Wednesday 31 October 2012

Attack Of The Werewolves

Hairs and Graces

Attack Of The Werewolves
aka Game of Werewolves 
aka Lobos de Arga
Spain 2011
Directed by Juan Martínez Moreno
Kaleidoscope Region 2

I first became aware of Attack Of The Werewolves about 2 months ago... but it’s only been released over here on DVD for about 2 weeks now. As usual with these kinds of films, it’s gone straight to home video over here and bypassed a cinema release, which is where I would have preferred to go and see it.

When I first read that this was a new Spanish werewolf movie, I immediately assumed this was going to be an homage to the late, great Paul Naschy werewolf movies, which he made about his famous, continuity challenged wolfman character Waldemar Daninsky in 13 films from 1968 to 2004 (I review four of them here, here, here and here). Although the prosthetic make-up on the actors playing the various wolfmen in this movie owes more to the Naschy style and look than it does to ‘the curse of CGI’, it would be true  to say that there’s not that much else that this movie has in common with those earlier Naschy ‘classics’.

In fact, this film turns out to be something I really wasn’t expecting (especially since the UK packaging makes it look more like a dark and sinister horror movie than the marketing in other territories)... it’s a horror comedy... with a lot of the emphasis on the comedy.

Now comedy horror films are nothing new and it’s a testament to how well the two genres mix that they have been around for so long. I think the reason for this is because the horror genre, in particular, is so easy to understand that the rules of the horror film need a little extra to keep the genre alive sometimes. Because audiences understand and read horror texts so well in a cinematic setting, it’s such an easy one to cross pollinate with other genres. That’s why you get horror-westerns and, especially, horror/comedies, right the way back to movies where Universal allowed their once successful back-catalogue horror icons to be used for the blockbuster success that was Bud Abbot And Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948... which brought three famous actors back to roles they had played earlier for Universal; Lon Chaney Jr as Lawrence Talbot/The Wolfman, Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster (a part he had played in the previous two Universal outings for this monster). This movie actually did much more to revive Abbot and Costello’s ailing career (and gave them a long second wind) than it did the Universal monsters, to be honest, but it does prove that horror serves the mistress of comedy well when it’s harnessed for this kind of cinema-going experience.

So back to the movie on hand... what’s this fine example of the genre about? Well...

When an unsuccessful writer returns to his childhood village, he doesn’t know that he is invited to be the main course for a werewolf in order to break the curse set on the village by his ancestors 100 years ago. Only his childhood friend, his agent and his trusty and comical pet dog are on hand to help him. There’s not much more you need to know other than that.

Bereft of any really strong female characters, until the end, the movie still managed to keep me totally entertained and even made me laugh (which is kinda hard these days) in a few places. Everybody plays the movie with a straight face but there’s also a curious, almost underplayed attitude in some of the roles which make it even easier to believe the fantastic and mostly comical ‘werewolf shenanigans’ you see on screen.

The main protagonist’s pet dog is the real star of the show and as its antics on screen get more and more Looney Tunes cartoon-like and crazy, you are willing to suspend your disbelief because everyone is buying into their own roles so much. There is hardly ever a sign of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and the camaraderie of the characters and the way they interact carries the film through completely. There’s even a heroic policeman towards the end of the movie who works surprisingly well and has at least one surprise up his sleeve, which he blatantly states on screen before the movie makers actually spring it on you a little later in the film’s running time.

This one doesn’t skimp on the gory effects either... which is possibly why it didn’t get a cinema release over here (although the DVD carries a 15 rating so they could probably have got away with attracting the teens). It’s not excessively gory and people who are used to watching horror films won’t see anything that will in any way disturb them, but it doesn’t pull back from showing, for instance, a torn throat or a severed arm and the effects of those kinds of injuries. And there’s one instance involving severed fingers (which I don’t want to spoil here... but which was done in a US thriller in 2005 in much the same spirit of hilarity) that will probably have you laughing out loud.

What the director does, very well, is handle these gory sequences and walks the thin line between too much and too little without killing off either the light hearted tone of the overall feel of the movie or harming the sense of peril and danger you get when you are rooting for the main protagonists to survive their ordeal. It’s a well crafted little horror/comdy delight, competently shot, nicely framed and with a pacing that is just about right... with maybe a couple of false stops near the start to set up the characters a little more.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about this one really. A great little genre movie that really needs a bit more mainstream recognition, as I think it’s a film which would be hard for most people not to appreciate. Certainly if you’re a fan of either horror comedy films or werewolf movies, it’s well worth putting this one on your shopping list. It’s no howler.

Tuesday 30 October 2012



USA 2008
Directed by Toby Wilkins
Icon Region 2

Warning: Some spoilers waiting to spike you and infect you with their very DNA.

Okay, so I seem to be having a pretty good track record with horror films this week. Splinter is another cool one, obviously made on a tight budget, but it’s quite an effective little addition to movies which involve alien or mutated creatures taking over host bodies to survive.

During a pre-credits sequence, which sets up the prime location for the majority of  this movie, a gas station worker is savagely attacked by something which looks like a cross between a fox and a porcupine, the titles appear and we are introduced to two sets of characters who are on the same long road as the gas station. A warning sign by an area near the road about “experiments” should probably have not gone unread by anyone in this movie. As it is though, it does serve to set up in our minds the lack of explanation for the rest of the narrative, as in... the government are doing weird stuff and something dangerous has obviously got out.

Our first young couple, Polly and Seth, are planning on camping out in ‘The Big Outdoors’ but have to change their plans when Seth breaks the tent... so instead they get back in the car in search of a motel. Which is unfortunate because they stop for a hitchhiker, Lacey, when they really shouldn’t have. Lacey’s boyfriend, Dennis, is a psycho criminal (just like Lacey) and he’s armed. They were heading for Mexico, on the run, but their car has died on them. They need Polly and Seth’s car and insist, in no uncertain terms, that the two of them accompany them in case they are needed as hostages before they can get to their final destination.

Unfortunately for them all, Polly accidentally runs over some kind of critter who, you guessed it, is probably the same critter that attacked the gas station owner at the opening of the movie. While psycho Dennis helps Polly change the tyre, he scratches himself on one of the quills sticking out of it... anyone in the audience who has ever seen a horror movie in their life now knows he’s infected, of course. Then the thing that they run over starts to chase them away... then their radiator goes up in steam but, as luck would have it, they happen to find... you guessed it... the gas station from the start of the movie.

That’s the entire set up and after that, the story never roams from this location.

For a low budget shocker, this movie is, I’d have to say, made remarkably well. Displaying a certain sense of artistic style in both the framing of the shots and, more importantly, the camera movement... the film starts up with long camera swoops through all the scenes that establish the locations and characters. The shots tend to either slowly track in to meet the oncoming action or, conversely, track away from it, in a kind of meet and greet kind of relationship to the subject in the main narrative focus. For example, when a car zooms along from right of screen at an angle towards the camera, the camera will pan over from the left with the same sense of speed to meet it.

Once things are established though, the director also throws in static shots and, especially when all things start to go pear shaped at the gas station, a lot of hand held camera and a heck of a lot of fast edits. Actually, I’d have to say, that if there’s one thing that jars in this movie a little bit, it’s the fact that the editing is a little too choppy to see what’s happening on occasion. This works for it in some sense... I’m guessing the crew didn’t have enough confidence in their special monster effects to show it without a heck of a lot of movement and cutting on it... it looked okay to me though and, as I said, for the most part, this style gets a bit irritating in some scenes. The one place where it does pay off dividends, however, is when one of the main characters disappears from the narrative and you don’t see where he went... which is exactly the same plight his companions have as they didn’t see him go either... so that works pretty well as a nice piece of mis-direction.

There’s some genuinely nice stuff in this movie, including a tense scene where the main protagonists are locked in the gas station and a police sherriff refuses to leave them because she thinks this is a hostage situation and doesnt realise that, you know, there’s a big bugger of a spine monster running around on the roof and waiting to pounce on her. A spine monster, I might add, that can lose bits of its limbs etc and then those infected human or animal body parts will grow a mind of their own and start chasing you... the sequences involving a half a hand running around like cousin ‘it’ from The Addams Family will possibly scare you... but it might also make you giggle quite a bit.

