London after Midnight

London After Midnight
Book cover for London after Midnight by Graham Humphreys

A 1920s pulp novelisation is the sort of book that you’d expect to find with a cracked cover and torn yellow pages at a collectors’ fair, rather than see lovingly republished in a tactile and tantalisingly limited edition. But in an era of mass-produced paperbacks and digital text, it’s not just Penguin Classics and the Folio Society but small presses such as the newly formed Imaginary Book Company that are keeping alive the beautiful body of the well-designed hardback. Their edition of London after Midnight is a rare beast indeed: a hybrid of the British and American versions of the novelisation of Hollywood’s first and long-lost vampire film, it illuminates one of the holy grails of silent cinema, reminds us of the connection between the detective genre and the supernatural, and repositions the debates about the merits of fan fiction and spin-offs almost a century before E.L. James’s Twilight homage, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Described by Jonathan Coe as ‘that bastard, misshapen offspring of the cinema and the written word’, the novelisation has usually been a derided form. It has existed alongside cinema since the early years of feature-length movies, to augment the commercial success of a film by satisfying the fans’ desire for more – to relive the experience, to expand upon it. But who buys these things anyway? Geeks and nerds (specialists), or relatives who don’t know what the cool kids really want for Christmas? My teenage enthusiasm for David Lynch’s film of The Elephant Man extended to the gift (or purchase? I don’t remember) of its novelisation by Christine Sparks (Futura, 1980), who in the 1970s-80s wrote diverse novelisations – Yanks, The Good Life, The Enigma Files, Open All Hours – before her bibliographic trail runs cold. The back cover claims the book was ‘based on the life of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and not upon the Broadway play or any other fictional account’. Eight pages of production photographs in the middle of the novel are given captions, not to credit the actors and name the characters (e.g. ‘Anne Bancroft as Mrs Kendal’) but as if they were part of a biographical story written in the present tense (‘Befriended by Mrs Kendal, Merrick’s future seems bright with hope…’). Novelisations still exist, mainly as franchises for the younger market – although Hammer have recently revitalised their publishing arm – but the advent of home entertainment in the 1980s and particularly the greater capacity of DVD by the early 21st century challenged their reason to exist as video made ownership of the movie possible, and in a format that expands on the original experience by including not just stills galleries but additional material such as commentaries, interviews, documentaries and deleted scenes.

We’ve rapidly become used to the accessibility of almost every film, on DVD or via the internet, so the prospect of being unable to track down or revisit a movie feels like a thing of the past, like smallpox or infant mortality. The destruction of the 1927 film of London after Midnight in an archive fire took out a work that, even if it was not to be the best of director Tod Browning or star Lon Chaney (but who’s to know, now that it can never be reassessed?), would remain a thing of fascination, thanks to the enduring popularity of the Gothic sensibility in film and literature, and the fact that its creators were between them responsible for many of the defining moments of cinematic grotesque.

Born in 1880 (probably) and having escaped from an eccentric Louisville, Kentucky family at the turn of the century, Tod Browning began his career literally buried alive in the world of carnival sideshows and vaudeville. In the burgeoning silent film industry he made dozens of movies, his superior knowledge of the canon of British Gothic literature inspiring his work and establishing his reputation as cinema’s Edgar Allan Poe. In 1919 producer Irving Thalberg paired Browning with actor Lon Chaney for their first film together, The Wicked Girl, a silent melodrama. Born Leonidas Frank Chaney on 1 April 1883, Chaney was the child of deaf parents who became a skilled mime and vaudevillian actor and was later known for his transformative skills in such iconic roles as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). He would make 10 films with Browning, including circus story The Unholy Three (a silent version in 1925, remade as Chaney’s only sound film in 1930) and The Unknown (1927), in which he plays Alonzo the Armless, a knife-throwing sideshow freak in a love triangle. London after Midnight was to be Browning and Chaney’s next film.

The Unknown
The Unknown

After the MGM archive fire of May 1967 all that was left of London after Midnight was the production stills, and to mark the film’s 75th anniversary in 2002 Turner Classic Movies commissioned film preservationist Rick Schmidlin to produce a 45-minute long photo-film based on nearly 200 stills edited according to the film’s continuity script to give a sense of what it could have been like. Available as an extra on Warners’ Lon Chaney Collection DVD box-set, the photo-film is well constructed but unavoidably feels repetitious, stagey and stilted. The plot revolves around private detective and hypnotist ‘Professor’ Burke, who is called to investigate the apparent suicide of Sir James Hamlin’s friend Roger Balfour and uncovers a nest of vampires in a decrepit mansion before revealing the identity of the murderer. Neither particularly lyrical nor mysterious in its own right (in contrast to that most famous of photo-films, Chris Marker’s La jetée, for example), this version of London after Midnight very much leaves the viewer with the impression that the real story lies elsewhere, in what cannot be seen. A shooting script doesn’t convey much more than the bare bones of the narrative because it is the prose that evokes the spirit of a story, in the same way that production stills can barely begin to capture the complexities of performance, and the abbreviated dialogue of silent film intertitles (credited here to MGM titles writer Joe Farnham – ‘Brevity was his Bible’) can only say so much.

We know that many of even the earliest films were based on stage shows or books, such as Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow’s 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland or the silent adaptions of Shakespeare’s plays and Charles Dickens’s novels because the titles have become literary classics. But it can still be a surprise to discover that a well-known film was based on a forgotten book, or realise that Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser-known silent feature The Manxman (1929) was based on a bestselling novel of 1894 by Hall Caine, largely a forgotten name now but in his day a wildly popular writer associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Then – as now – the studio machine turned over a vast amount of material, and it could be both quicker and more reliable to adapt a novel than to generate completely new screenplays. And in marketing terms, the odds of investing in the adaptation and production of a better-known entity are greater than the chances of going for something more obscure. But what if the story that the filmmaker wants to tell belongs to someone else and can’t be bought?

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula had not been an immediate best-seller, but the reviews were good and its reputation grew steadily during the early part of the 20th century. In 1921 German director F.W. Murnau directed an unauthorised first adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu eine Symphonie des Grauens, demonstrating that the haunted screen of silent expressionist cinema and folkloric supernatural subject matter were spectacular bed-fellows, and setting the ground rules for the next century’s worth of Gothic film imagery. Scripted by Henrik Galeen – also responsible for The Golem (1915) and The Student of Prague (1926) – the plots of Nosferatu and Dracula are very similar, their differences being name changes, the setting (from Britain in the 1890s to Germany in 1838) and the omission of secondary characters. There are also some subtle variations in vampire behaviour, for example Nosferatu’s Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck) does not create other vampires, but kills his victims, which the townsfolk blame on the plague. Whereas Count Dracula is only weakened by sunlight, Orlok sleeps by day because sunlight will kill him – and he is ultimately destroyed at sunrise by a woman’s sacrifice.

Nosferatu Symphony des Grauens
Nosferatu eine Symphonie des Grauens

Dracula was adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Hamilton Deane in 1924, and opened at the Little Theatre in London’s West End on 14 February 1927. As Stoker’s widow had successfully sued Murnau for plagiarism and the film rights to Dracula remained unavailable, by the spring of that year Browning had written an original story, ‘The Hypnotist’. It was cloaked in the studio-friendly detective story, this literary genre having emerged strongly during the mid-19th century due to the popularity of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and its narrative compatibility with both stage and screen. The machinations of the detective story meant that the audience wasn’t asked to believe in the ‘horrible impossible’ but in the plausibility of the horrible possible. In 1924 Conan Doyle published ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, a short story that plays upon the fear of vampires within a domestic setting as a man suspects his wife of sucking the blood from their baby son’s neck. Holmes investigates and debunks the vampire theory, finding the culprit to be the man’s crippled older son who has been jealously shooting poisoned darts at his baby half-brother, the infant’s mother having extracted the poison by sucking it out of the wound. Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism had developed around the same time as his creation of Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century (1886-87), but he generally kept the two separate. As a doctor, Conan Doyle was also fascinated by experiments in healing and thought transference through mesmerism and hypnotism. Hypnotism had not been part of Stoker’s original novel, but was introduced into the stage play of Dracula, as by the 1920s the phenomenon had become increasingly popular as a compelling method for detecting the truth, with currency not just in stage entertainment but in self-knowledge (Freud was an enthusiastic proponent of hypnotherapy before developing psychoanalysis) and criminology. Hypnotism became the lynchpin of Browning’s story.

