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.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Sleepless nights with "The Hideous Sun Demon" - or, B-Movies for insomnia

"The Hideous Sun Demon"
One pleasure I have always loved is dozing off to an old black-and-white genre film. I still have fond memories of being a teenager and dozing off to “The Cosmic Man”, for example, and relishing that half-awake/half-dreaming feeling you get from dozing through a film. Well, a variation on this is when you have insomnia and just can’t get to sleep so you just give in, get up at three in the morning and watch a good old B-Movie.

 This happened the other night and I ended up watching “The Hideous Sun Demon” (1959, a.k.a., “Blood on his Lips”). Richard Scheib helps with some background:

The Hideous Sun Demon is a classic B movie from the 1950s. It was a directorial outing for Robert Clarke who had gained a small presence as an actor in a number of B Westerns and other genre films of the era such as The Man from Planet X (1951), Captive Women (1952), The Incredible Petrified World (1957), The Astounding She-Monster (1958) and Beyond the Time Barrier (1960), as well as marrying one of the King Sisters. Clarke made The Hideous Sun Demon independently on a reported budget of $5000, shooting around his own home over the space of twelve weekends. It would be the only film that Clarke would ever direct. []

(Oh, and "The Man From Planet X" was another film for a sleepless night not so long ago too...)

The low budget of such films helps to give the location work an authenticity that appeals, and the smash-and-grab nature of the filmmaking can make for appealing fun. Of course, dodgy scripts, coherence and performances are also usually an outcome somewhere along the way, but these films are practically John Cassavetes with monster costumes. Sort of.

To start with, what a joy the terrible Science! Exposition is. There does seem to be the feeling that there are two films at work here, the first being a similar plot to “The First Man Into Space” (also 1959) which sees scientist Gilbert McKenna suffering from space radiation contamination, transforming him into something monstrous – in this case, an apparent Science! devolution into a reptilian beast thing when exposed to sunlight – and this plot suffers from all the bad dialogue and dated romantic interest you could possibly love to laugh at. My favourite line is when a doctor accuses our McKenna of being hung-over on the job and says, “And I’ve warned him for the last time: whisky and soda mix; not whisky and science.” Come on guys, that’s a zinger! This is the side of the film that sees the monster inexplicably retreating into higher and higher places to get away from the authorities… all the better to fall from. I would venture that King Kong had good reason to climb high, being what he is and all, but I am not sure other monsters who insist on such tactics have much business being monstrous if they’re going to be so stupid. This is the film where the most sensational headline the tabloids and newspaper boy can yell is “Weird Killer Still At Large!” (and that’s the best they’ve got?).

But then there’s the hint of another film, the kind that gives simples pleasures with casual black-and-white vistas of another time and place which are a joy to get lost in the pit of sleepless night. The kind with underlit but soothing imagines of cars dashing along coastal roads, for example.

 This other film is a more loose-limbed semi-noir tale of a man-monster forced into a nocturnal lifestyle, prowling the coast and dive bars at night and falling for lovely singers who can’t mime at their pianos very convincingly. This is more in the tradition of regretful vampires and rootless werewolves, tragic anti-heroes who become beasts at inopportune moments. McKenna’s romance with would-be chanteuse Nan Peterson has a certain breezy, before sunrise appeal, but it’s one that is doomed because of her thuggish sort-of boyfriend type and, well, the whole transformation thing. Oh, and isn’t he meant to be with Patricia Manning?

Whatever, nothing really gets untangled because McKenna is then on the run from the police over where kids play amongst the heavy machinery of oil fields. If he had stayed at ground level, he might have been okay. Or at least met a more interesting end. I mean, that costume and those twilight scenes deserve a little better, but nevertheless, I love this stuff in the dead of night when there is nothing else to do and you can’t get to sleep.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Slow down... there's something to see. (Scorsese and visual literacy)

Martin Scorsese: "We’re face to face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. And that’s why I believe we need to stress visual literacy in our schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are there to be consumed like fast food and then forgotten—we need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something."


