Friday, May 26, 2017 09:11

The Human Centipede 2

September 10th, 2011

It’s difficult to know what director Tom Six is going to pull out of the bag for The Human Centipede 2; so far, we have only stills of the protagonist…who certainly looks creepy. Creepy, then, but perhaps oddly familiar?

Why is he somehow familiar, then? He definitely is familiar but – how? From TV?

That sitcom! - Waiting for God! The priggish character, Jane! They’re devilish alike…

Ah, right so far! But – Heaven forfend – there’s more to it. There must have been a mate. Who was that mate?

It’s the funny clay businessman from the Tool video for Parabola! Problem solved, then. 90s non-funny UK sitcom + 00s prog metal promo video = upcoming banned horror protagonist, apparently. Who knew?

No wonder the BBFC put their foot down…

Kuroneko (1968)

September 4th, 2011

In recent years, the Far East (particularly Japan and South Korea) has provided Western audiences with a previously-untapped wealth of folklore, culture and story-telling which quickly formed the bedrock of a new horror genre. Rue Morgue magazine coined the term ‘J-horror’: whatever you want to call it though, the opening of these floodgates meant that what was at first fresh and interesting soon became rather stale and formulaic, at least in part because we saw so much of it so quickly. But then, we were seeing a lot of second-rate derivative material – no film industry is immune to lazy opportunism – and we shouldn’t forget that when Far Eastern horror is good, it’s very good. Its popularity has probably also helped us gain access to otherwise-unknown gems such as Kaneto Shindô’s Kuroneko, a subtle and atmospheric ghost story.

The film takes place in the troubled Sengoku period in Japan’s history: during this time the country was in a constant state of flux and conflict, with rival daimyo (barons) seeking to extend their influence over one another. This led to a serious need for samurai, and young men – like Gintoki (Kitchiemon Nakamura) – being forcibly removed from their homes to go and fight. When Gitoki is taken, it leaves his mother Yone and his young wife Shige unprotected and alone. The women (in an understated but powerful sequence) are then raped and killed by a group of samurai.

The women – dying in a state of anger and fear, which modern audiences might recognise as a plot motif from The Grudge (2002) – return as vengeful revenants which seem to have no direct equivalent in Western folklore. They’re phantoms, but they exhibit vampiric behaviour too as they fulfil the conditions of their eternal life: they must kill samurai, and they do it by charming, seducing – and then draining the blood from their bodies. However, when Gintoki returns from war as a fully-fledged samurai, the female creatures reveal that they have human consciences too. They still love him, but he now belongs to a social class they exist to destroy. Gintoki himself has been charged by his daimyo with ridding the town of the murderous spirits who are murdering his best men. An encounter is therefore inevitable…

This is an immensely artistic piece of cinema, with atmosphere in abundance. From the archaic costumes and interiors (which reminded me in places of kabuki theatre) to the use of shadow, pitch-black darkness and transparent/opaque fabrics, this is a film in which every scene looks carefully constructed and balanced. The fact that it’s shot in black and white adds a starkness to the appearance of the film which works very well. The women themselves balance beauty and creepiness, appearing like demure dolls out of the groves but communicating purpose and menace with a simple look. There’s a depth to these characters too because they are ambiguous; despite being dangerous, they retain their human feelings and remind each other that they are obliged to act the way they do by a ‘contract’, something which causes Shige in particular great pain. Yet, they will defend themselves if challenged with a display of their supernatural power, and they dispatch samurai savagely. These aren’t simply two-dimensional villains. The arrival of Gintoki renders things more problematic for them, and drives the film towards a tragic conclusion.

Ultimately, this is what I found so affecting about Kuroneko: although this is a fantastical, theatrical piece of cinema, at its heart it’s a deeply sad story of war, alienation and loss. The fact of its being a supernatural yarn never detracts from that. Behind the – genuinely creepy – haunting there is context. With its blend of harsh imagery and tone with real aesthetic brilliance, I’ve never quite seen a film like Kuroneko. I will definitely be seeking out Onibaba, a film by the same director.