Another tense scene of suspense is where one of our heroes’ goes to get to the car outside by half freezing himself and carrying ice to keep his body temperature below 93 degrees... because this is something he thinks the creature is using to track them. As he can hardly move because he’s frozen and he makes his way to the car with his body temperature rising on his handy ‘audience friendly’ thermometer... the tension builds solidly and it’s nice to see this kind of “countdown to possible doom’ scene handled with body temperature as the key element to it, for a change.

The score is suitably dark and edgy, done by Elia Cmiral who may be best remembered for his score to Frankenheimer’s Ronin. It’s pretty good modern horror scoring/sound design apart from a jaunty/upbeat twangy thing near the start of the movie when Polly and Seth set off to find a motel... yeah, could have done without that bit. It’s way too cheesy. Everything else in terms of the musical scoring is pretty cool though.

And that’s about it... a modern, low budget horror with a monster that resembles the early incarnation of Victor in The Quatermass Xperiment, in which the polar opposites who are thrown together in this situation begin to find a common bond and the evil psycho character also gets his shot at redemption. Maybe a little formulaic, it’s true, but when it’s done as well as this one is... sometimes it’s okay to be a little predictable. Would loved to have seen a sequel to this, as opposed to some of the trashy horror movies which undeservedly get a next part to them these days, but don’t think that’s going to be happening anytime soon. Still, a fun little survival horror movie that fans of movies like John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing will probably enjoy a lot. Make a point of seeing it... just don’t let it scratch your fingernail with that point.

Monday 29 October 2012

The Strange World Of Planet X

Home, Home On The Strange

The Strange World Of Planet X
aka Cosmic Monsters
UK 1958
Directed by Gilbert Gunn 
Simply Media Region 2

I’d never even heard of this film before recently, when I saw a copy sitting all lonely on a shelf in a shop. I took one look at it and knew I had to see it. The film was obviously British, as evidenced by the fact that professional-American-lead-for-British-movies Forrest Tucker was in it (honestly, if they couldnt have gotten Forrest Tucker it would have been Brian Donlevy). I was unsure of the origins of the tale, just from the cover, but something in my gut told me it would be following the same kind of filmic origins as The Quatermass Xperiment or The Trollenberg Terror... so I had to have it.

As I held the DVD cover in my hand I looked at the £11 price tag and did the obvious thing. I left it in the shop and ordered a copy for £6, when I got home, from Amazon. That’s more like it!

Looking a little further into the origins of the movie, I found my suspicions were right. This is exactly the kind of movie which would make a good companion piece to the British horror/sci-fi scene in the late fifties/early sixties. You could imagine seeing it on a double bill with The Earth Dies Screaming or such other notable ‘classics’ of the time. There is another, similarly obvious influence on the story, but I’ll get to that a little later. Now I’m not quite sure how the dates of the origins of this movie are working out but, as far as I can piece together, it turns out The Strange World Of Planet X was originally a TV serial, just like the Quatermass serials and the aforementioned The Trollenberg Terror (the movie remake of the latter is more famously known in the US these days as The Crawling Eye) in 1956, but then it was adapted and turned into a novel by Rene Ray in 1957. Presumably both that novel and the TV show were the two sources for this ‘big screen’ version.

It starts off with slight flashes of something like Hammer’s Four Sided Triangle (reviewed here) in that if features a team of scientists working on something mysterious which needs a lot of funding, the provision of which is in question. Pretty soon it becomes apparent that Forrest Tucker’s character Gil, and his boss Dr. Laird, are the main players in some experimentation with magnetic fields. When their funding is continued, they also get a new member of the crew to replace somebody who gets injured earlier in the film. This is the female lead, Michele Dupont, played by Gaby André who, it soon turns out, is the only victim in this movie of that terrible disease known as “bad dubbing”. She is seriously out of synch with the rest of the cast on this one, I can tell you. There are  a few fair references to the origins of the character being French (what, the name Michele Dupont didn’t give it away?) and I’m guessing that in the early previews she had a much thicker pseudo-French accent than the almost non-existent one which has been badly dubbed over the top here. Just a guess but I’d be really surprised if this was not the case.

When the military guy in charge of funding brings in the new “scientific assistant” and announces her just before her meeting “the team”, the following outburst from Dr. Laird tells you all you really need to know about this movie and understand the times in which it was set... “But a... woman? This is preposterous. This is highly skilled work!”

Yep, it’s one of those sexist fifties movies that then try to deny their own sexism by having our hero start dating the lady in question, while not realising they are still being quite sexist in their attitude all the way through. I guess it’s kinda annoying to some but it’s also kinda quaint and fun too. I do relish the stupidity and simplicity of films exhibiting those kinds of shocking tendencies.

Okay, so pretty soon the magnetic field experiments are doing more than just interfering with the TV signals down the local pub. Pretty soon it’s driving people mad and leading them to murder and... worse still... it’s mutating all the insect life in the area into giant bugs. Yep... it’s a giant bug movie everybody... but not one of the best. Apart from a few “puppet” shots, the majority of the giganticised insects are just blown up, real insect photography, projected on a backdrop behind our heroes or, more often than not, very simplistically and uneffectively cut against footage of the normal set. You know the drill. Big picture of bug filling the screen, cut back to a reaction shot of a girl in the studio screaming... that kind of stuff. Mostly unsatisfying but there are a few puppet monster shots including a fairly gruesome cut away to a puppet eating off a military guys face which is actually quite horrific in a way and it surprised me that the BBFC rating on the box was only a PG. This one shot, which last maybe a few seconds, should have perhaps warranted a slightly higher rating... although I personally detest anything other than self censorship. Since it’s all about money I’m grateful the company didn’t have to cut the shot to get a lower rating and I’ll leave it at that.

And then, somewhere in all this mix, the film shows its other main influence when an alien drops in on the planet to look up Gil and warn him about all the stuff they are doing. With all his talk of the outside universe now taking an interest in the doings of mankind, it’s obvious the people responsible for the storyline of the original serial (if this element was, indeed, in the original serial) were big fans of Michael Rennie’s Klaatu character in The Day The Earth Stood Still. This alien guy is trying to channel ‘the Rennie’ as best he can in this... although his “peaceful” solution, once the county they’re in has’bugged out’, is to kill a scientist and blow stuff up, admittedly. Will he enlist the aid of Gil and the others and blow stuff up and kill people before humanity accidentally changes the earth’s.... um... something or other to do with the shifting of the axis of the planet and involve gazillions of people of the Earth being killed with their own magnetic field experiments? Will he stop the stock, micro footage of the bugs attacking our studio bound heroes?

Well, if you watch this movie all those questions will be answered and then shrugged off in an unsatisfying epilogue. While not containing as much of the “so bad it’s good” fun you would necessarily want from a film like this, the film does have a quaint charm to it and lovers of this specific time in British sci-fi/horror should not complain too much at the price Amazon are charging for it. Others may find it, at best, an acquired taste, however. I thought it was “ace” though.

Sunday 28 October 2012


World Of Witchcraft

Ireland/UK 2010
Directed by Colm McCarthy
Momentum Region 2

Warning: A few spoilers but nothing too major.

This is a nice little find. I’d not heard of this movie before I read about it in a book the other week, but I’m really glad I ordered myself a cheap copy off of Amazon.

Set in a depressed, council estate in Edinburgh, a woman and her adolescent son rent a very run down, delapidated, 10 notches below ‘fixer upper’ of a flat and it doesn’t take you long to notice that there’s something a little odd about these two. Once they are in, for example, the mother paints strange symbols on the walls and it doesn’t take much to figure out that a) these two are on the run from someone (or something) and b) the mother is a witch and her son is... aha. I’ll not get ahead of myself there.

