Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dead Reckoning

COLIN (2008)
OUTPOST (2008)

The bulk of the £45 budget for COLIN went on tea, coffee and biscuits.

BILLED as "The £45 Zombie Movie" and the "First Zombie Movie told from the zombie's perspective” (though RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3 and I, ZOMBIE: THE CHRONICLES OF PAIN portrayed a descent into putrefaction fifteen and ten years previously), Marc Price's COLIN conveys its apocalyptic world through an accompaniment of alarms, gunfire, explosions and screams. This ambience is accompanied by a threadbare electronic soundtrack, which envelopes the eponymous Colin (Alastair Kirton) in his new life as a shambling ghoul. Colin is the most sympathetic screen zombie since Bub (Howard Sherman) in DAY OF THE DEAD - its no coincidence that Colin's girlfriend Laura (Leanne Pammen) works in Sherman's Café - and there is some wonderful black humour: a victim’s ear is removed complete with earphone, and Colin is mugged for his trainers.

The title star prefers to avoid confrontation, and it is testament to Kirton's virtually silent performance that Colin remains such a pitiful figure with echoes of Karloff's Frankenstein. But many will find COLIN too slow, sombre and uneventful, perhaps missing the human survivor stories we're accustomed to in the sub-genre. The film does find some room for the living, and perhaps ironically it's in these scenes that the film loses its way. The bulk of co-stars cannot compete with Kirton, and it's in the busier, more populated sequences – the street attacks and especially in a house siege – that the DIY nature of the production is most apparent. Unlike most living dead pictures where you relish the gore and the scale of destruction, COLIN instead leaves you with a sense of melancholy.

Z-movie starlet Emily Booth plays The Snipper in DOGHOUSE.

After his own amateur effort EVIL ALIENS, Jake West returns with the immature DOGHOUSE, armed with a budget and the Britflick equivalent of a name cast. It tells the story of a group of men who, leaving behind relationships in varying degrees of dysfunction in London, descend on the rural backwater of Moodley (where women outnumber the men 4 to 1) for a lads weekend. But their destination is filled with ravenous zombirds, or as Neil (Danny Dyer) has it, "an army of pissed-off, man-hating feminist cannibals." There is a genuine revulsion towards woman and their emotional tirade on menkind as we enter an alternate England envisioned by the CARRY ON team or George Best. The zombirds aren't just normal women who have been infected by a military virus, they're Sid James stereotypes; a bride in her underwear, a dominatrix hairdresser et al, and there is even a Hattie Jacques sauce pot. DOGHOUSE is riddled with in-jokes but this isn't flattery so much as smirking, with the director fittingly calling the bus-hire company West Tours.

Away from the Romeroesque COLIN and juvenile DOGHOUSE, Steve Barker's OUTPOST is a robust British zombie movie which focuses on that most interesting sub-genre within a sub-genre: the Nazi undead. Equating the Third Reich with the zombie makes perfect sense, as it is easy to see the brutish automatons of Hitler's Germany as monsters rather than human beings; in fact, there exists a compulsion to dehumanise all our enemies. Arabella Croft and Kieran Parker mortgaged their Glasgow home in order to raise finance for the film, which is a bunker-bound horror where mercenaries (led by DC (Ray Stevenson)) fight against an advancing zombie tide. The Nazi ghouls here are effectively realised, and owe more than a passing debt to the mariners of THE FOG as they torment victims by pushing bullets and bayonets into eyes and mouths. But they also adhere to that particular John Carpenter film in their ambiguousness: are they zombies, ghosts, genetic supermen or a combination of all three?

Nazi zombies haunt the OUTPOST.

The lack of budget doesn’t work against OUTPOST because nearly all of the film takes place in the confines of the bunker, and when the camera does venture outside, it is usually at night preceding a mist-bound attack. The performances are strong, yet the nihilistic tone fittingly tells of a mission for people we never meet, and the characters are never fully realised for the audience to care if anyone does pull through. However, the film has developed enough of a following for a sequel to be announced, OUTPOST II: BLACK SUN, which is currently in pre-production.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Carry On Hammer


Delicious Fenella Fielding as Valeria Watt and delirious Kenneth Williams as her zombie mad scientist brother Orlando. 

AS British as you can get, the CARRY ON series spanned twenty years with hardly a pause for breath. In the process they became a national institution, evolving from typical 1950s comedy fare into the motion picture equivalent of a seaside postcard - saucy, lewd but underlying inoffensive. Each entry featured a well-defined character that rarely altered from film to film: Sid James generally headed the cast as the lecherous old devil, Bernard Bresslaw was his gormless side-kick, Kenneth Williams the camp authority figure, Charles Hawtrey the effeminate chap brimming with enthusiasm, and either Kenneth Conner or Jim Dale as the likeable bumbler. From a female perspective, Barbara Windsor was the sex kitten, and Joan Sim played James' long-suffering wife/girlfriend.

Part of the charm was the strange fantasy world that they created; where else could Windsor be constantly presented as the most desirable woman in the world, and what other set of films would have Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth in drag be mistaken for real woman? By the early 1970s, not only did the CARRY ON's keep reviving the same "ideas," they were already popular on television, which itself was churning out re-treads. Considering the fact that audiences could sit and enjoy the same joke over and over in the comfort of their own home, its hardly surprising that the films began to decline in popularity. With the parody of Just Jaekin's French 1974 soft-core hit CARRY ON EMMANNUELLE in 1978, the initial run came to an inglorious end, failing to adapt to the changing tastes of audiences and film distributors - a similar downfall to Hammer.

Pop art reworking of the CARRY ON SCREAMING! poster by bespoke graphics company Art & Hue.

