Sunday, November 22, 2015


You know when you’re in poor company with a giallo when it’s basically a blue movie with a hint of murder mystery thrown in. You know you’re in poor company when it stars Ray Lovelock (ever seen ‘Oasis of Fear’, ‘Almost Human’ or ‘The Seventh Woman’? I have, and I’d rather put in several hours of unpaid overtime at work than watch them again). You know you’re in poor company when it’s directed by Mario Gariazzo (the anti-talent behind porno ‘Exorcist’ knock off ‘L’ossessa’ and lame cannibal snore-fest ‘Amazonia: the Catherine Miles Story’).

And you know you’re in poor company when a movie configured to incorporate the maximum possible nudity utterly fails to generate any eroticism. Let’s be honest, in the bottom-of-the-barrel sub-genre that is the giallo-sex-film, ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ and ‘The Sister of Ursula’ are better works of cinema.

With all of that in mind, are you ready to check into the Play Motel? If so, let’s spend a few words considering the title. As far as I can tell, that’s the only moniker the film goes by, which makes in quite rare in the annals of Italian exploitation cinema, where even something as auteurish (and more or less mainstream) as Argento’s ‘Profondo Rosso’ – literally translated as ‘Deep Red’ for the English-speaking markets – was also variously known as ‘The Hatchet Murders’ and ‘The Shiver of Agony’, and Mario Bava’s ‘A Bay of Blood’ has more aliases than a master criminal. But no, ‘Play Motel’ doesn’t even allow me to indulge this review with an Italian title like ‘Fotografie compromettenti in strano motel’ which at least sounds elegant even though it patently isn’t.

No, ‘Play Motel’ smirks at me like the seedy receptionist (Mario Novelli) who hands the room key to the succession of wealthy gentlemen who use the facility for assignations with call girls. Smirks at me knowing that every time I reference the film’s title in this review, I’ll wince inwardly as I type the nine letters that make up ‘Play Motel’.

Seriously, I’d have more respect for this film if it were called ‘The Fuck Pad Murders’.

But things are as they are, and this is the Winter of Discontent. Dubious and depraved works of exploitation are the season’s raison d’etre and for better or for worse (actually, for worse; definitely for worse) ‘Play Motel’ was where this evening’s viewing led me. So let’s collect our key from the smirking receptionist, down a shot of J&B at the bar, trundle along to our seedy room and hope that it had a deep clean after the previous tenant departed. Now, let’s slip into something more sleazy and survey the, ahem, delights on offer.

‘Play Motel’ tells the fairly simple story of a blackmail scam in which the aforementioned wealthy gentlemen (and, in one remarkably unoriginal twist, the wife of a well-connected individual) are lured to said establishment under the promise of all kinds of hanky-panky, only to receive some glossies in the post a few days later and a demand for ready cash. The movie starts with glacial businessman Rinaldo Cortesi (Enzo Fisichella) meeting model/call girl Loredana (Marina Hedman) for some kinky role play. Upon receipt of the compromising photos, he seeks advice of his lawyer. This eminently professional gentleman advises him to cough up the readies. Unbeknownst to Cortesi, however, his wife Luisa (Patrizia Behn) stumbles upon the pictures and does what Cortesi has been warned not to: go to the police.

Enter Inspector Toselli (Vittorio Ripamonti), who sets out to track down Loredana. Recognising her likeness in an adult magazine (“this publication was in the files relating to porn,” says the lackey who retrieves said literature from the evidence room, miraculously keeping a straight face as he delivers this deathless line), Toselli tracks Loredana to the photographer, Willy (Mario Cutini), who works for said magazine.

Any reasonably competent armchair sleuth should be able to fit the pieces together, and indeed Gariazzi (writing as well as directing, and doing both with precious little competency) pretty much plays his hand about half way in, saving just one twist for the finale. What does work, however, is the amount of false starts that occupy the first third of the 90 minute running time. Cortesi seems like the protagonist for the first few minutes: an early scene where his lawyer and his wife are shown having an affair seems to set up a tangled web of personal and professional relationships, but before any of them can unravel, the baton of the narrative passes suddenly to Luisa. Her initial consultation with Toselli not resulting in much urgency on the good detective’s part, she starts snooping. But this development is swiftly curtailed and ‘Play Motel’ settles for quarter of an hour or so into a boilerplate procedural with Toselli taking the reins. Only at around the half hour mark does aspiring actor Roberto Vinci (Lovelock) enter the proceedings, vivacious girlfriend Patrizia (Anna Maria Rizzoli) in tow.

And even though Lovelock gets main billing, Vinci goes on to do a remarkable amount of fuck all for most of the next hour. Caught up in proceedings when a corpse is dumped in his car boot, Vinci is recruited by Toselli when the latter realises that Willy and the publishers of the wank mag will recognise him from previous busts when he was heading up the vice squad. Evidently there must have been budget cuts in the Italian police force at the time and the first to go were the undercover officers, but still the casualness – nay, the indifference – with which a seasoned detective happily drags in a civilian off the street and pretty much pins upon him the onus of the entire investigation is a big ask in terms of suspension-of-disbelief. That Vinci is reluctant is perfectly understandable. That Patrizia rushes headlong into the investigation, putting herself in harms way with a toss of the hair and a flash of the pearly whites, can have no rationalisation other than the requirement in these kind of films for attractive women to sashay around in perilous scenarios looking sexy as all hell.

Only this is where my enthusiasm for trash movies and tendency to exaggerated threaten to overwhelm the review. For while Rizzoli is certainly attractive, there is nothing sexy about ‘Play Motel’. This is a film where there’s a nude scene every five minutes or so, where a sequence involving Patrizia posing topless for Willy in order to gain access to his studio seems to run longer than ‘Satantango’ played at half-speed. Where even the occasional jolting hardcore insert only serves to reinforce how grubby and free of frisson the whole thing is.

It left me feeling that I might just have to check in at the ‘Slaughter Hotel’ just for a taste of sophistication. Dear God, the ‘Slaughter Hotel’!

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Some directors return obsessively to a single theme throughout their filmography. For Peckinpah, it was the idea of men outliving their times; for Bergman, the struggle for faith in a Godless world. For Jesús (Jess) Franco, it was naked ladies the work of the Marquis de Sade, particularly his 1795 novel ‘Philosophy in the Boudoir’. In this work, siblings Madame de Sainte-Ange and Le Chevalier de Mirval enlist the assistance of Chevalier’s bisexual friend Dolmancé in persuading the virginal (and underage) Eugenie into a life of libertinism.

Franco first approached the material in 1969 with the subtly titled ‘Eugenie: The Story of Her Voyage into Perversion’ starring Marie Liljedahl and Maria Rohm. Tonight’s offering, ‘Eugenie de Sade’, followed in 1970 – arguably Franco’s annis mirabilis, during which he also made ‘Nightmares Come at Night’, ‘Vampyros Lesbos’, ‘She Killed in Ecstasy’ and ‘The Devil Came from Akasava’.

He returned to all things Sadean with ‘De Sade’s Juliette’ in 1975, a sort-of companion piece to the earlier ‘Marquis de Sade: Justine’ (1968), ‘Erotic Symphony’ in 1979 and ‘Eugenie: The Story of a Perversion’ (with Katja Bienert as the titular nymphet) in 1980, the same year he made ‘Sadomania: Hell of Passion’, a women-in-prison film whose title is its only real connection to the writings of de Sade. Naturally, for such a prolific director, a certain reworking of material (did I put that politely enough?) is evident in the Franco canon, and many of his other films, while ostensibly not de Sade adaptation, are steeped in the admixture of pseudo-intellectual waffle and dirty sex that was the Marquis’s stock-in-trade.

So what makes ‘Eugenie de Sade’ (a.k.a. ‘Eugenia’, ‘De Sade 2000’ and ‘Eugenie Sex Happening’) stand out amongst Franco’s other takes on the material? What makes it ripe for evaluation on Winter of Discontent? Apart from the fact that it was streaming for free and I haven’t update this blog in a week, you mean?

‘Eugenie de Sade’ conflates Madame de Sainte-Ange and Le Chevalier de Mirval from ‘Philosophy in the Boudoir’ into one character: novelist Albert de Franval (Paul Muller, who I would describe as a Franco regular except that Franco only ever worked with regulars), and ups the ante on the controversy stakes by making Eugenie (Soledad Miranda) his step-daughter. The film unfolds in flashback as a badly injured Eugenie recounts to investigative writer Attila Tanner (Franco himself) the events that led to her hospitalisation. The Tanner character is an interesting diversion from the source material, reminiscent less of anyone in de Sade than of Clare Quilty in Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’ as his path crosses Albert and Eugenie’s at key moments in the story.

