Friday 31 October 2014


Happiness Is A Warm Nun

1977 Mexico/USA
Directed by Juan López Moctezuma 
Mondo Macabre DVD Region 1

Alucarda is one of those movies that has been on my radar for quite a number of decades but which I’ve never actually got around to checking out before now, mainly because it always put me off that the DVD on the market place is a 4:3 full frame presentation and in an English language version. However, I recently found out that, indeed, the film was actually shot in, more or less, that aspect ratio and, yes, it was actually shot in English... so the lip synch issues would be fine. So it seems that, once again, the guys and gals at Mondo Macabre have done a bang up job of giving us a  classic exploitation movie in pretty much the best way you can get to see it.

Watching it now, I can see why the film has held it’s appeal and grown a following over the years. 

For starters the vivid... but not transluscent... colours combined with some fairly rich shot compositions in 1.37:1 put me in mind, right off the bat, of a mid to late 1950s Hammer horror film and I can certainly see why followers of Hammer’s movies of that period would take Alucarda to their heart. It certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place as part of a double bill with something like, say, The Curse Of Frankenstein or Brides Of Dracula. 

Also, the plot set up of this film would probably hit the spot in some ways. Following the death of her parents, a woman named Justine is taken in by a convent. Yeah, I know, there’s a name and setting which would ring some bells with anyone familiar with the work of De Sade and there’s certainly some images which are “of a tone” with his work later on in the movie. Here she meets Alucarda, who has a certain sapphic influence on the girl and who leads her on to join her in letting Satan into her soul. So, although this is purported to be based on a novel by a variety of writers, if the opening credits are anything to go by, it’s very close to being yet another movie variant  of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla... a story which was plundered many a time for movies, not least the three movies Hammer made with tie-ins to that title, The Vampire Lovers, Lust For A Vampire and Twins Of Evil.

The film starts off as lesbian tinged satanism with a nod to Dennis Wheatley and then goes into full-on nunsploitation meets the exorcist for a bit, before the persecuted Alucarda and Justine attempt revenge on the former convent, the latter returning from beyond the grave to wreak havoc. I don’t know if it was a particular nod to Stephen King’s novel Carrie but the two girls do seem to have a knack for catching people on fire with just the power of their demon posessed minds. Which is kind of a useful talent to have. They also tend to get into the habit... or should that be out of the habit... of running around with no clothes on for a fair bit... especially Justine, for some reason... so this was all pretty good as far as I was concerned. Although, it has to be said, the two girls do seem to indulge in an awful lot of screaming throughout the movie.

The title is, of course, an allusion to Bram Stoker’s Dracula... but I was surprised to find direct reference to the events of that novel made in this movie, as the girls accidentally open up the tomb of Lucy Westenra in an early scene in the movie... said to have been dead for the last 15 years. Which is kinda interesting considering that there is no mention of where this film is really set but... one thing I know for sure... it’s not supposed to be London.

Asides from the basic plotting and scripting, the film is filled with effective and well executed little moments which make the whole thing quite likeable, it has to be said... if you can get your ears accustomed to all that screaming.

For instance, Alucarda’s first appearance as a grown woman comes from her kind of slowly appearing from the background of a shot (in quite a small room, which is unusal) and walking up behind Justine. However, the way this is achieved, and the way the shot is lit, it appears like she is conjured up by the very air itself, as she slowly gains a richer, denser colour as she approaches the foreground of the shot. It’s hard to describe but it’s a very well executed moment and I was pretty impressed. 

There’s a similarly impressive shot where the rain is “summoned” outside of Justine and Alucarda’s room at the convent, and as their earthly souls are invaded and conquered by the devil, a red light is used on the outside weather, which can be seen through a small window in the wall, and which, quite effectively, makes it appear as if the skies are raining blood. Actually, the theme of being showered with blood is taken on as a recurring element a few times during the course of this movie, the culmination of which would be the very first time we see the post-death character of Justine manifest herself by rising out from a coffin filled with blood and walking around with the sticky fluiid as her only item of clothing. This is great stuff and more the kind of imagery I would expect from a Jean Rollin movie, to be honest, but it really seems to work well here and I’m pleased the director included this particualr vision in his movie... a really nice touch.

Alucarda is, at the end of the day, a nice little horror movie with a few cases of nudity and goriness, an enthusiastic cast, some detailed set dressing, competent editing, nice long shots with fluid camera work and some truly standout moments in terms of special effects and the little bursts of astonishing illusion which make it all worth taking a look. Certainly, if you’re looking for a film which features the kinds of nudity and gore you would expect from a mid 1970s euro trash movie, but tempered with the charm and sensibility of mid-1950s British horror cinema, then look no further than Alucarda. I’m glad I’ve finally seen this one now and I wouldn’t be surprised if its influence within genre cinema is actually quite long and often present in the work of some of the modern masterworks which we take for granted these days. If you are into horror cinema then you should probably put Alucarda in your “to watch” pile. Not exactly a scary movie, by any means, but certainly one that has a certain unique power hiding within the frames, waiting to pounce on you as it weaves it’s hypnotic web of exploitative gore and nudity. Be warned, however... you might need to invest in some ear plugs too, at some point.

Thursday 30 October 2014

The Haunting In Connecticut

Haunted, Dead Or Alive

The Haunting In Connecticut
2009 USA/Canada
Directed by Peter Cornwell
Lionsgate Blu Ray Zone B 

I think I managed to miss this film when it came out at the cinema because it was released during a particularly stressful time in my life. I didn’t think much of it until a sequel was released last year... which I figured meant the first film was at the very least a competently made horror movie. So, when I came across a very cheap blu ray copy, I picked it up and gave it a go.

The Haunting In Connecticut is certainly a competent horror but it’s also nothing new. It purports to be a true life story and that particular conclusion is somewhat in question, as far as I can tell, although I understand that Ed and Lorraine Warren (who were the lead characters in The Conjuring, reviewed here) did investigate this particular case in real life. So there’s that.

The film has a few good things going for it though. The cast, for example, are all spectacular and includes three of my favourite performers Virginia Madsen (Sideways, The Prophecy) playing Sara Campbell, Martin Donovan (Trust, Simple Men, The Book Of Life) playing her husband Matt and Elias Koteas (The Prophecy, Crash) playing the clichéd, but no less effective, “true believer and keeper of wisdom” character who comes in for the last act, once everyone in the main story are finally accepting that they are under attack by troubled spirits of the dead.

The main protagonist, Sara and Matt’s son Billy (played by Ty Wood), is suffering from cancer and the family take a bargain home near a hospital where he is receiving new, untested treatment for his condition. There’s a nice moment during a montage near the start of the movie where Sara is seen driving and it’s cross cut with footage of her son getting his first dose of treatment. In this scene he has a kind of mesh mask put over his face and this is beautifully reenforced in the next shot as Sara drives past a mesh fence, which immediately echoes that.

Now then, the usual horror film rules and ways of scaring the audience apply here but the writers give themselves an extra but obvious edge by having the doctor in charge warn the boy that if he starts to hallucinate as a side effect of a new drug, the new experimental treatment for his cancer will have to stop. This, of course, blatantly allows the director to throw all kinds of scary imagery at the boy, and of course the audience, while also assuring that the character won’t be saying anything about his experiences to anyone for at least half the movie. So I guess that’s handy.

And throw it at us he does. Using all the old tricks in the book such as things glimpsed in the backgrounds of a shot, incongruous reflections in various shiny surfaces such as mirrors, windows and television screens and he even goes down the old tried and true “ghostly point of view shots” route to let the audience know that the family is... well... is not alone. Added to this are a few games of hide and seek, something often used in scary movies and you can perhaps see why I was beginning to question the formula a little as the movie wore on. Quite often I would find this kind of clichéd bag of scare tactic tricks more than a little lazy but, like a lot of horror films released lately, to be honest, the direction and editing here is just right and it’s a very competent sense of timing employed here, throughout a lot of the film. I know this is so because, although I was feeling kind of “middle of the road” during a lot of the running time, there came a point in the last 20 minutes or so of the movie where I leapt up and shouted “Ughhhh!” while waving my arms about. So I respected the director a lot more after that moment, I can tell you.

