Tuesday, June 11, 2013 

Film review: Martyrs.

(Spoilers ahead, although I have tried to limit them on this occasion.)

One thing worth remembering at a time when the easy availability of pornography (violent or not) and extremist material is being blamed for the actions of individuals, with the Daily Mail wailing that something must be done, even if it doesn't have the slightest understanding of what it's talking about, is that we have been here before. Every five years or so a moral panic breaks out, whether it be about horror comics, Teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks, video nasties, gatherings of ten or more people listening to repetitive beats, or, lest we forget, emos.  Regardless of the content, only extremely rarely do individuals become so obsessed with such material on its own that it inspires them to act upon it in such a way as to harm others. More usually it requires the meeting of like minds, as seen in the plot to attack the EDL rally in Leeds, for such fantasies and grievances to come close to being acted upon.

When it comes to horror films, as Mark Kermode has always argued, watching them is not about sadism, it's about masochism. I'd go so far as to argue that the same is also true of the vast majority of those who visit "true gore" sites, where the content also seems to become ever more brutal. Where once it was the hell of Chechnya and Iraq during the worst of the conflicts in both countries that provided most of the material, so now it's Syria and Mexico that are the backdrops for the recorded bloodletting.

One thing that has thankfully not yet been recorded and released to the internet, although you can't help but sadly imagine it is now only a matter of time, is the torture of a kidnap victim over a long time period. The most notable recent film to attempt to portray something along those lines is Martyrs, directed by Pascal Laugier and another of those movies I've only just got around to watching.  Hyped from the beginning, with festival performances supposedly resulting not just in walk outs but carry outs, the director himself admitted that the film would be compared to the slew of films lumped together under the silly moniker of torture porn, a sobriquet which has nonetheless stuck.

While the film most certainly does owe a debt to both Hostel and Saw (more on which in a moment), it also takes just as much influence from the recent wave of French extreme cinema, Baise-Moi, Irreversible, and Haute Tension to name but three, as well as the early work of Michael Haneke.  Shot on 16mm in Montreal, the film opens with a young girl escaping from captivity, quickly followed by Super 8 footage apparently filmed by the doctors at the home where she is sent to recuperate.  Here we learn her name is Lucie, and she forms a friendship or perhaps attachment is a better description with another damaged girl, Anna.

We then move to what seems to be a normal domestic household, a brother and sister playfighting, and then a breakfast scene, all of which reminds of Haneke's Funny Games.  They're interrupted by a knock at the door.  As you might have guessed, from this point on all hell breaks loose.  Lucie, now grown up, has become convinced by a photograph in a local newspaper that the brother and sister's parents were responsible for her suffering.  From the outset though it's difficult to know what's real and what isn't; Lucie is stalked repeatedly by a human looking monster which sometimes she manages to escape from and which sometimes brutally slashes her.  Anna, alerted by Lucie to what's happened finds herself having to deal not just with the aftermath of her friend's actions but also her increasing apparent derangement.

Then everything flips on its axis.  From being a reasonably straightforward if unconventional revenge horror, it becomes, seemingly, something much deeper.  Who really was it that had kept Lucie captive in the first place?  Is it the work of a religious cult, or a ring of people who believe that the key to knowing what comes after death is through the transfiguration of long term suffering?  Is Lauiger making some kind of political point, whether about Guantanamo Bay and the rendition programme, or closer to home, the making of an idol out of Joan of Arc?  Is it a comment on the belief some Catholics have that it's through suffering that you get closest to God?  Is it, more simply, that regardless of the reasoning behind violence and torture, all such acts are essentially meaningless to the victim?

The answer to the last bunch of questions is no.  The ending, without giving it away, makes it abundantly clear that Lauiger is laughing at you for having imagined there was any deeper meaning to the past 100 minutes than this simply being a work inspired in part by Hostel and Saw.  There was, if you searched hard enough, an extremely slight social comment in the Hostel films on rich businessmen paying to kill middle class kids who had sought out their own pleasures of the flesh in eastern Europe, and the conceit in Saw is that Jigsaw is dying of cancer and seeks out those who he believes are wasting their lives to take part in his "games", hopeful that the catharsis they experience if they escape will make them change their ways.  Neither though was taken seriously as it was apparent these were just plot excuses to get the ketchup flying.

With Martyrs the last quarter of the film, which is close to being unwatchable such is the cruelty depicted, genuinely seems to be urging the viewer to think about why this is happening and also why it is that you're continuing to look at the screen.  Only then when you're expecting there to be some answers does Lauiger do the cinematic equivalent of sticking a middle finger right in your face.  Only then does it come apparent that you've been watching one of the most dishonest and pretentious films of the last few years, one that pretends to be saying something profound and then points and snickers at you for being so gullible as to fall for it.  All that's to be found in Martyrs is masochism, nothing more and nothing less.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013 

A sort-of review of The Fall.

Whenever someone says that films or TV designed to be frightening don't scare them, it's difficult not to regard it as a boast.  It is after all typically blokeish to maintain that regardless of the atmosphere a movie tries to create, despite how much ketchup is thrown against the lens and however loud the bang that signals it's time for the audience to jump is, none of it has ever and will ever faze *me*.

The problem is that I'm most certainly not one of "those" men, and yet it's been a hell of a long time since anything I've watched on a screen with the intent of freaking me out has done so.  I do get scared, most certainly, often at myself more than anything, and there are other things I just can't watch, or rather, simply won't, but as for the mainstream it doesn't tend to happen.  The closest I've come recently was during re-watching the Exorcist, and that was thinking you can see why someone like James Ferman genuinely thought this film could scar adolescent girls for life.  He was clearly wrong, but you can see why.

Instead of being scared, I tend to be either troubled, worried, uncomfortable or even close to being upset by certain content, most often sexual violence.  Our betters at the BBFC feel the same way, except they often seem to reach bizarre conclusions on the kind of scene which in their view "eroticises" sexual violence and therefore has to be cut lest it affect the impressionable.  In theory this is a worthy system, and clearly there's a responsibility on film-makers to treat scenes of rape differently to how they would mere violence, but where's the line drawn when a film instead skirts around the edges of both?

I ask this having watched last night's episode of The Fall on BBC2.  Where the episode last week introduced us to the characters of Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (the main reason I tuned in, I have to admit) and Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), the chief investigating officer and the killer respectively, and also led inexorably to Spector murdering Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), the woman he had been stalking, this week's opened with an around 8-minute long sequence cutting between Spector meticulously cleaning and then posing the body of his victim, and Gibson having meaningless sex with the officer she propositioned last week.  If those switching between channels may well have been slightly surprised at a man carrying the naked, clearly lifeless body of a woman between a bath and bed so soon after the watershed, then I have to say I felt distinctly uneasy as well.  Not because there were any taboos being broken, or that the juxtaposition was unwise, more at the length and the distinct feel of reality involved.

Most certainly, I've watched films that are either more graphic or downright nasty in the way in which they depict the work of serial killers or abductors.  H6: Diary of a Serial Killer and Lucker the Necrophagus come to mind, the former being a far superior film in every way to the latter, yet neither caused me to actually pause and wonder whether someone could possibly be influenced or informed by what was depicted.  Even closer to the knuckle is the sub-genre of exploitation films that have attempted to portray the lives of real serial killers, Bundy and the Hillside Strangler being prominent examples, both of which are utterly tasteless, even if not utterly without merit.

Perhaps closer to the disquiet I felt was some of the worry that surrounded Irreversible when it was released a decade ago.  The controversy surrounded not the rape itself, which compared to some others isn't particularly graphic, but the violence that accompanies it, the sheer length of the scene, which goes on for an excruciating 9 minutes and consists of a single take, and that a penis was digitally added to the finish. The film's defenders argued that as well as being realistic, in that it accurately depicted the brutality of a stranger rape where the act is seldom over quickly, there was also no ambiguity: no one could possibly find it arousing. While it certainly doesn't eroticise the rape, the length still seems problematic: movies often make killing another human look far easier than it is in actuality, with a few notable exceptions. The Passion of the Christ is one such, and is one of the most wretched films in recent memory as a result. Irreversible isn't a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's also one that's impossible to actively like or recommend.

Which is much the same as I feel about The Fall so far. It's a cold and clinical production, the soundtrack is either lo-fi or silent, and the camera work is unorthodox, all things I admire in any work, yet the lingering on the victims, without being gratuitous, still seems a step beyond what's truly necessary to establish the calculation and perversion of this otherwise seemingly normal family man.  It also seems more than just a little clichéd that a drama set in Belfast that is otherwise so tightly scripted has to involve the continuing stand-off between the police and paramilitaries as a sub-plot.  That could yet turn out to be integral to the main plot, and with three episodes to go, there's plenty of time to make such criticisms seem short sighted.  Much like me in general. 

