Friday, November 15, 2013

Masculinity and Madness

KILL LIST (2011)

The final third of KILL LIST descents into a WICKER MAN-like nightmare, with a climactic nod to A SERBIAN FILM.

IRAQ War veteran Jay (Neil Maskell)'s mood swings and unemployment are causing frictions with wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) and disrupting their connection to seven-year-old son Sam (Harry Simpson). After a dinner party with fellow vet Gal (Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) is also disrupted by an argument, Gal invites Jay to renew their partnership as professional hitmen. Made to sign a contract in blood, the duo are given three targets by a strange syndicate: a priest who may or may not have links to paedophilia, a librarian with a stash of violent videos, and an MP who lives in a secluded mansion. After Gal is fatally stabbed by one of many pagan celebrants near the mansion, Jay is forced into a knife fight with a masked 'hunchback', which ends with him being crowned by the cultists.

This visceral genre-bending crime-horror, shot around Sheffield, is the second feature from writer/director Ben Wheatley after 2009's DOWN TERRACEThe reactions and strange dialogue by people on the 'kill list', together with a bizarre visit to the doctors, enhance Jay's - and the viewer's - disorientation (the priest even thanks his executioners). We share the lead's emotional roller-coaster because the kitchen sink naturalism draws you to the characters before the brutality feeds in. Shel is trying to hold her family together despite financial worries and Jay's confrontational demeanour, while Jay struggles to control his psychotic episodes (possibly a post-traumatic stress disorder related from his tour, or mental scars from a 'job' in Kiev, details of which are never fleshed out). A conclusion that the hitmen have been victims of an entrapment conspiracy at the hands of the mysterious Client (Struan Rodger) still cannot explain all of the narrative ambiguities, especially when the latter refers to the act of "reconstruction."

Lambs to the slaughter: Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell play hitmen haunted by the past in this surreal offering.

KILL LIST is an artfully constructed shocker with strong performances and violence which is so jarring because of these convictions. The film also explores Wheatley's preference for a sinister Old England, a metaphysical existence where the landscape has a deep-rooted characteristic for bad vibes (a notion further explored in his next film SIGHTSEERS, and taken to its zenith with the extraordinary A FIELD IN ENGLAND). The filmmaker is arguably the greatest British talent to emerge since Ken Russell or Lindsay Anderson, an audacious creative force which produces works that defy any fixed categorisation. Next up for Wheatley are the first two episodes of Peter Capaldi's DOCTOR WHO tenure, and a film adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel HIGH-RISE, which offers him an urban setting to warp the human psyche.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Aliens North of the Border

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954)
DOCTOR WHO - TERROR OF THE ZYGONS (1975)


Don Marquez' 2007 oil on canvas rendering of Patricia Laffan as the DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, featured in www.cartuneland.com

NYAH (Patricia Laffan) and her robot companion Chani have come to Earth from Mars to capture men for breeding. At the remote Scottish Bonnie Charlie Inn, the Martian meets American reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott) and Professor Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty), who have been sent to investigate strange lights in the area. Also at the Inn are model Ellen (Hazel Court), escaped killer Albert (Peter Reynolds), his optimistic barmaid girlfriend Doris (Adrienne Corri), and Innkeepers the Jamiesons (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart) with their nephew Tommy (Anthony Richmond). Nyah's plans are thwarted when she is persuaded to travel to London to find more suitable mating stock, which, as Tim Healey states in The World's Worst Movies, "turns out to be a suicide mission, for the killer, the craft, the Devil Girl - and the director's reputation - all perish in one grand explosion."

Released a year before Hammer's THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS is listed among 'The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made' in The Official Razzie Movie Guide. It is also one of a handful of homegrown science fiction films that take inspiration from across the Atlantic for a more comic book take on SF, while still remaining typically pessimistic. Consequently, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS takes everything very seriously and very British ("While we're still alive we might as well have a cup of tea"). The origins as a stage play are all too obvious, as most of the film is played out in the Inn's bar, but its kitsch value and unintentionally hilarious dialogue ("There's a meteor dropped near here, it's sort of romantic isn't it?") has made it a cult favourite. The human characters all subscribe to the Blitz mentality and the performances are fine, but McDermott's brash newsman has such an annoying accent that the idea of Ellen falling for him within a couple of hours stretches even this uniform female mentality.

In the best science fiction tradition, a leading protagonist is accompanied by a robot helper; here Nyah has the clunky Chani, an electronic-brained "mechanical man."

Nyah - as representative of an "intransigent matriarchy" on Mars - is unsurprisingly the highlight of this hokum, which unfortunately concerns itself equally between the hackneyed goings-on at the Bonnie Charlie and the apocalyptic situation that unfolds. Not only has the intruder placed an invisible electronic wall around the Inn and can blur into the Fourth Dimension ("Now men look, watch the power of another world") Nyah means business, disintegrating trees and hunchbacked labourer David (James Edmond) with her trusty ray gun. She also has a costume to die for; looking like a dominatrix and even a neo-Nazi, Nyah is incredible in her black latex outfit, black tights, padded shoulders, shiny black skullcap, boots and cape. The Wandsworth-born Laffan's other most famous role is in the 1951 epic QUO VADIS, where she played Poppaea, the second wife of the Roman Emperor Nero.

Also centred around shenanigans in a Scottish Inn, the Doctor Who adventure TERROR OF THE ZYGONS not just opened Season 13 of the show, but saw the beginning of the Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes Gothic Era in earnest. Written by SEEDS OF DOOM scribe Robert Banks Stewart and robustly directed by Douglas Camfield, the four-parter sees The Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) summoned by UNIT to The Fox Inn in the Scottish Highlands (actually Bognor Regis). Investigating the mysterious destruction of oil rigs in the North Sea, locals talk of the Tullock Moor mists, but it transpires that the Loch Ness Monster is a cyborg controlled by Zygons, organic shape-shifting aliens who plan to take over the Earth. When their craft emerges from the Loch and The Doctor causes it to self-destruct, only Zygon leader Broton (John Woodnutt) survives. Assuming the identity of the Duke of Forgill, Broton travels to London to destroy a World Energy Conference, aided by the Skarasen cyborg.

The Zygons grace the cover of Doctor Who Weekly #9 (December 1979).

TERROR OF THE ZYGONS features arguably the best and worst monsters in the Time Lord's history. The Zygons  - designed by James Acheson and John Friedlander - are superbly realised, their suckers and throbbing veins bathed in red and green light to maximise queasiness. In contrast the Skarasen/Loch Ness Monster - a creature design based on a dog's skull - is embarrassing, both when moving across the moors and rising from the Thames. The serial boast one of Baker's best performances, and there is also gallant support from Sladen and Marter, especially the scene where the "body print" Harry attacks Sarah with a pitchfork. UNIT is also integrated into the story more realistically, but similarly to THE GREEN DEATH's depiction of Wales, TERROR OF THE ZYGONS stereo-typically treats the Scots as bagpipe-playing, kilt-wearing superstitious loons ("Can ye no send over a few haggis.")