Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Tombs of the Blind Dead

Tombs of the Blind Dead
La noche del terror ciego

Amando de Ossorio, 1971, 
writers: A. de Ossorio & Jesus Navarro Carrion

Which is one of those films that probably isn’t so good artistically – it’s the kind of thing that gives meat to parodies – but this doesn’t really matter as it is highly entertaining. The kind of thing that horror excels in. I saw it at a BFI screening with an audience happily laughing appropriately at moments of daftness and cliché. And it’s also always good to see these older films in bright and clean prints.

Amando de Ossorio’s ‘Tombs of the Blind Dead’ has its most winning attributes in the location of the medieval village ruins and the Blind Dead themselves, which are wonderfully Gothic and eerie. Set in Spain but filmed in Portugal. This location and those undead masks vividly carry the whole film, even when it’s throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.

Some notes:

The skeletal hand falling into frame to set things off was surely the kind of thing in Peter Strickland’s mind when beginning ‘In Fabric’.
She’s taking her time, looking around.
Erroneous play with mannequins and flashing red neon, perhaps a nod to capturing some Mario Bava flavour. (Okay, Strickland must have seen this film!)
In the Seventies, lesbian intervals will be set to cheesy lounge music.
When bedding down in the deserted ruins of a medieval town in the middle of nowhere, a woman will take her clothes off.
Apparently being pursued by a zombie means you forget how a door works.
Eerie Gothic ruins won’t stop a vamp from trying her seduction techniques.
There’s a fair bit of lukewarm macho-posturing which stops being amusingly ridiculous when it escalates to rape.
There’s the creepy mortuary attendant with the inappropriate smirk who is maybe meant to be genuine comic relief, but it’s hard to tell when there’s a lot of unintentional humour in context.
So… can the Blind Dead can create other undead from victims?? Huh…??
Gangster fishermen?
The flashback history lesson takes away a little of the mystery of the Knights. Also, that seems a highly and unnecessarily convoluted sacrificial ceremony.
To locate their prey, the Blind Dead rely on the hysterics of their victims, which makes sense, but they also rely on victims moving really slowly, or backing themselves into corners or allowing themselves to be encircled, etc. Even the undead (?) horses move in slo-mo so these victims mostly only have themselves to blame.
Undead horses also provide escape steeds for victims.
Being descended upon by undead cannibal Knights is no excuse not to have a girl fight.

Tombs of the Blind Dead’s original Spanish title is ‘Night of the Blind Terror’, because it was the time where Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was a hit and ‘Night’ was rather essential to any horror title; but Ossorio was insistent that his Knights were vampiric mummies rather than cannibalistic zombies. That’s all par for the cash-in course, but far odder is the fact that the American distributors added a prologue that would bafflingly tie this in to ‘Planet of the Apes’, to call it ‘Revenge of Planet Ape’ (?). I guess all genre can be "Frankenstein monstered" together.

Although moments like a loud heartbeat being enough to alert the Blind Dead are ostensibly silly (or it certainly made the audience I was with chortle) yet, like the slo-mo horses, it too can be seen part of the nightmare logic. And because the monsters and the atmosphere are so successful, it justifies everything until the budget runs out into a still frame.

And then there are Blind Dead sequels and Ossorio’s film boosting Seventies’ Spanish horror to also be getting on with.

Monday, 29 July 2019

One moment in: 'Melody' (1971) - sports day

One moment in: ‘Melody’ - Sports day

Waris Hussein, 1971, UK

Wes Anderson is quoted on the cover calling Waris Hussein’s ‘Melody’ (1971) “a forgotten, inspiring gem”, and in the chock-full coming-of-age genre, this as enchanting and as affecting as any. It has that decidedly British 1960-70s feel that’s part rough-and-tumble, part cheeky-chappy, part whimsy. As they were so successful in ‘Oliver’, Jack Wild and Mark Lester are paired again as odd-couple friends. This time, Lester is a doe-eyed kid who just wants to marry his first love, Melody (Tracy Hynde). Wild is the loveable delinquent that gets involved and has pangs of jealousy. His deadpan delivery of “I thought you might” is a highlight. And many supporting faces will be familiar to anyone watching TV during that time. ‘Melody’ scores by treating the children’s romanticism seriously and as a proper put-down to the adult world.