Another nice thing he does is use montage sequences, and there seem to be a lot of those kinds of sequences in this movie, in such a way that he’ll crosscut them with something else in the same character’s future or past so he’s able to speed the pace up while still giving us all the relevant shot content. So, for example, he runs a montage sequence of Billy’s sister researching the history of their new home while simultaneously crosscutting backwards and forwards to a conversation between the two of them discussing the results of that research. Now I remember I picked up on this exact same technique in another movie I recently watched and reviewed but I just can’t remember which one. However, the director manages to pull this kinda stuff off quite neatly and it definitely helps keep these exposition scenes moving along quite speedily... so that’s good.

Added to all this, of course, is a fairly typical, but no less effective because of it, example of modern horror scoring by composer Robert J. Kral. I’ve not heard of this guy before but he seems to have done a lot of scoring for TV (with things like Angel and Scooby Doo) and it seems to have proven a good training ground for the effect heavy dissonance kind of scoring which seems to have become almost a pre-requisite for these kinds of features... along with some nice melody work, as well, utilising choir at some point. Whether this works as a stand alone listen away from the movie or not I’m still not sure (I’m still letting the soundtrack album grow on me) but it’s certainly both an appropriate and effective force within the context of the movie so... no complaints here.

At the end of the day, this is a film which I suspect would have been much more effective in a darkened cinema with a load of unsettled teenagers but it’s not a bad attempt at a modern scare movie and I can see why it was popular enough to warrant a sequel. If you’re a fan of modern ghost story movies then, although it’s not the best, it’s certainly one which should still be on your radar and it’s a relatively fun watch for most of its running time. Just be careful you don’t squeal too loud.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

The ABCs Of Death

Primer Scream

The ABCs Of Death
2012 USA/New Zealand
Directed by Kaare Andrews, Angela Bettis, Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, Jason Eisener, Adrián García Bogliano, Xavier Gens, Jorge Michel Grau, Lee Hardcastle, Noboru Iguchi, Thomas Cappelen Malling, Anders Morgenthaler, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Simon Rumley, Marcel Sarmiento, Jon Schnepp, Srdjan Spasojevic, Timo Tjahjanto, Andrew Traucki, Nacho Vigalondo, Jake West, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, Adam Wingard, Yudai Yamaguchi
Monster Films Blu Ray Zone B

And so... on to The ABCs Of Death. This is another movie which, like V/H/S (reviewed here), did the festival circuit back in 2012 and which I managed to miss or somehow not have the opportunity to see. And, again like V/H/S, it's another portmanteau movie comprising of lots of different shorts bound together by a unifying concept. And, of course, I am very aware you should never start a sentence using the word “And” because that’s just bad grammar... but sometimes I feel that in terms of setting the right tone it’s the correct thing to do anyway... so what are you gonna do?

Like most movies which are collections of shorter films or chapters, The ABCs Of Death is not alone in being somewhat a hit and miss affair but, it has to be said, because of the basic premise of this work, you certainly do get a fair amount of chances at being both over and underwhelmed, as the case may be, for just over two hours. This premise resulting in, naturally, a very much “does what it says on the tin” kind of experience is that 27 directors from various different countries have been approached (one of those is a two person directing team) and each given a letter of the alphabet. From that letter, the people in question are tasked with picking a word and making a short four to five minute movie about death involving their word of choice... with no interference about the content of that short.

As you would expect from using such a large group of people, the resulting films are diverse and often wildly different in style from each other. It also means that, since the order is kinda nailed down by the letter given, there’s no control over the tone of the short film and its relationship to the shorts that come before or after it. So, for example, you may get two or three which take a strong, humorous approach to proceedings lumped in together followed by a couple of really bleak visions, and so on. Also, there’s always the chance that some writers/directors are going to come up with some similar material and this does happen on occasion. Two of the teams involved, for example, take a starting point in a similar vein to Fellini’s Eight And A Half... by which I mean the short films both start off with the directors/writers etc trying to come up with a word to use for their segment in the movie The ABCs Of Death. Which is kinda interesting but, no more unusual than there being, for example, a couple of shorts that take an animation approach to their subject.

There’s also a nice “game on” approach to the movie too in that the title of each short, featuring the letter and the word, is not revealed until the end of each short... so you can have a fun time trying to guess what the word is that the director has picked as you watch each short unfold. Some of them are not going to be easy to guess... a couple of them are downright impossible.

Everybody is going to have their own highlights and lowlights in this collection but, for me, the real pick of the crop were the following...

Jake West, director of one of my all time favourite vampire movies, Razor Blade Smile and those two recent Video Nasty documentaries (reviewed here and here) has a great little short called S Is For Speed which juxtaposes grindhouse glam sensibilities with the flipside of the coin, where human beings are practically wasted corpses and it really highlights the way a person can look completely different from two different make up jobs.

Ben Wheatley, who made Kill List (reviewed here), Sightseers (reviewed here) and the first couple of episodes of Peter Capaldi’s incarnation of Doctor Who, Deep Breath (reviewed here) and Into The Dalek (reviewed here), amongst others... delivers a mini rollercoaster of a ride with a POV view of an undead monster and the way he or she is seen by the pitchfork and torch brigade in pursuit. It was nice seeing the two lead actors of Kill List, Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, reunited for this one, entitled U Is For Unearthed.

Once you can figure out the fact that, due to the movie magic of editing around things, certain nasty looking fights don’t really happen while shooting, the human versus dog sport of Marcel Sarmiento’s D Is For Dogfight is worth a look and has a lovely conclusion that really emphasises that a dog really is man’s best friend. Really charming twist/reveal on this one.

Timo Tjahjanto’s L Is For Libido is quite refreshingly sick and is a real tribute to one's stamina. It’s also quite gory, if that floats your boat, with a final denouement which is quite extreme and which manages to top the already fairly extreme nature of the basic premise of this piece.

And then there’s my favourite of the lot and the one set of directors who, once I’d discovered they were involved with this project, ensured that The ABCs Of Death was an instant purchase for me. O Is For Orgasm is directed by none other than the wonderful team of Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet, who gave us the brilliantly surreal, giallo infused movies Amer (reviewed here) and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here). The names of the director(s) of each short is not revealed until the end of each one (under the title) but their style of directing is so recognisable, right from their first frame of film here, that it would be impossible to mistake it for anybody else’s work. O Is For Orgasm is basically another abstract montage of beautifully lit, brightly coloured, surreal moments with absolutely no dialogue involved. It’s a tour de force of sheer cinematic beauty for its brief running time, on a par with some of this pair’s early shorts and, for my money, this one short stretch of film is worth the price of admission, so to speak.

And that’s that. I’m guessing this was a fairly popular collection on its initial release because there’s a sequel just been released in some countries and I have to say that, because the shorts segments are so... well, um... short, there’s never really a moment in this film when you start to get bored (although I’m pretty sure I’d seen one of the animated shorts in here prior to its inclusion in The ABCs Of Death, a number of years before. Definitely a must watch if you’re a fan of horror and don’t mind watching short movies. One of the more successful portmanteau movies I’ve seen in my lifetime, for sure.

