Monday, April 04, 2016 

Septicisle's good bad film club #2: Burial Ground.

(Previously: Nightmare City)

What a difference a year makes in rip-off terms.  After the runaway success of Romero's Dawn of the Dead led to the Italian industry quickly knocking out Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 in 1979, known to us here as Zombie Flesh Eaters and subsequently banned under the video nasty panic, 1980 brought the lower-rent but still great fun Nightmare City, helmed by Umberto Lenzi.

Another 12 months down the line, and rot on top of, well, rot was becoming the order of the day.  Burial Ground is on the very cusp of being so bad it's just plain bad.  With the best will in the world, director Andrea Bianchi is not a Fulci, or even a Lenzi.  His finest work is without question Strip Nude for Your Killer, a particularly sleazy even by the standards of the giallo sub-genre picture.  Starring the stunningly pulchritudinous Edwige Fenech as a fashion photographer and model while your usual black-gloved homicidal maniac kills the rest of the cast off one by one, it's by the numbers stuff finished off with a layer of gloss.

Burial Ground by contrast makes up what it lacks in glamour by upping the pure nastiness and it has to be said, downright cheapness.  At this point in the cycle of Italian DotD homages/rip-offs the idea seems to have been that if Zombi 2 made a colossal amount of money despite costing practically nothing, if you spent even less then the reward would be even greater.  All but needless to say, this logic was faulty.  Almost everything about Burial Ground, also known as The Nights of Terror, as well as being released as Zombi 3 in some territories, which isn't that far of a leap, looks tacky.  Not here do we so much as have an Ian McCulloch or the sister of Mia Farrow.  Nor do we have a shark and a zombie in a fight for the ages.

No, instead the real star of the picture is the location: an Italian villa which if expense had allowed could have been dressed that little more attentively and truly looked the part.  Rather than follow the ambitions of Lenzi in Nightmare City, Bianchi instead takes inspiration far more from Romero's first undead template, Night.  Our less than bright sex mad revellers have been summoned to a mansion where Professor Ayres, a bald guy with a beard that puts our current day hirsute hipsters to shame, has made a discovery involving a crypt.  He can't of course resist one last look before his guests arrive, and he naturally disturbs the slumber of the papier-mache anti-heroes we'll shortly be cheering on.

Bianchi's zombies are not on the level of Fulci's, nor Lenzi's.  They've been dismissed as Halloween costume like, which is a bit unfair: sure, they're laughable, but if someone did turn up to a party with a mask like the above plastered on you'd be impressed.  They seem if anything more inspired by the undead Templars seen in the Spanish Blind Dead series, which the alternate title itself seems to allude to.  They are also like Lenzi's zombies smarter than your average shambler, retreating when attacked, climbing through upper floor windows, attracting the attention of maids and then decapitating them with scythes, etc.

Indeed, if it wasn't for the so-bad-it's-good make-up, the unabashed gobbling of offal and the presence of Peter Bark, then Nights of Terror would be on the level of the actual Zombi 3.  Yes, that's Peter Bark, or Pietro Barzocchini as he was known on the school register.  In his only credited film role, the then 27-year-old Bark plays a deeply creepy 10-year-old with a bowl cut, high-waisted jeans and ahem, mummy issues.  According to the audio commentary, Bark unlike his Argentinian compatriot Lionel Messi didn't get the hormone treatment he needed, leaving him looking an adult while remaining a child's height.  Quite why Bianchi thought it necessary to throw an incest sub-plot into an already more than exploitative enough picture only he can answer; nor does it naturally make the slightest sense as to why his mother, who has already seen Bark dead with one of her friends chewing on his severed leg, would take him to her breast when he reappears.  Yes, the obvious happens.  Yes, I am ashamed to still be recommending this film even as worth watching for a cheap laugh.