In fact, Hammer had much in common with the CARRY ON’s; both were made on small budgets by a regular production team, both employed a repertory of actors, and the films were dismissed by the critical establishment for many years. CARRY ON SCREAMING! opens with a suitably daft song, then immediately sets the mood with a shot of a creature walking through a misty wood. The night-time sequences are inevitably filled with fog, a cliché mocked in a scene in which Valeria (Fenella Fielding) is enveloped in a huge cloud after asking if the Sergeant (Harry H. Corbett) minds she smokes. The film ably captures the lurid Eastmancolor look of Hammer, especially with the laboratory set, in which Watt (Kenneth Williams) memorably cries "frying tonight!" as victims are plunged into a vat of bubbling wax. Aided by Oddbod (Tom Clegg) and Oddbod Junior (Billy Cornelius), Watt kidnaps young women - virgins, for some reason - and vitrifies them, to be sold as store dummies.

The standout performance belongs to the graceful Fielding as the voluptuous Valeria, a worthy companion to Vampira, Elvira and Morticia Addams, but with one striking difference: Valeria wears a blindingly scarlet dress instead of the traditional vampire black. Williams also relishes his role as Watt - animated by regular juicing of electricity - and comes across as a fusion of Peter Cushing and Ernest Thesiger.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hound from Hell


Curses and transformations abound in John Landis' horror-comedy. Like the original Lon Chaney Jr THE WOLF MAN, the director recognises that the real meat of a werewolf picture is that of personal tragedy. 

BLOODIER than slashers of the time, but recognisably a John Landis film, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON follows David (David Naughton)'s gradual change from man to wolf. Victims hang in limbo to haunt him; this enables best friend and travelling companion Jack (Griffin Dunne) to keep him company - despite advancing stages of decomposition - and subsequent victims joyously suggesting ways to kill himself and severe the curse bestowed upon him. Back in 1981, the film kept audiences (and critics) off-balance with its mix of gore and humour (which does not make the film a comedy). Apart from the show-stopping transformation sequence - which Landis wanted to withstand the scrutiny of a harshly lit set - AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON contains many nightmare scenes which add to the quirkiness. It also mocks the need for silver bullets, but is not wholly successful in the director's insistence for a "four-legged hound from hell," rather than more of a Wolfman. The cumbersome movement of David's finished state is shown too much, and is only really effective in long shot (as in the tube station murder). 

Viewed today, the movie still packs a considerable punch. The performances are sympathetic (though Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter) inviting David to stay at her home seems as abrupt as the jump-cuts), and while it is true that Rob Bottin's biped werewolves caused a sensation for THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was so completely different in tone that fans had no trouble embracing both. With the film's arrival on Blu-Ray, the major new draw is Paul Davis' accompanying documentary BEWARE THE MOON: REMEMBERING AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Besides Landis and make-up artist Rick Baker's extensive involvement, almost all the main cast and behind the scenes personnel are interviewed, in particular Dunne, who has much to say about the physical and psychological effects of looking and acting as a corpse. Davis presents the programme from the original locations as they appear today, therefore serving as a guide to making your own pilgrimage.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tortured Soul


Hypnotically beautiful Catherine Deneuve is Roman Polanski's "girl with a problem." The director probes deep into the mind of a damaged female, in a feature which pioneered a new era of gender-horror.

SUPERFICIALLY in the mould of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, Roman Polanski's REPULSION couldn't have had a less auspicious origin: a low-budget British horror film produced by soft-core porn outfit Compton, directed by a young Polish émigré with only one sparse feature under his belt, and starring a 22-year-old French actress who had never spoken English on screen before. But the result was a masterwork, an evocation into schizophrenia which follows Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a Belgian manicurist living with her older coquettish sister (Yvonne Furneaux) in London. When her sibling and boyfriend (Ian Hendry) go on holiday, Carol's fears and isolation in the apartment fester along with the uncooked food, which includes a sinister-looking skinned rabbit.

REPULSION acts as an expressionistic nightmare. The apartment in which most of the film takes place assumes the shape and mind of a anguished consciousness, and Carol's nocturnal rape fantasies are orchestrated by the metronomic ticking of a clock. These latter sequences are brought to a halt by the ringing of bells (phones, doorbells) just as Carol's murders are heralded by the bell in a neighbouring convent. The work is full of such weird echoes of disorientation, which act as the perfect complement to the judicious mix of slow, subtle scares (cracks splitting the walls, with hands emerging from within) and sudden shocks (the razor scene).

Koch Vision's ludicrous 2001 DVD cover design renders Polanski's claustrophobic masterpiece as bargain-bin fodder.

For once in a Compton film, sexuality is used as something other than a publicity stunt. Carol's carnal frustration is contrasted with the openness of everybody else, from casual discussion in the salon to the attempted rape by her landlord (Patrick Wymark). Work colleagues refer to Carol's withdrawal as "day dreaming," walking across Hammersmith Bridge and through the streets of South Kensington oblivious to buskers, leering workmen and even a road accident. But there is nothing inevitable about the way she falls apart; Carol seems to be in the forceful grip of a malign fate. Deneuve is spellbinding in the role; even at her most catatonic, she remains sympathetic thanks to her amazing, doe-like eyes.

Photographed in cold black and white by Gil Taylor and Stanley Long, REPULSION is a stark and absorbing film which is easier to admire than to actually like. The director’s narrative concentration on confined spaces would be honed over his entire career - most notably in ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE TENANT - and REPULSION can be considered a companion piece to Andrzej Zulawski's cult classic POSSESSION, where love and murder are conundrums in which tormented young women struggle with their mental and physical beauty.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Brains That Wouldn't Die



HAMMER's THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN - a direct sequel to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN scripted by Jimmy Sangster - consolidated the feel of Hammer Horror. The Baron (Peter Cushing) has also undergone a rethink, changing from the aloof and self absorbed into a visionary, becoming the obsessive that we would become familiar. The film begins with hunchbacked Karl (Oscar Quitak) helping the Baron escape the guillotine, with Frankenstein promising him a new body. Michael Gwynn is cast as the physical form which incorporates the brain of Karl, remaining sympathetic even after developing cannibalistic tendencies. His emotional confrontation with Frankenstein at a dinner party, which ultimately exposes the Baron's true identity, is as moving as anything Hammer ever achieved. Elsewhere, performances are equally solid, particularly from Francis Matthews as the Baron's assistant Hans Kleve who, it's interesting to note, has the only real success in creating an artificial man in the entire cycle. Curiously, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN has rarely achieved the level of analysis bestowed on others in the series, particularly in its pointed portrayal of the middle class medical elite using the impoverished working class as a mass donor bank.