The Dark Photography of Amanda Norman

August 7th, 2011

If you like your horror filled with jump-cuts, torture, torment and gore, then look no further…

No, really. This isn’t the place for you.

UK-based photographer Amanda Norman has something quite different in mind for her work, drawing her artistic inspiration from the more sumptuous, supernatural scares of classic horror cinema. “No one will forget the shadow of Nosferatu climbing the stairs,” Amanda explains of one of her favourite films: she prefers the aesthetics and atmosphere derived from “a sprinkling of smoke and good creepy locations like old Gothic mansions and creepy graveyards…modern horror is lacking that psychological fear of the unknown.  Good original classics are based on the unknown and that’s what I love most about them.”

A completely self-taught photographer, Amanda was clear from the beginning about the style she wished to work in, and she didn’t waste time cutting her teeth on material which she didn’t find interesting. “I don’t plan my shots either.  It just comes together, but in the back of my mind I’m always thinking of classic horror movies and sometimes I’m doing it without even realising.” One aspect of this can be found in Amanda’s ‘dark portraits’, portraiture which moves away from making the sitter look their pedestrian best, instead aiming to capture something more ghoulish in their appearance – sometimes people are portrayed as zombies, sometimes vampires and sometimes something else entirely…


The type of portrait which emerges, Amanda says, depends entirely on “how the lens sees the sitters: I try to make the sitting a fun experience by getting the model to relax and have a laugh at pulling horror faces.  The outcome is most definitely what the lens sees.  If a model requested to be a vampire, then I wouldn’t be able to achieve that.  It’s all about the model and the pose they make.”

The end results speak for themselves, but is there anyone Amanda would like as a subject for her portraits? “My first choice is Christopher Lee as I’ve admired him since being a young teenager and I used to fantasise so many times about him appearing beside my bed to turn me into a vampire.  I wonder if he would still have that charm now.” She adds, “Now of course, these were innocent fantasies!”

The Gothic good looks of Hammer Horror’s best years have had a formative influence on countless horror fans through time, Amanda included, and Amanda is clear about the ‘Gothic’ elements in her photography. Gothic can be a tricky concept to pin down, though, and means different things to different people. I asked her how she’d define the Gothic which she loves so much.


“When I think of Gothic, I’m thinking of the Victorian era, how they celebrated death with their fancy mourning jewellery, black lace, black horse drawn carriages and of course the elaborate stone work in the cemeteries.  I also love Gothic architecture,” she explains. Amanda’s ultimate Gothic image from her own work?  This great dark portrait of her daughter, Kerry:


In a horror scene saturated with remakes, rehashes and a refusal to leave much to the viewers’ imaginations, it’s little wonder that some fans are looking to older films and styles: Amanda Norman’s work captures that spirit, bringing us imagery which would be more at home in the cinema of Universal and Hammer. If you have a place in your heart for old-school scares – the haunted graveyards, the old dark houses, the dimly-lit landscapes – then Amanda has such sights to show you…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information:

 http://www.amandanorman.com

 http://www.gothicjewellerybox.com/shop 

http://www.classichorrorcampaign.com
 

Many thanks to Amanda Norman

Red, White and Blue (2010)

July 9th, 2011

To attempt to deliver a linear plot synopsis of Simon Rumley’s Red, White and Blue (2010) would be to heavily misrepresent the film. To do it, you’d have to impose a regular viewing experience onto an irregular one, and to make this possible, you’d have to fill in a lot of gaps. Some of the information you’d offer may be surmised. You may even find your version of events doesn’t tally with the extrapolations made by others, even people watching the film at the same time as yourself.

I don’t say any of this to denigrate the film – far from it. Red, White and Blue is bold in its execution and its unusual format utterly drew me into its tragic course of events.

