Monday, October 31, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: Halloween

The problem with writing about a film as influential, much-imitated and downright iconic as ‘Halloween’ is trying to find something to say about it that hasn’t already been said. I could probably jot down a quick bullet-point checklist along the lines of:

  • The subjective, prowling POV of the opening scene
  • Dean Cundey’s cinematography
  • Carpenter’s own score (minimalism at its eeriest)
  • Pre-David Lynch Lynchian small town vibe
  • Now you see Michael, now you don’t (repeat to increasingly nerve-shredding effect throughout the film then roll out as a horribly inevitable coda)
  • Authentically buttock-clenching scare scenes
  • The old ‘supposedly dead person out of focus in the background suddenly sits up’ routine done better than anywhere else in the history of scary movies
  • The final girl sequence par excellence

… and it’d suffice. It’d certainly tick half a dozen or so of the boxes that make ‘Halloween’ a classic. But it wouldn’t touch on any of the things that make the film work on a primal level. Such as how much of it takes place in darkness, from Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) being driven through the grounds of an asylum in a nocturnal deluge, the wash of headlights illuminating the shambolic figures of inmates roaming around on the loose, to Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) fleeing the house she’s babysitting at into a street so deserted and devoid of sanctuary that it seems like she’s in a ghost town. Both of these scenes are shot through with the fractured and panicky immediacy of a nightmare.

Or the juxtaposition of the wide pavements and long avenues of Haddonfield with the tight interiors, characters continually trapped with the framework of doorways, windows, stairwells, corridors and – in one of the film’s most justifiably famous moments – a closet. And in both of these milieus, the implacable and seemingly unmotivated Michael Myers. A presence, a threat, a great hulking white-masking thing. Other horror movie antagonists benefit (or suffer, this latter usually exacerbated by sequilitis) from a personality, or at least some defining characteristic – from the overt theatrics and cheesy one-liners of Freddy Krueger to the grungy backwoods psychosis of Leatherface. Michael Myers – in this film at least; the sequels make the mistake of plumbing his backstory further than the simple act of childhood evil that kicks off Carpenter’s original – is basically a faceless, emotionless, unstoppable killing machine. Who thinks nothing of digging up his mother’s gravestone for use in a macabre little tableau.

And for this reason, Michael Myers is one of the great horror icons. He disturbs even when he’s doing nothing. Dude steps out silently behind a hedge to watch the retreating form of Laurie. Goosebumps. Dude stands motionless outside a window watching a girl disrobe. Hairs on the back of the neck moment. Dude drives past a school, driving real slow, keeping pace with a young boy walking home on his own. Squirmy sense of agitation. And when he does start getting his homicidal funk on, the absolute detachment he acts with is genuinely unsettling. Having knifed someone so viciously he leaves their body pinioned against a door, he stands there turning his head from side to side as if trying to figure out the meaning of a particularly obscure art gallery installation.

Best of all, though, is John Carpenter’s intuitive sense of pacing, his canny handling of the material. He knows to strip away everything from the narrative that’s extraneous. To keep things utterly simple. To set up a handful of characters, let them plan out their Halloween celebrations (whether they’re earning a little extra money babysitting or taking the opportunity to cop off with their dates) and then send Michael Myers on his unhurried but bloodily purposeful way right into the centre of their lives.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: White Light: The Noise

Full disclosure: I’ve somehow never got round to seeing the original ‘White Noise’. I saw ‘White Noise: The Light’ at the cinema because Mrs F was keen on it and it starred Nathan Fillion, who I’d liked a lot in ‘Serenity’ and ‘Slither’. I watched it again a couple of nights ago (it’s a staple of Mrs F’s DVD collection – she also likes Nathan Fillion, which is kind of understandable: dude has the same initials as yours truly and the same kind of rumpled je ne sais quoi; but having said that, keep your hands off my woman, Nate).

‘WN: TL’ kicks off with Abe Dale (Fillion) and his wife Rebecca (Kendall Cross) celebrating their anniversary. Over breakfast at a diner, their son Danny (Joshua Ballard) complains of feeling unwell. Seconds later, Rebecca appears to have some kind of fit. Seconds after that, a total stranger by the name of Henry Caine (Craig Fairbrass) enters the diner, pulls a gun and shoots Rebecca and Danny before turning the pistol on himself.

As you’d imagine, Abe’s life goes to hell. A few months later, unable to come to terms, he attempts suicide. Due to the intervention of best bud Marty (Adrian Holmes) and a calm-under-crisis medical team, Abe is brought back from the brink of death. Literally.

Dr Karras (William MacDonald), who specializes in near death experiences and precognition, takes on Abe as his patient. Meanwhile, widowed nurse Sherry (Katee Sackhoff) is drawn to Abe. Dr Karras – and if the character name strikes you as heavy-handed horror movie in-joke, consider the Biblical connotations of having the Dale family named Abraham, Rebecca and Daniel, and their antagonist being called Caine – seems to fulfil the purpose of delivery-system-for-expository-dialogue, the audience’s guide to the weird shit that starts happening around Abe, he’s abruptly killed off and Abe realizes the significance of the aura he saw emanating from Dr K during their consultation.

Abe realizes that he can identify people who are about to die. After a couple of initial hesitations and a failed attempt at saving a wino crossing a railway line from death-by-goods-train, Abe gets into his groove and – essentially – starts playing God. As good as he feels about saving the due-to-die, he’s perplexed by the accusatory visitations he experiences from the already-dead.

Halfway through, a decent story about a man’s grief leavened by his ability to save (the kind of thing you’d imagine the restrained M. Night Shyamalan of the early part of his career doing) barrels off in a different direction when Abe discovers that Caine had earlier interceded in his wife and son’s life to their benefit, saving them from a potential automobile accident. Abe investigates why Caine turned from saviour to killer … and this is where things get a bit wobbly.