Although “story” is probably pushing it as a description. The glacially paced 91 minutes of this opus consist of Eugenie discovering pornographic works in her step-father’s library; her step-father discovering that she’s discovered them and demonstrated a certain moral indifference by way of response; and Albert and Eugenie then embarking on a quasi-incestuous sex ‘n’ killing spree, for all the world as if Humbert Humbert and Delores Haze had decided to get their Bonnie and Clyde funk on.*

Although “sex ‘n’ killing spree” is also pushing it as a description. By rights, ‘Eugenie de Sade’ ought to be a fast-paced sleazy romp. It’s actually glacial in both its pacing and its aesthetic. From its wintry landscapes to its concrete cityscapes, its low-lit clubs to its bland hotel rooms, the film plays out in a world leeched of colour. Even its most lurid set pieces – a kinky photoshoot that ends in murder; a drinking game that ends in seduction and death – proceed with not only a lack of narrative urgency or tension, but also very little in the way of erotic frisson. It’s as if Franco had made a specific artistic decision from the outset to use the film as a comment on the banality of evil.

Compared to the sunny location work and lifestyle porn of ‘Eugenie: The Story of Her Voyage into Perversion’, or the unremitting focus on pain-as-pleasure in ‘Eugenie: The Story of a Perversion’, and this middle chapter in what can only be considered as a series of variations on a theme, emerges as the one in which the cruel self-centeredness of de Sade’s basic philosophy (as long as you’re the one taking pleasure, it doesn’t matter who gets hurt) is neither thrillingly sexy or orgiastically vicious, but steeped in ennui. This reading is emphasised by the presence of Soledad Miranda – a stunning actress, but a blank canvas for a director’s obsessions if ever there was one. She moves languidly and disinterestedly through the film, occasionally twitching out a half-smile that looks like it was carved with a razor blade, then sinking back into a sort of trance-like boredom.

The banality of evil, all right; but your average priest would still kick a hole in stained glass window just to get the slightest taste of it.

*Thankfully Franco makes Eugenie of age. Doesn’t excuse any of the other stuff that goes on the film, but – hey – it’s nice to observe some proprieties.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Dead Boyz Don’t Scream

Meet the “three stooges”. No, not Larry, Curly and Moe. This trio are beefy male models: Christian (Christian Mousel), Todd (Logan Hilyard) and Anthony (Zack Vazquez). They’ve been given this less-than-flattering appellation by their agent Tess (Victoria Redstall). As the film opens, Tess has landed them a shoot with commercial photographer Roz (Monique Parent) that might lead to a contract with fashion boutique Greg Parry (trust me, this is a lot wittier on paper than in the actual film). Roz is also keen to have them pose for a coffee table book of cowboy-themed gay porn, but Tess feels this would be a backwards step in terms of their career. The stooges’ rivals – for both the Greg Parry contract and the gay cowboy book – are “the poodles”, Dieter (Ewan French) and Peter (Aaron Mark), so called for the corruption of their Germanic surname Pudl. The Pudl brothers are camper than a row of tents and seem overly tactile with each other. As Roz puts it in the film’s one genuinely amusing line, “I think the rumours might be true: that their parents met at a family reunion.”

The, ahem, story gets underway after their photoshoot with Roz when they hook up with Latino loverboy buddy Jimmy (Anthony Giraud) and go and meet Christian’s lifelong friend Callie (Catherine Wreford), who’s just flown in from Vancouver. Christian behaves as if Callie is some fragile dreamy romantic type whereas it soon becomes clear that she just wants to get wasted and party with the hunks. Said activity takes a turn for the worst that leaves Callie traumatised and Jimmy dead after a plunge from a balcony that might have been an accident but probably wasn’t.

At this point, Tess steps in to smooth things over, pay Callie off and bundle her back on a plane. Changing her mind about the gay cowboy book, Tess decides that a few days in the wilds will serve the dual purpose of allowing her to keep a close eye on her troublesome charges, and remove them from the spotlight of any negative publicity. And there’s also the incentive of a dalliance with her forest ranger girlfriend Belle (Gina Gian). Only things go pear-shaped very early on: Christian has a spectacular meltdown, rivalries and jealousy come to the fore, and then – hey ho, whaddaya know – people start dying in grisly (if poorly staged) fashion.

Directed by Marc Saltarelli, whose only feature this is (he’s made a number of shorts and contributed to the portmanteau film ‘Green Briefs’), ‘Dead Boyz Don’t Scream’ is a kind of homoerotic ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’, with bulging abs and taut buttocks instead of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage. It offers the alternative of hunky men being chased through the woods in the underwear instead of nubile women (one scene has an axe descend on Todd’s back, miss by a millisecond and the blade snick his tightie whities insteads; his terrified flight through the darkness continues au naturel). Just in case you’re wondering: yes – this kind of role reversal is the only satirical card the film has to play.

With originality pretty much off the menu, the thankfully sparse 78 minute running time devolves to an exercise in playing spot-the-homage and second-guessing the denouement. Is the killer an unhinged Christian? Or has Belle, whose stated intent is for Tess to leave her job and move to the woods with her, trying to accelerate the process by way of decimating Tess’s client base? Or are the poodles taking out their competition for the Greg Parry gig? Or is it Roz’s assistant Kimba (Kenyetta Lethridge), who seems to be floating around in the background without actually having anything to do with the proceedings? Or are there deeper secrets that connect the characters?

Or is ‘Dead Boyz Don’t Scream’ simply a camp piece of trash in which absolutely none of this malarkey matters? And, indeed, what the hell is it doing on the Winter of Discontent? Well, it was available to watch for free and I’d been drinking the previous evening. So yah boo, it’s on Winter of Discontent and I’m not wrapping up this review till I’ve found something to say about it.

And you don’t have to scratch the surface of the film too vigorously (it’s all surface anyway) to note two things. Firstly, for a film so determinedly tailored to a gay audience – every photoshoot Roz does after the stooges and the poodles arrive the ranch involves full-frontal male nudity, the fetishisation of western imagery and the kind of penis-to-screen-time ratio you’d normally expect in a Derek Jarman film – its only sex scene makes Callie the focus. Sure, there’s plenty of close-ups of the boys’ muscular physiques as they eye each other up while they wait their turn, but this is essentially less a depiction of group sex or bisexual activity than three latent gay men sublimating what they actually want to do into a take-their-turn demonstration of heterosexual conformity.

Secondly – and the target audience is worth reiterating – ‘Dead Boyz Don’t Scream’ is mind-bogglingly homophobic. From its depiction of Tess and Belle’s relationship by way of a few chaste kisses to saddling Belle with the surname Van Dyke, never mind transposing the homoerotic tension between the stooges to the incestuous almost-consummation between Dieter and Peter , the film seems to loathe both its characters and its audience. That the twist delivers an equally cynical slap in the face to gender reassignment – the killer’s motivation is revealed in a line of such jaw-dropping what-the-fuckery that “the killer developed a morbid fear of tennis balls bouncing in the night” from ‘A Blade in the Dark’ comes across as a masterpiece of psychological exposition in comparison – leaves Saltarelli and screenwriter Rick Jensen’s motivations even murkier than their understanding of how to stage comedy.

Did I mention that it’s a horror-comedy, by the way? It is. Allegedly. It’s just not fucking funny.

Monday, November 02, 2015


Beware the anthology (or portmanteau) film. Two problems dog the format: weak or contrived framing device, and inconsistency across its stories. The only anthology film I’ve seen that avoids these problems – that is, in fact, an out-and-out work of art – is Masaki Kobayashi’s ‘Kwaidan’; that all four of the tales it comprises were realised by one director is a good indication of why it succeeds where others fail. Even the Ealing Studios classic ‘Dead of Night’ takes a misstep with Charles Crichton’s over-egged segment about the rival golfers.

‘The ABCs of Death’ gets at least one thing right: it jettisons the necessity for a framing narrative. Instead it delivers, one after the other, 26 meditations on death, each by a different director. Some are subtitled, some are animated, some are black comedies, some are serious dramas, some are surreal, some predictable and others just downright fucking sick (I’m looking at you, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener and Yoshihiro Nishimura). To describe it as a mixed bag is being understated. To trot out the “too many cooks spoil the broth” cliché is both lazy and not quite accurate: given the degree of scatological obsession on display here, the cooks in question aren’t just spoiling the broth – a fair number of them are also taking a poo in it.

At least four segments take place in lavatories (the twentieth story is in fact called ‘T is for Toilet’), and only Ti West’s ‘M is for Miscarriage’ actually bothers to generate any real social horror from the setting. Elsewhere, Noboru Iguchi’s ‘F is for Fart’ tries to elevate flatulence and soft-core lesbianism to the level of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Bear in mind that Iguchi is the classy motherfucker who gave the world enema fetish porn videos before moving into the, ahem, mainstream with the likes of ‘The Machine Girl’, ‘RoboGeisha’ and ‘Zombie Ass’, and you’ll probably have some idea of how far short he falls.

