Tuesday, December 31, 2013
This time last year, I was at a crossroads and wondering whether to continue with The Agitation of the Mind. I’m happy to report no such doubts assail me this time round.
Fifteen months ago, after attending a talk and reading by Neil Astley, the head honcho of Bloodaxe Books and the editor of three magnificent anthologies of modern poetry – ‘Staying Alive’, ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Being Human’ – I got my mojo back for writing poetry. My first efforts as a writer were in that form, long before my book on Peckinpah, any of the short stories or this blog and its now defunct predecessors.
Those fifteen months have seen me produce over a hundred new poems, some average, some embarrassingly bad and some just kicking around waiting for a long overdue rewrite to breathe some life into them. Some of them, though … some of them were good. That might sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but when as a writer you produce something that you know works, that you know has some merit, that not only stands up to your own scrutiny (because believe me, I’m the worst fucking critic I’ll ever have) but goes out into the world and finds an editor who says yes to it, that’s when the buzz kicks in and Colombian drug barons weep because their finest marching powder is nothing compared to that feeling for a writer.
This year, I’ve had 29 poems published or accepted for publication. ‘Litany’ was runner-up in the Spyke Golding Literary Award and actually earned me some money. I rounded out this year by submitting 10 unpublished pieces for the Cinnamon Press debut poetry collection competition.
I’ve also found myself regularly contributing book reviews to LeftLion magazine and, more recently, to the Five Leaves Bookshop website. On top of this, I hold down a full time job and will continue to for as long as I have a mortgage or a seriously unexpected windfall with a lot of zeroes occurs. Time, in other words, is something I find myself with less and less of at the moment and it’s certainly impacted this year on my writing for Agitation. Hence 98 posts during 2013, as opposed to 179 in 2013, 247 in 2011, and 307 in 2010.
The trend for fewer posts will, I’m afraid, continue in 2014, but I’ll do my best to compensate with quality over quantity. 13 For Halloween will return, as will Winter of Discontent (oh, yes, I’m already planning some wonderfully sleazy delights for next year’s Winter of Discontent), and I’ve got a couple of other things in mind, of which more later.
I’m taking January off from blogging, after which it’ll probably be one post a week for a few months. To all those who have stuck with me so far and who’ll keep checking back next year, many thanks. A glass of good single malt is raised to you and I offer my best wishes for a Happy New Year. Slainte mhath!
Monday, December 30, 2013
Greetings, friends. We find ourselves at the last of this year’s Winter of Discontent offerings. Real life got in the way this year and I didn’t cover as many films as I’d have liked. We tap out at 18 films this time round. I’ll try to do better in 2014 – honest! Still, let’s go out with a bang and dredge up a thorny little number from the video nasties list.
I’ve seen quite a few of the 72 titles on said list – 39 were successfully prosecuted for obscenity, the others were guilty by association – and many of them have led me to a sad but inescapable conclusion: membership of the video nasties club doesn’t necessarily make a film nasty. In fact, a lot of them – ‘The Mardi Gras Massacre’ and ‘Anthrophagus: The Beast’ spring immediately to mind – are downright boring.
Of course, there are bona fide works of visceral nastiness to be found – a big round of applause, if you please, for ‘Cannibal Holocaust’: your flight attendant will be able to provide you with sick buckets – as well as a couple of items that flirt around the edges of the art-house camp, and one – Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ – that belongs in said camp entirely.
But we’re here tonight, dear readers, to consider a film that strives to do something provocative and intelligent with its material while leaving one foot planted firmly, obstinately and defiantly in exploitation territory. ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ is a curious work, directed by Matt Cimber, a man whose filmography tells its own story (‘Africanus Sexualis’, ‘Lady Cocoa’, ‘Alias Big Cherry’ and the Pia Zadora vehicle ‘Butterfly’), starring former Oscar nominee Millie Perkins as a sexually disturbed multiple murderess and written by her husband Robert Thom.
Thom was the writer of such lurid fare as ‘The Legend of Lylah Clare’, ‘Angel, Angel, Down We Go’, ‘Bloody Mama’ and ‘Death Race 2000’. Subtlety, we can immediate infer, was not one of his hallmarks. Perkins, too, is something of an eccentric talent. She made her debut in 1959 in the title role of George Stevens’s ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and picked up her Oscar nom in the process. TV work and small roles in the likes of ‘Ensign Pulver’ and ‘The Shooting’ occupied her for a decade or so. In 1974, she made an impression in Monte Hellman’s ever-so-slightly controversial ‘Cockfighter’, then two years later torn demonically into the lead role of ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’.
Which is where we came in.
Did that last sentence induce a bit of uncomfortable squirming? To watch the film is to squirm uncomfortably for an hour and twenty-eight minutes. There’s something “off” about ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ from the start: the opening scene has Molly chaperoning her pre-teen nephews Tod and Tripoli at beach; one sibling has the other buried to his neck in sand while Molly gazes out across the light-fragmented waves and drones on dreamily about their sea captain grandfather, lost somewhere out there on the ocean and a fine man beloved of all.
And even before we learn that said individual was a slovenly pederast beloved of absolutely no-one, there’s something here that seems wrong. There’s a washed-out disconnectedness to the cinematography (by John Carpenter’s go-to guy Dean Cundey; a weirdness to the sound design; a woozy disjointedness to the editing. Images appear in negative, saturated with artificial colour.
The performances are all pitched at a slightly non-naturalistic level, from Perkins’s vacillations between wide-eyed child-like naivety to raging she-devil, to Vanessa Brown’s mounting hysteria as Molly’s sister Cathy, to Lonny Chapman’s grizzled scenery-chewing as Long John, owner to the nautical themed bar where Molly works. All of these actors, and the characters they inhabit, exist within the same fictive space and interact as if they’ve known each other for years, but there’s something about the way they play off each other – or maybe the way they don’t – that doesn’t quite gel. And I can’t for the life of me figure out whether Cimber achieved this deliberately or whether it was a happy accident. Happy because the all-pervading sense of “off-ness” is what gives ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ its curious power.
What is undoubtedly purposeful – Thom’s screenplay fixates on it to an unsubtle yet entirely effective degree – is the film’s commentary on contemporary lives lived according to and in the shadow of the false promises and images of television. Molly is obsessed with TV, and the dividing line between men she can have a functional sexual relationship with (Long John) and those she vents her fury on is whether they are real or products of television. Two big set pieces – one running almost ten minutes – put Molly in almost fantasy-based situations with people she has seen and effused over on the small screen and it becomes swiftly apparent that they are no more real to her for suddenly being corporeal.
Naturally, a flashback to the young Molly’s horribly ruined life with her father culminates in a scene where a TV set is destroyed. Molly’s adult life, then, has been spent arranging the past into a fiction and hammering it into the tightly compacted and easily turned-off emotive space the size of a portable black & white TV.
Many of the video nasties, for all their blood-gouting, innard-spilling brutality, key into the gothic terrors of yesteryear – the mythic figure of the sasquatch in ‘Night of the Demon’, ritual sacrifices to a pagan idol in ‘The Mardi Gras Massacre’, the so-called savages of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, the folkloric idea of a vengeful killer back from the dead in any number of slashers – but the nature of the nastiness in ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’, and the tropes and visual metaphors by which Molly’s descent into madness is mapped out, are strikingly contemporary.
Friday, December 27, 2013
Making it a hat trick for Ben Wheatley on this year’s Winter of Discontent, let's clear out any remaining traces of goodwill to our fellow men and join Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) - the stars also wrote the film - for a caravanning holiday around Yorkshire and the Midlands.
There's a nice corollary to ‘Quadrophenia’ being the previous review here on Agitation. If Franc Roddam’s take on the classic Who album is a shiv-packing tale of rival gangs and the disappointments of alienated youth, ‘Sightseers’ provides a no less violent account of atrophied middle age and small lives marked only by frustration.
