Friday, August 22, 2014 23:36

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

March 1st, 2013

 

I have to confess, I’ve never been much of a fan of the giallo genre. Whilst I do get something out of the ample atmospherics, the twists and turns you’re expected to follow in terms of plot often lead me either into blind hysterics or blank-faced confusion. Or both – after all, these things aren’t mutually exclusive. Still, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has long been on my hit-list. Not only is that superb poster seductive enough, but I consider myself a fan of Lucio Fulci despite being more than aware that my Fulci education is severely lacking. I mainly know of his more notorious horror output – especially the ‘big three’, The Beyond, The House By The Cemetery and City of the Living Dead – and although I’ve seen some of his other genre fare, I had thus far missed out on his thrillers altogether.

The verdict, having seen Una lucertola con la pelle di donna, is one of pleasant surprise.

The basic plot is thus: we are taken to 1970s London. The Swinging Sixties are over, but the spirit of hedonism is still around – even if not everyone’s happy to partake in it. Heiress and staid thirtysomething Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is a married woman, and boy, does she disapprove of her neighbour Julia, who is turning their apartment block into the Last Days of Rome with her incessant partying.

That would be all well and good, but habitual insomniac Carol is being plagued with very odd dreams about said neighbour – dreams of a sexual nature. Her probably-very-expensive shrink declares that this represents repressed desires; Julia is easy, contemptible even, but something about her is irresistible. Well, if Carol is appalled at the dreams of seduction, she’s even more worried when her dreams turn violent, and she has a nightmare about stabbing the woman to death. Her shrink thinks this is a good thing, ‘closure’ if you will, but Carole isn’t so sure…

This being a giallo, the plot soon thickens. it turns out that Julia really has been killed in her apartment – just as Carol dreamed it – but whodunnit? The sinister butter-wouldn’t-melt stepdaughter? The woman who I’m not sure who she is or what she does but seems to always be in Carol’s flat? Carol herself? The philandering husband? The doting father? The sinister hippies who keep lurking at the fringes of the plot? Whatever is going on, Carol soon has to struggle against impending feelings of unreality, not to mention personal danger…

And there we have it; a good, solid, maybe even standard set-up for a giallo. What counts is what’s done with it next, and Fulci does a really good job here. The first thing which always pops out from the screen with films like this, if they’re done well (and sometimes even if they’re not) is the delightful sense of a sleazy time capsule. Hell, even seeing people happily smoking on screen evokes an odd sort of nostalgia in this day and age. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is heady from the get-go, all lurid colours, lots of warm reds, and – ahem – lots of nubile flesh.

Whilst you can detect some overlap with other filmmakers who made these sorts of obfuscous sex and violence flicks, Fulci definitely seems to have his own eye here – and he cannot resist adding in some moments of trademark horrific, gurgling gore, which pushes things, even by giallo standards. A certain vivisection scene seems to serve no purpose but to layer on the nasty as thickly as possible, and it bloody works. But then again, whilst we have moments like this, we also have some really well-crafted dream sequences. These are, I think, notoriously diffcult to get right, but Fulci does get it right, and these scenes are my favourite in the film. He manages to create a liminal state on-screen which is aesthetically pleasing, symbolic, hedonistic – and deeply nasty, but of course.

I enjoyed all the performances, but the film’s success hinges on Florinda Bolkan’s characterisation of Carol. She’s prim but sexy, and when it comes down to it she does a fine turn as a woman completely terrorized (and, knowing Fulci, you have to wonder if she really was). The only moments in the film which gave me pause for thought were the rather-jarring minor comic turns found in the performances of the police investigating the case. Whilst not enough to derail the film, they felt a little at odds with everything else – I much preferred the deadly serious material, and I’d even say that I saw a few Gothic elements in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin – grotesquery, a certain strain of excess, and a world of hidden doors and mysterious spaces.

And the big reveal of whodunnit? It actually – sort of – made sense. This marks it apart from rather a lot of other films in the giallo genre…

Whilst I wouldn’t now consider myself a giallo fan, I definitely liked this film. It’s as least as good as the work of ‘auteurs’ like Argento; A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin has all the overblown elements and atmosphere, without being sacrificed on the altar of contrived, even ludicrous science (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, I’m looking in your direction here). Though Una lucertola con la pelle di donna certainly isn’t devoid of silliness, it doesn’t stray to the top of the Beaufort Scale of Implausibility, whilst still feeling pleasingly like a weird dream-within-a-dream and thus never lacking in sheer entertainment value.

 

Ti West’s The Innkeepers (2011)

September 7th, 2012

The Innkeepers (2011) is an interesting one. Above and beyond itself, it’s a film which makes me wonder whether going into a movie with any expectation of liking, even loving it, is sometimes a bad thing. Is it better, after all, to go in neutral, or even negative and get pleasantly surprised? I’d heard wonders about Ti West’s good ol’ fashioned ghost story from nearly all of my peers before I finally got the chance to see it for myself. So, I went in pretty confident of a thrilling horror film, happy that I was going to feel spooked, not repulsed. This isn’t what I got. I came out irritated, disappointed, and saying to myself, ‘Is it just me?’ So – is it?

The basic set-up is thus: Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) work at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a place of reputedly dark history and hauntings. The place is about to close, though, so any pretensions of finding out The Frightening Truth about the inn needs to happen soon; with this in mind, Claire takes it largely upon herself to become a paranormal investigator during her shifts. Hey, it’s not as if she’s doing much other work. She wants to look into the legend of Madeleine O’Malley, a once-resident of the Yankee Pedlar who allegedly committed suicide. As the ghost of the poor woman doesn’t seem to have caused much bother to Claire, Luke or any of the current guests, it seems a bit unkind to stir her up from her afterlife and remind her of her miserable past, but hey ho.

Bear in mind here that I have condensed the basic plot (which takes up the lion’s share of the film), taking out all the lengthy, aimless filler that has been slotted around it. Argh. The Innkeepers is a film of pointless conversation. My impression is that West wanted to slowly build a relationship between audience and main characters, taking well over an hour to do it, but he has taken a risk here because, if you don’t warm to those characters (and guess which side of the divide I’m on?) then you feel as though you’re being battered around the head with inanity. The character of Claire, in particular, fell absolutely flat with me. I’m sure I was meant to think she was cutesy and cool; I thought she was hyper, nervy and quite stupid. Getting someone to endlessly use words like ‘cool’ and ‘dude’ felt contrived, and the repetition of scenes where Claire throws herself down onto a bed or a couch in a bored ‘I’m feigning sleep’ way, the camera trained on her sticking her bottom lip out, made her seem childish. (And is this the most asthmatic asthmatic we’ve ever had on screen? You could invent a drinking game whereby you down a shot every time Claire toots on her inhaler. You’d be annihilated by the one-hour mark, so much does Claire dominate the screen doing little else.)

