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Archive for February, 2010

Daughter of Darkness (1948)

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

What an unusual film! This was bought for me a couple of months ago and a cursory glance at the cover might suggest that this is a vampire film. This isn’t the case – although there are some similarities between Daughter of Darkness and the vampiric – rather, this is a subtle, almost gentle obscurity and its horror is very understated.

The film begins in a small village in Ireland. The women of the village have an undisguised loathing of a young girl, Emmie (Siobhan MacKenna) who they consider to be a threat and a lure to their menfolk – although Emmie seems quiet and pious, and our first glimpse of her is her at prayer. Despite her seeming innocence, Emmie does seem to attract the men of the village through no fault of her own, and when a fair comes to town she is literally pursued by Dan (Maxwell Reed), a man who boxes as part of the fair’s attractions. After repeatedly petitioning the local priest – under whose shelter Emmy lives – the village women are finally successful in getting Emmy sent away, and she is sent to a farm in England (owned by the Tallent family) to work as a servant. Again, the women of the household are distrustful of her, and although she seems to do her best to tow the family line, the arrival of the same fair in town threatens to complicate her life irrevocably. But is Emmy as innocent of her powers of attraction as she pretends? Dan’s body is found dead and soon other men in the area disappear…

Siobhan MacKenna does a great job of first winning our sympathies and then, slowly – ever so slowly – making us wonder if she is so deserving after all. She acts very well, and there’s a real sea-change in her eyes and facial expressions which works brilliantly in terms of revealing her character – better perhaps than acres of dialogue. The film is shot very cleverly and makes use of some great Gothic backdrops and devices: the church organ music is a great soundtrack to all the dark deeds going on. Also, for an early film it manages to create the suggestion of sexuality or violence through subtle means. You don’t really see so much as a kiss in the film but MacKenna still manages to come across as a femme fatale!

This is an intriguing lost gem of a film which, although not a lost classic per se, certainly deserves to be seen more. I really felt as though I was having my expectations challenged again and again during the course of the film, and I really enjoyed the atmospheric layering which the film made sound use of throughout. One complaint would be that some more plot exposition at the end of the film would have made the film more satisfiying: what was she doing to her victims and how? – But, ultimately, Emmy retains her mystery. Definitely worth seeing, Daughter of Darkness makes an interesting comparison to other horror/suspense films of the same era.

Ghouls on Film

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

It was great fun to attend GHOULS ON FILM yesterday, a Women in Horror Recognition Month event organised by the indefatigable Nia Edwards-Behi (who you can find over at http://cannibalhollywood.blogspot.com as well as manning the decks during my favourite horror fest of the year, Abertoir). Despite the best efforts of the British transport system, we arrived in good time to make our way to the venue. The Mixing Bowl, based in Birmingham’s Digbeth district, is an independent small theatre and cinema in a small hub of eclectic shops and businesses known as the Custard Factory: despite a minor gripe with the venue’s rather lackadaisical attitude to getting going on time, it provided a decent space and a good atmosphere for the event.

First up on a busy schedule was a selection of short films. Pop Art, although not strictly horror, was a diverting, warm and well-made film about a boy who befriends a very strange new boy at school…followed by the tongue-in-cheek Movie Monster Insurance (who doesn’t need peace of mind against attacks by popular monsters?) and then a film that couldn’t be more different in tone, Snuff. Snuff, directed by Maude Michaud, uses a super 8 camera to show the making of a snuff movie – but who will kill whom? A subversion of expectation is also the case in Melanie Light’s film, Switch, where a would-be killer gets more than he bargained for when pursuing a woman (through a gorgeously snowy landscape).

For me, the best in the selection were Faye Jackson’s film Lump and Natalia Andreadis’s Without. Lump shows a young woman undergoing a lumpectomy from her breast. The operation is a success – but another lump seems to form immediately. She tries to take control of her situation, but finds the medical professionals she encounters completely indifferent as they just repeat, ‘the lump was benign…this is very common…nothing to worry about…’ As she undergoes repeat operations her sense of normality begins to disappear and she begins to suspect that her surgeon is far from helping her to get better. This film captures the anxiety and helplessness generated by medical intervention, particularly where, as for many women, that intervention impacts upon your sexuality and autonomy by its very nature – this is a very good short film, which achieves a great deal in just twelve minutes. Without, in just four minutes makes a similar play upon a particularly feminine anxiety – but to describe it would be to kill its punchline!

Next up was a Q&A with Melanie Light, director of Switch; Kate Glover, the director of feature Slaughtered, and of course Ms. Emily Booth: this was fun. The ladies talked about their experiences in filmmaking before inviting a more general discussion about horror films…you’d never normally get the opportunity to talk at length about things like this, and, whilst I didn’t agree with everything that was said (Kate Glover – adding a love story element to your film to make it ‘appealing for women’?) this was definitely a worthwhile addition to the programme!