With these symbols ‘protecting them’ in their new home, the flat itself seems to be cloaked from anyone meaning the two of them harm. This is amply demonstrated (or should that be ‘demon-strated’) by the fact that the lady from ‘housing’ cannot find where these two live, even when she is standing outside their very door. Something stops her from recognising the flat, even though she has the number written down for her.

This little scene itself is used to impress upon the minds of the audience that the mother, Mary, played brilliantly by Kate Dickie, is actually a fairly potent witch and that she’s best not crossed. Something which becomes very clear when she goes out to talk to the same lady a little later in the film and puts a curse on her so that she wanders around the council estate forever, not knowing why she’s there. She can hold her own against her ‘own kind’ pretty well too... as seen in a few scenes scattered throughout the movie.

This low budget, UK witch movie exudes a kind of raw style which makes for a very rewarding watch. The two are being pursued by the boy’s father,  who is tattooed early on in the film with special symbols which give him “witched up” supernatural powers of his own to aid him in his hunt. There’s a nice scene where he cuts open a bird and follows the way the blood is pointing... and another where he basically has a mentally projected battle of wills with Mary from afar... similar to the kinds of things you used to see in the old Dr. Strange comics in the sixties. Mary once again proves her worth as a witch... and the fact that when she’s getting especially witchy that she also gets a bit naked might also interest a certain percentage of the viewers.

Meanwhile, her son is busy falling in love with the girl in the flat next door and all this is happening against a backdrop of gory murders in the area. There are quite a few little British character actors in this, including the inimitable James Cosmo as a kind of local ‘witch godfather’ (I still remember him best in Brond and also as Jock in the 70s Dick Barton TV serial... good times) and a small appearance by a certain female who had just gotten famous by the time this film was released...

Come along Pond!

Yes, I was actually gobsmacked when I noticed a friend of the neighbour was played by Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan. She is only in two brief scenes, with only a few lines before she’s dragged off and ripped apart by... well I won’t say by ‘who’, but if you’ve seen the cover of the UK DVD box then you’ll have a pretty good idea of ‘what’. There’s a ‘not badly done’ beastie in this movie and if you’ve been paying attention to the story in the film, it won’t take you very long to figure out who this beastie is when they’re not being a beastie... although I won’t say who it is here. To be honest, there’s a lot of deliberate misdirection in this film to kind of hide the identity of this particular ‘outcast’... but ultimately this doesn’t really succeed in blinding the audience to the inevitability of the identity of the movie’s central monster.

But that’s only a small fault and it would be a shame to judge the entire film by this because, frankly, it’s a well crafted, reasonably intelligent, British horror movie and deserves to find its audience. If the Hellblaiser comics had been done properly instead of having the basic character changed and too much money thrown at it (like it did with the Constantine movie, which was an enjoyable but hugely inaccurate adaptation of the source material) then I’d expect it to turn out a little more like this movie here. It’s probably the lack of budget which really helps this movie stay focussed on the function it’s trying to perform in the script, is my guess, and it certainly lends it a certain charm and reigns it in when a bit of money thrown at the odd scene or two might have actually harmed the uneasy feeling of authenticity it manages to carry off  at certain points too. The creature looks a little less sophisticated than it might be in a Hollywood project, for instance, but that too is really not bad and I much preferred it to some of the terrible, over-used CGI rubbish we’ve been getting over the years.

The film is competently shot and edited and has absolutely brilliant performances, as you’d expect from a lot of the “haven’t-I-seen-him/her-before?” character actors who turn up in this one. A really good watch if your in the mood for a modern day story of witches and monsters which doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator audience and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Worth a watch by pretty much anybody, but especially if you have a passion for this kind of modern spin on a Dennis Wheatley vibe. Don’t let this one get away from you.

Saturday 27 October 2012

The Return Of The Vampire

Tesla Foil

The Return Of The Vampire
USA 1944
Directed by Lew Landers
Columbia Region 1

I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to have even heard of this film or get access to it. Thanks to Hypnogoria for bringing it to my attention with a posting of the movie poster.

Made in 1944, just when Universal were getting towards the end of their second wind with their successful box office monsters, The Return Of The Vampire was supposed to be Columbia Pictures direct sequel to the original Tod Browning version of Dracula. However, when Universal did the obvious thing and threatened to sue, Columbia just changed the names of some of the characters, altering what would have been Bela Lugosi’s second shot at Dracula into the more ‘electrical’ sounding Armand Tesla. That being said, he plays him just like Dracula in this, and pretty much in the same costume. It wouldn’t be for another four years before he would actually play Dracula again, this time in comedy monster-mash up Bud Abbot & Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The film starts off in 1918, where a talking and very eloquent wolfman goes to wake his master, Count Tesla, from his sleepy-time coffin. Tesla has already left one person dead in the hands of Dr. Walter Saunders (played by Gilbert Emory) and his assistant Lady Jane Ainsley (played by Frieda Inescort), who both seem to live together in the same house with their respective son and daughter (I’m assuming these two aren’t an actual family unit, due to the son and daughter getting married when they grow up). While the doctor in question reads an interesting book on supernatural lore, ignores his blinded, scientific mind and realises this was a vampire attack, Tesla bites the neck of his little girl, sending her into a coma requiring blood transfusions.

It surprised me a little, not knowing this film was starting on an extended prologue (and since the opening is a good ten or fifteen minutes long) to see the good doctor and Lady Ainsley stake Lugosi’s character through the heart. This breaks the werewolf’s curse from the man called Andreas, who in the intervening years becomes Lady Ainsley’s assistant when the good doctor has died. Lugosi is buried with the stake through his heart and left to his death... but somehow, I knew the movie wouldn’t really be over in a quarter of an hour.

Cut forward to the second World War and an air raid leaves the cemetery where Tesla is buried in turmoil. Two comic, British character actors find Tesla with a stake through his heart and, assuming it’s debris from the bomb, remove it before reburying him in a patch of ground. Of course, once the stake has been removed, Tesla is once more the undead vampire of years ago, ready to take revenge on the family that put him to rest.

Now then. Movie legend in some historical tomes has always been quite quick to say that the first imagery of an undead, or living dead (if you prefer) creature rising from the bowels of the earth is of the zombies in George A Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. And for many years people have been arguing that the first imagery of undead creatures rising up from the soil is of the more traditional zombie creatures in Hammer’s The Plague Of The Zombies. And for years I have been saying that the first imagery I know of this occurrence is from one of the two Universal Mummy movies made in 1944 (the fifth or sixth in the series), either The Mummy’s Ghost or The Mummy’s Curse (I forget which one). However, since this film, The Return Of The Vampire, was released on January 1st of the same year, I’d have to say that the image of Bela Lugosi’s hands pushing its way out of the earth in this one is, so far, the earliest version of this phenomenon I have seen.

Of course, once Tesla is back in the game, the young child who has grown up (to be played by Nina Foch) is now, once more, under Tesla’s watchful spell. As is Andreas, his rejuvenated werewolf companion (the make-up job on Andreas, which is pretty good, was reused later for The Werewolf, reviewed here). From here on in it’s pretty much a straight remake of Dracula, with a bit of unbelieving police inspector and comedy policemen thrown in for good measure. But you know what? This is a pretty good movie.

I love the Universal monster movies and have found other studio’s films of the time, especially those retreading Dracula, to be quite dull and lifeless in comparison to their Universal counterparts (I might mention the much loved Mark Of The Vampire as being particularly witless and inscrutable in this respect). The only rival they had, for me, are the excellent Val Lewton RKO movies from the same period. This one, however, really is on a par with the best of the Universal monster movies in regards to everything you would want from these films. A bunch of actors taking it seriously, Lugosi reading his lines phonetically (he never really learned the English language and so had to learn all his lines in this fashion... but it kinda works for some of the characters he played), excellent gothic style lighting and a Universal style selection of wrought, pseudo gothic underscore by a composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who I’ve never heard of but would like to know better... he gets those fake Salter & Skinner stings just right!

