Monday, 28 June 2021

Lifeforce - and my negligible personal experience with it

Tobe Hooper,

1985, UK

Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby

+ uncredited: Michael Armstrong and Olaf Pooley


-1- “concerning my negligible personal connection to the film”

Throughout my youth, I lived in a maisonette with my room three storeys up overlooking fields. Across the fields, I had a clear view of the peak of the clocktower of what had been a Masonic Boys’ School but was now “The American University”, and that’s how one night I saw a glimpse of the filming of Tobe Hooper’s ‘Lifeforce’. There’s the scene where the characters helicopter in to a sanatorium grounds in pursuit of the killer alien, and that’s what I saw: the helicopter buzzing around the clocktower one night. In the “making of”, there’s the tale that Hooper was instructing the pilot to go nearer to the clocktower, dangerously, and certainly the proximity of the shot in the film does feel a little too close for comfort. And I am sure I saw some of the lightshow at the end being filmed too.

 And over a decade later, I found myself working at that location: it had not been a university for a long time and it was now just a “campus”, hosting summer schools and film crews. Ostensibly I was a general cleaner/custodian (my boss was American) so I was making up rooms for summer schools and picking up after film crews. It wasn’t unusual for me to turn a corner and bump into ‘Eastenders’ (Dot Cotton once joked that I had stolen her make-up), or a kids show being filmed, or to walk out into the quad to see a Bollywood dance routine underway. Before it closed and was turned into luxury apartments, I lived on campus for a few months on the set of ‘Children of Men’, but that’s another story. All to say that the moment in ‘Lifeforce’ where they arrive in the helicopter and you see people wandering along the walkway cloisters in the background, I used to sweep those walkways daily. It was an incredible location and I still have the fondest memories of wandering and working around it.

 When the ‘Lifeforce’ characters go to visit the woman in her apartment, that’s what was called The Headmaster’s House, and a Shiek lived there for a time when I first worked there. I walked up those stairs many times. When the character’s go inside the asylum, that mustard colour on the walls is one I knew so well: this was the colour inside every dormitory tower. There was a time when my boss had the chance to repaint, but he forked out extra money for the very same mustard colour to be specially mixed, which we staff could never understand. Anyway, for this alone, ‘Lifeforce’ will always have a particular place in my affection, for tiggering memories of a building that I loved and spent a decade in.

-2- “concerning the film itself”

 The last time I saw ‘Lifeforce’ was probably in the Eighties on VHS, so when I saw it again, streamed a couple of years ago, my first thought was that it had never looked so good. And it certainly looks great, the opening space sequence with John Dykstra’s effects being both state-of-the-art glorious and just the right side of old-school cumbersome. And that’s true of the whole film. It captures that feel of enjoyably bad-it’s-good 50s b-movies perfectly without ever quite falling over the edge… well, not if you’re a genre fan, surely.

According to the “making of”, the production of ‘Lifeforce’ was quite drug-fuelled and shambolic. An adaptation of Colin Wilson’s book ‘The Space Vampires’ (I mean, with a title like that…) by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby – and with O’Bannon, you know you’re in assured b-movie hands – the plotting is crazed, going from sci-fi to zombie apocalypse and carried along by the threat of a nude woman in the most gleeful pulpy, exploitation manner. It’s a fun merger of sci-fi and gothic tropes. There are several memorable set pieces: the astronaut’s exploration of the spaceship – looking like a birth canal as well as space castle – and the wonderful/hilarious zombie puppets; a zombie dashing itself into dust against the bars of its cell a particular highlight. In this era, this kind of thing rarely got such a big budget. It’s a curio.

It’s a film for the boys. CH Newell says, “At its core, Lifeforce is the dark heart of all humankind’s anxieties about extraterrestrials” and locates the films basis in fears about aliens; but it’s even closer to home, surely, being about man’s fears of womanhood. Women are alien and in control of men’s libido, which men are helpless to, etc. There are a couple of token women at the start, but otherwise it’s mostly Mathilda May with the stunning body walking around in the nude, with other women as mostly interchangeable. There is a moment when a woman needs to be slapped around to reveal her duplicitous nature; and even in a man’s form, she’s treated aggressively into revealing herself. The naked female vampire’s sex drive is linked to death and causes an apocalypse: whole planets can be decimated by her seduction and the giant phallus in orbit. In the end, a bewildered male besotted with her must sacrifice himself heroically to her sexuality. It won’t win anything for any insight or interesting viewpoints on gender.

Henry Mancini’s score is turned right up to bombastic, featuring that militaristic undertow that b-movies of yore often had. The acting is properly earnest /wooden with only Steve Railsback overacting (perhaps appropriately) and Peter Firth enjoying playing it as superciliously as he can (“I’m a natural voyeur.”). And you have Railsback shouting at Patrick Stewart, “Listen to me, you bitch!” There’s camp value too.