On one hand, director Patrick Lussier and writer Matt Venne deliver a conceptually interesting morality tale on the dangers of playing God, with Abe’s ostensible acts of charity going spectacularly wrong when those who were supposed to die but didn’t become the vessels of something less than holy on the third day of their faux resurrection. And yes, the Biblical malarkey and the whole “tria mera” idea is incorporated quite effectively. But – and here comes the “on the other hand” bit – this is how the three people Abe saves were supposed to die: crushed under a vehicle while trying to effect a repair courtesy of a speeding motorist; kicked to death by a gang of oiks while trying to protect his girlfriend; and dragged into a van by a rapist/murderer in an underground car park.

Now, it’s one thing to suggest that someone whose time is due shouldn’t be saved, and that by saving them Abe has monkeyed with God’s grand design. But Abe’s terrible responsibility in having to set things, ahem, right kind of loses its moral string when you reflect that God’s grand design includes agonising and unnecessary deaths, not least in the latter case where it’s implied that brutality and sexual assault, for an indefinite period of time, would be the order of the business prior to riding the night train to the big adios.

Granted, one of the key aspects of the horror genre is its admixture of catharsis and schadenfreude, i.e. while all this bad shit is happening to someone else, it’s not happening to you therefore you breathe a sigh of relief, kick back and enjoy having the piss scared out of you. But there’s something about ‘White Noise: The Light’ that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The breakdown of internal logic (why doesn’t Abe turn bad on the last day given that he’s essentially been saved against his will? in fact, why isn’t everyone successfully discharged from the emergency ward similarly effected?) isn’t helped by two last-minute narrative cheats designed to give Abe redemption and Caine damnation, even though they were essentially victims of the same cosmic quandary.

Or it could just be that, as James Coburn puts it in ‘Cross of Iron, “God is a sadist and probably doesn’t even know it.”

Saturday, October 29, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: Shaun of the Dead

“You’ve got red on you.”

Let’s consider the comedy horror sub-genre. Perhaps the most easy kind of movie to fuck up. Make a straight horror film that doesn’t work and you’ve achieved the comedy unintentionally. Set out to make a horror film that’s funny and you already run into two potential – and oh-so-often blundered into – pitfalls. Either it’s not funny enough, or not dark/horrific/nasty enough.

If that’s not enough of a challenge, you then have to factor in how buggardly difficult it is to be funny, period. Bad comedians? Ten a penny. The likes of the Goons, the Monty Python team, Dave Allen, Bill Hicks or Billy Connolly – the defining comedic talents? Once a generation, pretty much. Lame, stupid, by-the-numbers movies advertising themselves as comedies? There’s probably four or five playing at a multiplex near you right now. Something that really hits the ball of the park and makes your sides hurt even while the intelligence behind the rib-tickling is actively challenging you as a viewer? ‘Four Lions’ was probably the last thing I saw that ticked all the boxes.

So: comedy horrors. Fuck loads of ’em. And some come very close to nailing it. ‘Slither’ only just misses out because of it’s mean-spirited and utterly unamusing first half hour. ‘Zombieland’ has a shedload of good ideas and intermittently hits the heights, but tries too hard. ‘Dead Snow’ mines some belly laughs out of promising material but never goes as crazy and satirical with it as you so desperately want it to. Those that get it right? The ‘Evil Dead’ films, ‘Tremors’, ‘Eight Legged Freaks’ and the absolute best of the bunch: the king of comedy horror, the monarch of mordant mockery, the sultan of scary spoofery, the god-emperor of graveyard humour: ‘Shaun of the Dead’.

‘Shaun of the Dead’ works, primarily, because everyone involved in it knows how to be funny. That’s “knows how to” in the same way that Bernard Haitink knows how to conduct, Iain Banks knows how to write novels, Slash knows how to play the guitar and the gentlemen at the Talisker distillery know how to make whisky. Co-written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, and directed by Wright, these fellows were two of the three talents behind ‘Spaced’ (the third, Jessica Stevenson, cameos in ‘Shaun of the Dead’ to terrific effect), which I’d dare anyone to argue otherwise as regards the proposition “best British sit-com” of the last twenty years.

‘Shaun of the Dead’ takes the outbreak of revivified corpses/mass panic/small group of survivors holed up against superior (undead) numbers narrative checklist of every zombie film since a certain George A Romero made a low-budget indie called ‘Night of the Living Dead’, transports them to a blandly realistic London and demonstrates how two adult males who have never truly left adolescence behind deal with the crisis. Let’s meet our heroes. Shaun (Pegg) is pushing thirty, stuck in a dead-end job and just about, as the film opens, to be given the Spanish archer (El Bow) by his long-suffering girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). Ed (Nick Frost) is Shaun’s unemployed and terminally irresponsible best mate who’s been crashing at Ed’s shared accommodation for so long that he’s long since incited the wrath of Shaun’s prissy flatmate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz).

Battling rank insubordination at work and Pete’s anti-Ed rhetoric at home, as well as nurturing resentment against his stepfather Phillip (Bill Nighy) while trying to keep things on an even keel with his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton), Shaun prioritizes his biggest challenge as getting Liz back. And no pissy little zombie epidemic is going to get in his way!

The cleverest thing – in a movie chock-full of inspired moments – that ‘Shaun of the Dead’ does is treat the zombie threat, in its early stages anyway, as a minor irritant in Shaun’s rapidly unravelling life. The reason for the dead rising is not so much explained as turned into a brilliantly edited satirical comment on the attention-deficiency of the TV/infotainment-addled channel-hopping generation. In fact, Pegg and Wright go one step further and suggest that since cultural zombification is pretty much a state of mind for an entire cross-section of the populace (as evidenced in the low-key but conceptually brilliant opening sequence) an actual zombie attack might not be as easy to recognize as you’d imagine.

Hence the first scene in which Shaun and Ed realize that there’s something untoward about their fellow Londoners and start fighting back. I refer, of course, to the scene in the garden where they raid the shed for items to fling at the zombies’ heads in order to incapacitate them. They come upon Shaun’s collection of vinyl LPs and this ensues:

Ed: Purple Rain?
Shaun: No.
Ed: Sign o' the Times?
Shaun: Definitely not.
Ed: The ‘Batman’ soundtrack?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: Dire Straits?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: Stone Roses?
Shaun: Uh, no.
Ed: Second Coming?
Shaun (sheepishly): I like it.
Ed: Sade?
Shaun: But that’s Liz’s.
Ed: Yeah, but she did dump you.