Bearing in mind, then, that I am rendering an unorthodox film down into an orthodox review, the basic plot of the film is this: Erica (Amanda Fuller), a rootless young woman, divides her time between no-strings fucking and undertaking crappy work to keep her rented room. She keeps people at a distance, and only reluctantly allows a near-neighbour called Nate (Noah Taylor) to fix her up with a job at a local hardware store. Although Erica is a cold character, we start to see evidence of an emotional life behind that facade, but before she and Nate can get beyond that, their lives collide with the life of Franki (Marc Senter), one of Erica’s previous one-night stands. The chaotic ties to the past which this illustrates throws each of the characters into turmoil – and turmoil is what this film specialises in.

That inescapable storminess is communicated first and foremost by the film’s structure: Red, White and Blue uses very short takes which move along rapidly, episodically. Sometimes future on-screen events mingle with current events – Erica is standing in her shower before we know she has arrived home; Erica is leaving an apartment before she has got what she went there for. This leads to a feeling of being whirled along, of events (literally) overtaking our characters. Days pass in a blur.

The snappy, episodic format leaves little time to ponder what motivates our characters here, but the interest they generate is intense. This is a credit to Rumley’s direction and writing; with deft moves which are only on-screen for a heartbeat, you see enough to be given evidence of a trait, and these traits hint at more going on in the background without simply describing it or spoon-feeding the audience.  In terms of focus, the film scans Erica, then Franki and finally Nate to reveal how the lives of these people are set on a collision course. Everything’s cut down to a bare minimum – and that includes dialogue – but you don’t feel that there is less of a story in this film, even though elements of it are withheld until the last scenes, and some are deliberately left out. Yet, even without spelling out the sort of detail you’d usually find in a narrative, none of our characters are represented as morally superior or inferior. They all variously act cruelly, but they are not by nature cruel. I’d even say that each of the main characters is sympathetic: we know that their worst excesses are driven by the pitiless indifference of the world they’ve known.

It’s not a flawless film: some of the later scenes began to look less distinctive, echoing a lot of other horror movies of recent years. However, these scenes do at least make us wonder what is permissible in order to defend honour, friendship and love. Stellar performances – especially from Taylor, as a timebomb with a sensitive side – against a background of lurid colour and an atmosphere of tremendous fever-heat makes Red, White and Blue an oppressive, and a deeply sad viewing experience. Vengeance isn’t pretty.

The short films of Grzegorz Jonkajtys

June 23rd, 2011

If you’re someone who goes to a fair amount of film festivals, you’ll get to see a lot of high quality short films as well as feature-lengths; shorts often surpass features in terms of standards, demonstrating imagination and vision which can evidently get lost along the way to a more standard ninety minutes, so it is heartrending that so many of these films disappear without a trace. The decision to make your film public access on a site like Youtube must be a difficult one in many ways, but I am always glad when I track down a short film which I loved on the big screen One of these is The 3rd Letter, directed by Grzegorz Jonkajtys.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the most frightening dystopian futures are, for me, the ones we recognise. Soylent Green is so effective because we know those overcrowded streets, understand the concept of wide-scale corruption and exploitation. The 3rd Letter (2010) takes an incredibly bleak future as its setting but it, too, is recognisable: it is a world of health and safety announcements and promises of ‘building a better future’.  It is a world of late bills, dreadful jobs, broken homes and the isolation of anonymity, but here, when you can’t get the voice recognition software on the end of the phone to understand your requests, you are in real danger of having the insurance policy which controls your pacemaker battery terminated.

Our protagonist, Jeffrey Brief (Rodrigo Lopresti) seems to be on the edge of his sanity throughout the short time we know him. He says little, but when he does speak he is on the brink of collapse. He interacts with no one face-to-face, except the thuggish landlord who comes for his overdue rent, and when he wants to speak to someone on the phone he is thwarted twice. With just little touches, Brief’s loneliness and state of mind come across, and the pathos in the film is not developed in tried-and-tested sentimental ways.

The ambiguity of the film’s ending is, for me, very affecting – and the overpowering musical score binds this nightmarish piece of film together well.