Tuesday 28 October 2014


Taped Heck 

2012 UK
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Chad Villella, Ti West, Adam Wingard
Momentum Blu Ray Region B

I remember wanting to see this movie when it did the festival circuit a couple of years ago, despite seeing some pretty mixed word of mouth, so to speak, on Twitter. Ultimately, it’s a movie which seems to doom itself to failure in some ways, fairly early on in the game but, at the same time it’s certainly a nice idea to present an old style horror anthology by using the, relatively, new popularisation of the old found footage variation of horror film. And, it has to be said, there are some fairly bright moments in the movie that make it worth persevering with through the negative stuff and I can certainly see why a couple of more enthusiastically received sequels have already been made in what is now a strong, found footage franchise.

The film is all shot on VHS tape... well, probably not actually, it’s probably shot on something much better and visually downgraded after the fact. This becomes especially apparent in the last story of the movie where some interesting CGI stuff is utilised throughout yet another “shaky cam” sequence. This, of course, allows for the various crews getting away with all kinds of bad camera work and not having to think too much about the design of any particular sequence in terms of framing... other than the details of the set or location dressing, of course.

The framing story starts off really quite badly by inviting us to follow a bunch of thugs who have been hired to steal a specific VHS tape from a house. Unless you are some kind of hoodlum yourself, you will find yourself having absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for any of the characters and will want to see them all die in as horrible a way as can be conceived, right from the outset. Now, while this may well be the tactic being deployed by the filmmakers here, for me this just didn’t work that well. If I can’t sympathise with any of the victims then I’m really not going to invest enough emotion in them for the scenes of suspense to work on me and while the director was taking great delight in showing little, telling details unheralded in a corner of a frame, such as a corpse vanishing, for instance, this stuff really didn’t get the heart racing as much as I’d hoped a horror movie might.

The idea is that while the hoodlums are going through the house, one of them starts watching the various other “found footage” VHS tapes in the TV room and we watch these along with him... and it’s here that the film threatened to lose me on two counts.

The first problem is that the group of characters in the next found footage film are basically... another bunch of hoodlums not much different from the ones in the framing footage and who have absolutely no sympathy from me when they start dying. The other problem is, and this should really have been a no brainer of a mistake not to make, is that we are no longer watching the video footage we were watching... somehow, each of the miniature found footage stories are now directly on our screens. So that completely kills that concept then... did someone splice these onto one long tape in just the right places so that the framing story can then take over again in between each segment? This makes absolutely no sense and it was just about now that I kind of gave up on the film inside my head for a bit.

Luckily for me, the first story has an enthralling femme fatale, lets call her the “I like you” girl, in the form of British actress Hannah Fierman and it was her that got me interested again. Now it’s obvious, right from the outset, that no good is going to come out of the main protagonists hooking up with her at a party (yeah, good, they all deserved to die for their thuggish behaviour anyway) but it’s such an old school dose of clichéd but classic sexual horror that I was enchanted with it in some ways... primarily, I suspect, because the actress I just mentioned had such an interesting screen presence.

After this segment, the film becomes a bit of a hit and miss affair, as would be expected in these kinds of anthologies. The majority of the scenarios presented to us are nothing too new but, in some cases (the well made ones), this really doesn’t matter. There’s a nice “haunted apartment” section, for instance, which turns into something else and which, while not altogether unsurprising, has enough in terms of the writing and performance that, if anything, it leaves you feeling the segment was just a little too short. The down side of that, however, is that it’s not actually pseudo-VHS footage... it’s pseudo-Skype footage... which, of course, makes even less sense when you consider it in the context of the found footage framing device... what, somebody transferred their collected Skype conversations to VHS tape. Why?

Another segment is a “final girl” story with a nice “Predator-like” killer who can only be seen on video and with a main protagonist who is using her companions as bait to catch him... which could have been quite refreshing and is relatively well done visually but which has a script and story that really lets it down. Seriously, if you’re going to go hunting a killer, you take weapons with you and not rely on setting traps which it’s obvious couldn’t have been made and prepared in the ridiculously short amount of time played out via the footage. No matter how unintelligent the characters are in horror films, sometimes as a necessity, this one really takes the cake for a person going in completely unprepared and needlessly. So the twist in the tale in that one was tempered by the quite extraordinary lack of brain power of the person who sets events in motion in this one.

There are around six stories in the film in total and, while some of them do hold your interest... and some of them do finally have some characters who are at least a little sympathetic... it’s not exactly the best set of horror shorts I’ve seen although, the last story with it’s Dennis Wheatley style shenanigans is quite nicely done with some well executed special effects. There was an alternative ending on this sequence which I’m glad the director didn’t go with but, strangely, this story marks the end of the film. The framing story is, surprisingly, already played out by the time this last segment appears with, pretty much, no context... so it was a bit of a jarring ending in some ways.

Ultimately, although I was disappointed with a lot of this film, it’s still a nice idea and, like I said earlier, you expect anthology format kinds of films to be a bit hit and miss. This one is mainly miss for me but there were enough interesting spins on old classics to keep me interested... once I’d gotten past the first quarter of an hour. Due to the nature of the beast, I can’t say it’s not worth watching because I expect everyone is going to have their own specific hits and misses among this lot so, if you’re a fan of horror, and found footage shaky cam horror in particular, then you could do a lot worse than to spend an evening in with this movie, of you can rustle up a cheap copy. I’ll certainly be checking out the sequels at some point... when the price is right.

Monday 27 October 2014

The Babadook

Yabba Baba Dooooook

The Babadook
2014  Australia
Directed by Jennifer Kent
UK cinema release print.

Well okay then... The Babadook. 

This movie is one of those films that kinda comes out of the blue and then you’re instantly showered with a load of pre-publicity via trailers and tie ins. Arriving just in time for Halloween, it’s one of those films where you really hope the movie is going to live up to the promise of the trailer at least a little and that it’s not just another teenage stab-you-in-the-groin-and-run-away horror movie for sensation seeking, underage kiddies who have no experience or love for the history of the genre.

Well, I can say quite happily that The Babadook does not disappoint on that level, at least, although I was aware of a lot of disappointment and frustration at the end of the movie with the audience I saw it with last night. All I can say is... I’m glad it doesn’t do what you’re expecting it to do at the end folks... there’s enough of those kind of movies around already.

I’ve not seen anything directed by Jennifer Kent before but this movie was pretty well helmed. It would be unfair to say it’s a totally original film as it absolutely does use, and milk, all the standard horror clichés that you get as part and parcel of this kind of “haunt and scare” movie, to be sure. However, it would also be fair to say that these genre clichés, which are so much the bricks and mortar of movies of this ilk, are absolutely treated with both respect for the rules of the genre and Kent manages to shoot, edit and time her scares and mini revelations as the film progresses with absolute stylishness and panache, allowing the audience to both know what’s coming but to feel it too... just how she wants us to.

The film is a simple two hander about a strung-out-to-the-end-of-her-rope single mother, dealing with the death of her husband and the son he left behind in the aftermath of a horrible car crash. The lead protagonist Amelia, played assuredly by Essie Davis, was carrying her child inside her on the way to the hospital when the car crash happened. Consequently her seven year old son Samuel, played with much competence and brilliance by Noah Wiseman, never knew his father. What he does know, though, like all kids in general, is that he’s being stalked by a monster who sneaks into his room at night. When he finds a book which enables this fear, called The Babadook, for his bedtime stories, the nasty creature in the book takes on a life of its own and comes to try and claim the “handful of a kid” and drive his mother insane.

The film is well set up and it’s also a character piece in many ways, more so than most movies that succeed or fail in this genre. All of the other characters in the film serve to add texture, contrast and stress to the central characters and they seem to be there purely for that purpose... which works really well as you begin to get a feel for Amelia and Samuel and come closer to them as people while the film progresses.

The director approaches The Babadook with a lot of slow, leisurely paced camera shots and this works really well. There don’t seem to be many fast cuts in this one and there is some nice inventive stuff thrown into the mix of the already clean shot designs. One such sequence where the mother kinda falls from a height at the foreground of the camera looking down at her springs to mind, used as a metaphor as she falls onto her bed and lets sleep embrace her.

