Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Matinee - monster kids special appreciation club

1993, USA

Screenplay: Charles S Haas


This era of Joe Dante is golden. Its mixture of coming-of-age, easy humour and genre motifs and spoofery hits my sweet spot, achieved in a balance that only Dante was doing. It’s a miracle and a joy that we got that gleeful oddity ‘Eerie, Indiana’, for example.

Ten minutes in to ‘Matinee’ and you could almost miss that it’s stuffed with so much due to its deceptively light and bright manner. It has affectionate and funny homage to Fifties Atomic monster films and huckesterism, and clearly aligns this to a kaleidoscope of fear: real, imagined, personal and political. Right down to a TV prank about female fears (the joke’s on you). This gives way to announcements on the Cuban Missile Crisis – it’s 1962 – and the close-up on the mother’s dread moves to incorporate her eldest son. Gene (a charming Simon Fenton) is an army brat, resigned to a friendliness because of that which surely contributes to his maturity and his closeness to his younger brother (“Yeah: disgusting,” says young Dennis, taking his older brother’s cue). And the opening is rounded off with The Tokens’ ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ on the radio as a storm thunders outside. This whole world is defined by latent, real and projected, natural and manufactured. It’s a personal favourite opening.

It's true that the song use is a little too on-the-nose (The Angels’ ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ plays briefly with the appearance of Starkweather, just in case you didn’t guess) and John William’s score keeps out must subtlety (I wish The Tokens were allowed to linger longer so the mood of the song really set in; and something akin to Thomas Newman scoring would have been more to my taste). But Dante happily shoves subtext forward. There’s no doubting the themes here, long before Woolsey’s caveman-and-mammoth explanation is animated on a wall. It’s Charles Haas’ script but the tonal balance is distinctively Dante.

There’s a comic book gloss, the kind that sold the USA as the empire of dreams and plenty; the adults maybe a little on the hysterical side, but it’s grounded with the casually warm interplay between the youths. That’s a consistent jibe throughout Dante’s work. This grounding is in details like the jaded indifference of Woolsey’s (John Goodman – Stogie-chomping his way through a William Castle character) actress-partner Ruth (a wonderfully dry Cathy Moriarty) and the barely suppressed worry of Gene’s mother. It’s in Stan’s (the instantaneously likeable Omri Katz, who will always be immortal as ‘Eerie, Indiana’s’ Marshall Teller) male bravado being easily punctured by a far more confident girl, or Gene resigned to loneliness because he’s always moving. It’s heightened reality rather than just movie-reality (for comparison: John Hughes’ youth films don’t have such warmth or realism). It’s a film made on memorable detail: for example, there’s a nice little skit on the UN saying “Hell”, and plenty of mileage out of a former delinquent boyfriend called Starkweather and his hilariously bad poetry (“No skin off my ass-phalt,” has always been a favourite). There’s even a gag-homage to Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’.


Dante doesn’t really take sides on the matter of real, manufactured or imagined fears, although his nostalgia for this era of cinema-going is palpable. Rather, ‘Matinee’ posits that all forms of fear will thrive and exist in one hotbed of anxiety, in peaks and troughs. There is the moment where Gene’s mother nurtures and tempers her worry and possible pending grief by watching old family films of her husband, and Gene leaves her to this private moment of balming her feelings with film. We could criticise him for not going forward and consoling her, or maybe he just innately understands that uniquely private and emotional relationship between viewer and film. And then later in the film, as the kids are upstairs happily throwing popcorn and taken in by the fireworks accompanying ‘Mant’, the cinema owner is in the bunker in the basement, eating popcorn and watching the news. The medium consoles and it inflames, depended upon your preference.

And the movie-within-a-movie, ‘Mant’, is hilarious. These are the patches in the film where satire gives way to gleeful, unapologetic spoof. And it’s always been evident that Dante knows this stuff inside-out: the terrible ‘Mant’ dialogue is belly-laugh funny, it’s so spot-on. Dante’s particularly artistry is in satirising genre while never forfeiting its power. The film ends on hope… the “coming attractions”… but its final image is of war toys in close-up, obscuring the Happy Movie Ending. There’s always grit in the candyfloss with Dante. (And it does short-change The Tokens twice.)