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Monday, April 22, 2013 

Film review: Evil Dead.

(Spoilers ahead, although I doubt anyone who hasn't already seen the original Evil Dead is likely to go see this.  Also, those familiar with the original and my ravings about remakes can happily skip to the sixth paragraph for the start of the actual review.)

If, on stepping out of the cinema after seeing Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead back in 2004 you'd been told that what you'd just watched would be pretty much the high point of the Hollywood "updating" of almost the entire catalogue of classic 70 and 80s horror/exploitation films, chances are that you would either snorted with incredulity at the idea or been thoroughly appalled.  Snyder's reworking of the seminal original isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination: sure, it has running zombies, something George Romero himself poked fun at in Diary of the Dead, and there is absolutely no subtext or social comment on how the survivors hole themselves up in a mall, but it has some finely drawn, sympathetic characters (especially Sarah Polley, who is superb as the nurse Ana), doesn't skimp on the gore and even goes beyond the original in the bleakness of its finale.  Seen in its own right, it's a decent late entry in the increasingly overblown and dare I say it, boring and overplayed zombie genre.  Beyond that though, it's fairly unremarkable.

Compared to what's come since, it's close to being a masterpiece.  With the exception of Alexandre Aje's Hills Have Eyes remake, almost all the other attempts to recreate the magic of the originals have been either exceptionally poor or outright failures, with those produced by Michael Bay the utter nadir.  Their production values can't be faulted, yet they are mere facsimiles of what went before.  In almost all cases the amount of gore is increased, regardless of how little or how much was in the original, while the palette is invariably washed out, not to monochrome but to one where greens and browns predominate.  This is especially odd when the originals were often so vibrant regardless of their subject matter; the reds in Dawn of the Dead are vivid and lurid, while the woods in Last House on the Left are naturally green, not this dismal mixture of green, grey and brown that is meant to evoke the darkness occurring.

And so we come to the long awaited by some remake of Evil Dead.  It's easy to forget now, but when Stephen King described Sam Raimi's debut as the "most ferociously original horror film of the year" he wasn't being hyperbolic or forgetting numerous other examples of films where teenagers go off to an isolated place and get picked off one by one, it genuinely was innovative.  Yes, the slasher genre was just about up and running, and the gialli that did so much to inspire the stalking killer trope had been pumped out by the Italians for over a decade, yet prior to Evil Dead there hadn't been something so completely over the top, both funny and unintentionally funny, while also being in places absolutely petrifying.

Also easily forgotten is that Evil Dead was at the very centre of the video nasty panic in this country.  Despite receiving an X certificate for cinema distribution from the BBFC after 49 seconds of cuts, the pre-cut video was among those seized from dealers and members of the public, many of whom pleaded guilty to possessing material deemed illegal under the Obscene Publications Act, rather than challenge in court that the films really were liable to "deprave and corrupt".  It was only after the video's distributors themselves were acquitted that Evil Dead was removed from the DPP's list of banned "nasties", although it still took until 1999 for the film to be released fully uncut.

As in many other cases, Evil Dead is the film it is precisely because those making it did didn't properly know what they were doing.  Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell had raised the funds to get started by going round local businessmen, showing their past short efforts and promising them they'd double their money.  The entire crew were friends of theirs, the blood was karo syrup, in one shot you can clearly see the pipe through which the grue was pumped, the contact lenses were so primitive they could only be worn for a matter of minutes lest they cause permanent damage to the eyes, and the script is barely there, yet everything works because of the charisma of Campbell as Ash, the superb special effects considering the circumstances, and most of all, the virtuosity of Raimi as a director.  Every other shot in the film is one which an older, supposedly wiser director would reject; Raimi poured scorn on such conservatism with takes such as the ones that open and close the film, the camera pitching and yawing and then seemingly zooming through the woods and the cabin, achieved simply by attaching it to a plank of wood and then having two people carrying it while running at breakneck speed.

Almost all of this is gone from Fede Alvarez's remake, despite Raimi being involved.  A truly global picture, directed by a Uruguayan and filmed in New Zealand, it nonetheless fits completely into the same niche as the updates that have gone before it.  In the only real major twist on the original, our intrepid five "heroes" have gone to the cabin in the woods not for time away from college but with the intention of helping the lead, Mia played by Jane Levy, kick her heroin habit.  She intends to do this by going cold turkey, a plan apparently approved by nurse Olivia, played by Jessica Lucas.  

Immediately, the problems are obvious.  Any nurse who recommends the cold turkey "cure" in the first place is either an imbecile or a sadist, let alone when it turns out later that Mia has already tried the approach before and failed.  Even if one did, they certainly wouldn't suggest doing it in the middle of nowhere away from easily reachable hospitals, someone medically trained present or not.  It also almost goes without saying that Mia is a junkie only in the Hollywood sense: she looks perfectly healthy apart from having slight bags under her eyes.

From the very off then you don't believe that these people were ever friends, and the script at least nods at this by how annoyed Olivia's boyfriend Eric is at the late arrival of Mia's long absent brother David.  He brings along his girlfriend Natalie, who unless I missed it is never even properly introduced.  Regardless of the wooden acting that occurs occasionally in the original, you believe that all five characters were and are friends.  This time round it's difficult to make any such allowances.

Which brings us to the other problems evident from the outset.  The palette is that horrible grungy green and brown one discussed above, which never feels right.  It's not as distracting however as just how unbelievably stupid our five friends are.  The cast in the original were daft, as those in horror films often are and need to be, going off into the woods alone or seemingly unable to lift themselves up from under shelves that have collapsed on top of them; here they're positively certifiable.  

Whereas in the original the discovery of the book of the dead happened when the "wind" blew open the hatch leading to the cellar, here they find it after the dog paws at the hatch concealed under the carpet.  In the cellar are over a dozen dead cats hung from the ceiling; rather than immediately leave, not only does Eric take the book and proceed to read from it (the book is incidentally bound with barbed wire and all but says DO NOT READ THIS OUT LOUD), although not to the rest of the group as happens in the original but unfathomably to himself, out loud, David then proceeds to cut the cats down and throw them away.  There's playing with conventions and making the audience feel knowledgeable and superior, and then there's just crass bad writing.

In the biggest single nod to the original, the notorious tree rape scene is reimagined, and just as problematically.  While this time the character isn't drawn into the woods simply by the trees seemingly whispering to her, as Mia instead tries to escape as her withdrawal symptoms begin to kick in, it makes almost no sense whatsoever why the detached branch, meant to represent the spirit that possesses her enters through her vagina.  Mark Kermode quotes Raimi as saying that the original rape scene was conceived "by an immature mind, his" and as something he's not proud of, so why on earth would you repeat it when there is no reason whatsoever why the branch couldn't instead be forced down her throat, even if it was then deemed a cop-out by the more ardent fans?  Is there some greater significance I'm missing, rather than just referring back to the original?  If there is, it certainly isn't hinted at more starkly than very tenuously through the illustrations we see in the book of the dead.

The greatest fault of all though is the tone.  Evil Dead was as said above, both funny and unintentionally funny.  Alvarez's remake is played completely straight, and yet repeatedly I was laughing and sniggering, both at the dreadfulness of some of the acting and also sadly at some points that were clearly meant to be scary.  Jane Levy is mostly very good, both as the demon and herself, and yet when she begins to be possessed she intolerably overacts, her neck muscles tautening to the point at which you feel like copying her.  Throughout the actors strain to imitate the demon from the Exorcist and inevitably, fail miserably.  

Likewise, the occasional flashes of what's about to happen to the other characters also invoke mirth; the image Olivia sees in the mirror of half her jaw hacked away and yellow eyes was meant I presume to be a jump point, whereas I couldn't help but laugh at how silly she looked.  When this taste of what's to come is then played out, Eric backs away from his deformed girlfriend and slips on the piece of skin she's cut away, whacking his head on the toilet bowl.  I howled with laughter, except again it couldn't have been meant to be funny as there isn't a single other moment of humour in the entire film.