Sex is predictably omnipresent. Banjong Pisanthanakun’s ‘N is for Nuptials’ is basically a shaggy dog story where an indiscreet mynah bird royally buggers up a marriage proposal. ’O is for Orgasm’ sees Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet serves the same pretentious mishmash of homages, arthouse obscurism and style-over-content that marred their tedious feature-length debut ‘Amer’ (itself a portmanteau outing that never adds up to the sum of its parts). ‘V is for Vagitus (The Cry of a Newborn Baby)’ strays from the horror genre in favour of a dystopian sci-fi mini-epic about patriarchal governments and reproduction. The most disturbing of this set is Tjahjanto’s ‘L is for Libido’, which starts out as a weird conflation of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Fight Club’ (had he been given another letter of the alphabet, Tjahjanto could just as easily have presented the piece as ‘W is for Wank’), peaks with the best visual pun on impotence I’ve seen, and would have been utterly brilliant if he’d faded to red at that point. As it, he plunges on into ‘Serbian Film’ territory and the last minute or so leaves a fetid taste in the mouth.

But not as bad a taste as Eisener leaves with ‘Y is for Youngblood’, a misjudged and leeringly unpleasant tale of a zombie deer taking revenge on the paedophile who coaxed a young boy into killing it. Conceptually, had the paedophile been less of a rubber-faced cliché and his actions been suggested rather than Eisener wallowing in them like a pig in a particularly odious patch of excrement, the material could have worked. This could – and should – have been a serious psychological drama (is the deer in the protagonist’s mind? is he being driven towards insanity or immolation by his own guilt?), but as anyone who’s seen Eisener’s ‘Treevenge’ or ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ will know, all he’s interested in is upping the ante on already well established genre tropes and grossing out his audience. He has no moral compass as a filmmaker, and probably no idea that life actually happens outside of a ribbon of celluloid running through a projector.

It’s a damn shame that so many problems plague ‘The ABCs of Death’, with the exception of ‘F is for Fart’ its first third establishes a fairly high standard. Nacho Vigalondo’s ‘A is for Apocalypse’ is the perfect opener for a portmanteau film: stylistically bold, disorientating and with a killer punchline; Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s ‘B is for Bigfoot’ quite simply owns the urban myth subgenre; Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s ‘C is for Cycle’ comes on like a distilled version of Christopher Smith’s ‘Triangle’; Marcel Sarmiento’s provocative ‘D is for Dogfight’ is the film’s high point, a wordless dissertation on bloodsports, audience complicity and the death of innocence – hard to watch but never less than aesthetically valid, it shows up a lot of the later segments for the pabulum that they are; Angela Bettis’s ‘E is for Exterminate’ uses mordant humour to document those tiny acts of cruelty (in this case the killing of a spider) that so many of us rationalise; and ‘G is for Gravity’ uses the first-person POV to chilling effect in a dialogue-free description of a suicide.

Interesting that ‘Dogfight’ and ‘Gravity’ eschew dialogue. Ben Wheatley’s ‘U is for Unearthed’ – the film’s other genuine standout – uses the same technique (first person POV with so little dialogue as to be neglible) to capture the final moments of a fleeing vampire as it’s run to ground and staked. It’s a simple enough reversal of a done-to-death scene, but Wheatley gets the absolute maximum out of his couple of minutes. 

There are one or two other offerings that are worthwhile – Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s black comedy ‘Q is for Quack’ and Srdan Spasojevic’s bizarre, hallucinatory and brilliantly imagistic ‘R is for Removed’ deserve honourable mentions – but overall the variance in quality control isn’t just obvious, it’s a deal-breaker for long stretches of the two hour plus running time, particularly in the final stretches where headfucks like Jon Schnepp’s ‘W is for WTF!’ and Nishimura’s ‘Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction)’ rub shoulders with Eisener’s stinker and Xavier Gens’s ‘XXL’, where all the viscera a bathtub can hold can’t make up for how tedious and predictable his treatment of the material is.

Even at a few minutes apiece, presenting 26 separate stories, in such wilfully divergent styles, as a single coherent movie was always going to prove something of a poisoned chalice. I’ve not seen ‘The ABCs of Death 2’, but I understand the producers attempted to even things out tonally by focusing on black comedy. Hmmm. Maybe it’ll crop up on Winter of Discontent, maybe it won’t.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Filth and depravity

The thing I hate the most about Halloween being over is that everyone turns into a schmaltzy bastard and immediately starts banging on about Christmas, family, goodwill to men and rampant materialism. Just one fucking day after we were all dressing up as the dead and demanding free shit in return for not egging our neighbours’ windows or painting fluorescent green skulls on their car windscreen.

Goodwill to all men, my arse!

Here on The Agitation of the Mind, we’re having none of it. Here on The Agitation of the Mind we’re about to embark on a two-month odyssey through the sewers of cinematic cynicism. Is it dark? Is it nasty? Is it exploitative? If so, I’ll be checking it out and reporting back.

We’ll be kicking off tomorrow with an evaluation of how well indie horror does tackling the portmanteau format. After that … well, anything goes. Your horripilant host is currently interrogating the filth delivery system known as the internet to determine what depraved delights are available to stream. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: Treevenge

It’s weird to think that Jason Eisener has been on the cusp of being horror’s Next Big Thing for nearly a decade now. He won a ‘Grindhouse’ fake trailer competition in 2007 with the distilled (and decidedly more focused) version of what would become his feature length debut, ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’. He followed that with the short film under consideration this evening, the punningly titled ‘Treevenge’, after which it was three years until the full-length ‘Hobo’ appeared. It did little business at the box office, earning only a scraping of its already low budget back, but went on to become a cult favourite. Eisener went on the contribute segments to the anthologies ‘The ABCs of Death’ and ‘V/H/S/2’. Since then, there’s been a couple more shorts, including ‘One Last Dive’ which is rumoured to be getting the feature-length treatment though what’s happened to his mooted second feature ‘Blatant Violence High’ is anyone’s guess.

I have a feeling that Eisener might prove better suited to the short film form. ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’, while genre-savvy and dementedly inventive, ultimately felt like someone had crossed Quentin Tarantino with the Tasmanian Devil, pumped the resulting hybrid full of more coffee than a long-haul truck driver drinks in a year, and had it scream at you about ALL ITS FAVOURITE MOVIES for an hour and a half while jabbing hat pins under your nails at random moments just to make sure you were still paying attention. ‘Treevenge’, at just sixteen minutes (twelve if you lose the opening and closing credits) suffers from a similar condition. Let’s call it Demented Nerd Boy Exploitation Fan Syndrome.

‘Treevenge’, in case you didn’t guess from the title, is a comedy. Its best joke is the use of the opening theme from ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ as Eisener’s camera pans across acres of fir trees. That the title card looks like this is just beautiful:

Having delivered its subtlest and funniest moment, Eisener then cuts loose in gleefully unrestrained and self-indulgent fashion for a tale of Christmas trees pushed beyond endurance – chopped down, the unsaleable ones burned, the saleable ones sold to toothpaste-commercial squeaky clean families and decked with baubles while saccharine festive music plays at heinous volume; Christmas trees that fight back in graphically bloody fashion; Christmas trees that mercilessly exact their treevenge.

In all fairness, Eisener dishes up some great ideas: the fir tree POV scenes are brilliantly done; a sequence in which saplings find themselves in the back of a truck and go into a claustrophobic panic manages to be funny and weirdly poignant (they’re comforted by the bigger trees) at the same time; the first death turns the fact that you can see it coming like an ocean liner on a duckpond into its biggest asset; a particularly graphic moment segues from Fulci eyeball-trauma homage to a grotesque version of the spaghetti scene from ‘Lady and the Tramp’; and the underlying concept that some Christmas trees are sentient and even have their own language is priceless.