It may have been misunderstood and sunk at the time, but the film has a loyal cult following because ‘Matinee’ is a true Monster Kid happy place. Like Dante’s ‘Explorers’, it leaves me with a goofy-happiness with its Sun-drenched mixture of fear, friendship and film. It’s a hugely entertaining, earnest in its silliness, admirably straightest as a bildungsroman, concluding that, most of all, fear needs an audience.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Vast of Night

 

Andrew Patterson

2019, USA

Written by Andrew Patterson & Craig W. Sanger

 

‘The Vast of Night’ is one of those films that subsists on mood and build-up, slow burn character and understatement. This means it won’t appeal to those expecting a more visceral and frightening alien encounter: its works more from the eerie-uncanny angle. It’s like a Robert Altman film mixed with a Fifties no-budget b-movie. And it occasionally pretends to be an episode of some Sixties sci-fi spooker. Indeed, we’re in the realms of ‘The Outer Limits’’ first episode ‘The Galaxy Being’, with something weird being picked up on the airwaves, or microwaves, or whatever… 

The evocation of one night in New Mexico 1950s Americana where the town’s majority are at a baseball game is sumptuous: this is wonderful period stuff that  feels nostalgically right. Straight away, it’s socially busy with our nerdy protagonists talking a mile-a-minute. Our central protagonists are Fay Crocker and Everett Sloan, played so engagingly by Sierra Miller and Jake Horowitz, she with thorough nerdy charm and gusto and he with a just a hint of macho jerky overconfidence in conflict with natural goodness. He is a local radio DJ and she’s a sixteen-year-old switch-board operator who loves to talk about the tremendous scientific developments that will dazzle the future. And one of the treats is how their relationship is of friendship, as kindred spirits, rather than romantic. 

It is quite an audacious opening, throwing the viewer right into the milieu of retro-atmospherics, lengthy gliding takes, constant chatter between characters who know each other already and we’ll just have to keep up. The talk is witty, always conveying character, packed with information, realistic and casual, smart and a delight. And beautifully played. The talk is as wall-to-wall as a play – script Andrew Patterson & Craig W. Sanger - but Patterson’s direction – showy without being disruptive – is wholly cinematic. There are gorgeous wide-screen compositions. As Adam Nayman notes, “The technical proficiency of Patterson’s debut is off the charts.” (Although I would say he credits the Spielberg influence too much: talky humanism and UFO scares were a thing before ‘Close Encounters’.)

Then there is a long-take of Faye working the switchboard and hearing an odd noise and trying to investigate further. Then there is a second long-take where the camera glides from one side town to the other, via going through the basketball game. I am a sucker for such long-takes: the first allows Miller to act her retro glasses off as she talks to various people, pulling and plugging connections on the switchboard, trying to work on the mystery whilst tied to the switchboard and radio. The second long-take is that kind of camerawork and trickery that always pleases me, the bonus being that it has a world-building purpose (here’s the town; here’s where they are geographically from one another). If the latter errs on the side of indulgence, it’s fully congruous to this mood-piece.

 

The pacing is a rush to figure out what’s happening, a chase. That sets the momentum, giving energy to an otherwise very talky show. There's a perpetual tension that keeps rolling through, even when it stops for compelling story-telling. And all of this leads to a place where they walk right into tragedy and horror. Despite the fun of the retro-sci-fi aliens-above-us, the film is always underpinned by tragedy, right from Billy (Bruce Davis) calling in with his story, through the tale of a child abduction and to the notations of the empty spaces left behind as the town finally comes out of the game. It may be busy on the surface, but it's creepy too.