The next film, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, sits uncomfortably among the Hammer cannon, and the title is a complete misnomer, for the Baron was never less evil than here. Frankenstein (Cushing) discovers his original monster (Kiwi Kingston) perfectly preserved inside a mountain glacier attended by feral deaf-mute Rena (Katy Wild). The Baron gives his monster renewed life, but its brain has been traumatised by gunfire. A circus comes to Carlstaad, featuring the mesmerist Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe), whom the Baron recruits to stimulate the creature's brain. But when officials order Zoltan out of town for operating without a licence, he uses his mesmeric hold over the monster to exact revenge.

New Zealand wrestler Kiwi Kingston is the “Cornflake Box” creature of THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN. Kingston reunited with Hammer and Freddie Francis in the murder mystery HYSTERIA a year later.

Previous entries were skilfully directed by Terence Fisher; THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN was helmed by Freddie Francis, and legend has it that Fisher was temporarily relieved of his duties as punishment for the commercial failure of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Whatever the reason, it is a rogue entry which negates the genetic advancements made by Fisher by forcing an ill-advised return to the feel of Golden Age Horror. The film was made for Universal, and consequently has an emphasis on ruined castles, sparkling lab equipment, villagers and burgomasters, which recall the American studio rather than the bloody tragedies of Hammer; also the Creature make-up design is very Karloffesque).

The Hammer Frankensteins were always superior over the Christopher Lee Draculas thanks to Cushing; he was always the glue that held them together, his coldly articulate Baron pitch-perfect for FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, which shows an England struggling under the environmental weight of lunatic asylums and abandoned estates. On the run from the police, Frankenstein blackmails Anna Spengler (Veronica Carlson) and her fiancé Karl Holst (Simon Ward) into helping him kidnap his former colleague Dr Brandt (George Pravda) from a sanatorium. Anxious to exploit Brandt's knowledge, the scientist cures his insanity and after death transplants his brain into the body of Dr Richter (Freddie Jones). Unable to communicate with his "widow" Ella (Maxine Audley), the "new" Brandt is determined to kill his tormentor.

"Scientist … Surgeon … Madman … Murderer … Search the length and breadth of Europe … hunt him … track him down. No matter what the risk … FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED.”

Fisher's FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED comes closest of all to Mary Shelley's original concept. For the first time, the Baron's creation is a sensitive, misunderstood being who finally turns the tables on his maker. Here, Frankenstein avenges himself not only on the medical establishment but also on womanhood. Given that he is working on projects which, in effect, excludes women from the creation of life, it's perhaps understandable that he should treat women with increasing disdain. In FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, it was a female who unsportingly terminated his experiment by taking her own life. Now he systematically turns on all women, raping and killing Anna and treating a traumatised Ella Brandt with emotional sadism. It is Cushing at his finest, a genuinely frightening performance matched in its quality by Jones's moving turn as the bewildered Richer/Brandt. That Frankenstein himself is now the monster couldn’t be clearer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Jesus Wept"


Angels to some, Demons to others; the "Chattering" Cenobite from HELLRAISER.

WRITER/DIRECTOR Clive Barker's HELLRAISER is a raw meditation on human desire and sadomasochism. Unsatisfied with the pleasures available to him in our world, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) purchases a puzzle box from a mysterious dealer in an unspecified Middle East location. Upon opening it, the Cenobites appear - demons from another dimension - who tear him apart. Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into his brother Frank's empty house in England with his frigid wife Julia (a glacial Clare Higgins) and before long Julia is reminiscing about her brief and torrid affair with Frank. When Larry accidentally cuts his hand and spills blood on the floor his brother is resurrected, but not completely: the undead thrill-seeker convinces Julia to provide him with bodies on which to feed.

Barker's breakthrough arrived at a time when the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13th and HALLOWEEN franchises had turned the horror movie into a joyless but profitable procession. Yet here was a cutting-edge horror replete with adult, sexual tensions: the Cenobites are pallid-skinned fetishists, with lead Cenobite Pinhead (Doug Bradley) possessing a gravely poise which made the character a relief from the wisecracks of Freddy Krueger. Greatly enhanced by Christopher Young's majestic score, Barker's vision cribs equally from the mythos of vampires and zombies, and is an unwitting product of the AIDS crisis. Scenes of sexual intercourse are marked by the presence of blood - often gelatinous or recycled - and stagnant pools are consta
ntly inhabited by insects. Ultimately, Julia's mission to gather plasma for her lover results in a libidinous, walking disease. The scenes in which she lures unsuspecting men into the house, stripping them to their Y-fronts only to hammer them to death, constitute the best parts of the film.

The chamber of horrors that is HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II.

It is this damaged starkness that gives HELLRAISER real bite; subsequently, its tone has been ransacked by post-punk artists such as Damien Hirst into a medieval torture-garden aesthetic. However groundbreaking, it suffers - like all 1980s horrors - with garish colour schemes, Modern Romantic looks, and outlandish special effects. In fact, the corridor-stalking "Engineer" creature and the cricket-eating vagrant who turns into a pterodactyl are perhaps two of the most notable examples.

Inevitably HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II followed, leaving the subsequent (at present count, six) sequels to be made in the United States. The only surviving human from the first film - teenage daughter of Larry, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) - is recuperating from her trauma in a sanatorium run by Dr Clannard (Kenneth Cranham). Channard is familiar with the Lament Configuration puzzle box and uses his knowledge to resurrect Julia (a returning Higgins). After procuring victims from his asylum to provide new skin for her, he uses autistic patient Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) to solve the configuration and unleash the Cenobites. Despite some harrowing imagery, this second outing directed by Tony Randall is a clear victim of Elm Street Syndrome, where screenwriters could dispense with motivation or logic when dealing with the supernatural. Without a firm narrative hook, HELLBOUND is just a collection of uneven money shots, with the series already introducing some Kruegerisms (as in Channard’s "the doctor is in.")