Just as much, however, doesn’t work. After spending two-thirds of his running time establishing a handful of specifically delineated characters, Eisener foregoes the besieged-group-of-survivors scenario that would have suited the story down to the ground (imagine it: mall, Christmas decorations, piped-in carols, Santas and elves fleeing in terror) and simply has his deeply pissed off trees rampage all over some identikit small town; he jettisons his main characters, too, and suddenly we have NRA types cutting loose with rifles, a nod to ‘Deliverance’ that you might never be able to get out of your head, and a cynical payoff involving a small child. Whether anything’s off-limits in a horror movie is a moot point, and these moments might have worked if there had been something in the preceding few minutes to contextualise them. As it is, Eisener giddily throws in as much gross-out fare as he can given the constraints of budget and running time. The reintroduction of the ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ theme as the film abruptly ends seems less like effectively mordant humour this time round than an admission that it was all a bad-taste joke. Which, to be fair, it was. But a joke is only as good as its teller, and ‘Treevenge’ would have benefited from more flair and style in the telling.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Fido

Welcome to Canada, home of ice hockey, the Mounties and a population who are notable for not being American. Not that there seems to be much difference in the town of Willard. In a vision of Americana straight out of ‘Pleasantville’ and garnished with the swish materialism of ‘Mad Men’, executives in sharp suits drive shiny convertibles while their wives wear petticoats and mix martinis. The opportunities and good living the citizens of Willard enjoy are all thanks to Zomcon, a corporation that handles undead security in the wake of the zombie wars.

Let’s pause to exhume the backstory. Andrew Currie’s ‘Fido’ takes place in an alternative history 1950s where solar radiation has caused a plague of zombies. Military intervention forestalls the immediate threat. Meanwhile Zomcon pioneers a collar device that controls the zombies’ urge to eat flesh. Rendered docile, the undead are put to work as gardeners, housekeepers and unskilled labourers, Zomcon guaranteeing that any problems will be swiftly taken care of.

One such problem occurs after Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) acquires a zombie in order to keep up with the neighbours. She’s keen to propel husband Bill (Dylan Baker) up the career ladder and since their neighbour is Jonathan Bottoms (Henry Czerny), head of security at Zomcon, the couple seek to ingratiate themselves. Meanwhile, their lonely and socially inept son Timmy (K’Sun Ray) begins to bond with the zombie (Billy Connolly) and names him Fido. Yes, that Billy Connolly.

Bill’s an old-school zombie hater, mainly on account of his father being killed by (and subsequently turning into) one. He’s further antagonised when he realises how affectionately Timmy, and later Helen, regard Fido. Things take a macabre turn when Fido’s collar malfunctions and he attacks a bystander. Owing Fido a favour – the zombie interceded when bullies had him cornered – Timmy helps cover up the death. Inevitably, Fido’s victim comes back from the dead, one bite leads to another, and soon Willard is threatened with a bona fide zombie invasion.

‘Fido’ is an odd little film, not least for casting legendary raconteur Connolly in a non-speaking role. Tonally, it veers from poignant rites-of-passage piece (the title encapsulates the “one boy and his dog” aspect of the material) to Lynchian small town dystopia by way of a satirical enquiry into America’s complicated fear/dependency relationship with homeland security. Large scale alternative history world-building strains against budgetary limitations (the madcap finale suffers as a result), whereas steadily accreted minutiae paint a more effective picture. The POV flits from Timmy to Helen, with Timmy in particular too often sidelined. The director’s humorous broadsides are equally uneven, ranging from Hitchcockian black humour (a ‘Trouble with Harry’-style corpse disposal is inspired) to the kind of slapstick you’d associate with the final reel of ‘Blazing Saddles’.

If ‘Fido’ never quite coheres, then its flaws are not for want of ambition. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning once declared, “or what’s a heaven for?” ‘Fido’ exceeds the grasp of its pallid, bony, clutching hands. But Heaven’s the last thing on its mind; brains, however … brrraaaiiinnns.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: Winter of the Dead

Think Finnish cinema and you’ll probably think of Aki Kaurismäki and then sit around and scratch your head for quite some time. In fact, think Finland in general and you’ll probably come up with saunas, reindeer and the stark, wintry beauty of Sibelius’s symphonies and tone poems. In Markus Heiskanen’s 35-minute short, the nuclear winter is the order of the day. The country is ravaged, survivors are few (the script flirts with the frankly bonkers concept of radiation immunity but doesn’t really explain it) and zombies are a fact of life.

The film starts in ‘Omega Man’ fashion: Toni (Pasi Martikainen) maintains a lonely outpost against the undead. His low-key, reflective voiceover paints him less as a survivalist or gung-ho military type than a regular guy who has used intelligence and practicality to adapt. He lives by routines and safeguards.

It’s a shock to discover – a third of the way in – that Toni is not alone. Once a week, he visits Risto (Antti Riuttanen), who he refers to as his neighbour even though their houses are miles apart. They’re a study in contrasts: Toni is disciplined, sober and self-sufficient; Risto is laid back, brews moonshine and curates the largest collect of girlie magazines in Finland. (One assumes they’re all back issues, since the possibility of a “zombie’s wives” edition is frankly unpalatable.) Toni and Risto spend a little quality time discussing the frequency and intensity of zombie attacks, knock back some hooch, smoke a pipe and recreationally shoot zombies in the head as they sit by the lakeside. Then Toni heads home and reflects that it really doesn’t do to cultivate friendships in this zombified new world.

Thus far, Heiskanen establishes a chilly aesthetic, sketching in his protagonist as a man of few words and cautious actions. The Toni/Risto interplay leavens the atmosphere with wry humour. A feature length exposition of the movie would function equally well as stark existentialism or comedy horror. For all that Risto is the comic foil (albeit granted a moment of rough-diamond gravitas by the end), the focus is on Toni and his pragmatic stripping away of all unnecessary emotion and sentiment: the price he pays for staying alive.

So effective is this portrait that it’s almost regrettable when Marika (Kirsti Savola) appears, driven out of the village in which she sheltered as the zombie attacks become more ferocious. Toni finds her unconscious and almost frozen to death, but is reluctant to offer shelter. Risto, meanwhile, is reduced to gormless gawping at the sight of a woman. Fortunately, Heiskanen avoids the obvious pitfalls and – apart from the single Hollywood-like shot that concludes the film – steers away from the clichéd possibilities of burgeoning relationships and romantic rivalries. Better still, Marika is the complete antithesis of the outmoded woman-in-peril heroine, pulling her weight, stating her mind and blasting zombies in the head as determinedly as Toni or Rosti.

If ‘Winter of the Dead’ never gets developed as a feature or remade Stateside, it will leave the original as a stellar example of how craftsmanship and imagination can triumph without CGI or a blank cheque to the special effects department. On the other hand, it would be thrilling to see what Heiskanen could do with a reasonable budget.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Let Me In

Pretty much the only misstep Matt Reeves’s ‘Let Me In’ makes is the truncation of its title from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel – and Tomas Alfredson’s earlier film adaptation – ‘Let the Right One In’. “Let me in” is a blunt request or command. “Let the right one in” has about it more of a caution or a warning; it adds an extra layer of meaning to the book/film.

Lindqvist made an immediate name for himself with ‘Let the Right One In’, earning comparisons to Stephen King. And the book certainly has the narrative verve and economic characterisations that typify King’s best (i.e. least verbose) works. It’s also pulpy as all hell, and no-one’s idea of literary fiction no matter what some of the more fawning reviewers might have you think.

Alfredson’s Swedish language adaptation took a chilly, somewhat Cronenbergian approach to the material; a good aesthetic decision, but I found the direction a little too removed from the story being told; the performances slightly too well-considered. It lacked, for want of a better expression, the human element. Granted, the human element in a story about a bullied kid forming a tentative relationship with a centuries-old vampire trapped in the body of the 12-year-old girl whose requirement for blood necessitates a series of grisly murders carried out by her middle-aged paedophile companion is a relative concept; but nonetheless, the relationship between troubled child and vampire is at the centre of the narrative and without some degree of emotional engagement, the concept flounders.

Reeves (making a quantum leap as director from the hackneyed ‘Cloverfield’) trusts to the director’s two greatest allies: script (his own) and cast. The script keeps its real horrors (bullying, broken homes, social disenfranchisement) to the forefront while backgrounding the supernatural elements – quite literally backgrounding: virtually every scene of Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) attacking someone for their blood or scaling is done in long-shot. Close-ups are reserved for the aftermath: the smears of blood on her face; the crazed look of an animal in her eyes. The script also strips away Lindqvist’s more heavy-handed moments, particularly the pile-up of narrative developments that make the second half of the book so top-heavy. It also sanitizes the relationship between Abby and Thomas (Richard Jenkins), almost conjuring him as a sympathetic character rather than abject failure of a human being crushed by self-hate that Lindqvist and Alfredson have him as.