It’s the first scene in which ‘Shaun of the Dead’ lays down the gauntlet as to what the comedy horror movie can truly achieve. And then spends another hour and change more than living up to it. Take the scene where Shaun and his mates fend off their newly zombified barman with pool cues, leaping around him in some weird parody of a maypole dance with the jukebox blasts out Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. I’ll put that up with anything Scorsese, Tarantino or Richard Kelly have pulled off in the marriage-of-music-to-imagery stakes. Or the appropriation of their favourite pub (The Winchester)’s mascot – the eponymous rifle – to fight off a zombie attack. Shaun proves spectacularly useless as a marksman until Ed talks him through it as if they were playing a video game. Or the two bands of survivors who meet whilst heading in opposite directions – a sublime visual joke that not only provides one of the many ‘Spaced’ in-jokes, but niftily references co-star Dylan Moran’s wonderfully subversive sitcom ‘Black Books’.

Or the proliferation of horror movie homages, from Fulci’s Italian restaurant (Shaun’s first choice when he tries to make an eleventh hour booking for an anniversary meal) to a supermarket chain called Landis (both a nod to John Landis and a spoof of British supermarket chain Londis) to Shaun’s disapproval of Ed using “the z-word” (a sneaky allusion to Danny Boyle’s insistence, at the time ’28 Days Later’ was released, that it wasn’t a zombie film). More subtle still, Shaun works for “Foree Electrics”, a tip of the hat to Ken Foree, the iconic actor in Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ who memorably delivered the “when there is no more room in hell…” line. (And delivered it to equal effect in Zack Snyder’s remake.)

All of which is an extended way of saying that in addition to being a funny, clever and often genuinely suspenseful film in its own right, ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is a treasure trove for the genre aficionado. It trades in a brand of deadpan observational humour that is archetypically British, but seasons it with a thorough knowledge of (chiefly American) genre movies. And it handles the tension and the gore as rigorously as it does the comedy of embarrassments.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Contributions, creepy movies and cool dudes

As if the Second Annual 13 For Halloween round-up and my contribution on Fulci’s ‘The Beyond’ to the Italian Horror Movie Blogathon hosted by Hugo Stigltiz Makes Movies weren’t enough!

I’m included in a mammoth post on The Film Connoisseur today which brings together four bloggers with a love of horror movies: yours truly, the Film Connoisseur himself Francisco Gonzalez, Shaun Anderson of The Celluloid Highway and Brian Bankston of Cool Ass Cinema. Shaun considers supernatural films from Britain, while I look at similarly themed works from America; Brian takes a walk on the wild side with some HK/Japanese tales of terror, and Francisco unearths some fascinating fear-fests from the silent/b&w era. Head over to The Film Connoisseur and check it out.

From tomorrow, I’ll be blogging the last three of 13 For Halloween reviews here on The Agitation of the Mind, and taking part in Shane Briant Appreciation Day on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Posted as part of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies’ 2nd Annual Italian Horror Movie Blogathon

I don’t have any hard and fast rules when it comes to reviewing a film. In terms of style, content, structure and word length, it’s pretty much a case of however I’m feeling when I sit down at the computer and start typing. Sometimes I start with a plot synopsis, sometimes a contextual remark on the film’s place in the director’s canon, sometimes a personal recollection of the first time I saw the film, and sometimes a bit of straight-up unapologetic sarcasm.

With ‘The Beyond’, I really want to start with a comment along the lines of “this is one of the most gorgeous horror movies I’ve ever seen”. Only it seems a slightly inappropriate description for a movie featuring multiple face meltings, excessive eyeball trauma (what was it with Fulci and the introduction of sharp implements to the vitreous humor?), a chaining, a crucifixion, and some anti-social behaviour from the natural world, viz. a guide dog completely abandoning the job description and a protracted scene where some big-ass spiders eat a guy’s face. (Any arachnological issues one might have with the veracity of said set-piece will, I guarantee you, be swiftly dispelled by the sheer ickiness of it.)

And yet … ‘The Beyond’ is never less than handsomely mounted and often outright beautiful (not as potent a piece of cinematic eye-candy as Argento at his most visually florid but still more enough to turn the head of a DoP groupie), and nowhere more so than in the sepia toned 7-minute pre-credits sequence. There’s a note-perfect analysis of this scene in Tim’s review of ‘The Beyond’ at Antagony & Ecstasy, which I’d urge you to read. This sequence – set in 1927 – is a mini-movie which moves elegantly from painterly imagery to brutal narrative without ever sacrificing its aesthetic (kudos to cinematographer Sergio Salvati).

A group of townsfolk converge, by boat and car, on a dilapidated hotel where Schweik (Antoine Saint-John), a painter reviled as a warlock, is staying. They enter the premises and burst into his room. During what follows, Schweik attempts to reason with them, revealing that the hotel is built over one of the seven gateways to hell and that he has specialist knowledge which can ensure the portal is never opened … the kind of dialogue which, today, would earn him a fast-tracked referral to a mental health facility. The kind of dialogue which, in 1927, earns him the attentions of a lynch mob.

Incidentally, those dozen words: “the hotel is built over one of the seven gateways to hell”? That’s your plot synopsis, right there.

The story – i.e. the remaining 80 minutes during which property heiress Liza (Katherine MacColl) and general practitioner Dr John McCabe (David Warbeck) find out what the audience already know – recommences in 1981 with the hotel even more dilapidated. Liza, unexpectedly finding herself the new owner, decides to renovate and reopen it. Discovering a flooded basement and an incipient leak even though the water is turned off, she hires Joe the plumber (Giovanni di Nava) to fix the problem. Not only does the luckless Joe not fix the problem, he exacerbates it by way of opening the door to the undead. Fucked up and generally unpleasant set-pieces ensue; a nastily cynical coda kicks you in the balls; roll end credits.

