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.