And having mentioned Moretz and Jenkins in that last paragraph, let’s sing the praises of the cast. In a career that’s consisted of youthfulness juxtaposed with worldly-wise (or, in the case of ‘Kick-Ass’, wholly inappropriate) behaviour, Moretz was the obvious choice to play a character who is essentially Nosferatu shoehorned into Lolita’s prepubescent form. Her performance is understated and, at times, purposefully gauche; yet, when Reeves needs her to remind the audience exactly what Abby is capable of, she’s chilling. That scene in ‘Goodfellas’ where de Niro stands at the bar, eyes flicking from person to the next as he works out who he needs to silence? Moretz does a similar thing, but straight to camera. Jenkins is basically faultless: I’ve never seen a Richard Jenkins performance that’s less than pitch perfect. He’s simply one of the best actors around. Smit-McPhee, as the luckless Owen, a victim who’s only a couple of steps away from becoming an aggressor himself, is astounding. Your heart breaks for him in one scene, only for his burgeoning obsession with knives to worry the hell out of you moments later.

Three great central performances; three instinctive pieces of characterisation. And yet it’s Reeves as director I keep coming back to – a man whose CV prior to ‘Let Me In’ suggested, at best, a proficient hack – not only for his intuitively empathetic script and his facility with an exemplary cast, but his confidence in the pacing of the film, allowing the characters to emerge as products of their past or their environment, letting the drama and tension develop organically, letting the genre elements gradually bleed into an already tautly disturbing set-up.

‘Let Me In’ isn’t just a damn good vampire movie or horror movie; it’s a damn good work of cinema, period. As a remake, it’s peerless.

Friday, October 23, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: La Horde

If any country can lay claim to cinema as an art form, then surely it’s France. The birthplace not just the medium itself, but arguably its most important practitioners. France: the birthplace of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard, Jean-Pierre Melville; just the thought of a movie in black and white conjures their work. The smoke from a Gitane might just as well be curling over this paragraph.

But this is 13 for Halloween on The Agitation of the Mind and we’re leaving the leaf-strewn avenues and pavement cafes for grittier, starker locations. We’re bidding adieu to the old masters and cautiously making the acquaintance of a new generation of genre-savvy filmmakers who have transmogrified l’horreur from, say, the dreamy surrealism of Georges Franju’s ‘Les yeux sans visage’ to the disturbing but thought-provoking brutality of Pascal Laugier’s ‘Martyrs’.

Laugier has also plied his trade in Hollywood (‘The Tall Man’), as have his fellow countrymen Alexandre Aja, Franck Khalfoun and Xavier Gens; and with American cinema not exactly short of young directors focussing almost exclusively on the horror genre – Adam Green, Ti West, Joe Swanberg et al – a certain degree of cross-pollination was always going to be inevitable. ‘La Horde’ has an incredibly American sensibility, from its grim urban setting to its gleeful appropriation of Hollywood iconography. Superficially, it offers nothing the splatter fan hasn’t seen before. Nonetheless, directors Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher cannily anticipate audience expectations. Moreover, ‘La Horde’ packs its fair share of existential mean-spiritedness: if Henri-Georges Clouzot had made a zombie movie, this would be it.

The genre-spanning first act has more in common with a policier or a vigilante thriller. A group of cops, incensed at the murder of one of their own by a drugs gang, dispense with due process and storm the dilapidated tower block said gangsters have occupied as their base of operations. Internal tensions are rife and the plan of attack is badly thought out. Things swiftly go wrong and the gangsters gain the upper hand. At this point, the zombie apocalypse occurs, the undead lay siege to the tower block and two very dangerous and antagonistic groups of people have to band together to survive.

This latter is the film’s most Hollywood concept, however Dahan and Rocher avoid any redemptive undertones. No mismatched allegiances or declarations of brotherhood are forged in the furnace of this particular crisis; both sides continue to hate each other even as their numbers dwindle. The cops’ talk of honour and looking out for each other is quickly revealed as so much hot air. The gangsters are reduced to macho posturing, juvenile stupidity and, finally, pathetic vulnerability in the face of something they can’t threaten or bully or extort.

Interestingly, both groups seem to exist within a cultural frame of reference that doesn’t recognise the zombie as an existing trope: it takes a hell of a long time for anyone to cotton on to the old “shoot ’em in the head” modus operandi. Whether or not this idea was deliberate – à la the protagonists’ attempts in ‘Juan of the Dead’ to find a rationale for what is, to the audience at least, a self-evident phenomenon – it lends the film an urgency, as well as allowing the filmmakers a last-minute point about parochialism and social/political division. The final scene has the survivors emerge into a landscape that’s utterly unpopulated. The zombie threat has faded. A pall of smoke hangs over a ravaged but silent city. And that’s when the ugliness of the human condition takes centre stage again.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon

There are, as far as I can discern, two purposes served by the fake trailer: 

1) to contextualise a feature-length work, e.g. the trailers for ‘Don’t’, ‘Machete’, ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ which emphasise the drive-in exploitation traditions which the two halves of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s ‘Grindhouse’ grew out of; or those which begin ‘Tropic Thunder’ and present an ironic commentary on the kind of movies its mismatched actors are usually associated with;

2) as works of satire or spoofery in their own right.

Of course, all of the trailers in ‘Grindhouse’ and ‘Tropic Thunder’ are satirical. And just to make things meta, ‘Machete’ became a movie in its own right, as did ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ which was originally conceived as a fake trailer for a ‘Grindhouse’ competition. Moreover, ‘Thanksgiving’ is easily the most accomplished piece of cinema Eli Roth has put his name to.

Having said all of that, let’s turn our attention to Richard Gale’s magnificently titled ‘The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon’. Everything about it suggests that Gale was going all out to make the fake trailer of all fake trailers, the ne plus ultra of movies that don’t exist. (Yet. Of this, more later.)

To begin with, it runs ten minutes. Fake trailers, by their very definition, generally exist at a length analogous to your average punk single. Edgar Wright’s ‘Don’t’ is just one minute eighteen seconds. Rob Zombie’s ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ seemed outrageously operatic at five minutes. ‘The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon’ doubles down on ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ (and, man, that sentence takes on a raft of new meanings if you remove the quote marks!), stretching its running time into double figures, hellbent on being the ‘Santango’ of its (admittedly underpopulated) subgenre.

Then there’s the sheer amount of stylistic homages Gale packs in, from stalk ‘n’ slash to Rambo-style mano-a-mano business, by way of oriental mysticism, widescreen globe-trotting, spaghetti western grunginess and elements of the police procedural. Gale’s own narration leaves no voiceover cliché unturned, be it overly dramatic diction or relentless repetition (“again and again and again and again and again and again …”). One the trailer’s best jokes is the assertion that the movie itself was twelve years in the making, filmed on four continents and is nine hours long.

And what, you may be wondering, is ‘THSMwtEIW’ about? Well, our hero is Jack Cucchiaio (Paul Clemens), who is one day subjected to a vicious attack by an antagonist known as the Spoonman (Brian Rohan). The Spoonman looks like a cross between the Grim Reaper and a heroin addict, and spends the duration of the trailer reappearing in Jack’s life and attempting to kill him … with a spoon.

Jack’s attempts to variously run, fight back and learn the truth about his attacker do little prevent the onslaught of spoon-thwacks, although Jack does glean one seemingly important fact from a sinister eastern mystic: the Spoonman is an immortal being known as the Ginosaji. Cucchiaio versus the Ginosaji (linguistics will appreciate the names): a duel between a forensic pathologist and a spoon-wielding demon. The absurdity sells it without even trying.

It’s certainly been lapped up by a genre-savvy internet audience, with Gale expanding the Ginosaji’s mythology in four sequels: ‘Spoon vs. Spoon’, ‘Save Jack’, ‘Spoon Wars’ and ‘Ginosaji vs. Ginosaji’. And he’s not done yet. Gale is currently crowdfunding to expand ‘THSMwtEIW’ to feature-length. Whether, as a 90 minute feature, it’ll manage to sustain its one-joke premise remains to be seen, but good luck to the guy.

Monday, October 19, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: No One Lives

Ryuhei Kitamura’s ‘No One Lives’ begins in media res with heiress Emma Ward (Adelaide Clemens) – missing following a mass-murder that cost fourteen lives – plunging through a heavily forested area in the middle of the night in what is obviously an escape attempt. It’s foiled by a mantrap that snares her legs and hauls her off the ground. Dangling upside down, frustrated to the point of rage, she uses a knife she had on her person to etch a stark message into a tree trunk: “EMMA – ALIVE”.

The next sequence has an affluent couple (Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) stop at a shitty motel during a cross-country. She’s identified as “Betty” in dialogue, but the man is only referred to as “The Driver”. This, and the curiously stilted relationship between them, suggest that something in their relationship is awry. There’s a sense of depersonalization that is only emphasized later when they are threatened in a diner and there is something distinctly off-kilter about the way they react.