As a work of narrative coherence, ‘The Beyond’ is up there with ‘Suspiria’. In fact, coming three years after Argento’s masterpiece of anti-narrative and just a year after his equally free-form follow-up ‘Inferno’, Fulci’s opus invites comparison to the Three Mothers mythos. If Argento’s concept was of three houses of evil, one for each of his triumvirate of demonic dames, one can only imagine where Fulci’s imagination might have taken him if he’d chosen to explore the other six entrances to the underworld. (Although an argument can be made for ‘City of the Living Dead’ and ‘The House by the Cemetery’ as companion pieces which use their settings to similar effect.)

But coherence isn’t what ‘The Beyond’ needs. No matter the weird feeding habits of spiders, the libraries and bookshops which are repositories of weirdness, the hospital in which a family doctor can happily conduct his own post-mortem or a grieving widow wander unaccompanied into an autopsy room; never mind the concept of Liza inheriting two staff members along with a hotel that hasn’t been open to the public in half a century, two staff members who can’t be much older than their late 30s; pshaw to idea of Dr McCabe, a man who (one presumes) has taken an oath to preserve life, grabbing a six shooter from his desk drawer and cutting loose like Harry Callahan the moment some weird shit goes down; and pshaw plus VAT that he routinely manages ten or twelve shots from said six shooter between fumbled reloadings.

‘The Beyond’ transcends logic and narrative coherence. All Fulci is interested in is generating an atmosphere of mounting terror. From the outset, before we’ve even got to the faces dissolving in acid or the gouged-out eyeballs, there’s a sense of something off-kilter. A handful of early manifestations – a painter startled by a figure in an unoccupied room; a service bell buzzing from an equally empty room – suggest a haunted house story in the classic tradition. Then Fulci ramps things up with Joe the plumber’s unfortunate transgression. After which – pardon the pun, but it really is the most apposite expression – all hell breaks loose. From hereon in, all bets are off. We’re in a fractured and disturbed cinematic space in which anything can happen.

Which isn’t to say that ‘The Beyond’ is simply a chaotic frenzy of gruesome set-pieces, one piling up against the other like a train wreck or a multiple-vehicle smash up. The craftsmanship behind the film is too artful and attentive to detail. The opening sequence sets up visual motifs which are revisited throughout the film:

Likewise, a striking shot of the mysterious blind girl Emily (Cinzia Monreale) and her guide dog standing stoically in the middle of a deserted highway is echoed in the existentially shattering final scene where Liza and John find themselves on a pathway of an entirely different sort.

‘The Beyond’ is a film better experienced than analysed, even though I do say so after expending a thousand words on it. In his rejection of logic and conventional narrative, Fulci achieves the illogical but inescapable fragmentary narrative of a dream, one palpitating onrush of primal horror or revulsion lurching into the next, one grotesque image supplanted by another until they sear the mind with a sort of visceral poetry, the entire nightmare suffused with enough pointers towards the corporeal world to make you wonder whether you’re not in fact dreaming and the bottom has simply dropped out of reality.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: R-Point

Vietnam, 1972. A South Korean army base in Nah-Trang receives a static-heavy radio transmission from a platoon pinpointing their whereabouts as R-Point, a barren tract of no-man’s-land marked by a dilapidated temple and a makeshift graveyard. Military intelligence are disconcerted: the platoon went missing, presumed dead, six months previously. The sole surviving member, his face swathed in bandages and still confined to a hospital bed, is interviewed about the occurrence. He immediately degenerates into a screaming fit.

Thus the first three or four minutes of Su-chang Kong’s ‘R-Point’, a film that blends the innocence-under-siege war movie aesthetic of ‘Platoon’ with everything you know and love about J-horror, from the insidious and unseen evil creeping inexorably into the protagonists’ lives and consciousness to the contractually obligatory appearance of a ghost girl with long black hair.

Following the interview with the survivor, a team is assembled – ostensibly under the command of Lieutenant Choi (Woo-seong Kam) – to conduct a detailed search of R-Point and either determine whether or not the missing platoon are still alive. “Ostensibly” being the operative word, since Choi and Sergeant Jin (Byung-ho Son) are at odds from the outset. The tension between them threatens to develop into an all-out power struggle, except that the rest of the team are less interested in siding with one or the other than finding a set of dogtags – just a single set – that would allow them to document their predecessors as definitively lost and go home and take advantage of some long-delayed leave.

Events are taken out of their hands, however, when they reach the temple. This is where Kong plays his hand and what started out as a fairly generic men-on-a-mission flick (with even the ghostly radio message at the start functioning more as a McGuffin than a balls-to-the-wall scare tactic) gradually being subverted into the realms of horror. “Gradually” being the operative word, with the sequence of events progressing from elliptical glimpses of the aforementioned ghost girl to a tense whittle-down-the-numbers finale reminiscent of ‘The Thing’, by way of the sucker punch revelation that Choi and Jin’s team includes a dead man.

Kong’s sleight of hand in pulling off this particular bit of narrative trickery is as confident as it is audacious. It’s certainly the high point of the film, a pièce de résistance worthy of comparison to Dario Argento giving you the killer’s identity pretty damn early on in ‘Deep Red’ and banking on his audience remaining blind to it. The brilliance of it is perhaps, ever so slightly, to the film’s detriment, since many other elements of ‘R-Point’ seem generic – arguably derivative – by comparison.

Still, there is much to enjoy in this still-underrated entry in the J-horror canon. The characters are a bunch of average joes forced into the theatre of conflict and trying to deal with as best they can, rather than the macho grunts depicted by so many American mainstream movies of this ilk. Kong practically drenches the movie in atmosphere: a shot of the temple at sunset is striking and unsettling; likewise a previously overlooked field full of crosses, suddenly illuminated by lightning, is as creepy as any of the outright supernatural scenes.

Even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of ‘The Ring’ or ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ (for me, the A-list of J-horror), then it misses only by a short head. ‘R-Point’ is grittily shot, energetically directed and gives you the creeps as effortlessly as it blends genres.

