Saturday, 19 December 2015

Big Man Plans

Eric Powell & Tim Weisch

‘Big Man Plans’ is a revenge story of a small man that has been beaten up and mistreated all this life, making him bitter and super-violent. As a child, the only true sympathetic voices came from his father and a girl named Holly, who he of course falls in love with. We join him as he starts on a path of vengeance. The narrative goes back and forth between his wreaking vengeance and flashbacks to an unhappy and abused past, giving a foundation as to why he is who he is and why he says the tagline, “I’m here to rage and get respect.”

Eric Powell’s art mostly concentrates on faces and figures and the violence drawn is surely the kind that people demanding The Comics Code couldn’t have dared imagined in their wildest nightmares. That is, it’s outrageous, gory and extreme. The flashbacks, however, are conveyed in more detail, because it was surely a bigger world for him back then, not just concentrating upon enacting revenge on hideous wrongdoers. He learns early on to react with double the force that those that beat on him and insult him expect. He is probably afflicted with some form of PTSD long before he is enlisted by the army for secret missions that take advantage of his size. And there is some comedy with vignettes of people he spared telling their kids a bogeyman story of “the tiniest version of death.”

It is these flashbacks that give pathos to the story, giving its single-minded intent to depict graphic violence some weight. Of course, the antagonists are far deserving of what they receive, being despicable in the extreme, so we don’t really have to question the revenge visited upon them too much. The bitter and visceral nature of the story scours the page, leading the narrative by force away from the sadness deep down that our protagonist carries. Relevantly, there is a look of fear and sadness on his face when, as a child, he first fights back (“Chin up.”). It’s in these details that Powell and Weisch’s stripped-down brutal vengeance tale substance. It’s a story of someone that never had a chance and the unending nature of violence.

Friday, 11 December 2015

"The God Damn Beauty of it All" - The Art of Joe Sangre exhibition

BMST Space, 5 Stoke Newington Road, Dalston, N16 8BH

My friend Joe Sangre currently has an exhibition in Dalston. Okay, it’s bound to be gone by the time you read this, but you should browse his website at

Joe Sangre’s exhibition of art offers appealingly nostalgic imagery for mostly parodic effect, most evidently harking back to the cartoons and imagery of Max Fleischer and early Twentieth Century branding. For example, “Man vs Cactus” seems to propose machismo in a bottle, utilising the ridiculousness of the idea that drinking makes maleness. Or the repetition of “The Quitter” ~ a centrepiece for the exhibition as the kid chases the balloon all around the place ~ suggests always reaching for that thing that is just … out of … reach… but which you still pursue. Or then there’s the paranoia of “Kittie Got Dead”, where the blindfolded and sweating persecuted kitty shows some defiance in the pouting of the (presumably) last cigarette.

There’s a pleasing straightforwardness and spare aesthetic to these drawings whose simplicity draws you in directly. Joe Sangre doesn’t want to clutter the imagery or the meaning up with an abundance of detail, but this art harbours deeper connotation, creepiness and a black humour, should you want it.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

“Too Drunk to Fuck” – Nouvelle Vogue

Songs for Girls #4: "Too Drunk to Fuck" - Nouvelle Vague

A perfect example how changing the gender of the singer can change the feel/meaning of a song: Nouvelle Vague’s cover version of The Dead Kennedys' song turns it from a somewhat angry party-boy anthem to alcohol-induced impotence to a party-girl expression of care-free excess. A “girls just wana have fun” kinda thing rather than a portrayal of male assholishness. It’s telling that the Nouvelle Vogue version ditches the arguably more unpleasant blow job verse in order to do this. Certainly, chanteuse Camille plays it up for all its “don’t care” qualities, retaining the song’s satire while using it for a defiant female sexual expression.  Maybe die-hard punks won't like it but it's a great version of how changing a song's genre and woman singing can really bring out different angles in a song.  The live version certainly rides the party qualities.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015, Ireland-UK-Greeece-France-Netherlands-USA

Anyone looking for an alternative, intriguing premise is bound to be lured by Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film: a man goes to a hotel and is told he must find a partner or, should he fail, he’ll be turned into an animal of his choosing. He chooses a lobster.

Which surely seems whimsical and farcical but the film isn’t quite those things:  rather, it sets up a world where the social demands of partnering up is filtered through Dystopian tropes. Where it succeeds mostly is when it is relating the pressures of finding a partner to the methods of political propaganda. For example, in the stiffly acted amateur dramatics vignettes about the perils of being a loner; or, humorously, in the savaged-by-karaoke of Gene Pitney’s ‘Something’s Got a Hold of my Heart”. There is no true romance here, just people subjected to rigorous peer pressure to pair up using superficial defining traits. 