There was also time to show two full-length features: Slaughtered (2006) and the Soska Sisters’ Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2008). Slaughtered – written, produced and directed by Kate at the tender age of 22 – is a slasher set in a bar in small-town Australia, where the staff and punters are getting dispatched in increasingly bloody ways. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of this genre, the whole film is a testament to determination and enthusiasm, and it’s to Kate Glover’s credit that she was able to create a feature-length film completely under her own steam.

To close the event was the outrageous Dead Hooker in a Trunk! That’s a hell of a title…

The Soska twins – who directed and starred in the film – manage to channel the spirit of grindhouse and black comedy in this story the morning after the night before (in which you find a dead prostitute in your car!) Although perhaps a little over-long, the film was by turns grisly and hilarious and the two sisters are really watchable. Jen and Sylvia Sosker are definitely two ladies to watch – do check out their official site for more info: http://www.twistedtwinsproductions.net

So, a good time was had – Nia deserves to be very proud for organising a successful and fun event. I’d certainly go again and if this becomes a regular occurrence it’d really be a welcome addition to the horror calendar…

The Wolfman (2010)

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Lycanthropy makes a welcome return to the silver screen with The Wolfman, Universal Pictures’s latest foray into the subgenre they basically created around 70 years ago. (All that stuff about the full moon? They’re the guys to thank!) Having just lost professional werewolf Paul Naschy, it seems even more important to keep the lupine flag flying – and the film certainly has a decent budget and boasts a bundle of A list actors, which is unusual in itself for a film of this kind.

However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. The film was delayed by Universal for several months and the first trailers for this were seen as long ago as August 2009. For a while there, it looked as though the film was going to sink – but it has, finally, made it to the screens.

The film opens with Ben Talbot, member of the landed Talbot family, being killed by a ravenous creature he has pursued across his lands. His distraught fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt) writes to Ben’s estranged brother Lawrence (del Toro) and begs him to leave his acting troupe in order to help find Ben. By the time Lawrence – the remaining ‘prodigal son’ of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) arrives, Ben’s body has been found. There is a killer on the loose – either an animal or a lunatic, and Lawrence vows to find it – and find it he does. In trying to defend a gypsy camp who are at first scapegoated, and then themselves attacked, Lawrence is bitten by the creature and incures the curse. He is still desperate to find out what happened to his brother, and must now do everything he can to solve the mystery – but evidence of long-buried family secrets is fast gathering around him…

The first thing to say is how much I enjoyed the film, for any of the faults I saw in it. Seeing an unashamed horror film on general release is still a pleasure. I would say that this is a decent entry into the canon: it has a sense of fun, as well as a sense of debt to earlier films (successfully interweaving several plot elements from previous films); I thought the visuals were stunning and the period detail was exquisite. As a Victoriana geek, I was in heaven (even the mourning clothes worn by Gwen were fairly accurate down to colour and fabric!) Speaking of Miss Blunt’s character, I thought she gave one of the best performances in the film. It was also a pleasure to see Art Malik making a return.

Of course, like any film, especially one open to so much film-geek scrutiny by its very nature, it has limitations. I think that, as much as I love Benicio del Toro, he was slightly miscast in this role – rather too cool for scenes which ought to render him wide-eyed with terror, although he’s great in the transformation scenes – something they really make you wait for in this film. Anthony Hopkins was certainly not miscast, but this isn’t one of his best performances. It may well have been deliberate, but the slightly nonchalant way he handled his scenes didn’t work so well for me. My other gripe would be with the pacing, particularly towards the end of the film: there was a sense that the film had to reach its conclusion, but the conclusion itself was slightly rushed.

And as to the wolf effects themselves? I have to be honest, I was half-dreading the transformations. I’m not rabidly anti-CGI, but it is overused, and hasn’t improved as quickly as it has taken over as a device in nearly all genres. Thankfully, it doesn’t look too bad here. The filmmakers knew to shroud the scenes in darkness rather than illuminate a huge array of computer effects, so the mood isn’t ruined. The transformations themselves (and some of the scenes) owe a great deal to An American Werewolf in London, which is no bad thing, and the appearance of the wolfman himself certainly was original, although I would have preferred a more lupine face shape (and that camp howl? Why? It sounds like a Casio keyboard!)

These are, though, minor gripes. Ultimately this is a worthwhile watch with a positively drinkable amount of atmosphere and the sorts of aesthetics which keep me awake at night. I only hope this does well enough for Universal to encourage them to keep making horror films.