The moment where Daniel and Melody bond through playing their instruments is a peak moment and the whole escapade all ends with some ‘Hue and Cry’ kid’s anarchy; the former scene could easily be chosen for this post, but I am going to go for the sports day sequence. Oh, I am sure there’s some nostalgia at play in my choice here, for anyone that was a kid experiencing sports day in that era will find memories and feelings stirred. There’s bound to be a little shock for younger audiences that it so casually has very young kids smoking, or a teacher asking a boy if it is whiskey he smells on his breath, but it was a very different era. 

Key to the sports day vignettes are that they are set to the Bee Gees ‘To Love Somebody’. It’s mostly through Nina Simone’s devastating version that I came to this song: I'm not a Bee Gees fan yet I have to admit to finding this track affecting. But its placement here is both surprising and transcendent, underscoring the whole school event with Daniel’s romantic longing. The music is like the sound of Daniel reminiscing as an older man about the sports day when he first had a big crush; the song's slight incongruity makes this moment feel like a memory. Yet it’s also music that places it firmly in the era. The song is slick and yearning and gives a gloss and elevation to the sports day montage that could quite easily have come from ‘Grange Hill’ or Ealing Studios. That it feels slightly at odds with the rough edges of an unremarkable school event  provokes a surprising elegance and pathos.

Oh, and watch out for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the soundtrack too.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Child's Play (2019)

Lars Klevberg, 2019 

Creator Don Mancini apparently objects to this reboot but updating Chucky for the Bluetooth generation is a smart move.  Slight thematic differences stop this from being a dull retread of the original. Dismissing the whole “possessed doll” origin makes Chucky less wisecracking but more troubling as the threat of modern technology gone awry. More ‘Westworld’ and ‘Black Mirror’ than ‘Annabel’. It also eschews the smugness that dominates the later Chucky films. 

Andy (Gabriel Bateman) feels like a decidedly modern kid, both happy to cry it out and to kick-ass, a reasonably full range of character. And the casual way he’s partially deaf, which barely plays a part in the drama or his friendships, is a detail which is positively normalised by being happily trivialised. His mother (Aubrey Plaza) is a young woman who had Andy too early and sometimes feels more like a big sister. Yes, many other characters come from the B-Movie Catalogue of Archetypes – the bad boyfriend that deserves all he gets; Andy’s new slightly obnoxious friend – which is expected, cliché and undemanding but the film doesn’t quite rub it in and is grounded by the central relationship. Uncle Lancifer doesn’t quite accept the middle section where Andy has to deal with the grim gift Chucky has left him – like a cat leaving a dead mouse for its owner – and this is indeed the most awkward sequence which runs like horror farce and relies on no follow-up questions to get resolved; but it’s not quite out of tone. It has that b-movie scruffiness where a further polish on the script wouldn’t have gone amiss to nudge it up a little. If there is the sense of feeling a little surprised that this is fair rather than bad, that was the dominant take-away. And then it just runs into a standard showdown third act. Oh, and Mark Hamill now voices Chucky.

‘Child’s Play’s most interesting feature is its brush with the themes of nature and nurture. Chucky has had his “violence inhibitors” turned off by a factory work pushed too far so that he fixates on loyalty to Andy but doesn’t know how to process certain input appropriately. Andy is a little old for a “doll”, but he’s new in the area and lonely and this is a fascinating super high-tech appliance. So it’s creepy when Chucky is staring at you when you are trying to sleep, but, hey, every appliance has it’s annoyances. Chucky’s mistaking a toilet roll for science book is just a glitch in it’s trying to be a real friend. These are moments of humour.