Luke was a little more bearable, but again, a hackneyed script painted him into a corner. His delivery is slow, almost stoned, possibly as a balance to Claire’s endless jitters, but it made him yet another ‘whoah, dude’ stereotype for the most part. As for the guests, of whom there are a maximum of four, most notable is probably Kelly McGillis, who plays a psychic lady of a certain age in town for a convention, whose role it is to prophecy doom and gloom via some horrible new age platitudes and a crystal on a chain. Is West sending himself up here, or even making fun of us via this naive script? I cannot be certain, but I do know I felt sorry for McGillis; whether West was teasing us with these bland aphorisms about ‘the spirits’, lulling us into a false sense of security, or whether he was in earnest with these lines, McGillis was the one who had to try and make them carry.

Well, this is a ghost story, and I’ve barely mentioned ghosts. The film doesn’t really produce any for most of the movie either, but let’s get back to what this was all meant to be about. Claire decides to experiment with EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) in different rooms of the hotel; in fact, the EVP element is one of the major plot themes. For those unfamiliar with the concept, EVP usually involves people making recordings – which sound innocuous enough in real-time – in places of alleged hauntings: they may ask questions etc. intended to draw the ghostie out. These recordings are then played back and – hey presto – people sometimes say they can identify mysterious voices and sounds which, and this is important, they didn’t hear at the time. This stuff is all over the internet, by the way, should any readers wish to know more. The Innkeepers decided to dispense with this aspect of EVP however, and made the weird sounds/voices audible in real time. Thus it isn’t EVP as most people would recognise it, and the tape recorder which Claire uses while she asks her perky questions is a bit of an irrelevance. It allows West to dispense with the time it would take for Claire to get around the hotel and then play back the tape (which would have built more tension than the discussions which are included, though) but it reduces the point of using EVP as a plot motif in the first place. I think it irritated me because this is one key way which West uses to crowbar some spookiness into the earlier phase of the film, but it’s misrepresented. Oh, and – I don’t think I’m spoilering here as the image is on the poster but – that ghost? Complete cliché. Must all female ghosts look like they just clambered out of a goth club at dawn?

What we have instead of the build of tension is, sadly, as with so many other films which purport to be scary, an over-reliance on jump scares, one of which happens very early (setting the tone), and then several false scares. For me, that is not atmospheric. It’s so formulaic these days, where ghost stories on film so rarely deliver, that the whole ‘being made to jump’ feels like manipulation, and it’s lazy. I’d even say it’s easy to do, far easier than the slow build up to feeling unsettled. So – to recap – so far we have; aimless conversation; JUMP!!!; aimless conversation punctuated by a few scares; and then – finally – the plot kicks in. This takes us off in a new direction, and tries to ratchet up the tension quickly.

West shows he is capable of some blood-curdling stuff come the last twenty minutes or so. I’ll give him that. It’s just that it’s all too little too late. The formulaic elements had long since killed off my interest, the characters didn’t engage me, and then the story itself cannot sustain the excessive length of the film (editors! Fight to do your jobs!) My patience was exhausted by the hour mark; I could not give of myself a renewed engagement with the events on-screen. More to the point, I didn’t care what happened.

So, there are definitely perils to going into a film expecting to enjoy it. I think perhaps people were more delighted with the premise than the results with The Innkeepers, though of course that’s coloured by my own indifference to this film. But look; I, too, would love to see more supernatural scares on-screen. I really would. But I can’t just claim to support any film which is prepared to try, and I can’t skip past the problems to laud praise on the few moments which worked.

Hard Rock Zombies (1985)

August 20th, 2012

Ah, bargain bin horror. How do I love thee? Well, actually, sometimes you confuse the hell out of me, but that’s by the by. Hard Rock Zombies is, by anyone’s reckoning, a bit of a wrong ‘un. It contains many of the major food groups when we’re talking exploitation film, but somehow it manages to drift along in a vaguely dreamlike way. That should be impossible. A film which glories in the fact that it has an underage heroine, whilst also introducing us to a were-gran, midgets, zombies, rednecks, heavy metal – oh, and Hitler – should be what critics tend to term ‘a roller coaster ride’. Instead, Hard Rock Zombies is a bewildering wait in line for something you never quite get. And yet, in a strange way, that oddball aimlessness is what makes it all rather watchable, even if the quizzical expression you’ll have on your face by the end will possibly cause you physical pain.

The plot here is thus: a hard rock outfit fronted by the grievously-permed Jessie (E.J. Curse, who is looking markedly better now than then!) is on the road, getting mobbed by literally three or four women at a time. LIVE THE DREAM. They’re about to take their show to a town by the name of Grand Guignol; yeah, town names in low-budget movies don’t go a bundle on being low-key. I swear this place is just down the road from Nilbog. Thing is, before they can saddle up, Jessie is warned off going to Grand Guignol by a female child with a perm. I mean, come on, Cassie (for ’tis her name) is not only playing an underage sweetheart to Jessie’s, what, 25? 30? year old character, but it’s happily referred to multiple times in the script, and the actress herself (Jennifer Coe) can’t be more than thirteen or fourteen here. We’ve got Special Registers for the types of men who flaunt their infatuations with girls this young these days! Call it a sign of the times I guess…

Anyway, Cassie’s warning isn’t heeded – far from it, because our Jessie’s a cherry-hound of the highest order and, besides, the show must go on. As for we, the audience, we’ve already seen the machinations of a batshit insane family who live in Grand Guignol, who send out their most normal family member (luckily a hot blonde straight out of a Motley Crue vid) to pick up guys which the whole family enjoy tormenting. She happens to be hitch-hiking when the band get to town; they pick her up, and she offers for them all to go and stay at their run-down mansion home, which they accept.

Not everyone is quite as welcoming, mind you. The rest of the inhabitants of the town don’t want no stinkin’ decadent rock band coming in there and seducing their youth (and actually, they’ve got a point in this case). So, where are we? Rock band are installed in house of killers, locals are on the warpath, Cassie is popping up from time to time to get chased by her ardent admirer…oh yeah, and one of the riffs Jessie is working on has the power to raise the dead. We know this because he keeps murdering the same, evidently seriously lost tarantula again and again as he practices it. So, you know, should anything happen to him at the hands of Hitler or anyone else hostile to rock and roll, playing the tape could revive him…

This is an example of a movie which is just out of kilter, unable to sustain all of the multiple threads it introduces with any sort of tension. It all feels as if it’s been put together by someone with very little idea about the music of the era, or the horror of the era, or indeed anything it cobbles together during the course of the film. I don’t want to cast aspersions upon director Krishna Shah (whose name is misspelled in the opening credits!) but perhaps this wasn’t really his area? He certainly seems to have lived and learned; there’s no evidence of any further forays into horror or genre film, and indeed most of the actors involved seem to have thrown in the towel. I imagine, once you’ve starred alongside Hitler in Disguise, there’s very little more for you to do. Saying that, there’s a certain Phil Fondacaro featured here who has gone from strength to strength…

Saying all that, Hard Rock Zombies is a worthy beer movie; it won’t matter too much if you’re asking your drinking partner to clarify what the hell you just saw as the next scene proceeds, or indeed if you ask them what the hell you just saw after the next scene. The 80s effect is in full sway throughout, and you can marvel at the hair and clothes, guffaw at the music, and wonder why Hitler might be married to a werewolf and living in Hicksville, USA. Serious film lovers need not apply. Now shush and watch your retro paedo love anthem:

The Veneer (!) of Modernity

April 15th, 2012

I’ll start this post with a mea culpa: I can be easily-distracted by minor details when I’m watching a film, be they details of dress, or mannerism, or verbal tic – anything along those lines is anathema to my concentration. Once I’ve honed in on this sort of thing, that’s it, that’s all I can see or hear, and I find it very difficult to stop fixating on it  - but in recent years, something has started to take over in film which is not just noticeable to someone like me who gets hung up on a lisp or mad hair or the fact that there’s actually someone in the film who goes by the real-life name of Mimsy Farmer. No, this is a Real Thing. Something weird is going on…

This isn’t a matter which solely affects horror, by the way, but as I watch horror the most, it’s in horror that I inevitably notice it the most, whenever I’m trying to immerse myself in tension, or atmosphere, or period detail – whatever happens to be going on in the fictional universe of film which interests me at that particular time. What am I talking about, I hear you cry? Well, perhaps I can best answer that with an example.

