Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: Satan’s Children

Meet Bobby (Steven White). He’s bullied by his asshole stepfather (Eldon Meacham) and teased by his sexually precocious stepsister Janis (Joyce Molloy). One night, after Janis shops him over a stash of weed hidden in his room, he storms out and walks the streets angrily. He ends up in a bar where a middle-aged gay guy puts the moves on him. Said individual is swiftly given his marching orders by an asshole biker (the character might have had a name, but I didn’t catch, nor did I recognise the actor … in fact, I didn’t recognize any of the cast) who promptly invites Bobby to crash at his place. At chez asshole biker, Bobby gets a beer and then a knife pulled on him. Next thing, asshole biker’s mates are invited over for a party. Gang rape ensues.

All of this unpleasantry occupies almost half an hour of an 83 minute film. The pace is tedious. Director Joe Wiezycki (a man who, to the best of my knowledge, has just this one piece of work garbage to his name) holds every shot longer than he has to; he holds each shot for a few seconds before his actor delivers a line and holds for a few seconds afterwards – given that virtually all the dialogue scenes are edited as a series of two-shots, this makes for more pregnant pauses than a Harold Pinter play produced by a cast on Mogadon.

Left for dead by his abusers, Bobby is discovered by a commune of Satanists – the only Satanists in the history of the horror genre who look more like hippies and act more like they’re in a beach blanket bonanza circa 1958 – despotically ruled over by the hatchet-faced Sherry (Kathleen Archer) in the absence of leader Simon (Robert C Ray II). Sherry is particular antagonistic towards Monica (Rosemary Orlando), who has made a lesbian overture to her, and Joshua (John Edwards), who is critical of her heavy-handedness and prays to Lucifer for Simon’s swift return.

Sherry has Joshua and a couple of other fomentors hanged and puts the moves on Bobby, who responds to her advances as eagerly as he can while still being traumatized by his ordeal and unable to move his legs let alone get his wedding tackle into a state of readiness. Simon arrives back at the commune and finds several hanged bodies plus Monica bound up before the cheapest altar to Satan ever cobbled together by an excuse for a props department …

… and demands an explanation from Sherry. He also interrogates Monica, upon whom a supernatural punishment is wreaked because, according to the festering wad of crud that is ‘Satan’s Children’, the devil doesn’t like gay people. (Not that the filmmakers’ rampant homophobia hadn’t been utterly obvious by this point, anyway.) Sherry is forced to dig a hole while the other Satanists lob clods of earth at her (folks, this is a movie that makes ‘The French Sex Murders’ look like Antonioni), after which she’s buried up to her neck in it and left to the mercy of the ants. We’re almost at the hour mark here, the blurts of nastiness nowhere near effective enough to counter the ennui of Wiezycki’s obsession with padding.

Bobby has been out of the action for a while, and is visited in his sick bed by Simon. Bobby is irate that his new girlfriend has been left out as insect fodder (the hangings, egomania and intended use of Monica as a human sacrifice evidently don’t bother him in the slightest) and Simon mocks him for being weak and unwilling to take her place. When Simon leaves, Bobby forces himself out of bed, runs out of his room clad only in a pair of white Y-fronts and fights with two of the Satanists who try to stop him. These guys are bigger and broader than Bobby (the dude has no physique) yet he ably defeats them by flapping a hand at one and shoving the other gingerly in the manner of a ten-year-old who doesn’t want to back down in a playground fight but doesn’t want to make it real by swinging an actual punch, either.

There follows, for something like quarter of an hour, the only reason for watching this POS: the sight of the white-panted motherfucker who’s supposed to be the hero of the piece legging it through the compound, kicking over big men with a nudge of his lilywhite foot and clambering over barbed wire fences half-naked without getting a single scratch. As the farcical pursuit continues, we’re treated to the sight of two Satanists floundering in the smallest patch of quicksand imaginable – the sides are within easy reach yet neither even attempt to raise an arm!

Bobby Champion of the Underpants escapes and there follows – SPOILER ALERT (though I’d urge you to read on so that you don’t have to waste the 83 minutes that I did watching this amateur hour drivel) – a ridiculously compacted third act where he revenges himself on stepfather, stepsister, asshole rapist bikers (he acquires a shotgun seemingly out of thin air and blows them away in the kind of agonizingly interminable slow motion that makes the similarly stage scenes in ‘Thriller – A Cruel Picture’ look like they were shot and edited by Michael Bay on speed) then heads back to the Satanists’ pad with a bag full of severed heads which Simon considers a fair trade for Sherry’s disinterment. The whole thing ends with Bobby and Sherry in flagrante delicto (ie. Bobby’s scrawny ass going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow) while the others crucify Janis as a sacrifice to Lucifer.

Yeah, I know the Devil is the Antichrist, the Adversary, the father of lies and, to quote ‘Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’, a “big red ugly source of all evil”, but it’s hard to see what he did to deserve this film’s disrespect.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Carla Gugino

Happy 40th birthday to Carla Gugino. A large glass of rioja is being raised at Agitation Towers.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: The French Sex Murders

Could this be the cheapest, shoddiest, most unintentionally funny giallo ever made? A film so lurid in its intent and retarded in its aesthetic that it makes ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ look like Fellini.

You know, I rather think it could.

On paper, it ought to be brilliant: wrong man shenanigans, a hint of the supernatural, the pseudo-scientific conceits of ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’ and ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’, eye-candy aplenty (Rosalba Neri, Anita Ekberg, Barbara Bouchet, Evelyne Kraft) and a suitably sleazy milieu courtesy of the brothel setting.

The problem is in the execution. Budgetary limitations scupper the opening sequence: a gender-disguised individual is on the run, police cars and on-foot gendarmes in hot pursuit. Said individual attempts to evade the authorities by hoofing it up the Eiffel Tower, which demonstrates all the logic of shimmying up a telegraph pole and taunting those at the foot of it with cries of, “Climb up and catch me, then, fuckos.” Evidently realizing that having got so far up, the only way is down – and with the tenacious Inspector Pontaine (Robert Sacchi) just a heartbeat behind – our felonious fugitive leaps to their death, director Ferdinando Merighi indelibly searing his audience’s collective eyeballs with this image:

That’s right, folks: a bit of black paper cut out in the vague shape of a human figure is dangled in front of a static shot of the Eiffel Tower. Inspector Pontaine lights a cigarette and glowers balefully at the camera in best Humphrey Bogart fashion, a bit of mumbled voiceover tells us how it all started, and the rest of the film unfolds in flashback. (A word on Pontaine: Sacchi looks a hell of a lot like Humphrey Bogart, a resemblance which might have given ‘The French Sex Murders’ a shot of much needed gravitas; unfortunately, his characterization of Pontaine is based on a really bad Humphrey Bogart impersonation. A really bad one.)

Anyway, how the whole thing gets started is like this: thuggish jewel thief Antoine Gottvalles (Pietro Martellanza) pulls off a heist by the sophisticated means of taking a crowbar to a display cabinet, scooping out its contents and shoving them in the pockets of his trenchcoat. Throughout this meticulous and professional operation, he neglects to wear gloves and touches every surface possible. Fuckin’ Raffles, this dude!

Having made a hasty exit from the premises (the only jewellers in Paris, it would seem, without an alarm system), does he then lie low till he can offload the goods? Or does he risk it and go straight to his fence? Maybe he has a buyer lined up already and exchanges the stones for cold hard cash in an underground car park before getting the fuck out of Dodge Paris.

Mais non. Our boy hightails it straight to the nearest whorehouse where Madame Collette (Ekberg) hesitates about letting him, knowing that he’s temperamental, unpredictable and obsessed with the voluptuous Francine (Bouchet). Nonetheless, a john’s a john and he’s good for the money so she packs him off to Francine’s room while she attends to the requirements of two high-rollers who are such respectable pillars of the community that their attendance at Madame Collette’s den of inquity is surreptitious to say the least. (This being a sleazy giallo directed by the staggeringly inept Merighi, surreptitiousness equates to creeping about swathed in a big shiny capes with an extravagant hoods that make them look like extras in some hallucinatory conflation of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Abba: the Movie’ and the KKK scene from ‘Blazing Saddles’.)