Much of this is (very) deadpan funny and satirical and gets close to the more dictatorial burden of dating and hooking up: what we do to find someone, for example, and the lies told (to others and ourselves) to claim we are similar and therefore compatible. All this conveyed by flat dialogue and affected performances that’s built upon expectation: mostly characters won’t say things out-of-line but it becomes apparent that perhaps these characters don’t know how to. And by conveying this in the desperation and confines of social strictures you have a surprisingly “Nineteen Eight-Four”, “Brave New World” feel to the proceedings. 

But then David (Farrell) joins the revolution of singles in the forest outside and he falls genuinely for a short-sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) and the narrative becomes a far more obviously about forbidden love (singles aren't allowed to pair up). But the focus starts to seem lost and decidedly less compelling in this second half and therefore feels too long. It’s not so successful at depicting individuality as a revolution just as uncompromising as the coupling up. Or rather, doubt about the premise sets in because the experimentation and surrealism seems more indulgent than revealing. 

Nevertheless, there is much to respect here and the cast is notable for making the affectations work. It also has a final beat that brings it all back into focus and implies that David is so immersed in this world he knows no better. But as a drama it feels so top-heavy that this ending is more staggered to than follows a direct path.

Monday, 2 November 2015

It's Alive

Josef Rusnak, 2008, USA

Another mediocre remake which only goes to reveal just how sharp-toothed the original was. Larry Cohen - who created the initial “It’s Alive” films (the first in 1975) and drew out the concept and implications thoroughly and interesting across the sequels - also has a hand in writing this remake, but there nothing here updates or expands the idea. This version seems neutered by all the mannerisms that have often compromised mainstream contemporary horror. 

Firstly, as contemporary horror films are apparently only fleeting interested in real adults, we have ludicrous casting in Bijou Phillips and James Murray as a hot young expectant couple who look as if they have only just graduated from High School Musical. If there is an enlightening horror film about young women giving birth to monsters as an analogy for post-birth mental illness, this is not it. For his part as dad, Murray gets to do very little but maintain his designer stubble and turn up for the denouement. For all of his early interest in looking after the kid, he actually seems to do very little of it. No agonising conflicts of the roles of fatherhood for him: there’s world of difference between his part here and John Ryan’s father from the original – one is nuanced and interesting and one isn’t. We are left with the mother as the focus, but Bijou Phillips - who maintains her attractiveness no matter how messed up we are told she looks or how crazed she is becoming - cannot hold up a role that asks for so much more maturity. Her motivation and mental health are never truly explained or convincingly rendered as she tolerates her baby’s slayings and hides the mess (with barely a trace left, it has to be noted). Just because, you know, she actually really, really wants a baby, just like all girls do, and all mommies love their babies, no matter what they do - to the point of mania, right? 

Another side effect of the youth of this central couple is that the supposed ‘son’ role from the original “It’s Alive!” is now a younger brother. We are presented with details for him - he is wheelchair bound, a loner and melancholic, and a girl at school tries to befriend him - but this go nowhere. Similarly, the missing cat - disappearing in the film’s one great surprise moment - is barely mentioned. Corpses pile up and get disposed of with so much ease, it’s a wonder Bijou just doesn’t slap her head and put her hands on her hips and go, “Oh, not again! Will you quit this, monster baby?” The film looks slick, has a general aesthetic of moodiness but suspense is squandered and emotional involvement is nonexistent.

This is one of the films generated by the revived Amicus studios, and it does seem a misspent opportunity, full of aimless performances and subplots that go nowhere. Again, a mediocre re-imagining feels simply like a cash-in on a cult favourite. By reducing the scope of the original to one family and one remote house (and how do they afford that big place??), the wider social commentary evaporates and all we are left with is a queasy pro-life morality tale warning that girls who have sex young and then try to abort will be punished with monstrous children. 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Jodorowsky's 'Dune'

Frank Pavich, 2013, France-USA

Frank Pavich’s documentary ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’ makes a good argument for the greatest science fiction film that never happened and its lasting influence. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision of ‘Dune’ was a film featuring the work of the likes of H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali and Dan O’Bannon. All in one place. A mixture of those names alone is enough to be inspirational. It seems an impossible and improbable venture but Jodorowsky shows how he could have made it happen so that all these influential people could have worked on the same project, describing how he proposed these ideas to these artists and brokered agreements. A lot of this involved going around telling people that he intending to make a film that will change humanity (uh-huh). It’s a surprise that David Bowie wasn’t somehow involved. And of course, this was the creator of counter-culture hits ‘El Topo’ and ‘The Holy Mountain’ and based upon those films and the famous ‘Dune’ proposal book one can see why people believed he could do it. Of course, these people did not include the film companies that got cold feet about Jodorowsky directing and effectively pulled the plug. But those people went on to take various ideas and intentions fostered by working on ‘Dune’ and – as the film argues – shaped genre cinema. It is hard to imagine genre cinema without the vocabulary of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ alone, but there is also the slacker mentality of ‘Dark Star’ for example.