But it’s also got the background of the second war and various found footage of that in it, plus the bizarre shot of a topless Big Ben I’ve mentioned in one or two reviews before (my theory is a model was built to shoot the clock face from and then it was shot further back than the model had been built for... then re-used as a stock insert by everybody and their dog’s movies) and, as far as I can make out in my research, the first ever shot of a disintegrating vampire, melting exactly the same kind of way that Christopher Lee would do many years later (I’m not counting the original Nosferatu as that’s a different and less graphic kind of effect and target)... which is pretty strong and graphic stuff for the time, actually. I’m wondering if this movie ran into trouble with the censors in this country at the time and had to be judiciously snipped.

And did I mention it’s got a talking werewolf? The screen's first and last?

I guess you have to be of a particular mind set to watch these kinds of movies but I know there are a lot of people out there who, like me, love their Universal Monsters fix. If you’re one of them, then you owe it to yourself to give this film a bit of a watch. It really does stand head and shoulders with other classic Universal vampire movies like Dracula’s Daughter and Son Of Dracula.

And you noted it’s got a talking werewolf, right?

Friday 26 October 2012


Syntax Error

Canada 2008
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Kaleidoscope Region 2

Warning: Boilers, toilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers... 
slight, flight, slight, bite, tight.

I hate when this happens.

I’ve had an idea in my head for a short story for the best part of 15 or 20 years which I’ve never had the time to research properly so I could actually sit down and write it. The short was going to be sci-fi, in the style of something very British like Wyndham’s The Midwych Cuckoos or The Day Of The Triffids, with a little H. P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. It was to have been about a man who gets sent to an English village cut off from the rest of the world, inside a 'safe suit'. He has to find out why everybody has died. Soon he finds, from diary extracts and local new articles, that the village has been wiped out by a virus, The Alliteration Bug which first takes away a persons ability to string standard sentences together and then sends them onto madness and death. The virus is caught by words and uses the sense of words as a host. And I was kinda looking forward to writing that some day.


The other day I heard about a little horror film called Pontypool, and so it looks like I’ll never get to write “my version” of that story anymore. Pontypool has none of the same trappings as my original idea, but it does share the same basic plot device of a lethal virus hiding itself in the language and it uses it to give us more of a horror movie than a purely science fiction story. A variant of the zombie horror genre, no less. But when I say ‘zombie horror’, what I really mean to say, in the case of Pontypool, is that it’s a taut genre thriller which all too quickly engulfs you in it’s little world and grips you like most zombie movies just don’t.

The movie tells of one of the first nights of a Radio DJ,  Grant Mazzie (played by Stephen McHattie, who was so chilling in Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence) on a new job. He’s been fired from his previous DJ job for being too... I don’t know... truthful, offensive, unafraid to call things like they are? Anyway, this is one of his first nights broadcasting from a radio studio in the small, Canadian town of Pontypool, where he has been able to get a job.

He has with him his new producer, called Sydney Briar (who is played by Lisa Houle), and their young assistant who has previously been in a war zone, Laurel-Ann Drummond (played by a lovely young lady called Georgina Reilly). That’s the majority of the cast for most of the running time right there because that’s all the staff who are needed to run the radio show... and this whole movie, apart from the opening few minutes, takes place in that radio studio and a couple of rooms leading from it. You get some visitors to the studio in a couple of places and a few voice cast as part of the show... but that’s about it.

And it just works so well.

Those first few minutes start with Mazzie’s voice from a previous show and after he’s been talking to somebody on a phone in his car, there is a tap on his car window. A woman stands out there in the snow looking distressed. He winds down his window and says something to her and she starts repeating his words (along with some others off-screen) and then runs off. This incident becomes the basis for his first on-air radio question of the day (Should he have dialled 911 about the mystery lady or not?) and, as you may guess, it becomes the radio show of all radio shows.

I remember when I was a kid and I wasn’t completely aware of the diffference between a live broadcast and a recording on vinyl that’s done with conviction. My dad had borrowed a record album of the notorious Orson Welles broadcast of War Of The Worlds from the local library and put it on for me (I guess this was possibly my first exposure to Bernard Herrmann, who played the dance music conductor)... it didn’t take long before I was terrified.

Pontypool, a little research has told me, was also done as a radio play and was also based on a novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, by the guy who worked on adapting both the play and the film (he also turns up as a character’s voice on the radio in the movie). His name is Tony Burgess, but I don’t think it’s the same guy as famous writer Anthony Burgess, as it happens. I’m going to have to read the book and I would love to get an opportunity to hear the radio play too because, it really is no surprise to me that this works so well in that format, because this is how the film works, also. It took me straight back to that old Orson Welle’s broadcast, in my head.

It would be untrue to say there’s no goriness in Pontypool... it touts itself as a zombie movie (although it’s not quite that, in the strictest sense) so it kinda raises expectations in those areas, but for around two thirds of it, I’d say, the events and situations are all done through words... news flashes and interviews by Grant Mazzie as he and his crew realise the full horror of the “protests” erupting in the streets, with their groups of people chanting mundane sentences. Once the horror is finally brought home to them... and I mean brought home... they even use this symptom of groups of people repeating phrases and variants over and over to themselves to send a message to the outside world, by use of a key phrase. This key phrase is looped over the outside radio speakers throughout much of the last 20 minutes of the movie and will probably get under your skins after you’ve heard it the first 100 times or so.

There’s a beautiful scene featuring a group of singers who turn up for an interview when you suddenly realise the virus is not just in the outside world anymore, but it takes a little while longer for the characters to catch up and there’s another drawn out little piece where one of the three main characters becomes infected and, for a little while there, just freezes and emits something like a high pitched test signal... this kinda made me think a little because, well... for the last few years, every now and again, instead of just snoring in my sleep (which I’ve been told by various girlfriends I do) I have occasionally woken myself up because I have been yelling a flat, low pitched, almost continuous “Arrrrrrrrrrrrrr” sound, while asleep. It’s not so bad again now but there was one period about a year ago when I was doing this once a week or more. What with all the recent talk that scientists believe they have found evidence the universe is just somebody else’s computer simulation... well it made me think.

Ayway, I digress.

Back to the movie. By the point that one of the main three characters has become infected, a doctor... who may or may not have inadvertently caused this whole thing, I don’t think even he knows... enters the studio and tells the others to stay out of the “language virus” infected character’s way. They lock themselves in the recording booth as she runs around. “She doesn’t realise it yet, “ says the doctor, “but she’s hunting us.” This hunt gets quite grim as time wears on and the ultimate pay off to this scene is something quite cinematically gory... but i just don’t want to spoil this for you. You need to experience it.

The ending takes the film to the ultimate kind of ending that a movie like that could get, but still manages to keep going on with the story all the way through the end credits and then, with a bizarre piece after the credits, which seems to bear no relation to anything we’ve just seen. But that’s okay, I was so drawn in by the main text of the movie that I’m really not going to worry about what the heck the prologue may or may not mean.

Pontypool is both brilliant and, in some places, quite funny. All the performances are, frankly, astonishing and the cinematography doesn’t get in the way of the direct “now” factor of a script which is definitely text orientated, rather than being overly visually resplendent. But that doesn’t matter a bit. I can’t say enough good things to recommend this one to you. Anybody even remotely interested in these kinds of genre movies should have a thoroughly mesmerising time watching this movie. In fact, in regards to the issue of language as a viral host, one might even go on to go to say what say what kill kill kiss is kill is kiss is kill is kiss is kill me kill me kill me darling...

Thursday 25 October 2012

Paranormal Activity 4

Night Of The Hunter

Paranormal Activity 4
US 2012
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Very light spoilers, almost non-spoilers, 
lurking in the background details...

Well... another Halloween, another Paranormal Activity movie.

Which is not a bad thing.

I’ve actually got a lot of respect for these “nicely done” little scary movies as you’ll know if you’ve read my reviews of the previous three here, here  and here. Ultimately, I didn’t think the first movie was scary... but the audience obviously did and, scary or not, I thought it was neatly done. The second and third movies I found very scary and also thought they carried on the magic as a franchise pretty well.

