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Archive for January, 2010

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

GHOULS ON FILM’ TO CELEBRATE INDEPENDENT HORROR FILMS MADE BY WOMEN

On February 20th the first ever ‘Ghouls on Film’ festival comes to The Mixing Bowl theatre in Birmingham, to celebrate horror films made by women. As part of Women in Horror Recognition Month, the event will include short films, two feature-length films and very special guest, cult star Emily Booth.

Ghouls on Film will play host to the UK premiere of the acclaimed Soska Sisters’ debut feature film, ‘Dead Hooker in a Trunk’, as well as a screening of Kate Glover’s outback slasher ‘Slaughtered’. The short films include a brand new short by Maude Michaud and the award-winning film ‘Pop Art’ by Amanda Boyle. Emily Booth, best known for her TV presenting and roles in films such as Evil Aliens and Doghouse will be talking about her career in horror, as well as leading a discussion on the role of women in the horror industry.

The event begins at 3pm. Entry costs only £6, which can be paid on the day or beforehand. This is a not-for-profit event: if any profit is made, it will be donated to charity. For full details, please visit http://www.facebook.com/l/bb16d;ghoulsonfilm.blogspot.com.

House of Wax (2005)

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

We sat through this remake of the Vincent Price original the other evening, and, I have to say it’s certainly no world-beater, but it was entertaining, and seemed to know its limitations. With a little bit more work – and a better cast – it could have been a decent film, even if a derivative one, and problems with getting funding for new horror projects aside, it could even have stayed away from remaking anything.

The obligatory gaggle of dim-witted teens are heading out on an overnight trip to find tickets and seats for a football game. They end up staying overnight in a patch of deserted woodland where, in true Wolf Creek style, they realise they have been spotted by a suspicious figure in a pick-up truck. Come the next morning, mysterious car trouble prevents them from completing their journey, and instead they hitch a ride to the nearest town. You’ve guessed it – all is not as it seems in this particular town!

The real joy of this film is the obvious care and diligence which went into developing the sets. Using a remote African town completely built in the Art Modern style as a guide, the crew built the town from scratch, as well as very literally creating the House of Wax…out of wax. The sets look fantastic and my eye wandered from the screaming and the killing several times to gape at the decor! What that says about me, I don’t really care to consider…

The filmmakers were honest enough to sell this film on the grounds that Paris Hilton gets murdered in it; harsh but fair, I feel. Her performance in this film really does beggar belief as she mopes and slurs her way atonally through the script. Even with a metal rod through her head she still has that preternatural smirk on her face…

All in all though, this was a decent stab (sorry) at a horror film. It presses all the right buttons, doesn’t do anything phenomenally different, and paces itself well. Definitely one for a group watch, or any circumstances where you won’t miss a great deal if your attention wanders.

Poltergay (2006)

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Ah, the French, the French. Somehow they’ve attracted a reputation over the years for being somewhat humourless but, having seen a couple of corking French horror-comedies recently, I now beg to differ. One of these examples, Les Dents de la Nuit (2008) is a vampire story with a genuine sense of self-awareness and fun; likewise Poltergay (tagline: ‘They’re Queer!’) manages to send itself up along similar lines.

This is on many levels a standard ‘haunted house’ film: a young couple moves into a dilapidated house; one member of the couple begins to see and hear things whilst the other sees and hears nothing; doubts about sanity are duly experienced. Thing is, for Marc (Clovis Cornillac) and Emma (Julie Depardieu) their house happens to have once been a gay discotheque. Ergo it is now haunted by a group of men who died in the ’70s in a tragic foam party accident, and it’s still time to party like it’s 1979! Marc awakes, night after night, to the ghostly strains of ‘Rasputin’. When he loses his cool and threatens the men, they just tell him to lighten up and dance. He chases them – they disappear through walls. He tries to attack them – he accidentally hits his just-arrived father-in-law in the head with a shovel…

Emma justifiably starts to worry about this behaviour – and her husband’s continual chatter about gay men in the basement leads everyone, Marc included, to have doubts about his sexuality (leading to some of the funniest ‘soul searching’ scenes ever!) However, when Emma packs up and leaves, the live straight man and the dead gay men call a truce; they never meant to ruin Marc’s life, and all they want is to move on – so, they agree to help each other.

