Monday, October 31, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: Crimson Peak

Best I can make out, ‘Crimson Peak’ takes place somewhere between 1893 and 1901, but the costumes, set-design and the script’s suggestion that the steam pumping engine is still in its infancy would have you convinced that’s it set a good hundred years earlier. It’s only the America-set first act where electricity, the typewriter and the Model T Ford are present and correct, and dates on some documents late in the film, that hint at comparative modernity. These things aside, every frame of ‘Crimson Peak’ announces with declamatory pride director Guillermo del Toro’s intent to wallow in the tenets of the gothic romance and anachronism be damned. Narrative urgency be damned, as well. And while we’re at it, here’s a big “be damned” to actually bothering to scare the audience. ‘Crimson Peak’ is too opulent, too grand guignol, to ever generate any real tension; its ghosts too lovingly conjured, even in their comparative ickiness, to frighten.

Plot-wise, it’s Melodrama Central. Aspiring author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) lives with her widower father, self-made man Carter (Jim Beaver), and tries to gently deflate the advances of childhood friend Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). One day, whilst doing a sort of prototype version of hotdesking at her father’s office in order to use a typewriter, she meets down-at-heel British aristocrat Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who’s in America to try to secure investment for a clay-mining operation; he needs the money for a steam pumping engine. Carter not only refuses to pony up any spondoolies, but has Sharpe investigated and – when he realises that his daughter’s growing fond of him – warned off. Nonetheless, Edith is won over by him; and when her father dies in a seemingly motiveless attack, she decides she has nothing to remain in America for, and accompanies Sharpe to England. Here, Sharpe’s behaviour changes and he seems strangely in thrall to his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Edith falls ill. The Sharpes’ crumbling ancestral pile reveals itself as a repository of secrets.

From the infant Edith’s dead mother warning her from beyond the grave to “beware of Crimson Peak”, to the true nature of Thomas and Lucille’s relationship; from the truth about her father’s death to the too-easily-found passel of documents and wax cylinders that provide join-the-dots exposition on behalf of anyone not possessed of a functioning cerebral cortex and therefore able to figure it out for themselves, ‘Crimson Peak’ deals in a particular line of narrative tosh that’s as hamfisted as it is predictable. The script, by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, struggles to generate a single interesting idea, let alone an original one.

What it does have – in spades – is a stylish visual style and production design to die for. Yes, it has decent performances from the main cast, and the visual effects and superbly rendered. Yes, the music is effective in an entirely “obvious” sort of way. But it’s the look of the film that’s its greatest strength. If ‘Crimson Peak’ had been conceived solely as a visual love-letter to Dario Argento circa ‘Suspiria’, it couldn’t have been more aesthetically successful. Never a slouch as a visual stylist anyway, del Toro has created with ‘Crimson Peak’ his most wildly gorgeous, dementedly beautiful work to date. Using the Agitation of the Mind rule of thumb for determining just how jaw-slackeningly awesome cinema can be as a visual art form – pause the thing at random a dozen or so times and if every freeze frame gifts you with an image you’d happily and hang on your living room wall, you have a winner – ‘Crimson Peak’ passes with flying colours and then some.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: Annabelle

If the success of James Wan’s ‘The Conjuring’ did horror fans a favour by opening the door for ‘The Conjuring 2’, it also did them a disservice by causing John R. Leonetti’s ‘Annabelle’ to exist.

(That’s John R. Leonetti, director of ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’ and ‘The Butterfly Effect 2’, by the way.)

‘Annabelle’ takes an hour and a half plus change to document the provenance of the Annabelle doll and establish it as a vessel for a malevolent spirit – i.e. everything ‘The Conjuring’ did in less than five minutes.

Let’s rattle through a plot synopsis and see how the will to live holds up: newlyweds John (Ward Horton) and Mia (Annabelle Wallis) are expecting their first child; they live next door to a nice old couple who are still coming to terms with the disappearance of their daughter to join a cult … and if anyone currently reading hasn’t already put together the characters’ names, the pregnancy and the cultists and come up with a certain Roman Polanski film, then it’s back to horror movie kindergarten for you.

So anyway, one night the cultists invade the old couple’s home; John, alerted by noise, goes to investigate. Things escalate very quickly, John is overpowered and Mia is stabbed in the belly. Only the swift intervention of some trigger happy cops saves the day. (It’s worth bearing in mind, given how explicitly Polanski’s most famous film has been referenced, the circumstances of his then partner Sharon Tate’s death and the fact that she was pregnant at the time. That the makers of ‘Annabelle’ see fit to exploit this as crassly as they do is nothing short of loathsome.)

Back to the finely nuanced human drama of ‘Annabelle’: Mia and her baby inexplicably survive, but her convalescence is interrupted when weird shit starts happening (the pair of them take an age to twig on that the spectacularly ugly doll John gifted Mia is at the epicentre). Said weird shit culminates in a house fire, after which John moves them to a gaudy apartment building. The Annabelle doll goes with them. Whaddaya know, weird shit keeps happening. Only now Mia’s baby is at risk as well. Slowly, with the help of a book shop owner who specialises in arcane titles … and, seriously, what is it with second hand bookshops in horror movies? How come they’re always stocked with mildewy hardbacks containing nothing but pictures of pentagrams and images of the devil? And how come these text-less tomes always fall open to an image that’s exactly like the weird shit the protagonist’s been experiencing but wouldn’t have got a handle on if it wasn’t for the second hand bookshop owned by the massively over-talented (and usually ethnic) character actor slumming it in a nothing role (here Alfre Woodward)?

‘Annabelle’ is set in the early Seventies (not that the period recreation ever entirely convinces) and is full of genre tropes that would have been old and tired even then. The panoply of references to other movies – ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘The Omen’ and ‘Deep Red’ provide obvious touchstones; there are plenty more – are off-putting enough, but most damnable is the fact that it’s never really scary. The Annabelle doll – creepy in its two or three short scenes in ‘The Conjuring’ – loses its frisson the longer it remains on screen; by the end, it’s merely ugly. Set-pieces that, on paper, should have been tense, are either mishandled or marred by lapses of basic logic or common sense as regards the characters’ decision making processes. The acting, apart from Woodward, is bland. The cinematography is flat and uninteresting.

Remarkably, it made a fuckton of money at the box office – over $250 million from a budget $6.5 million – making ‘Annabelle 2’ an inevitability. David F Sandberg, whose feature-length debut ‘Lights Out’ did a similar cleaning up at the box office number, is attached to direct. Whether a narrative or psychological hook can be found that makes the Annabelle doll scary – pace the lifeless ventriloquist’s dummy in ‘Magic’, still the best scary doll film – remains to be seen, but the director trade-up is to be welcomed.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: Them

David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s ‘Them’ precedes the fear-of-children/hoodie horror boom, exemplified by the likes of Tom Shankland’s ‘The Children’, James Watkins’s ‘Eden Lake’ and Paul Andrew Williams’s ‘Cherry Tree Lane’, by at least two, if not four, years. But it keys into a particularly unpalatable strand of the genre that goes back to Wolf Rilla’s ‘Village of the Damned’ (1960) and arguably finds its most contentious exposition in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s ‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ (1976).