Scripted by Waldemar Young (who also wrote The Unholy Three and The Unknown), ‘The Hypnotist’/London after Midnight was sufficiently different from Dracula to avoid charges of plagiarism while retaining enough similarities to satisfy blood-thirsty audiences turned on by the Count. The familiar Gothic iconography of haunted houses, cobwebbed rooms, howling wolves and swirling mists, but more specifically the bats and fangs and bitten necks, also the business of estate rental and the stock characters of the ineffectual clerk and his pure bride, root London after Midnight in Dracula’s territory. The film began shooting on 24 July 1927 for a month, and Browning came in a week under schedule on a budget of $152,000. Meanwhile Hamilton Deane’s play had been rewritten by John L. Balderston for its Broadway debut on 5 October 1927, starring the Hungarian classical stage actor Bela Lugosi (born Béla Ferenc Dezs&#245 Blaskó, 1882). The play would run for over two hundred performances before touring the country, warming up the audience for Browning’s film, which opened in the States in December 1927, with the novelisation on sale soon after in 1928.

Marie Coolidge-Rask was a hack journalist formerly of the Pittsburgh Press (Illustrated Magazine Section), who the year before had authored the book versions of King Vidor’s La Boheme, starring Lillian Gish, and Sparrows, starring Mary Pickford (both 1926). It seems that the first version of Young’s script was probably the basis for her novelisation of London after Midnight for US photo-play edition publisher Grosset & Dunlap, and that she would have been unlikely to have seen Browning’s finished film in advance of writing. The differences between Rick Schmidlin’s photo-film, which has Joe Farnham’s titles and is based on Young’s second-version script, dated 16 July 1927 (reprinted along stills of the excised scenes in Philip J. Riley’s 1985 book London after Midnight, although the 2011 version of it instead uses a facsimile script dated 21 July 1927 of almost identical content), and Marie Coolidge-Rask’s novelisation are, if not like night to day, then certainly revealing of a substantial literary reworking of the basic story and the procedural whodunit.

Coolidge-Rask developed the family melodrama as the framework for her story. The lonely widower Roger Balfour has committed suicide, leaving his two young children, Harry and Lucy, to be adopted by his friend and neighbour, Sir James Hamlin. Balfour House is left empty to rot. The children’s future seems assured, but five years later after an argument about the renovation of the property, Harry is found dead in the neglected grounds of Balfour House, with small wounds in his throat. Strange tenants have moved into the decrepit Balfour House, and Lucy, the last of the Balfours, can hear her name being called from beyond the trees. Unlike some other early cinema novelisations, Coolidge-Rask’s introduces not so much a sense of colour and life – it remains a black and white tale of the un-dead – but a great deal of atmospheric sound into what would have been a silent film accompanied only by a small orchestra or lone pianist. The pages reverberate with howling banshees, screaming maids and the clatter of a black cat knocking over saucepans in the kitchen chaos of a household descending into panic. There are streams of dialogue, much of which is colloquially written to give a strong sense of individual voices, particularly those of the lower classes.

The book features subtle changes to names and relationships. For example, in the photo-film Sir James has a nephew called Arthur Hibbs, who is referred to as ‘Jerry’ by Lucy in the script while the novelisation has a secretary named Jeremiah Hibbs. The photo-film shows that Harry’s death was cut from the final movie, but it’s there as the opening scenes of the script; meanwhile the book dwells upon Harry’s disappearance and the discovery of his corpse with the mysterious marks on its neck as key moments within the story. Coolidge-Rask also amplifies the central character of Colonel Yates, the occult expert recently returned from India with a head full of ancient beliefs and a fistful of charms. While the shooting script and photo-film are clear that Burke and Yates are one and the same, in the book this is not revealed until the end. It’s likely that even if Browning and Young had initially conceived of wildly different triple roles for Chaney – the Scotland Yard Detective, the Man in the Beaver Hat, and Colonel Yates – this had proved too confusing for such a slender film. Although MGM was cabled by Scotland Yard during the production requesting more information about the film in order to give permission to use shots of its building, the shooting script shows that scenes 18-48 – apparently establishing Chaney as the Detective – were cut. The final film was just 65 minutes long.

London After Midnight1
London after Midnight

Famous as the actor with a thousand faces, Chaney excelled in multiple roles. But while the Scotland Yard detective of Coolidge-Rask’s novel cameos as a Machiavellian figure behind the scenes of the drama – almost like the writer or director of the picture itself –Chaney’s dour ‘Professor’ seems to have been a much less impactful character, allowing his stunning alter-ego, The Man in the Beaver Hat, to steal the show. Young’s script comments that when Burke (as Yates) fondly puts his hand to his cheek where Lucy has kissed him, ‘we have a feeling that if his life were to be lived over again he would like to have romance in it’. Meanwhile the vampire is ‘more ghost-like than human… twisted and mis-shapen. Mostly eyes and teeth’. His image scorched itself onto the audiences’ retinas and – like Malcolm McDowell’s psychopathic Alex in A Clockwork Orange decades later – became part of the popular imagination; Chaney was responsible, as always, for designing his own make-up, and the power of his top-hatted, pointy-toothed, ghoulish image was such that ‘he’ inspired a real-life murder in Hyde Park in 1928, of which The Times newspaper reported that ‘[the prisoner] thought he saw Lon Chaney, a film actor, in a corner, shouting and making faces at him. He did not remember taking a razor from his pocket, or using the razor on the girl or on himself’.

While Coolidge-Rask goes to town with the tropes of Gothic horror and revels in themes of drug addiction and alcoholism that would have not pleased the silent film censors, her representation of the subplot of paedophilia – Sir James’s unhealthy interest in the 13-year-old orphan Lucy – is no stronger in the book than in Young’s script or what we can see in the photo-film. Although in 1927 the film of London after Midnight was not subject to as much scrutiny as its subsequent remake, Mark of the Vampire – made after the enforcement of the 1934 Hays Code and cut on the grounds of incest – Coolidge-Rask seems to have had little interest in detailing the unedifying relationship, despite its pot-boiling potential.

Even given the pulp genre credentials of London after Midnight, today the novel also reads a little like historical true crime. With its crisp attention to the architecture of English country houses, awareness of class differences, portrayal of the ineptitude of the local police and a pervasive fear that the capacity for the ‘horrible possible’ could come from within the family itself, it’s not too much of stretch of the imagination to say that the pleasures of this surprising text could sit alongside those of Kate Summerscale’s best-selling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008). For that reason, one hopes that Imaginary’s new edition – limited to just 300 copies – will find its way to public libraries, and not be snapped up and kept hidden away by private collectors. It certainly isn’t one for the Kindle, with its thick creamy pages and cobwebbed inlays, full of exquisite details such as the tiny image of a black bat printed at the end of each chapter and again in gold on the clothbound cover, hand-printed and stickered marks of authenticity and, incredibly, a die-cut Desmodontinae bookmark. The cover art image of Chaney’s Man in the Beaver Hat (by contemporary London-based graphic designer Graham Humphreys) evokes the illustrated film posters of the day but with a twist. In true novelisation style, this edition includes 15 pages of tobacco-tinted stills, the original Editor’s Note, a new introduction and, with some poignancy, the Times newspaper obituary of Lon Chaney, who died of throat cancer in 1930 aged 47.