People imagine a world where Jodorwosky’s ‘Dune’ usurps ‘Star Wars’ as the defining genre text of the era, but I think that underestimates how the simplicity of Lucas’ Good/Evil born again Force would be far more digestible to the multi-masses than Jodorowsky’s psychedelica (I imagine Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’ influence would have been more akin to Kubrick’s ‘2001: a space odyssey’). But it does look as if the film would have been amazing and its epic vocabulary surely informs today’s genre blockbusters, especially in the digital-effects era. 

Frank Pavich relies simply on talking head interviews to tell this story, embellished by some animation to bring alive some passages of the endearing Jodorowsky’s vision. Pavich keeps it all light and breezy and doesn’t get deep into anything – for example, why the studios thought Jodorowsky was untrustworthy (aside from the cash reasons, which makes Jodorowsky furious) or perhaps the dubious aspect of having his young son at the time undergo serious training for a potential role. Nothing is really questioned: I, for one, probably would have thought the ending a turn off, verging as it does on religious allegory. Nevertheless it really seems he could and might have got these amazing artists all on the same project. This remains a fascinating tale of what if in cinematic and genre history and if the idea of it remains influential, perhaps the actual thing might have been too. 

Monday, 26 October 2015

Crimson Peak

Guillermo Del Toro, USA-Canada, 2015

Jake Cole is onto something when he says that Guillermo Del Toro is probably closer to Wes Anderson than his horror peers, although Katie Rife mentions Mario Bava.  And then there’s 12 Gothic flicks to watch before you see “Crimson Peak. But perhaps that’s the problem:  one may feel this is highly trodden Gothic ground, story-wise, and with that only holding mild interest, the set designs and costumes come to the fore. Indeed, they threaten to smother the story being old – that of a woman being seduced by a man to live in a deteriorating house and her seeing warnings from aggressive ghosts – and as distinguished as they are, their dominance tends to affectation. That’s a pretty dress by costume designer Kate Hawley, you’ll be thinking, distracted instead of being gripped by the plot. Although the collar of a dress that seems to be sprouting mushrooms is probably a bit much.

The film is a triumph of colour-coding, not least of which is a house that sits atop a hill of and is sinking into red clay which rises to the surface when the snow comes. Hence the title. It’s in these details that the film succeeds: a head is bashed in against an overflowing sink, so violently that the sink breaks and the water turns red as it spills on the floor. It’s a moment to rival that celebrated bathroom scene from Del Toro’s ‘Cronos’, but this is followed by characters assuming he simply fell and cracked his head open, which is surely preposterous given the obvious carnage  at the scene. I mean, I’m no coroner or policeman, but…. So where the details succeed, an overall carelessness seems evident and ambivalence sets in. You can see the joins. Oh, the violence is indeed brutal and brings things to life whenever it is onscreen, but again – like the ghosts – it is an element adrift in a story that feels it could exist without.

The oily black and blood red ghosts – referring to FW Murnau’s “Nosferatu” for an entrance - mostly overcome their CGI trimmings to have some effect, but in the great scheme of things they don’t mean much. Del Toro tweeted: “About the Ghosts in CRIMSON PEAK: ALL except for one are entirely REAL actors in prosthetics IN SITU w digital touches.” [Oct. 24-2015] But it’s telling that Del Toro issues an explanation about resembling full CGI creations because audiences will probably react to them as such: if you don’t mind CGI, then there’s no problem, but if you think CGI is too artificial then there’s probably an issue. Near the beginning, wannabe author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska – and that’s right: “Cushing”) says that the story she’s writing is a love story that just happens to feature ghosts, and we’re probably meant to read this story the same way (and that’s not the only moment of meta-commentary). But when the ghosts do appear it’s dangerously close to the James Wan model, cued with musical blares instead of allowing the creeps to set in. “Crimson Peak” isn’t really creepy or scary: it’s too bright for that, but not in a way that achieves the delirium of, say, Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. The ghosts feel more superfluous than woven into the fabric of things: they’re there to spice things up because, well, that’s what Del Toro does. Can you imagine a Del Toro flick without monsters/ghost/etc.?

