Wednesday, October 31, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: The Ward

‘The Ward’ – John Carpenter’s return to the big screen after nine years and the nadir of ‘Ghosts of Mars’ – suffers from two things: one minor and one that couldn’t really be helped. The minor problem is the inclusion of a cheap last-minute scare so arbitrarily incorporated that the film ends not with the shiver but a groan. The other is that is came out the same year as ‘Shutter Island’ and a year before ‘Sucker Punch’. Conceptually and in terms of their narrative third act, these three films inevitably get pigeonholed together. And whereas ‘Shutter Island’ had the big budget and the epic sweep, and ‘Sucker Punch’ five girls in short skirts and an epic sweep, ‘The Ward’ kind of gets forgotten. That Scorsese’s and Snyder’s films proved divisive and engendered screeds of internet debate, while Carpenter’s plays extremely fair and doesn’t delve into histrionics, pushed it further towards the sidelines.

Personally, ‘The Ward’ is my favourite of the three. If ‘Shutter Island’ is a sweeping symphony and ‘Sucker Punch’ a triple gatefold prog-rock concept album, then ‘The Ward’ is a three-minute punk single: raw, blunt, unpretentious and stripped of anything it doesn’t need.

In a short, creepy pre-credits sequence, the inmate of a psychiatric institute is seen cowering from something stalking the corridors outside her cell. Next thing it’s in her cell and it’s goodnight Vienna. The credits themselves are an artful concoction of sepia images – all with an asylum/disturbed psyche/mental illness theme – fragmenting as if made of glass. That’s your first clue, right there.

Then we’re off good and proper, as a police car belts along a country road – a title card tells us it’s 1966 – while a girl hides in the woods, watching nervously as it passes. Meet Kristen (Amber Heard); the next thing she does, after a quick sprint through the trees, is burn down a farmhouse. There’s a mixture of terror and exhilaration in her eyes as she watches the conflagration, and can I say right here and now, for the record, what a freakin’ terrific actress Amber Heard is.

While the building is still burning, the aforementioned police car comes sweeping up and Kristen kicks and struggles to minimal avail as she’s bundled in the back seat and cuffed. Swap the cruiser for an ambulance and Carpenter gets rid of the whole slow-grinding process of the legal system with a single cut as Kristen arrives at the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital under the care of Dr Stringer (Jared Harris) and under the suspicious and ever-watchful eyes of Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney, channelling more than a soupçon of Louise Fletcher) and gruff porter Roy (D.R. Anderson).

She quickly meets her fellow inmates: the moody Emily (Mamie Gummer), artistic but delusional Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), narcissistic Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), and childlike, frightened Zoey (Laura-Leigh). She’s assigned to a cell occupied by Tammy, of whom the others are unwilling to speak, and soon discovers two things. One, Stringer is an advocate of experimental therapy; two, the institute appears to be haunted. And Kristen strongly suspects that the other girls know more than they’re telling. Then the disappearances begin …

‘The Ward’ plays its string out for a good chunk of its fairly short (84 minute) running time, Carpenter building tension as effectively as anywhere else in his filmography. Everything coheres to convince you this is a straight-up horror movie, including a grotesque and somewhat J-horror inspired ghost girl who perpetrates some pretty nasty acts. With its scenes of electro-shock treatment taken to the extreme and the kind of eyeball trauma normally reserved for a Lucio Fulci production – not to mention a sequence of flashbacks which culminate in a pretty unambiguous inference of paedophilia – ‘The Ward’ trawls the very rim of its 15-rating.

But Carpenter plays fair with the twist, seeding pertinent information throughout and delivering the big reveal with the minimum of expositional dialogue. Harris has the appropriate gravitas as Stringer to make the scene work, and Heard delivers a convincing vacillation between raw anger and shocked disbelief. I’ll say it again: Heard is fantastic. In fact, kudos to the whole cast: Gummer, Fonesca, Panabaker and Laura-Leigh give it their all, while Anderson finds a recognisably human quality in a character that could easily have come over as a sleazeball or a thug. There’s a wonderful little scene where he’s stuck with the repairwork following an escape attempt by Kristen, his labours interrupted by the flirtatious Sarah, and the look on his face and the weariness in his voice totally sell Roy as a wage-slave with a thankless job who really appreciate it if everyone would just piss off and leave him alone.

Yaron Orbach’s cinematography recalls the glory days of Dean Cundey’s collaborations with Carpenter’s. Mark Kilian’s score is also reminiscent of Carpenter’s stripped-down, atmospheric work as composer. And yet – maybe because it trades on generically obvious heavy-handed foley work and by-now-cliched ghost-girl visuals rather than breaking new ground – ‘The Ward’ doesn’t quite measure up the old-school Carpenter. And maybe this, as well as the reasons mentioned in the first paragraph, accounts for the indifferent box office response. Nonetheless, with lesser fare pulling in the punters, it was just criminal that ‘The Ward’ did such poor business.

Even allowing for the four years between ‘Ghosts of Mars’ and his superior episodes of the TV show ‘Masters of Horror’, and then another four years between those works and ‘The Ward’, Carpenter seems to have relapsed into inactivity. I really hope ‘The Ward’ doesn’t prove to be his swansong but if that is the case, then he’s bowing out on his best feature-length film since ‘They Live’. (Mr Carpenter, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, I’d like to keep doing 13 For Halloween on this blog for a good many years to come, and I’ve reviewed an awful lot of your filmography already. More films would be greatly appreciated.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Skyfall

Let’s talk about the mythical “third Bond movie”. There is a school of thought which avers that the third outing is where an actor truly settles into the role, the formula really clicks together, God is in his Heaven and all is right with the world. This bunch of hogwash is based on the fact that Connery’s third Bond movie, ‘Goldfinger’, was when the producers really ramped up the whole “girls, guns, gadgets and globetrotting” ethos, while Moore’s – ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ – marked the point at which the filmmakers decided to stop trying to force him into the Connery mould and let him be more, well, Moore-ish. Oh yeah, and they went to town on the girls, guns, gadgets and globetrotting as well.

It’s a rule of thumb you can’t even apply to Lazenby and Dalton because, respectively, they only appeared as Bond once (mercifully) and twice (tragically). And let’s utterly confound the theory by pointing out that number three Brosnan was the god-awful ‘The World is Not Enough’.

Now let’s talk about a couple of things I’ve said on this blog previously apropos of ‘Skyfall’, the expectations attached to it, and its director Sam Mendes. Two years ago, in a rambling review of ‘Quantum of Solace’, I said this: “I came across an article on the net last week speculating whether Sam Mendes was on board to direct the next Bond film or just as a consultant and I groaned inwardly. Don't get me wrong: ‘American Beauty’ - belter; ‘Road to Perdition’ - handsomely mounted; ‘Jarhead’ - moments of brilliance. But nothing in the filmography that says "hey, you know what, that Sam Mendes bloke has got Bond movie director written all over him". I shook my head and thought, Great, first Marc Forster and now Sam Mendes ...

Re-reviewing ‘QoS’ – which is only one letter removed from ‘PoS’ – nine days ago for this very blog-a-thon, I concluded: “ ‘Skyfall’ doesn’t have to do much more than be edited properly and have a coherent script to emerge as infinitely better than its predecessor. But, please EON, please please please, after a four year wait and with only a finite amount of times the now 44-year old Craig can reprise the role, please let ‘Skyfall’ be awesome.”