But I digress. Antoine indulges in a little gentlemen’s relish with the sultry Francine, during which interlude he plies her with the stolen jewels (smooth, bro, reeeeaaaal smooth) and begs her to come away with him. To, I don’t know, a life of sitting outside courtrooms or trying to secure the services of a solicitor at three in the morning. Something like that. Y’know, every girl’s dream.

Anyhow, the reality of things is brought home when Madame Collette calls to Francine to get finished with Antoine and service the next client. At this point, Antoine turns psycho, calls her a “filthy whore” (which is a bit rich, since he just tried to buy her affections with a fuckton of stolen goods) and starts knocking her about viciously.

Exiting the brothel, Antoine attracts the attention of a gendarme on the beat and does his best to downplay any hint of suspicious behaviour by doing a cartoon double-take and running like hell. He fetches up at the house of ex-wife Marianne (Neri).

Pearl’s Marianne’s a singer. In a nightclub. Owned by the corpulent Pepi (Rolf Eden). She’s entertaining Pepi when Antoine turns up and there follows an awkward moment which is only resolved when, after much soul-searching, the various parties discuss their romantic entanglements in a sensitive character-driven scene. No, wait; what the fuck am I talking about? Marianne tells Antoine to go to hell and Pepi takes a swing at him and the door slams in his face.

The long and short of it is that Francine is found dead by Madame Collette and Randall (Renato Romano), an American writer hanging around at the brothel to, ahem, research a new book (pmsl). Shortly afterwards, Antoine is picked up by the law, charged with Francine’s murder and sentenced to death. From the dock, he protests his innocence and curses everyone at the brothel that night. While he rants, the film inverts to negative. For a moment, I thought that this was an effective, if somewhat heavy-handed, means of emphasizing the intensity of Antoine’s POV as he looks out at the people in the courtroom, one of whom is the real killer. But then Merighi cuts, the POV is broken and the next shot is also in negative, so I was ascribing far too much intelligence and subtlety to the production and the likeliest explanation is a processing error at the lab which no-one noticed (or was bothered about) during editing.

Shit, I’ve hit 1,000 words already and I’m still on the synopsis. Still, I’m not convinced that I’ve adequately conveyed thus far just how egregious ‘The French Sex Murders’ truly is, so I beg your forbearance for a while longer.

Before Antoine can be dealt with by the full might of the law, he escapes. Quite how he manages this is left unexplained. I’m again guessing at budgetary limitations. This fairly important narrative development is relegated to Randall catching a news report on TV during a rare moment when he’s not at Madame Collette’s knocking boots doing research. When we next see Antoine, he’s driving a car around Paris and getting snarled up in traffic. So he pulls over and nicks a motorbike. This takes him out of the city, but he runs into a roundblock which he evades by driving round it (I am not making this up!). A gendarme jumps in front of him as if he’s a midfielder going for a tackle, then seems to remember that the script calls for Antoine to remain at liberty for another couple of pages and obligingly falls over. Antoine goes speeding off (it looks like he’s doing all of 15mph), turns a corner, sees a truck parked by the side of the road with its tailgate lowered, panics, slides off the bike and a lump of papier mache that’s supposed to be his head but looks like the work of a five-year-old at art class on a day when he was really bored intersects with the tailgate and goes rolling down the road.

At which point the unlamented Antoine departs this world, the film and my review. Oh, by the way, we’re only half an hour into the movie at this point. But fear not, the synopsis kicks into high gear at this point: a series of murders occur at Madame Collette’s house of vice, the modus operandi sufficiently similar to Francine’s murder to cast doubt on Antoine’s conviction. The presiding judge orders the case reopened. Peripherally, research scientist Professor Waldemar (Howard Vernon) – an old friend of the judge’s – seeks permission to remove Antoine’s eyeballs in order to isolate the final image recorded on his retinas and thus identify the killer. Everyone involved in the making of the film seems to have forgotten that while Antoine may well have clocked the real killer in the courtroom, the last thing he ever saw was the tailgate of a heavy goods vehicle. But hey-ho.

As the bodies pile up, Waldemar’s attention to his work is deflected by his concerns over the burgeoning romance between his daughter Eleanore (Kraft) and his precocious assistant, a subplot that seems to have nothing to do with anything … Or does it?

‘The French Sex Murders’ is a work of such unmitigated awfulness that its bad acting (particularly Martellanza), bargain basement production values (a desk and a telephone stand in for a police station, a few test tubes and a Bunsen burner for a lab), absence of a protagonist (the script continually flirts with establishing, variously, Pontaine, Marianne, Randall and Waldemar as the main character, finally settling on none of them), incomprehensible directorial decisions (virtually every murder is repeated four or five times in a series of discontiguous cuts, each time through a differently coloured filter) and complete indifference to continuity add up to something that genuinely needs to be seen to be (dis)believed.

From Ekberg’s gravity-defying bouffant hairdo to the most arbitrarily shoehorned in and unerotically shot sex scene outside of a Joe D’Amato film, from the complete squandering of gialli legends Bouchet and Neri in nothing roles to the yawnsome final act revelation, from the hamfisted exposition to the abject lack of pacing in anything remotely resembling an action scene, nearly every frame of ‘The French Sex Murders’ offers something to gape at in slack-jawed amazement. It takes a special kind of anti-talent to make a film this bad, and for that reason alone it’s unmissable.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

At the cinema a few weeks ago to see ‘Captain America’, I noticed a big freestanding foyer display for ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’. Memories of Tim Burton’s aesthetically confused ‘Planet of the Apes’ remake came flooding back to me and I groaned aloud. I jerked a thumb at the display and asked of anyone within earshot, “Isn’t that the most redundant concept for a movie?”

Fast forward a couple of weeks and a colleague with established good taste in movies went to see it and raved wholeheartedly. Then Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy gave it a solid 7/10 and deemed it second only to ‘Captain America’ in terms of wholly entertaining 2011 tentpole movies. My sister-in-law almost demanded that we go and see it.

And even with this triumvirate of recommendations, I was sceptical.

Sometimes I need to quit listening to myself and listen to other people. ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is a brisk, engaging and often kinetically exciting piece of mainstream entertainment. It’s attentive to pacing, it gives a damn about empathy and characterization, and it delivers the goods and then some when it comes to the big action set-pieces.

Although the narrative is pretty much a fait accompli – everything moves towards a final act which sees mankind on the verge of destruction and simiankind ready to inherit the earth – writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver find a structure that explicates the development of the apes’ intelligence, sets the scene for global viral disaster, seeds the returning astronaut scenario of the original film and delivers the best salvo against animal testing this side of a PETA campaign.

It also gives us ape-like apes instead of people in ape masks. This makes ‘RotPotA’ worth the price of admission alone. The apes are CGI, natch, but they look the part and the filmmakers wisely anthropomorphize them through characterization rather than character design. Our hero is Caesar (a splendid piece of motion capture work by Andy Serkis), the only survivor of a lab-full of simians who are put down on the orders of corporate money-man Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) after a frightened test subject goes beserk and effectively fucks up a pitch to the board for permission to move researcher Will Rodman (James Franco)’s potential cure for Alzheimer’s to human testing stage. Rodman “adopts” Caesar, so named by his Shakespeare-quoting father (John Lithgow) – himself an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Lithgow’s turn is sensitively nuanced, the best work the actor has done in ages. Rodman observes Caesar’s cognitive development and is convinced his experimental drug will work. Unethically, he uses it on his father and results – initially at least – are superlative. Throw in a burgeoning romance with veterinarian Caroline (Frieda Pinto) and things are looking rosy for Rodman.