‘The Vast of Night’ is a treat of a script, performance and characterisation. A wonderful homage to UFO sci-fi with impeccable mood and with just enough bite to accentuate a grounded sadness and terror. It’s jazzy, assured, has a clear love of storytelling, and ultimately haunting.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Something Evil


Steven Spielberg

1977, USA

Writer: Richard Clouse

Spielberg’s first movie, made for TV, is an example of how haunted/possessed houses often show preferences where gender is concerned. When they are more concerned with men, the haunting/possession is much to do with homicidal natures; when focused on female protagonists, it bears a preference for madness. That is, the houses tend to become manifestations of the woman’s alienation, repression and psychological anxieties; an expression of their previously internalised instabilities and traumas. Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’, ‘The Haunting’, the endless adaptations of ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and so on. There’s the ambiguity of “Is it all in her mind?” The feminist sympathies of these films have precedents in Henry James’ novel – a seminal text of ambiguity – and Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (1959), but also in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) and even Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847) – a house that is, after all, a building haunted by its past and present cruelties. The houses in these films and texts reflect the neuroses of their women with transmogrifying walls and wallpaper, doors bulging with unseen and frightening presences, their rooms threatened by malevolent manifestations, the air disturbed by cries and voices from the past.


In ‘Something Evil’, the housewife – initially a sunny and fairly confident figure – is troubled at night by the sound of mild weeping from a child. Sandy Dennis exudes a natural eccentricity that lifts the character of Marjorie Worden above stock type, but she’s an artist too and isn’t just there to bake apple pies. Her own children are asleep, and when searching the house (almost caressing the banister as she looks for the moaning), she can find no origin for the plaintive lament. It seems, then to be coming from the barn out back, so there she goes; but there is no one in there and the weeping seems be coming from the stove. No: it’s just a timid shock of a rat this time. But later, it turns out that, in fact, the crying is coming from a jar filled with a red moving substance – a goo, if you will. The abstractness of this is eerie and odd, and therefore a bonus: it is an unusual tool for a devil to use, no? It appears to be calling upon Marjorie’s sanity as much as Sandy Denis’ full array of nervous tics. She gets herself interested in the trimmings of the occult, making trinkets to sell based upon supposedly satanic designs and taking to heart her old neighbour’s tales of having been troubled by devils in his own home. 

A picture of a woman troubled by her husband’s constant absences comes into focus: she convinces the family to move to the farm, but she is also gullible and flaky and increasingly neurotic. Her husband is not a bad or negative influence, but he’s in advertising and always away and arguably neglectful in that manner. The children – young Stevie and toddler Laurie - are fairly nondescript stock types, and the neighbours seem friendly and accommodating, with a couple of quirky types thrown in. Well, the nephew seems a little creepy but that’s just a red herring.

What is it Marjorie is troubled about? Well, there is the creeping sense of possession in which she starts acting paranoid and slaps her son around a bit: the disturbance is, typically, prying at her nerves and insecurities as a parent. She’ll lock up the kids and explain to them, through the door, that she no longer trusts herself. But she isn’t playing with axes like Mr Lutz in ‘The Amityville Horror’ or laying it on thick about perfect families like Terry O’Quinn in ‘The Stepfather’. She just gets needier and quietly falls apart. And what is it about that jar that seems to pop up wherever it pleases, crying, to set her off?

 

The jar hints at an unaddressed grief and trauma in Marjorie’s life, one that has not been properly addressed either by herself or her husband. If we impose the theory that the jar represents the loss of a child, a miscarriage or an abortion, for example, and the "supernatural" occurrences are more her mind’s expressions of unresolved sorrow and need for attention, then it joins an avenue filled with other haunted houses reflecting female trauma. But there is little backstory to clarify.

Spielberg is, of course, a master director who knows just how to frame and move a camera, even incidentally, to keep things purring and more interesting for this unsurprising supernatural encounter, one that’ll learn those atheists and dabblers. What’s most winning is the obvious affinity he has with naturalism: the bustle and flow of the parties are a highlight, but also the semi-improvisational feel when Marjorie is getting her son Stevie (Johnny Whittaker) to do incantations on the protective hexagram she has painted on the bedroom floor. These are fleeting moments, but they hint at greater things rather than just going through the motions of a tv movie. Of course, next we get ‘Duel’.