Actually, sleep is one of the things that is the language of fear in this movie. The writer/director (both Jennifer Kent) has already set up some nice, possible foreshadowing when the book shows her a glimpse of herself and what she is becoming. I won’t say too much about that because I want to keep this spoiler free but there are clear sign posts all the way through the movie that the director wants to make you very aware of. However, when it comes to the currency of sleep it becomes a battlefield because, on the one hand, the mother needs sleep. She is absolutely exhausted a lot of the time and it’s obviously throwing her judgement and behaviour off. However, she’s also painfully aware by the last third of the movie, and so is the audience, that sleep is something to be equally feared because, obviously, sleep is when The Babadook usually comes to do its work and she fears what the book has shown her. What this gives us, of course, is a typical horror character of the mother who, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, is possibly being possessed by the thing she fears most, as opposed to the possibility of an outside intruder. As the movie goes on, Kent does start to blur the lines a little more with both of her main protagonists and there are times when the audience does question the motivations and attitudes of both of them.

Thrown into the mix with this is the fact that the director can also slip effortlessly into “dream” mode at any time, as she does a few times... that is to say, she uses the surrealistic syntax of dreams when the characters are drifting in and out between sleep and wake. There’s a lot of silent film imagery drawn upon in this movie for certain of these sequences too... George Melies stuff is obviously a blatant influence on the film, and ties in nicely with Samuel’s interest in being a magician of illusion, but it’s quite clear that she’s a fan of German Expression too. Especially in terms of the design of the creature, although the majority of the specific references worn on the sleeve by the movie as such seem to harken from other countries, such as Lon Chaney’s well known turn in The Phantom Of The Opera.

At the end of the film we are caught in a place where the director really has rendered it impossible to tell whether we are in a dream, a waking nightmare, or the reality as the characters experience it. Astonishingly enough, the dream language mostly seems to be used to prime us and a lot of the really awful stuff, which I won’t reveal here, is actually really happening to the characters... so that does tend to show someone who is a master of their craft. The smoke and mirrors approach really begins to pay off.

The final denouement is all fine and ties in with the past of the characters... at least in terms of the Babadook finding a way into the inner workings of Amelia’s mind, but it was the aftermath and final end scene which I think disappointed a lot of the audience at my screening... although I found it to be a welcome breath of fresh air, myself.

My own personal false note in this came from the composer of the score, Jed Kurzel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a humdinger of a score... completely appropriate to the movie and it fails to give in to the modern horror scoring attitude of “sound design trumps melody” (although there’s a lot to be said for that kind of scoring too). There are some very strong melodic passages in here but this is where my specific problem lies. Anybody remember David Lynch’s Dune? It had a score by Toto which was “allegedly” a rip off of the four note theme composed by Ronald Stein for Roger Corman’s pseudo Poe picture (it’s actually based on an H. P. Lovecraft story) Haunted Palace. Anyone who listens to the scores will certainly question the necessity of writing “allegedly” in that last sentence, but I don’t want to get myself into trouble. The score was quite notorious at the time and for decades to come with various soundtrack afficionados wondering how Toto got away with it. Well, there’s a prominent four note them in The Babadook which, as far as I could tell, is exactly the same four note theme again. Now to be fair to the composer, who did a wonderful job on this movie, the arrangement is quite strikingly different and that just leads me into the argument about the thin line between arrangement and composition in scoring... which is somewhere I frankly don’t want to be. I’ll leave that argument for the John Barry and Monty Norman fans to have again, thank you very much. But I was surprised to hear such a notoriously famous melody being picked up again for a movie. Not unwelcome just... well... surprising.

All in all, though, I found The Babadook to be a really interesting horror movie with, perhaps a little less punch in some of the scares but very much a film with a certain depth to the characters which helps the story and attitudes explored through this one a great deal. Definitely a good watch if you take your Halloween celebrations seriously and something I could recommend for a dazzling variety of reasons... some of which I touch upon above. The Babadook is playing at a cinema near you now if you’re in the UK so, if you’re a fan of the supernatural horror movie in general, this one’s definitely worth some of your time.

Sunday 26 October 2014


Fond Hearts

2011 USA 
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Second Sight UK DVD Blu Ray B

Absentia is a film I watched because, after seeing Oculus (reviewed here) by the same director and being somewhat disappointed by it, one of the people I talk to on Twitter, @screamqueenlauren, told me I should check out this earlier feature as it was a bit of a classic for her. So yeah, I gave it a go, via a cheap blu ray from Fopp, and I’d have to say that she was dead right about one thing... Absentia is a far superior film and it was presumably made on a much lower budget too... since the director partially financed this with kickstarter funding.

Absentia won me over pretty quickly in that it has the look and feel of a typical US independent film. It’s not that it’s not in any way slick because the whole thing is very well put together (for a low budget feature) but it does seem a little rough around the edges at times and that’s what gives the whole thing both its inherent charm and, in certain sequences, gives it something a little different to the standard shock moments of a horror film. This is partially to do with the music too but I’ll get to all that in a minute.

Absentia tells the tale of an ex-drug addict, Callie played by Katie Parker, going to stay with her estranged sister Tricia, as played by Courtney Bell. Tricia is pregnant and has a husband who has been missing for seven years. As the time gets nearer for her to finally get legal closure on his death certificate, she becomes more and more anxious about things and, with a baby on the way, it’s good timing for her sister to come and stay with her. However, the ghost of Daniel, her missing husband, seems to be popping up in her line of vision whenever Tricia, and the audience, is least expecting it. Is he dead and haunting her? Did she murder him and is lying about his strange disappearance? Or is it just as her psychiatrist says... that she’s hallucinating him strongly because of the emotional trauma involving the impending arrival of his death certificate.

Well, the truth is none of these. I don’t want to give too much away about the origins of these problems but I will say that there seem to be two main concerns running around here in the writer/director’s head which are both coming out in the narrative and, while at first the phantom images of the first half of the movie started to make sense, the second half of the movie, when something else happens to confound everyone in the main narrative, is almost at odds with some of the creepier moments in the first half... although it does all kind of fit together when you take a long hard look at it.

The good thing about Absentia feeling like a low budget production is that the acting by the two female leads is top notch, extremely naturalistic and left at longer takes in some sequences than they might have been in a movie where several different takes might have been spliced together to augment the performance. It’s also less melodramatic, both in realistically lethargic acting style and in regards to the scoring of the movie which, if anything, resembles an early Hal Hartley work in its tone. This helps build the atmosphere of lurking dread which starts to manifest in every frame. For instance, “dead/absent Daniel” pops up from behind doors or is revealed in camera movement in close proximity to his wife on a number of occasions and, in a bigger budgeted movie the scoring, which would almost certainly be a lesson in “atonalism versus sound design”, would highlight these moments with musical stings designed to make you jump or shudder. Here, the music rambles in and does its own thing, as does the awesome Courtney Bell in these scenes, and the effect means your gut accepts, credibly, the “supernatural” element on screen before your brain has got accustomed to the fact that you’ve actually seen something and, while both approaches to horror are equally valid, this approach works really well here.

After the casual teasing of the narrative along these lines, and an obsessive amount of visual hints that Callie has got a stash of drugs hidden under her bed (which turns out to be a clichéd way of allowing the other characters to disbelieve her eye witness testimony later), we are then catapulted into a new section of the movie where the tunnel at the end of the street, which has always been treated in the film with a certain amount of sinister attention up to this point, both in the way it is shot and also scored, becomes rather significant to the survival of a number of the characters and is revealed to be a special place in the history of the area where this film is set. Right from the start of the movie we are bombarded with posters of missing people and missing animals and, while the ultimate reason for the multiple animal disappearances in the area is touched on, it would be true to say that all the disappearances in the movie are related to the tunnel and what supernatural mystery dwells within.