There is nothing particularly understated here, little of the genuine brooding that underpins genuine Gothic. When Jessica Chastain’s clearly psychopathic sister-figure feeds Mia Wasikowska soup to “help” her recovery, the spoon on the bowl scrapes and sings so loud that although the effect is meant to be unsettling, it feels as if someone is over-egging the pudding (and I couldn’t tell at first if it was meant to be read as funny). It’s not that there isn’t subtlety – Tom Hiddleston plays the conflicted Thomas Sharpe for as much sad-eyed ambiguity as he can, for example – but much is so overdone and obvious that it’s like someone trying to do a Guillermo Del Toro impersonation but can’t quite avoid the habits of more obvious contemporary mainstream horrors.

If a film so obviously a Gothic homage is just replicating the tropes and there is no sense of trying to truly subvert them or flesh them out, then a dullness is left at the core. All the flare here is in the visuals, so the story is left floundering. It looks the part but there’s a lack of the feeling. Tonally inconsistent, narratively derivative, aesthetically interesting, ‘Crimson Peak’ doesn’t quite gel and Del Toro doesn’t succeed in bringing the focus of his Spanish language films to his English catalogue. This lacks the foundations of genuine realism from which his fantasies flourish, creating a pretty but lacking confection.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Martian

Ridley Scott, 2015, USA

Matt Damon, due to a storm is left for dead on Mars, but he isn’t dead and, realising his fellow astronauts have gone, has to use science to survive whilst hoping for a rescue.  Yet there is something tonally about the film that tells you that this is not about if he will survive and get back home, but how. Certainly the upbeat disco soundtrack helps. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that emphasis, allowing more for a concentration on problem-solving than dread. What this also means is that the science better be convincing if not accurate because that’s where the wonder mostly will be. Especially since the Martian vistas seem strangely lacking in wonder. What it does have instead is humour, and that’s okay too although this is to mitigate the dread rather than to add texture. Its lack of existential angst leaves it surprisingly and positively free of religion, but it also leaves it shallow. This is also surprising in the light of the somewhat God-bothering tone of Ridley’s “Prometheus”: “The Martian” seems to say that there’s little time for that here.

Drew Goddard’s screenplay, based on Andy Weir’s book (and previously responsible for ‘Cabin in the Woods’), offers little on the human condition as sciencing the shit out of everything takes centre-stage, which is probably a good way to contain the lack of character depth; that, and the actors are expert at fleshing things out. It’s a strong roll call. Matt Damon constantly looks to draw out the comic potential of the script and succeeds. The rest of the cast  are mostly straight men, as if they are an audience attempting to rescue a one-man show. The direction, however, doesn’t possess any distinctive trademarks that tell you this has been helmed by more than a competent director: it’s all very slick, the effects seamless but nothing truly idiosyncratic or memorable. Yet, as Tim Robey notes, 

Compared with the heaving verbosity of other recent Scott pictures (Exodus, say), all the chatter here feels better matched with his obsessions, at least: it’s a film about micromanaging, fixing things on the fly, and a lot of Ridley’s gruff, technocrat personality shines through.

The matter-of-factness that conveys the drama along with the humour and lightness of tone that roots it in a believability also goes someway to highlighting its prosaic qualities. For all its flaws, there are moments of genuine awe in “Interstellar” and it is a curious thing that Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” doesn’t seem to pause in the right places for a similar awe to set in.

What we do get is a mainstream ensemble piece with all the effects and lightness of tone needed to be a crowd-pleaser. And it is surely too long, even if this to accommodatethe time  it takes to work things out. I am sure those in the know will be able to pick apart some of the science – for example, apparently Mars would never have such a storm – but the prominence of it is winning. Also pleasing is that it avoids resorting to a bad guy to spice things up; we might think Jeff Daniels will play that part but he doesn’t as this is not that film. In fact, the positivity of the coming-together tone at conclusion might be seen to be the most implausible element of the film; but by that stage, it surely comes as no surprise.

Compared to the films it might be held up against – ‘Moon’ and ‘Interstellar’ or ‘Silent Running’ – ‘The Martian’ is more playful and shallow and agreeable rather than poignant. 

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Children of the Damned

Anton M Leader, 1963 ~ GB

AKA.  “Horror!”

Lacking the terrifying allegory of its grandparent novel John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, ‘Children of the Damned’ instead uses the children as signifiers of man’s own warmongering ways. Unlike Wyndham, the film clearly offers the children as man advanced a million years, but like Wyndham they only kill when attacked. In the original, this violent self-preservation triggers the debate about Darwin’s survival of the fittest; here it only means that the children are innocents, misunderstood and abused by adult paranoia. We are soon on the side of the kids, for their alien silences and self-defensive unity soon overshadows the petty squabbling and eager militarism of the adults. “Do you really want to take them back to your embassies now?” Hendry asks the ambassadors, having demonstrated the unifying telepathic powers of the children. It is a fine moment that uncovers the ambassador’s latent motivation. Leader’s film is an anti-war fable with the children as blanks, reacting to adult, political violence.