This is a very lighthearted film and though it leans heavily on daft stereotypes it never does so in a vicious way. All the characters are lightly-drawn but likeable, and very enjoyable to watch. A slightly slow start leads to a zany, often physical comedy and, because of its easy pace and characterisation, it even manages a few moments of pathos in amongst all the madness too. Definitely worth a watch and just right for a group view, preferably with beer, in this writer’s humble opinion.

Frontière(s) (2007 – Xavier Gens)

Sunday, January 17th, 2010


Almost out of nowhere it seems, France (and Belgium) have seen a real crop of horror movies in the past few years. Where France’s horror output once largely consisted of the rather gentle vampire-arthouse of Jean Rollin, we have in recent years seen a wave of frenetically-gruesome output such as Haute Tension (2003), Belgium’s demented Calvaire (2004), the wonderful Shaitan (2006), in the same year as Frontière(s), À l’intérieur (2007), and of course the much-vaunted Martyrs (2008). All of these films have much in common: spiralling, personal ordeals which lead to prolonged scenes of torture. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that modern French/Belgian horror cinema, for all of its positives, is already largely canonical – a strange thing to occur in so short a period of time.

Frontière(s) charts the fortunes of a group of four young Parisians who are fleeing electoral riots in the banlieues and taking a large stash of stolen money with them (not before introducing us to the fact that Yasmine, the female lead, is three months’ pregnant). Travelling in twos, Farid and Tom arrive at a guesthouse and decide to wait there until the rest of the group arrive. At first the staff are friendly – very friendly, as the two women working there seduce the boys in no time at all – but in one deft movement the pace shifts and things turn nasty. The extended family, which we now understand these people to be, pursue Tom and Farid and eventually drive them off the road near an abandoned mine. They survive – but for reasons best know to themselves, begin to crawl through a nearby tunnel which brings them right back into the family’s…abattoir. Yes, they’re cannibals!

Meanwhile, Yasmine and Alex arrive at the guesthouse. They, too, are destined to be on the menu but Yasmine’s status as a fertile female eventually allots her a different fate – not to be eaten, but to to join the family and to provide healthy children in order to further their blood line. The family will even overlook her mixed race background in order to permit her. Yes, they’re NAZI cannibals!

Although there is much to do credit to the creators of Frontière(s), such as high production values, decent directing and stylish visuals, not to mention having the gumption to at least raise the spectre of French race relations, I was ultimately overwhelmed by the film’s flaws. It seemed to me to take several popular horror motifs of recent years – a dash of the utilitarian cruelty of Wolf Creek, a spoonful of the subterranean terror of The Descent and a measure of that old chestnut, the demented rural family (see what feels like every other bloody film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) – then to combine them on French soil, ratcheting up the shock value by throwing a pregnant woman and Nazism into the mix. This all depends heavily on the audience being aware of and tacitly supporting the agreed hierarchy whereby Nazis>all other types of villain, and as I’m sure you’re all aware, the proper victim pyramid, where pregnant women and children>just women>everyone else. The relentless torture of petite, trembling females now just feels contrived to me and, as in À l’intérieur and Martyrs, felt like cynical button-pressing. The other major problem I have with this film is its pace. At first, the slow-burn tension being suddenly replaced with immediate threat was effective: the atmosphere change was palpable and worked well. However, because it contains so many elements the film trips over itself to carry them all and thus overextends itself, rushing to contain cannibals, zombies, creatures, emotional and physical torture all in one film. It dashes in places, and falters in others.