I understand that Jonkajtys works in visual effects, and has worked on blockbusters like Sin City (2005) and the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). It is his work as a director which interests me most, though. A quick search of Youtube turned up some more short films: the 8 minute Arka (2007), an animated film, came as a complete surprise to me, although it plays with some of the same themes as The 3rd Letter does – with a male protagonist, similarly shut out from the world around him. The ending of the film was a clever sleight of hand – and again, deeply sad.

Oh, and don’t even think about trying to assuage that loneliness, either, as the earlier film Mantis (2002) demonstrates:

Jonkajtys may be successful in other aspects of his career, but I would love to see him do more directorial work. His spin on a cold, unwelcoming world-to-come is aesthetically pleasing and engaging: by doing comparatively little, he manages to craft effective stories and characters. Would this translate as well in a feature film? That I cannot say, as not all directors can keep intact what makes their short films so good when they make that leap but, without doubt, his short films deserve to be seen more widely and not to languish in the ‘where are they now?’ category. All these films are compelling cautionary notes from a future we know already, and they’re really rather beautiful.

The Nebulous Nanny State: the BBFC and The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)

June 18th, 2011

“Whilst respondents had very mixed ideas about film classification they agreed with two key principles; that films should continue to be classified and that there should be no censorship of film in a free and democratic society. In short, there was a great deal of support for the premise that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment, providing it is legal.”

(BBFC Guidelines, last updated June 2010, p. 38)

“After careful consideration, it was judged that to issue a certificate to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE), even if statutorily confined to adults, would involve risk of harm within the terms of the VRA [Video Recordings Act, 1984], would be inconsistent with our Guidelines, would be unacceptable to the public and could be in potential breach of UK law.”

(BBFC Statement regarding the denial of certification for The Human Centipede 2, last updated June 2011).

Spot the difference? The self-same (independent, non government-affiliated) organisation whose own consumer research supported anti-censorship in film intended for over-18s has…just effectively banned a film intended for over-18s. The only inconsistency with BBFC Guidelines I’m seeing here is coming from within the organisation. Within the space of one year, the BBFC has performed an about-face, and – as anyone following the debacle surrounding A Serbian Film will be aware – it’s starting to look worryingly as if they’re trying to flex their muscles again.

Not only has the BBFC disregarded its own research, but its own Mission Statement too: that is, its responsibility for “classification of the moving image into advisory and age-related categories” and to “give the public information that empowers them to make appropriate viewing decisions for themselves.” When it comes to horror cinema or cinema otherwise tailored towards an adult audience, the BBFC self-declare that one of their key aims is to “respond to changing social attitudes”.

Responding to changing social attitudes? Fat chance, even when popular opinion seems to be largely against their decisions to maul or reject films. A mere handful of complaints from residents in the London borough of Westminster prior to the FrightFest showing of A Serbian Film notwithstanding (complaints from people who themselves couldn’t have seen the film and didn’t have to go and see the film, lest we forget), people plain do not wish to have their viewing choices prescribed for them. As some of the respondents in their Guidelines say, we do not live in a ‘Nanny state’ and in any case, the potential to access material online makes such action seem redundant anyway.

So why do it? A cynic might suggest that so close to the centenary of the organisation, the BBFC are just as vulnerable to attention-seeking as the HC2 director Tom Six is alleged to be. After the glory days of their influence post-Video Recordings Act in 1984, and their gradual reconsiderations on practically all the films they once deemed to be ‘harmful’, they have, by and large and for some years, stuck to their Mission Statement: detailing the content of films and allotting an age-relevant advisory certificate. Now things are changing, and the reasoning behind this is, by being so nebulous, very difficult to dissect.