The one thing Alvarez doesn't scrimp on is the gore, as evidenced by the number of cuts that had to be made to get the film an R rating in the US.  It's very much an 18 over here, yet there still seems to be something missing.  There are limbs that are loped off, and one scene in particular that is very much of the torture-porn aesthetic, but there isn't anything as outre as in the original.  The famous decapitation scene isn't emulated, nor is the eye-gouging, or the complete dismemberment with the axe that left the parts quivering.  What is there is all pulled off very adequately, the only disappointment perhaps being the completely unreal looking contact lenses/CGI used on the eyes, which are bright yellow rather than the glassy, glazed over look that worked so well in the original.  

Unfortunately, despite all this spam being thrown at the screen, the film simply isn't frightening.  Indeed, the amount of grue is in part the problem.  Where Raimi was advised to have the blood running down the screen and duly did, he also knew how to build tension between delivering the goods.  Alvarez doesn't, and so you're just waiting for the next attack to take place.  It doesn't help that rather than pencils forced into ankles, or the bottoms of legs scratched to pieces by instantly sharp nails, Alvarez instead opts to have Natalie wield a nail gun, another point when I couldn't help but laugh at the silliness of something intended to be serious.

And yet, and yet.  Despite all of the above and more besides, Evil Dead is still one of the better of the remakes.  Yes, it's utter rubbish and can't even begin to hold a candle to the original, but it's polished and made with the best of intentions, which is more than can be said for a lot of the others.  It's also much better than Cabin in the Woods, purely down to whether intentional or not, it's far more amusing than that cloyingly smarmy and insincere film.  Please though, let's not have a sequel.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013 

On horror remakes and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane.

Ever since the beginning of the 00s (noughties?) those of us who for whatever reason fell in love with the old, grimy exploitation fare of the 70s and at least have a certain affection for the slasher boom of the early 80s have had to put up with seeing those old films remade by some of the worst directors and financiers Hollywood has to offer.  There have admittedly been a few decent attempts amongst the dreck: Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake is fine as a straight zombie film, as long as you ignore that it credits Romero's script, as the film does absolutely nothing with its mall locations, and Alexandre Aja's update of The Hills Have Eyes is similarly workmanlike.

Neither though has followed up properly on these efforts.  Snyder's 300 was hysterically awful, Watchmen completely failed to capture the depth or the nuance of the graphic novel, and then there was Sucker Punch. Coming soon is his take on Superman, and the heart frankly sinks (even if the script is co-written by Chris Nolan).  Aja's trajectory is different as his breakthrough was the brilliant Haute Tension, about as good a modern take on the slasher template is likely to get. Since THHE he's sadly gone backwards, making the little seen Mirrors, directing the update of Piranha, starring Kelly Brook and an ex-porn actress, and most recently co-wrote the script for the remake of Maniac. To which you can only say: what? Why? The remakes of Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave weren't exactly well received, so why update another of the scuzziest and most disreputable films of that era? How can you possibly out-do Tom Savini's ramshackle but wonderful effects, or even attempt to emulate Joe Spinell's performance as the titular maniac?  

Nonetheless, in spite of the critical response and the increasing disdain of the fans, the machine keeps churning the retreads out.  As well as the forthcoming Maniac, this year will also see the release of the long delayed remake of Evil Dead, and a couple of weeks back the second attempt at redoing the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre opened, this time with added 3D. 

Perhaps though there's a case for reassessing the impact of the glut of remakes, a notion that came to me last night as I was very belatedly watching All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a slasher that came out here in 2008.  At least with the remakes there's the possibility that having come first to Michael Bay's traducing of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Rob Zombie's fouling up of Halloween, some are bound to think, well that was awful, and then go and watch the original to see why the makers bothered to "update" the film in the first place.

If instead all we'd had over the last decade were "original" productions, the overall picture if anything would be even bleaker.  There would have been the remakes of the J-Horrors, almost all of which are uniformly terrible, the whole "torture-porn" sub-genre, which with the very odd exception of the first Saw and the second Hostel are even ghastlier in retrospect, and then there's Paranormal Activity and all its knock-offs.  Sure, there's the occasional Slither, Wolf Creek or Descent, but the good or better are very few and far between amongst the rehashes, misfires and downright dreadful flicks that have piled up.  Imagine a world where Rob Zombie's Devil's Rejects (which I have to admit to liking at first), a film in which Mansonites without the charm are turned into anti-heroes suddenly isn't as despicable or retrograde as it seems now, and you almost want his remake of Halloween to exist. 

The reason I took against Cabin in the Woods, which in the main was well reviewed and liked, was that there was so much potential there that went unmined.  The director and writer are talented, the cast are fine, and Evil Dead can still be parodied even if err, Sam Raimi did it himself first.  It was that there was just nothing there, or what was there was so perfunctory, so smug, so charmless and supercilious.  One of the key conceits was that we could all see what was coming, and yet the characters couldn't, as though they'd never seen a horror film and so didn't worry about going to a cabin in the woods even after being warned off by a creepy guy at a gas station.

With Mandy Lane, it's as though neither the writer or director have seen any horror movies.  Obviously, they have, it's just there's no evidence of this whatsoever in the film.  There's all the classic elements there, a young cast, a scene where they stop at a gas station, a great location in a ranch, it's just they do absolutely nothing with any of these things.  Imagine a film which is based on a faded facsimile, or decades old memories of other films and you're close to how it feels.

What is there is if anything even more problematic. Much has been written and discussed about the slasher genre and what it says that one of its key motifs is the characters are usually older teenagers drinking, using drugs and having sex who are then apparently killed for doing so, and how it's usually the more innocent female character uncomfortable amongst the debauchery that survives to the end.  In Mandy Lane it doesn't suggest the teenagers other than Mandy are being killed because they're doing these things, although in part they are, it's that all teenagers other than the few that don't fit in are like this.  It reminded me of Stewart Lee's take on Skins, or Mark Kermode's worries about Superbad, and how they thought both gave this utterly unrepresentative view of young people as self-obsessed narcissists who either have casual sex or think about nothing else, and are generally incredibly obnoxious and unpleasant at the same time.   

Essentially, the entire plot is the male characters are competing to be the one to deflower Mandy, something their female friends are complicit in, while they hate both themselves and each other, and then a killer enters the fray.  One of the female characters worries she isn't pretty when she is and so calls her friend fat, which she isn't.  The latter mocks the other for "having a forest down there", which leads to a scene later on where she duly corrects this with a pair of scissors.  Not that it's just the girls: one of the boys is mocked for having a "small package" and is so angered he flounces out, which in turn leads to the demise of his girlfriend when she rushes off to apologise, although only after she goes down on him and he fails to reciprocate.  The usual point of having unpleasant characters in a slasher is so you enjoy it when they meet an inventive end, and so still care about them despite disliking them; Mandy Lane doesn't even achieve that.

Note that I'm not naming any of the characters, as they're so poorly defined in the film other than Mandy and her very slightly geeky friend Emmet that they're just sketches not worth even dignifying with handles.  There's no tension, no scares, and there's not even any potential interest for the most ardent of gorehounds, as the violence itself is pathetic and the tiny amount of splatter on display is laughable.  The implication once you learn the identity of the killer is that there's something Columbine-esque going on, but it simply isn't developed or fleshed out in any way, which is a great shame.  There's massive potential for a horror film which does explore why and how children can be motivated to kill their classmates, something that Battle Royale and the Hunger Games have skirted around, just not approached head on.  There is one moment when Mandy tenderly ensures that one of the girls is OK and looks longingly at her, and you think for a moment that something radical is going to happen and it'll turn out the real reason Mandy's come on this weekend away is in fact she's in love with this girl, which would turn everything on its head.  Sure, it'd still be the male fantasy of two pulchritudinous young women getting along famously, but that's better than the film only existing because Amber Heard is staggeringly beautiful and she's pleasant to look at.  Naturally, it comes to nothing.

When the real twist does come, as every horror film now simply has to have one, you see it approaching from a mile off.  It of course doesn't make any sense whatsoever despite the fact you saw it coming, as it doesn't need to.  Suffice to say, it makes the twist in Haute Tension which many people have an understandable problem with seem perfectly reasonable.  There are two things you can praise, in that Amber Heard puts in a subtle performance as Mandy, and despite only costing $750,000 to make, the film does look quite good.  Other than that, it's stultifying, and I was bored within half an hour.  Not even wondering about how the film implies all "popular" young people are shagging each other senseless, snorting Ritalin and constantly smoking weed could relieve the air of crushing dullness that pervades it. 