Would Lon Chaney have played Dracula if he had lived? According to Philip J. Riley’s book Dracula Starring Lon Chaney (2010), the actor had indeed been in negotiations with Universal to play the Count (other sources speculate that he would have played the dual roles of Dracula and Van Helsing), despite recently signing a new contract with MGM and having agreed to a sound-version remake of The Unholy Three, albeit without Browning as director. Following the North American success of the stage play, Universal had acquired the screen rights from Stoker/Deane/Balderson for $40,000. For the script they had hired best-selling novelist (but film industry novice) Louis Bromfield, who’d won the Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for his novel Early Autumn, teamed with screenwriter Dudley Murphy (co-director of Fernand Léger’s 1924 surrealist short Ballet Mécanique). The Browning biography Dark Carnival by David J. Skal and Elias Savada (1995) details Bromfield’s attempts to realise the first sound version and official adaptation of Dracula, and the fact that in the event, the final scenario for the film was written by Garrett Fort.

Browning was hired to direct, and, despite the fact that there seems to have been disagreement about the casting, he seems to have always favoured Bela Lugosi to reprise his 1927-28 stage role as the Count (Universal had reservations about the audience-pulling power of a non-American lead). Lugosi had recently appeared in Browning’s first sound film, The Thirteenth Chair (1929), also released in a silent version, as the uncanny Inspector Delzante who solves a murder mystery with the aid of a spirit medium. Some accounts of the making of Dracula have the previously meticulous (but now alcoholic) Browning in a state of distraction and despondency, discarding pages of the scripts and leaving much of the director’s vision to cinematographer Karl Freund, who worked through a translator and always wore white gloves – although the inexplicable appearance of some Texan nine-banded armadillos in Dracula’s Central European castle could only have been attributed to Browning. Skal and Savada assert that Browning and Freund would almost certainly have studied the print of Murnau’s Nosferatu captured by Universal, as there are numerous similarities between the two films, but Browning also ransacked his earlier work for ideas, notably London after Midnight.

Yet, strangely, while that silent era film inspired a novelisation that revelled in sound, Browning’s sound version of Dracula was a film of silences, almost devoid of music. Universal also prepared a silent version of the film for those cinemas not equipped for sound projection; the number of intertitles used in this version was more than twice that in The Unknown, which is testament to the fact that the plot had come to rely on dialogue. Lugosi had to rein in his stage techniques for the screen, while his limited fluency in English resulted in, as Skal and Savada state, ‘a highly mannered and oddly inflected style that become his trademark – and the very essence of vampire elocution’. When Terence Fisher came to make his 1958 version of Dracula for Hammer, Christopher Lee played the Count without speaking, as if to erase the traces of Lugosi (Hammer had perhaps not reckoned on Lee’s rich, aristocratic drawl being a perfect fit for a new kind of vampire antihero).

Dracula (1931)

Dracula took two disorganised months to shoot, and by night producer Paul Kohner shot a rival Spanish-language production on the same sets with a completely different cast and crew, including director George Melford. Browning’s budget was $355,000 (it actually came in overspent at $441,000), Kohner’s a mere $68,000, but the latter emerged as technically superior. Browning was not allowed the final cut, and the studio trimmed the director’s version down by nearly 10 minutes. Dracula premiered on Thursday 12 February 1931 (ironically moved forward a day from the unlucky Friday 13), apocryphally advertised as ‘the strangest love story of them all’ as a counterpoint to St Valentine’s Day. Lugosi’s performance was almost universally praised and the film was a box office sensation, pulling in $1.2m worldwide and stabilising Universal’s finances to give the studio its only profitable year throughout the Great Depression. The film was uniquely frightening to audiences at a terrifying moment in social history, and thus marked a turning point in American cinema.

Although Browning subsequently horrified both his employers and the public with his extraordinary circus sideshow movie Freaks in 1932, MGM was in need of a horror film to rival Universal’s The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer’s adaption of Edgar Allan Poe’s story) and its upcoming Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale’s sequel to his 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. So Browning was hired again in 1935 to remake London after Midnight as Vampires of Prague or Mark of the Vampire, with a first version of the script by Guy Endore, whose 1933 novel Werewolf of Paris had been a ground-breaking best-seller. Numerous other writers contributed to the final version, including John L. Balderston, co-author of the stage version of Dracula. Lugosi was cast in just one of Chaney’s parts – that of the vampire, a caricature of Count Dracula. Lugosi and his much younger co-star Carroll Borland played their demonic father/daughter roles with great chemistry between them and were apparently oblivious to the fact that Browning had scripted an ending that revealed the vampires to be nothing more than actors. Fakes. The film is both highly derivative of Browning’s previous work, yet also in its own way innovative, as Borland’s character and performance created the prototype of the mute, yet hissing and growling, straight-haired female vampire that has haunted popular culture ever since. Production stills show Browning as a crumpled, broken figure; during filming his catch-phrase was ‘Lon Chaney would have done it better’. Unlike London after Midnight, Mark of the Vampire ran over schedule and budget. Despite being a sound film, like Dracula it was released without music, while Franz Waxman’s vital, atmospheric score for Bride of Frankenstein was the sweet music that underlined Universal’s triumph in the battle of the studio horrors.

Browning’s next film would be The Devil Doll (1936), inspired by fantasy writer Abraham Merritt’s dark arts novel Burn, Witch, Burn! (1933). But by 1939 his career as a director was over, although he stayed on the MGM payroll until 1942, during which time it has been claimed that Browning wrote mystery stories pseudonymously for pulp magazines. After decades of drug addiction, Bela Lugosi died in 1956 and was buried wearing his Dracula costume and make-up. Browning did not attend the funeral. Hobbled by gout and still drinking two dozen bottles of beer a day, Browning himself died in 1962, aged 82 (or possibly 88, depending on which version is to be believed). In accordance with Browning’s wishes, no funeral service or memorial was held.

The industrial speed with which both Browning/MGM made the film of London after Midnight and Grosset & Dunlap published Coolidge-Rask’s novelisation is probably a thing of the past. Stories were adapted, films were produced and remade, books came out of them, all in a cycle of quick succession. Nitrate film prints of the silent era were deemed without value, and recycled to extract their silver while avoiding print storage costs. Key titles of early cinema were routinely lost. But since the early days of Dracula, Nosferatu and London after Midnight, things have changed. Films and books are now routinely archived and preserved, while the cultural appeal of the vampire story has risen again and again, maybe ebbing and flowing from one generation to the next, but at an early 21st-century high, not least with the appeal of the Twilight series (based on a book, of course, by Stephanie Meyer). There have been many Draculas, and much debate about which actor best portrayed the Count. London after Midnight’s meeting of the occult monster and the detective seems now like an exceptionally early manifestation of what would become a popular trend in mid-late 20th-century Hollywood and pulp fiction, the mashing up of legends for new twists. Meanwhile the detective story also went on to capture new audiences in their millions, particularly the recent television adaptations of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for the BBC (with book spin-offs by Guy Adams). But if anyone knows whatever happened to Marie Coolidge-Rask after 1928 – or whether the Christine Sparks of The Elephant Man book became the prolific romantic novelist Lucy Gordon – that would clear up another little mystery … or case of mistaken identity.

The BFI’s Gothic season runs in cinemas UK-wide and online until January 2014. For further information visit the BFI website.