The justification given in their statement about the ban on HC2 gives a vague nod to the film being ‘in potential breach of UK law’ (emphasis mine). Why aren’t they certain, since this colours their decision-making in such a concrete way? Quite simply, it’s because the law they have in mind – the only law they could have in mind, according to their website – is itself vague. The Obscene Publications Act, originally instituted during the Victorian era to destroy a burgeoning printed pornography industry, was last updated in the 1960s, and hangs on in there, the last resort of any public figure or body with enough clout (and imagination) to implement it. It concerns itself with banning anything deemed “obscene”. If that word in itself wasn’t woolly enough, it, ahem, clarifies that by explaining that ‘obscene’ relates to anything which could “deprave or corrupt”, and this in turn means whatever could ‘make morally bad’ a “significant proportion” of those who came into contact with whatever-it-was. The novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover fell foul of this Act – you can now pick it up in any bookshop in the country and wonder at what the hell all the fuss was about.

Let’s break it down, then. A film has been banned because it might potentially be in breach of a law which deals in debatable abstractions, but ultimately only holds fast if it can be shown that a “significant proportion” of the audience (i.e. consenting adults) could be “morally worsened” by their experience? Basically the BBFC, if they chose to do so, could pass this film with an 18 certificate because there is no way on earth that such a hazy, outdated law with its foundations so firmly built on sand could ever stand up to scrutiny. It could as easily be applied to other horror films – as an example, the Saw franchise which the BBFC dealt with in a sensible manner – but it was not. And after all, the BBFC has no responsibilty for the guardianship of the morals of adults: they said so themselves. Not even the outraged babblings of the Daily Mail could make it so.

Ultimately, if an adult is influenced by something as simple as a film to re-enact what they see on screen, then their problems already exist, and go far beyond the remit of the BBFC. The rest of us know that horror films will contain horror, and although I think we would all support the BBFC’s work in certificating a film which reserves it for adults, beyond that lies only interference and what-ifs. If the BBFC begins to belie its own aims in order to ban or heavily censor material, perhaps to remind us all that they can, then they ought to remember that these are not the days of the Video Nasties. Films will be driven online, uncertificated, and their wish to provide age-appropriate guidelines to the viewing public will be steadily undermined. I would strongly advise the BBFC to stick more readily to its own current principles and the consensus of its respondents, before fretting over the impractical application of an anachronistic law.

Let’s remember, though, that the BBFC cannot stop films being shown if local councils decide to ignore them. Even the local councils and the BBFC combined cannot stop free showings of films by invitation, either, as happened with A Serbian Film at Riverdance. Perhaps Human Centipede 2 could be shown at festivals by invite for a small donation? Either way, the viewing public must not allow a regression to the spectacular BBFC mismanagements of the 1980s. We’ve moved on.

Strip Nude For Your Killer (Nude per l’assassino) (1975)

June 12th, 2011

The fact that this film manages to get bush into the very first frame – plus the presence of the inimitable Edwige Fenech in the cast – should be a good indicator of the exploitation credentials of Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975). Now, I’m not a big lover of the giallo genre, but there’s enough going on here to keep anyone entertained; where a film can show me a morbidly obese man, in his pants, holding a deflated blow-up doll in one hand and a flick-knife in another then I would be a fool to complain, as the film has provided me with something I have never dared to dream I’d see.

We start our film in an operating theatre with a speculum, a set of stirrups and a medical booboo as a woman undergoing an abortion takes a sudden turn for the worse.  Never fear, the doctor and a helper move the girl’s body into the bathtub to make it look like natural causes (and with the colour scheme in that bathroom, this is plausible). This evidently doesn’t wash with at least one person though, as the doctor is later murdered by someone dressed as The Stig. As the flashbacks show us, this is a revenge hit.