Then things go pear shaped. His father’s immune system develops antibodies resistant to the medication and he regresses severely. An incident where he’s bullied by the Rodmans’ bolshie neighbour is curtailed when the now fully-grown Caesar knocks seven shits of excrement out of the douchebag in question. This results in a court order to impound the ape at a so-called sanctuary run by the corner-cutting John Landon (Brian Cox), who leaves the inmates to the less-than-tender care of his snivelling asshole son Dodge (Tom Felton). I say “inmates” because ‘RotPotA’ abandons its sci-fi trappings for the middle third and embraces the iconography and anti-establishment aesthetic of the prison-break movie (apposite, given that director Rupert Wyatt’s previous outing was ‘The Escapist’).

In short order, Caesar meets ex-circus orang-utan Maurice (the Red to Caesar’s Andy Dufresne, as it were), antagonistic chimp Rocket, and a gorilla in the ape-house version of solitary called Buck (virtually all the character names, human and primate, reference the original franchise). The conditions are rudimentary, Dodge’s behaviour intolerable. Caesar starts plotting rebellion.
Jaffa and Silver’s script, shepherded by the unpretentious craftsmanship of Wyatt’s direction, strikes enough of a balance between sympathetic human characters (Rodman père et fils, Caroline, the ill-fated animal handler at the lab) and complete tossers (Dodge, Jacobs) that things never quite tip over into sympathy-for-the-apes propaganda, but the emphasis is definitely on how shitty the animal kingdom has it thanks to humankind’s jackpot of opposable thumbs in the whole random cosmic lottery deal.

It’s hard not to cheer when [a certain character] gets it in a beautiful exemplar of poetic justice, or when Jacobs strides self-importantly into the pharmaceutical company’s gleaming glass-fronted HQ and suddenly realizes that his test subjects aren’t so docile anymore. Likewise, a superbly orchestrated battle between humans and apes on the Golden Gate Bridge – spatially convincing and blissfully free of the shaky-cam/epileptic intercutting nonsense that Michael Bay and his ilk have clogged up mainstream cinema with – is one of the best set-pieces I’ve seen on the big screen in ages.

Quibbles? They’re so minor as to barely merit a mention. Vanilla performance from Franco, but so what – it’s Caesar who’s the main character and Serkis and the CGI team work wonders between them. The Rodman/Caroline romantic subplot is so inessential you almost feel sorry for Frieda Pinto – she’s worth more than the nothing role the film gives her. The inclusion of “take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape” is an in-joke too far, particularly when the panoply of other references are incorporate with a commendable subtlety.

Ultimately, though, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is far far better than it has any right to be, a film that bristles with obvious affection for its subject material, benefits from care and attention to detail, and regenerates a fondly-remembered franchise much more effectively than Tim Burton’s depressingly impersonal remake.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Road to Perdition

I wrote about WTF Syndrome when I reviewed ‘Snatch’ a while back. WTF Syndrome is when you tell someone, usually very sheepishly, that you’ve never seen a certain film and their patented response is an incredulous “what the fuck?”

Usually, though, there’s a good reason why you’ve never seen the film in question. In my case, with ‘Snatch’, it was because I was influenced by a raft of reviews which painted it as just another iteration of ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ only on a bigger budget. Which it kind of is and kind of isn’t but is kind of missing the point.

(This, I hasten to add, was back in the day when I was influenced enough by the mainstream critics to make my viewing choices based on their say-so. This was also back in the day when I actually had disposable income and could have just gone to see anything and everything regardless. God, I could give the me of two decades ago a right slapping for not seeing more movies. And not buying a sports car. But I digress.)

When ‘Road to Perdition’ was released in 2002, expectation was high. Sam Mendes’s debut ‘American Beauty’ had cleaned up critically and commercially, bagging six Oscars. It was acute, acidic, brilliantly observed and littered with terrific performances, including a career best from Kevin Spacey. ‘Road to Perdition’ had a lot to live up to. Ads were everywhere. I lost count of the amount of times I sat through the trailer. It looked like a showreel for cinematographer Conrad L Hall. I didn’t know if I could take Tom Hanks seriously as a gangster. Early reviews suggested it wasn’t a patch on ‘American Beauty’. People whose judgement I trusted saw it and gave a shrug of the shoulders. I didn’t bother going to see it. Nor, for nine years, did I have the urge to rent the DVD or catch it on TV.

A couple of weeks ago, I was given a lend of the DVD. I sat down to watch it over the weekend, the mid-way stretch of an offbeat triple-bill that started with ‘Messiah of Evil’ and ended with ‘The French Sex Murders’. Comparatively speaking, ‘Road to Perdition’ boasts greater narrative coherence than the former and somewhat higher production values than the latter. And for the most part I enjoyed ‘Road to Perdition’ – it looks great, there are a triumvirate of excellent supporting performances from Paul Newman, Daniel Craig and Jude Law, and a rain-soaked set-piece towards the end is bleakly iconic – but watching it inbetween two B-movies threw something into sharp relief.

‘Road to Perdition’ is essentially a man-on-the-run narrative powered by the embittered heart of a revenge movie. Adapted from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, the material cries out for down-and-dirty B-movie treatment. The story is boilerplate: Michael Sullivan (Hanks), a mob enforcer who tries to keep his family separate from his working life, goes on a strong-arm job with his boss’s loose-cannon son Connor Rooney (Craig); Sullivan’s son (Tyler Hoechlin), curious as to what his old man does, sneaks along for the ride; Rooney goes apeshit at the job and blows someone away; Sullivan Jr witnesses it; Rooney goes over to chez Sullivan to whack the kid but ends up murdering the uninvolved members of the family. Sullivan and son go on the run. Connor’s father, ageing patriarch John Rooney (Newman), reluctantly enters into an agreement with fellow mobster Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to shelter Connor and engage the services of photographer/hitman Harlan Maguire (Law).

At 90 minutes, fast and nasty, this could have been as cynically brilliant as Sam Mendes evidently wanted it to be. As it is, the running time is just shy of two hours. And it’s not like Mendes or scripter David Self need those 118 minutes to work on the characterization, since virtually every character is resolutely one-note. Sullivan is a professional enforcer who just happens to have a family. John Rooney is the creaky but charismatic head of the family. Connor is the wild card. Harlan is the stop-at-nothing psycho who enjoys his work a bit too much. There’s some gumph at the start about how Sullivan owes John so much and how John always thought of Sullivan as a son, but it’s never explained or explored. Quite why the schism between John and Connor came to pass is never explained or explored. The repercussions of Sullivan Jr surviving the massacre he inadvertently caused is never explored, except for one perfunctory scene where Sullivan angrily tells him it’s not his fault.

Ultimately, all ‘Road to Perdition’ is about is how Connor Rooney fucks over Michael Sullivan and how Michael Sullivan manoeuvres in order to (a) protect his son and (b) get revenge. And when Law is onscreen, all shark-like smile and twitchy menace, the film moves and grooves in an effectively nasty way. The rest of the time, though, everyone seems to be conscious that they’re working with an Oscar-winning filmmaker. Whole sequences have “prestige picture” and “Oscar clip” stamped all over them. The pace sometimes flags to the point of funereal. Thomas Newman’s score alternately drops to a hush and swells to a crescendo. ‘Road to Perdition’ is a depression-set gangster movie that is too concerned with straightening its tie, shining its shoes and practicing its speech for the awards ceremony when it ought to be liquored up on moonshine, grinning round a fat cigar and firing a tommy gun in the air from the running board of a Ford sedan.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: Messiah of Evil

So, I’m sitting down to write a review of Willard Huyck’s 1973 cult classic ‘Messiah of Evil’ and wondering why I’m bothering given that Tim Lucas, on the indispensable Video Watchblog, captured the essence of the film in three words: “the American ‘Suspiria’.”

Yeah, I know: ‘Messiah of Evil’ predates ‘Suspiria’. But still …

Both films aurally and visually overwhelm the viewer from the off; both thrust their audience into a milieu that’s off-kilter, disconcerting and disorientating; both throw narrative coherence to the wind; both leave you with the feeling of being hardwired into someone else’s nightmare. And both use the rococo stylization of their settings (a dance academy in Argento’s film; an artist’s beach house in Huyck’s) to such aesthetically purposeful effect that mise en scene becomes a raison d’etre.

(That last sentence was terribly pretentious; I’ll try not to let it happen again.)

