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Archive for August, 2010

Ghost Story (1974)

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

It’s always interesting to see rarer examples of 70s British cinema, particularly when these are so noticeably different in style to other, more famous films of the era. So, it’s a credit to Nucleus Films that they’ve released the decidedly unusual Ghost Story (1974), a subtle film which evokes the uncanny scares of M R James – particularly ‘The Haunted Doll’s House’ or ‘The Mezzotint’ – rather than the lurid, high-colour horrors of contemporaries Hammer and Amicus.


The film is loosely set in the 1920s, and follows two men, the agreeable Talbot (Larry Dann) and chap-about-town Duller (Vivian Mackerall) as they arrive for a weekend’s shooting at the borrowed country seat of a man with whom, strangely, they’re barely acquainted – one McFayden (the irrepressible Murray Melvin). Although the two guests have very little to say to one another, they’re at least agreed that they were surprised to receive such an invite. However, McFayden assures them he just wants some company, so they set about making the dilapidated house habitable for their stay – with poor Talbot bearing the brunt of the other men’s rather cruel sense of humour.

Talbot assumes that the other people he sees in the house are another facet of his companions’ trickery. How else can he explain the presence of a beautiful, fragile young woman (Marianne Faithfull) and her maid (Felicity Kendal), who are about to be separated by the actions of the young woman’s brother Robert (Leigh Lawson)? It’s quite a jape as they seem to have arrived in early Victorian garb, too. Whenever he’s left alone, Talbot bears witness to the strange second life of the house’s unseen inhabitants, in a story worthy of a Victorian sensation novel. Duller and McFayden mention nothing, and so only the suggestible Talbot seems privy to this intrigue of illicit love, private asylums and crime – and, gradually, both whilst asleep and awake, Talbot becomes aware that whatever is in the house is growing ever more sinister.

This film really has a stellar cast, a mix of established theatrical actors and established – even notorious – figures. Marianne Faithfull had barely emerged from her darkest days of heroin addiction, homelessness and prostitution when filming for this part, and it shows in her strained, nervous performance, particularly during her incarceration scenes (the director also mentioned that serious intravenous drug use had frozen one of her hands into a fist, something which they just had to accommodate in how they filmed her). The three men – Talbot, Duller and McFayden – all work brilliantly together, each interesting examples of different kinds of masculinity during the early decades of the 20th Century. There’s also a small role for British TV sitcom star Felicity Kendal, and Hammer actress Barbara Shelley also makes an appearance (in a very different, less glamorous type of role).

I was really surprised to discover that the bulk of Ghost Story was filmed in India.  Director Stephen Weeks was looking for an authentic 20s/30s Britain, and found it in the old Raj (in one of the palaces of the Maharajah of Mysore, to be precise). The rooms and grounds were frozen in time in a late Victorian-genteel style, and so the location lent itself perfectly to the film’s needs: one of the strong points of the film is this evocative completism. I certainly didn’t guess that the film had been made abroad at all, and the director could not have done a better job with creating atmosphere.

My only major criticism of the film is that I found the story-within-the-story tended to be a lot more intriguing than scary. I wanted to find out what had happened to the ‘other’ inhabitants, rather than feeling anxious when they appeared. This is due to a couple of factors: the first is that it took a little while for me to be drawn in by the framing story. As well-cast as the actors were, it wasn’t quite clear to me, at first, why they were all there, and McFayden and Duller’s treatment of Talbot made me initially feel nothing but sympathy for him! Then of course the second story could have been penned just to personally entice me in, having as I do such a fixation on salacious Victorian novels…

What I did get from this film in spades was a sense of its skill and uniqueness. The creepiness exuded by Ghost Story is of a very different kind to that which many audiences will be used to: there are no sudden scares, no heart-stopping moments. This is a sophisticated and gradual gathering of strange circumstances and surreal dreams, many of which are very effective, and some novel scenes (many involving a creepy bisque doll, which pre empts the following decade with its armies of devilish toys!) The modern world and the ghostly world merge brilliantly, the performances are engaging and the musical score neatly underpins the film’s otherworldliness.