Most interestingly, whilst the tweens are laughing at the silly super-violence of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’, Chucky is taking in tips for killing. This isn’t a film to take on such a weighty topic as the responsibility of art’s portrayal of violence, the ‘Chainsaw 2’ moment being a set up for the film’s grisliest moments and for farce, but it’s intriguing that a main source of empathy is Chucky’s clumsy desire to do good and misunderstanding cues happening around him. The kids are laughing – like any innate horror fan, they know the genre is a good source of comedy – but  there is something fundamentally amiss with Chucky and he takes it all wrong. His insistence and faux paus are readable as the behaviour of somebody who is cognitive atypical and therefore deserving of empathy. Until he kills, of course. But then, his homicidal behaviour comes across more as he-knows-no-better than intentionally malevolent, as the violent reactions of a stalker or spurned lover. Which makes him no less scary.

It’s not ground-breaking, but it meets demands with Tyler Burton Smith’s script tweaking a bit here and there to lift it above the in-joke that the original series has become.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Different Seasons - Stephen King

“Different Seasons”
Stephen King 

This is the Stephen King collection of four stories superficially set around the seasons. Two novels, a novella and a short story: ‘Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Apt Pupil’, ‘The Body’ and ‘The Breathing Method’. Two are best known for being adapted into some people’s favourite films. 

There really isn’t any redemption in ‘Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption’. A guy who was wrongfully incarcerated escapes prison and his friend goes to him after serving his sentence. It makes for a cool title but where’s the redemption? The same kind of faux-poignancy afflicts the story’s by-line: “Hope springs eternal”. The hope to escape? But the escape seems like something Andy worked for over years and not quite a hope, which is surely something more abstract? I guess he would have hoped his digging away would lead to an exit, but…? And what would the narrator Red hope for? To meet Andy again after getting out? Again, it sounds nice but… doesn’t quite develop convincingly.

What we do have with ‘Shawshank’ is an enjoyable study of character and context. The description of the jail and its frictions are well conveyed. A huge ingredient and appeal of King is his style of some-guy-just-shooting-the-shit which makes him immensely readable. Sure, his skill and literary merit can be argued, but he is very easy to engage with and that is formidable, whatever his weaknesses… and my observations make it clear that I often find him just as wanting and annoying as compelling. 

But, as far as ‘Shawshank’ goes: tales of put-upon protagonists outwitting everyone else are always winning. Despite its ingredients of gang-rape and notes on prison corruption, it all succumbs to sentimentality which doesn’t quite feel warranted. There is a sense that all the ingredients don’t quite gel, that the whole doesn’t quite exceed the storytelling and ultimately that the sentimentality is a little like floral wrapping paper on a rusty cudgel. But the storytelling is gripping with numerous memorable scenes and characters. Although Rita Heyward isn’t even the relevant poster.

‘Apt Pupil’ doesn’t possess any sentimentality. It’s the tale of a couple of sociopaths trying to outwit one another. A teenager discovers that an old local man is in fact a former Nazi concentration camp general in hiding and blackmails him to tell stories about that experience. Just the “gooshy” stuff. 

What’s most striking is how King depicts an all-American boy, a thorough success and virtual prodigy, as an all-smiling sociopath, a budding serial- and spree-killer with a deep fascination for fascism. He’s too smart and introverted for the scruffy anger of, say, the Proud Boy movement, but we get the idea: he’s a wannabe Nazi. Grady Hendrix says of the young character: “[Bowden is] just an All-American kid (as King tells us repeatedly, as if type is a substitute for character) who turns out to be rotten to the core.” Meanwhile, the adults have no idea of the monster in their midst. But I see this as the root social criticism. 

It’s the most unforgiving story in the collection. The tale of the impasse reached by these sociopaths is not undermined or embellished by digressions or sentimentality: they wouldn’t feel right here. There is a deceptively protracted feel, as it takes place over years, but it’s all tightly wound. Aside from King needing to introduce another character later on to make things move on, it avoids succumbing to a trite showdown and it remains upsetting and chilling to the very last line. 

