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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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, 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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Thursday, October 13, 2011 

The pornography of terror.

It's proving to be a busy three months for the good people down in Soho Square. No sooner had the BBFC rejected Tom Six's magnum opus the Human Centipede II, a decision which last week they reversed after the director offered to truncate his work, removing scenes of sandpaper masturbation and barbed-wire rape, than they're banning a slightly more serious work, Adam Rehmeier's The Bunny Game.

The two films, although both in the horror genre, could hardly be more different, despite it seems sharing the same black and white aesthetic. The Human Centipede is pure fantasy, albeit it "torture-porn" indebted fantasy; The Bunny Game is startlingly grounded in reality, to the point where the film's star and co-writer Rodleen Getsic, according to the makers, genuinely endured the treatment her character receives from the truck driver who abducts her, everything you see apparently being real. Agreeing to be branded with a hot iron for your art is not the only disconcerting apparent detail: Getsic according to some reviews has experienced abuse herself in the past, something alluded to in this piece she links to from her Twitter account.

If the making of the film was in some way meant to act as both therapy and catharsis, then it poses further uncomfortable questions for both censor and viewer: the BBFC, concerned as ever with the potential for harm, for once quite reasonably worries that "the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness and the pleasure he takes in the woman’s pain and humiliation". For the viewer, there's the knowledge that if this is part of an attempt by Getsic to turn her very real past pain into a performance while also emphasising the fact that suffering ends and life goes on, then by watching are you playing a role in something which very few therapists would advise? Are those attracted to such material complicit in deriving entertainment from the very real acts of violence committed by murderers and abductors?

Without having seen the film, it's difficult to be able to say for certain just how brutal the violence is, and whether it genuinely does break new ground in the horror endurance stakes. Unlike the also recently banned Grotesque, which fitted into the Japanese mini-genre of pseudo-snuff horror associated with the Guinea Pig series of films, it instead appears to bear a resemblance to the final act of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the character Sally endures almost a full half hour of terrorisation at the hands of her captors, before finally escaping and experiencing the euphoria of freedom. TCM was one of the few films that the BBFC's former director James Ferman felt could not be released in any form, with the organisation's student case study revealing he described it as "the pornography of terror". What it doesn't make clear is that Ferman overruled all those under him at the organisation who felt it could be released, with the unsurprising result being that almost as soon as he retired the film was passed 18 uncut.

It's this fear of the "pornography of terror" which it seems has returned to claim a new victim. Even considering the fact that The Bunny Game is far more graphic than TCM ever was, one thing that is absurd for the board to complain about is that there's no apparent explanation for the violence depicted in the film. The idea that violence, abduction and murder can always be given such an explanation is to ignore the fact that on some occasions there is no real reason; it's simply because the perpetrator can. They may well derive and sexual and sadistic pleasure from their crimes, but that is to only partially understand why. If the film's whole raison d'etre is to portray the grim reality of what some victims have gone through, then it appears the BBFC would rather that such accounts are toned down before they can be accepted as fiction. Indeed, in passing TCM the BBFC noted that

any possible harm that might arise in terms of the effect upon a modern audience would be more than sufficiently countered by the unrealistic, even absurd, nature of the action itself.

The implication appears to be that film-makers at the extreme end of horror can't win either way. Go for too much realism and you'll be banned, while you'll also find your work cut if you cast aside reality and stitch together multiple people from mouth to anus and put abrasive materials into the mix. That adults should be able to decide for themselves what they personally can stomach and experience seems as distant an ideal as it has ever been.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007 

Film review: Hostel: Part II

(This review contains spoilers.)

Sometimes, you end up getting things horribly wrong. The original Hostel, a film so flatulently awful, offensively irredeemable and without a single aspect worthy of defending, couldn't possibly produce a sequel that would be any better, or at least that was what I thought. I went along to see it with the sole intention of coming back here and writing about how it was yet another new low in modern Hollywood horror film-making, a further cynical cash-in on a genre that rather than going back to its roots continues to stagnate and degrade inexorably. Eli Roth, who before directing Hostel made the similarly breathtakingly bad Cabin Fever, was just a hack who had somehow picked up the backing of Quentin Tarantino, possibly because he can tell a money-maker when he sees one.

Well, I take it all back. Hostel: Part II by comparison to the original is a smartly-made, reasonably well-written and competently directed film by a man that on this evidence will probably only get better. First though, some background.