This fourth one is not so scary as the last two, but it still quite pant-wetting in places and so I still rate the fourth film a little higher than the first. Ultimately, though, I don’t think it’s quite as well done as the previous installments and I’ll get to why that is a little later. However, it does have a really neat little twist about two thirds of the way through which upends your assumptions (assumptions carefully cultivated by both the trailer and the opening of this film) which scored big points with me because, well, I’d been taken in by my own expectations and for a movie to fool me like that... that’s kinda cool.

I think a few people have mentioned that there’s a twist in it and, without giving away what that twist is, its introduced in quite a low key way (the characters in the film have no idea there is a twist happening because they’ve not seen the previous movies) but which will instantly explain why the events happening in this film are occurring with a family we’ve never even met before. It will also change what you know about one of the characters... but that’s all I’m saying on that part of the story element.

It’s a jumpy film in places but it’s not as 'skillfully scary' as the last two in the franchise, even though it’s trying to be really smart with some of its set ups. For example, in the third movie I pointed out that we all know right from a particular gadget’s first appearance, why a camera has been fitted to a fan. We know the kind of “reveal” games the director wants to play and this is indeed what happens... but I also noted that, even though we could see the mechanism and it clearly foreshadowed the action, the scares were still pretty awesome.

In this one, there’s absolutely no reason for the characters to be walking around with cameras for the first 20 minutes or so... I feel this is a big weakness in the opening of the film. I’m sorry but... teenagers don’t all go around obsessively filming absolutely everything and never taking away their cameras from their faces, right? I understand the skype stuff, so I’m not talking about that, but it just seems a bit weird because the characters have no reason, for a while, to be doing this... as opposed to the characters in the first three movies, in which case it was understandable. However, 20 minutes or so into this movie, that particular weakness in the script is taken care of by having a set of “spy cams” installed at various locations around the house. Which, in turn, leads (eventually) to my point about why the movie isn’t as skillfully done as the original...

 The film-makers have learned from their foreshadowing errors in the third film but the way they’ve responded here is, perhaps, to overthink it a little. What they do is deliberately tip-their-hats again by showing us opportunities for where pop up scares can be... a fridge door when opened obscures the camera vision, for example, and you are just waiting for it to shut and 'reveal'... but mostly this and similar setups are not really picked up on. So in a way it’s still a bit of a win situation, because you are overly anxious and worrying about when certain things are going to happen whenever you see a particular set-up... but ultimately it’s a bit of an anticlimax because the alternate shock moments they use to counter these expectations aren’t, in about half the cases, as scary as the much anticipated scare moment might have been.

Another slightly fumbled moment, and I don’t want to give too much away here, is when a piece of kitchen cutlery goes missing in a pretty overtly supernatural manner, which the audience is in on but the characters aren’t. You are left waiting for the expected consequence of this scene and the writers smartly go away from this element of the plot for a while and try to distract you with other things. The trouble is, you just don’t forget this little 'party trick' so easily, so when the pay off comes... you are expecting it and, frankly, imagining far worse than what you actually get delivered. I think it would have worked better if enough time had gone by within the movie’s running length to let the audience properly forget about this... ahem... missing item. This didn’t work nearly as well as it should here. Like a bad comedian... the timing was just off.

Similarly, the trailer for this film, like the trailer for the third installment, is made from footage which isn’t in the actual movie... although this one could at least have genuinely been slotted into the running time is my feeling (which wouldn’t have worked in the case of the trailer to the third movie). I was annoyed about this because, frankly, the trailer is quite creepy... and it also helps set up your preconceptions so the twist that comes later is able to work. It’s pretty much a variant on the uneasy original teaser trailer to the 2006 remake of The Omen... which also didn’t make it into that movie, as far as I can remember.

Another weak point is the fact that when stuff really starts happening properly, and if you’ve ever seen any of these movies you’ll know exactly what I mean (when weird stuff gets real), neither of the two teenage characters who can access the spy footage they’ve set up for just this purpose actually bothers to check what crazy stuff has been happening in their absence. There’s one scene in particular when one of the characters takes part in 'an episode' through which she sleeps. Honestly, if she’d actually played back the footage, she would have been out of that house for good... but she doesn’t. This seems somewhat strange and contrived, to be honest.

The ending sequence, too, is another sore point for me. Although it contains some nice effects, it just feels too similar to the ending of the third movie... just not quite as scary. I was hoping for something a little more interesting, if truth be told.

So yeah, there were a lot of elements that didn’t work for me here.

However, it’s still a pretty good movie and it’s a genuine sequel to both the ending of the second movie (where Katie zaps her sister and walks off with little Hunter) and the background history of a witches coven who are in cahoots with the demonic ‘Toby’ from all the installments in series so far.

And for all those ingredients which didn’t quite mix as well as I would like, it has to be said that there’s also some really nice things which do work in this movie. It’s still a little scary, for one, and it did elicit the usual “so silent in the cinema you could hear a pin drop” reaction juxtaposed with the “scream out loud and then, possibly, giggle a little to offset that” reaction from the audience I was with... which is to be applauded.

Also, the more blatant of the CGI effects used in this one... that is to say, not the ones that hide all the wirework and stuff... are actually quite special. The demonic faces you will see in this one work really well and are pretty much an extension of what they started doing in the last two... but much, much more menacing. It all works so well and the second reference I spotted in the movie to Kubrik’s version of The Shining (the first being an incident involving a kid riding a mini pedal bike around the house), when a demonised version of one of the characters chases the person who we’ve come to think of as our main protagonist and gets stuck halfway through the splintered door frame like Jack Nicholson peering through... is really a great visual moment of the series. It’s just a shame they didn’t linger on it for a little longer... but by that point in the movie everything is ramped up way past eleven. It’s definitely something I would like to see a ‘still photograph’ of, though.

So yeah, ultimately, I think I’d recommend this film to most people. I wouldnt make it the first one you see in the series, by any means, but if you’re a fan of the first three movies, while you may find it just a ‘touch’ disappointing in direct comparison, you should still have a good time with it and it certainly doesn’t tarnish the good work done in the first three. And, yes, I am looking forward to their being a fifth one for release for next year’s Halloween run up. I want to see what Katie did next!

Tuesday 23 October 2012

La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown)


La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown) 
1966 Spain/Italy 
Directed by Sergio Sollima
Screening at the London Film Festival 2012

Warning: Spoilers standing off against each other, 
waiting to be the first one to fire. 

Well... I was more than a little surprised when I found that the organisers of the London Film Festival had chosen to acquire a restored print of one of my all time favourite spaghetti westerns, The Big Gundown, and screen it as part of their Treasures Of The National Archive section in this year’s programme of events. Particularly as I couldn’t remember if I’d actually ever seen it projected on a big screen or not. Hey, it’s actually two years older than I am (so it’s positively ancient) and when you get to my age all those revival and restored re-release screenings over the years blur into one. I just can’t remember all the ones I’ve seen projected at a cinema.

I’ve certainly seen the film a number of times on TV screenings and bootleg DVDs over the years though, so I was positively wetting my lips at the prospect when I found out, a few days before I went, that the definitive print they had restored was longer than anything we’d seen before (it was pretty much butchered on its initial American release and I think the US version is the one which gets shown on TV from time to time). Well I have to say that, if this sounded to good to be true... in some ways it certainly was. And in other ways, I guess it wasn’t.

That is to say... aww, heck... lets get the main disappointments out of the way first... before I remind you how amazing this movie is.

I’d been tipped off that this was going to be showing via the BFI earlier in the year chatting to the UK’s foremost authority on the Italian western, Sir Christopher Frayling, at a film fair (we always go to the same Italian soundtrack stall first, it seems). Well, he was there to say a few words about the movie before the screening started, as I knew he would be, and in it he impressed upon us how this was going to be a more complete version of the film than we’d seen before. I had a few alarm bells ringing in my head when he read an extract of a review out from the time of its original full length screening in the sixties, which described a particular scene. As he read it, I was nodding my head and thinking, “yeah, that’s a good scene and the score in that part is brilliant” etc... but then he said something along the lines of... “of course, we’ve never had the opportunity to see this scene ourself... so I hope to God it’s in there today.”

It was then that I started thinking... “Wait? What?”