Had Frontière(s) disposed with one or two clichés, perhaps cutting down on its story elements and delivering a little more exposition, then I think that its undoubtedly stylish appearance could have blossomed into something more cogent and remarkable. As it stands, this is a French torment film which sticks close to canon and cant, too derivative to really make its mark.

Ghouls on Film

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

This is a notice for any UK-based horror fans…

On February 20th at 3pm in Birmingham there will be a special event at the Mixing Bowl to celebrate ‘Women in Horror Month’, the brainchild of Fangoria’s Hannah Neurotica (http://womeninhorrormonth.com/) – the event is called GHOULS ON FILM and will be a series of short films, and two feature-length presentations (all directed by women) PLUS an appearance by B-movie starlet and presenter Emily Booth who will be premiering her ‘Behind the Screams’ series on UK horror fests!

For more information, take a look at the link: it’d be great to see you!

http://ghoulsonfilm.blogspot.com/2010/01/line-up-announcement.html

The Mist (2007)

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

At last, Hollywood are making monster films again, after several years doing very little except rip off Asian horror films if they made horror at all. Actually, this new trend seemed to commence with Korea’s enjoyable Thing from the Deep romp The Host, and it’s led to some good things. After all, since the days of Gojira scary monsters on screen have been used to symbolise scariness on the ground level and recently Cloverfield gave us a big sea-beast which attacked New York, probably after getting sick to death of all the Friends re-runs, but which led to some pretty obvious 9/11 comparisons. So we come to The Mist, Frank Darabont’s take on a Stephen King novella of the same title.

As with Cloverfield, the premise is fairly understated. The military – who have undoubtedly become our modern-day necromancers in film – have been experimenting with other dimensions at an isolated mountain base in semi-rural America. This leads to a ‘rift’ between coexistent dimensions and lifeforms are able to cross over – but this background story is virtually coincidental. The point is, things are in the mist which descends rapidly on the neighbouring small town after a devastating storm. Our main characters, as well as many of the townsfolk, end up trapped in the local supermarket, pinioned on all sides by lifeforms swathed in semi-visibility.

An interesting facet of this film is its refusal to depict all of the characters as heroic, rising up under pressure, working as a team. In true King style many of the people trapped at the store are panic-stricken, cowardly and petty and most notable of all considering our current political climate – especially in the States – religion is portrayed as an invidious entity which feeds on the desperation of the trapped people, rendering some among them despotic in mere hours. The performance of Marcia Gay Harden as local nut Mrs. Carmody is brave and well-played as she turns from laughing stock into prophet and thence into a polarising force. I think to lock horns with this undeniable facet of religious belief in a film, whatever your personal beliefs happen to be, takes some gumption. In fact, in the bitterly negative reviews of the film so far it has been this which has drawn down most derision, even though the film doesn’t just reflect negatively upon blind faith: it’s a refeshingly misanthropic film overall. I say refreshing, in that it makes me sit up and pay attention when, in film, people can be shown to get it wrong – here, spectacularly so. As someone who grew up in the 80s I still breathe a sigh of relief when it doesn’t all degenerate into an action movie.

The creatures themselves are a variety of nasties and Darabont is definitely right to tantalise rather than overawe the audience, but – my usual bugbear is that there is too much CGI. CGI has its place. For some of the effects, it works well, but some of the closer shots are disappointing. All the same, look out for winged things, squirming things, cthulhoid things (is that a word? – it is now) all of which are disappointed with their package holiday to our dimension.

This is a bleak and gutsy film, its characters are well-drawn and well acted enough to earn our empathy, and it delivers enough shocks to remain fresh. Just when I thought I daren’t watch another Stephen King adaptation, you know what? I didn’t waste my time with this one!

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010
Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is a young doctor who has successfully pioneered a treatment for atrophied muscles – his career seems destined for great things. He is startled one day, however, at being personally handed a letter from his former fiancee, now married to one Baron Sardonicus, begging his urgent attendance at her home in Eastern Europe. Together with the Baron’s servant Krull – the type of mildly disfigured, unquestioning manservant you might warmly expect in a film like this – they set out for the Baron’s house.