I will throw ‘Lifeforce’ in with films such as ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’ or ‘Shrunken Heads’ or ‘The Monster Club’, or even things like ‘The Man from Planet X’: thoroughly enjoyable cheesy fun that I find myself repeatedly coming back to, although they’re no one’s idea of prime cinema.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Logan's Run

Logan’s Run 

Michael Anderson

1977, USA

Screenlay: David Zelag Goodman based on the novel by William F Nolan & George Clayton Johnson


One of those future utopias/dystopias that I grew up with, in the same pack as ‘Westworld’, ‘Silent Running’, ‘Planet of the Apes’. Those films that are sci-fi smart pulp, but ‘Logan’s Run’ is inferior to those.

The dialogue strikes as the kind of future-speak that adults write for kids. Only Jenny Agutter has an innate naturalness that cuts through: Michael York as Logan 5 (yes: numbers as surnames) is probably apt in his certain sincere blandness actually: people’s banality would be intentional in this society. It’s the 23rd century where civilisation survives in a dome and live for leisure and pleasure; they wear colour-coded clothing according to age and enjoy “the carousel”, where people who reach thirty are “renewed”; a super-computer seems to be in charge. An A.I. is using a Big Lie to maintain population control. It’s that well-known receipt for the undoing of humanity: technology and hedonism. The more sordid side of this life of indulgence was mostly cut to reduce the film’s rating and the most we are left with is a sex club where nudes move in slow motion and try to grope you.

Logan is a Sandman, who hunts and kills those running from “carousel”: seems like not everyone believes in renewal. Logan is introduced to discontent when he meets Jessica (Agutter), and then when he retrieves an Ankh from a runner’s corpse, the computer instructs him to “run”, to find “Sanctuary” – the place runners are trying to escape to – and destroy it.  (The poster seems to imply that Logan goes a-running with Farah Fawcett-Majors, who graces proceeding with feather hear and come-ons.)

After an encounter with a psychotic robot that makes it clear that previous runners probably never got out – which is grim – Logan and Jessica get outside and meet an old man. It is when they meet Peter Ustinov that the stiffness of their dialogue makes more sense as the product of their limited culture. Ustinov’s mumbling spontaneous charm contrasts and adds texture and context: the banality of the characters makes sense when juxtaposed with warmth and improvisation.

But this texture is squandered when Logan and Jessica go back to the dome to share the truth with others, but they don’t actually have any plan for this apart from shouting it to an amused, uninterested mob and being caught by Sandmen. Luckily, the truth overloads the computer, it does a “Does Not Compute!” and a simple gunfight brings the whole city to exploding. If it wasn’t so hard to thwart this civilisation after all, you might think the insurgents might have accomplished something by now as complacency isn’t absolute. Surely the computer would have encountered an Ankh before (runners have them and certainly would have been found earlier when the corpses are frisked)? This would then make more sense as another attempt by it to destroy “Sanctuary”. And why does the Doc risk everything clumsily when trying to kill Logan; can’t rig an “accident”? etc.

So perhaps internal logic isn’t ‘Logan's Run’s’ strong suit and plot holes are everywhere, but there’s lots to enjoy in the future city model-work and sets, as well the overall camp of the costumes and flashing lights and mad robots, etc. You can just feel the intelligence of a novel's ideas being siphoned off for movie platitudes (it would be 'Logan's Run's peer 'Star Wars' to show film makers that you needn't hint at smart, just Faith and spectacle to make it work). Michael Anderson’s direction is a little stiff, but it’s episodic enough that it’s never boring. There’s enough that audience imagination can paper over the cracks and there is always the hint of a better film that keeps the interest. Not so smart, but entertaining.

Monday, 14 June 2021


Ilya Naishuller

2021, USA-Japan

Writer: Derek Kolstad

The draw is Bob Odenkirk, because he’s proven himself so great and textured as Saul Goodman in ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better call Saul’. Here, he’s Hutch, a humbled and inured family man when we meet him. You know: emasculated. And then there’s a break-in at his house and, although everyone responds as if he has been cowardly when he doesn’t fight back, we can tell there’s more brimming below. And this leads to a chain events that sees him go on to take down an entire Russian underworld gang. So perhaps I thought it might be more ‘A History of Violence’ than ‘John Wick’, but it’s the latter. Well, ‘Nobody’ is written by ‘Wick’ writer Derek Kolstad, so that makes sense.