Reduced to its generic elements, with its handful of specific details stripped away, this is the film’s basic story: unaware of the brutal killing of a girl involved in a road accident near her isolated home, teacher Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) leaves the school she teaches at drives to said domicile, having picked up some groceries in order to cook for her partner, novelist Lucas (Michael Cohen). One assumes his income from the writing outstrips hers as they live in what can only be described as a mansion, albeit a very run-down one, with one wing under reconstruction and exposed to the elements apart from the sheets of heavy plastic that cover every square inch of it. (Kudos to Moreau and Palud for establishing the layout and decrepitude of the house so economically and without making a big deal of the reconstruction, all the better for jangling the audience’s nerves when the cat ‘n’ mouse business spills over into the renovation.)

After an extended but effective first act that fleshes out Clementine and Lucas’s personalities and lets the viewers observe them interacting as a couple, their evening is interrupted by a rapidly escalating series of events: prank calls, loud music from outside (their house is in the middle of nowhere, remember), Clementine’s car suddenly re-parked in a different spot and then made off with; and then finally – if the word “finally” can be applied to a sequence that takes its protagonists from complacent to terrified in less than ten minutes – home invasion.

And so far, so effective. The death-of-motorist prologue throws a shadow over the next twenty minutes. The camera frames Clementine and Lucas at weird angles: after she catches him playing computer games on his laptop in the greenhouse rather than writing, they banter flirtatiously while an Argento-like POV shot spies on them. But whose POV? That’s Moreau and Palud’s masterstroke: they keep their antagonists offscreen (a silhouette here, a close-up on a shoe there) for as much as their kettle-drum taut 73 minutes as is humanly possible.

When the home invasion element kicks in good and proper, the film ramps up to a degree of tension that never loosens its grip. The spatial mise-en-scenes that follow delineate as: the house; the wing undergoing renovation; the woods surrounding the house; and the sewage system running underneath everything. And, to be honest, the film starts to flag the moment it reaches the woods. The extended subterranean sequence delivers a twist that telegraphs itself in the loudest way to anyone who has seen ‘The Wicker Man’. The final moments, playing out as a series of title cards, labour a certain point and do so tediously.

Labour what point, I hear you ask?

Okay, let’s fill in some specific details. ‘Them’ takes place not in France but near the border of Romania. Bear in mind “near the border”. Clementine teaches French and condescends to an indigenous staff member “my grasp of your language will never be as good as yours of mine”; her opposite number immediately grovels self-deprecatingly “my French is a disaster”. Later, Clementine states that she’s given her class dictation as a punishment for poor behaviour. Meanwhile, Lucas is all swagger and smart dialogue when he’s working on his novel but fuck all good to anyone when the scary stuff starts.

All of which might have made for an interesting satire on French attitudes to foreigners/neighbouring countries, however Moreau and Palud lose no time in identifying completely with Clementine and Lukas, and using every trick in the nascent horror director’s playbook to back said perspective up; the revelation re: their teensy/teeny attackers comes too late in the day to score any effective points.

So; quick recap:

The pre-credits “based on real events” – I’ve struggled to find anything online that bears this out;

Clementine’s teaching placement as on the Romanian border;

Clementine’s intellectual superiority over her indigenous colleagues;

Lucas’s artistic/intellectual superiority period.

Now factor in Clementine and Lucas’s immediate flight or fight response before they have even identified a quantifiable threat.

Now imagine a Brexit-era British version of the film where a middle class couple try to educate some poor illiterate Polish types only for the ungrateful fuckers to turn nasty and a group of children (metaphor shorthand: the next generation) set out to do them harm. How are you doing imagining that? Having difficulty? Does it come across as a UKIP propaganda film?

There is an incipient xenophobia that runs through French culture like the lettering through a stick of rock. It’s there in France’s essentially legislated Islamophobia. It’s there in the ban on the burka. It’s there in four armed police officers coercing a Muslim woman to remove her “burkini” on a beach. Four men. Armed. Making a woman strip. Can I get more fucking outraged?

This is the mindset that informs ‘Them’. It’s a technically brilliant horror-thriller that milks every second of its brutally succinct running time. Its cinematography is commendable and its score creepily minimal. Its performances are damned good. But for all that, it’s no better aesthetically than ‘The Triumph of the Will’. It is parochially arrogant and monstrously racist.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: Burke & Hare

It’s not John Wayne or James Stewart or Lee Marvin or even Edmond O’Brien who gets the key line in John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ – it’s Carleton Young as Maxwell Scott: “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.”

In John Landis’s ‘Burke & Hare’, it’s a more a case of: “Is there even much of a legend anyway? Fuck it, just print any old bollocks.”

And so it is that we have Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as Williams Burke and Hare – the latter cast after David Tennant dropped out, and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like with Pegg and Tennant trading quips and making mayhem (Serkis gives a by-the-numbers performance, mugging through his scenes as if fully aware that he was the second choice) – two ne’er-do-wells trying make it rich in 1820s Edinburgh. The rivalry between anatomists Dr Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) and Professor Alexander Monro (Tim Curry) is turning nasty.

When Monro uses forged documentation to ensure that the bodies of any hanged in the city are delivered immediately to him for dissection – and with the militia patrolling cemeteries to discourage grave-robbers – Knox makes no bones, pardon the pun, about accepting corpses that have been, how to put this, encouraged along the way to meeting their maker.

‘Burke & Hare’ was produced through the then newly revived Ealing Studios and Landis has said in interview that he wanted to capture the spirit of classic black comedies such as ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ or ‘The Ladykillers’. And there’s no doubt that the material lends itself to a certain kind of mordant humour. But whereas ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ was elegant in its multiple murders and social satire, and ‘The Ladykillers’ played out as essentially a comedy of manners with bumbling thugs, Landis struggles to find – and indeed sustain – a tone for ‘Burke & Hare’. Some scenes are pure slapstick; some trade in humour so dark (such as the pair’s attempt to force a horse-drawn carriage off the road) that the punchline just withers and dies; and some are mawkish, particularly in matters pertaining to Burke’s infatuation with ambitious musical hall actress Ginny (Isla Fisher), an entirely fictionalised subplot which goes nowhere despite Fisher’s wholehearted performance.

Ultimately, Landis shores up the whole edifice with a parade of famous, and sometimes incongruous, faces: Christopher Lee and Jenny Agutter in nothing roles, Hugh Bonneville as an aristocrat with an agenda, Bill Bailey as a fourth-wall-breaking hangman, fellow directors Michael Winner and Costa-Gavras (I can only assume they visited the set and found themselves bundled into costumes), and Ronnie Corbert as the most unconvincing leader of a troop of militia in the entire history of moving pictures.