And who are they threatened by? That’d be Flynn (Derek Magyar), a hotheaded younger member of a gang headed up by the patriarchal Hoag (Lee Tergesen). This less-than-lovable bunch are introduced in a scene where their wholesale robbery of a mansion disguised as removal men is interrupted by the unexpected return of the owners. Hoag’s convinced that he can talk his way out of it, but Flynn’s nerve breaks and he cuts loose with a shooter. Hoag is understandably pissed off that B&E has now escalated to Murder One and he tells Flynn in no uncertain terms that he’d better do something quite special to get back into his good books.

How Flynn interprets this, his targeting of Betty and The Driver, the nature of their relationship, the interrelationships between Hoag’s gang – including his partner Tamara (America Olivo), his daughter Amber (Lindsey Shaw) and her boyfriend Denny (Beau Knapp) – and the truth about Emma fuel the next hour or so (‘No One Lives’ boasts an agreeably spare 83 minute running time) with roughly the same intensity as rocket fuel cut with Colombia’s finest. Many films treat narrative development as a case of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened”, all of it telegraphed with laborious exposition. ‘No One Lives’ treats narrative development as a cluster of pool balls smashing into each other and careering crazily around the green baize. From Kitamura’s first rug-pull – a triple-whammy of unexpected reactions/revelations – a mere twenty minutes in, all bets are off. Nothing is certain. In this movie, anything could happen with the only guarantee being that the mechanics of it are going to be brutal. The title is earned.

For this reason, I really don’t want to talk about the film in any detail. The less you know when you approach it, the more you’ll enjoy it – assuming, of course, you enjoy cynical and hyper-violent genre movies. And one of the most entertaining aspects of ‘No One Lives’ is how gleefully it dabbles in genre tropes. At any one time, it’s a stalk ‘n’ slash flick, a revenge thriller, a ‘First Blood’ style drama fascinated by fieldcraft and man-traps, and a psychological horror movie trading in Stockholm Syndrome mind games. It’s never dull. The pace is unremitting, the tension razor-sharp.

Performance-wise, Evans is terrific – he’s brooding and intense, but smart enough to underplay. Clemens owns every scene she’s in. And in the midst of hive of amorality and self-interest that characterize Hoag’s gang, Shaw manages to conjure a sympathetic non-scumbag torn between filial duty and survival.

Japanese director Kitamura – whose second American film this is, following the Clive Barker adaptation ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ – brings a hyperkinetic intensity to the proceedings, but is savvy enough to know when to allow a few character beats, a moment or two of calm before the next bout of blood-letting. He also allows himself a few riffs and visual homages to other movies, the most explicit being ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Angel Heart’, but generally keeps things on the right side of derivative. ‘No One Lives’ was saddled with a limited release and struggled to find an audience theatrically. One of the better reviews it got was “mindless entertainment done right”. Hopefully it’ll have its day on DVD, where its twists and turns and curveballs and bloodbaths are lapped up by midnight movie aficionados who’ll appreciate the tradition of exploitation cinema that it taps into and to which it pays visceral, irony-free homage.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Children of the Corn

In my paperback copy of ‘Night Shift’, Stephen King’s first short story collection, ‘Children of the Corn’ clocks in at 35 pages. It’s one of the creepier tales in that volume, but nowhere near the best of King’s short fiction in the greater scheme of things. Dragging it out to a 93 minute feature film was stretching the material enough, but for some reason that I don’t think I could fathom if I retired to the mountains and gave it my full philosophical consideration, Zen Buddhism stylee, the story birthed a three-decade franchise encompassing nine films including a 2009 remake of the original for the SyFy Channel. A franchise, sure, but one that’s distinctly low-rent.

Let’s consider the original. Newly qualified physician Burt (Peter Horton) is driving through the corn-swathed countryside of Nebraska with his girlfriend Vicky (Linda Hamilton) when a young boy runs out from said corn and they inadvertently run him over. Burt – who spends the movie behaving more like an amateur (very amateur) sleuth than a medical professional – deduces that someone must have been chasing the boy, hoists a crowbar from his car boot and goes wandering off into the fields to investigate, having first admonished Vicky to stay in the car and keep the doors locked. Presented with the isolated locale, the trauma of just having run over a child, and the uncertainty of her partner suddenly haring off, Vicky responds by taking a nap. She dreams that someone with a scythe is creeping up on her. Awaking with a start, she finds that Burt has returned none the wiser. They decide to wrap up the boy’s corpse, stuff it in the car boot, and drive into a small town called Gatlin.

Burt and Vicky driving around and slowly realizing that something very freakin’ weird is going on accounts for pretty much the next half hour. These scenes are interlaced with occasionally spooky, occasionally stupid scenes of the children of the town behaving in a decidedly unhealthy manner. Scenes that would have worked much better if director Fritz Kiersch and scripter George Goldsmith had allowed the audience to come to a realization of the town’s ungodly secrets as gradually as Burt and Vicky do. As it is, however, they set out their stall way too early with an opening sequence in which the children of Gatlin slaughter the adults. By rights, this should have been brutal and chilling, but the acting tips it into hilarity, particularly when Kiersch cuts away to prepubescent ringleader Isaac (John Franklin) sneering through a window and looking less like a messianic psychopath than a cute ickle kid whose favourite cartoon has just come on TV.

As Burt and Vicky discover more about the quasi-religious shenanigans to which the kids are in thrall, the more the power struggle between the supposedly urbane Isaac and his bumpkin second-in-command Malachai (Courtney Gains) comes to the fore. Again, this is potentially dramatic material, and the religious elements even threaten to become interesting. But Gains’s acting is worse than Franklin’s. By the time he appeared in ‘The ’Burbs’ and ‘Memphis Belle’ just half a decade later, Gains’s talent had developed no end; here, though, in his first movie, he overdoes it and then some. Mind you, Hamilton is no better and there was less than a year between her pitiful turn in this movie and her iconic performance in ‘The Terminator’.

Blame it on the script? Blame it on the direction? A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B, perhaps. Certainly the script’s deviations from King’s story weaken things. The direction falters when it comes to performances, but the atmosphere is often successful, even though Kiersch tries too hard to conjure a ‘Wicker Man’ vibe. Ultimately, it’s one of those films that inspires not so much a bad reaction as a “meh” kind of reaction. It’s a film that would never have been great, but needn’t have been this bland.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: An Appetite for Bernard Brady

Suche gut gebauten Achtzehn bis Dreißigjahrigen zum Schlacten.” Such was the ad Armin Meiwes posted on a website called The Cannibal Café in 2001. It translates as “looking for a well-built 18 to 30 year old to be slaughtered” and the weird thing is that a whole bunch of people replied to it. All but one subsequently changed their minds and to give Meiwes his dues, he respected their choices. The guy who didn’t welsh on the arrangement was Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes. They met at Meiwes’ house, a dwelling Meiwes had outfitted with what he called “the slaughter room” in readiness for their assignation. They made a video which documented how Brandes became the main course. The specifics are visceral, but for those unacquainted with the case, it’s worth a short précis for the sheer absurdity of it. If you’re eating, about to eat, or considering eating in the next, oh I don’t know, week and a half, you might want to disengage at the end of this paragraph and maybe pop back later.

For those of you still reading, this is what happened:

Meiwes and Brandes decided that they would cook Brandes’ penis and eat it together, with Brandes apparently quite keen that Meiwes bite it off. This, for me, is where the absurdity starts. I can only imagine that if Agitation Jnr were bitten off or otherwise severed, the last thing on my mind would be its nutritional value. I would imagine that the main thing on my mind would be the ungodly degree of pain resulting from its detachment. Meiwes and Brandes were obviously hardwired to a completely different psychology. Meiwes tried biting Brandes’ todger off, but found it difficult and resorted to the use of a kitchen knife. I’m making an educated guess that anaesthesia wasn’t employed. Of the gastronomy that followed, Meiwes’s Wikipedia entry offers this wonderful description: “Meiwes then fried the penis in a pan with salt, pepper, wine and garlic; he then fried it with some of Brandes’s fat, but by then it was too burned to be consumed. He then chopped it up into chunks and fed it to his dog.” Now imagine that piece of prose delivered in the plummy tones of Delia Smith or Nigella Lawson. Or even Gordon Ramsay bursting into Meiwes’s kitchen screaming, “You’ve overcooked the cock, you fucking Teutonic loser!” Comedy gold.

Meiwes took a break from the kitchen for a few hours while Brandes lay bleeding in the bath tub. Eventually, Meiwes gave his victim alcohol, pain killers (pain killers, after chopping his willy off – fucking pain killers!!!) and sleeping pills, then hauled Brandes to the slaughter room, stabbed him in the throat (presumably as a safeguard in case the combination of blood loss, alcohol and cocktail of pills hadn’t already done the job), and hung him on a meathook. Thanks to the convenience of owing a deep-freeze, Meiwes made Brandes last for 10 months. Probably cut down on his grocery bill no end.