With regard to that first comment: please accept my apologies, Mr Mendes, you’ve turned in a damn good film. With regard to the second: although ‘Skyfall’ does a lot more than just deliver better editing and a coherent script, it stops just short of awesome. But damn good is more than acceptable, particularly after the shoddy and joyless place Marc Forster had taken the series.

‘Skyfall’ gets off to one hell of a bloody good start with Bond (Daniel Craig) in the middle of a mission that’s swiftly going tits up. He’s in Turkey where a generic bad guy has swiped a hard-drive containing the identities of a fuckton of deep cover MI6 agents. A car chase segues into a motorcycle chase (which pisses all over the motorcycle chase in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’), in turn segueing into a fight on the top of a moving train (which pisses all over the fight on the top of a moving train in ‘Octopussy’), the whole thing concluding with a “wait a minute, this can’t happen in a Bond movie” moment akin to the ostensibly downbeat pre-credits payoffs in ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Die Another Day’.

Following a pretty effective opening credits sequence (kudos to Adele for delivering the most appropriately Bondian theme song since Tina Turner kicked ass with ‘GoldenEye’), the focus shifts to M (Judi Dench). Notwithstanding that Dench’s M has come to redefine the character, the secret service hasn’t had an easy ride on her watch. Between the bad decisions motivated by personal feelings in ‘The World is Not Enough’, her mistrust of the 14-month imprisoned Bond in ‘Die Another Day’ and the revelation that a long-term member of her personal staff has been working for the enemy in ‘Quantum of Solace’, it’s kind of surprising M’s still has a job. In ‘Skyfall’, she faces some pretty harsh questions from the establishment with new intel chief Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pressuring her to take voluntary retirement. Meanwhile, axe-grinding politician Clair Dowar (Helen McCrory) forces M to give evidence at an enquiry over a series of MI6 debacles culminating in a terrorist attack on HQ.

During all of this upheaval, Bond returns to duty albeit physically unfit, psychologically battered and borderline alcohol dependant. There’s a Metallica song that contains that lines “breaking your life / broken, beat and scarred / we die hard”. A pretty good description of the bad place Bond is in. And it doesn’t get any easier as he sets off in pursuit of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a cyber-terrorist and an unwelcome blast from M’s past, who is orchestrating a campaign of revenge.

This is about all I can give away in terms of the narrative. ‘Skyfall’ is the most spoiler-laden Bond movie yet made, with a final act sucker punch that gives it real weight. It’ll probably be all over the internet within the next couple of days, but I’m honour bound to keep it under wraps. This also restricts me in terms of discussing the film on any deeper level.

Here’s what I will say: ‘Skyfall’ is at one and the same time a Bond film for the modern age (and manages to be so without the horribly misjudged Bourne-stylee crapola of its immediate predecessor) and the most regressive Bond movie in ages. Its modern age credentials take the form of a debate, which forms the backbone of the movie, of the purpose and relevance of MI6 – and therefore, by extension, of Bond himself – in an era where the geo-political map of the Cold War has long since been blurred and enemies of the state can literally be anywhere.

It’s no coincidence that, of all the Bond movies, ‘Skyfall’ spends the most time on home soil. Of the three major action sequences, one is chase/shoot-out plays out through London’s cavernous and sepulchral Underground system and then erupts into its crowded streets, while the denouement takes place in Scotland.

As to the regressive elements, most of them gel with overall aesthetic. Mendes finds a way to balance the fanboy imperative with his personal vision as a filmmaker. And with ‘Skyfall’ marking 50 years of Bond, he includes some nifty in-jokes to far greater effect than the horrible parade of references in ‘Die Another Day’. The Aston Martin DB is a case in point: brought quite literally out of cold storage and still boasting all the bells and whistles from ‘Goldfinger’, it’s a startling moment of discontinuity since Craig’s Bond won the thing at cards in ‘Casino Royale’ (which, in the current timeline, was essentially Bond #1) and yet its machine guns and ejector seat explicitly recall Connery’s third outing. (We’re back to the mythical Bondian rule of thirds again.)

Elsewhere, ostensible Bond girl Severine (Berenice Marlohe) is written in, bedded and written out even more perfunctorily than Gemma Arterton’s Agent Fields in ‘Quantum of Solace’. Bardem’s characterization of Silva sails very close to outright camp and, sad to say, a borderline homophobic scene reminiscent of the mincing Wynt and Kidd in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ got the biggest laughs at the screening I attended. At least Silva isn’t out for world domination and presents a definite threat to 007, sparing us a return to the flamboyant but laughably ludicrous villains of the Moore era.

Q returns – kudos to Ben Wishaw for sweeping away all thoughts of John Cleese in the last couple of Brosnan movies – as does another staple of the franchise, while the baton is passed on in terms of … but that would be telling. In its concluding scenes, ‘Skyfall’ totally eradicates Bond’s past and joyfully re-establishes the expected tropes, a decision which seems almost contradictory. Indeed, there’s a puppy-doggish eagerness to evoke the Bonds of old in the very last scene that’s tonally at odds with the dark drama that’s occupied the preceding two and a quarter hours. There is, in other words, a sense of transition where I’d expected consolidation.

So, yes, perhaps the “third Bond movie” ethos holds true: just as ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ weren’t necessarily the best that Connery and Moore delivered but rather the clearest distillations of the formula, ditto ‘Skyfall’. Let’s hope that whatever comes next doesn’t relapse into the formulaic.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Frontier(s)

Imagine ‘Hostel’ meets ‘La Haine’, but moving from the urban jungle to the isolated rural locale of, say, ‘Calvaire’ or ‘Haute Tension’, and with an anti-Nazi commentary, and you’ve got ‘Frontier(s)’, Xavier Gens’ brutal and shattering feature-length debut.

As Paris riots following the election of a right-wing government, a gang of youths dodge the bullets, the burnt-out cars and the ministrations of a bludgeon-first-ask-questions-later police force. They have a bag of stolen money and one of their members is nursing a wound that’s leaving him closer to death every minute it goes untreated. Their priority is to get the fuck out of Paris, head through the country and make for the border. They have a vague plan involving getting to Holland, but just staying alive is going to prove the real challenge.

Let’s meet our hoodie (anti)heroes, and I’ll be honest here – for the first twenty minutes of the movie they present as a bunch of total wankers. We’ve got Alex (Aurelian Wiik), the nominal leader of the group; Tom (David Saracino), his unpredictable and moody second-in-command; the moderately more sensible but gauche Farid (Chems Dahmani); Sami (Adel Bencherif), the aforementioned injured party; and Yasmine (Karina Testa), Sami’s sister, who is pregnant with Alex’s child.

For a while, ‘Frontier(s)’ reminded me of Kim Chapiron’s ‘Sheitan’ (made a year before Gens’ opus) – a bunch of unlikeable youths head for the country and fall afoul of some scarily fucked-up backwoods types. But whereas ‘Sheitan’ has a barnstorming and perversely likeable performance from Vincent Cassel as the anti-heroes’ chief antagonist, ‘Frontier(s)’ gives us a villain whose icy, buttoned-down aesthetic allows for no guilty pleasure style empathy. A villain, moreover, whose agenda anchors the second half of ‘Frontier(s)’ despite Gens’ increasingly frenzied set-pieces. If ‘Sheitan’ is ultimately a black comedy, there is nothing funny about ‘Frontier(s)’.