‘Burke & Hare’ could have been a taut and fast-paced piece of work with darkly comedic overtones; as it is, it kind of ambles along with the amiability of a shaggy dog story, enjoyable enough in an undemanding way while you’re watching, but leaving you feeling just a tad short-changed as the end credits roll.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

To describe ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ as Tim Burton’s best film in a decade isn’t really saying much. Being honest, I’d say that ‘Big Fish’ and ‘Corpse Bride’ are the only two Burton films that have really ticked the boxes for me in the last couple of decades. In some respects, ‘Miss Pegerine’ seems like an interim work, something designed to prove that Burton still has a bit of clout at the box office; something solid and commercial with just enough of his usual visual style (mainly evident in the garden of the eponymous dwelling) to appease the fans; something to rake in a few shekels ahead of the next passion project.

(What’s that you say? IMDb lists his upcoming projects as ‘Beetlejuice 2’ and a live-action remake of ‘Dumbo’? Well shut my mouth!)

Adapted from Ransom Riggs’s debut novel, the story takes no time getting into mysterious territory as unpopular teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is called away from his dead-end job at a supermarket to attend to his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), who has been acting in a disturbed and incoherent manner. Jake gets there too late. There’s been disturbance, Abe’s home ransacked, and Abe himself mortally wounded. Jake realises, dumbstruck, that his grandfather’s eyes are missing, a discovery he makes seconds before a tall unearthly creature flees the scene.

The tragedy prompts Jake to recollect Abe’s stories – told to him as a boy – of a home for peculiar children in Wales where he knew the propietress Miss Peregrine and her preternaturally gifted charges. Stories disabused by Jake’s well-meaning but intolerably dull father, Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), and emotionally absent mother Maryann (Kim Dickens). Nonetheless, on the advice of psychiatrist Dr Golan (Alison Janney), Jake and Franklin take a father-son trip to Wales to find the home and perhaps some degree of closure for Jake.

Long story short, Jake discovers that while the home in its contemporary state is little more than crumbling shell, there’s a way of accessing it as it was in 1943. He meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and is immediately smitten with Emma (Ella Purnell), who can manipulate air and wears lead boots so she doesn’t float away. The home is trapped in a loop, which Miss P resets every day, just at the point where a German bomb is about to destroy it. As Jake engages with the others – well, some of them: embittered puppeteer Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) takes against him from the off – and finds more to live for in their insular community than anything in his colourless life back home, danger threatens his potential haven.

Miss P and her charges are preyed on by Wights, similarly gifted individuals who are also pariahs from normal society. The Wights, however, are attempting an experiment that will allow them to disguise themselves and thus move undetected in conventional society. The nature of the experiment requires the sacrifice of “ymbrenes”, those who protect peculiar children by hiding them in loops. Miss P, for example. When Wight leader Mr Baron (Samuel L Jackson) infiltrates the loop and gets the drop on Miss P, Jake is forced to lead the others in a fight back.

The film takes an ‘Inception’-style approach to its world-building, throwing out whole screeds of exposition in its first half, barely pausing to let the audience catch up. There’s a huge accretion of detail for what is essentially a boilerplate good vs. evil narrative. Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman establish a very specific set of rules and, for the most part, stick to them. (Granted, there’s some business at the very end that plays fast and loose with the film’s interior logic, but it’s in service to such a breathlessly delivered crowd-pleasing coda that it’s easy to forgive.) The net result is that there’s a long section which sets up each of the different children and their particular peculiarity, explores their interrelationships and lets them react to/engage with Jake, describes the minutiae of the endlessly looped day, and sketches in the threat personified by the Wights and their invisible monster helpers the hollows. In the hands of a journeyman director, this could have stopped the film dead. With Burton at the helm, the moments of narrative inertia are where his imagination presses the button marked “go wild” and cinematic magic occurs.

Now, before anyone accuses me of hyberbole, it’s worth reasserting that this isn’t the deliriously manic Burton of ‘Beetlejuice’ or even the throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks Burton of ‘Mars Attacks!’ And it’s definitely not the auteur-makes-defiantly-personal-statement Burton of ‘Edward Scissorhands’ or ‘Ed Wood’, though mercifully it avoids the mawkishness of the former. This is Burton being given £110million of studio money and making damn sure he turns in a studio picture, but having fun studding it with trademark Burton moments. And those moments really fly. It helps no end, of course, that he’s aided by a game and enthusiastic young cast whose performances are anchored by Eva Green (an eccentric talent who is perfectly suited to Burton’s world) and Samuel L Jackson, who has a high old time as Baron, riding vertiginously close to pantomime villain shenanigans but pulling out a genuine sense of menace for the big set-pieces.

‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is fun – quirky enough to be individual and with an undertone of the macabre (some business involving eyeballs reminds us we ain’t in Disney territory here), but ultimately fun. A climactic battle between the peculiars and the hollows on Brighton pier earned the vocal appreciation of the audience at the screening I attended. As a Tim Burton film, it doesn’t present the intensely personal artistic statement that defines his premiere division work, but as a mainstream fantasy film it delivers.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: Five Dolls for an August Moon

Boasting one of the most spurious titles in the entire history of the giallo, Mario Bava’s essay in lifestyle chic and amorality proves that sometimes style over substance wins the day – particularly when you’ve got access to a beach house that would make Frank Lloyd Wright weep in envy, the retro-coolest set design ever, and a cast – including Edwige Fenech, Ira von Furstenberg, Helena Ronee, Edith Meloni and Ely Galleani – for whom the term “eye candy” could well have been coined.

Essentially, the narrative is little more than this: a bunch of dudes with hot wives/mistresses/girlfriends invite a dude who has something they want (as well as a hot wife of his own) to an island where they make him various offers to acquire the thing he has that they want. The dude who has the thing the other dudes want won’t sell, and as tempers run higher, a murderer strikes. And strikes again. And again. And … well, you get the picture.

Filling in the above paragraph, Professor Farrell (William Berger) and his wife Trudy (von Furstenberg) accept an invitation to stay at the island home of industrialist George Sagan (Teodoro Corra) and his wife Jill (Meloni); the other guests include Nick and Marie (a.k.a. Pook) Cheney (Maurice Poli and Edwige Fenech), and Jack and Peggy Davidson (Howard Ross and Helena Renee). Ostensibly, Sagan, Cheney and Davidson have formed a consortium to buy a formula for an industrial resin that Farrell has developed, but each is keen to cut a deal with Farrell directly and shaft the others. Offers are made to Farrell. Serious offers. At one point, there’s five million on the table.

Mind you, that’s in lire, and the best currency conversion I could come up with in the five minutes I bothered to spend on the internet – bearing in mind lire was replaced by the Euro over 15 years ago – is about $3500, or £2685. It was probably worth a bit more in 1970, when the film was made.

But I digress. Farrell refuses because he wants his formula to be used for the good of mankind … and just pull the McGuffin omnibus over to the side of the Fuck-The-Audience-They’re-Not-Bothered highway. An industrial resin? Like fucking glue? Like a particularly strong fucking glue? Seriously: this Farrell geezer has just reinvented motherfucking Araldite and everyone’s offering him blank cheques and a quick feel of Edwige Fenech for it?

Anyway, that’s the basic set up. Dude who has summat. Other dudes who want it. Hot wives. Fucking glue. And because this irresistible narrative hook ain’t never going to fill even the skimpy 77 minute running time, Bava throws a bunch of other stuff into the mix. Stuff like: Pook having it off on the quiet with the Sagans’ houseboy. Stuff like: Sapphic tensions simmering away between Trudy and Jill. Stuff like: island girl Isabel (Galleani, appearing under her pseudonym Justine Gall) flitting about all over the place and guiltily spying on everyone.