Tina’s 34 and still lives with her passive-aggressive mother. The accidental death of their Scottie dog and Tina’s (albeit unintended) complicity hangs over them, a constant exacerbation to a lifetime’s worth of resentment. “It was an accident,” Tina pleads early in the film; “So were you,” her mother shoots back.
Chris is sailing close to his forties and has taken a sabbatical in order to find his voice as a writer. The fact that he has yet to put a single word on paper doesn't seem to bother him unduly ... until, that is, he meets an actual writer with three published books to his name and suddenly the beardy, knitted-jumper wearing facade of Chris’s liberal, middle-class everyman persona crumble to expose the vicious, spiteful, emotionally crippled man-child beneath.
But let’s get back to the caravan trip. Chris and Tina seem to be getting on well and Tina agrees, over her mother’s petulant protests, to a week’s holiday with Chris. A sort of get-to-know-each-other-better thing. Chris has got it all planned out: a whistlestop tour of English heritage: the Crich Tramway Museum, the Blue John Cavern in Derbyshire, the Pencil Museum at Keswick and the Ribblehead viaduct. These are all actual places. Yes, England has a fucking pencil museum. Land of hope and motherfucking HB. Quite how Wheatley and co. got permission to film in them and what the staff and administrators made of the film on its release I would dearly love to know.
As the trip progress, Tina does indeed get to know Chris better. She discovers that he’s wound tighter than a watch spring that cross-bred with a torque wrench. A man who drops litter at Crich inspires him to an apoplectic rage; a man with a better caravan and better prospects earns his wrath; a man who challenges Tina over her dog fouling on National Trust land gets brutally dealt with. Chris’s rationale in this latter incident – “He’s not a person, he’s a Daily Mail reader” – is both hilarious and disturbingly justified.
And Chris gets to know Tina better. He discovers that she’s possessive, capricious and ready to get into a knock-down-drag-out argument at the drop of a hat. Tina screaming “That’s not my vagina!!!” when she finds some kinky photographs on a stolen camera that Chris has passed off as his own is one of the film’s more memorable moments. And this is a film stuffed with memorable moments. Oh, and Tina commits dog-napping.
So, yeah: Chris and Tina. Bonne and Clyde in crap sweaters, with a caravan instead of a Ford730 Sedan. Thelma and Louise with a viaduct instead of the Grand Canyon (and with a nastily cynical visual punchline instead of the held heads of friendship). Two complete nutjobs hardwired into themselves and divorced from any semblance of normal social behaviour. Two uniquely British psychopaths, part sitcom stereotypes, part that couple next door who read The Guardian and conscientiously recycle and whose foul-mouthed arguments end with thrown crockery at 3am. Those people.
‘Sightseers’ isn’t the most disturbing or surreal film Wheatley has made – ‘Kill List’ and ‘A Field in England’ deserve those respective accolades – but it’s his most painfully honest.
Monday, December 23, 2013
‘Quadrophenia’, Franc Roddam’s adaptation of The Who’s blistering concept album, is perhaps the best statement cinema has given us on the nature of disappointment.
Two things are immediate even on a first viewing. The first is a matter of paradox. Roddam’s film is both utterly in keeping with the feeling and intensity of the album and confident enough to do its own thing. This extends to shuffling the musical cues as it sees fit, completely rearranging tracks. Where the album ends, as it can only end, with the howl of commingled hope and despair that is ‘Love Reign O’er Me’, the film stages Jimmy (Phil Daniels)’s götterdämmerung to ‘I’ve Had Enough’, which comes at the double LP’s halfway point. Likewise, Jimmy’s physical isolation at the end of the album – which stands as a nihilistic rejection of John Donne’s assertion that “no man is an island” – is replaced onscreen by the image of all that Jimmy holds dear, all that defines who he is and who is wants to be, hurtling down to its destruction.
The second is how immediate, excoriating and grittily unpretentious it is. Made in 1979 and set in 1965, it’s as bolshy and uncompromising as anything that came out of America in that most magnificent of decades for cinema, the Seventies. It should have established Roddam as the UK’s answer to Scorsese yet he only went on to make only four more feature films, ranging from the underrated (‘The Lords of Discipline’) to the frankly misjudged (‘The Bride’). He proved more active in television, but here too his output varied wildly in the quality control department, with producing duties on class acts like ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ and ‘The Crow Road’ at one end and the inexplicably popular pabulum that is ‘MasterChef’ at the other.
To think of Roddam tearing it up with a British gangster film in the vein of ‘Get Carter’ or ‘The Long Good Friday’, or incisively taking a scalpel to corrupt layers of the politcal system à la Ken Loach in ‘Hidden Agenda’, is to beat yourself up with thoughts of what could have been. To watch ‘MasterChef’ is to feel ill at what actually was. Seriously: fucking ‘MasterChef’. You can imagine Jimmy and the Ace Face (Sting) and the rest of the zoot-suited mob kicking down the doors of the TV studio, swarming all over it chanting “we are the mods, we are the mods, we are, we are, we are the mods” and getting stuck into Anthony Worrall Thompson like he was a greasy fucking rocker.
But for the sake of this review clocking in at a manageable length and not turning into a rant of epic proportions, let’s confined ourselves to 1979 and rejoice in the still classic piece of Brit-brutality that Roddam turned in on his first time out. As mentioned previously, it was less than a decade an a half since the clashes between mods and rockers at Brighton, Clacton-on-Sea and a handful of other seaside resorts made the headlines and gave staid middle-class Britain a new youth figure to fear and blame for all of societies ills, just as they had done with teddy boys in the 1950s, were doing with punks in the 1970s, would do with skinheads in the 1980s and are doing with hoodies/chavs today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
‘Quadrophenia’ says a lot about Britain, particularly in its big set piece where Jimmy and his mates Dave (Mark Wingett), Chalky (Philip Davis) and Spider (Gary Shail) ride their mopeds to Brighton with the express intent of getting off with birds and having a fight with a rival gang of rockers. Here we have the us and them of the British class system, political divide and north-south divide writ large, with Jimmy regretfully spurning the acquaintanceship of childhood friend Kevin (Ray Winstone) as semi-adulthood has found on of them in the mod camp and the other a rocker. Here we have tribalism, organised violence and the island race mentality which come bubbling to the surface of each generation, personified either by racism, football hooliganism or both, depending on the decade. Here we have the attitude, the mindset that dictated ‘Straw Dogs’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ could only ever be set in England for all that they were helmed by American directors. Here we have a direct line back to Pinkie in ‘Brighton Rock’ and even further to the fog-shrouded violent streets of Victorian London; and forward through the work of Shane Meadows to the drunken belligerence in the face of cosmic destruction evinced by the protagonists of ‘The World’s End’, arguably the best big screen offering this year.
Regular readers of Agitation will know that I despair of my country on the regular basis, but also respond the most enthusiastically to films that probe these issues. ‘Quadrophenia’ is a symphony of despair. Just as Jimmy’s father (Michael Elphick) is trapped in a deadend blue collar job, Jimmy is bored and unmotivated by a deadend white collar one. His bosses are stuffy old bores, out of touch with the changing society but still fooling themselves that they govern by dint of their financial well-being and place in the class system. Just as Jimmy’s parents exist in a marriage that seems leeched of anything remotely resembling passion, Jimmy’s all-consuming obsession with Steph (Leslie Ash) – a check-out girl with the casual glamour and insouciant attitude of a silver screen goddess – is adds up to something equally meaningless after she leads him on with a quick knee-trembler then drops him like a hot coal. Just as Jimmy’s bosses are fusty old men, his hero, the charismatic gang leader Ace Face, is finally revealed as a bellboy jogging around in his silly little uniform at the beck and call of those selfsame fusty patriarchs.
