-of-the-world gloom, the vistas and uncomplicated narrative momentum make this a fine sequel. The first film, it’s vision of zombies amassing from nowhere in wide open spaces remains eerie, although topped by the vision of people always watching through cracks in the doors – sometimes it’s the doomed looking out and watching the world die, and sometimes it’s the zombies looking in for fresh victims.

Films like “Curse of Chucky” and “You’re Next” prove to be Frightfest crowd-pleasers, and indeed play to please the crowds. Don Mancini puts some creepiness back into the homicidal doll and gets great mileage out of Chucky both motionless and on the rampage. When it gets a little to full of its own mythology and nods back to previous films, falling into flashbacks and multiple endings, it loses some of the plot and plays to the gallery rather than focusing on keeping things simple and dirty.
“You’re Next” is sure to be a home invasion favourite and for the most part is endearingly playful with genre. A wealthy family gathering turns into a bloodbath – the film sets up a large cast to bump off quickly before being a bit too pleased with its woman-kicking-butt so that nearly all that remains is an audience applauding every time a final girl dispatching bad guys in a violent manner. But it makes great play with its location and nudges back and forth between black comedy and nastiness deftly. It does success in a few genuine scares and a decent sense of satire about the barely suppressed violence within family units.