Hostel: Part II undoubtedly belongs to the new-wave of horror films that most agree have risen in response to the glut of post-modern slashers, ala Scream, and the Hollywood remaking of Japanese horror flicks, eg the Ring, Grudge and the Eye, films that were already tame by the gorehounds' standards which Western directors subsequently made even less challenging. Designed as a return to the exploitation genre's heyday of the 70s, where for a while almost anything went and where post-modernism and the tongue in cheek were yet to be invented, most of the returns have actually been fairly disappointing or even more questionable. Leading this pack are Rob Zombie, Roth, Alexandre Aja, and the various directors of the Saw franchise. All, some would suggest in the aftermath of 9/11 and with the rise of a new perceived brutality, both in and outside the realms of bourgeois society, have decided that the public mood is no longer on the jump-scares provided by the Japanese ghost films or the weak, PG-13 rated-slasher more focused on providing pop-culture references than on delivering the goods in the way of blood and grue, but on nihilism, unflinching violence and in the case of Zombie's the Devil's Rejects, making serial killers into anti-heroes where it's difficult to know whether you're meant to sympathise with the debauched police or with the wise-cracking murderers.

In actual fact, while Zombie's films are unashamed homages to the excesses of the 70s, being set then for a start, and at least the original Saw owes as much to Seven as it does to the days of "It's only a movie", Roth's Hostel owes a far greater debt to another Japanese film, Audition. Directed by the prolific Takashi Miike, Audition is almost certainly his masterpiece, at least outside the yakuza gangster genre which he has made his own. While the film is as much a study of who holds the power in relationships, of who's using who and of the Japanese work ethic as it is an out-and-out horror, the last 40 minutes are rightly considered some of the most intense, downright twisted and shocking in recent times, just as the first hour is quiet and unassuming by comparison. The last twenty minutes especially, where the middle-aged businessman who used the process of an audition for a film to meet young women is tortured by the beautiful yet mysterious Asami, are as much the template for Roth's scenes in a Slovakian dungeon where the rich pay to kill and torture backpackers as anything else.

There has been plenty of comment, both in America and over here about how this new-wave is in effect "torture-porn", glamourising and brazenly depicting acts of depravity which a couple of decades ago would have resulted in the films themselves being banned. There is a certain amount of merit to those making such arguments, but that's about all. While Zombie's Rejects is certainly troubling, it's a brilliantly executed dark journey which has been seen before, and lest we forget, those responsible for the carnage do get their comeuppance, even if it is to Free Bird and beautifully shot. It's the Saw sequels, and most certainly the last one which perhaps come closest to meeting the description, being little more than one scene after another of sickening tests of both nerve and stomach, with little of the suspense of the first or the brilliantly simple but still pleasing twist of the second. Additionally, while the war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition may have brought torture back to the top of the news agenda, and these films may be attempting to cash-in, there's nothing in these films that anyone's either going to get off on or likely to attempt to replicate, although saying that there has recently been a case in the Netherlands where Hostel has taken the blame, although it was bound to happen sooner or later.

These films can neither adequately be described as glorifying torture, featuring porn, or in actual fact being either. For the most part they are just a response to what the public wants: let's not forget that Hollywood is now so ruthlessly focus-grouped that there's little that'll be released that doesn't meet their approval, which is why so much of its output is mundane, dull, unoriginal, brainless and for the most part inoffensive, at least to an American audience. The new wave of horror is around the only thinking outside the box which is currently going on, and the public and critics are mixed, rightly so considering how abysmal the original Hostel and other recent attempts at upping the ante like Captivity and Paradise Lost are.

Where the original Hostel suffered was in its sheer boneheadedness. Roth, rather than heeding the message of Audition which is what he was trying to emulate, decided not to bother with the excellent characterisation, plotting, feeling of dread and dream/nightmare-like quality which built up during it and instead focused on recreating the visceral nature of the torture: unsurprisingly, the film as a result was execrable. Taking 3 young men, each more annoying and unsympathetic than the last and leading them one by one into the torture chamber simply didn't work. We needed to care about them to share the horror of their torture; instead they were stereotypically badly-behaved Americans (with one Icelandic guy tagging along for the ride) abroad in Amsterdam, smoking pot, visiting stunningly gorgeous prostitutes (the only one of whom who isn't is described as "a fucking hog") before being persuaded to move onto Slovakia, where there's been "a war", and as a result the young ladies are gagging for it. The casual denigration of women continues apace throughout, with them either being whores or monsters who sell their foreign friends into the dungeon, but not before it's revealed that they're in fact ugly beneath their make-up. In comparison to its reputation, the actual torture and gore are remarkably slight, with only the scene featuring a young girl's eye meeting a blowtorch being particularly nasty (she later throws herself under a train once she's seen herself in a mirror; undoubtedly because she's a vain female like all the rest of them). Some defenders of the film tried to paint it as being some sort of satire either on American ignorance, or on cultural imperialism, but that always seemed far-fetched. This was cynicism and the work of a hack rather than someone trying to say something.