We cut from there to poolside though, and get a glimpse of the hustle-and-bustle of the fashion world…a talent scout called Carlo avails himself of the opportunity to take numerous photos of a woman’s arse and, in these simple, pre-restraining order times he ‘interviews’ her in the sauna. Oh the thrusting world of fashion indeed! Carlo takes new girl Lucia to the studio where he works, and we see that, for people involved in this industry, no one here seems to have any clothes. Not everyone approves of this: the bike helmet-wearing killer is back, and starts to pick off those that work in the studio. We also find out that the girl from the bath used to work here too. Hmmm…

Photographer Magda (Fenech) and the half man, half stoat Carlo start to investigate the killings, though they divide their time between sleuthing and shagging, and from here on in standard giallo plot development gets underway – that is, all the blokes in the film are shown to be unhinged enough to be suspected (especially Carlo, who thinks nothing of trying to strangle the women he works with in lieu of communicating his annoyances in human language) and then finally, a completely different suspect turns up. It’s all predictable enough but there’s a lot to entertain along the way, even the initial veneer of weirdness wears off pretty quickly. It certainly does what it says on the tin, though. There’s none of this ‘all the best bits are pictured on the box’ rubbish – though, if you’re familiar with Ms. Fenech’s um, oevre, then you’d know she doesn’t let you down often.

Strip Nude For Your Killer is a reasonably entertaining effort and another example of  Burial Ground‘s Andrea Bianchi in his natural environment of sleaze, naughty nightwear and blood splatter. Oh, and the end scene of the film? I’ll admit, I didn’t predict that. Another fun DVD release from Shameless Entertainment…

Stake Land (2010)

May 12th, 2011

I love my post-apocalyptic horror, or more properly – I like movies in which the world hasn’t ended. Not quite. It’s recognisable, but it’s warped, it’s dangerous, and human relationships are tested in fantastical, but still understandable circumstances. Pockets of civillisation remain, even though all the common markers of control and safety have been obliterated. This is the scenario we come to – and which is handled deftly and thoughtfully – in Stake Land (2010).

We start with teenager Martin (Connor Paolo) about to flee from…something, with his family: mother, father and a baby. Before they can get in the car and drive away though, they’re attacked by something ferocious and lightning-fast. Martin rushes back into the garage where he left them in time to see his parents  in their death throes, and his baby sibling being drained of its blood by a grotesque, verminous vampire which is about as far from the stylish aristocrats of so much horror cinema as it’s possible to get.

Just as it looks like Martin will also die, he’s joined by a man which he, and we, only ever know as ‘Mister’ (Nick Damici). Mister dispatches the creature and offers Martin his only choice – to go with him. It soon transpires that not only is Mister capable of killing the vampires, but he actively seeks to do it. Together, they head North across a heavily-demarcated North America in which the religious nutjobs are as lethal as the bloodsuckers, seeking a place called New Eden – which is, they hope, free of both.

The country they travel through has been decimated by a plague of vampires who are disfigured, mean and animalistic. In fact, in this film what we usually understand to be zombies seem to have merged with vampires to create a sub-division of mankind. At least the vampires still have to confine themselves to the night, though: the religious Brotherhood who control vast swathes of the land can rape, murder and enslave whenever they see fit. Along the way, the cold-as-ice Mister and his young companion rescue other drifters also trying to make their way to New Eden; a nun (played by the long-missed Kelly McGillis), a pregnant woman (Danielle Harris) and an ex-Marine, Willie (Sean Nelson).

Stake Land feels a lot like an apocalypse road movie, and I won’t be the first reviewer to mention its similarity to The Road (2009): the close bond between two male characters, an elder and a younger; the desperate journey in search of possibly mythical ‘safety’; gorgeous, bleak, hopeless landscapes reflecting what’s left of humanity, and the relentlessness of threat, even when things seem relatively languid. Stake Land is also a very brave piece of film in that it dares to dispatch the vulnerable, like children, and refuses to give us moral absolutes. Our ‘heroes’ make mistakes, or fail to help people. We’re reminded of the past humanity of the vampires too, such as when the Sister recognises one of the other nuns in a vampire state and insists she’s treated with as much dignity as possible. There are no clear answers here, just people trying to survive.