The film opens very much in giallo fashion with a man fleeing an unseen enemy. His face is bathed in sweat, his mouth pulled into a rictus of fear. He’s running along an anonymous street, a high wall to one side. Exhausted, he collapses. A gate opens in the wall and a shy-looking girl beckons him in. He finds himself in a backyard with a swimming pool. Splashing water on his face, he again sinks to the ground. The girl extends an arm to him. He reaches towards her, an admixture of gratitude and relief on his face. She draws a straight razor across his throat.

Cue opening credits. The next scene is of a long institutional corridor, brightly lit. So brightly that the small rectangle that marks the far end of the corridor seems to shimmer. A figure emerges, indistinct, and slowly moves towards the camera. A voiceover warns someone – a character offscreen? we, the viewers? – about events at a place called Point Dune. The voice becomes increasingly agitated and the brief monologue ends in a scream.

The voiceover is quickly identified as that of Arletty (Marianna Hill), who we next see driving through the night to reach Point Dune, an isolated community that’s home to her artist father Joseph Long (Royal Dano). Arletty’s concerned at a series of letters she’s received from Joseph which are increasingly worrying in their content and warn her to stay away. She doesn’t heed the warning. At Point Dune, she finds his house deserted. Enquiring at an art gallery whose blind owner seems all the more sinister for being sightlessly surrounded by canvases, she’s advised that other parties have been asking about Joseph and is pointed in the direction of the local motel. It’s here that she meets Thom (Michael Greer), a louche aristocratic type of Portugese descent, and his two “travelling companions” Toni (Joy Bang) and Laura (Anitra Ford). They’re busy interviewing town drunk Charlie (Elisha Cook Jr) when Arletty arrives and she gets to hear his hushed tale of a blood moon and a curse on the town. Later, speaking to her privately, Charlie advises Arletty that she’ll have to burn her father (“no use puttin’ him in the ground”).

This is pretty much the point at which such dim vestiges of coherence as may have been hovering around the narrative disperse and disappear, never to return. From hereon in, it’s all about atmosphere. And one of the key elements in achieving this is the set design of Joseph’s house. Much of ‘Messiah of Evil’ takes place here, and there are several voiceover-heavy scenes of Arletty reading Joseph’s diary and getting the impression that something isn’t quite right in Point Dune, all of which could have been visually boring – static cinematography, dull interiors. Joseph as artist is the film’s stroke of genius. The changes affecting the townsfolk are the subject of what, it is implied (like everything else in ‘Messiah of Evil’, it’s left to the imagination), is Joseph’s last great work. Frescoes cover the interior of the house, walls lined with the grey, hollow, lifeless faces of the things the people of Point Dune have become.

I say “things” because the film flirts with the iconography of zombies and vampires before suggesting, towards the end, that they are the brainwashed followers of a new “dark religion”. A late-in-the-day bit of backstory regarding a preacher/cannibal (yep, you read that right) throws up more questions than it answers, particularly since it suggests that Thom might be playing an unexpected part in the proceedings. But again, the film that drifts further into enigma rather than reaching resolution or clarification.

The best description I’ve ever read of ‘Suspiria’ – and it shames me that I can’t recall who it’s attributed to – was that it was what you imagined horror movies were like when you were too young to see them. ‘Messiah of Evil’ fits the description, too. Approached in the right mood – on proscribed substances, say, or mildly under the influence of alcoholic beverages (not that I would ever endorse such activities on this blog*) – it worms into the subconscious and royally fucks you up. While there’s nothing here as visceral as, for instance, the crucified sheep in that classic of midnight movie mind-fuckery ‘El Topo’, the film entire has a cumulative power that works on a primal and nightmarish level.

Almost like a dark fairytale, the feeling that Arletty is travelling ever more inexorably towards something she can never understand, control or escape from is palpable. Even before she reaches Point Dune, there’s a creepy interlude at a gas station where she encounters an albino truck driver. Arletty doesn’t make the discovery the luckless attendant does – that the trucker has a cargo of bodies under the tarpaulin – but goes on her way disconcerted by his deathless presence. Later, Laura encounters this same individual after she tries to leave Point Dune. Her brief ride with him, Wagner blasting from the truck radio as the truck crawls through the night, half built houses to either side of the street, is a bizarre, surreal, skin-crawling scene that I know will stay with me.

Likewise Toni’s big scene in a movie theatre. Think Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ redone with the undead and meta-textualized to the max because it’s a scene in a movie that occurs in a cinema while the heroine is shaking her head at the clichéd excesses of a genre film playing out in front of her. I wonder how familiar Lamberto Bava was with ‘Messiah of Evil’ when he made ‘Demons’.

The gas station. The movie theatre. Other touchstones of small town Americana are present and correct when the action moves outside of Joseph’s beach house. A mini-mall is the scene of a macabre revelation (you’ll never look at your local supermarket’s the meat counter the same way again); the silent gathering of a number of pallid townsfolk in an alleyway is much scarier for not knowing quite what they’re doing there; the blank, neon-lit row of storefronts that Thom hurries past as he searches for Toni are abject in their lifelessness, their loneliness – they gradually become a metaphor for the town itself.

‘Messiah of Evil’ – inasmuch as it can be pinned down to anything – takes a number of visual tropes, be they generic, cultural or artistic (I’m tempted to describe the scene where Arletty and Thom find a corpse on a beach as a Vettriano canvas re-imagined by Weegee, except ‘Messiah of Evil’ was made 15 years before Vettriano sold his first painting) and boils them down to an all-pervading atmosphere of dread.

*ROFLMFAO, as I believe the kids would put it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye

Of all the gialli I’ve seen, Antonio Margheriti’s 1973 slab of gothic has one of the most wonderfully eclectic casts. Have you ever wanted to see Serge Gainsbourg as a highlands police inspector dubbed with a really bad Scottish accent? Then this is the movie for you!

In addition to Gainsbourg, we have Jane Birkin (the absence of “Je T’Aime...Moi Non Plus” from the soundtrack is a positive disappointment), Hiram Keller (‘Fellini-Satyricon’), Doris Kunstmann (Eva Braun in Ennio di Concini’s ‘Hitler: the Last Ten Days’), Francoise Christophe (Princess Daniloff in the 1947 film version of ‘Fantômas’), Dana Ghia (a giallo stalwart with appearances in ‘Smile Before Death’, ‘My Dear Killer’ and ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’) and Anton Diffring (typecast as a German military type in everything from ‘The Sea Shall Not Have Them’ to ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and the TV series ‘Winds of War’).

Diffring gets a break from the Nazi uniform here, playing Dr Franz, consort to the hifalutin Lady Mary MacCrieff (Christophe) who’s hellbent on retaining the ancestral castle despite the exorbitant upkeep, the isolated locale and the medical attention required by her eccentric (and possibly delusive) son James (Keller). James, a socially inept and attention seeking young man who inexplicably morphs into romantic hero halfway through, keeps a pet gorilla and paints nude portraits of his, ahem, French teacher Suzanne (Kunstmann). Suzanne has been engaged by Dr Franz to seduce James and get herself impregnated with an heir; when it becomes clear that James’s only interest in seeing Suzanne au naturel is the opportunity to complete another canvas, Franz enjoys himself with Suzanne instead.

The family’s evidently depleted spiritual needs are catered to by Father Robertson (Venantino Venantini), but Mary is more concerned about her financial needs and proceeds to hit up her sister Alicia (Ghia), recently loaded courtesy of an inheritance, for a loan. Alicia, who would rather Mary sell the castle, moved to London and have James properly looked after, outright refuses to sink any capital into old pile, creating a frosty atmosphere between the sisters.

Into this environment comes Alicia’s daughter Corringa (Birkin), a free spirit recently expelled from convent school. James takes a fancy to her (the avaricious Mary instantly equates a potential match as a fast-track to Alicia’s inheritance), as does the bi-sexual Suzanne. Murder, mistrust and sexual duplicity ensues, with the eponymous cat slinking around as portent to a series of swiftly executed killings (a rare example of a giallo not dwelling fetishistically on its death scenes).