This is an understated film, well-deserving of a new release (it had a limited life on VHS as Madhouse Mansion) and definitely one for fans of the building tensions of series like the old BBC Ghost Stories and Supernatural.

If you buy the Nucleus release, you will also be treated to a plethora of extras including a fascinating, extensive interview with the director and cast members (hence some of the trivia embedded in the review) as well as a collection of Stephen Weeks’s short films. It’s a shame he didn’t make more films as Ghost Story shows evidence of an inspired approach to this kind of material.

Human Centipede – the First Sequence (2009)

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

As I mentioned during my review of the other instantly-notorious film of this year, A Serbian Film, it is next to impossible to go and see The Human Centipede without having prior knowledge. In fact, I bet anyone reading this will already be familiar with the plot in all its gruesome detail, so I am going to dispense with a conventional review, instead posting some of my reactions and why I thought the film was a genuine gem.

I finally saw the film last weekend. I was hoping for some grimly-ludicrous body horror in the style of Frank Henenlotter. Well, the film didn’t have anything of the self-conscious wackiness of Henenlotter’s best work after all. The relationship between the grotesque and humour was rather different; the film takes the audience into some pretty grim territory and deliberately focuses on the (much) more intimate details of such an operation – there’s no escaping the niceties of bodily function, and this ties in with the film’s clever exploitation of medical horror, fear of doctors and medical procedures. But this is offset with just enough black humour to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. Dr. Heiter’s photo of the ’3-Hund’, for instance – and the vision of him sitting in his car looking wistfully at it – comes just before he kidnaps another centipede segment to take back home (and the framed photo of the animal(s) in Heiter’s bedroom forces the ludicrous back into the film at a surprising juncture!)

The plot is simple enough, but novel, and the film plays with expectations, using a tried-and-tested set-up (lone females, car and phone trouble) to launch into something definitely unconventional. Expectations are also frequently ditched altogether, especially at the close of the film where we are forced to accept an ambiguous open ending.

But the film utterly belongs to, and is carried by the wonderfully-named Dieter Laser as Dr. Heiter. Looking like Christoper Walken on crystal meth, he is a prepossessing figure with a brilliant air of menace. The guy deserves to take his place in a roll call of best sinister doctors of the screen – I really enjoyed his performance.

So, I was worried that The Human Centipede would disappoint me – it didn’t. It’s a genuinely original piece of filmmaking and I look forward to seeing what they come up with for the second sequence.

To VHS or not to VHS?

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

For this post I’m indebted to Brian Solomon of The Vault of Horror for a recent debate he started on Twitter. It relates to VHS, DVD, and a wave of nostalgia for the former which has sprung up over the last ten years (although to be fair, certain VHS cassettes were rare from the get-go and have had collectors for many years more – but, I digress).

Mr. Solomon asked where people stood on this issue, as for his part he didn’t regret the passing of VHS whatsoever. He bought a DVD player relatively early on and relished the clarity of picture, the concept of extras, and, as other people suggested, the relative ease in finding films.

For my part, I largely agree with regards to quality. There was nothing more galling than watching a rental video for an hour and twenty minutes and then have the cassette warp at the end. In fact, I’ve seen countless horror films in my time where I still have no idea what happens in the last ten minutes, which may reflect in my mania for a compelling ending (or lack thereof) when I write reviews today! At my mother’s house I still have a top-loading video player (which still works after a fashion, miraculously enough) that used to be the bane of my life when I depended on VHS as a teenager. To get it to play properly, and for some reason which I am not technical enough to understand, I had to prop the left side up with books or video boxes. Just the left side. This was the only way to coax the machine to do the one thing required of it without gnawing through the tape like one of the zombies on the screen.