So anyway... the screening starts and plays out and I am held spellbound but... it was, I have to say, no longer (and possibly not that much better quality too) than the bootleg edition which had been doing the rounds for over a decade and which could easily be picked up for a fiver. So this was a bit wrong. I sometimes wonder how these people who commission these things have never managed to get access to stuff which the fans have had for a while. It’s a bit bizarre.

A similar, surprising thing happened when I read a book about giallo movies about three years ago... the author had said that he just couldn’t get hold of the films he wanted to research so, in many cases, went with reviews and articles about them from the time. Since I seemed to have pretty much all the movies he was talking about not being able to get ahold of... well, all I can say is it’s about time all these various companies and academic types realised that we’re living in a global community nowadays. The internet and DVD as a universal format used as a bridge between various countries is a reality people are going to have to start getting used to... there are many fan edits and message boards for these kinds of things out there. Especially when it comes to stuff like spaghetti westerns.

The other eye opener for me is that they went with an Italian dub with English subtitles, even though the principal actors were both speaking English. it was understandable but... let me tell you how I think this works and how things like this happen...

The Italians don’t usually record sound when they’re making their movies, certainly at the time when these were made and I suspect things haven’t changed too much in recent years either, but I would be interested to hear if they have. Anyway, it’s all dubbed on after and the principal actors all speak whatever language they are comfortable with. This means that, as an actor, you have to know when a person’s going to stop speaking so you can come in on your cue because, more often than not, you won’t be able to understand a word they’re saying to you. The movie is shot like this and then dubbed, usually very badly, in various languages for release in different countries. Rarely, in any print, is the lip synch any good.

Now then, if the footage is cut out of a US release on its first run, there’s a chance that the sound for those scenes hasn’t been dubbed in English... so what usually happens with these things, when they are restored for the US and UK marketplace, is the language used is often English... but the reinstated scenes are Italian with English subs. For this screening the whole thing was dubbed in Italian with subtitles. I didn’t mind it myself, actually... but the best way to see this particular movie is probably in English for the scenes where they have the audio. If they want to spend money on it (aka, if they don’t want to be cheap about it), then they can always do what they did a few years back on the restored version of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly... which is get Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach back in the studio to dub the missing scenes and get another actor to impersonate the late, great Lee Van Cleef for his scenes. This seemed to work pretty well.

What’s the most interesting thing about this particular screening of The Big Gundown, though, is that in this version they chose to put the English language version of the song over the credits and end titles instead of the Italian vocal version. Not that I mind, I love the English performance of the song (by the same singer, Christy) but I just found it a strange choice, especially considering the proximity of the last word said in the film on screen in the English version and the deliberate juxtaposition of the crashing Christy vocal which follows it.

Which brings me to my other little grumble... Christopher Frayling apologised for the “screechy song”! I was gobsmacked... I love that song. What’s the world coming to when people can’t appreciate the opening title song to The Big Gundown.

Anyway... enough of that.

If you’ve not seen The Big Gundown before and you like spaghetti westerns... then you really need to check this one out. It’s one of the greats. Lee Van Cleef plays Corbett, a respectable bounty killer, who is more in it for justice than any money he may make from it. When a local big wig offers to fund Corbett’s future political ambitions, one of his “favours” is that Corbett track down a Mexican who has raped and killed a child... a Mexican by the name of Cuchillo (the knife). However, this is a film about political corruption and, as he tracks down, captures, loses and retracks down Cuchillo, who is played absolutely brilliantly by a scene stealing Tomas Milian, it becomes clear that Cuchillo might not actually be guilty of any crime other than being poor and that Corbett is being used to blame and kill a man to cover up the crime of the son-in-law of the man who sent him on his mission.

The film includes various action sequences which highlight both Van Cleef’s stoic and sturdy ‘avenger of justice’ and Milian’s ‘young hippy’ of a character who relies on his animal cunning to always stay ahead of Van Cleef and the performances really are a joy to watch. We even have some sequences with Nieves Navarro (who giallo watchers will best know under the name Susan Scott) in them as a lady landowner of a ranch full of men she keeps fighting amongst themselves for the promise of her sexual favours (sexual favours which both Corbett and Cuchillo indulge themselves of, I might add).

Sergio Sollima is one of the more conscientious of the genre directors and this western is beautifully shot, much like you’d expect from something by either of the other two great ‘Sergios’ of the form, the genre’s kickstarter Sergio Leone and, equally, Sergio Corbucci. Vast landscape canvases with various shots showing figures large and small in contrast to each other, against the flat surface of the cinema screen... it’s all bold stuff and I can tell you, you really get a lot more out of Milian’s subtle facial reactions when you see this on a large screen. It’s just fantastic.

There’s a fair but of action and a lot of humour all put into the mix with a more serious political (possibly) subtext which ultimately leads to a heartwarming alliance for both of the characters you’ve been cheering all along. Lee Van Cleef’s opening sequence where he takes down three criminals after giving them each a bullet of ammunition (in a beautifully framed shot which would have echoes later down the road for the spaghetti western) and Cuchillo’s opening sequences, where he outsmarts Corbett before you even get to see his face... are equal delights.

And, of course, there’s the music.

Ennio Morricone’s masterful score (arranged and conducted by another great Italian composer, Bruno Nicolai) is almost overpowering but the film is strong enough to stand up to the pounding and lyrical humour that Morricone throws at it (a piece for this which specifically references one of the villain’s penchant for classical piano is even used, completely out of context, in the opening shots of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). The action writing is superb and it’s all mixed into the foreground like it needs to be... in those days the sound guys and the directors had a little more respect for the power of the score... not like these days where it’s often buried within the mix. Seeing it with this score coming out loud at the cinema was fantastic and I have to confess I was toe tapping to a lot of the movie as I was watching... hope the guy sitting next to me didn’t mind.

One thing about this screening which was very gratifying was that the venue was so full... it may even have been a sell out (and it wasn’t in a small screen either). To counter that, though, I thought it was kinda sad that the average age of the audience attending seemed to be people in their 50s and 60s... younger people need to see this great stuff and get inspired by it too. It blows away a lot of modern action movies!

Since this movie has been recently ‘restored’ (although I think it might be the same as the old Japanese Region 2 DVD in terms of content... if you quite rightly don’t want to go down the bootleg route) then I’m pretty sure that this is currently being prepped for either a US Region 1 or UK Region 2 release, although I’m told that the new German release DVD uses the same restored master as this one, from the same company.

Either way, it’s a film every fan of these kinds of westerns will want to see and, if you like this one, I can tell you now that the sequel, once again starring Tomas Milian as Cuchillo and from the same director, is at least as good as (if not better, although sadly without Van Cleef) than the first one. It’s called Run, Man, Run after the chorus from the song in The Big Gundown (Seeeeeee! It was popular enough a song to name a sequel after the lyrics!), has a blinding score by Bruno Nicolai (there are rumours as to who actually composed it, put about by the director in many interviews, but I’m told by a specialist in this field that those rumours are untrue) and it would, obviously, make a great double bill with this one. Curious thing about Sergio Sollima though, is that he’s a director who doesn’t like endings. So, while The Big Gundown has a lot of closure in it... you are left with the feeling that there is more to be told just around the corner. Run, Man, Run is even more blatant in ending the film at a point where you think you are in the middle of the story... so if you’re a fan of the traditional beginning, middle and end format of storytelling, you’ll just need to adjust your hat a little. You won’t want to miss out on either of these two movies.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Ginger And Rosa

Sally Potter And 
The Goblet Of Ire 

Ginger And Rosa 2012 
Directed by Sally Potter
Playing at UK cinemas soon

The first time I saw a movie directed by Sally Potter was back in 1992 when her debut feature Orlando played at my local cinema... cinema, now, sadly deceased. It was also the last time I’d seen a movie directed by Sally Potter up until the debut of her new feature, Ginger And Rosa, at this year's London Film Festival.