For a while, you’d be forgiven for pegging the moggy as number one suspect (perhaps in league with the gorilla, the simian being better suited to the asphyxiation killing); the fat, waddling, lazy-eyed feline is on the scene for every murder and its alibi is non-existent. It even manages an escape from a sealed tomb after Mary has it interred with the deceased as punishment for disrupting a funeral. Which is a tad harsh.

The fate of – well, that would be telling, but let’s just say the second victim (and the first character to die onscreen) – keys into a local superstition and steers ‘Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye’ into the quasi-supernatural territory of ‘The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave’ or ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’ (what is it about giallo titles and the number seven, by the way?) before the final act revelation confirms the machinations of considerably more earthly motives.

Margheriti takes a slow-burn approach, setting his characters against each other and keeping the tensions at a nice simmer for the first half before cutting loose with the first of the murders. Carlo Carlini’s widescreen cinematography provides some excellent and atmospheric compositions and Riz Ortolani’s score is magnificently overcooked. There are some good, disorientating moments, particularly Corringa’s arrival at the castle where an almost subliminal series of cuts to the watching gorilla left me bemused and slightly unsettled. Architecturally, the castle never convinces as Scottish, nor does the geography in the film’s few exteriors. Likewise, the dubbing is hysterically bad, the work of bored voiceover actors doing comedy Scottish accents. In this respect, ‘Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye’ hoves very very close to being more ‘Goon Show’ than Argento. Still, after the slow-burn first half, it whips itself into an eccentric and entertaining frenzy.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Amy Adams

The immensely likeable Amy Adams - who embodies a winning combination of smouldering vamp and girl-next-door - is 37 today. A large glass is being raised at chez Agitation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


According to a song on The Smiths’ first album, pretty girls make graves.

‘Lady Death’ is a zestfully cynical anime about a pretty girl (with anime-typical exaggerated décolletage) who makes a fuckload of graves. Difference being, she makes them in hell for a bunch of bad dudes who are not already dead, but damned and unrepentant with it.

The story starts in fifteenth century Sweden where nobleman Mattias is subjugating the serfs, pressganging the able-bodied peasantry into his army, defying the clergy and generally trampling down anyone who gets in his way. He treats his wife as badly as everyone else and keeps his daughter, Hope, confined to the ancestral castle. When Hope plays hooky to hang out with sensitive student Nicolo, Mattias takes umbrage, enslaves Nicolo and promises Hope an unpleasant punishment.

Unless you’ve had your morality surgically removed, you’re probably thinking by now that this Mattias geezer is basically a bastard. And you’d be wrong. He’s worse. Hope, sneaking about the castle by candlelight, discovers that her dastardly daddy is basically the devil incarnate. At this point, led by a priest who can stand Mattias’ tyranny no longer, a mob of angry villagers lay siege to the castle. Mattias transforms into Satan, destroys the castle in a fireburst and decamps to hell.

Only Hope survives, which the clergy interpret as a sign of witchcraft and have her arrested. Chained up in a dungeon, a harlequin figure visits her (an avatar of Mattias/Satan) and promises her reconciliation with Nicolo in hell if she pledges herself to the evil one. She rejects the offer. When the church decide to burn her at the stake, however, she takes the pledge out of desperation. Finding herself in hell, Hope discovers that the harlequin is basically a lying bastard and he delights in tormenting her for a while. Eventually summoned before Satan, she finds her dear ol’ pa keeping the company of lizard-tongued concubines who put on lesbian floor shows for his gratification.

This is not the kind of behaviour that I imagine anyone wants to see their dad indulging in. An altercation breaks out and Hope finds herself banished to the furthest reaches of hell. It’s here that she meets the similarly exiled weapon-maker Cremator, who also has a score to settle with Satan. Cremator trains Hope, who morphs from the flaxen haired, good natured and improbably large-bosomed Swedish maiden to the pale-skinned, white-haired, vengefully-inclined and improbably large-bosomed ass-kicking hardcore bitch Lady Death.

Long and short of it, Lady Death puts together a quite literal army of the damned and sets out to fuck Satan’s shit up. While dressed in the kind of nothing-to-the-imagination outfit that makes Vampirella and Red Sonja look like paragons of propriety. All of which I fully and wholeheartedly respect.

Adapted from the Chaos Comics series originally authored by Brian Pulido and illustrated by Steven Hughes, but making some fairly broad departures from the mythology of the comics, ‘Lady Death’ clocks in at a brief 75 minutes and is that rarest of beasts – a movie that could have done with being longer. It fair rushes through the original story section, then hurls itself into the Lady-Death-takes-on-hell-and-hell-gets-scared part of the plot in equally propulsive fashion. Hope’s transformation into Lady Death is dealt with in a series of dissolves lasting mere seconds, and it’s not long after that that our lass has thieved a sword of indestructible power and is offering Satan to come and get some if he thinks he’s hard enough.

The old saw has it that less is more. In the case of ‘Lady Death’ – which, in its present form, is a really terrific outline for a movie – more would have been more. Hell, yeah.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sucker Punch

Picture the scene: self and Paula settle down to watch ‘Sucker Punch’ (because nothing says “classy dude” like making your wife sit through a film predicated on fantasy sequences featuring a quintet of attractive twenty-somethings in mini-skirts) and the following exchange occurs:

Paula: So what’s this movie about?

Me: It’s a kind of layers-of-reality thing. Like ‘Inception’.

Fast forward 105 minutes:

Paula: So what the hell was that movie about?

Me: Buggered if I know.

And sitting down a few days later to write about ‘Sucker Punch’ – which, for all its flaws, has managed to lodge itself in the back of my mind in a way I can only describe as niggling – I’m buggered if I know how to approach it, where to start, whether to put the scalpel of my critical faculties to use and deconstruct all the ways it doesn’t work, or try to pin down why/how it’s managed to get under my skin in a way I almost wish it hadn’t.

Even the tried and trusted let’s-start-with-a-plot-synopsis approach seems redundant. ‘Sucker Punch’ is the kind of movie that dares you to sketch out a plot synopsis. You can, but you’ll soon find yourself wallowing in a gratuitous amount of incidental detail to try to explain exactly why a baby dragon with two crystals in its throat is so important to stealing a cigarette lighter from a fat guy and why that in turn is essential in an escape attempt from a brothel that’s doubling up for an asylum. Or is a representation of it. Or vice versa.

This leads you into a discussion of the brothel as one of the most sexless dens of inquity modern cinema has given us. Short of ‘Showgirls’, I can’t remember a film so packed with nubile young women that managed to be so unerotic. ‘Showgirls’ remains the worst offender, though, since it managed to make female nudity uninteresting. I am still at a loss as to how Paul Verhoeven achieved this.

I am also still at a loss as to how to approach ‘Sucker Punch’. I can’t even blame my stupefaction on unrealistic expectations of the movie (although, to be fair, you only need to glance at the poster and think “hmmmm, Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jamie Chung, Jena Malone and Vanessa Hudgens in the same movie modelling a nice line in sailors suits, I’ll have some of that, thank you very much” in order to cultivate unrealistic expectations) since I went into ‘Sucker Punch’ expecting an incoherent mishmash at best and a train-wreck at worst.

But I guess what was was expecting, at the heart of either the mishmash or the mangled remains of carriages and locomotive, was an exuberant and unapologetically cheesy action-fest. This, after all, was a movie I had it on good authority as containing a major set-piece featuring clockwork and steam-powered Germans circa First World War getting their trench-dwelling asses whupped by our foxy fivesome. A movie that featured samurai elements, sword and sorcery elements, sci-fi elements and feminist elements. That huge tranches of it take place in an alternative reality was a foregone conclusion this feminism certainly doesn’t equate to girls ‘n’ guns posturing in this reality. Certainly not when the girls have names like Baby Doll, Sweet Pea and Blondie. I’m guessing Germaine Greer’s services were not engaged during rewrites.

I was, in short, expecting a lightweight piece of fluff. Something fun. Surely it’s not possible to shove ‘Inception’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Hellboy’, ‘D.E.B.S.’ and ‘Cabaret’ in the blender (along with a train full of killer robots) and come out with a movie that’s anything less than big dumb fun. Surely?