All well and good, except we’ve barely had a glimpse of Fenech sans chemise when the houseboy turns up dead, and the Trudy/Jill subplot is never developed in an aesthetically satisfactory manner. If you know what I mean.

But let’s get back to the houseboy for a moment. Not only is the poor bastard denied his liaison with the pert and prepossessing Pook, but the party who discover him are faced with the quandary of leaving him on the beach until the police arrive (immediate problem: sand crabs looking for a midnight snack) or wrapping his body in plastic and hanging it in the meat store. The increasing proliferation of bodies in the deep freeze, each new cadaver swinging merrily on its hook to the accompaniment of lounge jazz, is the best joke in a film that Bava seems to have conceived as an absurdist comedy from the outset.

It certainly doesn’t function as a thriller – we’re past the hour mark before he throws in the one single scene that even bothers to function as an Agatha Christie-lite “hey let’s all try to figure out how the seemingly impossible happened” mystery – and it only just makes the cut as a horror movie thanks to a couple of genuinely effective and grotesque images. Mainly, he just lets a group of rich, nasty, sexy people roam around a picturesque island, frequently cutting away from them to admire the architecture of the beach house.

Most gialli dabble in architecture porn; ‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’ is architecture eroticism. I’m not kidding. For the entire duration of the film – I watched the American release, which runs ten minutes shorter than the Italian cut and still feels like it drags – I wanted that beach house. And I wanted its 1970 interior design. And if Edwige Fenech and Ely Galleani fancied popping over for the housewarming, I wouldn’t have said no.

Friday, October 21, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: Little Deaths

‘Little Deaths’ is a British portmanteau film – though without the usual hokey framing device that ties the stories together – which pertains to explore the relationship between eroticism and horror, sex and death. The clue’s in the title: la petite mort, y’all.

The first story, ‘House and Home’ is directed by Sean Hogan and starts with a snapshot of moneyed middle class couple, Richard (Luke De Lacey) and Victoria (Siubhan Harrison): their marriage seems brittle, Victoria doesn’t like Richard touching her, but they do seem to enjoying discussing, in oblique terms, some nasty bit of business they’ll be indulging in later. Said bit of business is quickly revealed – ‘House and Home’ runs just under 25 minutes, the shortest of the three tales – as the luring of a young homeless woman to their house under the pretext of Christian charity. It’s intimated that they do this kind of thing quite often. This time round, the winsome Sorrow (Holly Lucas) is their victim du jour.

A scene midway through, where their pretence at philanthropy slips and their real motives come to the fore as Sorrow realises that she’s been drugged, is effective enough, but what follows is strictly boilerplate. Yup: there’s kinky basement set-up. Yup: Richard and Victoria have sublimated the sterility of their marriage into the use of sex slaves. Yup: Sorrow proves to be more than they bargained for and graphic horror ensues. As a satire it’s heavy-handed: wow, rich and entitled people shaft poor people – who’d a thunk it? As a horror, its revelation that Sorrow and her fellow homeless are literal demons is reductive and kind of cancels out the social point Hogan was trying to make earlier.

On the plus side, Lucas’s performance is good; and Hogan as writer and director proves that he can keep the narrative tight and uncluttered. Which is more than can be said for Andrew Parkinson’s ‘Mutant Tool’.

I honestly don’t know where to start with ‘Mutant Tool’. It has enough, uh, “ideas” for a full-length feature though one I’m not sure I’d want to sit through. We have a vaguely humanoid figure with a floor-length penis chained up behind a plastic sheet in a dank basement. We have its keeper, a cynical chap known only as “X” (Christopher Fairbank) spewing oodles of exposition about Nazi experiments to his newly employed assistant. We have a practising GP, Dr Reece (Brendan Gregory), who is developing a new drug from the, ah, emissions the aforementioned captive mutant. We have a pimp and small time drug dealer, Frank (Daniel Brocklebank), who sidelines in the non-consensual removal of people’s livers, which he sells to Dr Reece who uses them to feed the mutant. And we have Frank’s girlfriend Jennifer (Jodie Jameson), a former hooker and druggie who is proving useless as a dealer (which is kind of like giving a former dipso a job behind a bar) and considering going back on the game.

Parkinson’s attempt to intersect these various plot strands, play the characters off against each other and pull off a twist ending (albeit one that’s so biologically nonsensical it makes ‘The Human Centipede’ look like a documentary about Lambert Rodgers) clearly required longer than 35 minutes. As well as a serious overhaul of the script, which is full of inconsistencies. For instance, a side effect of the drug is a brief psychic connection with anyone the patient touches in the form of an hallucination about something they did that was violent; so why does Dr Reece administer it to Jennifer since she’ll naturally have physical contact with Frank and immediately hallucinate his murder of someone for their liver?

Moreover, apart from two brief scenes where Jennifer returns to her former line of work, sex is conspicuously absent from ‘Mutant Tool’. It’s almost as if Parkinson was developing ‘Mutant Tool’ as a standalone feature, got an offer of funding as part of the portmanteau and quickly retrofitted the script to include some grunting and nudity.

The third and final story, ‘Bitch’, is written and directed by Simon Rumley. Where Hogan’s career has yet to take off (he’s made two features and two shorts in the last eleven years and has a couple of project in development) and Parkinson’s seems to have stalled (his last feature was ‘Venus Drowning’ in 2005 and he hasn’t directed since ‘Little Deaths’, made five years ago), Rumley seems to be going from strength to strength: seven features, one in post-production, a cluster of upcoming projects, a handful of short films and plenty of acclaim and awards at festivals. It shows: ‘Bitch’ has a specific visual style, some arresting images, and performances that indicate he has a facility with actors. What these talents are harnessed in the service of, however … that’s where it gets tricky.

‘Bitch’ analyses the sexual power games between bored secretary Claire (Kate Braithwaite) and her limp lettuce leaf of a boyfriend Pete (Tom Sawyer). Claire has a phobia of dogs, which she deals with by making Pete wear a dog-mask and sleep in a man-sized doghouse constructed in a spare room. Pete hasn’t enjoyed these shenanigans in a while and takes his revenge by pissing in her underwear drawer, a transgression for which Claire sodomises him with a not-particularly-small strap-on. Claire also enjoys copping off with other blokes, and when this extends to Pete’s best mate Al (Tommy Carey), he decides enough is enough and plans his revenge.

Two problems swiftly unfold. Firstly, Rumley has already introduced a scene in which Pete behaves assertively towards Claire as a result of which – temporarily at least – she desists from openly provoking him; later, he destroys the doghouse and refuses to participate in Claire’s power games, precipitating a short period of relative normalcy in their relationship. In other words, Pete simply telling Claire that enough is enough is a solution in and of itself. Secondly, there’s no doubt that Pete has been complicit – either proactively (he sleeps in the doghouse of his own volition) or by inaction (not telling Al to leave when Claire makes a move on him) – in everything Claire does. Pete’s revenge on Claire is both outwith the defined structure of their existing relationship, and horribly misogynistic in its nature. That Rumley builds up to it in such leering detail makes it worse still.