There’s no real reason why I’ve kept clear of Potter’s work since then... I liked Orlando well enough, although the score seemed to be in some places, almost “fake Nyman”, it’s just that she’s never really been a blip on my radar with any of her work since her debut. A brief glance at her filmography on the International Movie Database informs me that I haven’t been particularly staying out of her way on purpose... it’s just that she’s made only five features, including this one, so I’m not going to blame myself for this. Even if she is known for being a woman of some substance when it comes to making films and also, I would personally like to add to that, seeing her smallish “quality not quantity” output... perhaps the female equivalent of Stanley Kubrik when it comes to getting exactly what she wants on screen. Although, of course, Stanley would never have been able to actually shoot the thing in 5 weeks, as this one was... something she revealed in the Q&A after the premiere.

What I’m trying to say here is this... I’ve not seen Orlando since it came out at the cinema and I don’t know this lady’s work so well, so if there are any stylistic similarities between her new movie and any other of her works... well, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to point them out to you.

What I can point out to you, however, is that this is a particularly well made and gripping film. Telling the story of two young girls in their adolescence who were born on the same day around the time of the Hiroshima bombing, quite literally one bed apart from each other, the film then takes us straight to 1963, where the move stays to weave a tale of the two inseperable girls of the two mothers who were also inseperable in their hospital beds when they had them.

The backdrop of the film is the CND marches of the time, with the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis heightening the anxiety of the characters who inhabit this world of the early sixties, as it would have done to the director herself, growing up as a teenager around this time. Some people at the screening seemed to have jumped on this and assumed the film was actually about that... but of course it’s not. It’s a very personal film for the director, I would guess, and she uses these events and emotions to push the boundaries of her fiction and allow her to explore the relationship between the two girls, played absolutely brilliantly by Elle Fanning and Alice Englert (as Ginger and Rosa respectively) and the gamut of their trials and tribulations (and even betrayal) as the two girls react to their loved ones, in particular Ginger’s father (as played by Alessandro Nivola, who reminded me a lot of Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being in this role).

I don’t want to give away too much about the way this story goes but I will say that, while the title and relationship of the girls is very strong and would suggest a more even approach to the way the girls experience this period of their adolescence, it is actually Ginger who takes centre stage, as she is the one who seems to be going through the most traumatic time.

The two actresses do an excellent job and they are similarly aided by Christina Hendricks as Ginger’s mother (I have to say the only thing I remember her from was the two episodes of Firefly when she played Saffron... but she’s still the beautiful creature she was in that show and doesn’t look old enough to be playing anybody’s mother) and some very well known thesps such as Oliver Platt, Timothy Spall and, particularly, Annette Benign, who I can honestly say I’ve never really liked all that much but who absolutely shines in the role she is given in this movie. Good job, lady!

The soundtrack is interesting, using an ecclectic batch of needledrop pieces which reflect the conflicting styles of current hits of the time with jazz standards which represent Ginger’s dad and his particular lifestyle choices. I noticed an article in Sight and Sound magazine just recently referred to the film's soundtrack as being absolutely non-diegitc, but that’s actually not true. I noticed that there were a few scenes where the songs from the previous scene’s on-screen source were continuing well into another shot which wouldn’t support that particular source... so it’s definitely not, strictly, non-diegetic. It’s not particularly unusual and I’m surprised the reviewer didn’t pick up on that. There are lots of films that use this technique, of a piece of source music transforming into background music, but only a handful, that I can think of, where diegetic cues are then transformed into music which is non-diegetic in nature. Off the top of my head... the long tracking shot preamble around the rooftop in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae and the opening pre-credits sequence of Luc Besson’s Subway (if I’m remembering that second movie’s opening correctly... it’s been a few decades since I saw it).

The movie is absolutely riveting, the first 20 minutes or so especially fast paced and building speedy momentum as it goes. The camerawork seemed, to me, to be mostly (if not totally) handheld, even in some of the scenes which at first appeared to be static, and I guess if you’re on-board with a five week shoot, you have to sacrifice something in the mix to get the film shot? What that does do, of course, is allow the director to really focus on the actors and I would say she really gets great performances out of the people in this movie. I can’t say enough of how good the two leads are either. Both come from families who are no stranger to showbusiness... Elle Fanning is the younger sister of Dakota Fanning and Alice Englert is the daughter of famous director Jane Campion. So no wonder they acquit themselves so brilliantly here... I’m guessing it’s in the blood.

All in all, a quite serious film, dealing with characters at an age when everything seems so traumatic but also capturing the sense of naiveté that makes it so. It’s not something I’d watch again for entertainment purposes, but I will say that it’s definitely worth a look once, if even to see how well Potter throws her camera around... so to speak. A definite recommendation on a wonderful, quite enchanting piece of film-making. Enjoy.

Saturday 13 October 2012


Sink Or Swim?

Driftwood 2012 UK 
Written and Directed by James Webber
Produced by Meddy Ford and Freddy Green
Viewed at the request of the director.

If you’ve been reading my blog reviews for a while now, you’ll know that I started off with a general sense of creeping dread towards ‘short films’, but that the more exposure I’ve had to them over the last couple of years since I’ve been doing this, has allowed me to embrace the format a little more gladly. Don’t get me wrong. My three favourite shorts are still Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, Svankmeyer’s Virile Games and Scorcese’s The Big Shave... but some of the films I’ve seen over the last couple of years by people like Leilani Holmes, Damien Cullen, Rouzbeh Rashidi and James Devereaux, to name a few, have really challenged my tired old “I can’t be bothered” attitude to this particular species of the art form.

I saw four shorts at BAFTA just over a week ago (review here) and, based on the qualities, such as they are, of that review, a director called James Webber DM’d me on Twitter to see if I wanted to take a look at his new short called Driftwood. I said “yes”, of course, being that I’m always genuinely flattered when someone can make it through reading one of my blog entries without gnawing their own legs off, and put in the proviso that, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t review it... I don’t like to publish negative reviews of a film if a specific person involved with it has actually asked me to take a look at it.

Driftwood tells of a little episode in the life of a young man training to be a competetive swimmer.

It starts off with a slow, but steady, pan/reveal of the central character, Sam (played by Sam Gittins) in a swimming pool changing room. This is cut (almost violently, in terms of sheer agressive editing) to a shot dollying in from the front of the character and the juxtaposition of this relatively speedy shot combined with the look of determination on Sam’s face when he looks up as the camera closes in on him, gives one a real sense of the dogged, self-motivation of the character. This guy wants to win and it’s interesting because that sense of fluid, forward momentum created with the movement of the camera continues during the opening credits, which are intercut with similar set ups showing a relatively static person (static in his own space) combined with this constant state of motion, or ‘moving forward’ from the camera.

It’s actually very powerful because you can almost feel the central character, and the film for that matter, storing up its potential energy by expressing it with a kinetic camera eye, so to speak. Waiting to pounce on you once the credits have finished. Sure enough, as the story starts proper, the stillness of the central character stops (mostly) and we have three parts of the story intercut with each other, each working through in a linear fashion but each part filling in little bits of information about Sam as the camera eye moves back and forth between one part of his story and another, before returning to a fourth, bookending, slice of the story (for want of a better word).

It’s long been my belief that you don’t need everything (or sometimes even anything) spelled out for you in movies and the short film format proves this again and again. Driftwood, throughout, uses the central character and observations about him as you see little details of a bigger story, to give you all the information you need to give incidents an overall shape in your mind. As it cuts between a session with Sam’s trainer played by Brandy Doubleday, a run in with a bully and his gang of thugs, and Sam’s problematic, abusive father, played by the excellent Neil Maskell (who I knew from his outstanding performance in last year’s Kill List, reviewed here)... before reuniting with the opening of the picture to bring us the actual event that Sam has been training for... you are given the chance to ponder the little connections between the events that happen on screen.

Questions like why his father has become abusive and why Sam has become like he is, for example, are referred to in both the sequence with his father and in the run in with the gang of hoodlums. The implications of death and loss are visibly portrayed without ever implicitly stating or overstating what the audience will pick up on. Other details, like the nasty scarring on Sam’s back which his trainer is so obviously concerned with, are left for the viewers to make a decision on for themselves, as to the source of this wound.