The saving grace for ‘Something Evil’ is that it is short, so the fact that it has a paucity of action that leads to very little is quickly glossed over (wait, what about the jar…?). Eventually, it shifts to Marjorie’s concern for her son, which is meant to be a twist but, but like many details has no real substance: how could that secondary character know, since Stevie doesn’t do anything odd or suspicious that we see, only that his mother beats him? Why wouldn’t the devil possess Marjorie as she’s such ripe material? And if it isn’t Marjorie that’s possessed, that surely shines more questions on that beating?

Rather, taking Marjorie as the source of the supernatural, then the act of beating her son filled her with such guilt that she projected her troubled state onto her son so that she could save him and redeem herself. And with that in mind, she’s the cause of the attack on the neighbour just at the moment she calls him. It’s not the whole family hugging in the pentagram, just her and the boy. A tale of a woman having and recovering from a breakdown of sorts, it seems.

It's very minor and wouldn’t necessarily be of much interest but for it’s director and, as mentioned before, next we get ‘Duel’ and the Spielberg story really starts to take off.


Sunday, 7 February 2021

The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence


The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence

Writer & director: Tox Six

2011, Netherlands


Even friends warned me off this one. 

Tom Six’s original ‘The Human Centipede’ possessed an ultimate provocative basis, one that has now become a mainstream meme: even those who haven’t seen the film are likely to know the premise. A line of people stitched together mouth-to-butt. To elaborate: a madman with an accent abducts unfortunate Americans for his plan to make the human centipede of the title, mouth-to-anus, etc. And it’s this horror stunted at the oral and anal stages that Mary Wild* thinks is the true cause for the gag-reflex reactions and criticisms, and there’s a lot to that. A black comedy, a mad scientist romp crossed with torture porn, more akin to, say, ‘Re-Animator’, or ‘The Flesh Eaters’ or some Universal classic (certainly is shares the jet-black blood of the latter). Although it never seemed to be really mentioned, it had an evident tongue-in-cheek twinge that was ignored because people were so busy being disgusted/delighted at the outrageous premise. It was flirting happily with the SO-BAD-IT’S-GOOD pleasures. Certainly, Dieter Laser played it to the campy mad scientist hilt, holding it all together. There was negligible dialogue and characterisation, but there also seemed to be a knowingness that seemed to indicate that this was predominantly intentional. And it had a gloss too.


But my curiosity with ‘The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence’ was that this was Tom Six’s apparent response to genre fans admonishing ‘The Human Centipede’ for not being extreme enough. So, this sequel is surely a jibe at those wanting something more extreme: the central figure is a repulsive, mentally challenged psychopathic fan that lives with his abusive mother, can’t tell reality from fiction and thinks the original is a manual for his sandpaper-assisted masturbatory fantasies. Martin – a gleefully repellent Lawrence R Harvey – works as a security guard, re-watching the original film repeatedly and keeping a scrapbook saying “100% medically accurate”. One of his victims screams, “It’s just a fucking movie!” When Martin entices the original star of ‘The Human Centipede’ to come to London, she witters on about getting parts in a Tarantino movie and surely clearly broadcasts that she is in on the joke. There’s the smidge of industry satire here. But is this film criticising or just GIVING ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT? Maybe it isn’t a jibe at all, but rather meeting the challenge to cross the line of extremity, a laying down of the gauntlet. 

From the very start, ‘The Human Centipede 2’ does its successful best not to be liked or in any way appealing. Martin is repulsive, Harvey oozing into the role with goggle-eyed gusto. It’s the kind of role that gets cult kudos, that makes and breaks career opportunities. There is also the side to Martin of a bullied, damaged protagonist punishing those that mistreat him. We know how it’s going to go with the neighbour playing his music too loud: this is not a subtle film. Then there’s the black-and-white, as a means to mitigate the gore, which should add a little class maybe, but also adds to the griminess and mostly makes the rain look black (a wonderfully oppressive if not surreal effect). James Edward Barker’s score is a relentless drone, and there’s no reprieve in the sound-design. Then there’s the portrayal of an unappealing Britishness, the kind that runs through B-horrors like ‘K-Shop’ and ‘Mum & Dad’, full of dodgy dialogue and hysterical caricatures. It’s almost like a hybrid of ‘Eraserhead’ and John Waters and ‘Maniac’. Superficially, it’s slicker than those films - for it has decent production values that make the effects a cut above (so to speak) - although those are classics. But those films were more than just exercises in audience punishment. 

