Monday, 28 May 2018


Coralie Fergeat, 2017, France

Out in the middle of nowhere in a luxury getaway, Richard (Kevin Jannsens) is planning on a dirty weekend with his girlfriend-on-the-side Jen (Matilda Lutz) before he gets married. She’s very obliging, acting like the archetypal pleasure girl, wearing skimpy stuff, looking continuously hot, dancing provocatively, etc. and generally playing up the “Lolita” vibe, lollipop and all. Then his friends turn up and this leads to her rape and her apparent murder. But she comes back from the dead as a spirit of vengeance.  

And your mileage may vary but that looks very much like a murder as surely no one could get up from being impaled on a tree stump like that. You may then spend the rest of the film in a state of disbelief and snorting at any pretence it may have to internal logic. Jem is first defined by a rotting apple from which she took a bite (which made me smirk at its obvious symbolism) and waist-high camera angles and then later with a phoenix print burnt into her stomach (which made me laugh out loud at its obvious symbolism) so subtlety isn’t really on the agenda. The latter implies that perhaps Jem is more a spirit of vengeance, much like Michael Myers becomes the eternal bogeyman at the end of ‘Halloween’, but the rest of the film plays out with at least a passing allegiance to the principals of realism so some kind of credibility is in doubt.

But Corale Forgeat directs with shine and flare rather than grit and realism - carrying on the French Extreme Horror tradition - and its place as fantasy is clear. It’s like a rape revenge reverie set in the world of car commercials (and that may be part of the point). It’s brittle with silliness as much as it’s lacquered with style and the symbolism perhaps hints that it’s taking itself too seriously. If it has proclamations to subverting the rape-revenge thriller, this is as much a cartoon as many of its exploitation origins and without much characterisation for Jem, it’s hard for us to take her more than a show piece and cipher. And the bad guys are equally shallow, given typical misogynistic dialogue and crassly juxtaposed with lizards. Arguably, Richard is the most interesting character being both abominable and at odds with his more overtly obnoxious mates. He spends the last act showdown naked and there’s great skill with how his nudity is filmed – plenty of rump for the Female Gaze – and maybe this subtlety and artistry is maybe at odds with the scrappy exploitation this is surely commenting upon. This finale where the house is turned into a slippery bloodbath is a highlight.

With its aesthetic swinging between both the flamboyant and the obtuse there’s much to enjoy in its surface pleasures of outlandish revenge-fantasy-over-substance, but it succumbs to an underlying daftness and doesn’t really grope much more. 

Monday, 21 May 2018

This Island Earth

 Joseph Newman, 1955, USA

One of my fondest film-watching memories is when I was living at my grandparent’s house as a preteen and getting to watch the b-movie season playing over months and months on television. I was about eleven or twelve and I loved getting into my pyjamas and watching these films on a Sunday evening before bed. I saw so many of the black-and-white creature features this way; my personal education to the drive-in horror and science-fiction era, as if I had been born decades earlier. I know for sure that I saw “The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms” and “King Kong” and “It Came From Outer Space” that way, as well as “It! The Terror Beyond Space”, “Earth versus the Flying Saucers” and “This Island Earth”.

This Island Earth” is kind of an honorary classic: it’s not a classic due to story and execution, for it has some of that workmanlike clunkiness and flatness of the era, but the whole is definitely greater than the parts. It looks and sounds like a tacky Fifties sci-fi, but it is much more if you play into it. It has decent and decidedly adult characters; it has a nice air of menace and mystery and a fascinatingly ambiguous relationship with its aliens. The aliens are the kind you are likely to meet in “Star Trek” – intelligent, humanoid and talky with over-sized foreheads so that they can seemingly pass for human, but they are more than typically two-dimensional. They are a threat in that they are a civilisation – from Metaluna –  on the brink of being wiped out by their enemies and both need Earth’s help whilst simultaneously plotting to colonise Earth. But they are desperate rather than cruel or megalomaniacal. The film’s classic status is surely down to the fact that it is quintessential Fifties-era pulp sci-fi and that’s a lot of fun and no bad thing. It also has a slow build-up that is rewarded with a fantastic if brief visit to Metaluna itself, a gorgeous cosmic vision with comic-book colours and mutants, one which rivals “Forbidden Planet”.

This Island Earth” is full of green rays, flying saucers, manipulative but super-smart aliens, decidedly square-jawed scientists (Rex Reason) and equally unlikely science. It looks and acts like something from an Astounding!” magazine cover, and that’s integral to its delight. The film worries about other cultures being smarter, more manipulative and colonialist, but trusts its American square-jaws and female vulnerability to get an Earthman through an extraterrestrial encounter. It is dated, but that doesn’t seem to do it any harm. It gets better and balmier as it goes on and has the good sense to throw in some alien mutants too to spice up things.