So: ‘Little Deaths’ – a portmanteau film in which one of the contributions thematically cancels itself out, one can barely be bother to fulfil the remit, and the one with the most talent behind it is the most repulsive. A treatise on sex and death which doesn’t contain a single frame of eroticism.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Autopsy (a.k.a. Sunspots)

Armando Crispino’s ‘Autopsy’ is a film of two halves. In the first half, a wave of suicides sweeps Rome, somehow connected to solar activity. Overworked pathology intern Simona (Mimsy Farmer) labours on her thesis about staged suicides as a cover for homicide, icily rebuffs the advances of lecherous colleague Ivo (Ernesto Colli) and lecherous boyfriend-in-waiting Riccardo (Ray Lovelock), and is intrigued by her mysterious neighbour Betty Lenox (Gaby Wagner) who seems to be hiding a secret. Simona is also tormented by visions of the dead rising up from the morgue for a big ol’ undead orgy. When Betty turns up on a mortuary slab, Simona is thrown together with Betty’s brother Paul Lenox (Barry Primus), a former racing driver turned Catholic priest with the mother of all guilt complexes and some serious anger management issues.

To recap: aloof but sexy pathologist and nutjob priest team up to investigate suicides caused by the motherfucking sun! This is ‘Autopsy’ at its best, firing on all cylinders and gloriously demented. It lasts about twenty minutes.

The second half devolves into a generic mystery that manages to be both labyrinthine in its contrivances and utterly boilerplate in execution. Basically, Simona discovers – as if nobody could have guessed given the nature of her thesis – that Betty was murdered under the guise of her death being a suicide. This established, we hear no more of heatwave-related by-one’s-own-hand demises, nor is Simona troubled by any further visions of corpses doing the nasty. All of the good, lurid stuff that makes the first twenty minutes move and groove and tick all the right boxes is cursorily junked in favour of Nancy Drew Meets Father Dowling With A Restraining Order.

The mystery plays out in bloodless fashion as suspects ranging from Simona’s playboy father Gianni (Massimo Serato) to his current squeeze Danielle (Angela Goodwin) by way of the creepy caretaker (Leonardo Severino) in Simona’s apartment complex all take their turn to traipse in front of the camera, behave suspiciously for a while then bugger off again. Or get offed just to prove they were red herrings. There are a lot of red herrings in ‘Autopsy’ and rather than add to the suspense, they try the patience. Round about the hour mark, the whole thing had got so needlessly complex, without a single decent set-piece or stylish directorial flourish, that my interest waned. It didn’t help, either, that character interactions quickly devolve to the level of telenovella melodrama.

Ultimately, ‘Autopsy’ can’t decide what it wants to be. It starts off with a bizarro concept and a grab-bag of horror-specific imagery, then its tries to be a giallo but without any of the visual panache or narrative urgency that are the hallmarks of the best of that genre, before ending up as a mainstream-audience-friendly romantic thriller with a vertiginous finale that wants to ape Hitchcock. Oh, and just in case the audience start getting bored, it throws in a fair bit of nudity without ever trying to generate the frisson of eroticism.

Still, it’s got that splendid opening section and Farmer and Primus play off each well. In an alternative universe, though, there’s a cut of ‘Autopsy’ that makes good on these things, Simona and Father Lenox hurtling elliptically through the swelteringly surreal landscape of a Rome heat-seared into mania – a sort of ‘Footprints on the Moon’ but with the sun.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Last Girl Standing

The grim six-minute pre-credits sequence of Benjamin R. Moody’s ‘Last Girl Standings’ presents a litany of gore and woman-in-peril tropes that most horror movies would leave for their final reel. In short order, Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) witnesses the murder of her boyfriend by a psycho in a deer mask called The Hunter, barely escapes immolation herself, stumbles on the strung up and/or mutilated bodies of their friends at a campsite, tries to rescue someone who’s still alive but accidentally triggers one of The Hunter’s traps, killing them, fends off another attack by The Hunter, and more through luck than judgement outwits him. Later, emerging from the woods by a back road, she’s assisted by a good Samaritan motorist only to go into hysterics when she hallucinates The Hunter sitting in the back seat.

Four years later, Camryn’s living quietly in a new town, having utterly refused to talk to the press about what happened. In fact, Camryn doesn’t talk to anyone much. She holds down a tedious, low-wage job at a dry cleaning firm, lives in a one-room apartment that she hasn’t personalised in any way, and he only real possessions are some cardboard boxes containing files, news clippings and ephemera on the case. Moody intelligently uses the credits sequence to give an account of the media’s hyperbolic coverage of the story, Camryn’s determined avoidance of the limelight, local controversy over The Hunter’s burial in an unmarked grave, and the delight of Hunter obsessives on discovering the location of said resting place.

With all of this established, Moody takes a solid hour (‘Last Girl Standing’ has a run time, including end credits, of 91 minutes) to chart Camryn’s journey from PTSD and intimacy issues to catharsis/closure and social re-engagement. The catalyst is her new work colleague Nick (Brian Villalobos) who offers her a place to stay when she’s menaced by a mysterious figure whilst working late. Her close-guardedness is gradually challenged by Nick’s housemates, particularly the well meaning but clingy Hannah (Laura Ray) and the pragmatic Danielle (Danielle Evon Ploeger), herself the survivor of something psychologically damaging.

Camryn’s regular nightmares and intermittent hallucinations of The Hunter might be the product of her mind, but the Blair Witch-like totem she finds affixed to Nick’s chair at work, and the skinned rabbit hung up in Nick and his buddies’ back yard, are something else entirely, and she becomes convinced that, somehow, The Hunter has returned and that Nick, Danielle, Hannah and the others are in mortal danger purely because of their association with her.

Is Nick too good to be true? Is his artist friend who works in wood – and scours forests for trees that have fallen naturally because he can’t bear them to be cut down – more than he seems? Is Danielle’s complicity in Camryn’s darkly obsessive behaviour during a girls-only road trip indicative of other motives? Moody maintains a sense of uncertain in the background while keeping the character drama up front. He also plays with a lot of established horror tropes, seeming to set up any number of scare scenes only to subvert them. When the past comes crashing back into Camryn’s life during the last twenty minutes, the terror begins with a scene so traditional in its staging and gore that you’re convinced there’ll be a ‘reset’ any moment, indicating that Camryn’s mind is still troubled and her journey towards social functionality still has a way to go. But the scene rumbles on, all blood and gore and viscera … and Moody paints himself into a corner, there being only two logical ways it can play out.

And for all that the final act is as effective as anything the stalk ‘n’ slash genre has served up, there’s a tang of predictability about it. I get that Moody was going for circularity – a narrative option that can be utilised exceedingly well: see Christopher Smith’s ‘Triangle’ – but it’s a slight disappointment that the intense, intelligent and low-key character drama of the film’s extended mid-section is so hurriedly jettisoned in favour of boilerplate violence. It’s almost as if Moody were worried that his audience wouldn’t sit still for another twenty minutes of psychological portraiture and felt he had to make a sop to the gore-hounds.