The point is that while Mandy Lane and its contemporaries have been awful, it can't be said that they're popular.  It's possible that Saw could in time become a cult, if only because the later films aren't so much narratives as gore set-pieces slotted together, and if the plotless Guinea Pig series of movies can become so well known then almost anything can happen.  The likely course is that the remakes will be forgotten or disregarded while the originals will live on.  If only that was the case elsewhere.

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Monday, July 02, 2012 

Film review: Killer Joe.

(Possible spoilers etc etc.)

If there's one thing that films don't have enough of these days, it's opening scenes that feature a quite magnificent lady garden. Well, OK, off the top of my head the only other movie I can recall having a shot of full-on bush, as it were, right at the very beginning is Russ Meyer's stupendous Up!, which has Kitten Natividad stark naked at the top of a tree, but the point stands. It's therefore unsurprising to find that the MPAA, ever the prudes when it comes to sex but notoriously forgiving of the most brutal violence have decreed that William Friedkin's latest can only be shown in the US with a NC-17 rating (the equivalent of our 18), historically the commercial kiss of death, limiting the number of cinemas willing to show it.

It's a shame as, if the trailers before Killer Joe are anything to go by, those of us on both sides of the Atlantic are otherwise in for the usual summer diet of crap, dog shit and regurgitated pellets. Refreshing as it is to see my local World of Cine showing something that hasn't been focus grouped to death, you still die a little inside knowing that there's a fourth Ice Age film on the horizon, or that Seth MacFarlane, not content with beating the already derivative Family Guy into the ground, is making his big screen directorial début with a film starring a man child and his CGI teddy bear. Yes, for those suitably inclined there is Chris Nolan's third and final Batman film fast approaching, but forgive me if I fail to get excited about yet another comic book superhero movie. When Spiderman gets a "reboot" barely a decade after Sam Raimi's first effort, something is deeply wrong either with our attention spans or Hollywood itself. I'm going for the latter.

But I digress. Killer Joe is a rare thing: it's an exploitation film masquerading as a stage play. Or rather, it's a stage play masquerading as an exploitation film. The vast majority of the action takes place in the Smith's trailer, somewhere in Texas, where outside it appears to eternally rain. The Smiths are not quite the rednecks or white trash of stereotype, but they're not far off. The father, Ansell Smith, played to Eeyore-ish perfection by Thomas Haden Church, is a deeply dim mechanic, and his son Chris (Emile Hirsch) isn't much brighter. After being kicked out yet again by his mother Adele, following an argument caused by her stealing and selling his drug supply to fund her alcoholism, Chris returns to his father with an idea: how about they bump Adele off and claim on her life insurance? Although they've long been cut out of her policy, Adele still has a soft spot for Dottie (Juno Temple), the second child she had with Ansell, and she's now the only beneficiary.

Faced with finding $6,000 or being killed, Chris's mind is already made up, and Ansell isn't hard to convince either. That leaves Dottie, who to the surprise of both willingly acquiesces to the scheme. Temple's Dottie is meant to be 20, but could easily pass for 16. A supposed virgin, she isn't anywhere near as naive or innocent as all those around her imagine her to be, and instantly reminds of an older, slightly less coquettish Lolita, Temple's acting both subtle and charismatic. Chris is enamoured with her to the point that there's a suggestion of incest, and with this family it wouldn't surprise. The wildcard is Gina Gershon's Sharla, Ansell's second wife, who seems sharper than those surrounding her, but still has the tendency to wander around the trailer with her hirsute pudenda on display.

The man Chris is told to approach about his plan is Joe, a detective who carries out murders as a sideline. The only problem is that he wasn't told about Joe's conditions, that being $25,000, up front. Having first been directed to the trailer where only Dottie was in residence, Joe (Matthew McConaughey) decides that he can still carry out the killing as long as Dottie acts as his retainer, something which naturally neither Chris or Ansell directly tell her about until the last minute. Much of what follows is centred around this use of Dottie as a commodity.

As I can't say I'm familiar with McConaughey's oeuvre, I can't really add much to those who are expressing delight at his transformation from an actor who takes his shirt off in romantic comedies to the scuzzball creep he portrays here. What is apparent is just how much he relished doing something completely different, and it comes across wonderfully in his performance: Joe's contempt for this dimwitted family is absolute, and he enjoys toying with them, yet he's disarmed by the charm of Dottie. Not to the point though where he doesn't all but force her into sex, demanding that she strip in front of him rather than change into the little black dress bought for the occasion back in the privacy of her room.

While much of the film does take place indoors, those scenes that are shot outside are composed fabulously. Best of all is the one just before the final act where Dottie and Chris walk along railroad tracks, the decay all around them while the sun beats down, Chris trying to convince his sister to escape from this effective prison with him. What Chris doesn't realise is that she doesn't necessarily want to get away from where she lives, just from all those who are "suffocating" her. The much-talked about final act inexorably follows on from this exchange, and while some will be either disgusted or find it amusing for all the wrong reasons, it doesn't quite manage to ruin all that's gone before. Whether taken as a pitch black comedy, so black that there's only really one out loud laugh in it, a southern gothic noir or a twisted, perverse thriller, there's enough enjoyment to be had from Friedkin's latest as to be able to recommend it, flaws such as the fact that Joe doesn't seem to do much police work, or that Emile Hirsch as Chris is often just a little too wide-eyed to be wholly convincing taken into account. Just don't expect to be able to eat fried chicken for a while afterwards.

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Friday, June 22, 2012 

Prometheus: explained?

As an addendum to my review of Prometheus, here's one person's interpretation of all the various symbolism in the film. I can't say I agree with all of it, and if he is right, it would in fact make me think less of the film as I'd much rather everything wasn't there to be found if you look hard enough. Might just be me though.

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Monday, June 18, 2012 

Film review: Prometheus.

(Some spoilers ahead, as you might expect.)

It's a strange thing, hype. Rare as it now is for a film to be sprung upon us, you get the feeling that the practice is self-defeating. As much as we ought to be able to rationalise it, the process of posting teaser trailers and then eventually the trailer itself online does raise often unrealisable expectations. Those behind the marketing for Prometheus went pretty much all out, uploading additional videos giving extra character background, and also creating an entire website for Weyland Industries, the company behind the journey to planet LV-223, which is not it should be noted the same planet as landed on by the ship in Alien.

Indeed, much as this is a prequel to Alien, and as much as prequels in general are a terrible idea which only highlight the lack of originality and risk-taking afflicting Hollywood at the moment, it's best to forget Prometheus has anything but a tenuous connection to the original masterpiece. Ridley Scott never intended to try to one-up or remake Alien itself; he did though attempt to add something to the series. Whether he's managed it or not seems to have split critics and punters fairly down the middle, with critics mostly giving it the thumbs-up while those expecting much from Scott seem to have on the whole came out disappointed. This isn't an exact science, as both Metacritic and IMDB have far more positive than negative reviews (it's currently rated at 7.7 on IMDB, but that's fairly meaningless when almost anything below a 7 on there is usually dire), but to judge from the correspondence on message boards, comment sections and Mayo and Kermode's film review show those most looking forward to it were left distinctly underwhelmed.

This raises the point of whether you can ruin a film for yourself. So many of those who gave Cabin in the Woods good reviews, which I hated, suggested it was one of those movies where the less you knew the better. As I only went to see it as I was on a loose end on the day, I'd read the reviews before going. Perhaps if I hadn't known how it played out I might have enjoyed it a little more; I doubt it though. With Prometheus, I have to say I wasn't expecting all that much, only watching the one trailer, although I had read a good few reviews. Has that affected my overall opinion this time, which is that I really rather enjoyed it?

Possibly. One friend, who was almost wetting himself with anticipation, ended up loathing it. And I can see why some will be absolutely infuriated by Prometheus. Opening with a humanoid alien (or a space jockey, as seen in the original film) drinking a liquid that kills him but which in turn uses his body to create new life, Prometheus returns to the well-trodden theme that life on Earth began either with a meteor strike or through direct intervention by aliens. Introduced to the characters of Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green respectively, on the Isle of Skye, they find cave paintings showing man pointing towards five small spheres, spheres that Shaw and Holloway are convinced represent a constellation, a motif repeated in the art of other ancient civilisations. Could it be they knew something we didn't?