Yes: the mutants. These insectoid aliens gave me a nightmare that I have never forgotten. They were lumbering, soundless and – well, you can’t get much more alien than insects. They don’t have much screen time, although they are plastered all over the posters, but hey are unforgettable. I dreamt that I was on the spaceship standing inside the giant transparent tubes it had to condition people to different environments; my dream was paraphrasing the spaceship and a scene from the film. One of the mutants was going crazy on the flight deck, just as in the film, and I was stuck in the tube. The difference was that there was a gap at the bottom of the tubes so that feet, ankles and lower shins were horrible exposed. The alien came attacking the tubes and I was trapped inside and, eventually, it started to attack my feet at the gap at the base of the tube. I suspect I woke up during the attack. Oh yes, it was quite a nightmare and I’ve never forgotten it. For this reason, I have quite a soft spot for “This Island Earth”.

It remains a delightful slice of pulp hokum with an odd charm all its own. It doesn’t have the resonance and deep chills of, say, “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers”, but it is old school fun and possessed of enough intelligence and gorgeous alien scenery to more than hold its own.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Strangers

Bryan Bertino, 2008, USA

A loving couple with relationship difficulties become under siege by masked tormenters in their holiday home in the woods. That’s it for plot and that’s fine. Isolated homes are a pretty regular stop for horror’s message that NOWHERE IS SAFE so this fits nicely into that particular paranoia.

As a slick fright machine, “The Strangers” does so much right. It falls on the same plate as “Vacancy”, “Ils (Them)” and, inevitably, “Funny Games” - the post-Manson home invaders - but somehow falters at the last stretch. It is a shame because in mood, pitch and pace, it is mostly an excellent lesson for how to scare with little more than knocks on the door, creaky floorboards and masked figures seemingly able to infiltrate the house at will (wait, how do they do that…?) Cinematographer Peter Sova films it all warmly and sharply: the holiday home is a cosy set, prettily decorated with scattered petals, an open fire and, inevitably, pretty and ironic vinyl music on the stereo (continuity issues with the albums here… the songs are a mixture of old and new and the player seems to turn itself off halfway through a song at one point…). Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are convincing as a couple going through some troubles (she said “no”) and suitably scared when they need be, making the most of slender characterisation  and again showing that horror benefits tremendously from adult giving it nuance rather than always twenty-something cookie cut performances.

“The Strangers” has nothing to say other than shit happens, but that’s okay as that’s the genre’s domain. The film has no real commentary on the horror genre other than keeping its slasher tropes alert and functioning. It even has the nerve to open with a narration that both claims simultaneously this is based on reality and that no one knows what happened – but of course the Manson Murders are namechecked, which only adds to its ‘70s vibe*, although the unresolved nature of the Keddie Murders are perhaps a little more apt. As Kim Newman says,

"This shows only a relentless commitment to being no fun at all, which is vaguely admirable but ultimately self-defeating. The message of ’70s horror was that straight society was crazy; the 2008 version is that other people are shit - it’s a fine distinction, but makes a depressing difference."

As is dominant with home-invasion narratives the message is that the comfortable middle-class are always under threat from the dispossessed, although here that threat is not so clearly the underclass but more the natural endgame of youthful nihilistic pranksters. It is this nihilism and deliberate random cruelty (“Because you were home.”) that Roger Ebert found irredeemable but the lack of context is meant to add to the paranoia. It certainly leaves a hole. It’s just a sleek scare machine and it can’t find a way to open out its text into something socially aware like “Ils”, or as neatly tucked in at the corners as “Vacancy” even. It is, ultimately, one of those horrors perpetuating its own urban legends. (But it took a long time for a sequel to emerge.)

Monday, 7 May 2018

Black Panther

Ryan Cooglar, USA, 2018 

A lot was riding on this because, you know, An African Superhero and so on and because of its potential contribution to representation. Trying to discuss this film upon its release without this point would be to undervalue its relevance. And although fan boys were eager, the superhero genre had become rote for a wider audience. And then, of course, it was a massive success because it was good. The genre had been broadening itself on the fringes and then into the mainstream by showing that it could incorporate a scruffy attitude and be funny with ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’, and that it could be 18 rated and also funny with ‘Deadpool’. The funny certainly made ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’ a delight and improved ‘Thor: Ragnorok’. Oh, these superhero films always had amusing moments, but there was certainly an air of calculation about them: a one-liner here and there. The strident sincerity of Nolan’s ‘Batman’ – or even ‘Chronicle’, ‘Unbreakable’, ‘Defendor’ – was no longer the only approach in town and things were now stretching out (and didn’t have to go to the camp of Schumacher’s ‘Batman & Robin’ either). And the genre had been pushing at the edges of representation all over; maybe playing it too safe at times, but it seemed to be trying. ‘Black Panther’ came to show how taking-this-silliness-seriously with effortless humour could be at its most organic. It successfully keeps both the po-faced seriousness and excitement constantly in play so that it proves fun but not frivolous, earnest but not preachy. 