Hobo with a Shotgun: not a realist piece of cinema, to be sure, but would you seriously expect a Gentleman of the Road to have a set of gnashers like that, after potentially years of riding the railroad, drinking fortified wine and eating out of skips? They bothered to get everything believable about Rutger Hauer’s appearance – right down to the dirt under his nails (unless he came in like that), but all I could see were those pearly whites. All I could see. A beaming grin, getting in the way of the character and set-up. The Hollywood smile - it is everywhere.

Yep, look where we may, actors and actresses universally look as though some lunatic has shoved a kids’ toy piano into their heads. Dental veneers, man. They freak me out. And even if you could make allowances that, maybe, the girl being chased through the woods by a masked killer might belong to the type of family where she could go and get her teeth ‘done’, i.e. have a dentist expensively insert huge, uniformly-sized and shaped blocks into her until you don’t know whether to shake her hand or play Chopsticks on her face, can you really believe it of Hobo with a Shotgun? Historical epics? Burke and fucking Hare? Victorian prostitutes who lived in a world of gin and domestic violence, with ne’er a tooth astray? If you saw Season of the Witch, then you probably noticed Nicolas Cage’s wig; it was a hell of a wig, to be sure. But I posit that they only put the wig on him to draw the eye away from the fact that we’re supposed to believe a 14th Century mercenary had such impressive bridgework. Ron Perlman, as well, who looks as though he wasn’t born but hewn out of granite – he had one of those flawless grins too. I repeat: two guys who had braved the Crusades and all of the violence and malnutrition which that entailed came out the other end looking like Larry fucking Hagman.

The OptiSmile has taken over all time periods, situations and characters being filmed, and by the seems of it no filmmaker or make-up artist can bring themselves to do anything to the OptiSmile which would in any way tarnish it or alter it, even though this is the only way in which it could be made to look at all believable. It really gets in the way of character acting, and it’s another trend which makes all those on our screens looks the bloody same. As if it’s not bad enough that all the women have the same figures and all the men are oddly hairless with those weird defined abdominals which make them look like genuine human centipedes. I can’t empathise with these people! Speaking of human centipedes,  everyone involved with casting seems to be oblivious to the fact that these anodyne horsey grins are distracting no matter how outrageous the action on screen gets. I watched The Human Centipede; I reviewed it for this blog in fact, and I quite liked the film. However, I was as much absorbed by the own-light-source smiles of the two lead actresses as I was by the fact that those dazzlers were about to be torn out.

I’m not saying that I think the world of film would be better with more decay on display, but a bit of variety – you know, like we have in the world – wouldn’t go amiss, and no one is going to get hurt if they have to observe a mouthful of regular teeth. It’s fine. Honestly. And it comes to something when you’re breathing a sigh of relief because a cast member looks like a believable person, just because they lack that fashionable, moneyed, toothy look.

I’m told that actors and actresses essentially have to get their teeth fixed to stand a serious chance of being cast these days, and that’s one of the silliest cases of the Emperor’s New Clothes that we’ve had of late, because deliberately fostering disbelief on the part of the audience (or fascination with all the wrong things) isn’t going to help a film! It also dates and types a film quite clearly – in years to come, that might make it laughable, and with horror, that isn’t (usually) what you’re after. Pack it in, all of you filmmakers. If it’s good enough for Terry Thomas then it’s good enough for all of us.

Cassadaga (2011)

April 3rd, 2012

Thanks to some of their recent releases, After Dark Films have made great strides in rectifying the rather variable reputation they had built up. Films such as Prowl and Husk might not have been genre-defying, but they were certainly genre-aware, savvy pieces of filmmaking with much to recommend them. A good film doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel – it’s nice if that happens sometimes, we don’t expect it all the time – but it has to show it can do something decent and pacy with familiar plot developments, and decent script and performance are a must, unless the filmmaker is deliberately courting the ‘so bad, it’s good’ camp. And, as an aside, I wish they wouldn’t do that. Anyway, back to After Dark: continuing in their largely positive vein, they are now about to release Cassadaga (2011), a film with two quite separate but concurrent plot threads, each recognisable to fans of modern horror, and nicely played-out here.

After the tragic loss of her younger sister Michelle, of whom she was also guardian thanks to the earlier bereavement of their parents, art teacher Lily (Kelen Coleman) seeks and is granted residence at a spiritualist community at the edge of town – the Cassadaga of the title, where she hopes to come to terms with her grief. The temptation of consulting a medium gets the better of Lily, though: she attends a séance, and does make contact with Michelle, to her relief, but Michelle’s presence is soon superceded by one much larger and more aggressive. The medium explains to a frightened Lily that a ghost has attached itself to her. To rid herself of it, she has to find out happened to the person at the end of their life; this begins a chain of events by which Lily encounters tell of a murderer on the loose known as ‘Geppetto’ – for his predilection for making human marionettes out of his victims…

As you might gather by that short introduction, Cassadaga incorporates two different types of horror film in one. The first is the idea of the ‘vengeful spirit’, which has been with us since before the days of cinema, features particularly frequently in Far East Asian horror, and formed the backbone of the plot of The Woman in Black (2012), a very lucrative release for the recently-resurrected Hammer Studios. The second is the type of ordeal cinema which people will keep on referring to as ‘torture porn’ – cinema which focuses on grisly, prolonged torment. How Cassadaga avoids feeling patchy is by limiting the amount of screen-time it gives to the cruelty which we know is at the core of the Geppetto plotline. Whilst we know it is there, and is to be taken seriously (with one sequence which is truly ingenious and horrible) we do not have our viewing experience crammed with gore; suggestion is much more important here. The focus goes to the character of Lily herself, and the detective-work she has to do to end what is happening to her, whilst the supernatural elements of the film are usually low-key – a few jump-cuts aside – and the ghost becomes slowly more ‘characterised’ as Lily is able to uncover details of their life, though without ever ceasing to be alarming on-screen. Aiming to incorporate a good deal, perhaps, but Cassadaga does manage to maintain the sum of its parts, and can be tense and humane in equal shares.