Friday, October 21, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Hocus Pocus

Real life kind of got in the way today, so here’s a short piece of fluff about a short piece of fluff, just to keep 13 For Halloween on track. There’ll be something better after the weekend … honest!

There are three genuinely terrifying things about ‘Hocus Pocus’:

1. Bette Midler’s hairdo.*

2. Kathy Najimy’s facial expressions.**

3. Realizing that, pre-‘Sex and the City’, Sarah Jessica Parker was actually quite fanciable.***

The story centres around three Salem witches – played by the above named ladies – who are hanged for kidnapping a child and draining her of her lifeforce in order to reverse the ageing process. As a peripheral casualty, the girl’s brother tangles with them prior to the arrival of the lynch mob and is cursed to eternal life as a black cat.

Fast forward 300 years and we’re in the early 90s (and boy does it show!) New kid in town Max (Omri Katz) bitches about giving up life in LA, tangles with two of the least threatening bullies ever brought to the screen – Jay (Tobias Jelinek) and Ernie (Larry Bagby) a white rapper wannabe who prefers to be addressed as ‘Ice’ – and is smitten by teen princess Alison (Vinessa Shaw). Meanwhile, all Max’s kid sister Dani (Thora Birch) wants to do is go trick or treating.

In an attempt to impress Alison, Max sets out to pooh-pooh the legend of the Sanderson sisters (Midler and co) but inadvertently brings them back to life. Max, Dani and Alison abscond with the sisters’ book of spells, which contains the conjuration they need to restore life fully (otherwise they’ll turn to ash come sun-up) and the three Sandersons set off in hot and decidedly supernatural pursuit.

That’s it, plotwise, apart from some business involving a zombie summoned from its grave to assist in retrieving the book and a talking cat who provides helpful exposition and – tying with the then 11-year old Thora Birch – gives the best performance.

Midler and co ham it up to the nines (although Parker generates some genuine giggles with her boy-crazy ditzy blonde turn), while brother and sister directors Garry and Penny Marshall turn in hilarious cameos as a suburban couple whose Halloween party is mistaken by the Sandersons as a Satanic ritual. This scene, playing brilliantly on the modern concept of Halloween as a subversion of everything the witchy sisters stand for, could have been the template for a much funnier and more roisterous film. However, the Disney banner and the family-friendly rating took precedence. ‘Hocus Pocus’ could have been bittersweet Halloween candy; as it is, it’s cheesier than a month-old chunk of gruyere.

*The dentistry came a very close second.

**Seriously, she does so much gurning that I spent the movie thinking ‘Kathy, quit it – if the wind changes you’ll stay that way and you aren’t going to be able to change back. You’re only playing a witch.’

***To SJP’s lawyers: I didn’t write this. Someone hacked my account and wrote this whole post without my knowledge. Really! I mean, c’mon, do you honestly think I’d review something like ‘Hocus Pocus’? It’s the blog equivalent of getting fraped.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: The Reaping

According to Exodus (chapters five to eleven inclusive) ten plagues were visited upon Egypt. The Egyptians assumed that God was a mite pissed off at them.

According to Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), an erstwhile minister who now debunks religious phenomena, “In 1400 B.C., a group of nervous Egyptians saw the Nile turn red. But what they thought was blood was actually an algae bloom which killed the fish, which prior to that had been living off the eggs of frogs. Those uneaten eggs turned into record numbers of baby frogs who subsequently fled to the land and died. Their little rotting frog bodies attracted lice and flies. The lice carried the bluetongue virus, which killed 70% of Egypt’s livestock. The flies carried glanders, a bacterial infection which in humans causes boils. Soon afterwards, the Nile River Valley was hit with a three-day sandstorm otherwise known as the plague of darkness. During a sandstorm, intense heat can combine with an approaching cold front to create not only hail but also electrical storms which would have looked to the ancient Egyptians like fire from the sky. The subsequent wind would have blown the Ethiopian locust population off course and right into downtown Cairo. Hail is wet; locusts leave droppings. Spread both on grain, and you’ve got mycotoxins. Dinnertime in ancient Egypt meant the first-born child got the biggest portion which in this case meant he ate the most toxins, so he died. Ten plagues. Ten scientific explanations.”

Katherine has been asked by university colleague Doug (David Morrissey) to visit his hometown of Haven, a smiley and slightly-too-polite little place in the Louisiana Bible belt where an intolerant redneck mentality bubbles away just beneath the surface. It’s here that Loren (AnnaSophia Robb), the creepy daughter of a local outcast, is at the centre of a series of inexplicable events that are shaping up into a contemporary re-enactment of the plagues. Doug’s worried that Haven will invite the wrong kind of publicity and trusts to Katherine and her research assistant Ben (Idris Elba) to unearth a rational explanation.

They arrive to a river whose waters have turned red. Lab result: blood. Ben witnesses a fall of frogs from the sky. Lice and flies attack a barbeque at the run-down colonial house where Doug is putting up Katherine and Ben, and where a mutual attraction is simmering away between Doug and Katherine. But before things can get too lovey-dovey, more plague-like activity is taking place, livestock keeling over and dying even though DNA samples indicate there’s nothing wrong with them. Katherine experiences strange dreams/hallucinations, as well as flashbacks to her disastrous experience as a minister in Africa, the fallout from which led her to turn her back on the church. Then there’s some spooky business involving her former mentor, Father Costigan (Stephen Rea), who comes to believe that Katherine is in danger.

Met with inexplicable indifference on its release, Stephen Hopkins’s ‘The Reaping’ is a gripping and atmospheric chiller that wrings maximum atmosphere from its small town setting (Haven has a David-Lynch-in-the-bayou kind of vibe) and benefits from a cluster of solid, understated performances. Swank plays Katherine as a skeptic with a margin for ambivalence, her logical and reasonable outlook skewed just enough by the vulnerability of her personal experience that she comes off as a rounded and sympathetic character rather than the Agent Scully clone she could easily have become in lesser hands. Rea’s hangdog look is employed effectively, his world-weary priest stumbling onto something cosmically bigger than he is equipped to deal with. Elba is also very good, conveying the calmness which belies Ben’s violent past; Elba plays what is essentially a character created for expositional purposes with a dignity that made me think of Morgan Freeman. I’ve seen little else of his work, but damn that needs rectifying!