Zack Snyder manages it. How? He also shoves ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ into the blender. He puts in bigger spoonfuls of these ingredients than any of the others. He plays out the big action scenes in the shadow of institutional miserablism. He depicts the burlesque atmosphere of the brothel in the shadow of the asylum. The threat of sexual violence hangs over his heroines in both realities. The only time they’re not in danger of being raped is when they’re battling steampunk Germans or gleaming robots – none of whom, I’m guessing, are packing a penis anyway.

(After I thought about ‘Sucker Punch’ for longer than necessary – and I guess I’d better throw up a SPOILER alert here, even though this is pure supposition – I came to the conclusion that the brothel is the top layered of reality, the asylum is how Sweet Pea has come to think of it, and ostensible main character Baby Doll is actually a figment of Sweet Pea’s imagination, an alter ego the introduction of whom into her fantasy world gives her the impetus to make an escape attempt. Please feel free to debate this theory in the comments section. SPOILERS/ABJECT GUESSWORK end.)

Maybe that’s why Snyder called it ‘Sucker Punch’ in the first place. It’s a movie that seems to promise a specific set of tropes, a certain vibe, a fanboy aesthetic of kick-ass action heroines and OTT spectacle – and to some degree lets you think you’re getting it – but continually challenges you with its unremitting returns to a milieu of incarceration, threat and depersonalization. Which denies you the payoff you want.

All told, short of painting his bizarro vision in the visceral palette of an R rating, Snyder seems to have made exactly the movie he wanted to with zero thought spared for commercialism, audience satisfaction or critical response. ‘Sucker Punch’ is a balls-to-the-wall exegesis of big-budget auteurism. And it frustrates the hell out of me that I’m unable to wholeheartedly embrace it the way I want to.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Barbara Bouchet

I was going to mark Barbara Bouchet's 68th birthday with a review of 'Milano Calibro 9'; unfortunately, the copy I'd acquired started playing funny buggers half an hour in, skipping back to the start. The lovely Ms Bouchet hadn't even played her first scene. Epic fail!

Here's a triptych of world-class cheesecake shots instead ...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: A Blade in the Dark

Until I watched Lamberto Bava’s ‘A Blade in the Dark’, my favourite line of dialogue in a giallo was a straight toss-up between “Right, send in the perverts” (‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’) and “I killed them because they were dolls, just stupid dolls” (‘Torso’).

I now have not one but two lines of dialogue – from the same film – that challenge these. The first, during an argument between film score composer Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) and his actress girlfriend Julia (Lara Naszinsky), is apropos of her obsession with sun-bathing: “Is it possible you’re such a vacant nerd?” Bruno snaps. “Your satisfaction is to sit like a frog in the sun.”

Calling your g/f a nerd and likening her to a frog in the same breath – way to go, Bruno, you silver tongued devil, you.

The second concerns the murderer’s psychopathology. Now, I watched a lot of gialli – and I’ll happily admit that there’s still a good number of titles I have yet to acquaint myself with – and the motivations for a genre’s worth of black-gloved psychopaths are manifold: childhood traumas, botched abortions, inheritances, schoolgirl prostitution rings, sexual hang-ups, religious mania, property deals, inconvenient spouses and just plain old blood-lust. ‘A Blade in the Dark’ gives us a killer the key to whose psychology is – ready for this – “a morbid fear of tennis balls bouncing in the night”.

Because I don’t know about you, but those nocturnally buoyant tennis balls give me the willies good and proper. The more I think about it, the more I’m at a loss to understand why other filmmakers haven’t picked up on this. (“Are the snooker cues still screaming, Clarice?” “You can take our lives, but you’ll never take … our penalty!”)

Okay, let’s hit pause on the sarcasm and rewind for a plot synopsis. Bruno rents an isolated villa from rich pal Tony (Michele Soavi) so he can have some peace and quiet while he works on the score for a horror film directed by Sandra (Anny Papa). Between visits from the erratic Julia, he is visited by the flighty Katia (Valeria Cavalli) and the seductive Angela (Fabiola Toledo), both of whom have connections to the previous tenant, an individual known only as Linda.

In short order Katia and Angela go missing, Katia’s diary is torn up and burned, and a tape reel on which Bruno hears a voice saying something that seems to connect Linda to the strange events currently unfolding is destroyed. Bruno questions shifty groundsman Giovanni (Stanko Molnar) about the previous tenant, but he’s less than forthcoming. Then Sandra lets its slip that she has a connection to the mysterious Linda. Bruno grows increasingly edgy as events escalate, but without a body to prove that Katia or Angela have been murdered, and his story roundly scorned by Julia, he finds himself with no-one to whom he can turn.

Where it succeeds, ‘A Blade in the Dark’ does so on Bava’s twitchy directorial style: from his father and Dario Argento he obviously learned the effectiveness of a prowling, subjective camera. The villa – a building so seemingly sprawling that half the time I wanted to cast an eye over the architects drawings just to see if it really was that big – offers opportunities for tense cat ‘n’ mouse sequences and architecture porn cinematography which are both seized with equal glee.

Made in 1983, it harks back to the gialli of the previous decade, particularly Argento’s ‘Deep Red’: musician protagonist, long sequences of said reluctant hero exploring a house that may or may not be deserted, a major clue (visual in ‘Deep Red’; dialogue in ‘A Blade in the Dark’) hidden in plain sight, sexual ambiguity in the last reel revelation. And for the most part it’s a stylish and compelling enough throwback.

However, there’s little investment in the ostensible mystery with Bruno, atypical for a giallo protagonist, neither witnessing an actual murder or getting hung up on an overlooked clue, the importance of which only becomes clear late in the day. Bruno’s tenuous reasons for believing that Katia and Angela have been killed – while explicitly proved to the audience in two extended setpieces – don’t really hold water and make for some awkwardly exposited scenes when he tries to discuss his concerns with Julie, Sandra or Tony.

Katia’s diary, the strange voice on the tape (no explanation for which is ever satisfactorily provided) and the peregrinations of the thuggish Giovanni are herrings of various shades of red, but Bruno never really pursues or discounts any of these angles. There’s an illogicality about ‘A Blade in the Dark’ which – while it’s kind of petty to carp about illogicality in gialli – becomes increasingly notable the longer the film continues. (Subject of which, twenty minutes shorter would have been an ideal length.)

This illogicality is present in scene after scene. It’s there in the discontinuity of Sandra discussing the revelation in the final reel of her film (“wait till you see reel twelve”), a clue which ties in to the killer’s motivation, only for the killer to break into the studio and hack apart the contents of reel ten (“the final reel,” as Sandra’s projectionist breathlessly gasps). It’s there in the ability of the killer to be at Bruno’s villa (described early on in the film as “isolated”) just minutes after vandalizing the film, while it takes Bruno three or four times as long to get back after he realizes that Julia is in danger. It’s there in the scene where Bruno asks Julia to accompany her on an errand and she snubs his company for the pleasures of sunbathing (hence the aforementioned “vacant nerd”/“frog in the sun” diatribe; Bruno’s errand turns out to be a secretive enquiry into Julia’s recent inexplicable behavior … so why invite her along?

‘A Blade in the Dark’ often seems like a collection of cool set-pieces strung together by a patchwork quilt of a narrative that hadn’t been particularly well thought out. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of gialli you can say that about which have been deliriously entertaining. ‘A Blade in the Dark’, for all its technical prowess, doesn’t quite achieve the delirium and grand guignol gratuitousness that defines the top flight examples of the genre.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

SUMMER OF SATAN: The House of the Devil

Ti West was a name I’d heard a lot, not in mainstream film criticism, but via bloggers who are passionate about horror cinema and make the effort to seek out new and interesting work. But until I picked up a copy of ‘House of the Devil’ dirt cheap on DVD recently, I knew nothing of his work.

That gets remedied. As of now.