Jane Giles

Cine Books on the King of the B-Movie, British Horror Oddities and American Independents

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses

Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie
By Chris Nashawaty
247pp. £19.99


X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film
By John Hamilton
Hemlock Books
244pp. £17.95

Directory of World Cinema American Independent 2

Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2
By John Berra
Ed. Intellect
320pp. £16

Christmas came early for me this year. I received a copy of Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses, which is one of those fantastic coffee-table books that can only be described as ‘lush’. The book is not only beautifully and lovingly put together, but is one of the best and most pleasurable overviews of the formidable Roger Corman’s film career in print. The last few years, especially since Hollywood finally deigned to give Corman an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, have seen his critical star rise and rise. But film fans already realised long before academics did that Roger Corman is a figure of brilliance and wonder in the firmament of American cinema. Without his initial support and chance-taking on novice directors and actors – and the skinflint budgets of Arkoff & Nicholson of American International Pictures (A.I.P) – we may never have had the future pleasure of the company of Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Monte Hellman, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Haskell Wexler, Jonathon Demme and dozens of other directors, writers and actors from the ‘Corman School’. There are substantial interviews and commentaries from these directors, who uniformly speak in praiseworthy, sardonic and anecdotally apt terms of their mentor. When first-timer Ron Howard complained – as many directors had before and after – about the impossible shooting schedule, the small crew and the desperate need for a bit of cash for some extras to shoot a crowd scene, Howard recounts that Corman put his hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Ron, I’m not going to get you more extras. But know this: If you do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.’

Abrams have produced a book that is a cornucopia of visuals – poster art, stills and on-set photographs – and unusual for most coffee-table books, includes many pages of informative observation. I am a bit smitten with Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses and consider it my book of the year in the category of film-publishing delectables. Stephen King has called it ‘Fantastic – a treasure trove’ and who am I to disagree? On an interesting note, it has recently been announced that ‘ex-student’ Joe Dante is to make a biopic about Roger Corman, who is now in his mid-80s, and the great man is going to take a cameo role.

In my last column I waxed lyrical about the book Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. And now with the publication of X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film comes a volume that can stand proudly beside it as another informed enthusiast, and inveterate viewer, of films from the ‘wrong side’ of the British cinema-tracks takes us on a journey there. This time the book concerns the other world (and other-worldly) domain of lesser known and barely remembered British horror films. And these films are not ‘independent’ in the American indie sense, but independent in terms of vision (very blurry in the case of some), finance, studio backing and producers. John Hamilton has obviously done his homework here – not in theoretical but in historic and cultural terms – with lively notes on each film’s anatomy, plot and reception. At the end of each entry is a clever segue into the next, which serves as a great aid to continuity and chronology. Not to be missed for fans of the genre or those interested in films that critics like C.A. Lejeune of The Observer and Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times denigrated and dismissed from their imagined ‘quality British cinema’ agenda. But now the cinematic undead rise from their celluloid tombs, and are being heard because John Hamilton has given them voice. Recommended.

The Intellect imprint continues to push out its titles thick and fast, with recent additions to two of its ongoing series, World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema. The former focusses on the role of particular international cities and their place visually, culturally and sometimes psychogeographically within the cinematic forum, while the latter concentrates on national cinemas and has provided a much-needed publishing niche for overviews of both well and less well-known world cinemas. Latin America and Turkey are two such recent additions to the series, while American Independent 2 bucks the thematic trend somewhat by focussing on American indie cinema (a typology of production type) rather than following the usual strict, national cinema format.

For more information on all recent additions to Intellect’s World Film Locations and Directory of World Cinema series visit the Intellect website.

Of course, the whole issue of ‘independent’, given the continuing practice of corporate Hollywood taking control of many ‘independent’ films in terms of distribution (and finance), is a convoluted one, as editor John Berra touches upon in his introductory overview. I have come to trust Berra’s opinions and observations (he is a recurring name at Intellect as editor and contributor) and this particular title is insightful and will prove to be referentially useful for students of film. Just as Turkey and Latin America will likewise prove to be as introductory texts to various national cinemas which we often do not hear enough about. The series usually starts off with an essay on the ‘film of the year’, which seems a curious strategy, given that by the time the book is published it is already dated, because the film festival circuit has usually already presented the one of the following year. Far better, I feel, to subsume the key film within the body of the text and not chance perceived obsolescence. As for the series on film locations, I suggest that any cinephile or traveller who wants to get a handle on their chosen destination in terms of the cinematic – and hence cultural, social, historical and political – background gets hold of a copy about the place in question before leaving home. This could well change your whole itinerary.

James B. Evans

In keeping with the above theme of Roger Corman and A.I.P, this edition of Cine Lit’s object of note is the enjoyable romp that is the memoir of Samuel Arkoff, who along with lawyer James Nicholson founded A.I.P., the company that launched – well, sustained! – a thousand drive-in screens across North America. While bunking off for an afternoon from the Toronto Film Festival to haunt the second-hand bookstores, I found a hardcover copy of the memoir, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants (Birch Lane Press, 1992), for the very reasonable price of $4.99. This tongue-in-cheek look back at Arkoff’s misadventures in the ‘picture business’ (the subtitle is The Man Who Brought You I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF & MUSCLE BEACH PARTY ) is an important historical document of the period, as well as an insightful look at ‘the business’. Arkoff was one of the last cigar-chompin’ independent showmen whose verve, swagger and chutzpah drove him to produce over 375 films, about which he writes: ‘AIP’s pictures have always just taken audiences out of their everyday world and transported them somewhere else. Today’s movies use their big budgets as selling points and they still don’t hit an audience half as hard as ours always have.’ Those who got their first chance with A.I.P collectively gave us such gems as: The Wild Angels, How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, Bloody Mama, House of Usher, The Thing With Two Heads, Blacula, Cannibal Girls, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, The Trip and the unforgettable The Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy. ‘Nuff said… SAVE THIS BOOK. JE

Interview with Roger Corman – Part 1

The Pit and the Pendulum
Roger Corman and Vincent Price on the set of The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season. For more information visit the BFI website

Dates: 26 November 2013 (The Pit and the Pendulum), 27 November 2013 (The Masque of the Red Death)

Venue: BFI Southbank

As part of the BFI’s ‘Gothic’ season, veteran film director and producer Roger Corman visited London in October 2013 to introduce a screening of his film The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The season also includes Corman’s lurid and unforgettable film The Masque of the Red Death (1964), the penultimate movie in his sequence of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.

In the first part of his interview with Roger Corman, Alex Fitch talks to the legendary director and producer about his early career, the differences between shooting in monochrome and colour, and his art of remixing other people’s movies.

Alex Fitch: You produced your first film at the age of 28 and directed your first film a year later. In terms of the start of your career, you trained as an industrial engineer before having a moment of clarity and realising that you’d made a terrible mistake. You worked as a mail boy at Twentieth Century Fox, then a script reader. Working at the fringes of the film industry at that point, was it a challenge to work your way up the ladder?

Roger Corman: It was very hard. At that time there were very few independents – there were some but not very many – almost everything was done within studios. The studios were 100% unionised, and you couldn’t get in to the union without all kinds of things happening. The only position in the studio that was not unionised was the messengers.

I suppose it’s quite similar today, that you get loads of people breaking into the British film industry by working as runners to get their foot in the door.


The genres that you mainly worked in during the 1950s were Westerns, Horror, Gangster movies. Were they genres you were already interested in as a cinemagoer, or did you see a gap in the market?

A combination of both. Then, and to this day, the films I make are partially things I’m interested in, and partially things I believe will work in the market place. It’s the old statement: motion pictures are part art and part business.

You’ve gone back and forth between being a producer and being a director. Are they both roles you love equally?

I liked it best when I was producer and director, because as a producer/director, you truly are this overused word ‘auteur’; you are responsible specifically for what is going on. When I was a director only, I chafed a little bit at some of things suggested or sometimes ordered by the producer. When I’m a producer only, I’m sometimes amazed at some of the choices the directors make.

How hands on are you as a producer? Do you generally – when you’ve chosen someone – trust in their vision, or occasionally do you have to give them a prod?