Monday, August 24, 2009

Twilight of the Dead


David Prowse is The Creature in Hammer’s last gasp for Gothic Horror.

WITH an absurdly low budget, Terence Fisher's asylum-set FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL - scripted by Anthony Hinds - is a grim epitaph for the Baron and Fisher himself, a Hammer Horror - unlike many of the period - which didn't rely on sex to try to elevate its fortunes. Hollywood had once stood in line to finance the studio's profitable output, yet the vogue for Gothique had passed; when Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is told that he’s mad, he laughs and in a line penned by the actor himself replies "oh possibly. I must admit I’ve never felt so elated in my life. Not since I first … but that was a long time ago."

As in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, a franchise character is partnered with a younger equivalent - here surgeon Simon Helder (Shane Briant) - and the film benefits from remaining focused on the making of the monster, rather than cutting away to various asides (even the Baron's servant (Madeline Smith) is mute and inconsequential). Cushing - looking alarmingly gaunt and frail - is ill-served by a blonde curly wig and top hat, which only accentuates his thin frame and bony structure. Despite this, the actor remains as obsessive and athletic as always; a standout scene features Cushing's trademark leap, jumping onto - then off - a table, and wrapping a chloroformed coat around the Monster's head. Underneath the awkward, hulking and hairy creature suit, David Prowse gives perhaps his only performance in movies. None too pleased about his new skin, the abomination's dilemma is best conveyed when he caresses the violin possessed in his previous life, only to moments later smash it when realising the futility of the situation.

seem outdated by comparison.

The decline of Hammer can be linked to its failure to understand the cultural shift that the end of 60s cinema represented. British filmmakers such as Michael Reeves and Pete Walker - together with American directors George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven - moved horror into a new phase of intense violence that made Hammer's output positively quaint. Even by the mid-60s trouble was looming, with rising production costs and increasing competition, but Hammer seemed uninterested in nurturing new talent as their output became increasingly formulaic and threadbare both intellectually and in physical production (a good example being the unconvincing exteriors of the miniature asylum here).

Romero's nihilistic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD did for the horror genre what Hammer achieved in 1957 with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN: it made everything before it seem dated and predictable. Romero's film looked like a newsreel, where economy was turned into an artistic value; Hammer, still largely stick in a Victorian world of vampires and mummies, lacked any connection to contemporary existence. This New Order created a change away from the tidiness of the British horror film and created a tableau where monsters and humans could no longer be easily distinguished. This loss of generic identity pulled British horror towards sexploitation, which was proving to be a formidable and cost-effective box-office attraction during a period of decline. But there was also an acute divergence and mutation in storylines: consider the Hammer and Shaw Brothers marriage for THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, and Amicus' werewolf whodunit THE BEAST MUST DIE.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Dracula Over London

DRACULA, A.D. 1972 (1972)

"Hammer find of 1971" Caroline Munro on the alter
in DRACULA, A.D. 1972.

WHEN Warner Brothers noted the success of AIP's COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE at the beginning of the 1970s - in which Robert Quarry prowled present-day Los Angeles - they ordered two Hammer Dracula's to follow suit, bringing the character to modern-day London and away from the Eastern European neverwhere which had died its death with SCARS OF DRACULA. What should have been a fresh new direction resulted in DRACULA, A.D. 1972, one of the studio's most glorious mishaps. In Hyde Park, 1872, Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) dies from the strain of destroying Dracula (Christopher Lee). During Van Helsing's funeral at St Bartolph's, one of the vampire's disciples - Alucard (Christopher Neame) - buries his master's ashes nearby. Jumping to Chelsea, 1972, we see Alucard organising a black mass at St Bartolph's, supposedly for teen thrills. The culmination of the ritual, however, is the rejuvenation of Dracula, and Alucard lures young victims to the deserted graveyard for his master's pleasure, one of which is buxom Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham), descended from a line of vampire hunters and the Count's favoured target. Her grandfather Lorimar (Cushing) - equipped with the devices to snare the Count - subsequently confronts his enemy.

The major flaw of the film is that once Dracula is resurrected, he never leaves the derelict church where he's been revived, so the movie might as well take place in 1872, where the film's rousing pre-credits sequence takes place. Innovations such as Dracula claiming his first male and black victim are overshadowed by the phoney younger characters, who seem a good decade behind the times with their hilariously misconceived banter. Cushing relishes his Van Helsing role, and at least tries to act as a voice of reason to Jessica and the film in general, although the script insults the audience's intelligence when even Van Helsing has to take up pen and paper to work out that Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards.

Vampires in the bargain basement: THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Warner expressed little enthusiasm for the direct sequel - the sombre and apocalyptic THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA - and never released the film in America, where it wouldn't be in general circulation until independent Dynamite issued the film under the flaccid title COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE late in 1978. This time, rather than the Count skulking in crypts and pouncing on Hammer's latest nubile protégé, Van Helsing (Cushing) discovers that reclusive property developer D.D. Denham is in fact the Count (Lee), who intends to wipe out the human race with a newly perfected strain of plague. The script creates another own-goal in a plan which will inevitably deprive the vampire of his food supply (a mournful echo perhaps of Lee's own overwhelming desire to put Dracula behind him). The Count is morphed into a hybrid of Howard Hughes and Fu Manchu for an almost James Bond-like adventure; this will probably be the only Dracula film to have the Count employing a gang of motorcycle-riding toughs to do his daylight dirty work.