‘The House of the Devil’ is both an homage to 1970s and 1980s low-budget American horror movies, and a reclaiming of an aesthetic all but mothballed in an age of blurrily fast cutting and overuse of CGI. West films his incrementally creepy tale in the style of a late 70s film and using techniques redolent of the area: zooms instead of dollying, lengthy tracking shots, extensive title credits, etc. But, to his credit, he emerges with something more than a mere filmmaking experiment; something more satisfying than, say, Soderbergh’s ‘The Good German’.

Opening with the assertion that, in the 1980s, 70% of Americans believed in the existence of abusive Satanic cults, ‘The House of the Devil’ immediately submerges us into a world of personal cassette players (explanatory note for under-18s*: kind of like the iPod, but bigger and with far less songs), cheesy music, Farah Fawcett hairstyles and boxy Volvo station wagons. (West also mentions that the film is based on “true unexplained events”; a wonderfully paradoxical sentence that presumably covers a multitude of invention and/or falsification.)

We quickly meet our heroine, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), a college student looking to move out of the room she shares with a boy-crazy fellow student whose name I either didn’t catch or wasn’t important enough to be given a name in the script. (That’s “shares” as in “has to find other accommodation while roommate is entertaining anything with an X and a Y chromosome”, by the way.) She lucks out finding a landlady who cuts her a deal because Sam reminds her of her daughter; she waives the deposit, leaving Sam with only one problem: coming up with $300 for the first month’s rent.

This was the first thing ‘The House of the Devil’ did that I found particularly canny: while rooting itself in the 70s/80s aesthetic, it provides its heroine with an all-too-contemporary financial motivation (a narrow but valid parallel to ‘Drag Me to Hell’ here). Answering an ad for a babysitter, and calling on her pal Megan (the wonderful Greta Gerwig) to give her a lift out to their isolated homestead, Sam finds herself in the employ of Mr and Mrs Ulman, a couple so creepy that the Addams Family would probably cross the road to avoid them.

Another canny victory for West: the casting. Sam’s future landlady is played by Dee Wallace (‘The Howling’), Mrs Ulman by Mary Woronov (‘Death Race 2000’, ‘The Devil’s Rejects’) and her cadaverous husband by Tom Noonan (the man who launched a thousand involuntary bowel movements as Francis Dollarhyde in ‘Manhunter’). Indeed, Noonan gets his best role since Michael Mann’s psychological classic (and, for my money, still the best Thomas Harris adaptation) – he’s avuncular, refined and downright fucking scary in just the right combination. That he gives such a fine, nuanced performance – as does Donahue, easily one of the most winning horror heroines in recent years – is proof positive that West isn’t just an insightful student of the genre with a keen intuition for a tense set piece. He’s also a bloody good actor’s director.

And while I’m singing the guy’s praises, let me offer him fervent thanks for this above all: he assumes from the outset that his audience is intelligent, able to make connections, and won’t get bored if he concentrates on atmosphere and tension instead of delivering wall-to-wall torture porn viscera or crass sexual objectification. Shout it loud – Ti West respects his female protagonist and takes her seriously. He respects his audience and trusts them to respond to atmosphere, suspense and the occasional well-timed revelation.

Sure, he delivers the goods in a sustained, but not unnecessarily protracted, finale which plunges Sam into a waking nightmare and drives her to a desperate but gut-wrenchingly understandable final reel act without the need for laboured exposition or agonised overacting. But it’s the time and attention to detail he invests into building up to said finale that pays dividends and proves you don’t need swathes of CGI and geysers of stage blood to orchestrate a genuinely dark and nasty denouement.

Released at the culmination of a decade in American horror cinema defined by remakes (‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Halloween’, ‘The Omen’, ‘The Amityville Horror’, ‘The Wicker Man’ etc etc), ‘The House of the Devil’ is infinitely more in tune with the spirit of an earlier – and arguably better – age in genre cinema than anything Platinum Dunes or the other bandwagon-jumpers have offered us. Ti West plays his hand perfectly, creating a slow-burn skin-crawler of the old school that lingers in the mind.

*Please don’t tell your parents you read this blog.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Meanwhile, over at Bryce's place ...

Regular readers of Bryce Wilson’s excellent blog Things That Don’t Suck will be well aware of his side project, Son of Danse Macabre, an online book-in-progress intended as an unofficial (but absolutely respectful) sequel to Stephen King’s seminal non-fiction work ‘Danse Macabre’.

Bryce has been generous enough to turn over a fair chunk of space (about 3,000 words’ worth) to an article by yours truly exploring the post-9/11 themes inherent in contemporary American horror movies. Please also check out the wealth of incisive, in-depth writing by Bryce himself.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Anarchy in the UK

(The following post contains general comments/thoughts on what’s been happening in the UK this week. On a personal note, my thanks to friends overseas who’ve contacted me over the past 72 hours asking if I’m okay. Much appreciated, guys.)

I posted on my Facebook status yesterday an observation that the riots taking place in various areas of the UK – including my home town of Nottingham – have brought out the inner right winger in a number of people who hitherto wore their liberal credentials on their sleeves.

I’ve spent three days sitting at work listening to reasonably educated people (many from outlying areas of the city completely unaffected by the riots) fulminate at those responsible as mindless, thuggish, work-shy freeloaders who have no political motivation but are just out to cause destruction and loot shops. Which is probably true of the vast majority of the rioters. But the mistake that’s being made here is that rioters, looters and genuine protestors are being lumped into the same group.

I’ve also spent three days listening to reasonably educated, supposedly liberal, middle class people from unaffected areas advocate the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, tear-gas or even armed response. I’ve heard people, without a trace of irony, talking about bringing back Borstals, National Service and the death penalty. I can’t imagine a less appropriate response to what’s currently happening. It’s a form of parochialism that reveals he who espouses it as little better than the hooded thug actually throwing a firebomb. One is physically undertaking a violent act, the other is suggesting that a violent act be undertaken in their name and on their behalf or – worse – implying that a heavy-handed anti-youth police state would prevail if they had their way.

I’ve also listened to a lot of pontificating about the causes of the rioting. What happened in London was sparked off by the fatal shooting of a man by Metropolitan officers. What’s getting lost in all the tabloid proselytizing is that the friends and family of the deceased, who turned up at a police station in Tottenham demanding answers, did so with the intent of staging a peaceful protest. Events exacerbated after a teenage girl who threw stones was attacked by police. Other incidences of rioting have been blamed on job cuts.

Have you ever been on a fire safety course or done it as part of an induction at work? Remember the fire triangle? You need fuel, heat and oxygen for a fire to break out. A spark itself does not cause a fire. The environment needs to be conducive. What sparks off a riot is seldom the reason for it. There has to be a tinderbox atmosphere for conflagration to ensue. And it’s generally the case that this atmosphere has been simmering away for quite some time before things erupt.

One of the most facile questions I’ve heard asked is “What’s going through the heads of the rioters while they smash windows and burn buildings?” My best guess would be: nothing much. They’re probably too driven by adrenaline, anger, frustration and the suddenly presented opportunity for destructive catharsis to do much intellectualizing about things.

The question that should be asked, and which I’m not seeing anywhere in the media or on Facebook, is this:

What created the atmosphere of disaffection and disenfranchisement so palpable in England at the moment that the riots were able to happen?

To answer that depends on how far you want to go back and how wide you want to throw the net. Personally, I’d say the seeds were sown during the 1984-85 miners’ strike when the government effectively turned the police and the armed forces against its own citizens in order to break the power of the unions. The damage done to workers’ rights was devastating. A succession of milquetoast governments have gradually acceded power to corporate entities. The Blair government – which I came to think of as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bush administration – spent three terms dismantling a tranche of basic civil liberties. The fall-out was voter apathy and political troilism (New Conservative and New Labour being virtually indistinguishable) at the last general election. The result: a coalition government. Herein the first problem: nobody votes for a coalition. Ergo we have a government that nobody wants. A government opposed by a party that has drifted so far from what Labour once stood for that its current leader, Ed Milliband, sat on the fence during last month’s public sector strike action instead of voicing support for the workers. In other words, we have no-one to believe in politically.