But I still have the damn thing, which says a lot…and when we moved house last year, dumping fifteen refuse sacks full of video tapes was utterly galling. Most of those warped far before the end of the movie as we’d picked them up second-hand (which reminds me: a charity I work for will no longer accept second-hand VHS due to them being cost-ineffective and obsolete) but regardless, it felt hard to part with them. I know how ridiculous that is.

I’m reluctantly nostalgic for the VHS days. I know, how quickly we forget. But poring over gratuitous posters in the local video shop, or the big-box cover art – this was a big draw for me as a kid, and it’s there still. Hey, nostalgia used to be classed as a mental aberration just like mania or melancholia, so don’t ask for too much rationalising from me. I went to a cinema on the weekend which belongs to a rather arty, dare I say worthy chain, and I was surprised and delighted to espy a collection of original ‘video nasty’ cover art on display. It meant something to me. For anyone who can only consider the film quality and not the whole package – I think you’re missing out. Just as album art and sleeve notes were part and parcel of the enjoyment of records, so it is with VHS. I received a big-box VHS version of Troll last year and I remembered how entranced I was at the age of seven, not just by the film but by the box!

There was also something to be said for the often arduous process of tracking down rare horrors (note: this affected me as a teen, not as the self-same seven year old who thought that Troll was terrifying). I found a contact via a UK horror magazine who furnished me with a vast list of banned and rare titles. I’ve never been so enthused. And for what? To receive a poor quality copy of Salo – which you can now pick up in HMV, remastered, and with a commentary for fuck’s sake! Back then finding and watching many horror films was a real challenge and when you finally got a tape containing titles you’d only ever seen stills from in The Dark Side magazine (this was pre-internet of course) you felt like you had made a real effort.  Often you had – it had been a real investigative process. You had to work for your salacious gore in those days, and so, having invested so much more than a quick trawl through Ebay, you could forgive and forget the shaky quality (which often even helped films attain their cult status: now, when you see some of the more infamous titles on DVD, you’re forced to notice that the quality – gasp – is just plain bad, and no new-fangled audio commentary can change that).

So I respect and largely agree with Brian’s criticisms of the VHS format, and I have a hefty collection of DVDs to my name these days. But for all that, I can’t help but maintain a respect and fascination for a now-outdated phenomenon. No one ever said rose-tinted spectacles gave you a clear view, but sometimes it can be nice to wear them regardless.

Oh, and – I didn’t throw all the videos away last year…

A Serbian Film (2010) (Directed by Srdjan Spasojevic)

Monday, August 16th, 2010

I’ll admit, I was in two minds about watching A Serbian Film (Srpski Film): like another horror film released this year, The Human Centipede, its reputation has preceded it to such an extent that it was impossible for me to go in with a completely open mind. Despite avoiding reviews like the plague, a few things about A Serbian Film had filtered back to me anyway, and some of the information I received put me on my guard. Whenever I hear epithets like ‘brutal’, ‘shocking’ and ‘high art’ all routinely applied to the same film, I get antsy. Will it just be a series of shocks loosely pinned together by a lacklustre plot? Will it deliberately press buttons for the sake of it, without any attempt to justify the action?

Well, A Serbian Film is certainly guilty of the ‘series of shocks’ motif, and it deliberately presses buttons – no, mashes the buttons under its fist! – but it is, I think, more self-aware than I expected. It pushes boundaries way past the sublime and into the ridiculous, and it seems to deliberately conflate highbrow dialogue and notions with visuals so distasteful that they begin to blur into a sort of pastiche. It’s in my mind that one of the film’s themes – the continual association of violent pornography with art – deliberately pokes fun at the audience, and perhaps even at what I’m doing now as I try to overlay some sort of meaning onto the film. This brings me back to my initial question: does it attempt to justify its action?

*THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS*

The film certainly goes in with the hammer blows, and it creates immediate problems in the ‘how the fuck am I meant to take this?’ category (please note: as I will be discussing sex frequently during this review, double entendres will proliferate. Please be aware that I am aware of it, and, yes, I’m sniggering). The opening scene is of a little boy sitting down to enjoy a DVD…of his father, famed porn star Milos (Srdjan Todorovic), indulging in some pretty agressive hardcore action with an accommodating blonde lady (although A Serbian Film itself isn’t hardcore, and uses prosthetics instead). Milos and wife Maria quickly intervene; although this isn’t the most orthodox household, it’s a loving one, and it seems that Milos has put his old life behind him.

Raising children is expensive, however, so when an old colleague called Laylah gets in touch with a potentially lucrative ‘artistic’ porn role, Milos has to think about it. And, after fucking Maria like she’s a porn star rather than his wife, we’re all made aware that there is still something of the old Milos left…

Milos agrees to meet Vukmir, Laylah’s ‘eccentric’ filmmaker contact. Vukmir really plays up the artistic merit of his brand of pornography: this will be a ground-breaking film, he tells Milos, and he insists on having him on board. The project is however incredibly covert: all that’s transparent is what the gig will pay, and it’s easily enough to support Milos’s family for the foreseeable future. After discussing it with Maria, Milos signs up and departs for the set (leaving Maria and son Petar to the not-so-tender mercies of his sleazy cop brother, Marko).

It’s not long before Milos grows unhappy with the ‘arty’ brand of porn he’s recording. It’s suspect stuff almost from the get-go: there are children on-set, and his scenes are escalatingly violent. He keeps asking for more information and keeps getting told that secrecy is vital to the shoot. During one scene, when he is encouraged to punch a rather ‘bitey’ co-star, this confirms in his mind that he would rather do without the cash after all.

When he tells Vukmir (who turns out to be a child psychologist, rather than a porn director) that he wants to quit, Vukmir tries to reassure him (?!) by showing him one of the simultaneously most appalling and somehow absurd scenes ever committed to celluloid (and my guess is Spasojevic must have won some sort of bet!) Of course, Milos flees, but he’s starting to feel distinctly odd, and he doesn’t get very far before he’s apprehended by the project’s ‘doctor’ and returned to the set. By this point he’s feeling disorientated, and horny…he’s been drugged, because Vukmir still has a film to make, and he wants a less-than-ordinary performance.

Milos comes to days later: he’s bloodied, bruised and amnesic. Whatever ‘fuck dope’ he was spiked with has had a catastrophic effect. From herein, the film largely comprises of flashbacks to scenes of an increasingly disturbing nature, and film footage which Milos finds (helpfully labelled with a cock and balls!) All major inappropriateness points are scored: the film moves into a barrage of violence, paedophilia, male and female rape, and – when Milos is reunited with his wife and son,  on to a fairly inevitable conclusion. But filming isn’t over until it’s over – this is art after all.

It sounds like an obvious thing to say in a film that takes pornography as its major plot device but, this is an intensely sexually-charged film. Every character has sex as their evident, overt driving force: even the little boy Petar asks questions about the way his first porno makes him feel. Of all the characters, it actually felt to me like Milos was the most innocent party here. He has put his sexual cruelty behind him – although he goes at it with his wife in a distinctly non-romantic way, it’s consensual – and he has a conscience which must be overriden with a cocktail of strong drugs. Generally, the people in this film are gargoyles – grotesques, especially the sinister-to-the-point-of-caricature Marko (Slobodan Bestic). So – why sex? And bearing in mind the film’s title, and the few but overt references to Serbia’s national identity, what are the filmmakers driving at?

It could be that pornography is treated here as the ‘lowest common denominator’. If porn is an expression of people’s darkest, most unequal fantasies – all the things people aren’t supposed to think, want or feel – then porn of this violent, non-consensual and illegal kind, especially that which wants to be considered as a ‘true’ artform, could speak volumes about a disordered national conscience. Serbia’s identity is mentioned a few times during the film: Vukmir, Maria jokes, ‘sounds like one of our guys at the Hague tribunal’. One of Milos’s co-stars in the project is the fallen widow of a ‘war hero’ who is punished for her transgressions. Vukmir himself jokes that the new form of art is a means for his country to suffer vicariously.