What makes Hammer's modern-day Dracula's so disappointing - both directed by Alan Gibson - is that they ignore the maturity of Bram Stoker. Stoker reiterates the sense of London as the heart of Empire, using its familiar locations to heighten fears of invasion, contamination and disease (at least THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA hints at contagion). Association with the East End links The Count with foreigners, especially Jews from Eastern Europe and Orientals, as well as with an area connected in the public mind with crime. The author marshals discourses to those we are familiar with now in the war against terrorism: the threat of shape-changing terrorists from the East, among us and invisible. In the invasive other, British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms; Dracula resonates not least because his actions approximates those of the colonising Englishman.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Under the Hood

Watchmen (1986 - 87)

Malin Akerman is Silk Spectre II.

THE seminal text of the comic book medium, Watchmen - written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons - reflects contemporary anxieties, deconstructs the concept of the superhero, and is a masterpiece of power, corruption and human frailty. The story takes place in an alternate 1980s United States, where the country is edging to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Closely mirroring modern society, the main point of divergence is the presence of outlawed costumed vigilantes. Moore intended the characters of Watchmen to be ambivalent, a set of people who - although dressed as "four-colour heroes," would be poignant and touching in the real world. The crime fighters have complex psychological profiles: beneath his ever-changing mask, Rorschach is a sociopath loner, the gadget-dependent Nite Owl is impotent, and Dr Manhattan - the only character who genuinely possesses superpowers - is a blue demi-God who appreciates humanity only on a subatomic scale.

The description of Watchmen as "grim and gritty" is greatly overused; after all, even at the start of the 60s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried to create more tangible characters. What Watchmen did do was to create a whole new way in which comic books could tell a story through dense layers of symmetrical reference and inter-linking companion pieces. Utilising the nine-panel grid which echo both EC and the feverish layouts of Steve Ditko, each page gains a sense of control and, as Gibbons states, "authority." The story offers a simultaneous world view, exploring new possibilities on how we perceive interaction in an increasing ambiguous, "rudderless world." The irony is that this work - which aimed to break the stranglehold of the superhero genre in American comics - actually lead to the market leaders forcing their own mainstays through epic scenarios (DC's Kingdom Come, Marvel's Earth X et al).

Alan Moore shows how reality can be deadlier than Kryptonite.

Zack Snyder’s fan boy film version WATCHMEN is awash with retro production design and lifted dialogue, with no expense spared to visualise every frame. Yet it is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there is simply no room to breathe, making the film bloated and unfocused. For all its considerable visual accoutrements, this is a release that still finds the need for voiceover monologues, and a long-winded villain declamation similar to so many B-movies. The one major alteration to the graphic novel (dropping the Space Squid as a means to unite the world against the nuclear threat in favour of blaming Dr Manhattan) actually improves upon the comic's weakest idea, and there is also a priceless image where the final transformation of Rorschach is a blot on the Antarctic snow.

But the main problem is Snyder himself. His "visionary" signature style is of a music video aesthetic, with little room for depth or momentum. His inability to manage dialogue forces scenes to be reduced to self-conscious zooms - into close-ups for crowd-pleasing one-liners - which only really work with Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley). The violent scenes also suffer from Snyder's fixation on speed shifts so spuriously used in his 300, turning the action into lethargic, over stylised set pieces. Comic book frames are not film storyboards; instead they capture characters in frozen fragments of time, where the reader can absorb and reflect - Snyder’s habit of interrupting action with slo-mo emphasises this. Watchmen is about power and violence: its questionable efficacy in solving global problems, and the animalistic thrill of crushing human beings. With the film luxuriating snapping bones, it is here that the gulf between comic and film becomes clear; the difference between purpose and glorification.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If it Bleeds, It Leads

The Horror of Media Violence

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has an abstract view of violence, creating an unreal loss of authenticity: even the rape scene has no feeling.

ON May 29th 2009 at Norwich Crown Court, a woman and two men were convicted of murdering a teenager who was tied to a tree, doused in petrol, and then burned alive in an alleged re-enactment of a scene from the spoof horror SEVERANCE. Literally fanning the flames to this horrid affair was a tangled love triangle, yet prosecutors and the media continue to blame film rather than society's increasing inability to deal with everyday emotion. Censorship cannot destroy an ideal; as Carl Sagan once said, "where we have strong emotions, we're liable to fool ourselves."

In 1991, the press blamed CHILD’S PLAY 3, released the same year, for having inspired the killing of two-year-old Jamie Bulger in Liverpool. Some papers claimed that the two boy murderers had viewed the film only days prior to their attack; others went so far as to draw conclusions to which scenes inspired particular acts of torture. Neither of the two minors had seen the movie, nor did the police investigation find any evidence that could have encouraged such a crime. In fact, Inspector Ray Simpson stated that "…If you are going to link this murder to a film, you might as well link it to The Railway Children". Yet many people remain certain it was the cause. In reality, the two boys are now walking around as free young men, with new identities, and being carefully looked after by the taxpayer.

Claudie Blakley shortly to become toast at the hands of the Flamethrower Killer in Christopher Smith’s playful horror, SEVERANCE.

The human brain reacts to certain stimulations, i.e. the neurosis caused by THE EXORCIST's blend of quiet passages and grating sound. Likewise, it seems that the films which leave the most powerful impressions on the unbalanced are those which depict a sudden outbreak of random violence. Most brutality is frenzied and not dependant on any particular time, place or circumstance; rather it is an unpredictable, elemental urge. Robert Sartin - a twenty-three-year-old Civil Servant - shot seventeen people and killed one person in Whitley Bay in 1989 because he was following instructions given to him by the killer in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. Sartin was found unfit even to stand trial by virtue of mental illness, and yet the crime was still described as being caused by Carpenter's cult classic (HALLOWEEN, in particular, is considered to have a harmful effect on the unstable for its sudden slathings set in a familiar, suburban setting ("death has come to your little town."))

The debate if motion pictures can create real-life violence has been so tediously overworked as to be virtually redundant. Any attempt to blame art for human behaviour quickly falls down when one considers that The Bible has inspired more acts of bloodshed than any other piece of literature, but is still remains openly revered. Film - like all art - should provoke and inspire, but cinema has been singled out because it is arguably the most influential of all the arts, and is certainly the form of choice for the younger generation from which most killers are drawn.