Now factor in the current state of the economy. For two years in the UK we had what the tabloids delighted in calling the “credit crunch”, a recession created by the greed of the financial institutions and perpetuated by media hyperbole. We’re still riding the tail-end of it, with the job market dead and buried and those of us still in work putting up with wage freezes or even cuts, while the price of living, the price of fuel and the cost of insurance keep going up and up. On a personal note, my house is in negative equity and I’m on an IVA which will last another four years. I am more or less working for nothing. I have no chance of putting aside any savings or investing towards my retirement, and won’t have for some time to come. Do I condone the rioters? No. Do I understand why someone would be filled with enough negative energy to do something destructive? Sadly, and with a heavy heart, I have to admit that yes, I do. The difference is that, if I didn’t have words as a weapon and this blog and/or social networking sites as a forum, I would be directing my negative energy by hurling a brick at the Houses of Parliament or the corporate headquarters of one of the financial institutions or one of the Murdoch-owned media organizations rather than through the window of a sports shop or a Tesco Metro.

Ah yes, the Murdoch media empire. A rapacious entity that even controls The Times, proof if any were needed that nothing is sacred. If political disenfranchisement and economical hardship weren’t enough to create a tinderbox atmosphere, we’ve just seen incontrovertible evidence that the media have perpetrated gross acts of exploitation, milking the grief of people who were at their most vulnerable at the time. Rampantly illegal acts; violation of privacy; leering and amoral voyeurism parcelled up under the disguise of journalism and disseminated to the public. And when someone does what just about everyone I know wanted to do and slaps a foam pie in Murdoch’s face during the hearings, what happens? They give him six weeks in jail. While David Cameron, who was accused last month of violating the ministerial code in his association with Murdoch, is not only not in jail but running (in the loosest sense of the word) the country.

So: we have an economically fucked nation that’s been betrayed politically for two and half decades and is currently in the hands of a government nobody voted for whose key player has links to the man responsible for a media, pitched intellectually and culturally at the lowest common denominator, which is guilty of lies, exploitation and illegal acts.

This is why an atmosphere exists which is conducive what we have seen over the last few days. But you won’t hear it from the mouth of a politician because it would an admission that they’ve failed, and you won’t see it debated in the media because it would be an admission that they’re part of the problem.

I don’t condone the rioting. My sympathies are with those who have been adversely affected. But it’s difficult to see the riots as anything other than an inevitability.

Monday, August 08, 2011


I have no idea why ‘Evilspeak’ made the DPP’s “video nasties” list back in the 1980s, unless the guardians of public morality were concerned that impressionable teenagers the length and breadth of the British Isles would, en masse, begin typing screeds of Latin onto computer screens, hit the enter key and be rewarded with translations of Satanic prose, after which said computer would play an instrumental if entirely unexplained part in conjuring forth an ancient evil from the depths of etc. etc. etc.

I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. This was the ’80s, after all, and Hollywood was happily feeding the public any number of misconceptions about the operational capacities of the personal computer. One of the great clichés of the era is the character typing in a question on a DOS prompt screen backgrounded by shimmering green – usually a question to do with the projected course of an asteroid heading towards earth, or the rate of infection if the virus/alien/evil thingy isn’t stopped – hitting enter and the computer throwing up the answer immediately. No faffing about downloading or running a programme, sifting through mounds of returned data, clicking through endless installation wizards on the death of a thousand error messages. No, siree, nuthin’ like that. Just type a question, hit a key, get an answer. I can only imagine that had HAL900 been a ZX Spectrum plugged into the back of an analogue TV the size of a breezeblock and hooked up to a tape recorder that took two and a half hours to load Space Invaders, then all would have been well with the Jupiter mission and there wouldn’t have been any of that pod bay doors malarkey. Mind you, the ’80s was also the decade of teenagers hacking into the entire North American defence system and fucking around with all kinds of hardware programmed by their elders and betters that was supposed to be failsafe, so I guess there was at least some pretence at realism.

But I digress. ‘Evilspeak’, un film de Eric Weston, tells the tale of Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard), a “welfare case” at a once-prestigious military academy who is roundly despised by his fellow cadets. That’s “despised” as in “bullied viciously at every opportunity”. He’s equally unpopular with the staff, who either (in the case of the principal) turn a blind eye to his victimization or (pace the football coach) actively encourage it.

One day, on a punishment detail cleaning out the basement – the fiefdom of Sarge (R.G. Armstrong, notching up another Satanic entry on the CV), a drunkard and paedophile (“I’m gonna show you how I make a boy into a little girl”) – he comes across the journal of Father Esteban (Richard Moll), an exiled former priest turned Satanist. We meet Esteban in the prologue, where the Spanish clergy denounce him as a heretic and cast him out of both church and country. Esteban doesn’t seem overly bothered by this, and happily stages a Black Mass on the beach before he takes his leave. And if that’s not a “fuck you” to authority, I don’t know what is.

Coopersmith, his inability on the parade ground or football field compensated for by his IT skills, uses a computer to decipher Esteban’s arcane scribblings. The computer, seemingly possessed by Esteban’s spirit, helpfully delineates all the elements Coopersmith needs to enact his own Black Mass. Partly to keep his discovery under wraps and partly to avoid his tormentors, Coopersmith decamps to the basement, having swiped some computer equipment from class and some consecrated host (one of the ingredients for his Satan-summoning session) from the chapel. This latter acquisition perks the suspicions of fair-weather priest Reverend Jameson (Joseph Cortese).

The accepted wisdom, the way the narrative is shaping up at this point, would be: Coopersmith spends half the movie getting his ass kicked; Coopersmith conjures ol’ Scratch; Coopersmith and his new best bud spend the rest of the movie taking gory revenge on the bullies one by one. But Weston doesn’t entirely do the expected thing. True, he adheres to enough of the genre staples (particularly a shower scene so gratuitous it’s magnificent) to mark ‘Evilspeak’ as inarguably a product of both its time and its genre; but he also fucks around with the expected narrative arc.

Firstly, the journal falls out of Coopersmith’s hands for a portion of the running time and is appropriated by airhead secretary Miss Friedemeyer (Lynn Hancock). A subplot regarding wild boars kicks in at this point, and culminates in a moment of jaw-dropping what-the-fuckery as the aforementioned gratuitous shower scene segues into entrail-munching notoriety.

Secondly, Coopersmith’s attempts to conduct the Black Mass are pretty abject. He’s continually lacking something, and scene after scene ends with him shutting the computer down as he realizes he’s failed again … only for the screen to flicker back into life after he’s gone. The last two requirements of the ritual are provided purely by accident. No spoilers, but there’s irony aplenty in the bullies’ complicity.

Thirdly, Coopersmith all but abandons his plans for harnessing evil when he takes in a puppy and deludes himself that there’s a girl who maybe likes him a bit. Yes, you read that right: our much-maligned, badly bullied and vehemently victimized man of the moment lets his plans for preternatural payback fall by the wayside when somebody gives him a dog.

Of course, the anti-Coopersmith league aren’t going to let him lapse into a state of dewey-eyed enjoyment of life, and a couple of dirty deeds later the scene is set for Satanic shenanigans. After teasing the audience with Coopersmith’s never-quite-completed Black Mass for way over three quarters of the running time, Weston raises hell (the expression used advisedly) in the last fifteen minutes. And he delivers the goods in gory fashion, his fire and brimstone finale coming on a whole lot more impressive than its budget might have suggested.

In an age where technology has outpaced what was considered cutting edge (or even outright sci-fi supposition) two or three decades ago, ‘Evilspeak’ is laughable in many respects. It’s also pretty well done for a low-budget shocker; and, as the presence of Armstrong and Cortese in the cast attest, it cares a little more than most of its ilk about character and performance. Ultimately, it’s an oddball experience and its “video nasty” stigma implies an aesthetic that it only partly lives up to, but as a time-capsule movie with ten minutes of no-nonsense blood and guts at its denouement and an approach to the subject matter that doesn’t involve neophytes in robes dancing around burning trees and drawing pentagrams in chickens’ blood, it’s definitely worth a watch.