However, I’m loth to try and join the dots here. If there is any sort of cogent philosophy behind A Serbian Film, then it isn’t fully expounded. It could just be that the filmmakers wanted to make a film with maximum impact and they (quite astutely) opted to do that by employing unprecedented combinations of  sex and violence. It’s certainly put Serbia back on the map for reasons other than their prior international reputation, that’s for sure!

So, to return to my initial reservations about this film – whether its gratuitousness is justifed – I’d say it is justified, albeit still with reservations. The film wanders into the absurd on several occasions, and obviously tries incredibly hard to be repellent, but it certainly makes an impression: it’s enough of an impression that I have had to think over and over my opinion of the film before writing anything down. A Serbian Film is then flawed, but memorable, with a bleakness all of its own (helped no end by some brilliant incidental music). Just don’t expect to see this in the cinema, people – unless some council official has had a hefty dose of ‘fuck dope’ on the day this lands on his or her desk…

Eden Lake (2008) (Dir. James Watkins)

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

It’s taken me a bit of time to get around to watching Eden Lake – despite usually making an effort to support homegrown horror pretty early on. It seemed to receive a wide release, and so I suppose it never seemed like there would be a rush to track it down. But, finally, after doing just that, I watched the film last night.

Going back to my efforts to support the British horror industry…this felt like a peculiarly British film in many ways, loaded as it was with lots of British anxieties and issues. It plays well on familiar flashpoints in British society: the clannishness of certain families and estates to the exclusion of all other concerns; issues of class, and how middle-class expectations of behaviour might jar against the behaviour of  working-class (read: underclass) counterparts; the conflict between a ‘stiff upper lip’ which brooks no nonsense and ‘a quiet life’ which does anything possible to avoid conflict; the belief that certain groups of people have no concern for law and order; and, last but not least (and something which may feel alien to those in other countries) the distinct lack of space in Britain. I remember heading to a Neolithic burial mound deep within the island of Anglesey some years back; it was a reasonable drive through (what seemed like) deserted minor roads. When we arrived, lo and behold, sitting atop the burial mound was a gang of chavs drinking White Lightning cider. There is no escape from the good old British thug. I couldn’t help but think of comedian Bill Bailey’s description of the British: “as a nation we are infused with a subtle melancholy, leading to eccentricity, binge drinking and casual violence.”

In the film, Young Professional Couple Jennie (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) are heading out for a weekend break to the now-named Eden Lake, a new development alongside an existing village (which will one day form part of an executive retreat with luxury flats, pretty much like every green space in this country). Steve plans to propose to Jennie on this break, but their idyll is soon spoiled by an encounter with a gang of teenage ne’er-do-wells, armed with a ghetto blaster playing drum and bass and the prerequisite Rottweiler.

Here comes the first conflict between keeping the peace and showing a bit of backbone. Steve soon cracks and asks the kids to turn the music down. He’s greeted, of course, with verbal abuse, and when the gang retreat they deposit a broken Smirnoff bottle behind his back wheel, which causes a puncture. Things then escalate, as Steve feels he oughtn’t back down, and when the gang return that night to steal his car, he finds them, demanding his keys back.

Knives are pulled (naturally) and the situation becomes an all-out war when Steve accidentally stabs the dog, which happens to belong to lead chav Brett (Jack O’Connell). Young Professional Couple tries to flee, pursued by the gang, and in the melée their car leaves the road. The gang now has the upper hand and they want their vengeance…

The film gets a firm handle, then, on many current concerns. The Eden Lake gang will be recognisable to many of us Brits – with the use of mobile phones to record incidents, the musical tastes, the pack behaviour and the knife-happy nastiness all familiar in some combination either from our own experience (if we’re unlucky) or from the incendiary newspaper articles which greet us every day.  It does all of this, but it falls down hard – and why?