Regarding AnnaSophia Robb: The Agitation of the Mind Award for Creepy Kid is in the mail. ’Nuff said.

Actor/writer brothers Carey and Chad Hayes deserve a mention for a screenplay that incorporates the ten plagues and Satanic cults without descending into abject cliché or hysteria and keeping things focused and slow-burn almost until the end. Which is where things almost – almost – tip over into parody. The plague is a well-effected and skin-crawling set-piece, only to be superseded by the fire from the sky part of things, which reminded me of nothing else than ‘The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse’. There were a few moments where I was thrown out of the film by the expectation of Papa Lazarou turning up and rasping “It’s my apocalypse now, Dave”. Or Hilary Briss agreeing a knock-down price for the dead cattle.

Fortunately, Hopkins is canny enough to not overplay his hand, and this sequence runs only as long as is necessary. The actual denouement is quieter and darker in its implications. Overall, ‘The Reaping’ works well. In the canon of supernatural-themed films which debate the existence, implications of and conflict between good and evil, most fixate on the chief players in the battle – the demon and the exorcist, the Satanist and the priest, the force of evil and the force of good. ‘The Reaping’, while paying its dues to the devil and the angels, never loses sight of the mortals caught in the middle.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: Prince of Darkness

The key to John Carpenter’s underrated ‘Prince of Darkness’ is the pseudonym under which he took credit for the screenplay: Martin Quatermass. Carpenter cheekily alleged in the press notes that this personage was no less than the brother of renowned scientist Bernard Quatermass.

This latter Quatermass, of course, was the brainchild of Nigel Kneale whose fiendishly inventive and cleverly constructed ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ was an acknowledged influence on Carpenter. ‘Prince of Darkness’ can easily be read as a variation on ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, with a sprinkling of other Kneale homages – most specifically ‘The Stone Tape’ and ‘The Road’ – thrown in to intriguing effect.

On another level, ‘Prince of Darkness’ is also pure Carpenter, from Gary B. Kibbe’s geometrical cinematography which evokes Dean Cundey’s previous work for the director, to the incessant rhythms of the Carpenter/Howarth score; from the presence of Donald Pleasance (‘Halloween’, ‘Escape from New York’) to the narrative conflation of supernatural (‘The Fog’ etc) and siege (‘Assault on Precinct 13’) elements.

In an opening credit sequence that runs a couple of seconds shy of ten minutes, an elderly priest dies and the key to a dilapidated church passes into the hands of his colleague (Donald Pleasance); Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a lecturer at Kneale University, engages his students in sub-atomic theory; two unlikely-to-hook-up members of the student body – mustachioed He-man type Brian (Jameson Parker) and earnest intellectual Catherine (Lisa Blount) – find themselves on course towards hooking up; and the priest contacts Birack with a view to a scientific investigation of the McGuffin his predecessor – a member of the so-called Brotherhood of Sleep – was hiding in the church basement.

Intrigued, Birack corrals a group of his colleagues and his students into helping out. They haul their apparatus into the old church and set up shop there. Meanwhile, news broadcasts are full of the new discovery of a supernova, insects are multiplying and swarming everywhere and a group of homeless people suddenly turn all zombie-like and lay siege to the church. The McGuffin in the cellar turns out to be a huge glass vial full of swirling green fluid that looks like some weird version of a slushy maker that’s been filled with crème de menthe instead of orange juice. It’s secured by a seemingly impenetrable locking mechanism that, as one of the students discovers, can only be opened from the inside.

It contains something very ancient, very dangerous and very ready to embark on its comeback tour.

For its first hour, ‘Prince of Darkness’ moves and grooves quite nicely, getting its science vs superstition funk on in fine stylee. Carpenter keeps the tension on the backburner, gradually bringing the atmosphere inside the church to boiling point. The homeless (and now, presumably, soulless) amass outside to sinister effect and an early sequence that veers into outright horror boasts the genuinely unsettling image of a crucified bird followed by the almost-funny-but-not-quite image of a secondary character buying the farm in a bizarre death-by-unicycle set-piece.

Aye, for virtually two-thirds of the running time, Carpenter pulls off a virtuoso high-wire act between white-knuckle genre thrills and thinking man’s extrapolation of the age-old good vs evil conflict filtered through the logical perameters of scientific enquiry.

At which point Carpenter remembers he’s supposed to be making a horror film and it’s balls to the wall Satanic zombies from hereon in. Heads lopped off, see you at end. This, coupled with the functionality of the characters (for the most part they exist as expositional/theoretical mouthpieces rather than as fully rounded people whom we might actually give a shit about), pretty much boots ‘Prince of Darkness’ out of the first tier of John Carpenter’s filmography. And there are those who would kick it down even lower.

Still, for all that the acting performances range from bland (Parker) to phoned-in (Pleasance) to doing what she can with the material (Blount), ‘Prince of Darkness’ retains enough of the intelligence and intrigue of its first hour – particularly with regard to the authentically creepy dream sequences – to compensate for the slightly ropy pay-off. It’s given short shrift in the Carpenter canon, but it deserves better.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Meet Thomas (Wes Bentley). Clean cut lad, a bit nerdy, but polite and thoughtful. Steady job as a security guard in the underground car park of a high-rise office building. Likes Elvis, dotes on his rottweiler Rocky, and gets a little blue at being on his own at Christmastime. Oh, and he’s a got a bit of a thing for career-focused businesswoman Angela (Rachel Nichols).

A bit of an unhealthy thing, actually.