With the script splitting Alex’s gang up – to the point, as things progress, where they’re often alone and confused and pitifully unprepared for the nasty shit that’s in store for them – they delivered into the less than tender care of former Nazi war criminal Von Geisler (a genuinely terrifying Jean-Pierre Jarris) and his family of grotesques. How grotesque? Put it this way: the Von Geisler clan make la familie Leatherface look like the freakin’ Waltons.

Von Geisler (known as “papa”, the only remotely comforting aspect to his persona) is keen for son Karl (Patrick Ligardes) to take his place as the head of the family. And who can blame him with only the corpulent Hans (Joel Lefrancois) and the thuggish Goetz (Samuel Le Bihan) offering any competition? He is entirely blameworthy, however, in pimping out his daughter Gilberte (Estelle Lebefure) to ensnare victims, and forcing the abducted and cowed Eva (Maud Forget) into a life of servitude at the family’s behest.

The travails that the Von Geislers put our delinquent protagonists through are straight-up torture porn, as visceral and unflinching as anything that venal subgenre has served up. For the most part, though, he doesn’t linger on the violence – it is sudden, shocking and all the more effective as a result. If anything, Gens pays more attention to the grue when the remaining survivor fights back in the protracted finale (particularly during a bit of business involving a circular saw).

There’s also a suspenseful woman-in-peril sequence as Yasmine realizes that, unlike the outpouring of race-hate that motivates the attacks on her friends, the family have a different fate in mind for her. Which isn’t to say that ‘Frontier(s)’ channels suspense tactics over outright gore. The film is as blood-soaked and gruelling in its catalogue of nastiness as any other example of the new wave of French horror – and, yes, I’m including ‘Martyrs’ and ‘Inside’ in that assessment.

Indeed, with the spatial peregrinations which suggest that the film’s second half plays out across an area at least three times bigger than the establishing shots of the Von Geisler farm imply, and with a shoot-out-and-explosions finale that seems to have wandered in from a Luc Besson production, there’s no denying that ‘Frontier(s)’ goes increasingly over the top the longer it unspools. What prevents it from going off the rails is the absolute conviction of Gens’ political agenda, culminating in a final scene – which fades to end credits at precisely the right moment – guaranteed to leave you feeling as gutted as anything that’s preceded it.

Oh, and that parenthetical plural in the title? It refers to borders that are geographical, social, political and historical/ideological.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: Roadgames

Perhaps the most amiable serial-killer thriller I’ve ever seen, Richard Franklin’s 1981 cult Ozsploitation opus ‘Roadgames’ features an eccentric truck driver, a sassy hitch-hiker, a seemingly motiveless killer, a collection of oddballs who generally hinder our poetry-spouting hero, some squirmily tense sequences and more laugh-out-loud funny moments than any film of this ilk has any right indulging itself in.

We open with Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) berating himself for not picking up an attractive hitchhiker earlier in the day. His regret his compounded when he sees a van driver taking side hitchhiker into a motel, and coincidentally taking the last available room which Pat had kind of figured on checking into himself after several nights sleeping in the truck. Waking early the next day to pick up a refrigerated trailer full of meat, Pat notices the van driver at his motel room window, eagerly watching the garbage men hauling off some heavy-looking black bags.

He thinks no more of it and tools off to pick up his load. Then, in true Willie Nelson style, he’s on the road again, and the first half hour or so of ‘Roadgames’ unravels leisurely as Pat whiles away the miles talking to his pet dingo Boswell, spouting poetry and making up stories about the motorists he passes. Franklin fundamentally understands the ennui that essentially fills a truck driver’s day, even if – to use Pat’s much-repeated admonition – “because I drive a truck does not make me a truck driver”. (I’m certainly hard-pressed, as the son of a trucker, to think of many gentlemen of that profession who listen to Mozart, even if they do try to keep up with the zesty pizzicatos of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ on the mouth-organ. My dad was more a Johnny Cash kind of guy. But I digress.) Franklin also understands the distances travelled and the tedium of the passing miles, never mind how rugged the scenery.

Then things take a darker turn when he witnesses the van driver burying something in the middle of nowhere. News reports of a “Jack the Ripper type” murdering young women flood the radio. Pat picks up sassy hitch-hiker Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis), an heiress looking to dodge the stultifying expectations of her upbringing and experience a little excitement.

The old adage about being careful what you wish for applies.

Franklin structures the film cleverly. An Hitchcockian murder scene in the motel gives credence to Pat’s concerns, yet the string of misunderstandings and embarrassing situations engendered by his burgeoning obsession with his van-driving nemesis gradually overwhelm the narrative to the point where it’s easy to believe that Pat’s overactive imagination has tipped him into the realms of outright paranoia. This interpretation seems to be consolidated by a sequence late in the film where Pat, sleep deprived and hallucinating weird patterns of yellow lines and jay-walking kangaroos, pursues the van into downtown Perth in what has to be the slowest chase scene in the history of cinema. The pay-off that Franklin delivers, however, is not just generic – which, in itself, isn’t necessarily a cause for criticism – but tortuously contrived: the aforementioned oddballs, all of whom have spectacularly got the wrong idea about Pat, converge in the unlikeliest of circumstances to point the finger as the cops close in.

But the gleefully macabre coda which solves the mystery of why Pat’s truck was running slightly overweight steers the tone back the admixture of droll black comedy and edgy suspense that makes ‘Roadgames’, notwithstanding its one narrative flub, such a winning and eminently watchable little film.

Friday, October 26, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: The Innkeepers

I reviewed Ti West’s ‘House of the Devil’ as part of last year’s Summer of Satan retrospective and it was a real find. West respected his audience’s intelligence, respected his heroine’s plight (Joceline Donahue’s performance was spot-on and her character never corralled into being a mere scream queen), and built tension through atmosphere and character rather than relying on cheap scares or torture porn nastiness. 

Featuring a Ti West movie as part of this year’s 13 for Halloween was a done deal!

‘The Innkeepers’ consolidates much of what made ‘House of the Devil’ a success: an empathetic heroine who is recognisably human with all the confusion and vulnerability anyone would display if confronted by the unexplained or horrific; a slow-burn approach to narrative that suggests and unnerves rather than lambasting with exposition or playing the horror card too early; and a clearly defined location that anchors the movie and defines its atmosphere so effectively that its architectural presence is almost a character in its own right.

In ‘House of the Devil’, it was the kind of gothic-styled house that wouldn’t look out of place in Amityville or Haddonfield. In ‘The Innkeepers’, it’s the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel on the verge of closing down. The owner is in Barbados and not really concerned about business – or the lack during – during its final weekend as a going concern. Staff is down to two junior employees – Claire (a never-better Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – the rooms on the top floor have been stripped and closed off, and the only remaining guests are actress-cum-medium Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), Gayle (Alison Barlett), a brittle and recently estranged woman with her young son in tow, and an unnamed old man (George Riddle) who checks in demanding the third floor suite where he spent his honeymoon.

The events that happen to, and around, this small cluster of people have their beginning and their end in the story of Madeleine O’Malley (Brenda Cooney), the betrayed bride whose spirit is said to haunt the establishment. Luke buys into the legend, spending his time building a Yankee Pedlar website and filming and recording various areas of the inn, determined to capture some supernatural activity on tape. Claire, though sceptical, assists him. Yet it’s Claire who becomes attuned to the first hints that the past is coming back to haunt the place.

