Monday, May 23, 2016 

Good bad film club #4: What Have You Done to Solange?

(Previously: Nightmare City, Burial Ground and SexWorld.)

(Expect potentially a fair few more of these over the next month, as if expected politics over the four weeks to come turns into one long scare-athon, I really can't be doing with pretending to be interested in or attempting to referee between one side claiming house prices will fall by 18% if we leave and the other saying the EU makes it illegal to sell bunches of bananas in twos and threes.  A plague, frankly, on both their houses.  I'm also not here the week of the referendum, just as I wasn't for the Scottish vote.  Good timing, eh?)

This will probably be taken as proof of my lack of credibility on Italian genre cinema, but I really don't care for a good number of Dario Argento's acclaimed earlier works.  Sure, I'm quite partial to his first three films, the ones that picked up effectively where Mario Bava had left off with the all but creation of the giallo, but when it comes to Deep Red, Suspiria and especially Inferno, I'm just left cold.  Deep Red fails to satisfy, and Inferno I simply find tedious.  Yes, it opens well with Rose Elliot plunging into water in the basement of her apartment complex, has the usual striking visuals and looks gorgeous, but the surrealism does nothing for me.  I'm the same with Lucio Fulci's films from the same period: everyone usually raves about The Beyond, which is by far his most Argento-like work, whereas I just see a mess of gory setpieces without anything really connecting them together.  Sit me down in front of either Zombi 2 or City of the Living Dead though, or when it comes to Argento his 80s films Tenebrae and Phenomena, and I'll lap them up.

So it is with 's 1972 giallo What Have You Done to Solange?  By the standards of the giallo, it's a fairly straightforward, relatively lacking in outright sleaze little number.  To describe it in such terms is undoubtedly to do it a grave disservice: by the standards of 1972 it's still a really quite nasty picture, while also being very much of its time.  The BBFC rejected it outright back in 1973, around the same time as they were letting through films such as the Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and no doubt some others I've forgot uncut, if with very much in the way of controversy.  Even in 1996 it was still being cut for video release by 2m 15s, no doubt lopping off practically everything that explains why the killer is murdering his victims in the way he is.

Anyway, we're getting ahead of ourselves.  Dallamano is probably best known for his work as a cinematographer, lensing two of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.  He most certainly brings a cinematographer's eye to Solange, as from the very opening of the film, as we watch the two stars Fabio Testi and Christine Galbo, playing Enrico and Elizabeth respectively through the leaves of trees on the bank, pawing at each other in a punt as they float down what we soon learn is meant to be the Thames, this is a giallo that takes great care with its composition.  Shot in 2.35.1 ratio, it never looks anything less than beautiful, the colours eye-popping.  The cinematographer responsible below Dallamano is none other than Aristide Massaccesi, aka Joe D'Amato, notorious shlock director behind the Black Emanuelle series, the video nasties Absurd and Anthropophagus, and in later years, a huge number of hardcore features.  That he was supremely talented, if not at directing, will come as a shock to some.

Enrico and Elizabeth's heavy petting session comes to a halt when Elizabeth is sure she caught a glimpse of something happening on the bank.  With the frustrated Enrico unable to find anything amiss, he drives his younger lover back into the city.  For yes, this is a giallo set in the London of the early 70s, although it's not exactly clear why, being an Italian-German co-production.  Set mainly around Kensington and Chelsea, with the obligatory shots of the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and other landmarks, it nonetheless even in these limited circumstances infinitely cranks up the interest level, at least for this Brit.  Enrico it turns out is more than a bit of a cad: not only is he cheating on his wife Herta, played by a dressed down Karin Baal, he's also a teacher at the exclusive Catholic girls' school attended by Elizabeth.

Now, while it's never made clear precisely how old Elizabeth and her schoolfriends are meant to be, although one guesses 17/18, we are obviously in distinctly dodgy territory.  Films based around the exploits of barely legal schoolgirls were very much the rage at the time, and this is one of the tamer examples.  Nonetheless, that the entire film is based around the very sexual murder of teenage girls, whatever their age, even if in the denouement this is rationalised, the film could very easily be classed as misogynist.  It definitely has a conservative view of the world, that's for sure.