It's a conceit that invites derision, but this is science fiction after all. Funded by the dying head of the Weyland corporation who shares their intrigue, they blast off to the one moon in this depicted constellation that could once have supported life, accompanied by a motley crew similar to that in Alien, including the humanoid robot David (Michael Fassbender) and the distinctly icy Vickers (Charlize Theron), who's representing the company. Of the main criticisms levelled at the film, that the script is poor and that the scientists seem remarkably ill-informed for such an important, scholarly mission, I have to admit on this occasion that I was perhaps overawed, or at least paid less attention to these failings due to the sweeping cinematography and pitch-perfect visuals. The design of the ship and the planet live up to the series' beginnings, although I can't imagine how any of the film could possibly have been improved by the 3D, having seen it in good old twod.

If you aren't drawn in as I was, I suspect you might not be able to get past the various plot holes, creaky dialogue and the odd poor performance. While Noomi Rapace is good value in her lead role, Charlize Theron is distinctly underwhelming as Vickers, coming across as wooden. This might be explained by the differences of opinion over whether or not she is also a robot, but there's no such debate over Michael Fassbender's David, who as Peter Bradshaw writes steals the entire film. Just as Ian Holm's Ash in the original had a different mission to everyone else, David is certainly sinister, and Fassbender plays the part with such cold subtlety that you know something isn't right yet still find yourself warming towards him.

The other reason I might have enjoyed the film as much as I did as that at times it resembles an episode of the X-Files with a mega budget. Sure, there isn't a Mulder or Scully, but the theme is one that the series directly addressed. Shaw does though have the same seemingly illogical religious belief that Scully had, believing in a higher power while being strictly a scientist. Even when they find the evidence that if not refuting three hundred years of Darwinism as one character says certainly puts it in a new perspective, she still refuses to accept there is no God. Who, she posits, created those who created us?

As predictably then as Prometheus plays out, the positives outweigh the negatives. It occasionally veers into the disjointed, but the set-pieces are superbly manufactured and there are even a couple of genuine scares in there, all the better for their coming out of the blue. The ending is also deeply satisfying, although you can't help but hope that this is the only prequel and that both Scott and the studio leave well be now. Not everything has to be explained or developed fully, as some of the amateur critics seem to want. Without the hype and expectation, what would have been a thoroughly decent sci-fi blockbuster has been somewhat unfairly traduced. It does what it sets out to do, does it with reasonable panache, but it isn't a classic. The real question is why anyone thought it would be otherwise from Hollywood in 2012, Ridley Scott helming the project or not.

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Monday, April 30, 2012 

Film review: Straightheads.

(Major, major spoilers ahead. But seeing as the film came out five years ago and it's terrible and no one should see it I don't think it's going to matter.)

Or, as it should be known, Danny Dyer's Straw Dogs. Would anyone ever want to see Straw Dogs, as remade with Danny Dyer? No, thought not. So they called it Straightheads instead, which is a nonsensical, meaningless title. Is it implying that the two leads are otherwise completely straight, and that the crime that befalls them and leads to their response is the only extraordinary thing that happens? Frankly, who knows. The film itself certainly doesn't clear anything up, in every sense.

Made according to the IMDB for around £1.8 million, and you have to suspect the vast majority of that went on pay, Straightheads is another of those awful films which the UK Film Council saw the script for and somehow decided was worth funding. It must also rank as the worst decision of Gillian Anderson's career, as she is horribly miscast as the City worker Alice. Danny Dyer is Adam, a working class CCTV installer, hired by Alice.

From the very beginning the problems are glaring. Alice comes home to find Adam asleep on her patio, which with most people wouldn't go down well. Rather than getting him to show her the basics of the system he's installed and then shoving him out the door as soon as possible, she instead decides to take an immediate shower. Quite why she's having the system installed in the first place is unclear; as usual in films, the house/apartment/whatever is all but immaculate, she doesn't have children, and there doesn't seem to be anything obvious worth stealing. It does though provide Adam with the opportunity to spy on this gorgeous older woman getting undressed, and the implication is that Alice doesn't mind, or if she does, the fact that he's installed this voyeurism device has slipped her mind within seconds. Indeed, she doesn't seem to decide what to do next until she's in the shower.

Suitably refreshed, she returns while Adam is still replaying the images of her getting semi-naked. It's really difficult to get beyond the idea that the only reason the film exists is because it features Gillian Anderson, aka Agent Scully aka a 90s schoolboy's wet dream in a couple of scenes of partial nudity. It's also clearly playing on Anderson's mind or she was getting second thoughts as her performance is all over the place. Anderson has said in the past that she's one of those people whose accent adjusts according to where she is, hence why in The X-Files she sounds American while back here she speaks with a distinctly English twang. This makes her voice in Straightheads all the odder: it doesn't sound how she normally does anywhere; it's as though she's trying to sound slightly sultry and yet instead it just comes out as slightly head girl of a public school.

Equally, we don't get any insight whatsoever into how or why Alice might find Adam attractive. Inviting him along to a work party, although we first have to go through a car scene which involves them getting lost in the country, Alice mentioning that she grew up near where they are, which is important for later, and her getting out to urinate for no reason whatsoever (it's also worth noting that Alice appears to have a large skull tattoo on her inner right arm which you never get to see properly, suggesting that it was an allusion to how she's not this completely straightlaced City worker which they later thought better of), the only slight nod to how this might not be Alice's first younger man is that her boss finds Adam's age (23) to be fitfully amusing. Any wider comment on the mismatch between the two both in terms of class and age is quickly dispensed with for a sex scene, conducted on the very edge of the woods near to the house.

The coitus out of the way, the rape revenge must duly begin. It starts in time honoured fashion, as an ageing Land Rover driving slowly along a country road blocks their process home. Rather than just simply overtaking, they have to tail-gate, drive alongside and let the horn off, before Adam declares them to be onanists as they finally go by. Can anyone guess what happens next? Yes, they of course run straight into a stag. They can't just leave it in the middle of the road though, they have to drag it to the side and Adam, being this tough geezer, simply must adminster the coup de grace. At which point our friends in the Land Rover pull up, adminster a brutal beating to Adam, and then despite her attempts to escape, hold down and rape Alice.

If you thought the acting had been bad prior to this point, then here's where it really enters a whole new realm of awful. As well as blinding him in one eye, the attack also leaves Adam impotent, to the point where he can't even manage to get it up to squeeze one out to his first sight of Alice getting undressed. For some reason he decides to masturbate in front of a mirror, although happily we don't get to see Dyer's member, just his face as he tries desperately to show his sexual frustration and instead just scrunches it up. Just as he fails to spark, so the chemistry between Alice and Adam, as little as there was at first completely dissipates. Why are they still together? Didn't perhaps the whole unpleasant incident suggest their affair wasn't the best idea? Obviously not.

As this is a rape revenge/vigilante film, there has to be an explanation as to why they haven't gone to the police. It turns out that they have, although as Alice explains to her boss, it's "only" a GBH and so they don't seem interested. While in similar films the police are ignored or insulted as being too politically correct, generally useless or corrupt themselves, here it might well have helped if SHE'D REPORTED SHE HAD BEEN RAPED AS WELL. If you're going to do this sort of film, either keep the police out of it altogether (as in I Spit on Your Grave, which is the Citizen Kane of rape/revenge compared to this despite its numerous flaws), or make it clear they're not going to do anything for such and such a reason, not that won't because they didn't tell the police everything that happened.

In the most extraordinary of coincidences, her old man chose her time off to recover to kick the bucket, and apparently uncontactable, the funeral has already took place. She travels out to his house, which as we've established is near to where the party was, only on her way back to almost drive straight into a pack of horse-riders. One angrily berates her, and what do you know, she recognises his voice! Quick as flash, she asks the last rider what his name was, apologising, and so the revenge is set creaking into motion.

Amazingly, it gets even more nonsensical. Turns out that Alice's dad was a soldier, that he taught her to shoot as a girl, and he just happens to have left a sniper rifle behind. He believed in getting even, and so it seems does Alice. Dyer, despite being the atypical wideboy who subsequently was to suggest in a Zoo column that a jilted boyfriend should disfigure his former lover as a way of getting over the end of the relationship (he was misquoted, he says), isn't so sure, although Dyer is so unconvincing, even as he clears a table in the theatrical way which signifies his angst, that you just know that the roles are subsequently going to be reversed.

Before we get to the denouement, there has to be another character placed in the plot to make the entire enterprise seem slightly more complicated than it actually is. After disposing of the dog of one of the rapists with the rifle, the body of which Adam drags away without leaving behind a tell-tale trail of blood, we discover that he has a teenage daughter (Sophie) as she comes out the house calling for it. Their revenge plan still goes ahead however, which has to involve Adam installing an apparently unnoticeable security camera system in the house. All the while he's doing this Sophie must have been in her room and didn't hear him, as once the rapists return just as he's finished he hides in there. As the other two men also apparently have eyes for her, she is just about convinced not to scream as Adam comes in and places his hand over her mouth. For some reason though this seems to have excited Adam sufficiently for him to attempt to force himself on her, in what must be one of those most ill-advised and ill-thought through scenes in such a film. If this is meant to make his character more ambiguous, or to underline the effect the assault had on him, then it achieves neither; it just makes you dislike him even more intensely.