By the last third of the running time, this film reveals itself to be firmly in 1950s B-movie territory in terms of the credibility of the explanation for the events that have been unfolding in this small town but, again, because of the low budget, independent feel of the way the material is represented, the director deftly manages to get away with the, well... the silliness... of this story’s primary “monster” and he manages to show just enough of the real, main antagonist to keep your imagination suspending your disbelief for a while. Coupled with the acting style inherent in a production of this small size and you have a really neat trick ending of a movie which brings about an acceptance of its own logic, best found represented in the world of children’s fairy tales, without the overscoring and over dramatic highlights that a lot of big budget Hollywood movies might have brought into play here. In fact, I suspect if there had been a big budget involved in this one then the final explanation of what’s going on in Callie’s new home town would not have been allowed to stay in the mix... which is a shame because there’s something almost Cthulhuian in the final denouement and epilogue of this movie.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about this one I think. Like I said, it’s a little rough around the edges in terms of production values at times but that doesn’t stop it from packing in a slow and persistent punch to the gut as you get further into the movie. I like that the director has got away with what he has in the form of the antagonistic presence in this one and it’s a film I would recommend to both horror and science-fiction film fans alike. Definitely a strong independent horror film you should take a look at and certainly a lot better than Oculus, I think.

Doctor Who: In The Forest Of The Night

Noah’s Bark

Doctor Who: In The Forest Of The Night
UK Airdate: 25th October 2014

Well this was a very entertaining episode of the current series although, it has to be said, it did at times feel like I was watching an old episode of Grange Hill... what with all those daft school kids in it. Doesn’t mater though because the premise was intriguing and, although this episode suffered from exactly the same kind of lack of regard for science and nature as the horrendous Kill The Moon episode, this one was helped a lot by being quite pacey.

One of the reasons this one didn’t get as dull and sluggish as that aforementioned episode is because we are getting another bit of the whole Clara/Danny Pink dynamic... so we can see how the two of them develop their relationship and, thrown into the mix is, of course, touching on the way that relationship copes with the intrusion of The Doctor into Clara’s everyday life. The tone of it is almost like Clara is having an affair with The Doctor in terms of impact on her earth bound commitments... but it doesn’t quite get into that territory just yet.

The hook of the episode, a forest which grows and covers the entire planet over the course of one night, is intriguing enough as a lead in and works well as a motivator for the actions of the main characters in the story. You’ll probably have realised, right from early on, that the trees would be no threat to anyone and start marvelling at how it took The Doctor so long to recognise that we weren’t in a woody version of the 1950s B-movie The Monolith Monsters and more in the standard territory of benevolent lifeforms helping us out, or at least trying to get along in mutual harmony... which seems to be more of a theme this series than it has in previous years/decades of the show. Would like to see him go up against something really much more deadly soon and, I suspect, I won’t have long to wait for that to happen if the trailer for next week’s episode is anything to go by.

So, yeah, the ending of the episode is a bit of an anticlimax but, not entirely because it is bolstered by the other element of the over reaching story arc which has, shall we say returned rather than been established, this season. One of the school children was sent by the voice of Clara in their head to fetch The Doctor. Although Clara doesn’t admit to this but, as far as we know and despite huge efforts to convince us otherwise, Clara might be some kind of construct... maybe. Actually, I think I’m going to err on the side of caution and say that the mystery of Clara might be both a little murkier and, perhaps, a little more simpler than that... but I’m never right about these things so we shall see what we shall see.

Once again, Missy pops up and shows she’s been watching the entire event... perhaps even through Clara’s eyes. Remember the line about The Doctor hacking Clara’s optic nerve the other week? Well... maybe that was deliberately put there to familiarise us with the concept so we know it when we see it again. Perhaps Missy has hacked Clara in many ways and we are about to find out just how much soon... if she’s a construct then she already knows everything about The Doctor’s various incarnations since Clara was present and an interactive element in every part of his timeline (as shown on the planet Trenzalore) and it’s going to be an interesting denouement if Moffat can pull it off when we get to the very last episode in a couple of weeks time, with the story arc breaking out into the foreground and the inevitable cliffhanger in next week’s episode. Quick thought... if you wanted to get rid of an eye hack, would you pull out your own eye and then grow up to be eye patch woman from the previous seasons? Just a thought.

Other than that... I don’t have much to say about this one, I think. It’s a very short review for me but it was an entertaining episode and, as a cherry topper, it did have some great music from Murray Gold in this one... probably the strongest scoring so far this season. I’m hoping we’ll get to hear it up close and personal when, or frankly if... the rate they’re going, Silva Screen get around to releasing the Series Eight (so called) music on CD. Hopefully they’ll get around to releasing the scores from The Day Of The Doctor and The Time Of The Doctor while they’re at it. But that’s pretty much all I’ve got on this one. Nice episode as a pre-cursor the start of the series finale and... am I the only one who thinks Matt Smith’s Doctor may be putting in another surprise appearance soon? Probably. I always get these things wrong. Time will, as it inevitably always does, tell.

Saturday 25 October 2014

The Fog

Wag The Fog

The Fog
1980 USA 
Directed by John Carpenter
Optimum UK Blu Ray Zone B

“I don't know what happened to Antonio Bay tonight. 
Something came out of the fog and tried to destroy us. 
In one moment, it vanished. But if this has been anything
 but a nightmare, and if we don't wake up to find ourselves
 safe in our beds, it could come again. To the ships at sea
 who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the
 darkness. Look for the fog.” 
Stevie Wayne, KAB Radio, Antonio Bay

I really love John Carpenter’s The Fog. It’s not just one of my all time favourite horror movies, it’s also... asides from a few things I’ll point out here... an almost perfect movie in its own right and one which I put on nowadays if I just want to watch a nice, relaxing movie full of beauty and colour. I think one of the reasons I still carry this movie around inside of me may be partially because of the circumstances in which I first came to see it.

It must have been the early to mid 1980s when it was first shown on TV in the UK. I would have been maybe 16 or 17 years old and, although I was already a fan of the director’s science fiction movies Dark Star, and the then recent cinema release of Escape From New York, I’d not seen Carpenter’s “horror movies” before (although I was no stranger to the Horror genre, having watched various Universal and Hammer classics from around 4 to 6 years of age). For some reason, my parents were out of the house. I think they must have been at some kind of party and they were due back around the small hours. The Fog was showing fairly late at night (it may have even been a midnight showing for the BBC... can’t quite remember) and I was all alone in a dark house, sitting down by myself to watch this movie...

And it was brilliant... nail-bitingly suspenseful and I instantly knew three things once I’d got done watching it...

1) I was in love with Adrienne Barbeau and wanted to be her boyfriend/sex slave, 2) I wanted to see more of this director’s movies and 3) I needed to buy a long playing record of the music, if I could get my hands on such a thing. Alas, I only was ever able to tick off the second and third things on that task list over the years but still have high hopes for Adrienne Barbeau if the lady ever visits the UK.

The Fog is all about a cursed town, Antonio Bay, celebrating its one hundredth anniversary.  It’s also about a gang of supernatural pirates/lepers visiting their revenge, 100 years on, to the six original conspirators who built the town using their money before sending them to their death because they didn’t want a leper colony setting up near them. And by revenge, I mean the spectral pirates want their gold back and they want to violently kill the conspirators’ living descendents.