West does two very canny things with ‘The Innkeepers’. Firstly, he lets the Yankee Pedlar grow on you (and gradually begin to creep you out) at the same rate that it does the protagonists. He lets you discover things about the inn – and about Madeleine – at the same time that Claire and Luke discover them. In a genre where filmmakers often rush to play their hand, almost desperate to telegraph to the audience that the protagonists are in peril, West understands the virtue of patience. Accordingly, there is a pacing and elegance to his work absent from most contemporary cinema. ‘The Innkeepers’, with its haunted hotel imbued with the shadows of the past, has the ingredients of a classic ghost story and that’s what West lets it be.

Secondly – pace – my use of the description “haunted hotel”, West has the infinite wisdom not to try to walk in the footprints of ‘The Shining’. It would have been so easy, and so disastrous, to set up the Yankee Pedlar as a kind of Overlook Jnr. West sidesteps this potential pitfall with all the elegance that he demonstrates elsewhere.

And if all this talk of elegance and classicism suggests that ‘The Innkeepers’ is more redolent of the old BBC ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ adaptations than American horror cinema’s most exciting young practitioner, then send for the bellhop and have him take your worries away. When it needs to be, ‘The Innkeepers’ is genuinely creepy. And what it comes time for the big nasty scares at the end, West conjures a claustrophobic and downbeat finale.

There is very little wrong with this film – the for-the-sake-of-it final shot is a minor annoyance – and once again West demonstrates an excellent facility with actors (across the board, the performances are note-perfect) and conjures an incredibly handsomely mounted production on a limited budget. With his contributions to anthology films ‘V/H/S’ and ‘The ABCs of Death’ well received, and ‘The Sacrament’ and ‘The Side Effect’ in pre-production, West is a talented guy who’s doing consistently good work – that he’s barely into his thirties bodes well, hopefully, for more great genre movies in years to come.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Posted as part of the Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies 3rd Annual Italian Horror Blogathon

Of all the Italian horror movie subgenres – from ridiculously gory zombie epics to the excessive aesthetic of the giallo – the most notorious is the cannibal movie. The ‘Citizen Kane’ of which is indisputably Ruggero Deodato’s ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, a film I featured on this blog two years ago. That review turned into a three-part appraisal: 3,500 words on one of the most reviled films of all time, a piece of work so controversial that … well, drop the title in conversation at the office tomorrow and see what kind of response you get.

It only takes the briefest perusal of the subgenre to realise that, alongside Deodato, one name stands tall in the canon of cannibalism: Umberto Lenzi. It was, after all, his 1972 opus ‘The Man from Deep River’ (a.k.a. ‘Deep River Savages’) that properly kickstarted the cannibal boom of the mid-70s to late-80s, and his farewell to the flesh(munching) was no less a controversy-fest than ‘Cannibal Ferox’ (a.k.a. ‘Make Them Die Slowly’), a flick that cheerfully billed itself as “the most violent film ever made” and laid claim – with probably only the mildest exaggeration – to being banned in 31 countries.

Inbetween ‘The Man from Deep River’ in 1972 and ‘Eaten Alive!’ eight years later, two things happened which shaped the narrative of Lenzi’s second cannibal movie. The first was a matter of inevitability: a couple of early cannibal movies made a chunk of money and Italian exploitation cinema did what it’s best at and jumped on the bandwagon. Giallo master Sergio Martino sent Ursula Andress into the clutches of a primitive tribe in ‘The Mountain of the Cannibal God’ (a.k.a. ‘Prisoner of the Cannibal God’); sultan of sleaze Joe d’Amato threw porn into the mix with ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ and ‘Papaya, Love Goddess of the Cannibals’; and Ruggero Deodato’s excesses in ‘Last Cannibal World’ (a.k.a. ‘Jungle Holocaust’) merely served to soften his audience up for the real deal, i.e. ‘Cannibal Holocaust’. In 1980, the year ‘Eaten Alive!’ was released, the cannibal boom reached its zenith, with Marino Girolami’s ‘Zombie Holocaust’ (a.k.a. ‘Queen of the Cannibals’), Joe d’Amato’s ‘Orgasmo Nero’ (oooh, he was a subtle one with titles, our Joe), two efforts by Jess Franco – ‘White Cannibal Queen’ and ‘The Devil Hunter’, both of which have multiple aliases – and Hark Tsui’s ‘We’re Going to Eat You’ all riding the coat-tails of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ into the grindhouses and fleapits of the world. There was, in other words, a surfeit of cannibal movies vying for a paying audience at the time ‘Eaten Alive!’ came out. A canny filmmaker – and exploitation filmmakers, from whom a fast shoot, a lurid title and a low-budget were the key ingredients to turning a quick profit, are amongst the canniest – would be turning his mind at this point to the question of how to make a cannibal film that was just different enough.

The second thing that happened took the world by surprise. In November 1978, the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana was the scene of an incidence of so-called “revolutionary suicide” which cost the lives of over 900 cult members, a third of them children. The commune was ruled over by religious leader / fraud / fuckin’ wacko [delete as applicable] Jim Jones. History would record the site, the tragedy and the perpetrator in a stark one-word reminder: Jonestown.

‘Eaten Alive!’ – the exclamation mark defiantly up there on the screen in the opening credits – fuses the expected tropes of the cannibal flick with a study of cultism and menticide. This throws us into a state of dichotomy already. Its release just fourteen months after Jonestown – a clear indication that this isn’t a clear-eyed artistic response to the tragedy made after much reflection and having allowed enough time to pass – betokens ‘Eaten Alive!’ as an out-and-out exploitationer. And yet the very fact that Lenzi chose to incorporate the Jonestown holocaust (I feel justified in using that word) in a down and dirty B-movie that would undoubtedly have turned the requisite profit if he’d simply conceived it as ‘The Man from Deep River Part 2’ forces the reviewer to engage with it on a different level.

The film opens at the Niagara Falls, where a harried looking man is assassinated by a Eurasian gentleman who uses a blow-pipe and a poison-tipped dart. Cut to New York where same individual effects two further assassinations in same manner. Fleeing the scene, he’s hit by a truck. Goodnight Vienna. Gruff cops Lieutenant Creal (Gerald Grant) and Inspector Logan (Jake Teague) are stuck for ID or motive; the only thing on him is a reel of home movie footage labelled as the property of heiress Diana Morris (Paola Senatore). Slight problem: Diana went missing some months previously. Diana’s sister Sheila (Janet Agren) is asked to view the footage. It depicts a weird ritual in a foreign locale.

With no idea what it means or where her sister disappeared to, Sheila turns to anthropologist Professor Carter (Mel Ferrer) who offers a couple of suggestions as to the location, the jungles of southeastern Asia being his first guess. That’s where Sheila heads. Engaging the services of J&B-swilling ’Nam deserter Mark Butler (Robert Kerman), they head into the jungle.

An encounter with a former member of a cult run by the charismatic Jonas (Ivan Rassimov) gives them their first real clue, but soon afterwards they are abandoned by their native guide. More by luck than judgement they find themselves at Jonas’s encampment. Though “luck” probably isn’t the operative word; for all that Sheila is reunited with Diana (who is half stoned and half terrified of Jonas), it’s made explicit that neither she nor Mark will be allowed to leave. 

Compounding their problems, Mark falls afoul of Jonas’s brutish second-in-command while Sheila finds herself subject to the same cocktail of drugs, mind games and sexual depravities that Jones practised on Diana.