Next morning, Adam having escaped in the same way as Sophie did from his clutches, Alice hears (Adam must have put microphones in as well) the sound of a car engine going constantly on the feed. Determined that she won't be denied her revenge by a suicide, she charges to the house and pulls him out. Apparently not recognising her as he struggles to breathe, he thanks her for saving him from a mistake and begins to explain why he was trying to kill himself. Turns out that on the night of the rape they too had been driving home from a party, only for them to spot his daughter out at 4 in the morning too, walking by the side of the road. Knowing that his friends would try to force themselves onto her if they all drove home, he created a "diversion" with Alice and Adam. While the other two were kicking seven bells out of him, he got Sophie out of the Land Rover. Having not had enough unpleasant sexual assaults so far in the film, we then return again to the rape of Alice, entirely gratuitously.

All that remains to be said is that the revenge which follows, such as it is, is completely unsatisfying. A rifle and an anus is involved, Alice doesn't want to shoot as well as thrust to Adam's dismay as she doesn't explain that she was raped in part to save his daughter from that exact fate, Adam then literally decides upon an eye for an eye, the two others turn up and are swiftly despatched and that's that. The film minus credits lasts exactly 72 minutes, and those 72 minutes are some of the least rewarding, worst acted and most misguided you're likely to see for quite some time. It says something about a film when by far the best scene is left on the cutting room floor, as the deleted scenes prove: one of the rapists, played by Ralph Brown in the only decent performance in the film, dances in the living room with Sophie's father. It shows the chilling power he has over the others and hints at how with better writing, proper direction and different actors in the two main parts the film could have been a competent, low-budget British film, nasty certainly but worthwhile. Instead it's a blot on Gillian Anderson's resume and Danny Dyer can boast that he simulated intercourse with 1996's Sexiest Woman in the World.

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Friday, April 13, 2012 

Film review: The Cabin in the Woods.

(Spoilers ahead. Natch.)

Caveat out of the way first: I haven't seen the whole of The Cabin in the Woods. Why? About twenty minutes before the end, the digital projector broke down in screen 10 of the local Odeon, or to be exact, the screen went green while the sound continued. Told it just needed rebooting, we waited through Underworld's Rez, Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street and another song before the manager came in and told us it couldn't be fixed. We got our money back and a free pass to a film within the next six months, so no problems on that front. As I said, these things happen.

I'd like to think it broke down because the projector simply couldn't take any more of this charmless, smarmy, far too clever for its own good film. It was so bad I contemplated walking out; having sat through 300 and Rob Zombie's desecration of Halloween, loathing both but not to the point where I'd had enough, that hopefully says a lot.

Co-written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who also directs, the idea behind Cabin is fine: just as Scream deconstructed and paid homage to the slasher genre, Cabin does much the same to Evil Dead. That's very far from its only influence and reference point, but it is the main one. 5 attractive college kids are going off for the weekend to the, err, cabin in the woods. We've got all the genre's archetypes: there's the stoner, the good girl, the jock and his party loving girlfriend, and as the love interest for the good girl, the friend of the jock who's actually shy, sweet and kind as well as being great at (American) football. Some have suggested that this is just as much the cast of Scooby Doo as it is the cliche horror film, and there's some truth in that; they're certainly as one dimensional as the characters in the cartoon.

The twist is that we're also following Sitterson and Hadley, two men in white shirts working away in what looks like an underground base of some kind. It soon turns out that they're in effect controlling the entire adventure of our other protaganists, although how they've been picked to take part isn't clear: someone connected to Jules has bought the cabin, and we don't get any explanation beyond that. Regardless, they aren't the only ones doing this; over in Japan another company is running a J-Horror equivalent, involving a ghost and school girls.

And that very brief section is by far the best part of the film, for the reason that J-Horror hasn't been pastiched or pointed and laughed at to anywhere near the extent that American horror has. That was the point at which I felt, well, there's not going to be anything to top that, I might as well go. Here's the thing: if you're going to go over the same old post-modern ground with horror, it's got to be either one of two things, or better yet, both. It's got to be either funny and/or scary. Cabin is neither. There are a few smirks and smiles here and there, mainly from Fran Kranz playing Marty, the classically paranoid but also perceptive stoner, and the scene where everyone in the base bets on which monsters will be called upon this time to stalk and menace our heroes, but that's about it.

The thing about Scream was that everyone in it recognised horror tropes, such as the person going out on their own, the sex and how that meant that they were not long for this world and so on. In Cabin it's as if that never happened, or indeed that none of the characters have ever seen a horror film, except perhaps for Marty. On their way to the cabin they pull up outside a garage, just like in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where they're warned off by a deeply sinister man. The gag is meant to be that, secretly, they're realising how corny this is and yet they go ahead and do the wrong thing anyway. The other ploy used is another theme gone over many times previously in horror: whether or not our desire to see the carnage makes us complicit. How far do horror directors pander to the audience's expectations? Must it be the case that at least one of the female characters has to get naked? Does it always have to be the innocent, perhaps virginal young woman who either dies last or survives (Cabin says it doesn't matter either way)? And is there some much deeper, atavistic reasoning behind the latter?

There is still plenty of room to ask these questions within the genre, but not in the arch, winking, clever clever way in which Cabin does. What's more, it seems to be ignoring its main source material: in both Evil Dead 1 and 2 it's Bruce Campbell's Ash who's the last man standing, and he is most certainly not virginal. Which is another problem: it uses Evil Dead as the template, but ignores the radicalism of that film. When Curt and Jules go off into the forest to have sex, helped along by the pheromones being pumped up through the soil by our friends in the base, I was hoping that we'd get a double tree rape to one-up the original; instead we simply get the zombiefied former residents of the cabin turning up to perform a very perfunctory, off-screen decapitation.

Whether you dislike it as much as I did may well come down to just how wide your knowledge of horror cinema is. I'm nerdy enough to have realised that the death sequence in the RV truck is a riff on a kill in one of the Friday the 13th sequels (Part IV, I think), and rather than being impressed that just sort of bores me. I've seen it all before. I've seen the cabin bits done better, and far funnier, in the first two Evil Deads, so why bother essentially remaking the original when there's so little effort being put in? I've seen the reality thing handled fairly comprehensively in My Little Eye, which is by no means a perfect film but is vastly superior to this. I've seen the complicity question asked by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, The Last Horror Movie and the original Funny Games. And I've seen straight up horror done better over the past decade by Haute Tension and The Descent to name but two.

Moreover, you don't need a film like Cabin to deconstruct other genre fare for you. You can do it more than adequately yourself. The first Evil Dead especially is a flawed film, but it's fantastic fun to watch and see the creakiness of certain sequences and laugh at the decisions made by the characters. You don't need to watch every single slasher ever made to note that there is something disquieting about how having sex is punishable by death or how it's often the single white female left until last. And you certainly don't need a film as smug as Cabin to be suggesting that you, the viewer are in some way responsible for any of this.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012 

Film review: I Saw The Devil.

(Major spoilers ahead.)

For a good month or so, I've been going back over Mark Kermode's film reviews for 5 Live as posted up on Youtube. One of Kermode's great strengths as a critic is that he understands genre cinema and so is often far more forgiving of certain films, such as Basic Instinct 2, than other critics would ever be. This can also be a weakness, as it's also led him to give good reviews to the last few Richard Curtis films, all of which have been utter dreck regardless of their positioning as rom-coms or in the shape of The Boat That Rocked, rose-tinted nostalgia with sinister undertones.

One of my less attractive traits is that I'm someone who buys DVDs/Blu-rays, leaves them in an ever mounting pile and then every six months or so goes on a binge in an attempt to catch up. One of those that's been sitting there waiting for what must be almost a year was I Saw The Devil, the latest film by Jee-won Kim, who previously gave us the ghost horror A Tale of Two Sisters and the wonderfully over-the-top yet still lyrical A Bittersweet Life. Watching Kermode's review, who wants to like it but can't as it is just so grisly and its politics are so vacuous, and knowing that it's rare that I disagree with him, I thought I might as well make up my own mind.