This is, I’m happy to say, like a lot of independently produced films outside of a big studio system... not a passive experience for anyone watching. This is how more films should be, giving the audience a little more of an interactive role with the flickers of light and sound beaming into their souls at 24 frames per second and, I’m glad to say, that the end of this film will not wrap everything up in a neat little parcel of ‘closure’ for you. This is a short that doesn’t want to pander to you or spoonfeed your mind but grab you by the collar and ask you to really respond to what you’re seeing. And this short, in particular, does contain a certain amount of, what I like to call, ‘power between the frames’. It’s beautifully shot, well performed, has a nice score which is reflective of the sense of a character drifting from one situation to the next (as suggested by the film’s title and also by the style of the shooting and editing... if I was paying attention to what I was seeing properly) and which also gives you a sense of building to transition within composer Richard Keyworth’s notes, like a caterpillar emerging from it’s cocoon as almost a new species. This, naturally, highlights the ultimate promise of Sam’s original look of wilful determination, foreshadowed straight away in what is only the second shot of the film.

The ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’ of the camera movement and the rhythmic editing style pull the viewer in to the film almost hypnotically and won’t let you go until the short running time has ended up exactly at the point where the director wants you to finish filling in the blanks, so to speak. This is a really great use of cinematic syntax that will keep your mind occupied and, dare I say it, entertained to the point where you may find yourself haunted by it once the film has stopped running. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an epic and, obviously, the nature of the short film format kind of precludes that kind of accomplishment anyway (you watch, someone will go and prove me wrong now), but it is a very satisfying and, ultimately, extremely watchable piece of moviemaking. It just shows the incredible talent we have here in the UK working on such great, unsung gems who need to be given the money to make their own feature length movies. So if you find yourself in a position to give Driftwood a watch, then it certainly comes with my recommendation. Anybody who can work the visuals like this, whether it be the story of a swimmer in training or whatever else is in the writer’s head, deserves a larger audience and a bigger budget to bring their vision to the world.

So it’s a big thank you from me to this particular director for doing me the honour of letting me watch his new work. And I’m also really glad I didn’t hate it. ;-)

Follow the director on twitter here and check out the film-maker’s website here.

Thursday 11 October 2012


Yes, Sinister

Sinister 2012 UK 
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Playing at UK cinemas now

Warning: Sinister spoilers lurking at the edges of the frame.

You know, horror movies can be a lot like a conjuring trick.

I’ve touched on this before in my recent review of The Possession (here) but I think  it’s worth exploring again now because Sinister has some of the same problems which that picture had.

I think it would be true to say that a lot of contemporary horror movies tend to rely on a creepy atmosphere conveyed by lurking and wandering in dark places, usually alone and with the (attempted) surprise/shock tactic of having the source of the on-screen protagonist’s terror suddenly coming to light within the frame... often accompanied by a visceral musical stinger. But it’s all very much a matter of sleight of hand. Most people know when the shock jump is going to happen because, as I’ve said before, the rules of the horror film are really easy to pick up on. You know the first expected shock is just, in almost all cases still, a red herring. Like a cat jumping out or, in this particular movie’s case, a scorpion at one point and a snake at another. It’s not until the creepy music starts to calm down or, as in this film at one point, stops altogether, that the real shock jump is going to come.

I watched this movie because I believe in Ethan Hawke as an actor. He’s a talented guy who you know you’re always going to believe. He even makes the half-witted-to-even-attempt-it ‘reimagining’ of John Carpenter’s classic Assault On Precinct 13 look good. He’s someone I can trust to sell any concept to me and so, when I saw he was making a horror movie, I figured I was in for a really scary time because if Hawke looks like he believes what’s going, I’m probably going to buy into it too.

And it’s true. His acting is superb here, as always, and I can say that the tension is solidly ratcheted up to 11 all the way through this one... well, okay, most of the way through. Even so, I was still quite distracted by a lot of stuff in this movie where I could sadly see ‘the conjurer’s hands’, so to speak, right in the foreground of the viewing experience. Which is a shame because I really liked another horror movie put together by the same director a few years back... The Exorcism Of Emily Rose.

Ok... so here are my slight problems with this movie, in no particular order.

First up is... Ethan never turns on the lights. Even when he’s working he just has little side lights on. The house is mostly plunged in darkness (that’s okay, his family are asleep when he’s working in his room at nights) but, even so, his room is portrayed in a constant state of darkness, and with the amount of aprehension he exhibits because of the unusual situation he finds himself in, there’s no way somebody would go and explore the things he does alone, let alone not turn the lights on while he’s doing it. Being in the dark is fine... you need that for a good horror movie to work... but these days audiences need a reason and when there are constant light sources around, people are going to start feeling that the characters on screen are just a little silly in the head.

Secondly, the film starts off being a serial killer film, but then turns supernatural half way through. This is fine but the ritualised trappings of the supernatural mystery at the heart of this are fairly easy to unravel. When Ethan’s young son starts doing some scary sleepwalking stuff, you will already have figured out he’s just a red herring to divert everyone’s gaze away from where the real danger lays. This makes the ending, which is the weakest thing about this movie, a little obvious and, when you do assume they’re going to do something really clever at the end... and then don’t... you might find yourself very disappointed at the culmination of all the events at this movie’s denouement. I know I did.

Thirdly, the films hook to the supernatural starts when the main protagonist finds a box of Super 8 films in the attic of the “previous crime scene” home he moves into. To lend dramatic weight to the proceedings, Ethan looks at each new film at a suitable interval apart so that each murder can be slowly revealed to the audience at a time when it lends more frightening gravitas to the movie as a whole. To which I say... absolute rubbish! There’s no way a person is going to wait what is effectively a day or two before watching each five minute movie and go about his day to day in the meantime. Seriously, anyone with half a brain, especially when finding themselves in the same situation that this guy does, would gobble all those movies down in one hit... just to preserve their own sanity, if nothing else.

So yeah. There’s some really weak stuff in this movie and it did kind of wreck a lot of it for me, to be honest. Once you have the ground rules established for the mystery surrounding the murders, you’ll realise straight away that the main protagonist’s escape route is actually a bee line for his own peril. Frankly, though, you might be so distracted by the fact that the main protagonist has missed the obvious next link of the puzzle himself (especially when he practically says it out loud earlier on in the movie) that you might be stunned enough by this that you’ll forget what’s going to happen next. Unlikely though, to be honest.

But... having said all that, the film is shot with enough taste that the scary parts do tend to have a long, drawn out sense of suspenseful tension to them and some sequences where some dead kids are running around the house in slow motion, playing cat and mouse and always keeping just out of the main protagonists eyeline, are quite eerie and well done. There’s a certain sense of surrealistic lethargy to them which makes for a really special few minutes of movie watching.

The music is interesting too. Composed by Christopher Young, a modern master of thriller and horror scores (amongst other genres) who really doesn’t get enough high profile work, this score defies what I expected from this composer and goes into a sensory, electronically tinged realm which is closer in some ways to the early works of John Carpenter than it is to Young’s regular style. At least, judging from the scores I have of his. He also provides some interesting musical texture to each of the silent Super 8 films, by lending them a touch of otherworldliness which is completely unique to each clip we are shown, with reference to either the date of when each film was supposed to have been shot, or with deference to the theme of each gruesome killing. It’s still a very subtle score, that much I would expect from this particular composer... but like I said, it’s certainly very different to anything else I’ve personally heard him do. It’s effective enough in the film, of course, and that’s what counts. Can’t wait for my first decontextualised listen of this one.

And that’s about all I’ve got for you on this movie, I’m afraid.

So... Sinister. Scary but dumb. Interesting hook/premise which lets itself down somewhat throughout the course of the movie. Well acted with some eerie atmospheres and excellent musical support but ultimately something I probably wouldn’t watch again, although I’m glad I’ve seen it the once because I suspect it’s something people may look back to in the future. Ideal for teenagers who are just getting into horror movies. An interesting but less satisfying cinematic meal, perhaps, for more seasoned genre fans.