Now, before I go any further, it has to be said that in some ways the plot of this movie is full of more holes than the leaky driftwood from the ghost pirates ship which washes ashore and does strange, supernatural things. The opening set up of a montage of mysterious occurrences happening around Antonio Bay as the credits roll is almost straight out of the early parts of Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind... with various inanimate objects suddenly coming to life on their own and frightening people. It’s probably not a sequence which would play well in front of a modern cinema audience, I suspect, but it was an effective way to set up the idea that crazy happenings are afoot. However, other than a stone block in a church knocked loose and giving the character of Father Malone (played by Hal Holbrook) an explanation, by way of a written historical account, for the killings which are about to start happening throughout the course of the movie, the majority of this opening montage seems to have absolutely nothing to do with any logical ties to the actual idea that the ghosts of a colony of leper ridden pirates is coming to take revenge, 100 years on from their death.

And that’s the one thing about this movie which is something you have to forgive it for... a lot of the scares don’t make that much sense. The pirates are using the glowing fog of the film’s title to move around in but... the fog isn’t present in the first round of supernatural happenings at the start of the movie. Now I’m told a lot of the scenes were shot and then added in a matter of a few weeks or so leading up to the release of the film after negative feedback on the initial cut and I suspect that some of those extra scenes might have been put in to spice up the thrills without actually making a whole lot of sense, if you see what I mean.

For example, Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh from her success in John Carpenter’s earlier film phenomenon Halloween (not a film I particularly like that much, for some reason) here plays a drifter named Elisabeth who hooks up with Tom Aitken’s character Nick... who’s a local fisherman. This is good plotting in terms of Aitken’s profession because it means these two characters can give a window into some of the strange things happening and provide the jump scares when provided. After they discover the corpse of one of Aitken’s deceased friends, completely dry but with lungs filled with water (the pirates got him in an earlier scene of suspenseful scariness) we are later witness to a scene in the morgue where Jamie is frightened by the reanimated corpse of the guy trying to end her life with a scalpel. I’m pretty sure this was an insert sequence and, I have to say, it seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story. It does, however, feature a key Carpenter signature in that the scary thing is happening in the background of the shot, quite visibly but slightly out of focus, while the main character is oblivious and in sharp focus in the foreground of the shot... which is the kind of thing which “gets an audience going”, it seems to me.

A similar non-sequitur of an idea occurs in the presence of our other main lead actress, Adrienne Barbeau, here playing disc jockey Stevie Wayne, who broadcasts her nightly programme to Antonio Bay from a secluded lighthouse. Her son finds a piece of driftwood bearing the name of the ship which was originally the vessel belonging to the pirates (we get a glimpse of the ship in an earlier scene when three fishermen are slaughtered in their boat by the fog bound pirates). At one point some sea water starts oozing from the driftwood and into Stevie’s tape deck before inhabiting the demo tapes she is listening to with a creepy voice and then catching fire. After she’s put the thing out with an extinguisher there’s no real sign that anything just occurred but, more worryingly from my point of view, no real reason for this ghostly apparition to be happening in front of her in the first place anyway.

It matters not though because this film manages to scare up the chills and when the town is attacked properly by The Fog and the spectral pirates lurking inside, you won’t really be contemplating stuff like this if it’s a first time watch for you.

Apart from having an amazingly sexy and relaxed voice (“Ahoy, mateys.”), Stevie’s character is also a brilliant one in that she serves a purpose. She has hardly any scenes with anyone else apart from as a voice on the radio or telephone to them (barring one brief scene with her son) and she’s kind of a key role in the film because she works out that the fog is dangerous and, from her lighthouse, she can see just which parts of town it’s attacking from. The climax of the movie becomes essentially a three hander cutting between Stevie Wayne who is being attacked by pirates in her lighthouse, Elizabeth and Nick who are trying to rescue Stevie’s son from the warning she is screaming over the airwaves and the duo of Mrs. Williams (played by Janet Leigh) and her assistant (played by Nancy Loomis, as she was known in the days Carpenter was using her as an actress).

Just before Stevie retreats to the slanted, slippery roof of her lighthouse to ward off attacks from two pirates, who are presumably there because they either listen to the radio and know she’s got them pegged or... you know... for no good reason actually pertaining to the plot, Stevie gets everyone to converge at a certain place in town, the church of Father Malone (the descendant of the sixth conspirator) and we are treated to a Night Of The Living Dead style lock-down and siege sequence (almost certainly inspired by one of Carpenter’s favourite John Ford westerns) which includes on screen scenes featuring real life mother and daughter Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Leigh and Tony Curtis, naturally). Of course, if the pirates manage to kill Stevie in addition to Father Malone then they end up with a body count of seven, which makes no sense whatsoever to the plot about six conspirators but, you know, who am I to judge?

What I can judge is that this film is both absolutely scary and taut with suspense sequences put together by a director who is an absolute master of his craft and shows just exactly why he is with this movie. The Fog is also really beautiful to look at with some phenomenally clean framing and some beautiful colours thrown together within the cinematography. And on top of that it’s got a great double ending with one of my favourite pieces of postmodern horror homage of all time. It’s the second from last scene, coming right before the inevitable twist ending that involves a few more pirates. Stevie is back on the microphone in her lighthouse as soon as the attacks have stopped... warning people about The Fog in exactly the same tone and with the same sense of the dramatic as the original “one character broadcasting to the outside world”  ending of the original The Thing From Another World, which Carpenter would soon remake himself as The Thing. I’ve printed Adrien Barbeau’s end monologue from The Fog right at the start of this review to set the mood. Here’s what Douglas Spencer’s Scotty character had to say as a wrap up in The Thing From Another World...

“And now before giving you the details of the battle, I bring you a warning: Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”

The delivery’s a bit similar too and this pleases me a lot. It’s good to hear a piece of dialogue in a film like The Fog and hear it hold up on its own plus know exactly the kind of tone the director was going for. In both movies, that kind of downbeat warning of possible future doom in the face of victory gives them both a haunting edge which has a lot of appeal for even the most jaded horror movie fan.

And the final cherry on the cake is the fantastic musical score on this one... one of many written and partially performed by John Carpenter himself. If you are one of those people who think synthesiser soundtracks don’t work in the movies then watch this and think again. The haunting three note theme* which opens the movie and plays out during the quieter moments of the film is quite a hook... but when you add in the intense high pitched alarm sounds and the whooshing textures which are presumably musical reminders of the presence of the fog, youre ears are in for one hell of a ride with a score that goes from mellow, relaxing cues to out and out “get me the f*** out of here at just the right moments. I always used to take a copy of this score with me if I went to a holiday on the coast... still do in fact. It’s a perfect score to play when you’ve got a dark night and can gaze out at the sea with a glass of whisky in your hand (or a nice cuppy tea). When I first used to take it along on my holidays it was a recording of my old Colosseum vinyl album onto a magnetic cassette in my old Sony Walkman. Then, as the years flew by, my soundtrack to The Fog got converted to a CD walkman, a mini disc player and, nowadays, after there have been a fair few expanded editions of this excellent score, it’s always to be found somewhere on my iPod classic for emergency coastal visits. I wouldn’t want to be without it because it captivates the atmosphere very quickly.

A quick note about the UK Optimum Blu Ray release of this one. Frankly, I wish I’d have bought the US Blu Ray which would have matched my previous American edition DVD with absolutely loads of extras and a much better transfer of it than can be found on the UK one. The UK one seems way too luminous and colourful than it should be in certain areas and there’s an unforgivable sound error at a key point which renders the scary jump moment, and the musical stinger used to punctuate it, almost useless. Stick with the DVD if you are buying a UK edition until they decide to bring out a better one for our Blu Ray market. Or better yet, just grab a multi-region/multi zone player and grab a copy from the US... that would solve the problem.