When Keith Moon’s comedic vocal on ‘Bellboy’ is supplanted by Daniels – given the role of a lifetime at the age of 19 and tearing into with real hunger – screaming “BELLBOY! BELLBOYYYY!!!” it’s a raw and unforgettable moment of absolute disenchantment. That scene alone would secure ‘Quadrophenia’ a place in the annals. But it’s what happens next – in Jimmy’s attempt to outrun his past, his lack of a future, the self-destructive result of all of his strivings for individuality, and the failure of everything he believes in – that makes the film truly iconic, truly powerful, truly unforgettable.
Friday, December 20, 2013
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Kat (Jenna Jameson), queen bee and queen bitch of The Rhino strip club, is the first of that venerable institution’s girls to get zombified. Previously glimpsed in her dressing room reading Nietzsche, we revisit her after a lap-dance which escalates into disembowelment in this selfsame location, nose buried in this selfsame volume. Her blonde tresses are matted with blood, her breasts caked with same, and she’s giggling delightedly. “This makes a lot more sense now,” she observes, lowering the book.
Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Zombie Strippers’ had me at the Nietzsche gag.
But let’s backtrack a bit. Before we’re even introduced to Kat and her co-workers (as in work that pole, yeah baby, work it, &c &c), ‘Zombie Strippers’ (a title I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with typing) kicks off with a newsflash and threatens to play its hand in its first scene. ‘Zombie Strippers’ is set in George W. Bush’s fourth term – fuel prices have rocketed, the economy has nosedived, Jenna Bush holds high office, political instability is on a knife-edge, the military budget has been slashed and some boffins in a top-secret military industrial compound have developed a serum that brings dead soldiers back to life and makes them unkillable … again.
All of which is like watching a five minute opening sequence that promises you ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and then cuts to a plastic camel in a kid’s sandbox. And can’t even be bothered to sample Maurice Jarre. And has fake-titted pole-dancers shaking their ya-yas instead of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.
You see, the main problem with the work that the military industrial dudes are doing is that they’ve experimented on civilians and not the military, therefore the newly zombified test subjects, instead of going munchie-munch on anything vaguely Saudi Arabian, basically just turn on anyone and everyone. Someone presses the panic button and an elite unit are dispatched to quell the undead insurgence. And thus ‘Zombie Strippers’ begins in earnest.
I’d love to tell you all about this highly trained and rigorously skilled platoon, but fuck me if they’re not the most interchangeable bunch of ciphers committed to
The long and the short of it is that these GI Shmoes mix it up with the zombies, during the course of which an injured platoon member stumbles out of the top secret military industrial complex and into the strip club next door. Because, yeah, that’s the kind of movie we’re considering, ladies and gentlemen. And to think that in the first six months of this blog’s existence I wrote about Werner Herzog, Dirk Bogarde and Alfred Hitchcock. Fuck my life and all who sail in it.
Anyway, the strip club is owned by some sleazy motherfucker played by Robert Englund during that stage in his career when it was humiliatingly obvious that no-one was going to hire him to play Freddy Krueger anymore and reading the telephone directory while paint dried in the background suddenly became an acceptable career move as long as there was a pay cheque involved. (On the off-chance that this review is being read by any humanitarians who think this last comment was unjustifiably harsh, I have two words: ‘The Mangler’.) Many and silicone-enhanced are the ladies who shake their superannuated moneymakers at The Rhino, and most are as interchangeable as the aforementioned grunts. The two who merit a trip to IMDb are Jeannie (Shamron Moore), the brunette whose rivalry with Kat elevates the material to the level of ‘All About Eve’ if ‘All About Eve’ had been directed by A. Gregory Hippolyte and starred Delia Sheppard and Shannon Whirry*; and Gaia (Whitney Anderson), the virginal small town Christian girl who’s only embarked on a life of bump ‘n’ grind in order to pay for her grandmother’s operation.
At this point in the narrative, the soldiers recede into the background for, oh, a good 40 minutes, maybe longer, while the strippers gradually get infected. Now here’s the bone of contention: the girls prove more popular with the frat boy crowd who represent The Rhino’s key demographic after they become zombified. Now, maybe there’s a rich vein of satire being mined by ‘Zombie Strippers’ that yours truly as a non-frat-boy, non-strip-club-visiting Brit is completely missing out, but the concept of flesh-sagging, blood-dribbling, dead-eyed zombies grinding deathlessly against a pole pulling in the crowds when there are live, firmly-proportioned, hourglass-figured women offering the same kind of entertained is a little alien. But then again I didn’t like ‘Titanic’ much, so what the fuck do I know?
Maybe ‘Zombie Strippers’ is keying into the same motherlode of consumerist satire that made Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ an instant classic. Who am I to question writer/director Jay Lee, the auteur who brought us ‘House with 100 Eyes’ and ‘Deathchair: The Chair That Eats’? Who am I to spend 1,000 words (‘Review with 1,000 Words’!) ripping the piss when the climactic zombie bitchfight between blonde with her ready-mixed-concrete baps out and brunette with her ready-mixed-concrete baps out establishes a marriage of aesthetic, context and imagery so potent that you wonder why Sergei Eisenstein even bothered?
Come in, number Agitation, your time is up. The hour is late, the rowboat is leaking, and lake of snark across which you are propelling this rickety craft is a deep and fetid body of water. Pay heed to commonsense, save your sanity, grovel to your good lady wife. Wrap this thing up; toss off – ooo, er, missus – a summarising comment on ‘Zombie Strippers’.
Here goes, then: it’s not big, it’s not clever, it’s not scary, and it’s not sexy (thirty seconds of Salma Hayek’s snake dance in ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ is infinitely more trouser-tumescing than the half hour of kit-offery that constitute the movie’s middle section), but it’s often funny – the ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ homage is all the more hilarious for not paying off the way you expect it to – and for no other reason than that ‘Zombie Strippers’ earns a pass. Oh all right, let’s be honest: it also earns a pass because of its title.
*Forgive me, father, for I have sinned …
Monday, December 16, 2013
If the last reel of ‘Kill List’ saw Ben Wheatley getting his ‘Wicker Man’ funk on, then ‘A Field in England’ channels British cinema’s other great religious violence horror movie, ‘Witchfinder General’. Shot in deep, moody black and white that also brings to mind ‘Winstanley’ and ‘Onibaba’, ‘A Field in England’ is defined by the rural landscapes of England and describes a journey into the most primal, superstitious, self-loathing and class-enforced areas of the English psyche. It’s confusing, frustrating, nihilistic, exhilarating and up itself all at the same time. It’s about as far from being a laugh-fest as you can possibly imagine. Since I’ve loaded up this introductory paragraph with comparisons, let’s float this one: it’s like Ken Loach circa ‘The Devils’ meets Andrei Tarkovsky on a day when they both decided to toke the entire contents of Jim Morrison’s drugs stash.
In other words, it’s a Ben Wheatley film.
Four films into a career that’s shown no sign of anything but utterly going his own way, a Ben Wheatley film comes with certain prerequisites. Terms and conditions, if you like. First up, he will resolutely not make it easy for the viewer. You will be expected to pay attention, you will be made to think, you will not be given any pat explanations or conclusions, and you can (un)comfortably expect the film to get under your skin and fuck with your head for days afterwards. Secondly, narrative coherence or traditional structure are anathema to his aesthetic and were taken outside and given a good kicking before the first word of the screenplay was even typed. Thirdly, he doesn’t need to like his characters. And there’s an almost certain probability that you won’t either.