It’s another action thriller that plays to the fantasies of potency and kick-ass powers for men that seem to think family life is a prison for their killer skills as Alpha Male. It doesn’t help that Hutch’s family soon become just tokens, their opinions of all this and of their father subsequently barely addressed. His wife is a kind of vapour that hangs around. Odenkirk brings gravitas and amusement, but this isn’t a tale of how an aging complex man with an appallingly violent and psychopathic past is forced to face it as well as bring out latent skills. It’s the tale of how he’s let off the hook - finally! – once he feels underappreciated by normal life. It’s about how decent guys are just pretendin’ and they’ll scorch your earth if you mess with them. Any action wannabe could do this, but the casting of Keanu Reeves and Odenkirk for Olstad’s scripts are agreeably offbeat choices, at least ostensibly. For Alistair Harkness, ‘Nobody’ “gives Odenkirk enough room to slyly acknowledge the regressive nature of this film’s plot while simultaneously embracing the opportunity to have fun going kill-crazy on a bunch of Russian mobsters.”

We know how this works: the audience I was with was laughing as soon as it was known the kitty bracelet was missing and he was out the door like a shot to retrieve it. Laughing at how he just watches from the end of the bus, knowing he’s going to teach the gang a lesson and they just don't know it yet. We know he’s going to kick ass and that’s what we came for. There’s no risk because we know he’s indestructible.  

There’s real hurt in the initial fight on the bus, and this is the set-piece that stays in the memory. It takes its time to play out and even has Hutch injured, although that doesn’t linger. Ilya Naishuller directs to emphasis brute force rather than the dance of fighting – but don’t worry: there’s none of the dizzying camerawork of his Hardcore Henry. It’s always enjoyable and entertaining, even if by the time you get a Russian mobster (Aleksey Serebryakov) crossing the road to his nightclub and not caring about traffic because the world bends to his whim, it’s fully clear the tropes and cliché are going to be the agenda here. There’s also crowd-pleasing cameos from Christopher Lloyd and Michael Ironside, and one of those redundant mid-credit scenes that is all the trend but which I am adverse to in any context other than Marvel films. Mark Kermode says ‘Nobody’ is well-made exploitation trash, and that’s so, and for me it’s the bus fight that stuck in my memory.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

A Quiet Place part 2


John Krasinksi

2021, USA

Writers: John Krasinski, Scott Beck & Bryan Woods

Which picks up, after an action-packed flashback to the days the aliens landed, directly where 'A Quiet Place' ended. If anything, right from that flashback, it’s evident that Krasinski is even more assured this time. The formula for ‘A Quiet Place’ reaps great monster movie rewards: instead of lots of build-up and explanation, there’s a solid family basis with a little conflict and emotion that never lets mushiness delay the action, a general survival plot, and once these are established, the films just get on with a series of thrilling action set-pieces. And, again, there is surely even more confidence in the way Krasinski cuts between multiple set-pieces and maintaining the suspense for each one.

There’s even more emphasis on the theme of heroism (which I consider one of the fundamentals of the horror genre) with the story of dad’s mantle being passed to his daughter – an excellent Millicent Williams. She even makes the rebellious daughter trope palatable. Both Marcus (Noah Jupe) and new addition Cillian “I’m not your dad” Murphy get their own arcs of heroism. Kick-ass mom (Emily Blunt) is a given, already having had her turn in the first instalment. The fact that the Abbot family have the advantage of their experience with sign language is one of those pleasing details that open the story to inclusivity. It’s a neat conceit that, in the flashback, is shown clearly as just another facet of family communication. One pleasing aspect is how many details aren’t spelt out in exposition but just there for the audience to learn. But none of this gets in the way of the monster fun or set-pieces.*

The aliens themselves seem there just to run amok and kill – it isn’t even clear that it’s for feeding? – and probably don’t stand up to rigorous logic (she’s the only one to work out that a certain frequency can be weaponised against the monsters?), but at this stage, it barely matters. They are simply avatars for a constant threat to a civilisation beaten out of its loud-hailing ways. Over-stimulated Western lives reduced to a needs-must basis, to an oppressive quietude. Another benefit of this is that we are spared Bad Guy speechifying: it doesn’t stop them being horrid and crude, but at least we don’t have to hear them leer and swagger this time. And given its agenda, it’s perhaps surprising how little it plays the “quiet-quiet-BANG!” card. And I did jump three whole times. Malte  Bieler’s sound design is, of course, notable, doing a sizeable chunk of the storytelling.

And of course, this has been a film held back from audiences due to lockdowns, and there’s certain pointedness to the fact that its premise is about how life-threatening going outside is. And as before, it’s certainly a brave choice to distinguish a mainstream film with a conceit that makes every overheard crunch of popcorn an affront to its enjoyment.

*    I have a friend that finds the Abbots hollow, not really likeable, but I like the lack of mushiness and the pace stopping dead for more family emoting. There’s enough to know who they are and to propel the set-pieces along.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

The 'Pusher' trilogy

Nicolas Winding Refn

Writers: Nicolas Wining Refn & Jens Dahl

1996, Denmark

In the tradition of notable debuts, Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film is a gritty, guerrilla- style crime drama about a loathsome, selfish small-time crook getting himself into deeper and deeper trouble, alienating himself from everyone in a spiral of self-destruction.