          This leaves little room for development or exploration of the children. Of course, the point is that they have no traditional individual character, that they possess a very collective alieness. But without Wyndham’s disturbing and exemplary theories on evolution and humanity, Jack Briley’s screenplay has very little idea how to develop these children, except to make them an international assortment of examples of man advanced and capable of resurrection. Having the Indian child Rashid resurrected in a church only adds to the martyrising of the alien kids, but achieves theoretically little. There is no debate on parenting, although the early scene with Paul’s mother hurling hateful abuse at her silent child is a powerful and promising moment. More interesting is The Aurum Film Encyclopedia’s (pg. 220) translation that the children “become pawns in the love-hate relationship between Hendry and Badel in which Badel seeks to destroy them almost in revenge for Hendry’s rejection of him for Ferris.” Further to this, the scenes with Hendry going to the church where the children keep Ferris possessively play like siblings protecting their mother from a potential step-father. But what remains is the film’s overall distrust of the adult ability to care for the young. Paul’s mother opens the door to her flat with undertones of sensuality; officials are too eager to use them for their own agenda; even Ferris cannot be trusted with a bread knife around the children.
          Still in many ways ‘Children of the Damned’ is better shot and easier than ‘Village of the Damned’, and is certainly free of much of its stodginess. There is some snappy dialogue and memorable shots of the children wandering through deserted city streets. The film shares a church finale with particularly British sci-fi trailblazer, Nigel Kneale’s ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, although Kneale’s monster is a pitiable transformation that has to be destroyed, Wyndham’s children provide greater moral problems due to their human appearance. They are our own offspring, disgusted at the adult world and possessing the means to destroy and perhaps better it. In this way they are icons of Cold War guilt and liberal conscience.

Finally, the political powers only want the children for the weapons they can build. A fair amount of conflict and suspense is built due to sharp editing, but much of the outcome remains conventional. David Pirie says the finale “falls into some unconvincing liberal moralising,”[1] and certainly it creates an easier resolution than ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. That a last minute hope of co-existence is wiped out by accident, that human folly brings about genocide and destruction is both potentially an avoidance of the film’s issues and a universal truism. 
As a sequel, ‘Children of the Damned’ is superior to many, acted with conviction, full of British Sixties atmosphere and crisp black-and-white moments. The silent, staring children remain unforgettable and impenetrable, a reminder of Wyndham’s original chilling concept. Like ‘Planet of the Apes’, it remains a quintessential allegory of the genre.
- Also see the Numinous Book of Review

[1]               David Pirie, The Time Out Film Guide (edited by Tony Milne, 3rd edition pg. 121)

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

It Follows

David Robert Mitchell, 2013, USA

The thing that is winning about ‘It Follows’, considering its peers, is that it’s evident from the start that the aesthetic will be an antidote to the James Wan “jump-scare” or the Eli Roth “gross’em out!”vision of horror. Some of the promotion monopolises the most obvious horror image of an attractive young woman tied and sobbing and terrified in a wheelchair, which makes it look like we’re in for another variation of the so-called torture-porn sub-genre. But this moment is over early in the film and provides exposition and no escalating degradation of this woman. This is not that film.

Director David Robert Mitchell goes for a more art-house aesthetic, which in this case means a deliberate pace and that each shot feels designed and Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography give it all glossy fashion-mag sheen - and the promotion also stresses this, some looking like retro-car ads. The first corpse we see is like an extreme fashion shoot that might appear on I hurt I Am In FashionBut in this case, this isn’t meant as a criticism. It means the incidental shots become just as memorable as, if not even more so than the traditional genre shots. By importing each shot with visual importance also goes a fair way to creating dread (is this shot important? will the threat manifest here –and from where?). One can see the influence of John Carpenter easily. Speaking of which, Disasterpiece’s music does an agreeable job of that retro-80s synth-score even if by now that trick is old hat.*

Yet it is this calculation that Chuck Bowen feels stops the film from truly being free from its influences and he has a point: there is a sense of a film always pointing at what it is doing and what it is not doing, lacking the visceral ingredient that allows the audience to determine for themselves its virtues. It is reaching for greatness, but self-consciously so. Perhaps this is the hurdle to walking away with the unequivocal feeling that this is one of the greats.