All of this makes for a viewing experience that’s sometimes visceral, sometimes compelling and sometimes downright annoying. ‘A Field in England’ is no exception. Filmed for just £300,000 and delivering pure widescreen visual beauty (even in its ugliest moments) that’d convince you the budget was ten times that, it’s set in the Civil War but jettisons any real Roundheads vs Cavaliers historical context for a hallucinogenic trip across a field and into a heart of darkness that would make Conrad weep and Coppola turn up the Wagner.
The plot – yeah, let’s be silly enough to use the word “plot” in the context of a Ben Wheatley joint – is basically this: the cowardly Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) flees from his hectoring master Commander Trower (Julian Barratt) during the confusion of battle. He meets deserters Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover) who are similarly using the confusion to slip away. Their plan: find an alehouse. En route, they bump into the messianic O’Neill (Michael Smiley), an alchemist whom Trower had despatched Whitehead to apprehend. Instead, O’Neill takes Whitehead and the others prisoner and compels them to assist him in finding hidden treasure in a nearby, uh, field.
Hold off, I hear you say, why be pejorative about the idea of a Ben Wheatley film having a coherent narrative arc? Surely the events described above constitute a narrative arc, albeit a rather straightforward one. Surely the character dynamics are palpably evident.
Ah, well here’s the rub. Early on in the proceedings, our AWOL quartet improvise a meal of mushrooms. The rest of the film builds through hallucinations, paranoia, cold edgy fear and peasant superstition into a psychotronic wig-out that manages, simultaneously, to (a) emerge as the most purposefully calculated feat of editing I think I’ve ever seen and (b) give the impression that the filmmakers have entirely lost their grip on sanity and decided to take you with them as they go screaming headlong towards the abyss.
Like ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ isn’t the kind of film that lends itself to easy or conventional reviewing. There are elements that come on like absurdist humour but without a trace element on even the uneasiest of laughs. There are moments of arty-farty indulgence that would have been excised for shame from a student film. And there are entire swathes of brain-searing imagery and visual trickery that breaks down your molecules and refuses them into something entirely new and unexpected. The closest I can come to a defining statement on ‘A Field in England’ is that it’s a 91-minute Rorschach test and I’d advise anyone approaching it to be very wary of how deeply they peer into its shifting surfaces.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Peter O'Toole on attending the Academy Awards ceremony in 2003: "I enjoyed it. The only thing that wasn't enjoyable was in the green room. I said, 'Can I have a drink?' 'We have lemon juice, apple juice, still or sparkling water.' I said, 'No, I want a drink. No drink? All right, I'm fucking off.' A man with earphones said, 'No! No!' and eventually some vodka was smuggled in."
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
If ‘V/H/S’ had been made in 1988, and you’d rented it from a video store (y’know, back in the day when you walked or drove to your nearest video store and rented a movie on a big clunky VHS tape), it would have been the. Best. Horror. Movie. Ever.
But it was made in 2012, I saw it on DVD and it isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty appalling. It’s often shoddy in execution, routinely misogynistic in content, and most of its characters are venal, vulgar and thoroughly unlikeable. But, hey, it’s the Winter of Discontent here on The Agitation of the Mind, so let’s give this motherfucker its day in court.
‘V/H/S’ is a portmanteau film consisting of a framing device and five short films. The framing device is intriguing in concept but lousy in execution. Three douchebags who molest women and film their escapades for sale to a “reality porn channel” (why they aren’t in jail since they point the camera at each others’ faces almost constantly is never explained) are hired by some random third party to break into an old house and retrieve a video tape. We’ve seen them break into an empty property already and their modus operandi is smash things up, spray graffiti and say “dude” and “fuck” a lot. Their behaviour evinces no real improvement on the professionalism front when they undertake the job. They find a dead guy in front of a bank of TV screens in an upstairs room and a fuckton of VHS tapes in the basement. Instead of bagging up the tapes en masse and getting the fuck out of Dodge, they spend an inordinate amount of time alternatively exploring the basement (which seems to be occupied by a possibly spectral figure) and watching some of the tapes. Their explorations take the form of jerky handheld camcorder footage that keeps pausing or cutting out. Imagine watching an episode of ‘NYPD Blue’ shot on the cheapest camcorder known to mankind and played back on a video recorder whose tape heads have been coated in treacle and you’re halfway there. Five minutes and it becomes almost unwatchable.
And it’s no great relief when the first short film kicks in. Here’s the plot: three frat boy douchebags outfit a pair of spectacles belonging to the myopic member of their party with a pin-camera, and set out to find a girl or girls to bring back to their motel room with the intent of selling the resulting orgiastic footage to a … oh, great; repetition sets in already. As well as the first of many inconsistencies. Notwithstanding that there’s a flaw to every found-footage horror movie I’ve ever seen – let’s call it Just Put The Fucking Camera Down And Run You Moron Syndrome – there is no sense whatsoever in their ludicrously elaborate plan … when they could easily have secreted a camcorder somewhere in the motel room and set it to motion-detect recording. And had they done so, ‘Amateur Night’ – such is this segment titled – would have been about two minutes long and saved me a headache. If anything, the camerawork is shakier and more blurred than in the framing story. The protagonists are just as big a trio of tossers. Attitudes towards women are equally appalling. There is, however, a comeuppance once they’ve lured two girls back to the room, and the last few minutes work reasonably well … until a lurch into outright fantasy renders the whole thing utterly stupid, not least because the production had nowhere near the kind of budget required to make the pay-off work.
There follows another five minutes of the Original Douchebags back at the old house, then we’re on to ‘Second Honeymoon’, directed by Ti West, and thank God we’re in the hands of a director who can actually bother to frame a shot let alone deal in establishing characters and developing a slow-burn sense of tension. Married couple Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) are taking an on-a-budget road trip across America; a second honeymoon it may be, but their interactions make it clear that their marriage is running out of steam. West plays this out against a dusty series of drab locations, mainly tourist spots that are starved for tourists. The big creepy scene is reserved for a motel room that makes the place in ‘Vacancy’ look like the Hilton, and while it’s swiftly revealed as a variation on an old urban legend, West pitches it perfectly. The whole thing pays off in a twist ending that practically begs for the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ theme music, and never quite justifies the amount of time spent building up to it. Nonetheless, it represents a trade up in quality which carries over, to greater or lesser degrees, through the remaining sections.
Glenn McQuaid’s ‘Tuesday the 17th’ is a nifty little subversion of the camping trip/slasher scenario. Here we have college pals Joey (Drew Moerlein), Spider (Jason Yachanin) and Samantha (Jeannine Yoder) heading into the woods with their new friend Wendy (Norma C Quinones). Wendy acts kind of weird from the start, almost casually mentioning how a group of her mates met their gruesome ends out in the wilds the previous year. Joey et al assume she’s joking … that is until something starts decimating their already finite numbers. The nature of said something is McQuaid’s stroke of genius. Every time the killer shows up, the video footage is distorted by what seems to be a tracking error. The distortions are timed so perfectly that you’ll find yourself rewinding in the hope you can actually catch a glimpse of the fiend – be it human, animal or otherworldly – on a second viewing. Everything about this segment unsettles, from the occasional pans to animal corpses (or at least we assume they’re animal corpses) during Wendy’s monologues, to the strange manner in which Wendy conducts herself, to the ultimate revelation of why Wendy hooked up with them, to the brutally inevitable finale. ‘Tuesday the 17th’ is the film’s high point, and even if the final two stories don’t measure up to it, at least neither of them plumb the depths of the framing story or ‘Amateur Night’.