In an overabundance of streetwise gritty and downbeat crime thrillers, Refn's debut distinguishes itself with a compelling central performance from Kim Bodnia, a pumping soundtrack, and a hand-held camera that doesn't stray from the shoulder of a scumbag drug pusher on a self-destructive week.  And this marks out the whole ‘Pusher’ series: enthralling central performances, a guerrilla-style hand-held camera that is always pushing the incident and narrative, and a pulsating score by underground artists and Peter Peter. It makes for a riveting and kinetic aesthetic, transcending the familiarities of the story. Apparently made by Refn without any experience and a lot of moxie, certainly there’s a raw and visceral feel.

Of course, the central feature of this underworld genre is the conflict of gangster posturing with morality. But Frank (Bodnia) is wanting from the outset, and there’s a big clue in that he retreats to the immature crudity of his friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen). Frank’s credentials as a scumbag only become more apparent as he reacts with bad management to his ever-worsening situation; mostly by mistreating the woman he is using to hide out with. Actually, it’s the women that are key to the moral dilemmas throughout the series. But it’s not a representation of a criminal world that grants any style or psychopathic charm or flair that are so often used by the genre to mitigate the scumbags. Milo (Zlatko Buric) the drug-lord is the only one offering that “gangster flash”, but he’s decidedly bargain rate, just as shabby as he is as dangerous. This is not a community that even entertains ethics or loyalty, just the fleeting highs and business of drug pushing.

The natural lighting, the grittiness and no-budget core only serve to enhance the charmlessness of this milieu. It’s certainly a world away from the arty compositions and neons of Refn’s later work. Frank’s tale is a worn one, and maybe that itself has a point, but the bravado of the telling makes for a punch of a debut.


PUSHER II: With Blood on My Hands

 Writer & director: Nicolas Winding Refn

2004, Denmark-UK

A sequel with a more questioning stance of its criminal underworld: This time we concentrate on Tonny, a fearless Mads Mikkelsen, who certainly is a surprise against his more austere later roles. Here he is crude, not so smart, immature. Tonny is a scumbag but we understand why when he's immersed in such a scumbag social circle. The reappearance of drug lord Milo hints at the smallness of this world, but this sequel spreads wider.

The underworld here is synonymous with broken families, propagating more brokenness down the generations (a wedding becomes just an excuse for a strip show). Tonny, despite his head tattoo, doesn't get any respect. Everyone insults him, and he’s suppressing a lot. He's clueless but, just out of jail, also curiously willing to please, which makes him easy to sway either way and therefore more sympathetic. But why do good when good isn't rewarded? Whereas his pal Frank found there was nothing inside himself but more selfishness and trouble, Tonny’s tale is a portrait of a man with limited resources finding something deeper within himself certainly strikes a surprising chord.

Highlights include an early extended scene with Tonny with two prostitutes and clueless men changing a nappy.

PUSHER III: I Am the Angel Death

Writer & director: Nicolas Winding Refn

2005, Denmark

In which we now follow Milo, the crime lord that has played a key part in the previous films. The ‘Pusher’ trilogy ends on a kind of farce for crime lords: all Milo wants is to throw a successful 25th party for his spoiled, bratty daughter – but he gives his crew food poisoning! a drug deal goes wrong! he has to go to the local takeaway for party food! he has to get to AA meetings! There’s nothing quite so questioning here, and the dissonance between Milo underworld status and his intention to be a generous and gregarious patriarch barely seems to cause him reflection. But the  precariousness of his status is naked here, always under threat from others as well his own cooking abilities. It all takes place over a day so there is no fallout from what we see, although by the end of it the family and the business come together seamlessly and the whole sordid mess carries on.

Again, a hypnotic central performance (from Zlatco Buric), but more vulnerable and less flamboyant than his previous appearances and a kinetic handheld camera, boosted by great music, makes this always compelling, even if treading well-worn territory. And the series ends on its most gruesome set piece that comes across as just another pratfall Milo has to deal with.



As a trilogy, ‘Pusher’ soon overcomes the familiarities of its genre – and that’s part of what we came for, anyhow – to become dynamic character studies, each film bringing a different shade. There’s not even so much of the macho posturing that streaks the gangster genre – we won’t count Tonny’s immature boasting of sexual prowess – but rather people just going about their sordid lives, posturing and making stupid pronouncements, filling the roles they think they’re playing. Sometimes, they just fall for their own repeated failures of character, sometimes they manage to break away from themselves to something new without really knowing what that means, and sometimes they just grow old into it, with no real desire to transcend. Together, the ‘Pusher’ films creates a credible and raw microcosm of a degenerate corner of Copenhagen, solid character studies of unlikable protagonists that are seemingly doomed from the outset.