Indeed, the way things pan out, you could almost define it as a Catholic work as a whole.  Enrico starts out as this lothario, apparently determined to split from his frumpy German wife to be with the nubile Elizabeth, only for the pair's marriage to be rekindled and saved by err, Elizabeth's untimely demise, drowned by the killer in order to cover his tracks.  Enrico is predictably fingered as a potential suspect after her murder at their flat for just such liaisons, only Herta is convinced that her straying husband, while a bastard, isn't a killer.  Galbo's death comes as a shock, despite it being an obvious take from Psycho of the killing off of one of the main stars.

From this point on, the film flips on its axis into familiar giallo tropes: Enrico is the amateur sleuth working alongside the police, determined to both clear his name and find the slayer of his almost lover, as we're soon told that Elizabeth was in fact still a virgin, unlike the other classmates already murdered.  This is despite us being shown a scene that clearly shows Enrico and Elizabeth in the presumed midst of sex.  But hey, this is a giallo, we're not looking for everything to make perfect sense, are we?

Everything is in any case wrapped up neatly by the end.  Solange herself, in something only an Italian genre of this type could probably ever get away with, isn't so much as mentioned until we're three quarters of the way through the film.  Never mind What Have You Done to Solange, Who The Fuck is Solange?  Solange once she turns up is played by none other than a mute Camille Keaton in her first film role, best known for playing Jennifer, the rape victim turned avenger in I Spit on Your Grave, one of the video nasties still cut by the BBFC to this day.  Without giving any further spoilers, there's a reason why Solange is the way she is, rather than being born in the state we see her in, and it involves all the previous victims.

...Solange is by some distance the best film I've covered yet in this series, to the point where it's a bit of a cheat to even include it.  There are a whole host of things wrong with the film, most of which are amusingly pointed out by Alan Jones and Kim Newman on their superb commentary track featured as an extra on the similarly brilliant Arrow Blu-ray release, yet none which really detract from it so much that it prevents it from being one of the finest giallos I have yet seen.  Jones says it's easily in his top ten, which is praise indeed from the author of a book on Argento.  Everything about the Arrow release exudes class: the film has been given a glorious transfer, there's a visual essay on the film and its semi sequels by Michael Mackenzie, and then there's the newly commissioned artwork, which manages to top even the original exceptional poster art.  Whatever your taste in films, give this one a go.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016 

Good bad film club #3: SexWorld.

(Previously: Nightmare City and Burial Ground.)

To be a fan of exploitation cinema, and by fan I mean the kind of scuzz lord who finds there to be redeeming qualities to some of the most irredeemable films ever committed to celluloid, it's pretty much a requirement to be either extremely forgiving or to have a highly attuned sense of bad taste.  Even so, there are still films that even your friendly neighbourhood gorehound is likely to detest, that could never be described as even remotely approaching art, and yet chances are such a title can bought in HMV, sourced online or streamed at your leisure.

Whereas one of the features from the so-called golden age of porn, when storylines, plot, lavish sets and reasonably high production values will either have to be downloaded (illegally) or imported from overseas.  With a few notable exceptions, the BBFC denies features "whose primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation" a normal 18 certificate, instead classifying them at R18, meaning they can only be sold in registered sex shops.  While you can then buy In the Realm of the Senses, The Idiots, Baise-Moi, 9 Songs or even Caligula easily, as all have been passed at 18 despite either featuring penetration, hardcore scenes or in the case of 9 Songs being one long advert for actual porn, the Devil in Miss Jones or the Opening of Misty Beethoven are verboten.  In practice this distinction has been moot since the internet became the biggest sex shop in the world, but it has meant that a UK-based company has never established itself as the number one destination for smut.  With such barriers put in the way of distributors, Deep Throat is around the only film from the "porno chic" era to have had even a rudimentary release on DVD in this country.

Yep, in America during the 70s, that strangest of decades, for a short time and even only really in the cities, going to see a porno at the cinema was a thing for people other than the dirty raincoat brigade.  No one has any idea how much money Deep Throat made, but suffice to say it was a lot.  The Devil in Miss Jones took even more.  The Washington Post named its Watergate source after Gerard Damiano's mob-funded picture.  Bob Hope and Johnny Carson made jokes about it.  Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver takes his date to see a porn film.  The stage had obviously been set by the skin flicks of the 60s, the rise of exploitation, European mould breakers like Denmark legalising all pornography, mondo pictures and so forth, and yet Deep Throat, a feeble film even by porn standards, for just a moment looked like changing everything.  Helen Mirren in her commentary track on Caligula makes clear what seemed possible: the potential that name actors themselves might have to go all the way on camera.