Visually, and perhaps as a sign of our times, this movie looks as though it has all been refracted through Instagram – it looks filtered, with high colour/high contrast, which may or may not appeal to you, but you can say that it has a distinctive appearance which certainly does no harm to the overall effect of the film. The locations are superb, and the cinematography makes the most of them – moving from intense claustrophobia to wide-open spaces, with our lead character, Lily, giving a strong performance which underpins the changes in scene nicely. As a Deaf protagonist, she plays the part well, and not once in my opinion does this film descend into tokenism on that account. It’s actually used very touchingly: through Lily’s perspective, we are given an idea of how silent her world is, and how gently proactive she has to be with the children she teaches in order to remind them that she has to see their lips in order to undertand them. When you contrast that with her excitement when she can actually hear her sister during the séance, and how quickly that descends into fright when she can hear…something else, I think that adds a great deal to the film overall. Ultimately, Lily’s deafness allows for an interesting consideration of what a haunting might ‘feel’ like for someone without hearing. If you are used to hearing absolutely nothing, then surely even mundane sounds could be alarming, if they returned suddenly?

My only major gripes with this movie are perhaps petty, brought into sharper relief by the sensitive handling of something like the main character’s deafness: surely, having constructed that so believably, writers Bruce Wood & Scott Poiley could have thought again about the professional boundaries which a teacher would be expected to respect? I had a similar issue with Lucky McKee’s recent film The Woman (2011) on a similar level, and perhaps this is a US vs. UK discrepancy, but would a teacher wear such revealing clothes, or indeed start a sexual relationship with a current pupil’s father? I understand, films sell better with beautiful women in hotpants, but wear something like that to your job in a school in the UK and certainly get involved with a parent and you would in all likelihood get fired – an odd complaint, perhaps, in a review of a film which contains both a crazed killer and a crazed spectre, but sometimes thin excuses for nudity and sex really feel thin, which is a shame, because in other ways the relationship between Lily and Mike (Kevin Alejandro) is intriguing; he doesn’t turn out to be a knight in shining armour who inevitably puts Lily first, for instance.

However, gripes aside, this was a nicely-paced and very watchable modern horror which never felt boring to me. Good ghostly horror is still often overlooked in favour of more gory cinema, so it was good to see a film which strove to integrate supernatural scares with something altogether much more earthly.

Stuck (2007)

March 4th, 2012

Directed by: Stuart Gordon

Everyday people with everyday jobs can still act like monsters in the name of self-interest; that’s the take-home message of the gruelling thriller Stuck (2007), a film which unfairly went somewhat under the radar on its release five years ago. It certainly deserves more attention: perhaps its subject matter, being so closely based on a real-life criminal case, was just not palatable to audiences, or perhaps its genre-straddling nature just made it difficult to place. In any event, this is one of the most tense pieces of filmmaking I have seen in years, and although its emotional weight makes it as far from a simple piece of entertainment as it is possible to get, it is a worthwhile undertaking.

First things first – this is a film for our times. Anyone who’s ever been unemployed and had to deal with the shit thrown at them by the ‘officials’ meant to be helping, or with crook landlords, or with exploitative bosses, will heave a great sigh at scenes within Stuck; that peculiarly grimacing 21st century world of officialdom and of penury in the great developed world is all in there, meticulously realised without being sentimentalised. This drew me in from the outset. The fact that Stuart Gordon and co-writer John Strysik have such a strong handle on this allows the development of two strong, believable and, in the case of female lead Brandi Boksi (Mena Suvari) ambiguous main characters.

See, Brandi works a tough job as a nursing home assistant. It’s dirty, it’s frustrating, and she does it uncomplainingly. It seems she’s considered good at her role because her boss is dangling the proverbial carrot of a big promotion in front of her, if she’ll just unquestioningly give up her Saturday off of course…

Brandi could argue the point, but she really wants that promotion. After all, we’re only ever one step away from what has just happened to a man called Tom Bardo (Stephen Rea), who we meet next - jobless, penniless, and now homeless, we first meet him fleeing his lodgings for a soul-crushing and painfully well-observed encounter with the labour board. Where can he go? He’s not even allowed to sleep in the deserted park that night, and is re-directed to a nearby Mission. That’s where he’s going when he encounters Brandi, who is drunk-driving home having had her Friday night out regardless of work the next day. She’s high, she’s not watching the road properly and she hits him head on, in a horrific slow-motion sequence where Tom is pitched through her car windscreen…

Her first reaction to this is to being intoning, ‘It wasn’t my fault’. This, folks, is Brandi’s fatal flaw, and the rest of the film is an examination of the selfish impulse – that desire to protect one’s own interests, at all costs. It’s not easy to stomach. Utterly unable to take responsibility for what has happened, she fails to render aid to the man now bleeding to death half in, half out of her windscreen, and this failure escalates and escalates in a gripping, agonisingly tense and hard to watch sequence of events.

If you think that this all sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that the screenplay is based on a real crime and that, in fact, the screenplay has moments of vindication within, which the Chante Mallard case definitely did not. Chante Mallard was a nursing assistant too, and she too hit a homeless man so hard that he became embedded in her windscreen. So far, art imitates life. What happened next was – she drove the car back to her garage, promised the man she would get him help, and then left him there. To bleed to death, which he did, slowly, over the next two to three days.  Of course, a simple retelling of this would be even darker and more hopeless than what we do get to see, but there’s a current of anger in Stuck about this case - as there should be – and as such, Gordon/Strysik allow themselves to explore what might have happened, perhaps even allowing the real deceased – a man called Gregory Biggs – a moment of redemption which was not allowed him in life. Nonetheless this is a very bleak film, and its portrait of unfairness is so strongly delineated that it was at times painful for me to watch. That anger was infectious, too. When Brandi’s dealer/boyfriend Rachid (well acted by Russell Hornsby) visibly relaxes when she tells him she hit a homeless man rather than anyone ‘who matters’; when she lies to Bardo about helping him; when anyone feels it better to take care of their own petty interests than save a dying man….the heaviness of that is quite something, because we recognise it. That ‘It’s not my fault’ or ‘It’s not my problem’ is a modern battle-cry and here we see it taken to its extreme conclusion – and it ain’t pretty.

I’m laying on the hyperbole here, I know, because I genuinely found this to be an affecting piece of cinema. As a grim, tense take on some unpalatable modern truths, I don’t think it has been bettered. Stuart Gordon shows that he can turn his hand to suburban nightmares here as well as his defining deadpan, often Lovecraftian horror. It is a real pity that this film – which was due to herald the rebirth of Amicus Productions – hasn’t led him to do more work of this kind, as much as I love his other style too. So I do recommend Stuck – but be forewarned, it might just stay with you for a while after…

2011: The Pick of the Year

January 1st, 2012

As always when I come to reflect on the year in horror, and for whatever reason, my first thought is -’ [insert year here] was a bit of a slow year’, and this year was no exception – that’s exactly what I thought about 2011. On any closer inspection at all, 2011 was a very good year for horror – it’s just that 2011 has seemed very long indeed, and a great deal has happened. The festival circuit (at least here in the UK, where I’m based) is healthier than ever, perhaps even a little too thriving, and sadly it’s almost inevitable that a few of the newbies are going to go to the wall just due to the fact that so many fests fall within a short period of time, namely the Halloween season – but it is brilliant to have so many to choose from in any case, and all of the folk involved with the newer small festivals are doing what they do for all the right reasons. I’ve reviewed more indie films than ever before for the unholy trinity of Brutal as Hell, Sex Gore Mutants and – my blog host site – Horror Extreme, and there’s been a proliferation of print media of varying quality as well, both new mags and those which have returned from the dead, like The Dark Side. We even now have an academic horror magazine in the UK – Diabolique – which I hope gets the recognition it deserves. Despite a bunch of idiots torching all their stock during the London riots, horror and sleaze enthusiasts like Arrow Video continue to issue lost classics and glorious revamps, and long may it continue.