To add to the fun, the film simply... ends.  Just as it seems we're about to be treated to a circular saw-stravaganza, the male lead's head being pulled towards the outsize blade, up flashes the "Profecy (sic) of the Black Spider".  "The earth shall tremble... graves shall open... they shall come among the living as messengers of death and there shall be the nigths (sic) of terror...."  Roll the credits.

(Burial Ground has just been released on Blu-ray by 88 Films, looking far better than it truly warrants.  Also included are a "grindhouse" transfer of the film, and a featurette on Bianchi's films titled, brilliantly, What The Fuck.  Quite.  Worth £8.99 of anyone's money, anyway.  Get it from HMV rather than Amazon, mind.)

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015 

Septicisle's good bad film club #1: Nightmare City.

(This is the first in what will hopefully be an irregular series on odd, extreme, cult or simply so bad it's good cinema.  I'll be trying to avoid the obvious, but we'll see where it leads us.)

What is it exactly that makes an objectively bad film become subjectively loved?  No one knows.  There are almost no rules when it comes to the so bad it's good phenomenon.   If there was one single law I personally would put down, it's that films consciously made with the intention of appealing to those who love schlock, like your Sharknados, your Piranha 3DDs, the dozens of ultra-low budget zombie movies that now come out on a yearly basis, are always simply bad rather than manage to punch through to the other side.  That's not to say they can't be fun, or have their own charm, but more than that?  Haven't seen one yet.

Likewise, it's also remarkably difficult for big budget movies to go beyond merely being terrible, precisely because there is far less excuse for a film lavished with money, starring name actors and directed by past high achievers to come out awful in the first place.  There are one or two exceptions, although these are subjective themselves, and are mainly down to the level of camp involved: Showgirls (Mark Kermode called Burlesque Showgirls for 12-year-olds), and Batman and Robin can be said to have now surpassed being merely terrible, misguided projects and reached the pantheon of cult favourites.

Most so bad they're good films share the same characteristics.  They are almost always made with little to no budget; the acting, script, effects, direction, editing, you name it, is either cheesy, incompetent or laughable; they are usually ambitious far beyond the resources and talent of those involved in the production; and they often tend to be rip-offs of or sequels to already successful franchises.  The monster movie and sci-fi crazes of the 50s inspired Ed Wood and many others, while the American horror cinema of the late 70s and early 80s, itself more than influenced by the Italian giallo genre mastered by Dario Argento and Mario Bava, brought us all those slasher knock-offs and the Italians then trying to one up their American colleagues.

Indeed, don't be surprised if this series focuses on Italian cinema, as for a short period they were so damn great at making movies that left all taste and decency behind while still being fun.  After the golden era of Italian cinema when Bertolucci, Antonioni, Fellini, Leone and Pasolini were at their peak came a retrenchment when their successors, battling both low budgets and dwindling foreign interest retreated into genre work.  Anything that became a huge hit was quickly responded to with a sometimes merely inferior but more often completely abysmal "tribute": the Exorcist was followed up with Beyond the Door, while Last House on the Left gave birth to Last House on the Beach and Night Train Murders to name but two.

Not all of the directors behind these films were hacks, and many had previously worked alongside the aforementioned greats.  Lucio Fulci for one, now known mainly for his gory 80s horrors, was also behind highly regarded giallos like Don't Torture a Duckling and Seven Notes in Black.  Fulci's semi-official sequel to George Romero's 1978 zombie opus Dawn of the Dead, Zombie Flesh Eaters, which came about due to how Dario Argento had part funded DotD and had his own shortened cut of the film released in Italy to great success, is a ramshackle but well-crafted horror made notorious by its video nasty status.

Despite its origins, Zombie Flesh Eaters couldn't be more different to its sort of inspiration.  For the true Italian take on Dawn on the Dead you have to look to 1980's Nightmare City, directed by the prolific Umberto Lenzi, shortly to become even more infamous for the following year's Cannibal Ferox, his attempt to one-up Ruggero Deodato's already brutal Cannibal Holocaust.