However, there is so much to appreciate here, so much that Mitchell gets right. The deliberate pacing, for example, allows for rendering of the bored, languid spells that all close friendships share. The characters aren’t allowed to trumpet themselves abruptly as types because their milieu is too indifferent to that. It’s not that they aren’t as attractive as some ‘Final Destination’ troupe but the tone underplays: it doesn’t rely on petty arguments for characterisation. In fact, these potential victims feel refreshingly vulnerable and unsure in their decision-making. The finale pool scene confrontation will never top that of ‘Let The Right One In’ (what can?) but it is a sturdy contender where our protagonists think they are being clever in their plan to reveal and destroy their stalker but find they have only supplied it with weapons.

‘It Follows’ derives its themes from that staple of the horror genre, fear of youths having sex. To this end, when Jay (Maika Monroe) has sex and acquires the threat, afterwards it feels coded in the language and visual signifies of a rape. When the local kid spies on Jay, its lack of youth-comedy hi-jinx context just leaves it a little creepy and disturbing. The supernatural threat takes the form of a sexually transmitted disease: once you have it, you’re in danger of death; the line between sex and mortality is clear. Has a film ever worked so hard to truly take the fun out of sex (without shock tactics and rape-threats, I mean)? In this sense it’s more like Todd Solondz’s ‘Happiness’ than ‘Friday the 13th. But it’s far more respectful than that, forgoing cheap titillation and a sleazy underbelly that the premise might suggest. So it doesn’t need to commit to an it’s not really over ending because it’s about the fear of pending death, just walking towards you.

The question that our survivors seem left with is: Did our fucking stall death, which is always creeping up on us? And in that sense, it gets close to the heart of a whole genre.

* I’m aware that most people’s influence on this is Cliff Martinez’s score for  Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’, but my first exposure to this trend in film score’s was Rob’s sublime score for Franck Kaulfoun’s ‘Maniac’ (2012). That first blast of synths was exhilarating and unforgettable. Of course, it has now become a standard trope.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Thomas Crown Affair

Norman Jewison, 1968, USA

Steven McQueen is Thomas Crown, who earns bucket loads by the minute and yet money doesnt give him the thrills and spills he needs. Needless to say, for these he turns to crime. He plans a nifty, swift, slightly clever bank robbery (it helps that the bank doesnt seem to use a secure back door to shift money). The famous theme song, Windmills of Your Mind seems to be broadcast from a different, more hippyish film; but not to worry, it remains memorable. Norman Jewison throws some hipster split-screen mannerisms and snappy editing and a little nasty leg-shooting to keep things interesting. McQueen-Crown retreats to laugh his head off slightly maniacally at the success of the robbery. The police have no clue whatsoever. So far so good.

And then, Faye Dunaway struts in as a supposedly brilliant, ruthless and inevitably flirty insurance investigator Vicky Anderson and the film becomes something far sillier. She takes one look at Crowns photo and decides that he is responsible, apparently for no other reason than he is played by McQueen and so she fancies him. This is not to be a sleek, cat-and-mouse suspense machine but rather some kind of screwball thriller, meaning that - even if we accept that Dunaway has some preternatural, groundless intuition about McQueens guilt - they then embark upon a succession of flirty meetings. This, despite the fact that he knows she is investigating him. Even given his desire for danger, its ridiculous. And then Dunaway goes off and kidnaps children, has cars stolen, etc: we are perhaps to find the amorality of these star characters hip, perhaps daring. The laconic atmosphere is supposed to denote “cool”, but the screwball genre, however, has an inherently silly inclination and this scuppers any thrills as quickly as McQueen flashes his smile and Dunaway changes wardrobe. “Screwball” also means that the film is more interested in stars than characters and internal logic.

Then suddenly, at about the point where they fall in love over a game of chess (wait, perhaps that symbolises something?) the film decides its going to be some kind of romantic tragedy. By this point, a lot of things are happening just because they are happening. The problem is also that a lot of the romancing is unintentionally asinine, like those terrible middle-aged ballads. What is at stake becomes dissipated, leaving not so much when all the action has already happened.

The police are nowhere to be seen. Dunaway has fallen for McQueen. We spend a lot of time with them dune-buggying on the beach. There is some action when McQueen knocks out one of the men following him (and standing in the street in full view is he a rookie at this spying game?). Suddenly, in a sauna, McQueen is saying he is the one responsible. Then he is telling her he will do another bank job and she is trying to talk him out of it. The second bank job gets short-changed because it is no longer featuring in a thriller as such, scrambling as it does for some poignancy. So, come the end, we see that McQueen-Crown has been stringing her along all along. Okay, but this still leaves much high-and-dry. For all the star quality, theres no need to actually care about the main characters apart from their prettiness, and all the fun stuff started at the beginning when they were barely around. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

FrightFest Day 5

CURVE is a decent example of how mainstream thrillers have assimilated those serial killer narratives that are much grungier and gorier on the fringes. The killer here is smart and ingrained with a metaphysical penchant for “fate” and whatnot. A newlywed is on the road to meet her fiancé and is having doubts when she runs into a man who sorts her out after her car packs up. Revealing his true colours when on the passenger seat, she crashes the car to rid herself of him. But she only succeeds in trapping herself in the crashed vehicle while he goes back and forth to taunt her, or teach her the truth of life or something. The film’s middle section veers into problem-solving survivalist mode before the last act delivers conventional showdown material. Nicely performed, solid if unremarkable fare.