So there you have it. One of my favourite horror movies which, even with the slight plot holes that seem almost solely to be there to serve the scary bits, is an absolute masterpiece mixing solid acting, impeccable direction, timing and editing, jump scares pitched against the slowly creeping dread kind of horror and, when all is said and done, an absolutely terrific score... one of the greatest in cinema history in my opinion (and I don’t think it’s ever been a bad seller in any of its many incarnations either). If you are a fan of films in general then you might want to put on The Fog one dark night so you can see how expertly Carpenter makes you forget the logistics of the plot and controls your emotional stakes in the characters (I’m told the remake is ghastly so maybe don’t bother with that one). If you are a fan of horror movies and you’ve never seen this absolute classic... what the heck are you waiting for? It needs to be the very next movie you see... you won’t be watching it just once.

*with thanks to @katrinjenny of twitter for reminding me that the score is partially based on a three note theme.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom

A Witch In Time

The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom
2014  China
Directed by Zhang Zhiliang
Seen as part of the London Film Festival 
on Sunday 19th October 2014

I kinda knew, somewhere in the back of my head, that The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom was not the only film dealing with this character before I booked my ticket to see this at the London Film Festival... I remember seeing the old Tartan DVDs (now quite scarce) on the shelves for titles like The Bride With White Hair. In fact, this story has been adapted for the screen many times over the years since its first publication as a serialised novel, Baifa Monü Zhuan by Liang Yusheng, between August 1957 and December 1958.

I still wanted to see this one, though, because it looked like it was going to be really colourful and, since I’ve not seen any of the previous attempts at turning this into a movie or TV show, I at least wouldn’t have anything to compare it to in a negative light. I have to say, I think I made the right choice with this one because, if nothing else, this is probably one of the most spectacular films to be screened at the LFF this year and, in the words of one of the organisers, “not like anything else we’ve got playing here”.

I get the idea from what I’ve read of a basic synopsis of the novel that, clearly, some liberties were taken with the overall story but, quite honestly, I’m not too worried about it with this particular work as I suspect it’s been treated quite differently, in terms of details, in all of the on-screen incarnations that it’s had. I’ve no real way of telling you if it’s in any way a good adaptation of the original source novel, either in accuracy or in spirit, so please bear that in mind when you read this.

The film is amazingly put together, right from the start, with a blisteringly beautiful opening title sequence which has a lot going on in it. I’ll jump back to a certain aspect of that opening towards the end of this review but, after this sequence is played out, the style of the camera work very much favours the long, slow camera pan and the wide reveal... with the editing between shots at a minimum. It’s visual pacing may be leisurely but, it has to be said, it moves pretty fast. There’s an awful lot of ground being covered in this movie and, considering the film is only an hour and three quarters in length, the director has managed to pack an amazing amount of story into it. Someone like Peter Jackson would probably have filmed it as nine hours and released it as three separate movies.

If you’ve not seen a lot of these kinds of Chinese martial arts films, the modern examples of films of this nature being such gems as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you will probably need to get used to the fact that a lot of the characters in this have honed their skills so that they can jump and leap about at great heights and, as in this one, bounce back off of the surface of water by merely touching it with a sword in the right way (a tactic the main male protagonist Zhuo, played by Xiaoming Huang, uses to retrieve a veil he has knocked off of the main female protagonist and title character). If you are still trying to get used to that kind of stuff after a few minutes of the film then this may not be your thing but, if anything, this film did remind me of those old Shaw Brothers films of the 50s, 60s and 70s... where such leaps from reality are quite normal.

What especially made me think of that direct lineage from the Shaw Brothers to this movie is found in the style used to introduce characters... by putting little captions up by the side of them throughout the movie every time a new character was introduced. The Shaw Brothers did a similar thing in their film The Water Margin (later made into a famous Japanese TV series, which was one of the few to penetrate the West via BBC broadcasts in the 1970s and 1980s). I seem to remember the actors and actresses playing the roles were also flashed up in relation to their characters as you went through the movie, something which The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom stops short at when it comes to the performers behind the characters.

The colours, as I expected, are absolutely spectacular and often very bright, as you would associate with some of the examples of the wuxia genre in more recent years. It's a very controlled use of colour and the director does have certain palette sets into which hues from other kinds of scenes rarely intrude or bleed into (apart from in the incredible juxtaposition of colours in one specific scene, that is, which I won’t spoil for you by elaborating on here). Overall, the film looks truly beautiful, even in its more frosty colour sets, which also complement the “White Haired Witch”, played beautifully by Bingbing Fan (who played Blink in X-Men Days Of Future Past and also appeared in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3), when she actually does reach the point where her hair turns white.

The story is incredibly convoluted and, every time you think you’re coming to some kind of closure or end game, a new part of the adventure starts. It’s almost like we’ve got three or four stories in one, with running characters, in the space of what is a very limited running time. The film, I’ll grant you, does have an episodic quality to it in certain places, but for all its jumps and slight narrative gaps, it all supports the central character arc and fits together beautifully as a single follow through in the end.

Asides from strong cinematography, some amazing performances from the various leads and a beautiful score (which I suspect I might have trouble getting hold of at the moment)... the film also has some stunning fight choreography which doesn’t suffer, like many Western made action movies these days, from an overabundance of cuts. The first meeting/fight between the male hero and the title heroine, takes place in a little cove on rocks in water and the ways it’s done is just beautiful It’s not about two people fighting, it’s about two people getting to know each other’s limits and introduce themselves... if anything, in fact, the whole fight reminded me of two lovers trading caresses for the first time. This fight isn’t about injury or about death, it’s a courting ritual and it’s very much like a conversation two people might have as they try to get in touch with how they feel about the person opposite them. It’s a great sequence and it made me realise there was more to the director, Zhang Zhiliang, than at first meets the eye...

And meet my eye he did because the director was present for the screening, with his translator, and had some interesting things to say.

One thing he did make a point of saying was that the story very much follows a Taoist philosophy, with the path of life being guided by dark and light. This manifests itself very early on in the film, in fact, in that opening title sequence I mentioned. One of the things that happens in this sequence is that two fighting fish spin around and come together and are morphed into the Taoist symbol of ying and yang... so that’s a very quick way of the director giving us a visual pointer right there. However, the director then went on to say that the reason why this particular story appealed to him, in contrast to a lot of the wuxia in the history of the genre, is precisely because the heroes and villains in this one are not approaching their path through a specific ying/yang philosophy... they are seeing and reacting to things in shades of grey and he finds this much more reflective of real life as we experience it these days, with all the governments and corporations, and even individuals, acting in a very “shades of grey”manner, where it’s hard to distinguish the villains from the heroes and vice versa. This is what attracted this director to the characters in this specific story.

Now, as a comment on that, I’d have to say that, contrary to that statement in one way, there clearly are very much honourable heroes and despicable villains in this piece and they are extremely clear cut. However, that being said... and in direct correlation with what Zhang Zhiliang said in the Q and A, you do have passages of the film when the villains have sympathetic moments and there is, very much, a period in this story where the main male protagonist seems to switch allegiances and makes a choice which leads him away from the path of light... although, as you’ll see if you get an opportunity to see this one, there are reasons why he does this. Sometimes you have to make a decision to come down on the wrong side to achieve a position where the overall stakes can be turned to a greater good.

Shades of grey can be hard to read, sometimes, but what isn’t hard to comprehend is that The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is an amazing and gob-smacking movie full of spectacle and excitement. My only real problem with it was right at the end in the final moments of the movie. A closure, of some sort, is visited on the main protagonists but, when that closure comes (and I’m so not saying what kind of denouement this film has, it’s got a great ending) the film makers have seen fit to add a horrendously cheesy sounding Chinese pop ballad over the top of it... I could really have done without that after a near perfect movie.