Technically, Nightmare City isn't a zombie film.  Unlike DotD, the film's antagonists aren't dead.  They've been turned into homocidal, disfigured, close to super-beings by radiation.  Nor do they amble around stupidly, instead running towards their victims at full pelt, wielding axes, knives, guns and anything else that comes to hand.  They do though need to drink untainted blood to keep their strength up, and somehow those they attack but don't kill in this way are similarly stricken.  As a result the outbreak quickly overwhelms the police, army and pretty much everyone other than our journalist hero Dean Miller and his wife, Anna.

The main reason Nightmare City is a bad film, while remaining one of the most enjoyable of its type has its root in the zombies' make-up.  Tom Savini did little to the mass of zombie extras in DotD other than slather them in grey; Lenzi instead thought the best way to show his ghouls were radioactive was to err, make them look like ninja turtles, or the Toxic Avenger.  Except the budget didn't stretch to applying the mixture to all of them, some of whom look entirely normal, just glassy-eyed.  Then there's the laughable dialogue, with every character managing to go through the entire film without saying a single memorable line.  Emotions seem to be alien to the entirety of the cast, with the possible exception of lead Hugo Stiglitz, whose bushy, Corbyn-style beard is still more expressive than he is.  As a result you don't care about a single one of these people, not even the kid in the hospital who tells Anna how he can't wait to play football again and instead has his throat ripped out.  The military are completely useless, standing around without any idea of what to do, despite how we only ever see the original group of about 10 zombies rampaging through the city and countryside, who also pose for the camera at regular intervals and make a habit of wiping the blood from their mouths with their sleeves for no discernible reason.

Yet the reason you stay with it, apart from laughing at the silliness of so much of the violence and the occasional over-the-top gore sequence is that the near constant action has a kinetic quality, never out of the control of the director, the chaos clearly choreographed.  Somewhere within Nightmare City is the basis for a film that could have rivalled DotD; Lenzi might have copied almost wholesale the helicopter and elevator scenes from that film, but he carries them off with a panache that manages to differentiate the two.  A couple of locations are similarly inspired, first the hospital and then the closing moments at an ominously empty fairground, with our lone survivors desperately climbing the rollercoaster pursued by a small band of ghouls, pre-dating and perhaps influencing the climax of Zombieland.  There's also the classically so stupid it's brilliant set-piece at the TV studio, scantily clad dancers running in circles rather than towards the exit so the monsters can chomp them one by one, while the producers upstairs are far too shocked to pull the plug on the broadcast.

Just given a pretty much definitive Blu-Ray release by Arrow, there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.  Troll 2 or Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 it ain't, but you've already seen them, right?

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Thursday, May 28, 2015 

Film review: V/H/S.

You know what I miss? Stupid, dumb, meat and potatoes slasher films.  There's a killer, he kills people, mostly idiotic, annoying teenagers who may or may not have been in some way responsible for why he is the way he is, he does it in inventive, amusing ways, with or without wisecracks, until there's only one left, often a young woman, who manages to outsmart him.  The door is left open for a sequel, it's all accomplished in 80-100 minutes, the colour theme of the film is vibrant rather than washed out brown/green, it's not lensed by a cinematographer with Saint Vitus' dance, and the editor refuses the temptation to make a bazillion cuts every nanosecond.

Is that too much to ask?  Is it really necessary for every other new "horror" film to be a part of the "found footage" genre, or to follow the lead set by the Paranormal Activity series of films, which seemingly exist only so as to make life even more miserable for the zero-hour, minimum wage slaves at the local World of Cine who have to pick up all the spilt popcorn between screenings?  How is it I cannot think of a single horror film released in the past 5 years other than American Mary that I would watch again?  I haven't seen It Follows, You're Next or As Above, So Below yet, all of which have had somewhat decent reviews, but I'm really not getting my hopes up for any of them.