As a producer I’m probably less hands on than just about any other producer I know; that is, I’m less hands on during the shooting. I’m very much there during preproduction and postproduction. The pictures are almost always ideas I’ve come up with: I’ll write a three-to-five page treatment, then hire a writer to do the screenplay, then bring in the director. Generally, I’ll bring in the director before the final draft of the screenplay, so that he gets his input into the screenplay, so it’s something he understands and can work with. Then I’ll collaborate or work with the director a great deal before shooting, particularly on the themes, how he plans to shoot, what his emphases are, what his interpretations of the characters are. So, I’m really there, all through preproduction, but once production starts, I just totally step away. I know some producers who are sitting there all day long, every day during shooting. To me there’s nothing duller than sitting on the set watching somebody else direct the picture. I’ll be there the first morning, and – if it’s all going well – by noon, I’ve left the set and probably will never come back.

Also, I suppose it’s unnerving for the director if the producer is always looking over their shoulder…

…and particularly, the first pictures on which I was a producer only, I found that the crews were coming to me, asking me questions that they should have been asking the director, and that was one of my reasons for stepping away. I know that having been a director, the director wants to be in charge, and should be, on the set.

Conversely, with the very first films you worked on in the 1950s, you were sitting in on the sets, to learn the craft by watching other people?

Yes. The first two films I produced, I was on the set every day. On the first film I was partially a grip, and I was the only producer/truck driver! I drove the truck as well… We shot the picture in a week. I would drive to the location, unload as much of the equipment as I could by myself, before the crew arrived, in order to save the amount of time they had to spend, and I’d be there all day. At the end of the day, the grips would load the heavy equipment onto the truck, everybody would leave, I would load the rest of the equipment and drive home, and repeat it the next day.

…and I suppose when you’re making low-budget movies, it garners you respect if you’re one of the gang…

They knew that I was working as hard, or harder than they were!

A series of films that you worked on, possibly your most renowned period of work, were the Technicolor Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1960s. Having worked on low budget black and white films in the 1950s, moving to colour must have created all sorts of new challenges – not as prevalent in monochrome – set dressing, lighting, costume design and so on. How did you find that experience? Was it at all terrifying or did you find it a natural progression?

It was a natural progression. There was very little change in the way I worked. I used the camera a little bit differently, and after talking to the cameraman, I was lighting a little bit differently. Danny Haller – a great friend of mine – was our art director, and he and I would discuss the sets. We worked with different colour schemes and patterns on the sets.

Watch the trailer for The Pit and the Pendulum:

You probably brought Poe to an entirely new audience. Did you feel at that time that he was a writer being under represented in the cinema?

Yes, I felt that Poe was under represented and was really not getting the attention he deserved in the American canon. He was thought of as an interesting writer, but not really one of the great writers, and I always felt he was one of the greats.

Presumably he still had a good reputation, so did that make it easier to choose him as the subject of your first colour movies?

Actually my first colour movie was a Western, but after that, with my next colour films, I chose Poe because I wanted to do an Edgar Allan Poe picture. I’d been making these ten-day, black-and-white films, two of them would go together as a double bill, and I convinced American International Pictures that they should let me go shoot for three weeks and make a picture in colour, and that was The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).

Towards the end of your Poe cycle, you had a young Nicholas Roeg as your cinematographer, shooting The Masque of the Red Death (1964). What was he like?

He was one of the best cinematographers I ever worked with. He was very inventive and his use of colour… We had discussed it before shooting started, and he went beyond what I anticipated. I thought the film was beautifully shot.

Watch the trailer for The Masque of the Red Death:

At the same time you were making those Poe films, you helped young directors remix various Russian sci-fi films that you’d bought the rights to. The art of remixing foreign films already existed, started with films like Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), Invasion of the Animal People (1959), and later in the 60s, Woody Allen would do What’s up, Tiger Lily? (1966), but it felt that you were almost nurturing a new art form.

Well, it was a new form, I’m not certain it was a new art form! What I was doing with the Russian science fiction films… I’d seen one of them and American science fiction films were very popular – I made a number of them myself – but we were making them on very low budgets and I’d seen this Russian film, which was clearly made on a big budget, a giant budget. It had wonderful sets and wonderful special effects, far superior to what we were doing. They only problem was the anti-American propaganda, so I wasn’t so much recutting the films as such, I was removing the anti-American sentiment. That was Francis Ford Coppola’s first job – cutting the propaganda out of Russian science fiction films.

Read Alex Fitch’s feature article on Roger Corman: The Producer as Jackdaw Filmmaker.

It was pretty wild. I remember I went to Moscow to buy those films and they had incredible anti-American propaganda in them. We of course had anti-Russian propaganda, but our propaganda was one tenth of theirs. Theirs was really outrageous, and I said to this guy in Moscow: ‘You know I’m going to have to cut this anti-American feeling, I’m going have to cut it all out.’ He laughed and said: ’I know that!’

By the time you got to Queen of Blood (1966), Curtis Harrington used about three different Russian films, so it really does feel like a remix of found footage.

At that time, it was our found footage! The only time I really did that was on these science fiction films.

Although, a film you produced in the late 1970s – Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) – you did reuse that later on in your career, with bits of special effects here and there, and I believe the score reappeared in a number of your films. Was it a project you were so proud of, you thought: ‘Let’s keep getting it out there?’

I was proud of it and also there was an economic factor. It was one of James Horner’s first scores, a brilliant score and really better than what I was getting from other composers. So, it just seemed illogical not to use his score again. We always used it in science fiction films. With the special effects, I was reusing primarily space ships that were designed by James Cameron. His first time in Hollywood was designing those model spaceships.

Watch the trailer for Battle Beyond the Stars:

Interview by Alex Fitch

Raindance 2013: Way Out East

The Kirishima Thing
The Kirishima Thing

Raindance Film Festival

25 Sept – 6 Oct 2013

London, UK

Raindance website

The Raindance Film Festival has a history of screening independent Asian cinema, and this year was no exception, with 13 films showing in the Way Out East strand, including the world premiere of Gen Takahashi’s Court of Zeus. Below, Sarah Cronin takes a look at some of the highlights.

The Kirishima Thing (Daihachi Yoshida, 2012)
A polished, intelligent and entertaining film, Daihachi Yoshida’s The Kirishima Thing won the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the Japanese Academy Awards. Taking place over a period of five days, a series of events is revealed from different points of view in this compelling high school drama. The title relates to star pupil and athlete Kirishima, who mysteriously quits the volleyball team and disappears from school, leaving behind a trail of teen angst. He won’t answer his girlfriend’s texts; his best friends, who skip the virtually compulsive after-school activities to hang out playing basketball, are left in the dark; while his replacement on the volleyball team is bullied for not being Kirishima’s equal out on the court.

With its obvious focus on cliques, the films has well-known elements of the American teen drama: there are the attractive, popular kids; the shy, nerdy outsiders (in this case, they’ve all joined the cinema club, sneakily making a zombie film), and the rebels. There’s the popular, pretty girl who secretly wants to join the cinema club but knows she never will, and there are the familiar heartbreaking crushes, and the devastating disappointments of adolescence. But despite these familiar tropes, the film still feels refreshing. Yoshida shines a light on the pressure inflicted on Japanese teens, with the after-school clubs seen as necessary for future success. Ultimately, that’s why Kirishima’s disappearance is so disturbing to his fellow students; it’s like the near-equivalent of suicide.