But all is not well Chez Sardonicus. Sir Robert has walked into an ersatz medical testing unit, where servants are tormented with leeches, and where the now Baroness, Maude (Audrey Dalton) is by turns evasive and distressed. The Baron himself is even more of a mystery: he receives nubile young houseguests who ‘disappear’, and his sinister manner is only outweirded by the mask he always wears in company. Sir Robert is determined to find out quickly why he has been called there; as soon as they are alone, the Count obliges, with a ghastly bit of Gothic storytelling…

Once a simple peasant, the now-Baron was bought a lottery ticket by his elderly father who died shortly thereafter. Nothing seemed unusual about this, as the old man frequently gambled, but one day a visitor from the city tells them that their ticket was a winner. And where was the winning ticket? In the buried father’s waistcoat pocket. The Baron retrieved the ticket by disinterring the old man – but the sight of his father’s retracted, putrefying grin generated enough shock to cause a ‘hysterical rictus’ – and ever since, the Baron had been wealthy, but horribly disfigured with a hideous grin of his own. Now, the doctor must help him, or Maude will be similarly disfigured…

This is high Gothic campery from William Castle, but it’s not limited to that: Mr. Sardonicus has atmosphere, good, if slightly stagey performances all round, and some genuinely grotesque moments. It is aware of its limitations, but it doesn’t sacrifice too much by being occasionally tongue-in-cheek. Of course, there is some typical Castle gimmickry in the form of an ‘audience poll’ at the end, but it’s all in good fun and doesn’t derail the film. Recommended for any fans of ‘The Old Dark House’-era horror.

Les Démons (1972) – Jess Franco

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Some classic Uncle Jess here, this time homing his infamous zoom lens on a seventeenth-century convent and two nuns/natural sisters, Margaret and Kathleen (Franco regulars Britt Nichols and Anne Libert) who are threatened with witchcraft trials by perverse bisexual aristocrat Lady De Winter (Karin Field). We are treated to a little of the back story of the two sisters, and we discover that their mother was burned at the stake for sorcery before the two girls were spirited away to the convent. So, is religious paranoia and the effects of power to blame here – or are there really malevolent forces at work?

At first it appears that religious mania causes Sister Kathleen to begin to act in a wanton way (cue much nude writhing about in her cell) – but after her arrest and subsequent torture, her remaining, and ‘more pious’ sister is herself visited by an apparition of their deceased mother and engaged as an agent of vengeance, but not before Satan himself appears, in one of the campest forms Old Nick can possibly have taken yet! From here on it the film is variously one of gratuitous nudity (pubephobics beware) mild lesbianism, torture, scenes of pursuit and escape, and of course black magic…

I thought the initial idea for the film was actually quite a good one: although there’s only so much you can get out of the whole nunsploitation genre in terms of original storylines, having two sisters ambiguously facing either their own demons or something external had potential. And this film does have something, in terms of atmosphere and visuals. However, Franco bites off far more than he can chew with this one, and leaves several elements of the storyline tantalisingly incomplete whilst pitching lots of scenes in the film more as stand-alone tableaux – titilating, certainly, but not cogent. The result of this tactic is a certain disjointedness which goes above and beyond the usual dreaminess of his films.

That said, this film is entertaining to say the least, with some (in)decent performances by the two sisters, and Karin Field is great. The dubbed script informs us that the action takes place in England, but it patently doesn’t, and the credits reveal it was all filmed on location in Spain and Portugal – classic Jess euronunsploitation (!) if ever I saw it. All good fun, but not as good as his other better-known nun fun, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun.

This film has only recently been rediscovered and released by Redemption after it spent many years banned by the BBFC but – a word on the print! Having watched the foreign trailers on this disc we discovered that this is in fact a cut version: by how much I don’t know, but several of the scenes in the version we watched are longer in the trailers. There’s also an irritating hiccup whereby the dubbed English occasionally turns into dubbed French for a few moments at a time. It’s not that you can’t guess what they might be saying, but it’s fairly annoying anyway…oh, Mr. Wingrove, – didn’t you bloody watch it before you put it on sale?