When I do watch contemporary adverts and film trailers (I don't really make a habit of that), I am often left thinking, "What the hell am I even watching? What does that even mean? What on earth am I being sold?" I think Scorsese is hitting on the problem: a new generation of image-makers who conflate cinematic and advertising imagery and editing until a particular incomprehensibility is obtained. Somewhere, narrative, pacing, meaning and humanity is being missed. But that's when I am being turned off and pissed off by commercials and trailers and mainstream television and doesn't affect the main meat of what I watch. But I do avoid TV generally (I wait for the box sets if I like something). There's just so much of everything available all the time now that, well, of course the nature and consumption of imagery will be affected. Me? I hate that thing where an image barely lasts a second... with that kind of editing you aren't really seeing anything. Then it fades to black for two seconds for poignancy.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

"The Turn of the Screw" and the Ambiguity of Hauntings

The AMBIGUOUS Ghosts of Henry James’
“The Turn of the Screw”

  Henry James’ novelette The Turn of the Screw [1898] is not an absolute ghost story, in the way recognisable from the works of M.R. James, for instance. Henry James’ ghosts are internalised, unknown and destructive. Through his tale of a naive governess who cares for the children Flora and Miles in a vast haunted house named Bly, James does not present only creeping ghosts. As a straightforward ghost story, it is rather prosaic; creepy but little more. The true ambition of the novel is the exposition of the latent delusions that adults impose upon children. Neil Sinyard concludes that in James, the strange beauty and innocence of children tempts violation, and, rightly, that the novel’s true monsters are the “values and repressions of Victorianism.” [Neil Sinyard, “Little Horrors: the Innocents”, Children in the Movies, (BT Batsford, London, 1992) pg’s. 64 & 67.]

            The ‘possession’ of the children is tied in with sexual awakening, but also in class. If Miles and Flora are possessed by the secrets and sexuality of the dead Peter Quint and Miss Jessel ~ past valet and governess to Bly ~ it is the possession of a sexual lower class over the repressed upper. The new governess is a daughter of a country parson [prologue]; the position of governess feeds her ego. She reacts bitterly to the children’s impenetrable class identities and manners by accusing them of sexual knowledge through their apparently affectionate relationship with Quint and Miss Jessel. Flora need only be playing with a boat (this bit goes in that bit) and the governess will see sexual metaphor [chapter 6].  Her attraction for the children’s absent uncle and the  Quint and Jessel story fuels her fantasies. She sees the latter as ghosts, trying to reclaim the children. Misinterpretation and the incompleteness of character dialogue are the text’s index. The governess’ key conversations with her only believer, Mrs Grose the cook, are crucially ambiguous, and without the susceptible Mrs Grose, the governess’ hysteria may never have escalated. But in looking to Mrs Grose or the prologue’s narrator for verification of the governess’ account and in defending a genuine supernatural interpretation, and, it should be remembered that James’  text is built upon delusion, misreadings and the imposing of one’s obsessions upon others. If anything, the novel asks what is it we can truly know of another person.

            To this end, James’ masterful use of indistinctness, ambiguity and plurisignation, in the narration and dialogue, the open-endedness, misinterpretations and incompletion, they are demonstrated strongest in the abrupt ending. The governess has already detected her own latent sexuality in the girl, and confronting the children with the repressions (and perversions) of adults, she scares Flora into delirium and Miles to death. The novel ends with the stopping of his heart. The orgasmic final crescendo leaves innocence dead, for only by killing ‘Innocence’ can it be preserved.

If a strictly Freudian reading is potentially incomplete or faulty, the text still has such secrets to disclose. The ghosts are conceivably the apparitions diverting both governess and reader from the unspeakable truth, as sleight-of-hand. AL Smith perhaps sums it up by noting that Miles “is more plausibly the one [the governess] is ‘in love’ with.” [Allan Lloyd Smith, Introduction to The Turn of the Screw, Everyman edition, (London, 1998)] And if the governess has ‘romantic’ longings for Miles, then it would explain the narration’s highly contrived self-denial; it would explain why she has not contacted their uncle, kept Miles from school and driven Flora away as well as Mrs Grose and all the servants. The ghosts are both the witnesses and the manifestations of the governess’ self-denial. She calls upon both of them in the last terrible embrace with Miles; if ever there was evidence of Miles’ innocence, it is his denial that he sees Quint ~ “Where?”; the governess finally dejects even the spectre of Quint to claim Miles as her own: “What does he matter now, my own? – what will he ever matter? I have you.” [chapter 24] The novel leans towards not only the uncanny, but the unspeakable. It lies at the centre of the novel’s ambiguity.