In short, Kermode was right. I Saw The Devil does seem to be Jee-won Kim's attempt to one-up his contemporary Chan-wook Park, whose Vengeance trilogy, including Oldboy, did so much to bring South Korean cinema to mainstream international attention. As others have noted, the key word in the title also isn't so much Devil as it is Saw, after the US torture franchise that has thankfully now expired. Where Park's films were violent, as they had to be, he never once overstepped the mark into gratuity or into targeting the set-pieces towards gore hounds; every specific act of brutality had a point, every twist was choreographed perfectly, and it was always vital to the denouement. ISTD instead often takes its cues from Saw and other gross-out splatter fests where the plot is secondary to the intricacies of death sequences.

The film opens in an almost pastiche of horror conventions: Joo-yeon, played by San-ha Oh, is stuck in her car on a snowy night having got a puncture. On the phone to her fiancee, Kim Soo-hyeon, played by Byung-hun Lee, a stranger in a school people carrier pulls up and offers to help. Kim, who we can tell is a secret agent of some kind as he checks the status of his mission by talking into the sleeve of his shirt, advises her to wait for the pick-up truck. You can probably guess what happens next. The killer we soon learn is Kyung-chul, played by Min-sik Choi, Oldboy himself, and who also appeared in the last film of the Vengeance trilogy as a serial child killer. Having begged for her life on the grounds that she's pregnant, what follows seems to be a pitch black riff on Seven: a little boy finds her ear near to a river, a forensic crew is called in, and they quickly discover her decapitated head in the water. The rain pouring down, and with seemingly no attempt made to preserve evidence, the head is placed in a box, only for the man carrying it to trip while surrounded by paparazzi, camera crews and other police, conveniently just as Kim arrives.

Plenty of people will have already lost patience by this point. Is this meant to be taken seriously? Would the police ever allow the press anywhere near where a body search is taking place? Would they really just pick the head up almost straight away without taking photos of it in the water or intensely searching close by for other body parts? Would they not try to preserve the scene as best they could, despite the head being found in the water? Or is this all just a connivance, a further setting up of what's to come? In one respect, it certainly is that: like with all vigilante films, it shows the apparent incompetence of the police, something that continues throughout, as Kim is almost always one step ahead of them. What it also does is undermine the film's cohesion and theme: is it making a serious point, as it otherwise seems to be, or is it all one long joke on the viewer for doing so?

Promising his dead fiancee that he will not rest until he has made her killer go through the same pain that she did, Kim sets out on his mission of vengeance. Provided with a capsule containing a GPS transmitter and a microphone, Kim's plan is simple: he will find the killer, knock him unconscious, make him ingest the device and then let him go, only to then track him, capture him again, torture him some more and repeat the cycle, all of this happening under the very nose of the police. As you will have figured, things do not go to plan. Crucially, rather than being terrified and cowed by this experience, Kyung has never felt so alive: the game of cat and mouse invigorates him far more than his previous rapes and murders ever did. And in the process, Kim has become just as monstrous as Kyung himself, as no less a figure than the police chief tells the father of Joo-yeon in an effort to get Kim to put an end to the caper.

Indeed, so single-minded has Kim become that he has no apparent feelings for any of the innocents caught up in the madness he started. When he first finds Kyung he's just about to rape a schoolgirl he's captured; rather than comfort her or get her safe once he's knocked out Kyung he seemingly does nothing to help. Having been set free for the first time, Kyung kills two other men who pick him up, also seemingly murderers, but it's not clear whether Lee realises this or not when he follows the trial of carnage. Lastly, having failed to intervene quickly enough, he barges in on Kyung forcing a nurse to fellate him; after slicing Kyung's Achilles tendon, he asks the nurse for help in "fixing" her attacker up.

As a whole, women in the film are either victims, or to be ignored and abused: Lee ignores the plea of Joo-yeon's sister to stop what he's doing, while there's a deeply problematic scene where Kyung, having met up with an old friend who it seems is a cannibal as well as a murderer, rapes the woman who's staying with him, only for her to start genuinely enjoying it half-way through. I can only imagine that it's got through the BBFC uncut for the reason that she is willingly there and so complicit in the murders her friend is carrying out, putting into reasonable doubt her resistance in the first place.

If all this is making the film sound awful and contemptible, as it hopefully is, the problem is that when viewed as a whole it's not. What saves it from being truly abominable is that Kim's direction as shown in his previous films is first-rate: the cinematography is glorious, the lighting superb and every scene, regardless of how grim it is, is pulled off with a style that differentiates it completely from the so-called torture-porn sub-genre of the second half of the noughties. Just as crucial is Min-sik Choi's performance as Kyung, as he goes from exuding sheer menace at the beginning to pure terrifying mania towards the end. Not quite as convincing is Byung-hun Lee, whose character you just simply can't believe would be so numb to all that's going on around him as Lee portrays him as.

Nonetheless, the fact that it is this well made can't save it entirely. Just as the remakes of the 70s/80s horror films have in most cases improved immensely on the production values of the originals doesn't make them better; it in fact does the opposite. A deeply troubling film like Last House on the Left is as powerful as it is because the acting isn't convincing and because it has such flaws as the completely misjudged slapstick moments. It was a movie made on a shoestring by first-time film-makers who didn't properly know what they were doing but which said something about the time they were living in.

I Saw The Devil does none of these things. Its message, if indeed there really is one, that violence only leads to more violence or that if you go after a monster you have to be careful not to become one yourself has been done numerous times before, and better than it has here, not least in the Vengeance trilogy. The final sequence, which is all but an aping of Saw even if it ties with the scene at the beginning, just reminds you that despite what that series became, the first two films were decent enough that you could overlook their failings. What's more, they were honest about what they were doing; with ISTD, you simply can't tell what Jee-won Kim was truly aspiring towards. Whatever it was, it falls far short.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012 

Just what are they still scared of?

(Or, an extended review of the new DVD release of Ken Russell's The Devils. And by extended I mean almost 2,500 words.)

A couple of weeks back, as part of BBC4's Talk season of programmes, those watching the Beeb's flagship arts channel at half past midnight on a Sunday night/Monday morning were treated to a full repeat of the (inappropriately named) Friday Night, Saturday Morning discussion on Monty Python's Life of Brian. For those like me who had only seen excerpts from the debate between John Cleese and Michael Palin on the one side and Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark on the other, it only brings even closer into focus the breakdown it documented between the establishment, the public and the church. Stockwood is the stereotypically pompous man of the cloth, making his short sermon as Palin described it as in his diaries on how the communists had failed to get rid of Jesus, all the while fiddling with his outsize cross. Muggeridge by contrast is the austere yet even more insufferable epitome of unthinking orthodoxy, with his comments on how the incarnation had inspired every piece of art and culture we've come to hold dear, Cleese responding with how it therefore also inexorably led to the inquisition.

Cleese and Palin were understandably especially disappointed with how Muggeridge, having himself been a satirist, had failed to see that Brian was clearly not meant to be Jesus. It later turned out that Muggeridge and Stockwood had in fact missed the first 15 minutes of the film, and so had not seen the opening sequence in which the three wise men mistakenly deliver their gifts to Brian's mother, only to come back and swiftly retrieve them. In any case, how serious the pair were in their views was questionable, as once backstage Stockwood announced that he felt it had gone rather well, as though it had all been a performance making for great TV. It certainly is that, although not perhaps for the reason they thought so at the time.

While the controversy over the Life of Brian marked the beginning of the end of the debate over the censorship of opinions on Christianity (Muggeridge himself makes reference in the debate to how the Pythons couldn't or wouldn't have done the same for Muhammad, which while missing the point at the time does hold true today, as the idiotic censoring of the Jesus and Mo cartoons has shown), less well remembered is how at the beginning of the 70s a highly similar debate was had over Ken Russell's The Devils, which has just been released for the first time officially in this country on DVD. Having already challenged the then British Board of Film Censors with the full frontal nude wrestling sequence in Women in Love, a scene that managed to escape their scissors, Russell's latest work, and one which is rightly regarded as his magnum opus, was to push the boundaries to such an extent that even 40 years later the director's cut has only been shown at a select few festival screenings.

Based on the supposed demonic possessions which took place in the French city of Loudun in 1634, for which various explanations have been posited, Russell's screenplay was modelled on Aldous Huxley's "historical novel" The Devils of Loudun, as well as also being inspired by John Whiting's play from a decade previous. Written according to Russell in a three week spell of creativity, his script was turned down by his usual collaborators United Artists after someone there finally read it in full. Warner Brothers however stepped into the breach, and apparently regardless of the contents of his screenplay, made no attempt whatsoever to intervene in the filming.