Douchebag reprise, more yawnsome wankerishness, then Joe Swanberg’s ‘The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She was Younger’ comes along and epitomises the best and the worst of ‘V/H/S’. The best in that, like ‘Tuesday the 17th’, it embraces the format rather than being restricted by it. Playing out as a series of skype conversations between Emily (Helen Rodgers) and her med student boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman), the story moves through sexual power games and body horror before paying off in a ‘Twilight Zone’ style lurch into outright sci-fi. The worst in that it relentlessly objectifies women, and trades logic for cheap scares. The least of its crimes against the suspension of disbelief is how come a skype conversation ended up being recorded on VHS, particularly when (a) James assures Emily that he’s not downloading any of their sessions and (b) is later shown to have bloody good reason not to. ‘TSTtHtEWSwY’ is ultimately a nifty concept that wasn’t thought through to any real degree, and would probably have been abandoned had any real critical scrutiny been given to the difficulties of realising it convincingly.
‘10/31/98’, directed by the collective known as Radio Silence, starts well and effectively sidesteps the VHS-in-the-digital-age problem that dogs most of the stories. As the title suggests, we have a home video shot 15 years ago. Such a simple work-around that it’s almost inexplicable that none of the other contributions opted for it. It’s Halloween and a bunch of twenty-something drinking buds get kitted out in fancy dress and head off to the wrong side of town where a happening party is, well, happening. Only they get the wrong address and discover a human sacrifice in progress. Once they adapt to the fact that what’s happening isn’t, as they initially assume, a particularly elaborate Halloween tableau, they intervene and rescue the young woman who’s about to be offed. But before you can say “oh, thank Gawd for that, finally an antidote to all the misogyny”, it turns out that she’s genuinely possessed and an instrument of Satan and the mean lookin’ dudes who were about to fuck her shit up good were actually doing the Lord’s work and everything goes to hell in a sequence of fairly impressive special effects for such a low budget but you know what fuck the special effects because ‘10/31/98’ is little more than a re-emphasis of the woman-hating that ‘V/H/S’ grooves on.
‘V/H/S’ has three segments you can make a case for as genuinely worthwhile. The other two are flawed at best. The framing device reeks. Conceptually, there’s a lot going on – or at least a lot that could have been done with the concept. As it is, ‘V/H/S’ is overlong and too easily defined by what doesn’t work rather than what does.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
How often do sequels breathlessly boast that they open “just minutes after the first film ended”? Tom Six’s ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ opens with the last five minutes of its undistinguished but hugely controversial predecessor. Followed by the closing credits. In black-and-white. Pan back: a corpulent car park attendant by the name of Martin (Laurence R Harvey) is watching ‘Human Centipede (First Sequence)’ on a laptop while he should be, oh I don't know, tending his car park.
Turns out this isn’t first time Martin has watched ‘Human Centipede’. Dude’s a big fan of the movie. He’s made himself a ‘Human Centipede’ scrapbook and the idea of recreating the film - only with a centipede of 12 conjoined people - provides solace during the lonely evenings. Martin lives with his mum and some bad memories of his dad abusing him. His mum won’t accept the truth of what happens and insists on Martin seeing a shrink. The shrink’s explanation of Martin’s obsession with caterpillars is one of the film’s comedic highlights.
(Having difficulty reconciling ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ with the phrase “comedic highlights”? You’ll just have to trust me on this.)
One day (i.e. pretty much as soon as the film starts) Martin’s obsession spills out into real life and he starts clonking motorists who use the car park over the head with an iron bar. These poor unfortunates find themselves in a disused warehouse, denuded, hog-tied and their mouths silenced with gaffer tape. For an overweight shortarse, Martin sure gets in the exercise, hauling them from the back of his van and into the warehouse. He stops occasionally to toke on an inhaler.
He’s an equal opportunity sicko, and his victims include men and women, party-goers and mothers, the famous and the pregnant. The pregnant woman gets side-lined fairly quickly, only to reappear for a late-in-the-day escape attempt which concludes with the sickest scene involving a newborn this side of ‘A Serbian Film’. But it’s the celebrity victim on whom Martin lavishes most time and attention. In a film that’s already meta to the nines, Six goes meta plus VAT by having Ashlynn Yennie, the actress who played one of the victims from the first film, playing herself and being lured to the warehouse by Martin under the impression she’s auditioning for a film.
There are moments in ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ where something almost intelligent seems to be happening. The most common reading of the film is that it’s a response/accusation/attack on those who complained that the first ‘Human Centipede’ didn’t go far enough with the blood and the shit and the gore.
And there’s no denying that ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ goes further in every way possible. Where Dr Heiter makes a centipede of three people having failed in an earlier experiment involving his pet dogs, Martin makes a centipede of ten people having failed to reach his target of twelve; where Dr Heiter has a lab and a panoply of sterilized medical equipment, Martin has a draughty warehouse and a staple gun …
… and where the infamous bowel movement scene in the first film is more suggestive in the first film, it’s sickeningly literal this time round. Remember how only the little girl in the red coat disturbed the black-and-white of ‘Schindler’s List’? Six breaks the palette version of the fourth wall by having one colour erupt from the monochrome of ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’. Guess which colour?
Six also swaps the milieu of Heiter’s lavish country residence and its sprawling grounds for the three utterly grimy locations that the majority of the sequel takes place in: the car park, the warehouse, and Martin’s mother’s flat. It’s as if he’s ramping up the squalor and claustrophobia in direct ratio to the increase in viscera. Ditto the surgery itself: you want more segments to your centipede, Six seems to be saying, then you’ve got to sit through a more excruciating sequence. I opined in my review last month of ‘Human Centipede’ that “Six pulls his punches with the surgery”. Not here, he doesn’t.
The entire sequence, from pre-op (anaesthesia administered with crowbar) to the procedure itself (staple gun), to post-op (anal rape of the person at the end of the centipede) clocks in at a little over ten minutes and feels like ‘Satantango’ run at half-speed. Oh, and that rape scene? Martin wraps his member in razor wire first, a corollary to an earlier moment where he has one off the wrist using a sheet of sandpaper.
It’s at such moments that the “Tom Six does something almost intelligent with the material” prognosis deteriorates irreversibly to “Tom Six is an emotionally retarded fuckwit”. Likewise Martin’s backstory. What could have been an exploration of how one who is abused becomes an abuser – an all-too-real scenario which should have challenged the gore hound as to their expectations and responses to both instalments – is actually effected in the shoddiest, grubbiest manner possible by dint of a single line of dialogue that I’m not going to sully these already besmirched pages with.
Still, the film has some definite high points, not least the decision to utilize black-and-white and a Ken-Loach-on-a-real-downer kind of aesthetic. It’s certainly a more visually memorable film than the first, and the performances are better. Harvey is outstanding in a wordless role, creating a character who is equally pathetic, monstrous, childlike and perverted. Whether the poor bastard ever gets another acting job after this – allegedly, his career thus far has centred around children’s television! – remains to be seen. Six, however, is getting reading to unleash ‘Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)’ upon the world. Apparently it’s set in an American prison and features a centipede made up of hundreds of people. It will be Six’s last centipede film. Allegedly.
Friday, December 06, 2013
So basically there are these two rich dudes, Master Lung (Tony Liu) and Master Tan (Kuan Tai Chen), in a small town in feudal Japan and for whatever reason there’s one hell of a pissing contest going on between them. Things come to a head when Lung and his wife (Ni Tien) – I don’t think she’s ever referred to as anything but “Lung’s wife” or “Mistress Yung” – attend a social given by Tan at which Tan announces Yen Chu (Linda Chu) as his new concubine. This pisses off Lung no end since Yen Chu is his favourite girl at the local brothel and he now considers her poisoned for accepted Tan’s favours. Quite why he feels the need to visit a whorehouse when his wife is a stone fox is something the script leaves unexplained.