In its defence, though, ‘Last Girl Standing’ achieves some impressive grace notes when it’s simply spending time with its characters and observing Camryn’s edgy navigation of even the simplest social circumstances. Akasha Villalobos gives a committed and commendably gauche performance as Camryn, while Danielle Evon Ploeger ought to be getting lead roles handed to her on a plate. Writer/director Moody, whose first feature this is, knows exactly what he’s doing with the material and wrings a fine piece of craftsmanship from the strictures of what was evidently a miserly budget. If he ultimately delivers something that just falls short of greatness, there’s plenty to suggest that he’ll succeed in the not too distant future.

Friday, October 14, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: Swiss Army Man

So: the farting corpse movie. Which progressively becomes the talking corpse movie; the corpse with a stiffy movie; and the gender confused corpse movie. And which finally, sad to say, identifies as the isn’t-this-movie-with-the-corpse-over-yet movie.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island and not coping well his entry-level “monarch of all I survey” opportunities. In fact, he’s on the verging of tendering his resignation. That’s “tendering his resignation” as in hanging himself, by the way. Then Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore and Hank is initially delighted at the prospect of company. The discovery that Manny is dead throws him back into despair, until he realises that Manny’s incessant flatulence can be used as a propulsive system. Delighted, Hank escapes the island by using Manny as a jet-ski.

This is all prior to the opening credits, incidentally.

Making landfall, Hank goes in search of civilisation. En route, he utilises Manny in a variety of ways. He ignites Manny’s farts to set campfires. He uses him as a water dispenser (don’t ask). He triggers Manny’s gag reflex by means of a kind of Heimlich manoeuvre, operating him as a kind of human (or at least recently deceased human) bazooka. He follows the direction of Manny’s erection, engendered by a model in a Sports Illustrated magazine and sustained by the cellphone picture of Hank’s crush (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), like a compass.

And at a certain point during their survivalist trek through the wilderness, Manny begins to talk. Which is nice for Hank because it gives him some company. But frustrating in that Manny can’t remember a single thing about his life. Or about life, period. Obliged to explain everything from modes of transport to falling in love by way of the plot of ‘Jurassic Park’, Hank resorts to recreating entire swathes of human society and experience by means of ramshackle models built from bits of junk that he finds in the woods.

This business gives the film its best – and most feel-good – sequence. For a while, the fart jokes, dick jokes and poop jokes are kicked so far into the background as to be forgotten about, and ‘Swiss Army Man’ enthusiastically and wholeheartedly finds its tone. For twenty minutes or so, it’s quite wonderful. Then writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan throw in a romantic rivalry subplot (trust me: shy guy vs dead guy for the hand of a woman who doesn’t even know that either of them exist is nowhere near as funny as it sounds, not that it sounds particularly funny in the first place), before shifting the dialectic to include a ‘Performance’-style examination of troilism and gender politics.

Which isn’t to say the material couldn’t have worked, but it drastically changes the film’s register (the filmmakers having already relied on the audience buying into the tonal shift from the scatological to the whimsical), to say nothing of leeching out the humour. And even then Scheinert and Kwan (or “Daniels” as they rather pretentiously bill themselves) aren’t finished: the final shift in both tone and narrative, as Hank and Manny are clumsily reintroduced into human society, utterly derails the film.

When it works, there is much to admire. The performances are fantastic. Radcliffe’s the best he’s ever been. The music works well, often providing an ironic commentary of its own. The montages are very well edited and, at its most imaginative, the film soars. As a half hour short, perhaps end stopped by some Tarkovskian images that shows Hank and Manny, at a large enough remove, bordered by human society but without being cognizant of it, ‘Swiss Army Man’ could have been a masterpiece in miniature. Even at feature length, but chopped down to about 75 minutes, a bloody good film could have cohered. Unfortunately, its 97 minutes outstay their welcome, the tone gets more ponderous as the directors scrabble for an ending, and it’s hard to shake the sense of being short-changed as you leave the cinema.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: The Conjuring 2

‘The Conjuring’ came out of nowhere three years ago – the first truly great film on James Wan’s CV, benefiting from a slow-burn atmosphere, a cluster of great performances and some chillingly effective scare scenes. That it was based on the casebooks of Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators whose work has met (putting it as politely as possible) with no small degree of scepticism, was almost beside the point. ‘The Conjuring’ was a terrific, old-school haunted house movie; whatever its roots it actuality, the case that it was based on isn’t as well known as that of the Annabelle doll (referenced as a prologue) or the Amityville haunting.

Ed and Lorraine’s Amityville investigation provides the prologue to ‘The Conjuring 2’, which then goes on to document their involvement in the Enfield haunting. The Amityville business almost overbalances the film from the off, partly because it’s all so familiar (Jay Anson’s supposedly non-fiction potboiler, Stuart Rosenberg’s histrionic 1978 adaptation, a fuckton of awful sequels and a Platinum Dunes remake), partly because we all know now that the Amityville haunting was basically bollocks, and partly because of the inelegant way Wan stages the scene, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) wandering around said property in a trance, discharging and reloading an invisible pump-action shotgun.

The scene builds to a decent climax, though, as Lorraine’s psychic connection with former Amityville resident and mass-murderer Ronald DeFeo leads her to a shadowy basement where she has a premonition of Ed (Patrick Wilson)’s death. Already haunted by the events of ‘The Conjuring’, Lorraine decides there and then that the paranormal investigation side of things is over and done with, finito, never going it back to it no more, uh-huh, no siree. And indeed, one opening credits sequence later, they’re happily doing the lecture circuit and doing TV interviews. Okay, maybe not happily: a fellow guest on the TV show loses no time in calling them out as shysters.

Then, on the opposite side of the Atlantic in a grimy suburb of London (the griminess doesn’t stop Wan throwing in a montage of every visual cliché one could possibly associate with England’s capital city, scored to – yep – ‘London Calling’ by The Clash), a single mother and her four children experience a series of inexplicable events, the ferocity of which becomes more pronounced. Naturally, Lorraine’s misgivings are eventually overcome and she and Ed join a number of other interested parties – ghosthunters, academics and sceptics – drawn to Enfield as a media circus whips itself into a frenzy. Ed and Lorraine reassure each other that they’re only there to observe and advise the church (if a reason was given as to the Catholic church in America’s interest in a semi-detached house in Enfield, UK, then I must have missed it), but it’s not long until they forge an emotional connection with the family and their involvement in the case puts them both at risk.

‘The Conjuring 2’ – while never quite hitting the heights of its predecessor (and certainly not delivering anything as brilliantly creepy as the hand-clap scene) – has a lot going for it. First and foremost, Wan’s steadfast refusal to rush things. He spends a good chunk of the first hour introducing the Hodgson family – matriarch Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and siblings Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Janet (Madison Wolfe), Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh) – and incrementally developing the haunting. Things reach a point where the Hodgsons decamp and seek shelter with a family across the road – the Nottinghams – only for the weird shit to follow them, in the form of the film’s single best ghost: the Crooked Man. There’s also some business with a toy fire engine that’s far more unsettling than it has any right to be.