In its approach to representation, ‘Black Panther’s treatment of gender is also so casual and balanced – perhaps radically so – that it surely bests the much heralded but somewhat pedestrian ‘Wonder Woman’ on this issue (there’s Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Basset just for starters). Here, there is no doubt that women are, intellectually and physically, equal if not superior. They always seem to have the wit and the playfulness that gives them the upper hand. Ryan Cooglar says,

I really wanted to have women who speak to the themes of the film, who personally had their own arcs in the film, and who really speak to the fact that a society – an African society or any society – doesn’t function without women carrying tremendous weight. T’Challa is a great king, but he can’t be that without women in his life. So that was kind of my perspective.^

And this attention to both gender and race only serves to make ‘Black Panther’ full of winning inclusivity that goes to making it a fuller meal than perhaps these films sometimes offer. Well, more than just popcorn.

There’s also a noteworthy similarity between ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ in that the heroes in both films are ostensibly killers. With Wonder Woman, there is no doubt: not only does she kill but she kills the wrong guy and this doesn’t lead to much reflection on the film’s part, surely leaving a problematic lacuna. But when Black Panther (Chadwisk Boseman) seemingly defeats Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) and lets him die, it feeds into themes that have been running throughout the film: Killmonger chooses to die, citing it as the same choice that his ancestors made when they jumped off of ships to their deaths instead of accepting slavery. This provides a counterpoint to the constant refrain to ancestry that permeates Wakanda’s culture, a refrain which is positive but narrow. So when T’challa defeats Killmonger, he gives his nemesis the respect of choice: they could heal him in an instant, but T’challa is not unsympathic to Killmonger’s motivation and lets him choose his fate.

I have heard a criticism that this is the first superhero based in black culture but that the fact that it is based in tribes and trial-by-combat is negative and stereotypical; but I have read a lot of comments to the contrary, that many appreciate the representation of a variety of different African cultures.* Indeed, Wakanda as a utopian vision is also quite radical when dystopias are so in vogue, and can seen as a riposte to the limitations of constant doom-mongering.  Further one of T’challa’s arcs is that he comes to reject the ancestors as faulty, his own father as hypocritical, and that this leaving the past behind allows his forward-thinking. If Vibrabium is a symbol of the strength of black culture, when T’Challa smirks at the end when questioned as to what Wakanda can offer, it is surely an analogy for the feeling that that culture – which is of course many cultures – must be feeling as if they know and have something superior that white culture can only guess at. They don’t want the doom-mongering.

There are diversions into James Bond territory and Andy Serkis provides a more obvious scenery-chomping bad guy, leaving Killmonger to be more complex, and all of this is very entertaining. But the real achievement is that, like ‘Get Out’, ‘Black Panther’ is part of movement showing genre films can also address the American race issue with the language of entertainment and amusement, not just and only with neo-realist seriousness – unless you are averse and prejudiced against such things, of course. Indeed, in the screening I intended, a decidedly mixed audience laughed mostly at jokes rooted very much in the black perspective (the line about another white boy to fix and a character being called a colonialist; indeed, Martin Freeman is the token white). It feels full-blooded in detail even though it adheres to the familiar super-hero genre structure and strictures. The greater accent on greater diversity and representation reaps rewards – both culturally and economically – and continues to touch on certain areas of drama and humour previously not-so drawn upon, especially in the mainstream. 

In Ta-Nahisi Coates’ ‘Black Panther' Comic (issue #170, April 2018), the character Tetu gives a speech criticising the binary way of seeing matters when a circular vision is more beneficial and correct: 

“But Wakandans are trapped in the binary. So Strict. So Western. Boxes where there should be circles.” 