The upshot is, Lung publicly insults Tan and promises to outdo him at the upcoming lantern festival. Which, in terms of mano-a-mano confrontation, is kind of like the Wild Bunch converging on General Mapache’s hacienda and informing him in no uncertain terms that his ass is theirs at the next tiddlywinks championship. Anyway, Lung decides he needs to up the ante with his lantern festival entry and goes to see drunken lantern maker Old Tsui (Ching Ho Wang). Turns out Old Tsui’s alcoholism is an impediment to lantern making and he’s subcontracting all orders to Chun Fang (Lieh Lo), a recluse who lives at a watermill on the edge of town. Curious as to why a master craftsman like Chun Fang should rely upon the shambolic Old Tsui as a frontman, Lung pays him a visit. It transpires Fang is an old adversary of Lung’s who still bears the scars Lung left on him and shuns the company of his fellow men as a result.
Chung Sun’s ‘Human Lanterns’ – a Shaw Brothers production – establishes all of this pretty quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Because you don’t need to be a student of martial arts films or a cineaste of any great acuity to guess how the narrative is going to play out, particularly when Mistress Lung, Yen Chu, and Tan’s younger sister Mei-Mei (Hsiu Chun Lin) fall victim to a kidnapper with a ghost mask and animal claws. With Lung and Tan increasingly at each other’s throats with each affront to one of their women folk, could it possibly be that someone else is playing the two sides off against the middle? No shit, Sherlock!
‘Human Lanterns’ has something of a reputation among trash fans that it doesn’t quite live up to. Not that it’s entirely a write-off, or even particularly bad. In fact, the production design is ravishing and the whole thing is shot beautifully. At its best, the lighting and camerawork have a touch of ‘Suspiria’. Plus, there’s some fun to be had with the ineffectual plodding of the district’s square-jawed authority figure Sergeant Poon (Chien Sun). According to IMDb, the character is actually called Sergeant Pan, but the subtitles on the Celestial Pictures DVD I watched refer to him as Sergeant Poon throughout. Small things amuse small minds.
Essentially, ‘Human Lanterns’ is an attempt to fuse horror iconography with the ‘wuxia’ genre. Meaning “martial hero”, wuxia tales are historically-set and generally take a classless martial artist as their protagonist; this individual is generally bound by a strict code of honour, serves no master, and fights to redress injustice or uphold virtue. The above four paragraphs might leave you scratching your head as to whom the ‘wuxia’ is in ‘Human Lanterns’. You’re not alone, dear reader. Except for one surviving character’s last reel pledge to stop being such a self-interested douchebag (I’m paraphrasing here), no-one in ‘Human Lanterns’ demonstrates any of the noble intention or integrity usually found in wuxia.
So how does it work as a horror film? Erm, not that impressively to be honest. The ghost-animal-kidnapper-fiend is quite obviously a human antagonist in disguise from the outset. Moreover, their (easily guessable) identity is revealed very early on. That said, our villain does pursue his hidden agenda (or maybe not so hidden: a very literal case, here, of the clue being in the title) in a basement lair equipped with all manner of bubbling cauldrons and study post to which he ties his victims. Subject of which, the women in peril stuff plays out more like ‘House of Wax’ than ‘Rope and Skin’.
Ultimately, though, what ‘Human Lanterns’ stands or falls on is what any Shaw Brothers production stands or falls on: the fight scenes. And they’re pretty damn good. A stand-out is Lung’s battle with Tan’s private army, which is choreographed like a fan-dance: strangely elegant, almost camp, slightly sardonic. Various characters’ battles with the ghost-animal-kidnapper-fiend also have a touch of dark comedy, particularly in the mocking, slightly shambolic but almost always superior skillsmanship the fiend displays.
Sure, it’s predictable, often corny and I’m completely at a loss to understand its cult reputation, but ‘Human Lanterns’ is fast-paced and entertaining; an hour and a half of good unclean fun.
Monday, December 02, 2013
Real life has a habit of getting in the way at chez Agitation. I've been kept busy with book reviews for Nottingham's inimitable culture magazine LeftLion, a couple of articles for their website, and finalizing my entry for the Cinnamon Press debut poetry collection competition.
Oh, and I might have gone down the pub as well.
But fear not, the Winter of Discontent hasn't been forgotten. I have some unpleasant fare lined up for December. So if you're sick of Christmas songs, sparkly lights, puke-making festive adverts and people dressed in reindeer onesies, stay tuned. The diametric opposite of festive will be sliming its foetid way across these pages.
In the meantime, and in the usual Agitation fashion of posting cheesecake shots when actual content is lacking, it's Lucy Liu's 45th birthday and I can't think of many actresses who manage to combine such elegance and beauty and still vibe don't-spill-my-pint so devastatingly.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
The one thing Ben Wheatley's 'Kill List' does extremely well is to demythologise the figure of the hitman. The existential cool of Alain Delon in 'Le Samorai', the quasi-mysticism of Jean Reno in 'Leon', are here replaced with a couple of ex-soldier, ex-private-security types named Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley). Both live in blandly anonymous English suburbs. Both, when they're not killing people (and as the film opens it's been eight months since their last job), live relatively mundane lives. Jay and his Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) bicker and trade recriminations as the money runs out, seemingly staying together for no other reason than their seven-year old son. Gal drinks a lot and chases women. His latest squeeze is Fiona (stand-up comedian Emma Fryer - badly miscast), who works in Human Resources and seems to enjoy the downsizing a little too much. Fiona's depersonalised language in a dinner party scene that plays out with all the tensions, resentments and acrimony of a Mike Leigh film but without Leigh's trademark observational humour to leaven it, is just one of several instances of heavy foreshadowing.
Wheatley also ladles on symbolism: an arching rainbow as Jay and Gal meet their mysterious client for a new job; Jay's blood on a sheet of parchment; dead rabbits; a whole textbook of Arthurian imagery sneakily incorporated into a seemingly realistic aesthetic of motorways, chain hotels, identikit suburban houses. Britain as homogenous and ugly. It's therefore genuinely startling, then, when the last act erupts in a phantasmagoria of 'Wicker Man'-style paganism. Not that the shift from crime thriller to horror movie is as swervingly discordant as, say, 'From Dusk Till Dawn'. A pagan symbol marking out one of the characters for ... well, something ... means the film plays its hand fairly early on, and the smiling acceptance of several of Jay and Gal's targets is as good an indication as anything else that something very different from the archetypal hitman thriller is going on here.
Ah, but there's the rub. Getting into even a moderately in-depth dialogue about 'Kill List' involves flinging out spoilers left, right and centre. Although you could argue that they're not necessarily spoilers since Wheatley doesn't so much tie all of the film's implications, insinuations and semi-revelations together as leave everything as open-to-interpretation as possible. Also, a lot of my thoughts on the film over the last 24 hours have been, not shaped but certainly influenced, by online discussion threads. So I'm at a crossroads: I don't want to (a) spoil a couple of jaw-droppingly brilliant didn't-see-that-coming moments, or (b) rigorously debate an interpretation that I didn't arrive at myself.
Here, then, are some spoiler-friendly thoughts on the film. As a commentary on Britain as corrupt, riddled with things that are hidden, and ruled by degenerates, it makes its point in brutal and unflinching fashion. Wheatley films violence in a way that's reminiscent of early Scorsese: a sudden eruption from the fabric of the film that recedes just as suddenly. The violence is resolutely scoured of anything that might be misconstrued as glamorous or iconic, be it Jay and Gal emotionlessly lining a victim's office with plastic sheeting prior to shooting him in the head, or a bit of business with a hammer when Jay discovers a mark is a child-pornographer and opts for a less-professional-than-usual approach to the job. It's almost - almost - a moral film.