Despite its success, it seems that Roth took all these criticisms and more on board. Ignoring the beginning, which quickly deals with the demise of the only survivor from the previous film, Roth twists the original full-circle, with instead of 3 guys out to fuck anything that moves we instead have 3 young American women, Beth, the "straight" one, played by Lauren German who has a striking resemblance to Nicola Walker, Whitney, the party girl, played by Bijou Phillips and Lorna, the nerd, played by Heather Matarazzo. While Whitney and Lorna mostly do the same thing the two guys with the similar characterisation in the first film did, Roth obviously realised he was going to need to flesh out Beth much more than he previously did Paxton. As a result, she's the fully-formed, sympathetic and well-written centre of the film, with a decent performance from German helping immensely. While there are a couple of major holes still, as she's supposedly swimming in money but not living the high life, instead slumming it while one would imagine others in her position doing the opposite, especially as she's deeply concerned about getting into potential dangerous situations, she's the structure which the original was crying out for.

In fact, the major problem with the film isn't that Roth's tried to up the ante while further developing the characters, it's that he's tucked-in a sub-plot which is neither believable nor necessary. While the original just centred purely on the three backpackers, this time round we also see the story develop from the viewpoint of two of the men who've paid to murder our three young American ladies, who incidentally carry a far higher price than any other nationality. Why two Americans would be paying to kill their own kind when in certain parts of the states they could just shoot someone and claim it was self-defence for nothing is unclear, but it's forgiveable. What isn't forgiveable is how Todd (played by Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart) are an unhappy throwback to the cliches and bad writing of the original. Todd is in simple terms a psychopath, a businessman looking forward to slaughtering someone as he would clinch a deal, while Stuart is the family-man unsure of the whole business. Predictably, their roles are eventually reversed, as every horror flick now worthy of the name has to have such a twist.

Roth in fact succeeds most in the demise of Lorna, the nerd who's bumped off half-way through. In the sort of scene that would have given James Ferman a heart attack, she's hung-upside down naked while the woman who's paid to kill her enters, strips off and lays beneath her in a sort of bath, before using a scythe to first scratch and then rip apart her prey's skin, resulting in a shower of blood not seen since Carrie. It's undoubtedly the sort of scene that fits the bill for torture-porn, yet it's carried off with such panache that you almost feel the blade against scraping against your own skin. Very few of the other attempts in the genre have come close to creating such an excellent set-piece, both scary and satisfying. It's perhaps worth mentioning that during the video nasties moral panic the case of SS Experiment Camp featured a woman half-naked upside down on a cross, which caused more outrage than perhaps the actual content of the film itself did; things, it seems, have quite rightly moved on.

Nothing else quite comes close to equalling that, but the cinematography is splendid throughout. The extended budget over the original shows, with many more full shots showcasing the well-chosen locations, and Roth certainly maturing as a film-maker. Unlike most recent Hollywood efforts, the frenetic steadicam shots are kept to a minimum, and the film is far better for it. Keeping with the spirit of the first, where the aforementioned Miike made a daft cameo, this time round we have Edwige Fenech, the Italian starlet who featured in many 70s sex comedies and giallos making an appearance, still looking stunning, with Ruggero Deodato, director of the notorious Cannibal Holocaust, a film far, far better than this one, living up to his reputation by playing err, a cannibal.

While by no means perfect, Hostel Part II is certainly worth a look. The misogyny is gone, much more attention has been paid to the characterisation and the blood-letting, as it is, is far improved. The only real clanging scenes are one in which a load of severed heads, including Paxton's, are discovered by Beth in Sacha's wardrobe, and the train scenes involving an attempt by Beth and Whitney to score drugs, although it provides a rather weak echo for the film's conclusion. It doesn't come close to the tension and dread in Wolf Creek for example, or the sheer brilliance of Haute Tension, but no longer can it be said that Roth is just going through the motions.

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