It of course didn't happen, and nor has there really ever been an actor to make the crossover and go on to be a huge star.  Marilyn Chambers, Traci Lords, James Deen, Sasha Grey, all have tried to do it and none have properly succeeded.  Sure, some porn actors might have come close to being household names, but actually go beyond infamy or sniggering to be an A-lister?  No chance, surely.

And yet for an audience enjoying the shock of the new, helped along by the various obscenity cases brought against Deep Throat, the idea clearly wasn't absurd.  In truth, a fair number of the performers of the period, Linda Lovelace sadly excepted, were either amateur thesps or had been in theatrical productions.  Georgina Spelvin, star of TDiMJ, was a chorus girl, featured on Broadway; Robert Kerman, the guy who does Debbie in Debbie Does Dallas, was a trained actor turned one of the most unlikely fixtures of the late golden age.  Frustrated straight actors unable to pay the bills or wanting to be able to get their own theatrical projects off the ground were persuaded to make a quick buck.

By the time SexWorld debuted in 1978, the era had already almost passed.  Video, which would do for the by now often squalid grindhouses screening the new releases, was just around the corner, making it far cheaper to shoot and also providing punters with the opportunity to yank it in the comfort of their own home.  AIDS was about to cut down a number of directors and actors, the latter of whom often made both gay and straight features.  A few producers carried on shooting on film into the late 80s, and even today there are still a few studios that attempt to build a plot around the sex, but any real money remaining either goes to the niche producers or the porn networks, Brazzers, RealityKings, BangBros et al, churning out scene after scene day after day.

All the more reason then for these films from the golden era to be preserved, even if they are never going to be cherished except by a select few.  Enter Vinegar Syndrome, a US distribution company taking it upon themselves to finally do full justice to as many of these features as they can get the rights to.  After building a head of steam with their Peekarama double-bill DVD releases, they've started releasing their most popular and best titles on Blu-Ray, of which SexWorld is the most notable.  Directed by Anthony Spinelli, SexWorld does not by any means make a TDiMJ-style case for porn most definitely being art, but is nonetheless a world away from the plastic rigidity of today's gonzo pornography.

One feature it does share with some of today's output is that it's almost a parody of Westworld and Futureworld.  Almost in that it really only shares the idea of a resort where the customers can live out their desires; the sex partners conjured up by the scientists, after our motley gang have detailed their wants and needs to counsellors most certainly do not rebel.  The film is though in step with the changing times, as though it could be otherwise; a shy girl who can only get off by donning a blonde wig while phoning up sex lines (yes, really) is paired with a black man, who is the sensitive lover she always needed, while a racist bigot played by porn stalwart John Leslie is seduced and converted by the gorgeous, voluptuous Desiree West.  A couple on the brink of separation thanks to the husband's perverted obsessions are brought back together thanks to him being taught by SexWorld how to satisfy his wife, while more prosaically Annette Haven, the most classically beautiful of all the golden era stars, less feasibly tries a man after tiring of her long-term lesbian lover.

Just as important as the sex is the look of the film.  While you can't say no expense was spared, especially when the exact same shot of the SexWorld bus travelling along a highway is used twice, the sets most certainly look the part, and naturally there is some very 70s decor: the boudoir of one of our couples features a mural that shouts BEEF.  As for the performances beyond the ones in the bedroom, Kay Parker is especially persuasive as the disgusted partner, while Leslie and Haven, usually good value, are on the level here also.

More impressive than the film itself is that it has been released on Blu-Ray at all, looking absolutely stunning, probably better than it ever has other than at its première.  You will sadly have to pay through the nose for it, whether by importing, going on eBay, or sourcing it from somewhere like Strange Vice, a reality that will only change if the BBFC is forced to change its policies, but those with a taste for this sort of thing are no doubt used to that by now.  Don't expect change to come soon, mind: it wasn't until 28 years after the release of Deep Throat that hardcore was formally legalised in this country.

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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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