Sake-Bomb (Junya Sakino, 2013)
There are some genuine laugh-out loud moments in Sake-Bomb (admittedly mostly in the first 30 minutes), an entertainingly diverting film about the insecurities of growing up Asian-American in California, packaged in the form of a road movie of sorts. Sebastian (Eugene Kim) is unemployed, obnoxious, arrogant, and spends most of his time trying to develop a following for his YouTube channel, where he posts endless videos ripping apart Asian stereotypes. Justifiably dumped by his girlfriend, he has nothing else to do when his small-town cousin, Naoto (Gaku Hamada), arrives from Japan on an ill-fated quest to find the love of his life, his former English teacher, who suddenly returned to California without an explanation. As they travel north to San Francisco, a series of encounters with a dizzy cast of characters reveal Sebastian’s spiteful cynicism, which thaws when he meets Joslyn, a cool, equally misanthropic writer always up for fun. But it’s Naoto, charming and likeable, if hopelessly naïve, who eventually makes Sebastian confront the bitterness that he feels as an outsider.

Sake-Bomb is a charming, if slight, film that appears more interesting for its subtext rather than how it’s put together. Sebastian’s rants about the under-representation of Asian-Americans, for example, is spot on, and it’s refreshing to see Japanese-born director Junya Sakino trying to do something to redress that balance in a comedic, painfully honest way.

Watch the trailer for Sake-Bomb :

Court of Zeus (Gen Takahashi, 2013)
Director Gen Takahashi’s follow-up to Confessions of a Dog, shares the same ethos as its predecessor: a concern for the corruption that eats away at any notion of fairness in the Japanese legal system. In turn, Takahashi’s films expose the wider problems with the society at large: deference towards elders, the obsession with saving face, and the treatment of women.

Read Sarah Cronin’s interview with director Gen Takahashi here.

But where Confessions of a Dog was a riveting film with elements from both the action and thriller genres, Court of Zeus is a far less successful courtroom drama, about a newly appointed, work-obsessed judge, Kano, and his young, neglected fiancé, Megumi, who is arrested for murder after an altercation with her lover. While it is disturbing to learn that most cases in Japan are decided before the protagonists ever enter the courtroom, and the film tellingly reveals the misogyny that taints women’s domestic lives (once engaged, it’s impossible for her to work, and even her choice to take a floral arranging course has to be approved by her future husband), stylistically the film just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The cinematography is clunky in places and feels rather dated, and there are just too many awkward set-ups that lead to an unrealistic conclusion. Still an interesting watch, but sadly something of a disappointment in view of Takahashi’s promising previous work.

Shady (Ryohei Watanabe, 2012)
Ryohei Watanabe’s Shady initially seems like a middle-of-the-road, coming-of-age story about two high school girls who develop an unlikely friendship. The plain, painfully shy Misa, called ‘Pooh’ by her taunting classmates, clearly has no other friends than a goldfish and pet parrot to keep her company. But suddenly she finds herself adopted by the pretty, cutesy Izumi, and the two soon become best friends.

Shady is released on DVD in the UK by Third Window Films on 24 February 2014.

Although the film gets off to a slow start, making one wonder what direction it is heading in, and how it can remain so tightly focused on its two main characters, it soon becomes clear that this film is far more complex than it first seems. There are a few clues, like the disappearance of a fellow student, that are revealed in the first few minutes of the film, but in the end even the twists might not be what they first seem. Instead, Shady gradually builds into a disturbing, multi-layered drama, with impressive performances from its young leads.

Watch the trailer for Shady:

Sarah Cronin

Paula Brackston is Alien’s Ripley


Author Paula Brackston lives in a remote part of Wales and spends her spare time walking in the mountains and being serenaded by buzzards and skylarks. So it’s no surprise the landscape plays such a vivid part in the world of her book. Set in 19th-century Wales, The Winter Witch (Corsair, £7.99) is a story of love, conflict and magic, and lyrically describes how ‘wild places make wild people’. A New York Times best-selling author with an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, Paula is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport. Eithne Farry

My alter ego is Lieutenant Ellen Ripley from the movie franchise Alien.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, as I find it almost too scary to watch that film, and am not given to dashing about being brave, strong (and tall, let’s not forget tall) and generally kick-ass in a Ripley-esque fashion.

But, hey, what would be the point of having an alter ego where there is no alteration? There’s not much mileage for a film character who spends her days making things up and writing them down while eating her body-weight in shortbread. As multi-tasking goes, the action movie of my own life cannot compare to Ripley’s. Not only does she fill two screen hours (not to mention those covered by several excellent sequels) with derring-do, but she broke new ground for women in films. Hers was the character that gave writers, actors, directors et al. licence to create bold female roles who could save the day perfectly well on their own, thank you very much.

I love that Ripley is not saved by a man. I love that she isn’t stupidly glamorous, and yet is still powerfully feminine. I love that she is smart. I love that she can fire a gun/fly a spaceship/battle aliens/wield a flame-thrower better than anyone else in the film. I love that she saves the cat.

Of course she still had to strip down to her underwear – this was 1979, after all (1979!) and certain things were still expected of a female lead. Yet there was something quite progressive about even that. She may be down to her smalls, but there’s no lace or push up bra, and the scene does feel necessary to remind the by-now astonished audience that yes, folks, she did all that and she really is a woman!

So, while I might appear to do no more than sit and daydream, my alternative persona is out there slaying dragons without so much as a cup of tea, showing everyone what can be achieved with the right motivation (save life, save cat), a well-toned physique (acquired from chasing/being chased by aliens), a sound working knowledge of over-sized firearms (the hefting of which eliminates all possibility of bingo wings), and a healthy dollop of self-belief.

More information on Paula Brackston can be found here.

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 5

Why Don't You Play in Hell
Why Don't You Play in Hell?

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

In our final report from the 57th edition of the London Film Festival, we review some of our favourite titles from this year’s line up, along with one of very few disappointments.

Check out Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 of our 2013 LFF coverage.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)
After a couple of serious post-apocalyptic dramas made in reaction to the Fukushima disaster, Sion Sono returns with a gleeful, mischievously fun, candy-coloured comedic gore fest about wannabe cineastes hired by feuding yakuza to make a film. Humorously violent and deliriously excessive (as is to be expected from Sono) it features some striking scenes, from the yakuza boss’s white-clad young daughter sliding through a blood bath in their all-white living room, to the sexy, sassy, sadistic broken-glass kiss she gives a treacherous lover ten years later. The story takes a while to get to where it is obviously heading, but when it finally does, it does not disappoint: the verve with which limbs and heads are cut off and blood liberally spilt in the final showdown as the fanatic filmmakers continue to shoot is giddily, stupidly exhilarating. After the underlying darkness and complexities of Guilty of Romance, Cold Fish, Love Exposure and Suicide Club, this feels like a return to simpler pleasures and youthful brazenness, which may be due to the fact that the script was written 15 years ago.

Set up as a film within a film within a film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is also a warm, exuberant love letter to cinema. It references Bruce Lee through a screaming, nunchaku-wielding action star wearing the iconic yellow jumpsuit, and comically pays homage to yakuza movies, more particularly Kinji Fukasaku’s. And amid all the madcap humour, there is a certain wistfulness about the death of 35mm, projectionists, old-school fights, Japanese culture, and the corrupting influence of money on cinema. Inventive, playful and thrill-packed, it is a vastly enjoyable slice of film-affirming fun. VS

Night Moves (Kelly Reichhardt, 2013)
Kelly Reichhardt’s latest is concerned with three eco-activists Josh, Dena and Harmon (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) who have decided to go further than their documentary-making, organic vegetable-farming compadres and blow up a dam. As they plot to do so, their conflicting characters, backgrounds and motivations are revealed. The operation is a success, of a kind, but has unintended consequences Confident, ballsy Dena becomes an emotional wreck, sensitive, taciturn Josh grows more and more paranoid, and the conflicts become chasms. Reichhardt does good work in setting up her characters and then showing what their crime does to them. She is also is very smart and subtle about mileu and motivation, while the amateur eco-doc we see projected on a white sheet at Josh’s commune is spot on (and is actually shot by producer and horror auteur Larry Fessenden, fact fans!). As is the lame discussion afterwards.