The film really gets its exploitative funk on at this point. Even before Jonas sets his sights on Sheila, we’re treated to the rape and dismemberment of a girl by a local cannibal tride (yup, this is a cannibal film that gets around the problem of nobody in Jonas’s commune being likely to chow down on some longpig by conveniently having a cannibal tribe live next door), and a ceremony in which recently widowed cult member Mowara (Me Me Lai) is released from her holy union in order to remarry. This ceremony involves the deceased’s three brothers publicly having sex with her. The scene is unintentionally hilarious, mainly for the utterly bored look on Lai’s face and the 0.0001 seconds that brother number two pretends to be doing the nasty, as if the thought of even pretending to have sloppy seconds is repugnant to him.

The scene where Jonas drugs Sheila and utilises a dildo smeared in cobra blood, however, isn’t hilarious. Not at all.

Subject of the poor bastard snake that had to die in order to achieve this scene, it should be mentioned that ‘Eaten Alive!’ is no film for ophidiophobes. The film crawls with snakes, most of them in documentary footage or scenes lifted from other films – ‘The Man from Deep River’ and ‘Primitive Desires’ are heavily plundered – in order to bulk out the running time with random acts of animal violence. Thus we have snake-on-monkey violence, mongoose-on-snake violence, and man-on-snake violence. There’s also some man-on-crocodile nastiness.

So, yeah: ‘Eaten Alive!’ is pretty nasty. It wants its actresses disrobed as much as possible and its wildlife dead. It’s not really all that bothered about how anyone else fares, for that matter. During an escape attempt from the commune, Mark encounters the nearby cannibal tribe and watches them castrate one of their own. No particular reason as far as I could discern, just penis here, penis gone, lots of blood. But there’s also a curious lack of engagement in all this unpleasantness. The animal deaths are inserted into the film haphazardly and without regard to continuity. Scenes of nudity and rape play out with a sort of blank indifference. The big break-out and pursuit that occupies the final reel is weirdly devoid of tension.

And I’m not sure that any of these things can be put down to directorial incompetence. Lenzi had called the shots on more than forty movies by the time he made ‘Eaten Alive!’, including giallo faves ‘A Quiet Place to Kill’, ‘Knife of Ice’ and ‘Spasmo’. Simply put, the man knew how to construct a movie. I have a theory that ‘Eaten Alive!’ – as risible as it is in some respects (case in point: it’s vaguely suggested that the blow-pipe wielding hitman is whacking former cult members who might blow the gaffe on what Jonas is up to, yet Jonas is subsequently shown exiling a follower for a minor transgression, the implication being that Jonas deals with insubordination by sending people home then paying airfare for one of his goons to go and track them down and assassinate them in the most attention-drawing manner imaginable rather than simply passing them over to the cannibal tribe next door) – disinterestedly heaps on the gore and the grotesquery as a comment on the banality of evil.

For all that Jonas has established his sect in the middle of nowhere, the emphasis is always on ceremony and a masquerade of civilised behaviour: there are opulent feasts; the interior décor of native huts betrays a western-capitalist sensibility; Jonas plays recorded music during ceremonial proceedings. These are contrasted against the natural world – and I’m talking the kind of nature that Tennyson described as “red in tooth and claw”. For all that Jonas encourages his followers to participate in what he calls “purification”, every frame that Lenzi puts on screen reminds us that there’s nothing pure going on here. Quite the opposite.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The horror, the (Italian) horror ...

The 3rd Annual Italian Horror Blog-a-thon kicks off over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies tomorrow, and runs till All Hallow's Eve.

I've made it a point of contributing in previous years - a few gialli in 2009, and a piece on Fulci's 'The Beyond' last year - and I'm definitely not missing out on the mayhem this time round. I've got something sick and fucked up planned for the first day of the blog-a-thon. 

Tune in to The Agitation of the Mind tomorrow (perhaps best if you don't plan on eating afterwards), and check out Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies over the next week - there'll be plenty of dark delights from other quarters.

Monday, October 22, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Thirst

Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri) awakes in a coffin and starts screaming her head off. Further investigation determines she’s in a gloomy cellar. It’s all very gothic. She ascends some rickety wooden steps, but the door at the head of them is locked. In voiceover, someone warns that this type of “conditioning” could damage her sanity. Someone else responds that she’s already very different to the “subject” they were observing a week ago.

Flashback said week: Kate is living a normal if rather privileged life as a successful businesswoman in an affluent Australian suburb. She’s dating Derek (Rod Mullinar), who’s an architect the same way that Richard Gere in ‘Intersection’ is an architect. One day she discovers a milk carton in her fridge that contains blood, not milk. Next thing, she’s drugged and kidnapped. She wakes up at a remote establishment known as “The Farm”, run by a mysterious organisation known as “The Brotherhood”. The Farm is filled with docile types who, it turns out, have been chosen for their healthy constitution and are being “milked” (i.e. exsanguinated).

The Brotherhood’s hierarchy – Mrs Barker (Shirley Cameron) and Dr Fraser (David Hemmings) – are at loggerheads and a power struggle is clearly in process. Kate is essentially kept prisoner, and yet held in fearful regard by the “donors”. It transpires that she’s descended from Elizabeth Bathory and as such has been chosen to merge her bloodline with that of the aristocratic Mr Hodge (Max Phipps) and therefore create something of a vampire super-race. Kate isn’t entirely enamoured of this scenario, resists Dr Fraser’s programme of conditioning and tries to fight back against the matronly Mrs Barker. Consequently Mrs Barker eschews Dr Fraser’s softly-softly approach and subjects Kate to harsher treatment. Drugged, Kate wakes up screaming in a coffin and, hey everybody, this is where we came in.

Right, then: any guesses as to how much of the film the business above accounts for. Three quarters of an hour? An hour? Longer?

Seventeen minutes.

‘Thirst’ – directed by Rod Hardy, most of whose work is for the small screen – almost trips over itself rushing to play its hand. Plenty of filmmakers would have kept the Bathory reveal under wraps for at lease half of the running time; likewise the revelation of what happens to the so-called donors in the generically monikered “processing plant”. Hardy, working from a screenplay by John Pinkney, seems to want all the cards on the table – narrative, exposition and imagery – so he can get stuck into the centrepiece, a bizarro 20-minute let’s-fuck-with-the-heroine’s-mind sequence that comes on like the brainwashing scene from ‘The Parallax View’ crossed with one of the more psychedelic episodes of ‘The Prisoner’ (in fact, The Farm resembles The Village in some respects).

During the course of these 20 minutes, we have dream sequences that bleed into each other, the manipulation of Kate’s memories, and a finale involving a room tilting and tearing itself apart as if Merrin and Pazuzu were duking it out over the soul of some pre-pubescent girl. Cracks open in walls, doors are battered to within an inch of their frames, books fly off shelves, chandeliers plunge from the ceiling, heavy furniture goes skidding across the floor, a candlestick turns into a glowing chunk of hot metal, plaster dust covers everything and at the end of it, Kate huddled in a corner terrified, a tankard of warm fresh somehow appears next to her.

There are two things that would normally bother me in all of this. The suggestion, since Hardy cuts to Mrs Barker studying video footage of Kate’s psychological disintegration, is that The Brotherhood have created a false room and rigged it with a variety of devices to simulate a supernatural assault; such a room would need to be contained in a larger space and supported by hydraulic arms to in order create the illusion of the room tilting and also to facilitate the damage to the walls etc. Yet (a) a fucking tankard of blood appears from nowhere without a drop being spilled; and (b) the final shot of the sequence has a collapsed curtain reveal a view of the grounds from a bay window, confirming that the room is an integral part of the building’s architecture.