Still, it’s not all good news for horror fans; the BBFC, perhaps as a way of re-establishing their authori-tay at the time of their centenary, have come in like hawks on a number of films such as The Human Centipede 2 and The Bunny Game, and grossly missed the point on each of these – that the first is choc-full of sly humour and the second is a blistering story of personal vindication, not a foray into sexual violence for its own sake. We have also had films which, at least to my mind, cynically seek to establish themselves in a crowded indie movie market by baiting the censors on their flashpoint issues, such as sexualised violence, just in order to garner the attention their product might not otherwise get. We’ve also had a glut of prequels, sequels and remakes which have been passable at best, and film studios seem to be getting more and more cautious about green lighting anything which seeks to be truly original because they’re worried about their profit margins. This is not healthy, not for horror and not for cinema at large.

So much for the overview. Let’s talk about the films, because there has been some truly excellent cinema this year – some of it spine-chilling, some of it sickening, some of it darkly humorous, and some all three in one go! Here, then, is my Obligatory Top 10 Films of 2011:

10) The Perfect Host

Warwick Wilson (played with relish by the excellent David Hyde Pierce) is the consummate good host; everything has to be just so. The wine has to be of a good vintage, the lighting and music perfection itself, the meal memorable. With all of this to plan, it’s hardly surprising that the arrival of fleeing burglar John Taylor at his des-res – when Taylor tricks his way in by pretending to be a friend of a woman whose name he sees on a postcard addressed to Wilson – has to potential to really derail his evening. Gradually, it dawns on Warwick that his unexpected guest is not who he thinks he is, but John is not as much in control as he thinks he is, either.

The whole film is a masterpiece of wit and pacing, with Hyde Pierce really getting his teeth into a meatier role than we’re used to seeing him play in the sitcom Frasier. He manages to be prim, proper and completely unhinged, while the savvy career criminal goes from sneering confidence to wide-eyed confusion. It was never easy to guess where the plot was going, either, and the balance between humour and edge-of-seat tension was impeccably done.

9) Cold Fish

Shion Sono’s warped urban tale of just how easily a humdrum life can be utterly derailed absolutely belongs in my top 10 this year: in Cold Fish, a family teetering on the edge of disfunctionality is given the push by a chance encounter with what at first seems to be a blessing. Do you want a quiet life? Then be very careful who you accept favours from, as devastatingly shown in the story of the placid, unassuming Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikoshi), a tropical fish salesman who lives with an unhappy younger wife, Taeko, and a petulant brat of a teenage daughter, Mitsuko. When Mitsuko is caught shoplifting one evening, the universe throws Shamoto a bone in the form of the gregarious, influential Mr. Murata, a rival tropical fish merchant, who smooth-talks the security guard into dropping the charges and even offers Mitsuko a live-in job at his store. Once Murata has a foothold in the lives of these unhappy people, however, his cheerful facade is dropped, and he sets about unpicking the fabric of the family’s lives in a series of grotesque ways. The mistreatment of a quiet man to the point of devastating his character is classic Shion Sono. You can check out my full review at Brutal as Hell :

http://www.brutalashell.com/2011/05/dead-by-dawn-review-cold-fish/

8 ) Red, White & Blue

Let me tell you, it is fucking rare that a movie gets right under my skin and stays there, a sort of weight around my sense of wellbeing, but Red, White & Blue did just that. It pre-empts its jaded audience, an audience by now well used to seeing all sorts of depravity, and gives us one of the most ultimately jaded protagonists ever seen – Erica (Amanda Fuller), who cares about very little in life. She lives out of one room and amuses herself by fucking guys she doesn’t care about – including musician Franky (Marc Senter), and his friends too. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, they don’t matter. The friendly overtures of her neighbour, returned war veteran Nate (Noah Taylor) are mostly ignored too, but these people’s lives are on a tragic collision course and the way in which it plays out really did shock me. This is a gruelling slice of Americana from the talented British director Simon Rumley, and with a due sense of caution I recommend you see it. My full review can be found here:

http://flowersoffleshandblood.horror-extreme.com/?p=404

7) The Village of Shadows

The Village of Shadows (Le Village des Ombres) was one of those films which came as a complete surprise; I hadn’t heard anything about it and I had no prior knowledge even of what type of horror it was before attending a screening at the Abertoir film festival in Wales. I was delighted to see that it was a move away from endurance style horrors – fine in moderation, but rapidly saturating the horror market – and a deliberate nod to supernatural horrors such as The Haunting, only with far more finesse than lazy, cheap ghost movies like the Paranormal Activity films. The Village of Shadows is very promising as a first feature, and crafts an interesting story with period elements, good performances and well-executed creepy moments.

In the movie, a group of friends are heading out for a short break at the village of Ruiflec, in rural France – but Ruiflec has a sinister past, which is steadily revealed during the course of the film. The young people who find themselves stranded there all have their own back stories, too, and these affect how and what the village seems to ask of them. It’s a well-wrought ghost story which was one of the surprise hits of the festival. Fingers crossed that The Village of Shadows reaches a wider audience, because it definitively deserves to be seen.

My full review of the movie is available to read over at Brutal as Hell:

http://www.brutalashell.com/2011/11/abertoir-2011-review-village-of-shadows/

6) Masks

When I heard talk of a German giallo homage, and saw the gloriously-lurid stills from director Andreas Marschall’s feature Masks, I was initially reserved about it. I’d made the mistake of getting very excited to see the previous year’s Amer, a film with undeniable aesthetic prowess but even less cogency than the films it was trying to emulate, and there’s only so much marvelling at the visuals you can do. A film is not a painting, and so you need to have more going on than that. Well, thankfully, Masks is that film. The influence of Argento (in particular Suspiria) may be evident, but this is not a basic retread through old ground. Masks has its own character and weaves its own warped, grisly tale out of familiar elements.

When aspiring actress Stella (Susen Ermich) gets offered the chance to join a mysterious method acting school on the outskirts of Berlin, she jumps at the chance; Stella is ambitious and motivated, and she is assured that she will be given the chance to shine. But the Matteusz Gdula Institute has a troubled past; suicide and disappearances dogged the school back in the 70s, and rumours are rife about just what the special methods involved mean for those who still want to try them out…

Not just pretty to look at, Masks carves something original and engaging out of familiar turf and builds up to a staggeringly good crescendo. Check out my complete review of the film over at Brutal as Hell:

http://www.brutalashell.com/2011/11/abertoir-2011-review-masks/

5)  Some Guy Who Kills People

2011 has been a bumper movie for horror-comedies and amongst the very best of these, and of all the films released this year, is Some Guy Who Kills People, a testament to what strong writing and a real sense of pathos can do for a film -not to mention the strengths of the right cast.