It would also be easy to assume that the presence of a dangerous god cult in the film means that Stake Land is a simplistic attack on religion, but it’s much richer than that. The Brotherhood are maniacs, but the Sister derives strength and peace from her version of (ostensibly the same) faith. Christianity can be a convenient banner to gather beneath, like a horde, or it seems it can allow people the strength to be self-sacrificing, even accepting of horrendous circumstances. Even characters who never give a hint of being religious will treasure religious icons they find along the way; conversely, the supposedly religious will trash or ignore them. What the film says is that in times of great trauma, people will cling to old markers which provided them with meaning – for good or ill. Some use these markers as a stick with which to beat others, and some use them as a crutch. The intensification of this split under the extreme conditions of the film’s setting makes for an interesting subtext – though by no means the only one.

The horror here is intense because it frequently bursts out of something rather calm. The process of travelling, finding safe shelter, avoiding the dark, meeting other, friendly communities – these will suddenly give way to fear and panic, and because you might have settled into the day-to-day details, they can come as a shock. Stake Land boasts one such attack scene which is frankly brilliant, and not like anything I’ve seen done before.

All of this is meticulously framed and shot; there is something extra to notice in every scene, and the film looks stunning – much more than you’d expect for the budget. The performances are excellent. Damici in particular communicates an inner life which his character never explains aloud, and both his and Paolo’s characters noticeably develop – taking on elements of each other’s, with Martin’s voiceover actually working very well as part of the film.

An ambigious ending only adds to the quality of this stunning film for me. Stake Land might not have invented a new genre, but what it does, even with recognisable plot lines, is impressive indeed. This was my film of the festival at May 2011′s Dead by Dawn and I expect it to be one of my films of the year.

Monsters (2010)

April 5th, 2011

Monsters (2010) may at first seem belied by its title. This is about as far from a Kaiju Eiga as it’s possible to get, and – as much as I enjoy inane city-stompers, all of these differences render this a superb piece of filmmaking. Here we have an understated, human-centred story where the trauma comes at least as much from human interactions as it does from the (almost peripheral) extra-terrestrials.

Like so many of the best science-fiction premises, Monsters provides a fantasy world which is nightmarish because it’s bizarre, and nightmarish because it’s  recognisable. After sending a probe into our Solar System to try to locate alien life, NASA’s probe broke up upon re-entering the atmosphere, and was lost somewhere over Central America. Shortly afterwards, however, alien life began appearing in the region – leading to part of Mexico being partitioned off as an ‘Infected Zone’, and to the US and Mexican military struggling to eradicate the creatures.

Journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is in the San Jose, Mexico area trying for the photojournalism scoop of the decade – capturing decent images of the strange, cephalopodic creatures threatening the region. He receives a message from his boss telling him that the boss’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) is also currently in San Jose, injured, and asks Kaulder to help get Sam back to the safety of the US. Kaulder reluctantly agrees.

However, after a night’s partying on the day before they’re due to leave, Kaulder is robbed and, with neither American passports nor enough cash to pay the extortionist at the ferry office, the pair have no choice but to travel across the Infected Zone back to America. Alongside their guard of locals (paid for by Sam exchanging her engagement ring) and under extreme duress, the relationship between the pair develops. This is done simply, believably (the pair are a married couple in real life)  and allows the audience to build up an understanding of each person’s back-story. Every detail of their characters doesn’t need to be spelled out in aching cliche. It feels organic, and here are two people in which you really feel you have something invested. It just goes to show can be done with indie cinema, budget or no budget. Most of the other actors in this film are non-professionals too, which adds to the feel of fluidity here.


Lots of things struck me about this film: I gather that lots of people have seen it as a commentary on immigration policy, which I have to say didn’t enter my head for one second, but I did find myself seeing it as an exploration of human error. The best-known tagline for this film is ‘Now It’s Our Turn to Adapt’; well, although some people affected by this situation have adapted their behaviour (from the profiteering ferry office guy, to the families who now know they oughtn’t travel by night) it’s the inability of the military to respond to or even research the entities sensibly which is costing thousands of lives. The group of Mexicans escorting Sam and Kaulder know more about the extra-terrestrials than the guys in bombers. They appreciate that it is being attacked which causes the creatures to retaliate, and they understand how the creatures reproduce. Erecting an (ineffective) wall between the Infected Zone and America, organising military strikes – this is the lion’s share of the problem here. We learn gradually that the gas masks people are instructed to carry are not to do with anything the creatures do – it’s because of chemical warfare.