Wan also gifts a fair amount of screen time – at two and a quarter hours, ‘The Conjuring 2’ has screen time to spare – to Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney), who is the first outsider to witness the supernatural goings on at chez Hodgson, and debunker Anita Gregory (Franka Potente), who comes close to disproving the whole thing when she catches Janet faking poltergeist activity. This scene, chiming as it does with the Warrens’ talk show detractor at the start of the film, achieves something the filmmakers don’t even hint at in the original: the idea of fakery and exploitation for media interest/brief fame. Naturally, Wan and his co-writers Chad and Carey Hayes and David Leslie Johnson lose no time in declaring in favour of genuine supernatural shenanigans and hurrah the Warrens, but ‘The Conjuring 2’ contains a small seed of doubt that could be propagated in interesting ways in future instalments. (With the original making $318 million on a $20 million budget, and the sequel on course to top that on a still moderate $40 million budget, I’d say more ‘Conjuring’ movies are par for the course.)

The UK setting is very well done, once you get past the ‘London Calling’ montage. The streets and houses look authentic; interior design and the utilitarian reality of working class lives prompted memories of my childhood in the Seventies. (Though I doubt a low income family in 1977 would own a colour TV and certainly not a model with a remote control.) The performances are across-the-board good, often shading to very good. Wilson and Farmiga are already wearing the Warren personas as if they were the actors’ signature roles; O’Connor nails Peggy’s weariness, forever urging herself on to do what’s best for her kids, but utterly exhausted by the effort. Esposito and Wolfe deserve careers based on their work here.

If there’s a fault with ‘The Conjuring 2’ it’s that niggling sense of “not quite”-ness. The Crooked Man is not quite as scary as the hand-clap; O’Connor’s performance is not quite as gripping as Lili Taylor’s; the tension is not quite as unremitting; the final act not quite as focussed. The running time, at nearly 25 minutes longer than the original, is only part of the problem (there are never really any longueurs, and I’d rather have a genre film that makes time for character beats and thoughtful pauses than one that doesn’t); the over-use of effects work has something to answer for, as does the over-egged finale which almost tips it a parody of ‘The Exorcist’. But fortunately, Wan never entirely loses control of the material and ‘The Conjuring 2’ remains a commendable sequel with enough by way of its protagonists’ chemistry and their burgeoning case files to whet the appetite for ‘The Conjuring 3’.

Monday, October 10, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Backtrack

Michael Petroni’s ‘Backtrack’ goes through several tonal shifts before reaching its conclusion. It starts out almost as a re-imagining of his earlier ‘Till Human Voices Wake Us’, in which a psychologist grapples with guilt, memory and the possibility of redemption. It then becomes a sort of inverted ‘Sixth Sense’ where the shrink is alive but his patients are dead (this revelation comes early enough in the game that I don’t consider mentioning it a spoiler). Throughout its first half, it’s a study in bereavement and coping mechanisms. Throughout its second, a study in regret. It throws in a generous helping of J-horror-style vengeful ghosts. Then the final act lurches into thriller territory.

By rights, ‘Backtrack’ should be a big old mess, and it certainly makes some narrative choices in the last half hour that are, how shall we say, shopworn. But it benefits from a cluster of solid performances, a script that’s smart enough to keep the human elements foregrounded, and focused but unshowy direction. That there are at least four simply staged but very effective scare scenes is also a boon.

Our protagonist – let’s not use the word hero – is Peter Bower (Adrian Brodie). He’s grieving for the daughter he lost in a traffic accident, blaming himself for not keeping an eye on her stringently enough, trying to retain a professional detachment as regards his patients while undergoing therapy himself with mentor Duncan Stewart (Sam Neill), and losing the ability to communicate with his wife Carol (Jenni Baird) as she stubbornly isolates herself from the world around her.

Petroni establishes all of this in a series of slow burn scenes that allow the viewer to fill in some of the lacunae. But not all of them. Some lacunae are the subject of a multi-layered series of reveals as the film progresses and the waters get muddied as regards what Peter thinks he knows. Beyond the first big genre beat – shrink realises all his patients are ghosts – the plot is best kept under wraps. Let’s just say that Peter is compelled to visit his old home town where he renews an old acquaintance (much to said acquaintance’s displeasure), causes his father (George Shevtsov) no end of worry, and prompts idealistic young police officer Barbara Henning (Robin McLeavy) to begin her own off-the-books investigation.

Although the pace increases with each supernatural occurrence, and the stakes rise with every new bit of information (or rather suppressed memory) that Peter uncovers, Petroni never rushes things. For a feature of just 86 minutes, with so many narrative beats and character nuances jostling for space, it never feels rushed. Some of the tonal shifts are awkward, though, and one or two “borrowings” from other, better films (in particular the “do you have a valediction” scenes from ‘L.A. Confidential’) left me feeling that the script would have benefited from another draft or two. Maybe it’s these problems that account for its low-to-middling IMDb, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores. Far be it from me to argue with the critical consensus (he said, trying to keep a straight face), but I found in ‘Backtrack’ more to engage with than to censure

Saturday, October 08, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Bone Tomahawk

As a subgenre, the western/horror hybrid is hardly overpopulated. Off the top of my head, I can think of ‘Grim Prairie Tales’, ‘Ravenous’, ‘Dead Man’, ‘Tremors’ and ‘From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter’ – and even then, two of them require a slight tweak of classification to allow for the contemporary western/horror hybrid.

Of this mixed bag of forebears, S. Craig Zahler’s ‘Bone Tomahawk’ owes its greatest debt of honour to Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’. Both are utterly respectful to the conventions of the western – and keyed in to the fact that the best (American) westerns are exercises in classicism – while subversively and unapologetically steering the genre into increasingly challenging and contentious realms.

There is, of course, a case to be made for the kinship of ‘Bone Tomahawk’ to the “acid western” movement, and indeed it offers up imagery as bizarre and visceral as, say, ‘El Topo’ or ‘Straight to Hell’. However, there are long stretches of ‘Bone Tomahawk’ that play out in as thoughtful, measured and traditional a manner as anything by John Ford or Howard Hawks, whereas ‘El Topo’ and ‘Straight to Hell’ scream Jodorowsky and Cox respectively.

(In a weird alternative universe, ‘Jodorowsky and Cox’ is a surrealist private eye drama where the latter films all their cases in increasingly low-budget fashion. But I digress …)

It’s to Zahler’s credit that he embraces traditionalism and slow-burn storytelling for such a long chunk of the two-and-a-half hour running time. For all that ‘Bone Tomahawk’ changes horses in mid-stream a la’From Dusk Till Dawn’, the erstwhile genre touchstones a feint to set you up for the horror-infused sucker punch, it is bound up by Zahler’s self-evident regard for and understanding of westerns to such an effective degree that even when it delivers its most gruelling Deodato-like excesses, it remains at heart a western.