On Edge (2001)

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

In On Edge (2001) British filmmaker Frazer Lee manages to combine a common phobia with a common irritation in order to create a well-executed, stylish short film.

Mr. Thurlow (played by Charley Boorman – yes, that Charley Boorman) has a severe toothache. He’s been waiting patiently to see a dentist, but isn’t prepared to wait any longer: as he tells the receptionist, he is a private patient, after all. Despite being asked politely to continue waiting, Mr. Thurlow decides enough is enough and goes in search of the dentist; other patients be damned.

Luckily he finds one Dr. Matthews – played with real verve by one Doug (‘Pinhead’) Bradley. Dr. Matthews is disposed to be sympathetic, and invites the suffering man into his clinic. Sure, he’s not Mr. Thurlow’s regular dentist, but he’s plausible, professional and willing to assist. What’s the worst that could happen?

Doug Bradley is at the top of his game here: playing Dr. Matthews gives him the opportunity to demonstrate his flair for dialogue – most of the screen time is given to him, and he holds the audience well. Dr. Matthews is erudite, considered, and respectable – and only slowly, very slowly do the cracks begin to show. When you’re not appreciating Herr Bradley’s performance there’s time to think about a serious point raised by On Edge: we automatically trust anyone who has the trappings of vocation. Put someone in a white coat or an appropriate uniform and we’re willing to allow them to do any number of dangerous, invasive things. This is treated with a decent helping of black humour, but the point is deftly made nonetheless. And after all this slowly-building tension, a brief moment of grisliness does what it needs to do in order to provide the punch line!

On Edge is a superb use of the short film format and, as the director’s first project, genuinely impressive. Dentist-phobics however should definitely not apply…

This is available on Youtube…

Female Prisoner #701 – Scorpion (1972)

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

If you like the ‘more is more’ approach to exploitation cinema, then Shunya Itô’s masterly Female Convict films should be right up your street. Itô made several of these films, based on a series of popular graphic novels, during the 1970s. They’re not strictly a linear series, none of them are sequels; each of the films reprises similar themes but lets them play out in different ways. What is guaranteed is that each of the films tick all the boxes when it comes to the staples of exploitation films, and the film I watched this evening – Female Prisoner #701 – Scorpion – is no exception. Nudity? Check. Murder? Check. Torture, arson, police corruption, lesbianism, male-on-female and female-on-male rape, riots and assassinations? All there in abundance.

Young Nami Matsushima (expertly played by the gorgeous Meiko Kaji) winds up in the slammer when her corrupt cop boyfriend sets her up during a dodgy drugs bust. Filled to breaking-point with that old Asian lust for vengeance and having once failed to escape, she is subjected to horrendous treatment at the hands of the guards, warden and fellow prisoners, all of whom feel threatened by her grim stoicism and failure to comply. However, when aforementioned dodgy cop boyfriend finds out that Nami has already managed to get beyond the prison walls, he decides that she is just too much of a liability, and orders the establishment to ‘break her’ by any means – solitary confinement, back-breaking work, starvation and ultimately disposing of her. Since all the other prisoners are made to suffer alongside her, it is certain that something is going to have to give…

Yet, as with other Japanese directors of potentially ludicrous or grisly fare (such as Norifumi Suzuki’s dazzling Convent of the Holy Beast a year later) Shunya Itô manages to direct a film that is by turns innovative and spectacular. His devotion to atmosphere renders even the most violent scene an exercise in craftmanship, combining novel camera angles and action with psychadelic interludes, split-screens, shadows, flashbacks and a whole range of techniques which make this film a joy to watch. This is much more than grindhouse without losing that underground feel, and it’s a masterstroke. I’ve seen two in the series so far and I’m now very keen to track down Female Convict: Beast Stable!