Now, I’m really not sure if this film is going to get any kind of release in either the US or the UK. I know that the director has prepped a 3D conversion of it and that he sought advice on how to shoot it to best effect to allow for that, so maybe the combination of 3D and spectacle may be enough to garner it a release for Western audiences. I hope so as I would love to see this again and would desperately like a Blu Ray transfer of the movie. That being said, there’s a scene where a wooden bridge is destroyed which results in two horse falls so I’m guessing that, even if a release is planned in the UK, the BBFC won’t let it through uncut (they don’t allow horse falls). So it’ll be interesting to see if this movie gets any kind of release over here in the near future. It certainly deserves one because it’s a fantastic movie, a wonderful character piece (as well as an action piece) and it’s a work of art that deserves a big marketing push when the time comes. Outstanding movie... don’t miss it if you get the chance to take a look.

Monday 20 October 2014

3 Coeurs (Three Hearts)

Internal Affairs

3 Coeurs (Three Hearts) 
2014  France/Germany/Belgium
Directed by Benoît Jacquot
Seen as part of the London Film Festival 
on Saturday 18th October 2014

3 Coeurs (Three Hearts) is a film I picked to see as part of this year’s London Film Festival mainly because of the calibre of the three main actresses involved... Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve... although Deneuve is not actually one of the main protagonists of this film, like the first two I mention here.

One of the people I hadn’t bargained for being thrown into the mix is Benoit Poelvoorde, the guy who played the serial killer and co-wrote and co-directed the excellent 1992 Belgium fake documentary Man Bites Dog. It took me a while to place him because he is playing such a charming and unassuming fellow who also happens to be the male romantic lead of this movie. I’m not familiar with the director of this one, Benoît Jacquot, and he’s not a name I  would have recognised although, on the strength of this film, I have to say I should probably seek out some more of this guys work because 3 Coeurs is a really interesting movie.

Now this is not the film I was expecting it to be... which was something along the lines of a long treatise on the way people coincidentally shift in and out of each other’s lives with characters agonising over lost chances and philosophising over the breakfast table. Turns out it doesn’t really get into that territory at all and, though I would have been happy to settle for that, this film is a much more interesting affair because of the way it’s both shot and presented. Let me tell you a little about the opening quarter of an hour or so of the movie because a brief flavour of where the plot starts off will enable me to explain why this film is so different in the way it attacks the heart and mind.

Benoit Poelvoorde plays Marc, a man with a very acute heart condition. The film begins with him missing the last train home back to Paris from a job he is involved with for his work as a tax inspector. Not knowing what to do he has a coffee in a nearby cafe and then spies a good looking girl who he asks about finding a hotel room for the night. On their way to a hotel, he and Sylvie, played beautifully (as always) by the incomparable Charlotte Gainsbourg, start getting on together really well and instead of him staying overnight in a hotel, the two instead just talk and walk around the city, beginning the start of what they think will be a romantic relationship (it is and it isn’t, don’t want to say too much about that). Just like the main protagonists of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the two plan to meet up later without exchanging numbers. Sylvie offers to travel on the train to Paris where the two will rendezvous at 6pm on the following Friday, at a specific place.

And this is where things get interesting... not on the level of what is actually happening in the movie, but in terms of the way the information is presented. It’s possibly a bit obvious to say that Sylvie and Marc don’t manage to meet up. Sylvie is on time but due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, including Marc feinting in his car due to his heart condition, while racing to the agreed spot, Sylvie eventually leaves before the, very late, Marc can keep the appointment. Now the reason why this particular sequence is good, and the way it informs the film in general, is because it’s done almost as a suspense sequence. You actually do feel, right from this early on the film, that something is at stake here. And one of the main reasons for that is the outstanding choice which has been made in regard to the direction that veteran composer Bruno Coulais takes his score in...

Do you know that sequence in Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt), near the start of the movie where Brigitte Bardot is sitting on a bed telling a story. The music is suddenly pulled in and it’s overpowering and sinister as heck... at odds with the actual images on screen which, in turn, pops you out of the movie and makes you question it in exactly the way Godard wanted you to do... using it as a distancing device so you don’t get too immersed in the narrative. Well the score on 3 Coeurs is somewhat like that. It’s very powerful on the soundtrack and it’s very, very sinister. It doesn’t quite pop you out of things like the Godard but it is extremely strong and it’s immediately telling you something is going to happen here... something is very wrong... this is more dangerous than you may think. So right from the start you do not want these two to miss their rendezvous but, almost inevitably they do. Now bear with me while I go back to the plot set up for a bit.

Sylvie goes back to the relationship she was about to leave. She runs an antique shop with her sister Sophie, played by Chiara Mastroianni but going back to her current boyfriend who she doesn’t, in all honesty, seem that happy with, means she now leaves the country to go with him at his new work place in Minneapolis, in the USA. Both Sophie and their mother, played by Catherine Deneuve are sad at this turn of events but there’s nothing to be done. However, not long after Sylvie has gone, the antique shop is in trouble for some accidentally undeclared taxes and Marc, finds Sophie in "a state" in the corridor in his workplace. At this point he has no idea that this woman has any connection to Sylvie and the missed meeting, and vice versa, and so he courteously offers to travel to Sophie’s home town and go through her books. The two become involved and...

And that’s where I am leaving the story set up I think. You really don’t want to know much more about the main plot line and it’s not necessary. But what telling you the set up allows me to do is talk a little more about the treatment of the film. All the way through, when things twist and turn in the hearts of the characters, we always have that sinister scoring coming back to haunt us and tell us... yes, this is really dangerous. And since we are talking about “love affairs” here... I have to hand it to the French again, cliché or not, and say that they really know how to treat their romantic plotting seriously. I’m not a stranger to having an affair (don’t even begin to judge me as you’ve no idea of the circumstances and I’m not going to go into them here... other than to say it was the absolute right path to take at the time) and what the addition of the creepy music and the way in which this film is shot (I’ll come to that in a minute) does is to not make light of the people in question. When you are engaged in that kind of activity it can feel dangerous, it can make one of you feel anxious (I’m told) and the way it’s handled in this movie absolutely makes you feel it. So really good work all around there.

The shooting is interesting because you have a lot of long shots of the characters as you gaze at them through restaurant windows or watch them go on walks but, this is contrasted with the emotional weight of some of their conversations being filmed right up close and personal. The director here isn’t doing a Sergio Leone but we do get some pretty hefty close ups of the characters when they are talking about important stuff. More so than I’ve noticed in a lot of other movies and it really helps the spectator focus the mind and listen carefully to what is being said, in words or in body language, throughout the course of the film.

There was a Q&A with the director of this after the screening, with a translator who was trying to keep up with a director going way to fast and saying far too much before pausing, and consequently some of the director’s words may have been, shall we say, lost in translation. However, one of the things I did glean from his words of wisdom was that he wanted to shoot a romantic film in the style of a crime drama. He wanted to try it out and I have to say, when he said that, the sinister, almost overkill, on the music and the way in which the camera follows people around voyeuristically in contrast to the scenes where important information is being exchanged between two characters, all fell into place...

There’s a point in the movie where the family, including the three main protagonists, have all gone for a walk in the woods and have all gone their own ways, split into little groups. Marc is in pursuit of Sylvie who seems to be trying to avoid him, for the sake of Sophie. Marc stops at the edge of a ravine and the tension at this point is so extreme that I was wondering if he was going to kill himself by hurling himself from the top. Then, when Sylvie comes into shot behind him, I wasn’t sure if she was going to go over and kiss him or push him over the edge... it had me guessing and, I have to say, neither of these things happened. But the music and camerawork had come together so effectively that I was obviously worried about the characters big time. And that’s a rarity with me in cinema these days, it has to be said. So the director's approach to the unusual treatment of the material, mixing one genre with the cinematic syntax of another, really paid off.

What more can I say. Brilliant performances, acting, writing, cinematography, direction and composition. 3 Coeurs is an absolute corker of a movie which will apparently be getting some kind of cinematic UK release in May 2015. If you get an opportunity to see this one, I’d definitely recommend that you take it.