As I mentioned earlier, there's an interpretation that many of the film's commentators have settled on - let's just say that, conceptually, it suggests that 'Kill List' has more affinity with 'The Omen' than 'The Wicker Man' - and which accounts for much of the symbolism but still doesn't quite hold water. That Wheatley chose to jettison a more traditional narrative approach in favour of something more organic sometimes works against the film - particularly since, as genres, crime and horror tend to be very story-driven. Likewise, Wheatley's po-faced direction is occasionally at odds with the script's deviations into black humour. Played more as a dark comedy, 'Kill List' might have been clearer in its intent and its broadsides more emphatic. There's a splendid scene where, posing as travelling salesmen, Jay and Gal find themselves sharing an otherwise empty hotel dining room with a small group of born again Christians. Jay's slow-burn reaction gives the script's clearest exposition of his mindset, as well as paying off in a way that's both edgy and genuinely funny. Wheatley and his cast find a perfect register and I can't help but speculate how wonderful 'Kill List' would have been had it struck this balance through the majority of its running time.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Remember that “don’t mention the z-word” gag in ‘Shaun of the Dead’, a riposte to Danny Boyle’s preciousness in insisting that ’28 Days Later’ wasn’t a zombie film? At its most inspired, Alejandro Brugues’s ‘Juan of the Dead’ plays out as a politically-minded exposition of this concept – one, moreover, that you don’t necessarily need a thorough grounding in Cuban history to appreciate. Nothing here gets lost in translation.
Off the coast of Havana, middle-aged ne’er-do-well Juan (Alexis Diaz de Vilegas) and his equally irresponsible best bud Lazaro (Jorge Molina) encounter a corpse while out fishing. When it unexpectedly comes to life and lunges at them, Lazaro shoots it with a harpoon gun. The friends decide this is the kind of business best left unreported to the authorities and hasten back to shore, fishless, where Juan resumes his twin hobbies of drinking and womanising, and Lazaro clumsily tries to bond with his grown-up son California (Andros Perugorria). Neither suspect that they’ve witnessed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Then an aged neighbour dies … only to return moments later, suddenly ambulatory after years of infirmity and with a taste for human flesh. Again, Juan and Lazaro fail to understand, as they desperately fend him off, what the deal is. Vampirism? Cloves of garlic rammed in the living corpse’s mouth have no effect. Possession? They attempt an exorcism. (Contextual parenthesis: I watched ‘Juan of the Dead’ after a spectacularly shitty day and in a mood of abject grumpiness; during this sequence, I found myself laughing so hard I had to pause the DVD to wipe away the tears.) Later still, the streets of Havana flooded with similar undead shufflers, Juan and Lazaro watch a news report: there have been acts of unsocial behaviour, the bespectacled and humourless anchor announces, perpetrated by dissidents in the pay of the American government.
The word “zombie” is used once in ‘Juan of the Dead’. By an American. No-one speaks English. The explanation is lost on them. The opportunity, however, isn’t. You know how in most zombie films, the narrative pretty much channels itself towards an inevitable mismatched-group-of-survivors holed up in a claustrophically intense setting while the zombies effectively besiege them scenario? ‘Juan of the Dead’ laughs at that concept and gleefully romps all over Havana as its anti-heroes set up a business disposing of “dissidents”. Juan’s sales pitch, each time he answers the phone, is “Juan of the dead, we kill your relatives, how can I help you?”, a line that gets funnier the more it’s repeated, not least because de Vilegas is clearly struggling to keep a straight face each time he delivers it.
Joining in the fun are China (Jazz Vila), a drag queen with a kick-ass attitude and a killer pair of heels; El Primo (Eliecer Ramirez) a built-like-a-brick-shithouse bodybuilder who faints at the merest hint of blood; and Camila (Andrea Duro), Juan’s teenage daughter who morphs, with appealing rapidity, from clean-cut girl-next-door to Lara Croft wannabe, all cut-off jeans and a handy technique with a ball-peen hammer.
Together, they lurch from entrepreneurism to misadventure, from broad comedy to horrifying … uh, well, no. Not actually. Although ‘Juan of the Dead’ turns in a couple of relatively effective suspense scenes, any trade in grue or gore is played entirely for laughs. As a result, even though some of Juan’s band of merry “dissident”-slayers buy it, Brugues struggles to imply that there are any real stakes involved.
But that’s just nit-picking when the comedy is so effective. As a political satire, it works well. As as a comedy of the absurd, it works beautifully (there’s a fight scene staged as a tango that is just priceless). As a full-tilt, exuberant, utterly unapologetic belly flop into every about a specific genre that the film-makers so evidently love, it knocks the ball right out of the park. Indeed, with its deliberately cheesy special effects (a vehicle impacting into a harbour is strictly die-case-model-thrown-in-a-bathtub stuff), casually laconic protagonist and knowing upending of genre tropes, it’s as pure a B-movie love letter as ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ or ‘Planet Terror’, and a lot funnier than either.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
The first three paragraphs of this review are pure supposition, and The Agitation of the Mind accepts no responsibility for having to tell lawyers to Foxtrot Oscar.
The scene: the tersely named Tom Six (who sounds like he ought to be a boy superhero rather than a director with an unhealthy track record in button-pushing) is talking to a potential backer about this little project he wants to make. A horror film.
“Okay, so, it’s called ‘Human Centipede’ and it’s about a mad scientist—” (the potential backer, let’s call him Fred so that I don’t have to keep typing potential backer, nods and smiles: mad scientists, always a crowd pleaser) “—who kidnaps these two beautiful American girls who are travelling through Europe—” (Fred nods and smiles: beautiful girls, always a crowd pleaser; Americans, good for the wider market) “—and uses them in a, ah, how shall we say, Fred, a medical experiment. Can I get you another drink?” (Fred nods and offers his glass, but he seems a little dubious now. Medical experiments? This might be a box office turn-off.) “Fred, no worries, ja? This is experiment is, ah, kind of like in the well-received French film ‘Martyrs’. Controversial, sure – disturbing, sure – but there is a social point to the film, as well as being tense and exciting and, here’s the thing, cheap to make.” (Fred, glass refreshed, sips and nods and asks a question about the title.) “Ah, but there is the genius of the film. The title conjures all sorts of horrible images. The poster will conjure more horrible images. And the film itself, Fred … well, nobody can complain they were sickened or disgusted or they didn’t know what they were getting into. The title will build the buzz, generated the word of mouth, before the film’s even been released. Kind of like what happened with the hugely profitable American film ‘Snakes on a Plane’. This film will have a legion of fanboys while we’re still shooting. Did I mention how cheap it will be to make?”
Waiting for the cheque to clear and having found a cast crazy enough to sign on the dotted line, the Six-meister starts giving some thought to his magnum opus’s central conceit – its main selling point, its self-powering controversy-generator: mad scientist stitches three people together anus-to-mouth to create a … well, the clue’s in the title. There’s a funky idea he’s kicking about that has to do with nutcase scientist bloke trying to train the centipede. He’s got a finale mind involving a couple of cops and some shooting. All of a sudden it dawns on him: he needs an extra hour’s worth of material to drag this mo’fo’ to the hour and a half mark. He doesn’t think that Fred and the other backers are going to be too happy about ponying up for a 30 minute short …
Which is my best guess as to how the world was gifted with Tom Six’s
It’s impossible to approach ‘The Human Centipede’ and not know what fate lies in store for Lindsay and Jenny. Even when it was first released, the publicity machine had built up enough steam that everyone knew about the bumhole/cakehole surgery business. Hence the next twenty minutes or so, which detail the capture of another subject, Japanese tourist Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), and Lindsay’s attempts to escape, her flight hampered by a drugged and somnolent Jenny, are leached of tension since it’s a foregone conclusion that said attempts will fail.