‘The Body’ is, of course, the source for Rob Reiner’s ever-popular coming-of-age hit film, ‘Stand by Me’ (1986). Actually, the change in title can be seen as indicative of the film weighting towards the nostalgic and sentimental. Not that King’s original doesn’t have these elements, but it’s a far more clear-headed and sad affair. It is, after all, a tale of four boys thinking that going to see a kid’s body will be an adventure. All around are backstories of abuse, neglect, bullying and abundant cruelty to give the lie to rose-tinted nostalgia. This is not a safe world for the kids. Indeed, despite the I-am-a-writer intrusions – the self-reflexive kind that can made King tiresome – there is the sense that narrator Gordon doesn’t quite know himself why this particular childhood memory is so dominant and defining for him. After all, it isn’t like he continued to be close to all the gang except Chris. Like ‘Shawshank’, it’s told from the perspective of a somewhat adoring friend – in this case, Gordon’s observations about Chris. Unlike ‘Shawshank’ that seems to lunge for the sentimental to make up for what it lacks, ‘The Body’ has natural pathos in abundance.  

The shortest piece is ‘The Breathing Method’ which is a different kettle of fish altogether, with King evoking a more traditionally Gothic and macabre atmosphere. Like Peter Straub’s ‘Ghost Story’, it’s set around a group of men getting together to tell tales. The narrator is somewhat desperate to join this somewhat abstract group (another men-only scenario, elbowing out the womenfolk) and there are hints of something uncanny at the edges. But its centre is one of the men’s tales of a patient and when she gives birth. It’s a full-bodied set-piece where horror, exploitation, pathos and black humour come to a heady and unforgettable peak. You can almost feel King gleeful smirk as he engineers this and, if the other tales nod at the genre, this is the one that leaves no doubt he is a horror writer. All dressed up in the civility of gothic pretension it may be, but this centrepiece is pure grand guignol.  

This is all a Big Boys Affair where women don’t get much of a look-in. They’re mostly murdered in ‘Shawshank’ and "cunts" in ‘Apt Pupil’ and ‘The Body’. Although ‘The Breathing Method’ focuses on a strong female, she is seen through male reportage; a doctor who stops to mansplain how the pain of childbirth is just female delusion. And this could be seen as a feature of character if there wasn’t a dearth of female representation elsewhere. One of the last insights into ‘The Body’s main protagonist Gorden is that he won’t cry in front of his wife because “It would have been pussy.” It’s probably meant to be a call-back to his adolescence when as boys they would call each other “pussies” all the time, but considering how he earlier chastised his younger self for the immature misogyny of his own writing, this doesn’t hint too much at a personal growth. 

King is immensely readable here and the shorter lengths keeps in check his waffling and digressions, to sharpen the focus. The digressions of ‘Shawshank’ colour the context and are riveting. ‘Apt Pupil’, although the longest, is lean and mean without recourse to rambling detours; even when it seemingly loses concentration to divert to a teacher character, this ultimately has purpose. ‘The Breathing Method’ is the kind of story that has plenty of accommodation for lacunas and irresolution. ‘The Body’ is the greatest offender with its insistent subplot of a young author and The Magic of WritingTM trying to pull attention away from the main tale. I for one have never been fond of the dragged-out pie contest barforama from the film and it isn’t much better here, superfluously filling out fictional-within-a-fiction minor characters that really don’t need the attention. There are plenty of secondary characters of interest in the main tale. And the chapter that’s just a presentation of Gordon’s first writing, adjacent to the main tale, smacks of self-indulgence and the whiff of ego (at least the pie contest is part of the main story). But there is often that with King’s writer characters… and there are lot of them in his considerable output.

I read ‘Different Seasons’ for a book group with a people that, aside from one lady, didn’t read horror fiction at all; but despite its nasty and crude edges, the general consensus was that King was a good writer that drew you in, even if he wasn’t usually your thing. I hadn’t read King for a long, long time, but ‘Different Seasons’ is evidence of how he has a natural gift for popularist fiction, and of both how readable and flawed he is. It’s a good one to convert the curious.  

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Buck Theorem album #3: 'Uncanny Clockwork'

Voila! My third musical album effort, the album "Uncanny Clockwork", featuring visits to post-apocalyptic and post-party landscapes, love of music, alien abduction, Tina Turner karaoke, contemplating one's place in the cosmos and an attractive neighbour, and whales. 

And this album features some dancing, too.