NIGHT FARE follows an apparent hoodlum and his pal on a night out: the latter decides to jump paying a taxi fare only for the driver to hunt them down, killing anyone in the way. Then the last act moves into something very different, just when the stripped-down, gritty violent thriller vibe seems nailed down. This shift is tone brings to the fore themes of redemption and leaves more to chew on than just the cool reflective surfaces of the taxi and the streetwise charms of the characters. It both delivers more and verges on being a preachy moral story, but mostly settles for the revenge fantasies that fuel so much of the genre but with a feeling of regrets of lives misspent.

NINA FOREVER certainly achieves a level of uniqueness. Supermarket girl Holly goes for Rob – who tried to kill himself upon the death of his girlfriend, which endears him to her – but upon having sex finds that old girlfriend keeps popping up. Through the bed in gory fashion. The tone veers from comedy to romantic drama to horror but the fact that it settles more on masochism and that the horror derives from character traits means this is ultimately real dark-hearted. In regards to Nina herself, whereas I saw her as self-centred, sarcastic and often annoying, it was obvious in the following Q&A that others in the audience found her “humorous and witty”, so I realised that perhaps I wasn’t tuned in to what the film perhaps intended with the character. Perhaps this was down to the performance of Fiona O'Shaughnessy: where some heard drollness – where she was commenting on the farce of the situation - I heard selfish sarcasm. Certainly I wondered about her positive points. Nevertheless, that this becomes more Holly’s voyage of discovery means the film steers into something more satisfyingly more Hellraiser-like and genuinely affecting.
EMELIE is a slick thriller about a babysitter who isn’t who she says she is. Featuring very winning and realistic child characters and a penchant for getting on with things instead of dragging on its familiar beats unrewardingly. There’s enough mystery to let this linger and its straightforward approach reaps great rewards for an audience who, just for example, wonder why the characters don’t catch on quicker or just do that. This is how you pull this off.

TALES OF HALLOWEEN is an anthology of shorts set around the eponymous season which of course has Adrienne Barbeau as the narrating DJ keeping things together as the ten stories move through amusing parodies, clay-mation and – of course – revenge fantasies. There’s a definite atmosphere of “Eerie” and “Creepy” comics. It’s so quick that the vignettes never have time to outstay their welcome. It’s often funny, frequently amusing and gory and often is a more successful compendium than, say, the “ABCs of Death”. Great horror fun.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

FrightFest 2015 Day 4

SLUMLORD, it must be said, doesn’t feature many slums, being concerned with a somewhat middle-class couple who have just moved into an apartment and are just about to become parents, despite troubles in their marriage. But perhaps the title is referring to the slumminess and scumminess of the voyeuristic landlord (an unforgettably sleazy Neville Archambault). He fixes cameras in his tenants’ homes and watches the dramas of their lives with a gormless look on his face and probably some drool on his chin. He is creepy from the word go and it’s a surprise he can get by at all, but he does and he’s canny enough to act as a serial killer when needs be. Director Victor Zarcoff makes notable use of reflective surfaces and lets the unease take hold by matter-of-factly portraying how all sides go about their business. It also helps that there appears to be no neighbours and that the dog has an amazing ability to disappear at key moments. Nevertheless, disturbing and credible, infused with streaks of black humour and admirable restraint.

ROAD GAMES works hard to undermine your guessing who the killer on the road actually is. Is it Jack, hitchhiking across rural France, who rescues hitchhiking Veronique from a fight in a car? Or is it Veronique herself? Then they are then picked up and taken home by a friendly Frenchman to meet his wife, so it could be him… or her. Beautifully filmed with a great script to keep everyone a suspect, making good use of understanding languages. And surely an example of great casting truly bringing out the best of it.