So why don’t these two mise-en-scene cheats bother me? Because, by this point, ‘Thirst’ had jettisoned all pretensions to form, structure, logic and coherence. The film, simply, becomes a fever dream in the way of ‘Suspiria’, only with a blood farm instead of a ballet school, and does so very early on in the proceedings. Weirdness permeates. The film trades in almost amusingly incongruous images: a smiling hostess leads some visiting blood-drinkers through a tour of the processing plant – one of them raises a camera and clicks a snapshot like a tourist in the Vatican; members of The Brotherhood greet each other with their pinkie fingers upraised for all the world like a bunch of tea-sipping Noel Coward characters; a technician walks through a lab with a crate of blood-filled bottles, like a milkman with an extra order for Vlad the Impaler’s house. 

There’s a punch-drunk atmosphere to ‘Thirst’ which works beautifully in its favour, leeching away the otherwise distracting deficiencies of Contouri’s performance (standard MO: eyes roll, head wobbles, lower lip quivers) and the script’s leaden dialogue. Thus what could have been a tedious movie, endlessly circling in a slow waltz with its one single idea, emerges as a cult oddity that bleeds into your subconscious and is guaranteed to make you think twice before you reach for a carton of milk.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Quantum of Solace

‘Casino Royale’ maintained fidelity to its source novel in many ways, not least in presenting Bond’s card table duel with underworld accountant Le Chiffre as his first mission following his promotion to Double-O status. I wonder if, for even the briefest moment, the producers considered reapproaching the other novels, this time in sequence, and reconfiguring them for a contemporary audience. Just as ‘Casino Royale’ replicated the mechanics and setting of Fleming’s novel but with a framing narrative centered around terrorism and high-level financial chicanery, did anyone consider the possibility of ‘Live and Let Die’ with Mr Big revealed as the man behind Le Chiffre (there isn’t a single Bond novel where “SMERSH” can’t easily be recast as “shadowy terrorist organization”) and Solitaire’s gift of prognostication an enigmatic and possibly genuine preternatural talent rather than the silly plot device of the Roger Moore film; or ‘Moonraker’ as a properly earth-bound adaptation but focusing on drones and stealth technology rather than Drax’s phallocentric rocket; ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ without the oil rig and concentrating on the greed/death/emptiness of riches subtext of the novel and with Tiffany Case as a proper romantic heroine despite her personal agenda – a sort of Vesper Lynd but without the coercion; or ‘From Russia With Love’ brought up to date with the Russian Mafia and prostitution rings; ‘Dr No’ as an acidly satirical comment on environmentalism (something the film under consideration today tries to achieve) with the guano mine retained but its claw-handed villain striving for a source of clean energy only with a dirty use in mind; or ‘Goldfinger’ played out against the worsening global financial crisis; ‘Thunderball’ updated in any way you see fit – as long as there are weapons of mass destruction, the basic plot remains timely; ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ with the events of the last half of the novel compressed into a punchily effective pre- and immediately post-credits bit of action, the hoods at the motel setting Bond on the trail of a more high-ranking villain; a less lachrymose adaptation of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ with subliminal messaging as a tool of media control instead of the daft hypnosis/sabotaged crops malarkey of both the novel and the Lazenby film; and perhaps collapsing ‘You Only Live Twice’ (retaining Dr Shatterhand’s grotesque and disturbing garden of death) and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (retaining the brainwashing, M’s dichotomy and the redemptive suicide mission) into a single taut, angry and challenging narrative?

I’m guessing nobody did, but fuck me it would have been one hell of a direction to go with the newly revivified franchise!

This is what the producers did instead: in mid-2006, with ‘Casino Royale’ in post-production, the powers that be an EON Productions decided the follow-up would be a linear sequel, thus building on the Bond-Vesper relationship and channeling the theme of betrayal into a hard-as-nails revenge thriller. The story was based on an original idea by producer Michael G. Wilson and shifted the focus of the villain/nemesis from terrorist funds (the plot dynamic of 'Casino Royale') to environmentalism and water supplies. Roger Michell was approached to direct but with no script available refused to commit. ‘Casino Royale’ scripters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Paul Haggis did some work on the denouement) were re-engaged to work up Wilson's concept. With ‘Casino Royale’ proving a commercial and critical success, the heat was on to get its still-untitled successor into production. The impending writers' strike further redacted the production schedule. Purvis and Wade essentially wrote the first draft under the gun. Forster came on board as director, citing that although he wasn’t a Bond fan he’d been impressed enough by ‘Casino Royale’ to agree. Nonetheless, he felt that film was overlong and wanted ‘Quantum of Solace’ - the title now having publically been confirmed, although having bugger all to do with the eponymous Fleming short story - to be shorter, tighter and faster. Forster, Wilson and Haggis heavily reworked Purvis and Wade’s script. Anyone sensing a too many cooks/spoiled broth ratio here? It gets worse: during filming, Forster engaged Joshua Zetumer (a writer of spec scripts who, at this point, had yet to see any of his work put into production) to undertake rewrites on a day-to-day basis depending on however Forster and the actors’ ideas on any given scene may have changed. A casualty of this approach was that Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) had his timely and intriguing subplot reduced, a damned shame given that Wright's performance in ‘Casino Royale’ revivified Leiter in much the same way as Craig made the character of Bond his own.

The result of all this malarkey is that ‘Quantum of Solace’ is a complete mishmash. It weighs in with some intriguing concepts and possibly the most overt political imperative of any Bond movie. It flirts with exploring the Bond/M relationship in greater detail, but never quite finds a dynamic. It gives us the first Bond girl – Camille (Olga Kurylenko) whose relationship with 007 isn’t defined sexually – but arbitrarily throws Bond into bed with fellow spook Agent Fields (Gemma Arterton) only to kill her off in a manner that explicitly homages Shirley Eaton’s demise in ‘Goldfinger’, thus reminding us how casually disposable the franchise’s attitude to women is. It gives us a sequence of dusty, dirty, grubby and determinedly unromantic locations, as if Forster wanted to declare with every frame a commitment to moving away from the fantasy and lifestyle porn of the previous films, but renders each location title card in drastically different, almost comedic, lettering so that the film is riddled with establishing shots that look like something out of a spoof film.

But the worst problem with ‘Quantum of Solace’ is its action scenes. This is a James Bond film, y’all, so action scenes are kind of important. Forster makes the monumentally awful decision to steer it into Jason Bourne territory, but whereas the Paul Greengrass contributions to that franchise are shot through with pounding, hyper-kinetic action scenes, ‘Quantum of Solace’ just looks like it’s been edited by a speed-freak who’s been washing down amphetamines with quadruple espressos. Either that or the editing is a 102-minute exercise in trying to disguise Forster’s lack of facility in staging action. Whatever salvageable grace notes ‘Quantum of Solace’ might offer in other respects, it nosedives towards Shitsville every time it delivers an action scene.

It also makes the fundamental mistake of throwing the majority of its actions scenes at the viewer in the first half before struggling to marshal a mélange of disparate elements into something approach a plot as the hour-mark approaches. After which the pace slows to the point of tedium. 102 minutes – the shortest Bond movie – and yet its last 40 minutes are truly interminable. Approaching ‘Quantum of Solace’ for this review – it was only the second time I’ve watched the film – I wondered if it would improve (a) on a second viewing, and (b) shortly after watching ‘Casino Royale’ (my rationale: appraise the two films as a unified whole and see if the narrative peregrinations of the latter get ironed out). But I’m left with no change of opinion from when I originally reviewed it over two years ago. And exactly the same thing happened while I was watching it: round about the halfway mark, boredom set in and I simply didn’t give a crap what happened.