Copycat violence and death threats lead Stanley Kubrick to pull A CLOCKWORK ORANGE from circulation in Britain, though it continued to play freely around the world.

It is amusing how the media can assimilate their cause. The press has always found a way to categorise society ills through money-making propaganda and sensationalism - from the birth of tabloid journalism creating Jack the Ripper, to the Video Nasty phenomenon of the early 1980s. The media now have a much more fertile ground to breed their fear. If we fear, we can continue to consume and be made to do anything. Disturbing images of violent crime dominate news broadcasting, and as news competes with other media for audiences, many producers have come to rely on the maxim "If it bleeds, it leads."

Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE contains images that transcend the actual viewing experience. It functions on an almost operatic level; the director is pushing the boundaries for a hook that hits you somewhere between the heart and the head. Beginning with the hypnotic stare of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) straight to camera, the charming but appalling thug welcomes the viewer at an almost intimate level. Indeed, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE spoke to the people of 1970s Britain in a profound way, bringing an almost demonic portrayal of the day's civil unrests, Miner's Strikes, three-day weeks and blackouts. Reports of street gangs carrying out violence inspired by Kubrick's film was obviously welcomed with open arms by the press, but violence is a rite of passage for man, a pack mentality that rules in times of breakdown, in which sexual tensions are also sharpened. Despite the director's comments to the contrary, the film is a forecast - and we are edging closer to the abyss.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"You look like hell"


Ukrainian model/actress Olga Kurylenko and Daniel Craig sizzle in the new Bond.

MARTIN Campbell's reboot of 007 - CASINO ROYALE in 2006 - not only redefined the series but gained international praise that the Bond films had never enjoyed even in their 60s heyday. Its direct sequel, Marc Forster's QUANTUM OF SOLACE, deeply divided fans and critics alike, and carries on the story minutes later, with the elusive Mr White (Jesper Christensen) now in the boot of Bond (Daniel Craig)'s Aston Martin. It's a high-speed, hyper-edited opening typical of the whole film; with a total running time of just over one hundred minutes, it moves with velocity across Italy, Haiti, Austria and Bolivia; but consider how many Bonds - including Campbell's film - that run out of steam as they drag themselves drunkenly across the two hour mark.

In Haiti, Bond observes Camille (Olga Kurylenko) - a Bolivian agent - and boyfriend Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a petulant eco-criminal busily finessing the oil and water reserves of South America for his own gain under the manipulation of his overlords, the Quantum organisation. At the inception of the cinematic Bond, successive villains were revealed to be minions to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of Spectre. But with the rights to Spectre currently under dispute, their place is taken by the mysterious Quantum, who can even infiltrate to the level of M (Judi Dench)'s private bodyguard. We learn nothing about them, yet there is a complication - hinted at in the novel of Thunderball - that Spectre is a subcontractor for the British Secret Service and the CIA. This notion that M's superiors and allies are as likely to back Quantum as oppose it is underpinned by world-weary spy Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), when he states, "When one's young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong. As one gets older, it becomes more difficult."

Gemma Arterton offers Daniel Craig his only sex scene.

Ian Fleming wrote about pain, fear, courage and endurance. That is what we see in Craig's Bond. Craig's engaging performance is the glue that holds the film together; he's even more intense in this revenge-based tale, traumatised almost into a dream state over the betrayal of Vesper in the last instalment, motivating a martini binge which seem to provide Bond with the recipe for dulling his feelings while still keeping his reflexes sharp. The closest to any tenderness displayed by Bond is in the scene where he hugs a dying Mathis before he disposes of his corpse in a dumpster (“he wouldn’t care.") Kurylenko also greatly impresses, not only with her smouldering beauty, but with the ability to hold an onscreen presence with Craig. Camille, having had her family raped and burnt alive by a deposed Bolivian dictator, also has her mind on retaliation; Kurylenko's scarred heroine is so fixed on murdering her enemy that she technically doesn’t even count as a Bond Girl. As the main villain, Polanskiesque Amairic is erudite, charming but ultimately a physical weakling, his smirk bringing a wickedly childish spite to this role. Greene is an interesting foil but underwritten, never really getting the chance to have the kind of show-stopping scene his predecessors have enjoyed, even within the climax set in an Adamesque Bolivian desert hotel.

The overall scheme by Greene may not be very compelling (water rights in Bolivia, anyone?), and there is no development arc to any of the characters, but QUANTUM OF SOLACE is so refreshing because it departs from many conventions: it is a Bond Film, rather than a Bond Movie. There is no introduction of "Bond, James Bond," no gadgets, cringe worthy quips or scenic padding, nor does he sleep with the leading lady (instead, there's a just-for-fun fling with MI6 emissary Ms Fields (Gemma Arterton), who enters in an impossible trenchcoat and exits in a surrealistic homage to Shirley Eaton). But QUANTUM OF SOLACE is cursed by the worst theme ever in the Bond canon - a first-ever duet - teaming Jack White and Alicia Keys for Another Way to Die. This makes Madonna's song for DIE ANOTHER DAY seem like Goldfinger, as the duo screech like banshees.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Family Values

MUM & DAD (2008)

“In a happy family you must always have rules:” MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY.

HOME-BASED dysfunction and horror go together like Norman Bates and Mother. The PSYCHO template has divided into two distinct, transatlantic lines; while Britain produced Freddie Francis' MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY and Pete Walker's FRIGHTMARE, America's more influential variant came out of Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and Wes Craven's THE HILLS HAVE EYES. The family is problematic in horror because of repressed violence and sexuality; perhaps this is why US films are more powerful, as they concentrate on more baroque situations and also act in direct contradiction of the American Dream. Francis' film discussed here has a more underlying, sardonic approach typical of British fare.