Ken Boyd has had a lot of shit in his life, including a stay at the local mental hospital but – now that he has been released – he is content to do nothing to rock the boat. He has an awful job and a worse boss, lives with his mother (the indomitable Karen Black) and only seems to enjoy his art. It almost seems like a burden to him when, out of the blue, his eleven year old daughter Amy turns up in his life, at around the same time that a woman takes an interest in him – but perhaps things are on the up for Ken. Just maybe…

…And then people start turning up dead. has Ken’s troubled past finally found an outlet, and what does this mean for the new people in his life?

Warm, funny and touching, Some Guy Who Kills People balances the comic with the sympathetic just about perfectly. Please check out my full review, oh – and, if you’re the dickhead who ripped a version of this film to a torrent site, I hope you die in a freak laptop accident because you utterly, utterly suck.

http://www.horror-extreme.com/movies/horror-reviews/some-guy-who-kills-people.aspx

4) The Enemy (Neprijatelj)

After all the, in my humble opinion of course, Emperor’s New Clothes-style discussions of the powerful symbolism of A Serbian Film which we had in 2010, I cannot tell you how delighted I was to encounter a new Serbian film which outstrips its more notorious predecessor on every level. There is no real comparison between the two beyond that, though: The Enemy begins as the last Balkan War ends, with a group of Serb engineers in charge of removing landmines along their border. It’s isolated, painstaking work, exacerbated by the presence at their camp of a mysterious man, whom they found walled into a nearby factory. is all as it seems with this man? A group of Bosniaks they encounter seem genuinely afraid of him, and question why the hell they let him out. True enough, he seems to exploit the cracks in the relationships between his soldier-hosts, and seems to know a great deal about them…

Subtle, brooding and effective, The Enemy plays with theological ideas but never loses sight of the very human relationships at the core of the story. A host of believable, albeit ambiguous characters and the starkness of the location makes this one of the most memorable films I have seen in a long time. A complete review (complete with me quarreling with a commenter) can be found here:

http://www.brutalashell.com/2011/11/abertoir-2011-review-the-enemy-neprijatelj/

3) Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren)

Altogether now – “TROOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLL!”

Another film on my list which isn’t strictly a horror film, but one of the most fun films I have seen in a long time, Troll Hunter marks the welcome arrival on-screen of Nordic mythology the way it was supposed to be. Here, the trolls aren’t benign entities who sit on top of pencils, they are huge, stupid and fearsome entities who would crush your skull without batting an eyelid. The Norwegian government know this, and this is why there is a top secret governmental body dedicated to stopping the brutes from getting too close to human settlements, and at the helm of this organisation is the world-weary huntsman, Hans, who allows a student film crew to follow him in his work after they spot him at several places where ‘bears’ have been responsible for mayhem. So, yes, there is a lot of handheld camera work here, but it isn’t obtrusively done, and it does allow for some brilliant, funny scenes throughout. There’s also some real love for Norway – for the mythology, but also the beautiful country itself, and Troll Hunter doubles up as a Norwegian tourism advert – well, providing you stay out of the way of the trolls.  I really loved this film, and I am looking forward to revisiting it soon! Here’s my full review:

http://flowersoffleshandblood.horror-extreme.com/?p=462

2) Harold’s Going Stiff

The ‘zombified state’ has been used and abused by countless filmmakers over the past few decades, often by first-time filmmakers who simply want to do a horror on the cheap and in these cases, it always shows and it usually sucks. However, there is hope for the zombie genre yet, because I never expected to see it used in such an original, heartwarming way as it is in Harold’s Going Stiff, where it is ageing and loneliness which are explored through the theme, and touchingly so. See, Harold Gimble (Stan Rowe) is an elderly man with more than just aches and pains to worry about. A new disease seems to have originated with him, and doctors are calling it Onset Rigours Disease – a painful condition which limits mobility, but in the other men it affects (for it affects only men) it triggers mindless, violent behaviour. So far Harold hasn’t been affected this way, but no one knows if it will. In the meantime, a nurse called Penny is sent to his aid, and the two form an unlikely, but wonderfully-realised friendship, as the condition affects more and more people around them. This is no full-blown zombie apocalpyse. This is Barnsley, South Yorkshire, and most of the rest of the world carries on as normal, but for Harold, his life cannot be the same again.

One of the stand-out films of 2011′s Dead by Dawn Festival, this film deserves to do brilliantly. My complete review is available at Brutal as Hell:

http://www.brutalashell.com/2011/05/dead-by-dawn-2011-review-harolds-going-stiff/

…and so we come to the best horror of the last year.

1) Stake Land

Here is a film which can never be done justice on paper; Stake Land sounds so familiar. In fact, and I know I’m not the first person to notice this but, for all intents and purposes, like the comedy Zombieland with one subtle difference, that the baddies here don’t eat brains, but drink blood instead. How different can two post-apocalyptic horrors be, with such similarities in plot? – very, very different, that’s what. This is an incredibly dark tale, where families have been ripped apart, names don’t matter anymore, and people use religion to justify their baser urges and power-hunger in ways which would surprise even us, with our perspective of the twenty-first century where this shit is just still refusing to go away. A teenage boy, Martin (Conor Paolo), who has just seen his parents and baby sibling killed by a bloodsucker (in a startling opening sequence) has no choice but to throw in his lot with a menacing and nameless drifter, Mister (Nick Damici) in order to save his own life. The two are heading North; in situations like this, people always need to believe that just over those hills, there is hope. Gradually, a bond forms between Martin and Mister, and they find themselves trying to help others they find along the way. And it’s not just the dead they have to worry about; an organisation called the Brotherhood are still men, but they’re corrupt and dangerous, for all their talk of God and redemption.

A film with no heroes and no neat answers, Stake Land shows that you can be original without reinventing the wheel – it’s all in how you combine and recombine your horror elements with the right atmosphere, tone and stand-out performances, all of which Stake Land does. This is hands down the best horror film I saw in 2011, and one which definitely merits a rewatch…

http://flowersoffleshandblood.horror-extreme.com/?p=371

I had it in mind to finish this post with a ‘sin bin’ of some of the worst movies of the year but, do you know what? I’m done with them.  They’ve had enough of my time already. I want to end this on a high note, and say instead that I am looking forward to what 2012 has to offer – and so that is exactly what I am going to do.

So long then, 2011, and let’s see what this year has to offer.

Book Review: the Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr (2011)

December 18th, 2011

 

I’ve just completed this thoroughly engaging book, one which manages to sustain the weight of humanising its key players as well as providing an in-depth history of the state of play of criminology at the turn of the twentieth century. This is no mean feat, but Starr does it very well, interweaving the particularities of the Vacher case into a wider narrative of the times.