The narrative is uncomplicated and delineates into a prologue and three acts. The prologue has scumbag outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (genre legend Sid Haig) disturbed as they go about their business of waiting for passing travellers to rob and kill; spooked, they stumbled on a burial site kitted out with the kind of weird paraphernalia that makes the twig figures in ‘The Blair Witch Project’ look like Blue Nose Bears in comparison. Buddy is summarily killed by an unseen assailant while Purvis makes good his escape.

Act one introduces us to the small and spectacularly ill-named town of Bright Hope and sets up its residents, most prominently Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), Deputy Kory (Richard Jenkins), fancy-pants ladies’ man John Brooder (Matthew Fox), working man Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) currently convalescing from a broken leg, and O’Dwyer’s wife Samantha (Lili Simmons), assistant to the town’s dipsomaniac surgeon. These individuals are thrown together when Purvis, assuming Buddy’s name, fetches up in Bright Hope and, showing a disinclination to answering Hunt’s questions, swiftly earns himself a bullet in the leg and a free room at the local jail. Samantha, her boss too incapacitated, is called to tend Purvis’s wound. She never makes it home, one of two people who disappear from town that night while a luckless farmhand is found dead, an arrow nearby.

Act two has Hunt, Kory, Brooder and the still crippled O’Dwyer set out in search of the so-called “Valley of the Starving Men”, acting on information received from a rather westernised Native American Indian resident in Bright Hope who identifies the arrow and warns Hunt and co. that the tribe responsible are cave-dwellers and savages. Over several nights, Hunt and his bargain basement posse contend with a couple of trail bums and their own internal tensions. In act three, they contend with … but that would be telling.

I’m in the odd position of being three-quarters of the way through the inaugural review of 2016’s 13 For Halloween slate, only just getting to the horror stuff, and finding myself compelled to back off so as not to spoil any of the gory delights awaiting those who have yet to discover this offbeat gem. Let’s just say that Zahler eventually casts his ill-matched protagonists into the orbit of an omnivorous tribe who are terrifying in their appearance, communication and casual brutality. And he does so without ever having to fully step outside of the imagery and conventions of the western.

And had Zahler’s facility with the horror film manifested in such fine style, ‘Bone Tomahawk’ could well have been a stone-cold masterpiece. Granted, it only falls short by the slimmest of distances, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the horror elements; the issue is the adagio-like running time (two and a quarter hours) and the time it takes to get to the gruesome bits. Even the slowest of slow-burn horror movies don’t spend more than an hour getting their protagonists into the jaws of the unspeakable, then spend their remaining half hour or so putting them through the ringer. By the time ‘Bone Tomahawk’ cuts loose with the gore, the end credits would be rolling on ‘The Hitcher’ or ‘Wolf Creek’. It’s a minor complaint, though, and I feel I’m carping unnecessarily just by mentioning it. Particularly when so much else coheres – performances, production design, music, cinematography – to such stunning effect.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

IN BRIEF: The Infiltrator

Robert Mazur’s non-fiction account of his role in an undercover drugs operation that brought down Pablo Escobar and blew open a far-reaching money-laundering ring is mentioned a couple of times in ‘Breaking Bad’. Irresistible casting, therefore, to have Bryan Cranston as Mazur in Brad Furman’s slow-burn adaptation of said autobiographical work. Irresistible … and justified: Cranston is fantastic, delivering a grounded performance that rises above the occasional tendency to bland direction. He’s ably supported by John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt and Amy Ryan. Ryan in particular is swiftly becoming one of my favourite contemporary character actors.

Furman’s direction works best when he’s focusing on the logistics of the operation. There’s a sense of the various players as chess pieces on a geographically expansive board that’s reminiscent of, say, John Frankenheimer’s precision placement of protagonists and antagonists and the interrelationships between their varying agendas in ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ or ‘The Train’. The expected crime movie tropes and macho posturing are kept to a minimum, with only one scene of Mazur having to do something reprehensible in a restaurant in order to maintain his cover coming over as set piece (it’s very reminiscent of ‘Donnie Brasco’) rather than recreation.

The script, by Ellen Brown Furman, marshals a large cast of recalcitrants, from street-level informers to white collar banking executives to the drug czars at the top of the chain, but never loses focus. The two-hour-plus running time zips by with only minimal need for gunplay or blood-letting. And if nothing leaps out directorially to stamp the film with Furman’s signature (based on his previous output, I’m not entirely sure he has one) that’s only a minor grump. If Furman never moves beyond being an efficient, craftsman-like filmmaker, then projects like ‘The Infiltrator’ will benefit, rather than being compromised by, efficiency and craftsmanship.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

IN BRIEF: Kubo and the Two Strings

‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ begins with a voiceover exhorting the audience not to look away, not to lapse in concentration for even a second; that everything they are about to see is inimically important. Which I superficially took for a device to make the kids in the cinema settle down, shut up and pay attention (and had that been the intent, kudos: there wasn’t a peep out of the under-tens at the screening I attended), but which is actually a statement of intent. ‘Kubo’ is a film in which there’s no such thing as incidental detail. Everything matters.

It’s a sublime and evocatively detailed account of the need for storytelling – ‘Kubo’ grounds its aesthetic in Japanese mythology, but the truths it tells are universal – and the inevitability of endings. What starts, for its young protagonist, as a story told in a marketplace for tips – a story, moreover, that he deliberately leaves unfinished at the end of each day – becomes the overarching narrative of a personal quest that he’s forced into with a talking monkey (a talisman come to life) and an amnesiac samurai who’s been transmogrified, Kafka-like, into a bug.

‘Kubo’ is a quest story, a Lafcadio Hearn-like folk tale of the supernatural, a dark family drama, a meta-narrative that reconstructs and comments on itself, and a treatise on loss, regret and memory. It’s incredibly profound and, at times, almost unbearably poignant. It’s the best thing animation studio Laika have yet produced, besting even their world-class debut ‘Coraline’. There is hardly anything to criticise, with even the occasional anachronistic Americanism or obvious gag doing little to detract from how cleverly constructed, intelligently scripted and visually beautiful it is.

‘Kubo’ deserves a review three times as long as this one, illustrated with at least a couple of dozen screengrabs. For now, though, given the dictates of an incredibly time-consuming project I’m currently embroiled in, this will have to do. But check back with me after I’ve acquired the DVD. These 350 words barely scratch the surface of what could quite easily be the film of the year.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Coming attractions

October! Ah, such a wonderful month. The Nottingham CAMRA beer festival, the Leicester launch of a new anthology I’m published in, Mrs Agitation’s birthday, some time off work, a new collection by George Szirtes, a new album from The Pretty Reckless, and Halloween.

A cluster of the 13 For Halloween reviews are already in the bag: I have a few non-spooky film reviews to catch up on, but the creepy and sinister business of The Agitation of the Mind’s traditional October fare will rise as if from the stygian depths late next week. Here’s a few of the delights on offer:

November and December will be given over to the Winter of Discontent, and I’ll be doing my damnedest to make amends for last year’s poor showing. Again, a handful of reviews have already been completed and plenty of depraved and disreputable cinematic fare has been sourced.

Things like this:

Take my hand, dear reader, and let’s trip the dark fantastic to the end of the year in a downward slide of the chilling and cynical.