Martin Campbell, directing ‘Casino Royale’, was savvy enough to know which elements of the franchise still worked and which needed pruning back or doing away with entirely. Forster simply shitcans everything that makes a Bond movie a Bond movie. Somebody should have given him the Bourne reboot instead and enticed Campbell to continue the story he’d so brilliantly envisage in ‘Casino Royale’.

Only one thing emerges as solid gold in ‘Quantum of Solace’: Daniel Craig’s total commitment to his personification of Bond and his innate ability to take the character seriously. I ended my original review with the observation that “it’s a given … that James Bond will return. This time around, though, I have no expectations.” Since then, and with each of the various trailers and publicity stills I’ve seen, I have developed expectations. Said expectations have evolved from tentative anticipation to borderline pant-wetting excitement. ‘Skyfall’ doesn’t have to do much more than be edited properly and have a coherent script to emerge as infinitely better than its predecessor. But, please EON, please please please, after a four year wait and with only a finite amount of times the now 44-year old Craig can reprise the role, please let ‘Skyfall’ be awesome.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Me and Arthur Seaton

When the Sillitoe Committee won a prestigious Arts Council/BBC grant earlier this year to develop a mobile phone app providing a tour of Alan Sillitoe’s Nottingham, based on five key locations in the novel ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, part of the remit was to build an online repository of material around this theme for the BBC’s flagship arts website The Space.

Being the cheeky boggers we are, we decided to resurrect Arthur Seaton and have him pass comment, in properly sardonic style, on The Space content. Arthur being Arthur, he says what he thinks and pulls no punches. The mobile phone app is launched a week tomorrow – Saturday 27 October – as part of Sillitoe Day 2012, a day-long event at the Nottingham Contemporary.

With content on The Space reaching its conclusion, Arthur – voiced by Jason Williamson (that’s him on the right, the guy whose pint you wouldn’t spill), lead singer of the Sleaford Mods – gives a rebellious overview of the project so far.

The piece was scripted by myself and James K Walker and Jason freakin’ nails it. Seriously, I want this guy to record every piece of prose I write from now on! Go here to listen and explore some of the other stuff on The Space.

Go here to listen to the Sleaford Mods at their attitudinous best on Soundcloud.

And go here to book tickets for Sillitoe Day. Jason’s performance will be broadcast, there’ll be talks, film screenings and a parade of Nottingham’s finest, including Derrick Buttress, Ann Featherstone, Al Needham, Frank Abbot, Michael Eaton and screenwriter William Ivory in conversation with yours truly.

Sylvia Kristel

i.m. Sylvia Kristel, 28 September 1952 - 17 October 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: Homecoming

Just as Dario Argento and John Carpenter enjoyed something of a renaissance with their work for ‘Masters of Horror’ after, respectively, a period of creative asininity and a period of inactivity, so too Joe Dante delivered something pretty damn good after working fairly consistently in TV but not producing anything of note. Like Argento and Carpenter, Dante directed two episodes of the series. His season one offering, ‘Homecoming’, was one of the show’s high points.

At once a zombie film, a morality tale and a political satire – kind of like ‘Day of the Dead’ meets ‘Bob Roberts’ based on a treatment by the Brothers Grimm – it’s sharply scripted, deftly directed and studs its often hilariously funny narrative with occasional and genuinely poignant grace notes.

Our protagonist is David Murch (Jon Tenney), a political publicist trying to whip up some patriotic fervour as the incumbent and avowedly pro-military president fights a re-election campaign. POTUS – such as Murch breathlessly refers to the prez on every possible occasion – is never named, but seems to be an amalgam of Clinton and Bush the younger. During a live TV debate with a woman who’s lost her son in an overseas campaign, Murch corpses on air as he remembers his long-dead brother, himself a vet. He struggles to recover, assuring the grieving mother that “I wish I could bring them all back”.

Murch thinks he’s blow his credibility, but the president is delighted and starts using the phrase in speeches. All of sudden Murch is the Capital Hill golden boy and attracts power-hungry pundit Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), who sees him as her ticket into the administrative inner sanctum. Opinion polls are up and the re-election looks like it’s in the bag. Then something unexpected happens: soldiers who were killed in action start coming back from the dead. And they want to vote.

The political satire boils down to one joke, casually sustained: what if the people you’d really fucked off – the people who’d died on your watch – could still punch that ballot paper? It’s bolstered by two good performances. Tenney portrays Murch as human Teflon, a man wedded to his mobile phone and thinking more moves ahead that your average chess champion. Visiting a cemetery with his elderly mother, he tries to be deferential by not answering his perpetually bleating phone; the look on his face as he virtually has to force himself not to reach for it like a gunslinger going for his pistol is priceless. Gill plays Cleaver as a comic-book Machiavellian seductress, va-va-voom and a brutal lack of sentiment bundled together in a short skirt and a pair of killer heels.

The zombies – keep an eye out for the names on the headstones when they claw they way out of their graves – are perhaps the cleanest, least maggoty bunch of the undead that pop culture has given us. There’s a wonderful scene where a young man, his life obviously thrown away in a pointless conflagration before it had really begun, plunders into a pizza parlour. The owner and his wife sit him down – he reminds them of their son, also overseas – and begin the slow process of communicating with him. He presents no threat to them, and vice versa. The family dog sidles up to him, also aware there’s no danger, and is duly fussed. It’s a lovely moment, unforced and not overly-sentimentalised. And quite apposite for a film where the only danger from a zombie infestation is to the politicians they can turf out of office.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sillitoe Day (featuring yours truly)

Next Saturday – October 27th – I’m appearing at the Nottingham Contemporary as part of Sillitoe Day 2012, a day-long celebration of the life, work and inspiration of Alan Sillitoe. I’ll be reading from and discussing his novel ‘The Open Door’, which has just been republished in a beautiful new edition; and I’ll also be in conversation with screenwriting legend William Ivory (‘Common as Muck’, ‘The Sins’, ‘Made in Dagenham’).

Also appearing: Derrick Buttress, Michael Eaton, Al Needham, Ann Featherstone, Pete Davis and James Walker. Plus a screening of Sam Derby-Cooper’s short film ‘Mimic’, adapted from Alan’s psychologically challenging short story, the launch of the Sillitoe Trail mobile phone app, and much more. Tickets are £15 for the whole event, available through the Nottingham Contemporary website. The price includes a limited edition book specially produced to accompany the app.

More information on the Alan Sillitoe website, or follow the Alan Sillitoe Page on Facebook. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Seasons 1 – 4, I was a major ‘X-Files’ fan. This was back in the days when I used to watch TV. Back in the days when there was something on beyond so-called reality shows. ‘The X-Files’ was a reason to stay in instead of going to the pub or the cinema. It was worth taking the phone off the hook for. It was something you talked about at work the next day.

Season 5, it started going downhill. The mythology episodes became increasing dour and convoluted, to the point where it seemed like the writers were painting themselves into a corner. For a show that was at its best trading on sardonic humour and maintaining a deadpan aspect whilst treading a thin line between genuinely scary and ooops-there-goes-my-suspension-of-disbelief, it committed the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously.

