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Posts Tagged ‘british horror’

Monsters (2010)

Tuesday, 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.

Living Doll (1990)

Friday, February 18th, 2011

A low budget horror featuring romance, mental disintegration, a dash of putrefaction…and Eartha Kitt? That is indeed what you get from weird gem Living Doll (1990), a film which somehow conflates black comedy elements with some decidedly unsavoury themes and scenes.

Howard Adams – a hospital morgue attendant – really likes Christine, who works in the hospital’s flower stall. Thing is, lovely Christine doesn’t even know Howard exists. Such is life…that is, until Christine is involved in a fatal ‘accident’ and arrives on Howard’s slab.

Howard, already a very unstable man, finds that he just can’t say goodbye to his dream girl – and being asked to witness her autopsy seems to send him spiralling over the edge (although, frankly, this ghoulish turn of events isn’t much weirder for Howard than hanging out with his wise-cracking colleague Jess, or enduring the awkward double-dates he sets up. Plus, his apartment is already decaying around his ears, so falling in love with – and quickly, ahem, moving in with – a dead body is almost the next logical step.)

Christine and Howard set up home, and they both start to go to pieces, in their own ways. Howard, still blissfully infatuated with Christine, can only ever see her as she was; we, on the other hand, get to see the unpalatable truth. However, the truth will eventually out when a man’s career, home and friendships go to the wall – and doubly so when Christine starts making some pretty serious requests…

What starts out as a black comedy with an irreverent script and an almost ‘made for TV’ feel becomes gradually more and more gruesome, and more about mental disintegration than anything else.  In fact, this is a film quite unlike any other in tone: there’s a grisly overarching theme, sure, but lots of odd touches of pathos throughout. This is all brought together with some decent performances by Mark Jax as Howard – who can be simultaneously sympathetic and creepy – Eartha Kitt as the prying landlady – and let’s not forget Katie Orgill as Christine, who really earns her stripes in a fairly horizontal but no doubt challenging role in terms of SFX (brought about by the hugely-talented Paul Catling, who does some absolutely sterling work here).

Living Doll is strangely watchable for a film which is such uncomfortable viewing at times, with a sadly-blinkered man going to any lengths to preserve the illusion of a love affair – albeit with plenty of blood-curdling effects along the way. It’s not a pacy film (indeed, when one of the central characters has shuffled off the mortal coil it would be rather difficult to deliver pace) and so may not be for viewers who seek high action – but this is a lesser-known film which deserves to be watched. As an aside, I couldn’t help but be struck on this particular viewing by the similarities between this film and the equally good, equally discomforting Cold Storage (2009) – it seems Howard isn’t on his own in his delusions…

Look out for Living Doll – new release coming soon to DVD and Blu-ray from AP Films…

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.