Eden Lake becomes riddled with clichés. One or two could be forgiveable, but it’s soon mired in so many age-old horror clichés that all of the pertinent, fresh social realism is lost. I soon found myself more angry at the female lead than I was at the murderous gang; all my sympathy dissipated as one example of ‘I bet she’s going to…’ piled upon another. I’m aware that people do stupid things under extreme pressure. I am. But there is surely a variety of stupid things that people do, rather than the small range expressed in certain horror films.

I was also somewhat lost by the push-pull in the film which wanted to humanise the gang to an extent, but also to present them as amoral. I don’t know that I liked that the film gave Brett and his cronies any justification for pursuing Jennie and Steve, via the death of Brett’s dog. It just seemed unnecessary somehow. The horror of people like this is that they’re just shits – they don’t need to wait for just cause.

Anyway, having described what I feel were the film’s strong points, I’ll outline some of the things which absolutely lost me as an audience member.

  • Female lead: if you escape from a violent gang who you believe intend to kill your kidnapped spouse-to-be, don’t hide under a tree until it is light, slowly approach the gang in plain sight, watch your boyfriend being tortured, and then try to Bluetooth his mobile from yours.
  • Steve: don’t alert the gang to the whereabouts of your girlfriend, even if they do somehow miss her (see above), by yelling her name and looking in her direction.
  • When being chased, hiding in the only available structure might be a bad call. Have you not seen any horror films?
  • You will step on something fearfully sharp while you’re running, obviously, but be consistent on the whole ‘screeching and gasping’ when you put your foot to the ground. Don’t crawl for ten yards in agony and then go back to normal.
  • Be prepared for the fact that you WILL at some point be tied up – usually to a chair, but the point is that everyone in films seems to have the means to tie people up! Does everyone carry rope these days?

If a filmmaker could reverse some of these hackneyed motifs then I would be very happy. Of course, many do. In this case though, if it had been made more explicit that people act like shit without motive, and that people act in surprising ways both without repeating everyone else’s mistakes or fucking up in the exact same way as the people who made those mistakes, then the powerful positives of this film might have made it through intact. Gah, not every survivor of An Awful Incident gets to peer, bloodstained, into a shaft of light. In fact I’m sure many don’t.

Eden Lake has sound production values and the ability to tap into some uncomfortable modern anxieties, but it flounders by slipping into something more comfortable very early on. A more gutsy, more decently dark ending provides some redemption, and the film has much to its credit, but sadly it doesn’t quite deliver.

Meme: Hypodermic Horror

Monday, August 9th, 2010

I was tagged by Mr. Johnny Sandman (www.paradiseofhorror.com) to take part in this meme. The basis of the meme is this: “bloggers are urged to come up with a series of screen grabs, all focusing on a specific theme”. So that I did…with the slight proviso that some of these are from promo material. Sorry for cheating.

I decided to focus on the use of hypodermic syringes in horror films. There are a lot of them out there, so I’ve plumped for scenes that I found particulary affecting or otherwise memorable. If anyone reading this feels strongly that I’ve missed out a classic scene, feel free to holler and berate (and better still, leave a link to your blog and have a go at the meme itself).

Martin

Beyond the Darkness – Joe D’Amato at his most sinister…

Audition – needs no introduction I’m sure. This must be one of the best-known stills from Asian cinema of the past 20 years.

Braindead – not everyone wielding a syringe has sinister or even ambivalent intentions. Lionel was just trying to keep the peace…

Guinea Pig 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood – boy meets girl, or rather, deranged Samurai drugs girl and saws her limbs off.

Planet Terror

Reanimator – note also the luminous green mixture – official colour of When Science Goes Bad…

The Tingler – Vincent Price jacks up on LSD, all in the name of research.

Saw 2 – not one but a pit full of needles! Yowch.

Last but not least, Christopher Lee in I, Monster