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY tells of a wealthy family who live in an isolated, Victorian mansion. Their lives are devoted to acting out a fantasy from which they never go out of character, and rarely speak in any way other than baby talk. They are free from the divisiveness of growing up and puberty; even though "children" Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are in their twenties, they sleep in giant cribs and dress like sixth-formers. Sonny and Girly regularly seek out loners to bring back to their house to play "The Game"; when the "new friends" refuse, they are "sent to the angels." One day, they kill a male prostitute (Michael Bryant)'s girlfriend (Imogen Hassall) and convince him that he was responsible. And after bringing him back to their house, he seduces each of the women and turns the family against itself. It’s a playful allegory of the breakdown of the nuclear family of the 1950s as a result of the free love movement of the 1960s, and has echoes of PEEPING TOM as Sonny films his killings for Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and Nanny (Pat Heywood), and even predates THE SHINING's axe through the door and FATAL ATTRACTION's cooking pot scene. But it’s a tedious affair hindered by weak casting: Bryant, in particular, is totally out of depth to convince that he has any sexual prowess to control the females.

MUM & DAD is the sickest movie ever to bear the BBC Films logo.

Openly acknowledging its debts to MUMSY and FRIGHTMARE, Steven Sheil’s micro-budgeted MUM & DAD is the story of Heathrow Airport cleaner Lena (Olga Fedori), a Polish girl estranged from her family. She is befriended by chatty co-worker Birdie (Ainsley Howard) and her mute brother Elbie (Toby Alexander), and when Lena misses her last bus home, the Pole accompanies them to their nearby house - an undesirable suburban semi under the Heathrow flight pass - where she is drugged and chained. Birdie and Elbie's parents - known only as Mum (Dido Miles) and Dad (Perry Benson) - abduct surrogate children who are forced to co-operate in thieving from airport luggage, and subject them to gruelling ordeals as they are forced into the deranged family unit.

MUM & DAD is a brave attempt at British Torture Porn under the shroud of Fred and Rosemary West, and works both as a study of the English underclass and as symbolic of the way Britain exploits foreign labour. Benson's Dad is a beer-bellied, thick-spectacled, brutal letch, and the sight of his flabby, naked arse is only championed by what may well be cinema's most disgusting masturbation scene involving a slab of bloody, unidentifiable meat. Miles is equally unsettling as the outwardly warm maternal figure, and Howard's cheery performance adds another dimension to the depravity (though a secret, drooling child hidden on the top floor - perhaps Mum and Dad’s true offspring - is the most grimmest element).

HOLLYOAKS veteran Hannah Tointon plays a teenage daughter caught between bickering parents and murdering minors in THE CHILDREN.

Tom Shankland’s THE CHILDREN also offers an off-kilter look at family life. Set in an isolated, (slightly) snowbound locale over a New Year family get-together, the children soon become sick and turn into killers; the smugness of the upper middle-class parents is slowly peeled away by their children's alternate whining pleas for comfort and vicious attacks. While ostensibly well meaning and providing their kids with encouragement, the two sets of parents are too caught up in their own concerns to detect the problems with the increasingly broody infants, and even when realisation finally hits, they still allow prejudices and assumptions to blind them.

The subgenre of monstrous minors never appeared onscreen until after World War II; strictly speaking, they arrive in the 1950s, following the displacement of so many children whose potential where uncertain. THE CHILDREN draws from a rich legacy of problem child cinema - THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED and THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW to name only two - in exploring fears of innocence lost. Unlike these supernatural forebears, however, Shankland's film is seated in the present's fixation with illness and pandemics. The reason for the children’s behaviour is not explained - a virus is the most likely, and there is a playful reference to MMR jabs - and the dinner scene, where the tide turns, is an undoubted highlight. While the killings tend towards the OMEN-styled novelty variety (such as a lethal combination of toboggan and garden rake), they are nevertheless carried out with infectious, ghoulish glee.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Strife of Brian

STONED (2005) 

Scene of the crime? In November 1968, Brian Jones became the owner of Cotchford Farm, a Sussex country house previously owned by A. A. Milne.

DIRECTED by Stephen Woolley, STONED is the story of the inevitable premature death in 1969 of The Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones (played by Leo Gregory). Within the seven intervening years from The Stones formation, Jones' increasing liability saw Mick Jagger take the limelight by shouldering the bad-boy image. In reality, the lead singer was more cautiously cultivated, paving the way to big business. Although Jones was the archetypal shattered mirror of the 60s, there was no room for him in the increasingly shrewd canvas of The Rolling Stones world.

STONED uses the relationship between Jones and builder Frank Thorogood (Paddy Considine) - hired to renovate his rock star retreat - as a counterbalance to the wild lifestyle he adopted right up to the point of his supposed "death by misadventure" in a swimming pool. Thorogood is at once drawn into and kept out of Jones' pampered world; the Rolling Stone loafs brazenly in a haze of drink, drugs, women and effeminate finery, while exploiting the workers. In one scene, Jones demands a wall be built, rebuilt elsewhere and then built again in the original position. In another, Jones offers Anna Wholin (Tuva Novotny) to a disbelieving Thorogood in the spirit of free love, but when Wholin tires of the prank, Thorogood is left humiliated on the kitchen floor.

Brian Jones with Anita Pallenberg, one of the great 60s rock chicks. Her "evil glamour" moniker (a term used by Marianne Faithfull) encapsulates Pallenberg's modelling and acting career. When she first met Jones at a Stones gig in Munich 1965, it was the start of a two-year relationship which saw the musician become increasingly abusive, drunk and paranoid.

The film draws from the basic mechanics of PERFORMANCE; whereas the celebrated Donald Cammell/Nic Roeg release snares a working class gangster into the exotic trappings of a faded rock star - ironically played by Jagger - STONED sets up a similar clash of sensibilities between Jones and Thorogood. But Woolley's picture is too simplistic, functional and clichéd, haunted by a weak script that leaves the likeable performers nothing to work with; furthermore, its prurience towards the female cast serves little dramatic effect. Ultimately, it is difficult to show emotion over Jones' death because the film does not contain any justification that he was either a great musician or a particularly compelling personality. Neither does it reveal much about his relationships with Keith Richards (Ben Whishaw) and Jagger (Luke De Woolfson), or offer anything other than a cinematic portrayal of the drowning.