Women in Horror – Theda Bara

Friday, February 5th, 2010

As part of Women in Horror Month I could think of no better subject than the late, great Ms. Theda Bara…

Although Theda – born Theodosia Goodman in Ohio, 1885 – didn’t star exclusively in horror films (such as the distinction could be made at this early stage in film) she became well-known for playing the archetypal ‘vamp’ – a desirable femme fatale and a woman to be reckoned with as, amongst others, the famous wantons Salome (1918) and Cleopatra (1917) as well as a host of she-devils and sinners. Her chosen name is rumoured to be an anagram of ‘arab death’, which, if true, neatly conflates the blend of the exotic and the macabre which she was known for, and which publicity campaigns happily played upon during her film career.

Theda was, from the outset, sold to the public as a sexual being in her own right – never blithely awaiting approval or starving herself away to a husk, but using her sexuality as a weapon with which she wreaked havoc. In an era of ‘flapper girls’ and the commencement of the twentieth century’s obsession with fashionable female malnutrition, Theda stood out as a curvaceous, vivacious woman. Her costumes were equally daring: just 16 years after the death of Queen Victoria, Theda’s Cleopatra was flashing a scandalous amount of flesh (and the coming Hays Code would put paid to this level of display from the major studios for a generation!)

Sadly, most of Theda Bara’s work – like so many silent films – is now lost. A few seconds remain here and there, but one film has come down to us complete: A Fool There Was (1915). This film was based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, which itself was based on ‘The Vampire’ (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones – a painting which shows a voracious young woman presiding over the lifeless body of her lover (below). Incidentally, this painting was exhibited in the year Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first printed, and – although there is no suggestion of blood-drinking, Theda Bara’s film has been credited as the first ‘vampire’ film (and she is credited only as ‘the vampire’).

In A Fool There Was, Theda’s character uses her sexual allure to seduce and destroy a lawyer and family man. There is no purpose to what she does – her treatment of him is sheer personal entertainment (one of the most famous silent film title cards preserved for posterity must surely be Theda’s glib ‘kiss me, my fool!’) Not even the claims of his children, whom his deserted wife finally brings to him, can detach him from this villainess. In many ways, A Fool There Was anticipates much later films in its unstinting cruelty, but it is important to place it in context, where it demonstrates several anxieties about the changing role of women in the early twentieth century. Theda’s character is a woman of independent means; she can afford to travel unchaperoned and dresses in costly garments, and, whilst free of old constraints, she can still call on convention when she requires (such as when she plays vulnerable in order to persuade a porter to stop an old victim approaching her at the station). Most notably of all, it is her sexuality which rips and rends its way through polite society. Old ideas about female sexuality were dying hard during this period, as were old anxieties about the effects of sex upon men: as Dr. William Acton put it during the late Victorian period, ‘the danger [from] venereal excess’ was considered a genuine threat to male health and sanity. One can only wonder what Theda Bara’s emancipated vampire character demands of her lover, as he literally withers away…

This anxiety about the potential destructive power of female lust and ambition has stayed with us, and the threatening women which embody it have formed an important part of the modern horror genre. So, Theda Bara, the first screen vamp, I salute you!

Innocent Blood (1992)

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Ah, John Landis. He’s created some great films – by no means all of them, and by all means not all horror – but he’s often had to see decent work like American Werewolf in London bomb at the box office, despite steadily gaining a reputation in the years that followed. Innocent Blood is a decent film which, essentially, sank. This is unfair. Whilst it’s not a world-beater of its kind, it’s a competent horror-comedy which has a good idea at its core. I can’t help but wonder what would have become of it had not Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula come out in the same year.

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Vampire Marie (Anne Parillaud) is a bloodsucker with a conscience – something we’re now fairly well-immured to in more recent vamp cinema. She scouts for immoral and cruel people to feed upon, hence deciding against undercover cop Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) in favour of the mob boss he’s currently trying to rumble – Sallie (The Shark) Macelli. But Marie is unable to take Sal’s life when she feeds (leading to a hilarious waking-up-on-the-autopsy-table scene) so she desperately tries to track him down to finish the job. Once Sal works out what’s happened to him though, he wants all his henchmen to be ‘made men’ – the kind you can’t kill so easily! Meanwhile Joe has to overcome his fear and begrudgingly decides to help Marie; no one wants an undead mafia after all…

This is a decent idea for a plot, and one that never gets too heavy; it’s a light-touch piece of film, played mainly for laughs, but with the odd dose of grue and even a bit of nudity thrown in. The mob guys are somewhat caricatured (well, as I see it – I’m not really familiar with any real-life examples!) but equally, Sal is capable of enough nastiness to make him a threatening prospect. Fans of The Sopranos might also notice some elements and at least one actor (Tony ‘Paulie’ Sirico) from that later series.

I have to say, I was surprised to see when this film was made; although it’s from the early 1990s, to me it screams 1980s in its costumes and sets. It has dated pretty well though, and the humour holds together just fine. It’s a shame this film isn’t better-known: it is worth more attention than it has received.

Also, horror geeks will enjoy a multitude of cameo appearances: I spotted Dario Argento, Linnea Quigley and Forrest J. Ackerman!