Shot mainly on the back lot of Pinewood studios, a chance meeting between an associate of Russell's and Derek Jarman led to the then struggling artist designing the sets. Russell's only requirement was that the scenes of exorcism within the convent itself lived up to Huxley's description of them as being the equivalent of "a rape in a public lavatory", something that Jarman's white yet grimy constructions of tiles and brick more than lived up to. Rather than base the outside scenes in the usual historical setting of mouldy, rock walls, Jarman instead went for something completely different: sets that gave the appearance of pure white, newly quarried stone, which were neoclassical while also resembling the post-modern architecture of Metropolis. They give the film a timeless quality, while also providing the perfect environment for David Watkin's simply stunning lighting.

Cast as the vain and womanising but charismatic Father Urbain Grandier, Oliver Reed continued his working relationship with Russell. Delivering what has widely been described as a career best performance, Reed embodies the decadent yet urbane priest, thrust into a leading role in his community by the death of his predecessor. As much as Russell intended his film to be a savaging of the sacrilege which is inevitable when church and state are one, and as much as it is, Reed's Grandier is also impossible to see without also seeing Jesus himself. The film up until when Grandier dedicates himself to Madeleine, played magnificently by the heart-stoppingly beautiful Gemma Jones, reminds of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, where he wrote of putting away childish things. Grandier's stance against Cardinal Richileu, and his relationship with Madeleine can be seen as the effective start of his ministry, and with it the challenge Jesus posed to both the Jews and the Romans in Palestine.

Just as Reed outdid himself, so too did Vanessa Redgrave, cast as the reverend mother Sister Jeanne. On first viewing her performance doesn't quite properly reveal itself; to me it felt as though it was Vanessa Redgrave playing someone mad, rather than Sister Jeanne as played by Vanessa Redgrave. Second time around it felt perfect, Redgrave giving the deranged Jeanne just the right amount of coquettishness, as well as portraying her fear, loathing and lust. It's certainly difficult to imagine Glenda Jackson in the same role, the now Labour MP having only backed out when Russell changed the ending.

The film does have its flaws: however much Russell insists in the commentary that Louis XIII could well have organised plays in which he dressed up in a bra and pants, and also ran protestants dressed as blackbirds down a gauntlet before shooting them, it isn't quite believable. It's also hard to like the two quacks who are first seen treating a plague victim and from then appear throughout, one of whom is played by Brian Murphy (who those of my vintage might well have first seen in the children's show Wizadora), although they do bring a typical Russellian air of insanity to proceedings. These though are very small quibbles, which do nothing to distract from what is one of the most visually arresting and powerful British films of the 20th century.

The brilliance of the film was also immediately recognised by the BBFC. Craig Lapper's essay in the booklet with the DVD provides the extensive background to how the film was first presented to the censors, and then mercilessly slashed to ribbons. The then BBFC Secretary John Trevelyan, in a letter to the Reverend Gene Phillips in the US (who has now been teaching the film for 40 years), said "[I]t is, of course, brilliant, and it raises the question of whether artistic quality justifies total freedom", a question which it should be noted we are still answering in the negative. Before the board had even officially seen it, Trevelyan made private recommendations to Russell, resulting in the cutting of the now notorious orgy scene, where the nuns run amok naked during the group exorcism in two. Russell begged that they leave what has become known as the "rape of Christ" scene during the orgy remain in tact, where the nuns take down a statue of Jesus on the cross and masturbate upon it, to what was eventually no avail. The scene is or should be the film's centrepiece; it is the moment when the nuns, egged on by the state and church commit the ultimate blasphemy, and the intercutting with Grandier's moments of realisation and taking of the communion shows their debasement and his epiphany.

It should be the noted that the studio also intervened, and that while they did not request the removal of the "rape of Christ" there were a further 10 changes they demanded before the film could be released. The BBFC then imposed further cuts, after successive viewings, before it was finally given an X certificate. Around 4 minutes was cut in total. Controversy ensued regardless: the newly formed Festival of Light called for it to be banned, and for the new head of the BBFC, Trevelyan having stepped down, to resign. Eight councils, as is still their right, viewed the film and imposed their own bans. It was also far from rapturously received by the critics: the Evening Standard's Alexander Walker, having misconstrued a couple of scenes in the film denounced it, and then refused to retract his arguments when confronted by Russell on live television. Russell's response was to smack the now venerated critic around the head with his own newspaper.

The BBFC's cuts were still however nowhere enough for Warners in the United States, who having been given an early screening seemed genuinely horrified at what Russell had produced, one executive later lambasting him for making "this disgusting shit", regardless of how everything filmed had been in the script. While it's dubious in the extreme whether the X-rated cut would have been passed in tact by the MPAA, Warners went back to editor Michael Bradsell with a specific instruction to remove "every pubic hair" from the film before even submitting it. The end result was a further 3 minutes of cuts, and a film that made almost no sense, but one which received the commercial R rating.

Adding insult to injury, the international prints of the film were subsequently recalled and cut by the studio, until it seemed as though only the R rated version remained in existence. As Mark Kermode details in his introductory essay, it was only when the BBC tracked down a copy of the X-rated cut for their own "forbidden cinema" season in 1995 that it was seen after its initial run in a version even resembling Russell's intentions. Kermode's obsession with the film and his own search for the footage eventually p
aid off, with some of it, including the "rape of Christ" scene, turning up in a lone canister in this country. From this Bradsell constructed the Russell approved version mentioned at the outset.

Imagining that this new director's cut could now finally be released to the masses, preparations were made for a DVD release, including the recording of a commentary featuring Russell and Kermode. Warners however refused to budge, for reasons known only to themselves. Last year the British Film Institute gave up attempting to persuade Warners to allow them to include the cut footage, and so the DVD contains only the original X-rated version. The studio also stipulated that the film could only be released in standard definition, and that the "rape of Christ" sequence, first shown in Paul Joyce's Hell on Earth documentary had to be cut from that too, lest bootleggers create their own version from the new high quality material.

Why the studio still seems to be terrified and ashamed of a film they commissioned 40 years ago is difficult to ascertain. It could simply be that they want to see how it performs in its truncated version, before launching their own expensive restoration of the film. Why though would they go about it in such a truculent and convoluted way, especially when the BFI could have bore the full costs for them? While the film is still powerful and has the power to shock, far more explicit material involving religion is now easily if not immediately accessible, even if it is not produced by major corporations. It's also highly dubious whether the Catholic church would raise a fuss: Gene Phillips's view that the film depicts blasphemy rather than is blasphemous won't be shared by everyone, but you really can't imagine it becoming a major issue.

One suspects instead that it's the film's political message, which is still as strong as ever and only enhanced by the full version that it means it will remain unreleased. As forthright as Russell's criticism of the Catholic church is, and he personally had converted to Catholicism about 10 years before he made The Devils, with the film attacking the waste of life that is becoming a nun and its clear statement that the celibacy of the clergy is unsustainable, it's the assault on convergence of church and state that retains its edge. The religious right has never been as powerful, and in Rick Santorum there's a Republican presidential candidate who has not only given speeches where he says Satan has been destroying American institutions, but is also distinctly iffy on the fundamental separation of church and state. Add in the US mainstream's squeamishness over sex, something that becomes ever more absurd when culture is saturated with every aspect of it other than the act itself, and you seem to have the real reason behind Warners' cowardice.

This is an even more incredible position to take in a post-The Passion of the Christ world. John Cleese pointed out in the FNSM debate that prior to his researching the Life of Brian he hadn't realised that crucifixion was a standard method of execution in Roman times, as indeed it was. Knowing this doesn't detract from the specific punishment meted out to Jesus, but it does put it into context. Mel Gibson's film, described by Roger Ebert as the most violent film he had ever seen, was despite the mixed reviews it received (and I personally would take Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS over the Passion every time) recommended heartily by churches across America. The violence in The Devils doesn't even begin to compare, while anyone offended by the sex would have to be quite the shut-in.

Russell's film, regardless of how it was treated, was still incredibly influential: the Wicker Man, that distinctly British horror film, would take its cue from The Devils final stages. It also more or less launched the entire nunsploitation genre, which if nothing else gave us Gilberto Martínez Solares's Satánico Pandemonium and Juan López Moctezuma's Alucarda. The Devils should though be judged purely on its own merits, and we deserve the opportunity to be able to do just that.

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