He’s villainous so he also adds, 

“Stasis when what we need is revolution”^

But this call for more fluid thinking is striking, offering an alternative to a rock and a hard place, to one or the other, against extremism. With mainstream entertainment reaching further and showing that, hey, a wider selection of viewpoints makes money, a this-or-that approach is belatedly but hopefully going to look old-fashioned sooner rather than later, even with the current resurgence of far Right Wing political reaction to the success of alternative thinking and agendas in the mainstream.** The sheer range of representation in ‘Black Panther’ is surely a triumph: but that it is done so well is important. Or as Davika Girish summarises,  

…but what makes Black Panther truly unique is that this “dystopian” present is juxtaposed with a (stunningly realised) utopian vision that is wholly steeped in the black experience – in its history, iconography, and culture. In doing so, Black Panther gives blockbuster science-fiction its new vocation: a grounded and inclusive reflection of reality that isn’t closed off by mass spectacle, but instead – in the tradition of Afrofuturism – allows for radical reimaginings of both the past and the future.***

But putting aside its place in this discussion about race and gender, it is a fun, well-measured and well-made film – this cannot be underestimated and this will be the foundation of its longevity. Yes, it has that typical third-act showdown and it doesn’t really relinquish genre norms, and Black Panther’s unique attributes are bound to go on to be subsumed and diluted by his inclusion to ‘The Avengers’ universe, but for now its perspective gives it relevance and grit. A superhero film with one eye on David Simon’s ‘The Wire’, perhaps. One can only hope that, now the bottom line has shown that such inclusivity is a money-maker, that the doors have truly been kicked open. Perhaps it is apt that entertainments so rooted in wish-fulfillment like superhero films are making headway in the way in the mainstream – both quietly and bombastically.

^ ‘Black Panther’ (issue #170, April 2018)
* Indeed, I read one social media comment where someone reported that his sister cried throughout the film because it was full of faces and characters that were familiar to her experience.
** At its most basic, the election of President Trump can be seen as a retort to President Obama; indeed by his own tweets and policies one could easily frame the argument that Trump himself treats it this way.
*** ‘Film Comment’ March-April 2018

Saturday, 5 May 2018


‘Jusqu'à la garde’
 – Xavier Legrand, France, 2017

This is a follow-on from Legrand’s 2014 short film ‘Just Before Losing Everything’ (Avant Que De Tout Perdre– whose trailer easily taps dread), which I had not seen and did not know of, so I was in the same position as the judge at the beginning of ‘Custody’ that presides over the case. “Which of you is the biggest liar?” she asks, and indeed I wasn’t sure either. At one point the possibility that the son was actually playing both sides seemed open to me. But it’s not those particular mind-games that the film is ultimately interested in playing (indeed, the trailer commendably keeps an air of ambiguity). 

Rather it is the psychological and the emotional tensions of weekend visits with dad that are most at play. Anyone who was a kid caught in an uncomfortable divorce – not even abusive – can relate to the excruciating experience of feeling trapped in a car with a difficult parent. And making you feel all this tension is Thomas Giora as Julien, who, in an all-round impressive ensemble piece, is exemplary. As the son, he doesn’t get to say so much, but it’s his experience that mostly guides the film and he expresses a lot, letting all the emotions flicker over his face as we watch him suffer and internalise stress as he wonders what he should do. The restraint and naturalism that permeates the film avoids making Denis Ménochet as Antoine – Julien’s father – just a cartoon villain: he plays the victim in embarrassing and frightening displays of self-pity, and he lashes out from time to time, but the tension is waiting to see just how far he’ll go. His swings between moderation and control and victimhood and hints of violence keep everyone on screen and in the audience on edge. He is recognisable and mundane in his moodswings and manipulations and this makes him far more recogniseable and troubling than a more incarnation of aggrieved masculinity like ‘The Stepfather’. Wendy Ide writes

Once you see him as a threat, you can’t unsee it. This is not a problem with Ménochet’s performance necessarily, rather a consequence of the narrow timeframe that focuses on the final crash and burn of family relations. But it does become a challenge to see the man behind the monstrous grudge.

But that’s maybe the point: the monstrous grudge is all Antoine chooses to be. When vengeance and grudge narratives are so culturally dominant, here is a reminder of the shocking pettiness when this carries over to mundane reality. This drama of wounded people trapped in emotional turmoil bears the tone of Andrey Zvyagintsev and bears the same sense of people emoting without everything being revealed and obvious. And then, the film slides into horror.

If anything is the raw stuff that the horror genre draws from, abusive family dramas are primary sources. All those Ids, all those monsters, all that feeling of helplessness: horror thrives on these elements and they are fundamental to painful domestic environments. All that trauma. All that potential for violence. If ‘Custody’ says anything it is how the commonplace miseries and disputes of our lives can descend into true horror. We have only to turn to headlines and friends to hear such stories. The question may be does the film use horror motifs or does genre obtain its motifs from such moments? A film like ‘Cape Fear’ turns up the genre aesthetics whereas a film like ‘Elephant’ keeps a step back, undoubtedly horrific but tethered to underplayed drama. ‘Custody’ is dour and restrained without being depressing, because the thriller tensions are always the undercurrent. It manages to stay quiet for the length before turning it up when all the previous screw-turning makes the whole thing cave in. It’s a masterful play and makes this a drama that is not likely to be shaken quickly.