Night Moves has its moments of well-achieved tension, but for me was a disappointment after Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. There, her ‘less is more’ aesthetic paid off with absorbing, anxiety-inducing films that linger in the mind. Here… I don’t know, we spend an awful lot of the running time looking at Eisenberg’s anxious face, we get an awful lot of silence, and we get a Meek’s Cutoff-style finale that just sort of…ends. I needed more, for once, never feeling as involved as I did with her previous works. All in all, it’s a bit of an unthriller. MS

Watch the trailer for Night Moves:

The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013)
Richard Ayoade’s second feature film is a very mannered affair, taking pace in its own transatlantic nocturnal bubble, where the architecture is utilitarian, charmless and shrouded in Lynchian gloom, the juke boxes play old Japanese pop tunes, and mobile phones are significant by their absence. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, it follows Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), an office drone whose life is a series of frustrations. Nobody notices him, his contributions are ignored, his transgressions are seized upon, and he can barely function when attempting to interact with fellow worker, and romantic obsession, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). So far so depressing, but then one day Simon’s exact double turns up at work, and immediately begins to climb the corporate ladder. This new version is confident and dynamic, a hit with the bosses and a wow with the ladies; he seems to be a better Simon than Simon could hope to be, and slowly begins to edge the original out of his own existence…

The Double eschews any kitchen-sink naturalism (the default setting for many British filmmakers) for a highly stylised, intricately planned and executed aesthetic. There’s more than a hint of Gilliam’s Brazil here, in its office politics and romantic frustration. Each scene is framed, timed and sound designed to create the maximum humiliation for Simon, and there’s a lot of physical comedy here at his expense (automatic doors particularly seem to have it in for him), while his plight is accentuated by staging that leaves him locked out and blocked off from where he wants to be. Also adding to the ‘movie movie’ experience is the casting, or, what I believe is known in the trade as ‘overcasting’: Ayoade has clearly called in a few favours to fill out his film, and as a result we have most of the actors from his first film Submarine turning up here, as well as a couple of his I.T. Crowd co-stars, and apparently everybody else with a resume he could get hold of. I’m in two minds about the effect of all this on the viewing experience. On one level it’s like another design element (I was reminded of John Water’s stated ambition to make a film where everybody who appears on screen is a celebrity of some kind, and the sets are deliberately fake). On the other hand, it is undeniably distracting to have familiar face after familiar face pop up in the tiniest roles (Chris Morris! Chris O’ Dowd! Paddy Considine! Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, as a janitor, for christ’s sake!) regardless of the quality of their contribution (loved Tim Key’s turn as a heroically unconcerned care home worker, though). I fear that all this stylisation seals the viewer off from total engagement somewhat, and while it plays on common nightmares, it plays as someone else’s.

Whatever… this is bold, intelligent filmmaking. Eisenberg does great work as both unter-Simon and uber-Simon, suggesting two entirely different characters through body language and gesture, often acting against himself in scenes which must have been a technical nightmare. It gets interestingly dark and painful in places, I already want to see it again, and I await whatever Ayoade does next. MS

Watch the trailer for The Double:

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.

Gravity is released in the UK on 8 November 2013 by Warner Bros.

Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.

Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time. PJ

Watch the trailer for Gravity :

The Sarnos: A Life in Dirty Movies (Witkor Eriksson, 2013)
Witkor Eriksson’s affectionate documentary looks at the life and work of Joe Sarno and his loyal wife (and costume designer) Peggy. Dubbed ‘the Ingmar Bergman of porn’ by John Waters, Sarno is responsible for some 75 features, but best known for the run of films he made from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. Young Playthings, All the Sins of Sodom, Sin You Sinners, Sin in the Suburbs (do you sense a theme?), Inga, and many more, culminating in Confessions of a Young American Housewife, and Abigail Lesley is Back in Town. These were all self-penned works with a recognisable auteurist signature. ‘They were always about women’, notes Annie Sprinkle, and normally featured headstrong, not necessarily pleasant lead characters bringing about their own doom in oppressively bland contemporary America (or occasionally Sweden). Clearly atypical filth, they have gained a cult reputation over time, featuring in RE/Search’s original Incredibly Strange Films book, and now being screened and discussed at the BFI and other edifices of artistic respectability.

Not that this helps out Joe much, who is 88-years-old here, looking unfit, and a victim of bad contracts and shady deals, who doesn’t own or benefit from much of his substantial back catalogue. The Sarnos spend their life flitting between New York and Stockholm, clearly barely able to keep the wolf from the door. Eriksson follows them as Joe tries to get one last feature together, and investigates a life lived on the disreputable underside of the film industry. The film posits that the films Sarno wanted to make were rendered uncommercial by the arrival of hardcore porn, which effectively destroyed the grindhouse/drive-in ‘sexploitation’ genre. The raincoat brigade just wanted to watch people screw, and didn’t want to sit through his glum psychodramas, waiting for the sex scenes when they didn’t have to. The Sarnos also suggests that he didn’t want to have any part of the hardcore business after the failure of Abigail Lesley in 1975, largely glossing over the interim decades, but a quick glance at his IMDB page tells you that he carried on plugging away with explicit smut, and I wish the doc had asked him more about his (reluctant? regretful?) participation in these lesser works.

That bugbear aside, The Sarnos is fine stuff. It’s oddly delightful to watch this ageing couple having matter-of-fact conversations about absolute filth, while there is plenty of arcane and interesting detail to absorb, and the clips of his 1960s/70s output are tantalising. Joe and Peggy are complicated, charming people, and it’s a study of a long-term relationship as much as it is a treatise on a life in dirty movies. Be prepared to wipe away a tear. MS

Watch a clip from The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies :

The Long Way Home (Aiphan Eşeli, 2013)
Set (and filmed) in East Anatolia, The Long Way Home takes place in 1915, just after the Battle of Sarikamish. A mother, her daughter and their guide, refugees from the conflict, are struggling over the snow-choked mountains when their horse gives up the ghost, and they find themselves struggling through the forbidding landscape, and the remains of war, on foot, passing thousands of frozen corpses to arrive at a burnt-out village not found on their map. Digging in to wait out the storm they find two surviving villagers, and then a couple of soldiers, but as the food runs low, what are they prepared to do to survive?

Aiphan Eşeli’s impressively confident first feature works first as a battle-against-the-elements tale of human persistence, then turns darker and more brutal as desperation sets in, only to turn again in a bit of a coup-de-cinema with a devastating final reel. Powerful, widescreen, intimate/epic stuff. MS

Watch the trailer for The Long Way Home :

The Kill Team (Dan Krauss, 2013)
A few years back, a platoon of US soldiers serving in Afghanistan made the news as ‘the kill team’, amid troubling stories about Afghans pointlessly killed and body parts kept as souvenirs. Dan Krauss’s documentary follows the defence team and parents of one of the accused, Adam Winfield, as he is prosecuted by the U. S. Army, interviewing two other platoon members, Stoner and Morlock, along the way. What emerges is a jaw-droppingly horrible account of apparent sociopaths given carte blanche to kill for fun. Winfield claims that he tried to blow the whistle on the Platoon’s actions, but was stymied by a system that didn’t want to hear it, and had to take part in one of the killings for fear of his own life. The others seem utterly unrepentant, and seem to have taken to indiscriminate murder partly because they had been trained to kill, not dig wells, and Afghanistan wasn’t what they felt had been advertised. ’It wasn’t like what they hyped it up to be, and that’s probably why, y’know, stuff happened…’

The Kill Team may focus too much on Winfield’s trial and not enough on the 5th Stryker Brigade, and it has the gaping hole of platoon leader Gibbs (who instigated the madness, denies everything, and wouldn’t take part) at its centre, but it still opens up a world of darkness to argue over long after its closing credits. Recommended. MS

New World
New World

New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013)
This is the type of film that South Korean directors seem to do so superbly well: the dark action thriller with a conspiracy twist. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, New World is not nearly as disturbing, bleak and tortured as the incredibly twisted revenge story I Saw the Devil, which was written by Hoon-jung, but it is still a gripping, very well-executed example of the crime genre.