The "death by misadventure" tag has never sat true, mainly because of the low levels of drink and drugs found in Jones' system. Conspiracy theories fogged the story for many years, with some of the more lurid suggestions implicating Jagger in Faustian bargains. When Thorogood made a deathbed confession in 1993 ("It was me that did Brian"), it seemed to further trivialise the tragic event. Jones was the embodiment of the Swinging Sixties, but his Cotchford Farm residence was more than just an escape to the countryside; it was also a means to distance himself from London and The Stones, but not from his "lashing tail of paranoiacal fears," referred to in an unrecorded song (Thank You) For Being There, the only known lyric Jones left behind. The musician' s mood swings were notorious ("a complicated couple of blokes" quipped Richards) and self-doubt plagued him to the end. In fact, as early as 1965, The Stones and manager Andrew Loog Oldham were already expressing doubts of Brian's ability to cope with fame, Jones harbouring an all too transparent resentment of Jagger and Richards' domination of his band.

Cinematically, The Rolling Stones will be forever measured by GIMME SHELTER. But instead of Hells Angels and tripping hippies, the front row in SHINE A LIGHT is full of gym members and raised camera-phones.

Jump ahead thirty-nine years and we arrive at Martin Scorsese's SHINE A LIGHT. A vanity project documenting the second of two 2006 Stones-headlined charity benefits, both performances took place in upper Broadway's Beacon Theatre, a vaudeville hall with a capacity of 2,800 (“a dolls house” comments Jagger). It is a wholly tepid Stones performance; we invariably get some high points (a riotous opening Jumpin' Jack Flash, a heartfelt Some Girls) to offset the low ones (truly rotten renditions of Shattered and Sympathy for the Devil), but it is the guest stars that add the real ballast. Jack White looking genuinely humbled to join Jagger for Loving Cup, but it is Buddy Guy’s electrifying Champagne and Reefer that steals the over-bloated show, a veneer light years away from any even lingering memories of Brian Jones.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Don't Be Alarmed"


The Protect and Survive campaign was a very naive attempt at preparing UK citizens for nuclear attack.

WHEN the Protect and Survive leaflets were released in 1980, its contents shocked many people and added to the air of nuclear paranoia. Echoing civil defence pamphlets which evolved from The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids, you can only wonder what degree of additional chaos would have been created if the accompanying film series (actually made in 1976) was ever aired in anger, twenty short films which walk the viewer through every stage of a nuclear crisis. These shorts - fatalistically narrated by Patrick Allen - detailed the same instructions as the leaflets, using voice-over narration, kitsch animation, and an unsettling closing electronic musical note. One remembers Allen’s similar tone on remixes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes, which also imposed impending doom: "Mine is the last voice you will ever hear. Don’t be alarmed."

The films have left an uneasy yet fascinating mark. Their documentation of everything from improvising toilet facilities to name-tagging dead family members, moves unnervingly in tone from portentous to matter-of-fact. Each of the shorts end with the animated caption 'Protect and Survive' wrapping around the family unit, the same symbol used earlier to represent the inner refuge. The signal is clear - follow our instructions and things might be all right. In reality, all this public information was founded in people staying in their own homes; this would not only maximise the death rate - both from the blast and the fallout - but also prevent the spread of disease by not having corpses strewn in the highways and countryside. Less people, less hassle.

“Looks like there is going to be a war dear.” The nuclear disintegration of Jim and Hilda is often unbearable in WHEN THE WIND BLOWS.

Based on Raymond Briggs' graphic novel of the same name, WHEN THE WIND BLOWS is an animated film about a nuclear attack from the viewpoint of Jim and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft), a retired couple still mired in memories of World War II. The Bloggs live in rural Sussex, and exhibit considerable confusion regarding the nature and seriousness of their situation; as Hilda says, "Well, if the worst comes to worse, we'll just have to roll up our sleeves, tighten our belts, and put on our tin hats 'til it's VE day again." Jim's nostalgic outlook also remains, "You get terrific heat in these bombs."

Rather than stretch this fable out to a global scale, all the essential points are made by the isolated couple in their country cottage, aided by a realistic style of animation - a technique seldom used since Max Fleischer - by building small table-tops and placing cels between the set and the camera. Jim places his faith in the Protect and Survive leaflets, though even he seems puzzled by the contradictions he finds, and the inane activities they suggest. Unsurprisingly, the movie shows more destruction than the book, highlighted by a sepia-toned sequence showing the disintegration of cars, trains, houses and even animals.

THE WAR GAME quickly became a cause célèbre for the CND.

Whereas WHEN THE WIND BLOWS hammers at the heart, THE WAR GAME is a sledgehammer blow to the skull. Written, directed and produced by Peter Watkins, THE WAR GAME was not transmitted until 1985, with the corporation publicly stating that "the effect of the film has been judged to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting." In fifty black and white minutes, THE WAR GAME depicts the prelude to and the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack. Continuing the experiments in fiction and documentary techniques which had begun with his CULLODEN, Watkins blends several different strands: contemporary vox pops, in which passers-by are interviewed about their knowledge of nuclear war issues; optimistic commentary from public figures that clashes with the images; and fictional interviews with key figures as the war unfolds.

The film's enduring power thus derives from a variety of sources, not least its cool articulation of the momentary images - a child's eyes burned by a distant air-burst, as the film itself goes into negative; a bucketful of wedding rings collected as a register of the dead; and a derelict building which has become an impromptu furnace for the incineration of bodies too numerous to bury. At a structural level THE WAR GAME achieves its effect through both its mixture and its separation of documentary and fiction. It does not, for example, offer the purely dramatic spectacle of later apocalyptic entries such as the American THE DAY AFTER or THREADS.