This becomes sickeningly apparent to Angela at the end of a really crap last day at the office before the holidays. Christmas Eve, in fact. The office party – at which she only just managed to fend off the drunken advances of Jim (Simon Reynolds), a married colleague – is over, and everyone’s gone home but Karl (Philip Akin) the concierge and Thomas. Angela’s still putting the finishing touches to an important contract. Her relatives ring, wondering why she’ll be joining them. Eventually, the contract completed, Angela takes the lift down to parking level two where he car refuses to start. Thomas offers assistance, but when his charger makes no difference to the battery, Angela insists on going back up to the foyer to wait for a cab. Thomas asks her to spend Christmas with him, but she politely refuses. Upstairs, the cab finally arrives only to drive unceremoniously away again when Angela finds the main doors locked. So it’s back down to the underground parking area again and this is where things turn nasty.

Thomas’s Christmas celebrations involve a chloroform-soaked handkerchief, a chain that shackles Angela’s foot to his desk and a cleavage-revealing little white dress that Angela, awakening groggily, finds that he’s dressed her in having divested her of the business suit. But, y’know, he’s laid on dinner as well.

What follows, except for the sundry fates of the lecherous Jim and the luckless Karl, is a claustrophobic two-hander. Thomas’s delusions of romancing Angela, evidenced by his “gee whiz” persona and almost fawning attentiveness, give way to incrementally more threatening behaviour. For all his initial insistence that he won’t harm her, Thomas loses his cool when Angela defends Jim’s drunken mistake as just that while Thomas insists that he should be taught a lesson for treating her disrespectfully (I’ll leave you to work out his score in the Double Standard Olympic event yourselves). Later, when she escapes the confines of his office for the only marginally less prison-like environment of the four parking levels, the gloves are off and Thomas sets out to win back the maiden fair by means of flowers, chocolates and poetry CCTV, a Taser and a rottweiler.

When Angela takes the fight back to him, she uses ingenuity and survival instinct. And an axe. A fucking big axe.

Co-written by director Franck Khalfoun and producers Alexandre Aja (he of ‘Switchblade Romance’, the ‘Hills Have Eyes’ remake and latterly, uh, ‘Piranha 3D’) and Gregory Levasseur, ‘P2’ arrived in 2007 at the tail end of a glut of “torture porn” flicks. Sequels ‘Hostel Part II’ and ‘The Hills Have Eyes 2’ had opened to lacklustre reviews, while the ‘Saw’ franchise was up to its fourth instalment. Roland Joffe’s ‘Captivity’, released a few months prior to ‘P2’, had been roundly drubbed, the controversy generated by its advertising campaign doing it few favours in terms of box office takings. To put it mildly, ‘P2’ wasn’t in good company and it met with critical indifference and a small audience. Which is a deal shame. Because, for all its formulaic set-up and reliance on established tropes, ‘P2’ is a cracking little movie.

Khalfoun cares enough about character to give over 20 minutes to establishing his heroine and her Christmas Eve catalogue of bad luck, and then almost another 20 minutes to developing Thomas beyond me snarling psycho, before cutting loose with the nasty stuff. Even then, he doesn’t rely on violence and gore alone to carry the second act (although he throws around the red stuff liberally enough on a couple of occasions). At its best, ‘P2’ is an old-school cat ‘n’ mouse thriller, the shadows and brutal concrete architecture of the car park throwing slabs of menace across each frame. Khalfoun, in his directorial debut, ratchets up the tension like a pro.

There are also some nice touches of humour, such as Thomas miming to ‘Blue Christmas’ and doing a little boogie with a giant teddy bear. Bentley gives a memorable performance, slowly peeling away the layers of Thomas’s mania from reticent but smitten nerdy type to vengeful nutcase, while Nichols makes for a feisty protagonist who avoids all the potential pitfalls of clichéd scream queen histrionics. Despite the plunging neckline.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Event Horizon

The horror movie in space is a dodgy concept. Occasionally, a movie comes along that gets it right. That movie is called ‘Alien’. The rest of the time we get things like ‘Hellraiser: Bloodline’ and ‘Jason X’.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s ‘Event Horizon’ falls between two stools. It’s a quantum leap from the abject pieces of dross epitomized by Pinhead-beyond-the-stars and Jayce-in-space. But it’s still a good few parsecs away from presenting any real competition to Ridley Scott’s classic.

Ironically, the main flaw is also its biggest plus point in terms of it being a guilty pleasure. ‘Event Horizon’ is derivative. Hugely. And not in a “hmmm, I reckon we can sneak this through without anyone noticing” kind of way. ‘Event Horizon’ is derivative in a way that can only be described as a cross-between ‘Wacky Races’ and ‘Supermarket Sweep’ populated by plagiarists. “Mwuhahahahah! I am going to steal this and this and this and this!”

The film starts with the crew of the rescue ship Lewis and Morse Clarke going into suspended animation prior to a little jaunt out to the far side of Neptune. They’re joined by the standoffish Dr Weir (Sam Neill), a man who is troubled by visions of the wife he lost to suicide. Before you can say ‘Solaris’, they’re at Neptune and Dr Weir is briefing them. Eight years previously, an ftl ship he designed (the eponymous Event Horizon) disappeared, with the loss of its full crew. Now it’s reappeared. The Lewis and Clarke’s captain, Miller (Laurence Fishburne) isn’t too happy about this, the Event Horizon having something of a reputation as a ghost ship, and neither are his crew.

Quick pause to meet the shreddies crewmembers. We’ve got medical technician Peters (Kathleen Quinlan), chief medical officer D.J. (Jason Isaacs), the feisty Lieutenant Starck (Joely Richardson), and disposable grunt types Smith (Sean Pertwee) and Cooper (Richard T. Jones). Smith is notable for scowling a lot and saying “faakin’ ’ell“ in an East End brogue that suggests he fancied his chances in a Guy Ritchie production but turned up at the wrong audition.