Joseph Vacher is often known as the ‘French Ripper’ – his case came within easy memory of the Jack the Ripper murders in London, and the ‘ripper’ epithet has been beloved of tabloid journalists ever since, so it’s not hard to see why the term came to be coined for Vacher. The son of a farmer, Vacher didn’t follow in the family footsteps but joined the local regiment, where he soon became renowned for erratic, violent behaviour and was roundly avoided by most of his peers. When a local maidservant, Louise Barant, refused Vacher’s advances, he decided to shoot her in the face (she survived) and then to attempt suicide (he also survived, albeit living out the rest of his days with a bullet lodged in his head.) This landed him in the asylum at Dole and thence at Saint-Robert where, a mere ten months after trying to murder someone and kill himself, he was pronounced ‘cured’ and released. When he was released, he started walking – sometimes seeking work as an itinerant – and wherever he walked, he started to murder, typically young shepherds, but anyone young, isolated and unfortunate enough to cross paths with him.

As the book recounts how Vacher was cutting a swathe across the French countryside, from Normandy to Lourdes and everywhere in-between, it alternates chapters on his exploits with chapters which more generally discuss the state of play in criminology and forensics at the time. It’s a simple enough structure, but it allows the reader to relate a single case to a much broader picture. The life and times of Dr. Lacassagne, the prolific criminologist who eventually tested his wits against Vacher, features prominently throughout the book: I got the distinct impression that Starr has an admiration for the doctor, although to be fair to the author, he presents a very balanced view of everyone he describes, including Vacher. There is no moralising here, and when it seems that Starr is going to join the consensus which proclaims Vacher sane and fit to stand trial, he presents an alternative view, one which makes a powerful case for Vacher’s insanity. The overriding sense given is how damn difficult it can be to call these things, especially when the price for getting it wrong is death by guillotine.

As well as lots of detail on the case and on important figures in the field (such as the slightly barmy but incredibly dogged Cesare Lombroso), Starr broadens his scope, discussing everything from France’s ‘vagabond problem’ to the role of true crime in the press and entertainments, the treatment of the mentally ill, and the competing theories on what made people commit criminal acts – heredity? Environment? Much of this is done by giving people their own voices in the book, and Starr draws upon the masses of documentation and correspondance left behind by the figures he discusses. An interested but largely neutral voice organises an exhaustive amount of material into a very readable, intriguing study of how one serial killer case illustrated a great deal about the state of play in France at that time. It never feels too weighty, and it’s cleverly done. Thoroughly recommended.

5 Films Which Genuinely Disturbed Me

October 12th, 2011

When it comes to what’s shocking and what’s not, the process of desensitisation for film audiences has been fairly rapid. That’s not to say shock and disgust doesn’t occur – as an example, anyone following the fate of Lucky McKee’s The Woman this year will probably be aware that there was an irate episode at the Sundance screening of the film – but, and particularly for horror audiences who are forever being invited to be horrified and usually aren’t, the sensations have become surprisingly rare.

That’s not to say horror as a genre particularly owes us these feelings, of course. It’s just one facet of everything else it can throw at us, but yet horror still has its capacity to disturb, and for me there is a hardcore of films which have never lost that power. Interestingly, none of these films are younger than thirteen years old; this may point to me growing increasingly jaded as I rack up more and more viewing hours/miles on the clock, or it could be that the direction now being taken by cinematic auteurs with the most clout just doesn’t particularly move me. This is also a fairly mixed list – some of the films are supernatural horrors, some are not, and although there are some consistencies, it seems like a variety of films have made their mark in different ways. In any case, here are five films which made an indelible impact on this blogger…

5) The Blair Witch Project (1999)

…and I’ll just hand in my imaginary horror blogging credentials at the imaginary door, shall I? The thing is though, if I’m being totally honest, BWPscared me. It’s nearly impossible to go back to it now and watch it as the anomaly it was at the time; although it didn’t invent ‘found footage’ by any stretch, the format was unusual back in the late 90s, and whilst the online interest was unprecedented, it all completely passed me by as it was before I was internet-savvy in any proper sense. I went to see the film on Halloween, expecting very little, knowing less, and came out – like a huge proportion of the rest of the audience – spooked.

The organic character development within the film worked really well, and these weren’t fully scripted, rehearsed characters either – the main players went by their own names, and were authentically miserable, confused and scared as the film progressed. It shows. That famous shot of Heather with snot and tears running down her face has been parodied to death now, but by fuck, that girl was really afraid, and we were effectively there with her, understanding no more than her. Everything was refracted directly through the group’s video footage; it was the only thing which came between us and whatever supernatural was out there in the dark, Jungian expanse of the woods. We – and they – could never get a handle on what it was because it was always off-screen, out of eyeshot, and superior to us. We didn’t understand the significance of the piles of stones, or the effigy hung up on the branch, but whatever-it-was did, and one snare operated after another…

BWP took a rational fear – getting lost – spliced in something sinister yet understated, and left three twentysomethings to burn through their optimism and enthusiasm in a disorientating environment. Hiding behind their cameras didn’t make their ordeal any less real but, back in ’99, it made their ordeal much more real to me. I’ve never revisited this film because I just know, especially in light of how endemic ‘found footage’ has become, that it would never match up to the first viewing…

4) The Shining (1980)

…but here’s one I’ve rewatched several times, and always come out the other side feeling that this is one of the most terrifying stories ever committed to celluloid. The Shining exhudes a leaden, poisonous atmosphere which has often been copied, but never bettered.

Kubrick’s spin on Stephen King’s original novel – a film in which King was heavily involved too - did what should have been impossible: it managed to be even more frightening than the book, and it did this by giving us a complete package of sound, aesthetics, and performances. Nicholson seems genuinely possessed during the course of the film, and his (minimal) supporting cast look just as genuinely uneasy…the garish modern touches to the Art Deco finery of the The Overlook Hotel are distinctive and create a strange backdrop for the demonic presences therein, but perhaps most importantly there’s a pervading sense of doom to all this. The glimpses you get of the…other residents are so surreal and sinister that my skin still crawls.

The Shining draws me in every time and feels exactly like a nightmare. To this day, it’s untouched in terms of the unease it generates.

3) Guinea Pig 1: Devil’s Experiment (1985)

Rather than the ‘Flowers of Flesh and Blood’ episode of the oddball Ginî piggu series, it’s the first film – and the first of the films which I saw – that I count amongst my disturbing Top 5. When I got hold of a very grainy copy of this on video in the mid-nineties, it was purely down to the death metal fanzines I was reading at the time: if you know anything at all about death metal, then you won’t be surprised to know that devoted ‘zines gave a fair few pages to ‘the most graphic’ or gory horror movies as well as the predictable most graphic/gory band-names, lyrics and covers. I’d spotted a few mentions of GP1 and, knowing nothing of Oriental cinema, decided it had to be tracked down.