Six then proceeds to pull his punches with the surgery, and even the inevitable scenes of Katsuro, Lindsay and Jenny stitched together in an unpleasantly intimate manner aren’t actually as queasy as you’d think. For all that Heiter makes a big deal about the three of them sharing one digestive system, the horrible implications of this are more suggested than shown. Granted, the scene in question is definitely one to fast forward through if you’re eating, but it’s nothing compared to the “circle of shit” sequence in ‘Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom’, or Divine’s caprophagous moment of infamy in ‘Pink Flamingos’.
This isn’t to say that ‘The Human Centipede’ is a total waste of potential: Lindsay stumbling on a memorial in Heiter’s garden to “mein leibe 3-hund” is an effective little scene; Heiter’s prissily self-important diction as he gives a medical lecture to his trio of screaming subjects is funnier than it has any right to be; and the nastily deliberate final shot gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “stuck in the middle”. But such moments are offset by the horrible stereotyping of Katsuro, the last act introduction of a pair of detectives so ploddingly inept that your average giallo copper looks like Inspector Morse by comparison, and the total lack of any form of emotional investment in the characters or the story. Put simply, ‘The Human Centipede (First Sequence)’ exists purely to present the hardcore horror fan with a, well, human centipede. How it gets there is boilerplate, the characters it uses are ciphers and for all its provocation the end result struggles to keep its head above the undertow of banality.
The sequel, however … well, that’s another story.
Friday, November 15, 2013
Here’s a fun game we can all play. How many films can you name where the mainstream press or the moral majority have trotted out the old “is it art or is it porn” rhetoric? Two points for each film. I’m going out for a couple of pints. I’ll see you at paragraph two in an hour or so.
Hi. Welcome back, everyone. How many did you get? Wow, that many! Okay, let’s throw something else into the mix. How many of those films have Nazis in them? Round of applause for everyone who said ‘The Night Porter’.
Who was that? Someone at the back? Several someones? Did I hear you say ‘Salon Kitty’? Come forward. Please. Make yourselves comfortable. You now have a front row seat to this evening’s review on The Agitation of the Mind.
The 1970s in European cinema was a time of the most sublime heights, and also of challenging and envelope-pushing provocation. Liliana Cavani’s 1974 controversy magnet ‘The Night Porter’ didn’t just push the envelope, it set fire to it and danced round the ashes with a pair of braces over its otherwise naked breasts wearing an SS officer’s cap and snapped off a Hitler salute every so often just in case someone hadn’t been offended yet. That ‘The Night Porter’ also happened to be a well-acted and profoundly serious examination into psychosexual dependency only made it harder to stomach. Oh, and that nice Dirk Bogarde was in it who’d been everybody’s heart-throb just a decade and a half previously.
Bogarde’s journey from b&w pin-up idol to art film dark horse took arguably its most pivotal turn in 1969 when he starred in Visconti’s ‘The Damned’ alongside Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger. Hands up everyone who can see where I’m going with this.
Fast forward to 1976 and Tinto Brass has presumably had a meeting with some money men and said something along the lines of “hey, let’s do a mash-up of ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’ but with loads more bouncing boobs and floppy phalluses” and the blank cheque was handed to him while “bouncing boobs” was still ringing in their ears and it was only later that one of the producers said “hey, wait a minute guys, did he say something about floppy phalluses? We’d better keep an eye on the rushes.”
Based on Peter Norden’s novel – which itself was based on actual events – the plot of ‘Salon Kitty’ can be summarised, without missing out anything in the way of narrative detail or political theorising, as thus: ambitious Nazi Helmut Wallenberg (Berger) is given the task of setting up a knocking shop for high-ranking officers, and to this end coerces famous Berlin madam Kitty Kellermann (Thulin) into relocating to premises he has an interest in and firing her exotic girls in favour of a retinue of Aryan totty handpicked by Wallenberg himself. Among the recruits is socially-confused poor little rich girl Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), whom Wallenberg begins to obsess over. Margherita, however, finds herself caught up in a doomed affair with disaffected Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu), who is planning to defect Rudolph Hess stylee. Increasingly suspicious at Wallenberg’s machinations, Margherita discovers he’s using the brothel to strengthen his own power base, and she and Kitty join forces to turn the tables.
And that really is all there is to it, plot-wise. But, oh lordy, does Brass take his time getting there. In a director’s cut that clocks in at a frequently tedious 133 minutes, nearly quarter of an hour has elapsed before Wallenberg recruits his harem, 40 minutes before Kitty finds herself working for Wallenberg, an hour and a quarter before Reiter plans to defect, and somewhere around the hour forty minute mark before Kitty and Margherita team up to unmask Wallenberg. There are many things ‘Salon Kitty’ can be accused of. Narrative propulsion isn’t one of them.
‘Salon Kitty’ is overlong and deeply uneven. Intermittently, the script makes a stab at political commentary or philosophical debate. Periodically, Brass gets it into his head that he can direct like Visconti or Resnais and he tries, falteringly, for something visually majestic and aesthetically elliptical. Astoundingly, the odd bit of quality slips through, such as Margherita’s last day with Reiter before he returns to the front. For the most part, though, ‘Salon Kitty’ looks like what it is: a porno movie with a big enough budget for a couple of arthouse darlings in the lead roles and the services of a production designer (in this case – wait for it – Ken Adam).
But even if we just hang the “blue movie” tag on it and judge its merits solely on its success or otherwise as an example of said form, it frustrates. There is little that’s genuinely erotic. Sure, it’s sleazy – oh, you’d better believe it’s sleazy – but not in the guilty-pleasure/cold-shower-afterwards way that many exploitationers are. There’s a kind of despondency to the sleaze on offer, from the “auditions” that see the girls paired off with horribly unappealing partners, to the predilections of Kitty’s clients: a scene involving projected footage of Hitler and a loaf of bread in the shape of a cock and balls crests the peak of absurdity within moments and finds itself plummeting down the vertical drop of depressingly sad on the other side.
The tonal instability is perhaps best evidenced by an orgy near the start of the film: the girls picked by Wallenberg are marched into a gymnasium and ordered to disrobe. In the shower block of said amenity, a platoon of Nazi soldiers are similarly urged to get nekkid. The girls march to one side of the girl, all pert breasts and rounded buttocks, while the men troop in one behind the other, willies waggling all over the place as if they’re about to indulge in a National Socialist circle jerk, and all the while a sergeant is yawping “Links zwo drei vier, links zwo drei vier”. The chant put me in mind of the Rammstein song and for a couple of brief minutes the whole thing was so utterly ridiculous that I was grinning away and in very real danger of starting to enjoy the film. Then the orgy starts.
How can I describe it? Imagine an orgy where nobody really fancies anybody that much (subject of which, a late in the game sex scene between Berger and Savoy is truly compelling for no other reason than Berger’s almost terrified reaction at having a naked woman in front of him), where all of the body parts are mispositioned (unless “blow job” actually means having the lady’s head level with one’s belly button and said blowing effects fluff removal from said navel, in which case I’ve been asking for the wrong thing all these years), and the male-to-female ratio is one short on the lads' side necessitating one of the women to writhe around on her own and hope that nobody notices. It’s horribly shot, nonsensically edited and about as titillating as a party political broadcast.
‘Salon Kitty’ has a reputation as one of the key Nazisploitation films, and in some respects it’s well earned. Brass’s pretentions to artistic legitimacy – his next project would be the ludicrously ambitious and notoriously ill-fated ‘Caligula’, starring no less a phalanx of mainstream talent than Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud – ram it into place (fnar fnar) as some kind of squalid bridge between ‘The Damned’ and ‘The Night Porter’ on one side and ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’ and ‘The Beast in Heat’ on the other. But it is, as the jaded reviewer desperately searching for a kiss-off line might observe, a bridge too far.