Anyway, no sooner do the Lewis and Clarke group instigate docking procedures with the Event Horizon than Weir is seeing manifestations of his dead wife while Peters is being haunted by glimpses of her son. This particular lad is given to popping up in the background, a dwarf-like figure in a hooded coat, finally luring Peters into a nasty encounter. Before you can say ‘Don’t Look Now’, our heroes turn up some footage that indicates the previous crew, isolated and lost, died in spectacularly gory fashion. And before you can say ‘The Thing’, it becomes apparent that the Event Horizon itself is a malignant entity, possessing those who roam its endless corridors. And before you can say ‘The Shining’, one of the characters has gone bonkers in the worst possible way – lacerations all over his face, mind polluted with sybaritic evil and babbling about the wonderful and terrible things he has seen. And before you can say ‘Hellraiser’ … well, you get the picture.

‘Event Horizon’ doesn’t have a single original idea in its airlock. Even the set-design puts you in mind of other films: the needle-like mid-section of the Event Horizon has a very ‘2001’ vibe, while the interior of the Lewis and Clarke, bizarrely, put me in mind of ‘Red Dwarf’. What ‘Event Horizon’ does have going for it is a decent build-up to the horrors the demon ship launches on its unwary interlopers, a pacy second half, a cast who bring some quality to the proceedings and – best of all – a well-realized concept of the titular ship. Corridors are the shape of eyes, guardrails and steel-mesh walkways crisscross the superstructure like a skeleton, and the ftl device rumbling darkly at the core of the ship has a retro-industrial look, something that could conceivably have been forged in one of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”.

Style over substance, then, but I’m not going to complain when it’s as darkly stylish as this (a shot, very near the start, where the camera slowly glides out through a portal and threads its way through the architecture of a space station which recedes to a speck as it drifts into the depths of space, is enough to make you stand up and applaud), or when the 18-rating gleefully justifies itself in the full-blooded finale.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: The Unborn

As with ‘Giallo’ a couple of weeks ago, I approached this knowing that it had been roundly peed on by the critics, only to spend the first half wondering why they were being so down on it and relishing the prospect of writing a corrective review.

As with ‘Giallo’, the second half demonstrated exactly why it had got peed on and another promising “hey, wow, you really need to check this out” write-up turned to ash and blew away in the cold October wind like so many leaves gusting forlornly through a cemetery.

Saving graces? Well, the first half ain’t bad, there’s some reasonably effective (if derivative) scares, and leading lady Odette Yustman has a pleasing touch of the young Jennifer Connelly about it. (Believe me, such things can be the saving grace of an average movie.)

Yustman plays Casey Beldon, an average all-American high school student with a hunky boyfriend, Mark (Cam Gigandet) and a loyal best friend, Romy (Meagan Good). Her mother’s suicide a few years ago is the one dark moment in her otherwise fairly privileged life (yup, this is one those films where all the characters live in houses bigger than the freakin’ office building I work in), but her dad’s the supportive type and the future’s looking bright. This being a horror movie – and a Platinum Dunes horror movie at that – you just know this isn’t going to be the case for long.

A word about the Platinum Dunes connection. Regular readers of the blog will know that I rank Michael Bay only a few places below Satan in the league table of forces working to perpetrate hideous evil in this world, and that I once described Platinum Dunes as “less a film production company that a serial rapist lurking down the midnight streets of ’70s cinema”, I approached ‘The Unborn’ with trepidation. The only plus point seemed to be that at least it wasn’t another remake.

Or is it? The longer ‘The Unborn’ unraveled in front of me – which isn’t that long: it clocks in at 85 minutes, nearly ten of which are the end credits – the more I was convinced it was a remake in all but remake, or at the very least a patchwork quilt of heavy-handed influences. Kind of a “greatest hits” package of the films that Platinum Dunes would like to remake but know they don’t have a cat in hell’s chance.

Principally ‘The Exorcist’.

But we’re jumping ahead a little. Back to the plot synopsis. The movie starts with Casey troubled by visions of a child’s glove dropped in the middle of lonely street; a young boy appearing behind her, his face grey and eyes lifeless; and a jar of formaldehyde buried in the woods, contents: one foetus. There’s an incident while she’s babysitting, a small child holding a shard of glass over his infant sibling. Then Mark notices a strange pigmentation in one of Casey’s eyes. A minute or so of medical exposition suggests she’s a twin, a fact she contests: she’s an only child.

Then her father drops the bombshell: her twin brother died in the womb, throttled by Casey’s umbilical cord. This, as you can well imagine, is the kind of revelation that can blow a person’s blow right open. And writer/director David S Goyer does a commendable job, for the first half hour anyway, of keeping the creepy stuff low key and playing on how much of what follows is in Casey’s mind and how much is actually an invidious and age-old evil working its way ineffably into her life.

So far, so watchable. Then comes the time for explanations and this is where the locomotive of ‘The Unborn’ lurches around a blind curve and threatens to derail. Casey’s Jewish ancestry comes to light (because, yeah, you’d reach the age of nineteen without knowing you were Jewish) and Holocaust survivor Sofi Kozma (Jane Alexander) pops up to give it some more exposition. Turns out everything centres around a dybbuk which came into being after Sofi and her twin brother were the victims of Nazi experiments in Auschwitz.

Riiiiiiight. A demon out of Jewish folklore that had its Casey-specific genesis in the concentration camps. This takes us out of hokey but entertaining horror movie territory and gives the filmmakers two options: total lurid exploitationer or horror as catharsis in which the legacy of Hitler’s attempt at racial extermination is dealt with responsibly (or at the very least with some purpse). ‘The Unholy’ doesn’t really do either, and this is where the derailment occurs. The film wants to say something about the nature of evil; wants to say something about possession; wants to say something about how the shadows of the past are always creeping through the waning sunlight of the present. But it never quite functions on any level above mainstream narrative simplicity tinged with the imagery and editing tricks of J-horror.

And so we arrive back at ‘The Unholy’ as a template for what an ‘Exorcist’ remake would look like if Platinum Dunes ever got to have their wicked little way. Granted, Gary Oldman brings some gravitas to what is basically the Max von Sydow role, but a rite of exorcism in Hebrew just doesn’t cut it in comparison with “the power of Christ compels you”. Nor do the climactic exorcism or the painfully transparent last moment twist invite any comparison to the primal power of Friedkin’s classic.