And then ‘Full Sequence’ gets to the third act, which jettisons the artistic ellipses and is just relentless torture. Martin wields a syringe like a mad doctor and tries to classically conduct his work, like many a psychopath before him, not least of all Hannibal Lector. But ultimately, even he vomits. As a delivery system of shocks, carefully graduated to see exactly how much you the viewer can take, it is a triumph. The ridiculous extremity of the mother murder is that kind designed to elicit the WTF laughter from gorehounds. But by the end, no one is likely to be laughing: it is because the subsequent extremity is increasingly centred in degradation and relentlessness. Like ‘A Serbian Film’, it’s set up as a challenge, an endurance test. Then the comeuppance, a lurch for poetic justice, harks back to that laughing-at-extremity-ridiculousness. 

On-set effects supervisor Dan Martin and Lawrence R. Harvey make it explicit that Tom Six’s agenda was to show his detractors how extreme he could be, and certainly the construction of the centipede is gruelling, more like what people expected from the original.* It’s very disarming to hear these creators laugh their way through discussions and interviews about ‘The Human Centipede 2’, to hear Harvey of how he reached the role of Martin as performance art. One can trace back to Grand Guignol: “You came to be shocked, no”? Martin talks of how he gave Six a list of BBFC taboos and Six seemed to be ticking them off like a TO DO list.

But Six and Harvey were also referencing Euro-art films, ‘Salo’ being the obvious touchstone. The thing is that the extremity of ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Re-Animator’ is for comic effect; serious works like ‘Salo’ and ‘Martyrs’ have political and socio-critical intent, commentating on the very cruelty they are depicting. Waters films have camp goals to challenge conservative norms. I have seen Six’s ‘Full Sequence’ as a gibe at the horror fan that thinks they want MORE, but it doesn’t actually feel condescending, unlike Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’. It doesn’t feel poignant and tragic like ‘Henry: portrait of a serial killer’ or ‘Maniac’, or even ‘Santa Sangre’.  Probably because it doesn’t really end on tragedy. Certainly Martin can be conceived as a tragic character, horribly abused, let down by a care system and articulating that abuse in the most demented way possible, but the film makes sure sympathy is not an option long before the barbed-wire rape (a moment apparently cut from the version I saw). Tragedy is not a lingering aftertaste. 

But there is also a reading of it as a criticism of and reaction to the HORROR FILMS MAKE MANIACS arguments that greeted ‘The Human Centipede’: Six was apparently frequently asked if he was concerned about copycats. The sequel asks, “How would that work? See how absurd that is?” Dan Martin speaks of the fact that the 2012 Colorado shooting has a clear link to Nolan's ‘Batman’ movies, but that it hasn’t hurt that franchise at all. Compare with the rabid UK tabloid reaction to ‘Child’s Play 3’ and withdrawal because it was claimed it had been seen by the murderers: the link is far more tenuous. By amping up to ridiculous levels, ‘Full Sequence’ tries to show the accusations against the concept as absurd.

“The film is reprehensible, dismaying, ugly, artless and an affront to any notion, however remote, of human decency.” So says Robert Ebert, which is exactly its come-on for extremity fans. But ‘The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence’ is perhaps too inside itself and its own genre commentary to illicit the kind of poignancy of the other extreme classics. There is perhaps the sense of a near-miss with Six. As an unforgiving exercise in offensiveness and extremity, as an endurance test, it succeeds and on this it stands. Whether that is enough depends upon your taste. Certainly, I wasn’t inclined to either condemn or commend ‘Full Sequence’. For all its carnival of the gross and grotesque, it ultimately doesn’t have that subtextural sucker-punch of something more, something beyond its in-joke to elevate it.


References to Dan Martin and Laurence R Harvey and Mary Wild taken from: Evolution Of Horror pt 27: The Human Centipede 2 - 

https://open.spotify.com/episode/4QN89yyj3xhX559N65uY0l