And so we come to V/H/S.  Not only is it a found footage horror film, it's a portmanteau/anthology found footage horror film!  That means there's not just 120 minutes of shaky, wibbly, constantly breaking up and decayed video to enjoy, but it's broken up into segments, sort of but not really tied together by the conceit of a gang of idiots breaking into a house to steal a tape, only they don't know what it is or what's on it.

Except the film doesn't so much as bother to follow that conceit, as on a couple of occasions the next segment just begins without one of our intrepid heroes pressing play.  Still, we're not really here for the plot, we're here for the spookums aren't we, so what does it matter?

The film then opens with a sexual assault.  Yep.  Turns out our narrators, or at least guides have been making $50 a pop by grabbing women on the street and exposing their breasts, all the while filming their attacks.  These are then posted online.  They do this, needless to say, in broad daylight, without covering their faces.  Only one of the group has found out they can make a whole heap more dough by just breaking into this one house and stealing a tape.  They don't ask for any more details, they'll just know when they've found it.

There is, of course, a dead guy in the house, in front of the obligatory stack of TVs and video machines.  Which tape is it?  Why do they not just gather up all the tapes and leave to review them elsewhere, as indeed one of the group suggests at one point, only to decide it's a fanciful idea?  Why are they filming everything they're doing?  Why I have not already switched this rubbish off?

The leery, nasty tone set from the off continues in our first segment, Amateur Night, directed by David Bruckner.  Our new group of 3 bros have only scored a pair of those spy glasses off the interwebs, the sort "used" by reality porn producers to film them picking up a random woman off the street and then having a rather jolly time together!  Guess what they're going to do with the glasses?  Do you think things won't go according to plan?  Do you think that despite the implication being this is meant to suggest objectifying women isn't a good thing it won't in fact do anything of the kind?  Do you think the pay off despite everything being wrong will be worth it, rather than a mess of CGI and shaky cam?  Does the director think everyone in the audience won't be asking themselves WHY HASN'T HE TAKEN THE GODDAMN GLASSES OFF?

Next up is director Ti West, known for 2009's House of the Devil, with "Second Honeymoon".  His segment ends with one of the goons asking, "what the fuck was that?".  My sentiments exactly.  The one thing that can be said in its favour is that if you were to find a tape with a real murder filmed on it, it would probably make as little sense as his section does.  Couple on a road trip, film themselves as they go along, only there's someone letting themselves into their hotel room who picks the camera up and records them as they sleep, only THEY USE A LIGHT AND YET IT SOMEHOW DOESN'T WAKE THE COUPLE UP.  Nor does the couple notice anything amiss, apart from some money having gone missing.  It's dreadful.

We then have Glenn McQuaid's "Tuesday the 17th", which as you would expect from the title is sort of playing with genre conventions except not really.  Best of the bunch which is saying very little is Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger, which consists of Skype chats between a couple living apart, with the Emily of the title convinced her apartment is haunted.  It is, and yet it isn't.  In fact it's something far worse.  It's not in the slightest bit scary, but it does switch things up after what's gone before, although again there's some unnecessary leeriness.  Last is "10/31/98", and we are back once again into everything that is wrong with the found footage genre.  Our gang of slightly older bros don't think to call the police and instead steam in to save the victim of some crazies at a house where they thought there was a Halloween party, with the expected consequences.

The problem with "found footage" is it asks you to suspend your disbelief twice over.  While you can accept the horror genre's tropes of the victims of the masked assailant being stupid and either unable/unwilling to call for help, to do so when you're also being asked to believe that what you're viewing is a document of something that happened is a step too far.  It can work only in certain specific circumstances, whether it be in the woods like Blair Witch Project, away from a phone signal, or in the depths of the rainforest as in Cannibal Holocaust.  That the high point of the genre is still the one that started it all rather suggests it's not going to be improved upon.  Please filmmakers, for the sake of our sanity, give it a rest. 

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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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