This is brought home simply by the amount of focus on children. Throughout Monsters, children are present and frequently looking right at the audience, either in person, or through the memorial photos we are shown. It’s not a laboured point and fits in with the feel of the film – there’s no ‘Think of the Children!’ here – but it’s a neat way to illustrate how the choices of the few affect the helpless. To paraphrase Kaulder, at his most cynical, as he defends his profession as a photographer of the tragic – “You know how much I’d get paid for a photograph of a child that’s been killed by one of these creatures? Thousands of dollars. You know what I’d get paid for a photo of a happy, living child? Nothing.”  Those who benefit by tragedy – be they distant consumers, or immediate neighbours – are often the least able to humanise the victims of tragedy. Monsters keeps reiterating the importance of the people at the heart of this, or any tragic situation.

Haunting and clever, Monsters is no romp and no end-of-the-world epic. Instead it’s a film about consequences. An aural clue towards the end of this film only reinforces the ambiguity and poignancy which makes this one of my stand-out films of the past ten years. See it.

The Beast in Space (1980)

March 25th, 2011

Like many of you I’m sure, I spend a lot of my viewing time seeking the Holy Grail of ‘so bad, it’s good’ cinema. Well, I think I’ve found a very strong contender in The Beast in Space (La bestia nella spazio). Not only is this an exploitation flick which borrows broadly from Walerian Borowczyk’s notorious arthouse porno THE BEAST, but it is directed by the probably unchallenged, but nonetheless undisputed master of space smut, Alfonso Brescia. If you like your female astronauts in skin-tight rubber, your male astronauts moustachioed and tanked up on ‘Uranus milk’, and your alien planets little more than bordellos, then prepare to be amazed.

We start by meeting alpha male Captain Larry, a guy killing a little time at base before he ships out on his next mission. This involves, obviously, having a fight, and then having the sort of sex with a hot blonde which could only happen in 1980: check out the garish accompanying light show! Still, it’s not all fun and games and when you’re a Captain, you can’t hang around listening to hot blondes tell you about mysterious recurring dreams…there’s work to be done.

But wouldn’t you know, this lady is in fact one Lt. Sondra Richardson, and she’s been assigned to his crew for his upcoming mission. That mission? To explore an unknown planet which contains a very scarce, very important, metal.

Things don’t go well en route when they encounter an enemy ship, though, so they end up crash-landing on the planet they were meant to explore. They aim to complete their mission anyway, but there’s something odd about this place. Not only is it the planet from Sondra’s dream, but the atmosphere seems to be affecting the crew. They seem woozy, distracted – almost…horny…

Sondra’s in especial danger, though – as the horny faun of her nightmares is real, and horribly, hilariously aroused! Will the crew escape the planet? Will Sondra ever be the same again? In any case, watching the cast do their damnest to play their roles absolutely straight only adds to the general high entertainment factor to be had from The Beast in Space. Everything, from the costumes to the dialogue, to the general premise and back again is laugh-out-loud funny and strangely compelling. Combining robots and stock footage of mating horses with nudity and space-age jargon? It’s an idea crazy enough to work, and when I say ‘work’ I mean to transfix the helpless viewer.

Smut enthusiasts, err, I mean arthouse enthusiasts might recognise Sondra (Sirpa Lane) from the original Beast, and fellow crew member Erika (Maria D’Allesandro) also featured in another Shameless DVD release, Satan’s Baby Doll. I’m not sure what happened to the faun with his synthetic hooves, but I like to think he’s doing well somewhere. Oh and – it’s true – there is genuine hardcore Beast in Space footage around and about, just in case the scenes you do get here between Lane and man-goat aren’t saucy enough for you.

The Beast in Space is silly, trashy, exploitation fun – everything you’d hope from a science porno. Seek it out!