The first big-screen spin-off, the horribly titled ‘X-Files: Fight the Future’ appeared in 1998, a bridge between the fifth and sixth seasons. I’d pretty much tuned out of the series at that point, but trudged dutifully off to the cinema expecting little and getting even less in return. I’ve still not seen the last few seasons, including the Mulder-less ninth and final series which I have it on good authority is a case of not with a bang but a WTF.

One thing drew me to the decade-delayed second film (the title ‘X-Files: I Want to Believe’ only marginally better): Billy Connolly. That he could convince in a dramatic role was never in doubt – ‘Mrs Brown’ and ‘The Man Who Sued God’ were proof positive. But Billy Connolly as a paedophile priest with psychic abilities! At what point in the pre-production meetings did his name come up as a casting possibility and what were they thinking?

Whenever and whatever, it was inspired! With David Duchovny curiously enervated in his belated return to the role of Mulder and Gillian Anderson, while still on form and every inch the Scully of the series, relegated offscreen for large swathes of the second half, it’s Connolly who defines ‘I Want to Believe’. As the disgraced Father Joseph Crissman, Connolly is a revelation, his performance low-key but bristling with edginess and a sense of sullied enigma.

The film opens with Scully as a practising doctor at a hospital run by a Christian administration, which automatically opens up a debate on science vs faith. Approached by FBI agents Drummy (Xzibit) and Whitney (Amanda Peet) who are keen to benefit from Mulder’s work in cases involving psychic phenomena, Scully reluctantly persuades Mulder to re-enter the fold. Although equally reluctant initially, Mulder’s interest in the case soon reaches the obsessive heights of old.

It’s a strange beast, is ‘I Want to Believe’. Absent anything to do with aliens, it puts an “x” in the box (pardon the pun) of most of the show’s thematic concerns – the unexplained vs rationalism, the nature of belief (in this case both religious and non-religious), and the barely tolerated maverick’s place with a protocol-ridden organisation – and yet it seems so unlike an ‘X-Files’ story that if you changed the protagonists’ names and cut maybe a dozen lines of backstory-specific dialogue, you’d have a stand-alone piece of work that would function perfectly well on its own merits. This alone accounts for the critical head-scratching and lacklustre box office that greeted its release. That winning combination I mentioned earlier, the key to which was sardonic humour? ‘I Want to Believe’ is almost entirely devoid of humour (the exception being a couple of monumentally politically incorrect comments from Mulder apropos of Crissman’s kiddy-fiddling); with its snowy vistas, its glum and claustrophobic interiors, and its determination to meet thorny and existential concerns head-on, this is ‘The X-Files’ as if directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The usual Mulder/Scully belief/rationalism debate is fragmented by Crissman. Mulder is inexplicably drawn to him, perhaps viewing him as a last chance to prove to his still sceptical former paymasters the truth of his convictions; or perhaps recognising in Crissman a guilt and self-loathing that mirrors Mulder’s lifelong state of mind stemming from his inability to save his sister. Scully on the other hand is utterly repulsed by Crissman. Yet Crissman’s “visions”, which lead the FBI agents to a series of grisly discoveries, proved geographically accurate if frustratingly vague in other respects. There’s enough that’s tangible to fire Mulder’s beliefs and enough vagary to shore up Scully’s pragmatism. Until, that is, Crissman makes an off-handed comment to Scully which resonates in her dispute with the hospital’s administration over whether to continue treatment on a young boy whose chances of survival are minimal.

The film shifts between Crissman/Mulder, Scully/her patient, and a narrative strand involving stem cell research and illegal organ harvesting that coheres these various aspects. In its final act, ‘I Want to Believe’ strays into ‘Hostel’-lite territory, complete with eastern European villains straight out of central casting. At this point Crissman fades into the background as comprehensively as Scully did earlier, and the nature of his involvement – mystic or fraud, unforgivable pederast or redeemed visionary? – is never fully settled upon. But of course it wouldn’t be; this is an X-File after all, and while the truth might well be out there, concrete proof is considerably harder to come by. The difference is: what’s dark and disturbing about this X-File derives from the recesses of human psyche rather than aliens or the unexplained.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Spellbinder

So, upwardly mobile lawyer Jeff (Tim Daly) has just been shooting some hoops with his yuppie chums – if nothing else sticks with you about ‘Spellbinder’, you will remember it as a film of the 80s – and wanders out to the car park nursing a serious pain in his back that’s been exacerbated by a tumble on the basketball court. He’s yakking to best bud Derek (Rick Rossovich), bemoaning a break-up with his latest girlfriend, when they notice a sinister looking dude in an ankle length leather jacket, Aldys (Anthony Crivello) beating up on a gorgeous redhead. They intervene, Derek taking a cut to the hand when Aldys pulls a switchblade. Jeff seemingly gets the better end of the deal when he offers to drive the girl – Miranda (Kelly Preston) – home. He seemingly gets the even better end of the deal when Miranda tells him she has no home to go to, and he valiantly offers her the comforts of his bachelor pad.

On their first night together, Miranda performs a spell which takes Jeff’s back pain away. It doesn’t seem to occur to him to query exactly how she’s able to do this, but seeing how she’s topless at the time you can understand why the guy might have been a tad distracted. Next day she cleans his house top to bottom and waits for him to get home wearing one of his shirts and not much else. If ‘Spellbinder’ hadn’t been both written and directed by women – Tracy Tormé and Janet Greek respectively – I’d have written it off as the clunkiest of male fantasies. Actually, if the film functions on any level beyond ‘cheesy 80s horror flick for people who don’t like horror flicks’, it’s as a commentary on the gullibility of the male of the species. ‘Spellbinder, or: How Thinking Through Your Penis Isn’t a Good Idea When Witchcraft is Involved’.

Y’see, Miranda is a witch. The palmistry and preternatural connection with Jeff’s dog and cat don’t tip him off either, and he has to wait till around the fifty minute mark, after all kinds of weird things have happened and various of Aldys’s minions have warned him “we want her back”, before Miranda breaks out the expositional monologue. A witch, moreover, who is on the run from her coven. Of which Aldys is the leader. Since when covens were ruled by men, I’m not sure … and wouldn’t that, y’know, make him a warlock not a witch? But, hey ho, the script isn’t too bothered with the finer details. And besides, Miranda disappears during the middle third just so that Jeff can report her missing and team up with Lieutenant Lee (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), an LA detective who spends all his time obsessing about devil worshippers without ever getting the piss taken by his brother offices or hauled into the captain’s office and told to concentrate on real police work.

‘Spellbinder’ really isn’t a very good film. It’s a comment on the 80s that we have rich-as-Croesus lawyer as our hero and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him when of all a sudden he’s not getting sex on tap from an impossibly gorgeous redhead anymore. Hard life, innit? On top of this, we have some of the unscariest antagonists the genre has to offer. Seriously, in a straight-up fight, Aldys’s coven would get trashed by the Lost Boys. Hell, they’d probably get trashed by Count Duckula. There’s a fight scene notable for its appalling martial arts choreography, Miranda casting a protection spell that consists of five random words in Latin, a potentially awesome subplot involving a paranoid survivalist that’s utterly wasted, and an ending that’s not just predictable but lifts the whole “to which you have come of your own free will” aesthetic of ‘The Wicker Man’ wholesale.

‘Spellbinder’ never fully embraces its genre. Nor, with the first half hour hinting at the softcore noodlings of, say, Jag Mundhra or Zalman King, does it deliver as a piece of erotica. Still, its leading lady justifies the film’s title if nothing else.