Now, you might consider me a sicko for suggesting this, but the Armin Meiwes story – which inspired songs by Rammstein, Marilyn Manson and Bloodbath – has all the makings of a cracking comedy. ‘Carry on Up the Meat Hook’. ‘Honey I Burned the Penis’. ‘Who’s Being Killed for the Great Chefs of Europe?’ Inexplicably, none of the films that take their cue from the Meiwes case are comedies. They are, indeed, a mixed bag (and one that I might have to explore as part of this year’s Winter of Discontent), ranging from Martin Weisz’s ‘Butterfly: A Grimm Love Story’ (a.k.a. ‘Grimm Love’) which focuses on a student (Keri Russell) researching her thesis on cannibalism, to Marian Dora’s ‘Cannibal’ which I can only describe as what you’d get if a Ruggero Deodata video nasty were spliced with a gay porn version of ‘Elvira Madigan’. 

Perhaps the most elegant and cerebral take on the subject matter, however, is Chris Mangano’s ‘An Appetite for Bernard Brady’, which relocates the story to Seattle and reimagines Brandes as the eponymous Brady (Kyle Littelfield). This 15-minute short is told entirely in voiceover; various characters in the film address Brady, but he never speaks except to record a message inviting the Meiwes stand-in to eat him. I say “stand-in”; Mangano doesn’t actually give us a version of Meiwes, apart from a darkly eroticised figure who features very briefly in a dream sequence. It barely even counts as a spoiler to reveal that Mangano doesn’t even take the story through to their meeting. What he concentrates on is a psychological portrait of a man who has lived a solitary life – and, outwardly at least, a conventional one – a man you’d perhaps dismiss as boring; a bit of a nerd. But Brady’s unassuming demeanour has been his armour from a young age: it’s what cloaks his obsession with, and sexual response to, the concept of victimhood.

Right from the outset, with Brady pouring over a book of Bible stories for children and lingering on a picture of Abraham about to sacrifice his son – a picture which takes Brady back to his own boyhood and the furtive glee with which he returned to that image – Mangano steers the film into some effectively dark territory. A subsequent scene where the young Brady, fascinated by an old movie showing a deserter executed by firing squad, re-enacts it in his bedroom, starts off almost ridiculously with a line up of toy soldiers, then suddenly takes a turn into the genuine horrible as the lad happily pulls a pillow case over his head and stands to attention.

Audience knowledge that something twisted and dysfunctional has sat in Brady’s psyche from childhood throws into sharper relief moments that document his banal day-to-day existence – moments that would be dull to watch without this dark context. Mangano – whose only film this is as director – demonstrates a sure touch with only a montage of Brady failing to click with a series of dates relying on obvious stereotypes. Between his telling attention to detail and Littlefield’s nicely underplayed performance, Brady emerges as curiously sympathetic. And the visual punchline the film ends on is perfect.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: The Raven

Under no set of even remotely objective critical perameters can ‘The Raven’ be described as good. Charitably, the descriptions “mishmash”, “ill-conceived” and “flawed” might best apply. Anybody immediately galvanised to scroll down to the comments section and leave a remark along the lines of “what the hell are you talking about, Fulwood? it’s an abject piece of shit” would do so without any attempt at argument from yours truly.

But dammit, I’d been emotionally wrung out by ‘The Babadook’ and disappointed in the extreme by ‘It Follows’ and I went scouting for something that I’d approach with such low expectations that I might just find myself pleasantly surprised. ‘The Raven’ didn’t quite pole-vault up from the wasteland of its reputation (which, as much as it has one, is probably the critical equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders and a vocalisation of the “meh” variety) and reveal itself as an overlooked and/or misrepresented cult classic, but it did waltz me through the ballroom at the What The Fuck Lounge for an hour and three quarters while the strains of the So Bad It’s Watchable Symphony Orchestra melted around us. And for that I’m … well, no so much thankful as moderately unrepulsed by the experience.

‘The Raven’, superficially at least, takes its cue from those occasional ‘Doctor Who’ episodes that posits the Time Lord’s influence on an historical figure during a period of personal crisis (Vincent van Gogh in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’) or purports to explain a blind spot in their biography (Agatha Christie in ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’). Here we have the final days of Edgar Allen Poe and a monumentally lurid solution to his mysterious demise. Only without David Tennant or Matt Smith or a blue telephone box. These absences prove a serious flaw: ‘The Raven’ would have been fucking amazing as a 45-minute ‘Doctor Who’ story.

As it is, we have an overwrought feature length movie scripted by Ben Livingston (a TV actor whose only writing credit this is) and Hannah Shakespeare (a writer of TV pabulum such as ‘The Playboy Club’ and ‘Killer Woman’) and brought to life by the director of ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Ninja Assassin’.

So, having examined the film’s credentials and vigorously washed our hands, let’s proceed to a synopsis. It’s 1849 and Poe (John Cusack) is trading on former glories, reciting his gothic poem ‘The Raven’ to anyone who’ll listen and churning out bitchy screeds of literary criticism to the indifference of newspaper editor Henry Maddux (Kevin McNally) who would much prefer the spine-chilling short stories of Poe’s earlier career. He’s also in the habit of getting thrown out of taverns on account of his inability to settle his tab, and punching way above his weight in terms of a nascent romance with Emily (Alice Eve), daughter of abrasive socialite Capt. Charles Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). With enough going on in his life already, Poe is suddenly and bluntly hauled into a police investigation when Inspector Fields (Luke Evans in a role originally earmarked for Jeremy Renner and I could weep at how much better that would have made the film) realizes that a series of grisly murders owe their modus operandi to Poe’s fiction.

The genre fan will have immediately pegged that what we have here is Dario Argento’s ‘Tenebre’ reversed-engineered by a century or so and hung upon the gothic reputation of an actual horror writer rather than the fictive Peter Neal. And director James McTeague mines Argento’s ‘Tenebre’ and ‘Opera’ for the best scenes ‘The Raven’ has to offer. Indeed, the corvine imagery of the raven owes as much to the finale of ‘Opera’ as it does to Poe’s gothic poem. In fact, for all the imagery of ravens that haunt the film, McTeague and his writers seem to forget that ‘The Raven’ was in fact a poem and therefore doesn’t correlate with the central narrative of a copycat killer basing his crimes on Poe’s short stories. Had the film been called ‘Rue Morgue’, ‘Amontillado’, ‘Masque of the Red Death’ or ‘The Premature Burial’, those titles would have actually been earned.

Also, for all its slavish rehashing of Poe’s most macabre concepts, there are moments where scripters, director and actors demonstrate total misconception of Poe’s work, particularly in the scene where Cusack references the short story ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ by pronouncing the “M.” as a initial rather than “monsieur” (the character’s name is in fact Ernest Valdemar). Then there are the logistics of – no spoilers here – what it would have cost the perpetrator to reconstruct Poe’s tales (specifically the mechanism required to approximate ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and the rental on a building large enough to house it) in terms of what that character actually does for a living.

At its best – a cat ‘n’ mouse hunt through a theatre, a shadowy subterranean pursuit, a horseman bursting into a masked ball – ‘The Raven’ wears its cheesy B-movie heart on its sleeve and makes no pretence that it exists for any purpose other than as a delivery system for hyper-stylised but inherently camp grand guignol imagery. At its weakest, it tries to blend the best of Argento with a worst of Eli Roth and stir in the tabasco sauce of ‘Seven’. In these moments, as may be imagined, the flavor is decidedly questionable.

Friday, October 09, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: It Follows

There was one of those storm-in-a-teacup kerfuffles on social media recently when Quentin Tarantino said of David Robert Mitchell’s sophomore feature ‘It Follows’ that “it’s one of those movies that’s so good that you start getting mad at it for not being great”. QT went on to enumerate some of the issues, his main gripe being that Mitchell was inconsistent as regards the film’s mythology. There are those who took umbrage at Tarantino’s opinionism. Personally, I think he was being charitable.

The basic concept of ‘It Follows’ is that there’s a curse, or a haunting, or something (Mitchell’s savvy enough not to get bogged down in exposition) that is passed on through sexual encounters. Once you’ve received it, you become aware of people – they might be male or female, strangers or family members, they might appear to be alive or bear the disfigurements of death – following you relentlessly; unstoppably. If they catch up with you, it’s goodnight Vienna. The only way to break the curse, or dispel the haunting, or whatever is to have sex with someone else. Only that doesn’t entirely guarantee you a “get out of being killed” waiver. If the individual you’ve passed it onto doesn’t get rid of it by the same means before the follower catches up with them – if, in other words, they’re killed – the curse, or haunting, or summat starts working its way back down the chain.