As with many films whose veneer of creepiness has been destroyed by modern digital remasters and cleaned-up prints, GP1 looked a damn sight nastier on a foggy VHS…through the grain, my eyes could just about pick out a young woman. She’s nameless,  remains nameless - just like her attackers, who we never fully see - and she is slowly, methodically tortured in a number of different ways. Each of her ordeals is simply signposted by a black screen and a single word – be it ‘hit’, or ‘kick’, and we then get an episode of that treatment and that treatment only. It’s all very regimented and neat, which only seems to showcase the cruelty. I had no idea what I’d just seen at the time, but the motiveless, targeted mistreatment of a young woman definitely got under my skin. In the year I was starting school, the Japanese had not only mastered ordeal cinema (note I’m shying away from the dreaded ‘torture porn’ label), but they’d rendered it down to its most repugnant component parts - tormenting and killing, just for experiment’s sake.

2) Men Behind the Sun (1988)

Repugnant component parts…tormenting and killing, just for experiment’s sake…well, regardless of how affecting I found the murky world of The Devil’s Experiment, being confronted with a film its equal in terms of cruelty which has an actual historical precedent was always going to stay with me. This it has; Men Behind the Sun is one of the most upsetting things I have ever witnessed, and – as documentation from Camp 731 continues to emerge – the experience surpasses being ‘just a film’, something you can forget or dismiss.

731 was, by the way, the equal (and forerunner) of the European concentration camps, although on a smaller scale; it practiced the dehumanisation of the Han Chinese and other non-Japanese allies in the name of making warfare more efficient, and Men Behind the Sun is its zenith in terms of dramatisation. The film follows the fortunes of a group of (very) young Japanese recruits who arrive in Harbin, China to work in the camp. They are encouraged to regard the Chinese prisoners as ‘marut’, experimental fodder, no better than rats – in the process of this victims themselves, although it is the Chinese who physically suffer most. Depictions of experiments in this film are horrific, and unforgettable – as is the disposal of people killed along the way.

Just in case you forget you are watching a film based on historical events, the film provides you with an epilogue, revealing what happened to the key players in the story and their ‘work’. Oh, and there is rumoured to be real autopsy footage in the film too. Men Behind the Sun is far too close for comfort, but it deserves to be seen and to disturb.

 1) Aftermath (1994)

Think you don’t care what happens to you after you die? I mean, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then you have nothing to lose – and if you do, then you’ll have transcended all the nasty biological stuff. Right? Right?

Aftermath takes the miserable given fact – that we will all, eventually, and in a way we don’t yet know, shuffle off this mortal coil – and makes it all seem so much worse. It has the capacity to make you feel afraid about the postmortem state, rather than about the process of dying itself, and in a sense renders dead flesh uniquely vulnerable.

Its premise is very simple, and the film itself only lasts thirty minutes; a (nameless, largely faceless) mortician, left alone at the end of his shift, begins to inappropriately touch the corpses – specifically the remains of a young woman who died in a car accident. Soon he isn’t just fondling her dead body…and after a brutal sexual attack on her (because, through his actions, she less like an inert corpse and more like a real, victimised character) he mutilates what is left of her. The upshot of this mutilation renders her down to component parts again in a twisted sequence; this dehumanising mutilation is a theme which evidently bothers me on a lot of levels, incidentally, as it’s true of several of the films I’ve mentioned here, as is an anonymous attacker.

Aftermath hasn’t finished, though. Having shown us this girl as dead flesh, we’re briefly reminded, in a neat and understated few seconds, that this was a person after all. It’s a horrific half an hour, with no dialogue, no names, just an undefended form trapped in a stark blue-lit hinterland between existing and not existing. As films go, it’s one of the bleakest things I’ve ever seen.

Troll Hunter a.k.a. Trolljegeren (2011)

September 16th, 2011

Monster films, welcome back. We’ve missed you – or at least, I speak for myself here, because as much as I get a lot out of psychological horror, hauntings, and even more gritty fare, I was raised on Ray Harryhausen films. Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was one of my favourite things ever, as were any depictions in film (or of course literature and folklore) of weird creatures…it almost goes without saying that a new movie which makes the most of Scandinavian folklore as the basis for its creatures is really going to have to go some to fuck things up. Rest assured that Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren) doesn’t fuck it up – this is a film which finds fun in going to the distinctly non-sanitisied origin of Norwegian troll legends and giving us an up-to-date run in with not just a troll, but different species of troll. Don’t know your Tosserlads (heh) from your Mountain Kings? Look no further.

When a group of student filmmakers set about tracking what they suppose is an illegal bear hunter (Norway has tight restrictions on how many bears can be killed and by whom) they follow him out one night to see what exactly he’s doing. Turns out his name is Hans, he isn’t an illegit hunter, and he’s actually working on secretive government business (with the appropriate forms to prove it). This cynical bunch might not have believed him, had they not seen what he was doing with their own eyes…

Having got this far, Hans begrudgingly agrees that they can keep on filming. He’s sick of the dirty, difficult work and fed up of the secrecy, so he offers for them to get as much footage as they need to prove that trolls exist. All they have to do in return is follow all his instructions. This footage comprises the film itself…

The ‘found footage’ idea is definitely blooming in cinema these days – look anywhere and you’ll see people moaning about it as well, so filmmakers opting to use this format might want to tread carefully if they don’t want to lose their potential audience from the offset. In Troll Hunter, thankfully, it isn’t too obtrusive. Yes, you get people running and plenty of footage of their shoes, but by and large the film is easy to watch and not migraine-inducing through overusing the worst element in found footage - wildly-spinning cameras. It helps that the characters are good, there’s a firm sense of fun (plus that subtle Norwegian sense of humour) and – best of all – the creatures themselves are brilliant.

Director André Øvredal knows just how much to reveal and when to use suggestion, darkness and motion, but don’t take that to imply that you never see the creatures – you do, and hallelujah, CGI is finally starting to get to the point where it really works well. If this film was made on hand-held cameras simply to blow the budget on the effects then I think it’s more than justifiable. Added to this is a genuine sense of pride – expressed in a light-hearted way, but pride nonetheless – in Norwegian folklore. You can often see the point at which indigenous national/local culture and storytelling became demonised by the arrival of Christianity in any given place: in the United Kingdom, lots of standing stones became ‘Devil’s Needles’ or petrified circles of witches to absorb them into the Christian idea of good/evil and castigate the old beliefs which preceded the new religion. Troll Hunter has a lot of fun with what must be a Norwegian equivalent – that trolls are especially cruel to Christians and loathe Christian music – and turns it into a game where the religious come off worse. Not a huge political point, but it was nice to see it in there. Also, Hans (and the veterinary team supporting his work) might be hunting them, but he has a certain level of respect for these creatures, and would never go after them were it not made necessary by them falling sick or straying too far into human-inhabited areas. There’s a healthy distaste for bureaucracy in here, too…

The final thing to say on this film is, trolls or not, this is the best tourism video for Norway I could imagine, and the backdrop of this strikingly-beautiful country has just made me feel more than ever that I need to see it for myself. It’s a nice secondary note for this gratifying creature feature, one which is definitely worth a look. Also, see this version: Hollywood will get its greasy mitts on this soon and bring out an inferior rehash because people can’t manage bloody subtitles…it’s a Norwegian film set in Norway about Norwegian folklore, and as such this is the real deal.