INNER DEMON is an oddity that isn’t afraid to keep its potential heroine – teenage Sam – incapacitated for most of the film. That is, she spends most of her time in the closet of a serial killing couple, having escaped from the boot of the car. It also becomes apparent that her younger sister is in the other room, captured, so how will Sam save her? Things then moves late in the game from more realist vein into something weirder and more supernatural, shifting the film’s philosophy into something more troubling, a rumination on failure. Whether it is totally successful may require further viewings but there is no doubt that this is well-made and an oppressive mood created and maintained. Like much of FrightFest this year, the film is also marked by a great performance by its lead in Sarah Jeavons. The move from creepiness to eeriness may raise an eyebrow, but the underplayed nature of it all makes that shift intriguing.

SCHERZO DIABOLICO is another upsetting and brilliantly plotted tale from “Here Comes the Devil” director Adrián García Bogliano. This is one that benefits from knowing as little as possible so that the twists and cruelties escalate into raw brutality. A cautionary tale that the means won’t justify the ends and that everything has consequences? A sleak shocker.

I did want to see “A Christmas Horror Story” but there was also a screening of a restored print of THE REFLECTING SKIN with a Q&A with director Philip Ridley at the same time. I have loved “The Reflecting Skin” ever since I first saw it and there are few films I have seen so often. Anyway, I could not miss this and was pleased to find that the film has lost little of its emotional impact upon me, which I attribute greatly to Nick Bicat’s amazing score and its sweeping but mournful strings. Very few films are this odd, beautiful, funny and mysterious all at the same time. The theatre seemed full of people that seemed to be Philip Ridley fans, or at least they all were after the film. What did we learn?

·         There were only four prints of “The Reflecting” Skin” made from the original source and these were played all over Europe and America and was now in dismal shape. But here the film was, restored and more vibrant than ever.
·         Yes, Ridley did paint the cornfield when it proved not yellow enough.
·         It was a very rainy shoot – hard as that may be to believe when watching the screen.
·         Ridley and Viggo Mortenson got on really, really well from the first meeting.

Ridley was funny and chatty and I am sure he would have gone on with more stories if proceedings hadn’t been brought to an end. I wanted to know about the score and its relationship to his children’s books but didn’t get to find out. I still love it.


Sunday, 30 August 2015

FrightFest Day 3

·         The first feeling of “Wait, what day is it?” when I woke up.

SHUT IN is a revenge drama about an agoraphobic woman beset by three home invaders. But then… Again, going into a film knowing next-to-nothing means the pleasures of the twists are a joy for being unexpected and this isn’t quite as expected. Sleek, a little mean, high concept and greatly entertaining, it also boasts fine performance all round.


BAIT is an English drama about a couple of women trying to get ahead in the world and being victimised by a sadistic loan shark. Good performances bring out the most of the script, despite an undercurrent of Brit-crime shouty crime dramatics. Despite plot holes (are the police completely unaware when there is plenty of evidence and devastation lying around?) this is an engaging revenge drama (again). Since this is all an allegory for the way people are exploited by unscrupulous others, including banks, the audience is ecstatic when the girls get their own back. Turning-the-tables seems to be a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.


FRANKENSTEIN updated by Bernard Rose and moved to Los Angeles. Rose’s concentration on the monster is closer to the novel than most, although he is less verbally articulate, and removing all the pleasurable Gothic tropes leaves a starkness to the story of humanising a monster and no less affecting. I suspect time will tell this version’s true stature but it’s certainly a successful modernisation, with – again – good performances.

SOME KIND OF HATE will be the first of two films concentrating on hard rock/metal fans and their alienation. Finally fighting back on the bullies only gets Lincoln into a reform school in the middle of the desert where old patterns only manifest themselves again, driving him to the attention of a vengeful spirit. The pacing and editing really stick out, minimising scenes you might have thought would be more central and longer whilst keeping it all speeding along. It also blithely eschews jump-scares to get to harsher truths. In Moira, the vengeful spirit who attacks her victims by self-harming, the film truly taps into something about bullying and its effects without ignoring masochism or brutality on all sides.

RABID DOGS is not horror at all, but rather a violent heist thriller that is often as sleek as a commercial and twisty enough not to be thoroughly predictable. The heist goes a bit wayward and most of the film is taken up with the robbers and their hostages in a car, until they seem to stop into an aggressively jovial small village holding a Bear festival. It’s like a gangster thriller gate-crashed a Wicker Man scenario. There are probably goingf to be twists you don’t see coming. Thoroughly enjoyable.

DEATHGASM was one I thought was not going to do much for me, trading in to the Heavy Metal angle of Horror. Then I realised that I was stupid to take the title as anything else but a cue for an affectionate homage to the absurdities of the genre. This is the second film today where a Metal-loving protagonist gets revenge, but this time he literally unleashes Hell on Earth by using power chords. Jackson’s “Brain Dead” has to be a reference but it mostly keeps to gags coming until the very end. Gory, gross, funny.