Which, admittedly, is a pretty good concept. Particularly the idea of the follower doing a u-turn and working its way back. Thread this through an acutely observed picture of teenagers on the cusp of discovering their sexual identities and dealing with the accompanying emotional rollercoaster, and – pace Tarantino – there was no reason for this not to be something special. The problems start with the very first shot …

… which looks for all the world like a screengrab from John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’. And for the next hour and a half Mitchell only pauses in his wholesale plundering of Carpenter’s seasonal classic in order to nick a few other bits from David Lynch. Even the music (by Disasterpiece) is a film-long riff on the ‘Halloween’ soundtrack except in one place where it throws in an homage to Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ (‘The Exorcist’) and a few others where the order of the day is some discordant atonality a la ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’.

The problems continue with the very first line of dialogue and continue through to the last. Not the dialogue itself, I hasten to add – Mitchell often gives his teenagers interesting and thoughtful things to say, and allows that some teens will have read T.S. Eliot and Dostoyevsky and not everyone under the age of twenty-five has to act like a douchebag – but the sound recording. The music is intrusive, the foley only slightly less so, and the dialogue is often helplessly lost in the mix. I had to replay a few scenes, and some others I gave up on.

The performances are variable: as protagonist Jay, Maika Monroe has a winsome and haunted look about her that suits the narrative, but she sleepwalks much of the film. Lili Sepe as her sister Kelly and Olivia Luccardi as their friend Yara seem more at home with their characters, but are given very little to work with. Keir Gilchrist and Daniel Zovatto, as romantic rivals over Jay, create just enough by way of characterization to keep themselves afloat. Only Jake Weary as Hugh, the love rat who gives Jay the curse/haunting/whatever actually invests himself in a performance and goes for broke: the scene where the gang confront him and he sweatily tries to justify himself, warn Jay to pass it on, and absent himself before anything nasty happens (all within the space of a couple of minutes) is the best-acted moment in the movie, Weary single handedly creating a dynamic and a sense of urgency.

Elsewhere, the characters veer between acting like normal (if utterly unnerved and bemused) teenagers, then doing stupid character-in-a-horror-movie things purely because the script needs them to. There are other moments that are just plain awkward, such as Jay driving as far as she can in an attempt to escape her follower, then having to stop and get some sleep. Now, you’re being pursued by something weird and unstoppable; you’re driving a car; you just can’t keep going. Do you: (a) find somewhere off the road and out of sight, trigger the internal locking system, slide the front seats forward and huddle into the backseat footwell, hoping no-one will see you should they happen across the vehicle; or (b) stop the car right on the edge of the road, get out, curl up on the bonnet and go to sleep? It’s (a), isn’t it? Every time. Mais non! Jay, who has hitherto made very well-considered decisions, opts for (b), a course of action guaranteed to see you robbed, possibly assaulted and your car absconded with, and that’s quite without any supernatural threat! 

Ultimately it’s this unholy trinity – too many borrowings from other directors’ work (which is fine if, like Tarantino, you fashion them into your own authorial style); inconsistency in the film’s internal logic; and ostensibly smart characters suddenly and pointlessly doing stupid things – that work against the film. ‘It Follows’ has a lot of promise and some intensely memorable moments – an opening scene spatially dislocated by a dizzying and entirely unexpected 360° pan; an exploring-an-abandoned-house sequence that builds its menace from social realism and avoids the obvious scaremongering; a beachside idyll that explodes into supernatural horror – and there’s enough to suggest that once Mitchell develops his own filmmaking style he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. But its weaknesses stack up mightily, particularly its puppyish obsession with mimicking ‘Halloween’. ‘It Follows’ isn’t bad – it isn’t bad at all – but it’s still the work of a beginner. To continually call to mind and allow itself to be judged against ‘Halloween’ – the work of a master – is a huge aesthetic miscalculation.

Monday, October 05, 2015

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: The Babadook

Of all the things ‘The Babadook’ gets right – and let’s just call it from the outset: ‘The Babadook’ is a film of such intuitive psychological intelligence and aesthetic filmmaking confidence that it’s astounding to realize that it’s a debut feature – perhaps its greatest strength is that writer/director Jennifer Kent isn’t scared to structure what is essentially a two-hander around two often unlikeable (and sometimes outright fucking detestable) characters, one of them a young child.

Indeed, it would be fair to say ‘The Babadook’ documents the unhealthiest mother/son relationship this side of Oedipus Rex. Mrs Bates and young Norman are a well-adjusted picture of fulsomeness compared to young widow Amelia (Essie Davis) and her demanding 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). A floaty, surreal opening sequence establishes the dynamic immediately: a heavily-pregnant Amelia was on her way to hospital when a car accident robbed her of her husband and left her with, to put it mildly, mixed feelings towards her child.

Fast forward and Amelia is working a thankless job, struggling to cope with Samuel’s neediness, trying to suppress a rollercoaster of grief/resentment/hormonal overdrive, and stoically withstanding the vaguely contemptuous pity/condescension that seems to be the standard operating procedure of the smug housewives who constitute Amelia’s poor alternative for a social life. She’s about two sleeping pills away from a nervous breakdown, and it doesn’t help that Samuel is forever tinkering away down in the basement, creating little gizmos, unearthing his late father’s possessions, and subconsciously modeling a persona on that of a man he never knew.

Kent takes her time establishing all this, almost dissecting every interaction between two people who don’t, for all that they’re bonded by blood and loss, actually like each other all that much. To Amelia, Samuel is an annoyance; an incessant drain on her patience. To Samuel, for reasons that only become apparent after Kent pulls a mid-film POV switch that’s as subtle as it is audacious, Amelia is someone he desperately needs to protect even though his motivations are underpinned by fear.

And even contriving that deliberately vague and not particularly elegant sentence, I start to wonder if I’m giving too much away. ‘The Babadook’ is grueling; upsetting; emotionally bleak. Like all the greatest horror movies, it roots its sense of horror into something all too human, all too real, all too immediately recognizable. A few nights ago, at home, I was sitting in my bedroom, reading, the window open. From the street below, the caterwauling of a young child demanding attention. Said racket was superseded by a screech from the child’s mother: “Fuckin’ shurrup!” What chance for a child raised in that environment? What effects when unconditional love is stamped out by anger and vehemence? ‘The Babadook’ renders a more effectively disturbing treatment of these questions by placing Samuel in the emotional cauldron engendered not by some teenage chavette for whom a child is merely a shortcut to a benefits claim but a mature woman with a job and responsibilities whose personal circumstances and devastating loss ought to make her a centerpiece for the audience’s sympathies.

The other great success of the film is its introduction of the supernatural. One day, Samuel demands that Amelia read him not one of his usual retinue of gently improving bedtime stories, but from a book he’s found that Amelia is sure she’s never seen before. A hardback tome with sturdy covers, rough pages, childlike but gut-wrenchingly sinister woodcuts and stark minimalist prose which tells the story of a creature called (you guessed it) the Babadook. The Babadook, it turns out, fair enjoys killing people. Amelia, naturally, recoils at the book’s content (the fact that its most horrific images are incorporated as cheesy pop-ups makes it somehow worse) and hides it on a top shelf. The book returns. She throws it out. It returns. She burns the motherfucker. Whaddaya know? Can’t keep a bad book down.

From hereon in, the Babadook threads itself through the fabric of the movie: whether seen, unseen or half-glimpsed, it literally haunts the film. And it’s under the shadow of the Babadook’s pervasive presence that Kent effects her mid-film switcheroo and suddenly the audience’s perception has changed and the stakes are higher. To say much more would be a disservice to anyone yet to discover the film’s grim delights. I say “grim” advisedly, because this is one of the most emotionally bruising horror movies I’ve encountered for a while. Entire stretches of it are depressing on an Ingmar Bergman circa ‘The Silence’ or a Lukas Moodysson circa ‘Lilya 4-Ever’ level of depressing. You could strip out every vestige of the supernatural and ‘The Babadook’ would still function as a horror movie because it taps into such a morbid and emotionally raw area of the psyche.

Indeed, back-pedalling from the obvious supernatural elements might have strengthened the finale, certainly during a couple of scenes where Kent seems to doubt her own directorial style and borrows fairly obviously from the David Lynch playbook, and not least with regards to the finale which seems very stagy and suggests that an evil spirit is best confronted when you’re super-fucking-pissed-off.

Still, genuinely scary horror films are as thin on the ground as genuinely intelligent ones, and ‘The Babadook’ manages to be both. It’s also exceptionally well crafted and the performances are raw, nervy and immediate. If you only know Essie Davis as the elegant 1920s sleuth in the ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ TV show, be prepared for a revelation. And whatever Jennifer Kent directs next, prepare for one hell of movie.