Undercover police officer Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is a mole who has worked his way up in the echelons of Goldmoon, a crime syndicate that the cops have spent years trying to crack. When Goldmoon’s chairman manages to evade a guilty verdict in court, only to be killed in a car accident, a bitter struggle for succession ensues. Ja-sung, who has become a lieutenant to the powerful and vicious Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min), is desperate to get out, but finds himself manipulated into becoming an integral player in the power struggle by his handler, Chief Kang (the always fabulous Choi Min-sik).

Although it starts out fairly generic, New World gradually evolves into something much more compelling, adding in a series of twists, some foreseen, others completely surprising, that make the story increasingly complex and exciting to watch. With all the brutal back-stabbing going on between the police and criminals alike, there’s plenty of violence and gore on top of the more thought-out plot points. Needless to say that by the film’s powerful and dramatic conclusion, there are few men left standing. SC

Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin

In the Loop: Shane Carruth’s Primer


Format: DVD

Release date: 20 February 2006

Distributor: Tartan

Director: Shane Carruth

Writer: Shane Carruth

Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford

USA 2004

77 mins

Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer, a mind-bendingly complex time travel drama, which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and also starred in as one of the two principal roles, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. But while time-travel movies usually have the protagonists pitching up somewhere – and sometime – more thrilling or more glamorous than where they started, in Primer, they stay right where they are, in a suburban wasteland of strip malls and storage units, hushed conversations, ambiguities and loose ends.

Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are tie-clad engineers by day and hobbyist project types by night, trying to develop a big idea they can sell to a venture capitalist. One of these is a refrigeration system that does strange things inside a metal box, appearing to change the mass of an object. Then a watch left inside the box starts to run backwards. Yes, they have invented a time machine. Almost any other movie would mark this moment with deathless dialogue, and perhaps some lightning flashes. Here, they appear stunned, nervous and perturbed. Soon they are making well-organised six-hour forays into the future, taking care to avoid their doubles, and making a killing on the stock market. They remain in denial about the reality of their discovery, as if they don’t want to admit it to each other, leading to the best gag of the movie: ‘Are you hungry?’ to which the reply is ‘I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.’

Soon a mix of greed, paranoia and fear starts to disrupt the sequence of events, and the narrative begins to fracture. Doubles of Abe and Aaron start piling up. The storyline veers into a strange subplot involving someone pulling a gun on a girl at a party, which the duo revisit again and again, changing the timeline each time. Unfortunately, by this point (or was it before that?) Abe and Aaron have stopped trusting each other, and each of them try to change things back to the idyllic, pre time-travel state – which by this stage is the one thing the audience is sure is not going to work.

Read the review of Shane Carruth’s second feature, Upstream Colour.

At some point in this sensibly brief movie, you are going to have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Some people make it past the hour, some people get confused after 45 minutes. The timelines become so fractured and tortuous that even with the help of a (possibly unreliable) narrator you are left scratching your head – the linear medium of film struggles to hold the ideas presented. Some people have unpicked it all for you here, but even on my second viewing I found it difficult to follow. One of the greatest strengths of Primer is that it assumes the audience’s intelligence and willingness to watch it again, to puzzle it over, even as it deliberately distances you with complexity – it is a genuinely 21st-century movie, aware it will be rewound and scrubbed through for answers. This doesn’t mean that a one-sitting experience isn’t worthwhile. The rapid fire techno-patter is completely free of ‘As you know, Bob…’ countersinking. It trusts you to work it out.

Primer was reportedly produced for just $7000, shot in borrowed spaces and mostly starring the director’s family and friends – although the pacing, shots and sound design punch way above the budget’s weight. Many of the choices made – the dreary locations, the flat lighting, the complete lack of special effects – are part of this constraint, but the filters and high-temperature 16mm stock work beautifully to give the film an otherworldly, Instagrammy glow. The sound design in Primer complements the visual aesthetics; minimal, disorienting and ambiguous. It ignores the tropes of Hollywood sc-fi sound design where the usual objective is to dazzle the audience with fantastical, previously unheard gleams of sound to complement the fantastical elements on screen.

Whether for budgetary or aesthetic reasons, the film eschews 5.1 surround and uses a straight two channel mix. The dialogue is live and apparently unlooped – you can hear the acoustic spaces. Washes of static come and go. Whirrs. Hums. Refridgeration units. The sounds of the everyday suburban landscape, amplified and brought closer in a manner that reminds me of paranoid 1970s’ thrillers like The Conversation. The sound of the first time machine operating was made, according to Carruth, by layering the sound of an angle grinder with a car. The later time machines are dry and mechanical. Not magical. Actual machines.

Read the interview with Upstream Colour sound designer Johnny Marshall.

The music is sparse and tonal, mostly simple piano motifs over deep synthesizer pads, alternating with simpler tones and the occasional crescendo of noise, while there are nice little touches such as a musical motif reversing itself. The density of music and effects increases as the film goes on and the narrative fractures further. All these elements combine to give an overall effect of unsettling disorientation which complements the overall narrative.

Carruth – a former software engineer – has made much of how he wanted to present exciting scientific ideas in the manner in which they are usually discovered; undramatically and methodically, but this belies that it’s quite a sensuous experience to watch. It’s a film for geeks and cineastes alike, and a joy to revisit.

John Stanley

Watch the trailer for Primer:

Toronto International Film Festival 2013 – Part 1

iNumber Number
iNumber Number

Toronto International Film Festival

5 – 15 Sept 2013

Toronto, Canada

TIFF website

Now happily settled into its multi-million dollar purpose-built home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the statistics alone give some indication of the scale the Toronto International Film Festival has reached now. Of the 4,143 total submissions from 72 countries, 372 feature films in total were ultimately screened and, as the official fact sheet notes, that is 30,918 minutes of film. A dutiful film critic would have to attend 37.2 features a day to come to grips with the entire festival – a sobering thought for audiences and filmmakers alike. It is near impossible to venture an overall opinion as to the tone or theme that arose, though an observation is that the quality of the films, not unexpectedly, ranged from adequate to very good, with a dearth – for this writer – of anything in the future ‘classics’ category. For me, some much-anticipated films were a bit of a let down, notably the heroin-chic, self-conscious style of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. What the world doesn’t really need is another ‘name’ director having a go at the vampire genre. Nevertheless, critical opinion was divided on this one. It was, however, a bumper year for documentaries and these were standouts: Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro), Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich), When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig), Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (Barry Avrich) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophuls). Below I take a look at some of these and some other highlights from the festival.

iNumber Number (Donovan Marsh, 2013)
Expect loads of action, shoot ’em ups, and fast paced – though occasionally over the top – scenes of brutality and violence in this South African crime thriller. This is a grimy world where corruption among police officers is not the exception, and the story of Chili and his partner Shoes is one of straight cops trying to do their best and play it right, but getting screwed at every turn. Deciding that honesty does not pay, Chili decides to infiltrate a gang who are planning a heist and then taking the money when it’s done. But in a taut and well-paced scene, the gang members discover his identity and subsequently kidnap Shoes. Very well edited, the many killing-spree scenes build to a tremendous if over-wrought finale. Sheer exuberance and energy define this film, and director Donovan Marsh deserves credit for putting together a great cast: the leads are convincing and the secondary characters are well-drawn and provide enough eccentricity to add a touch of black humour to the proceedings. Donovan has studied his Tarantino but learned to trim some of the excess fat; one can only hope that was an aesthetic and not a budgetary lesson. Ultimately, we’ve seen the plot loads of times, but the setting adds a new dimension to the narrative and style.

Watch the trailer for iNumber Number :

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2013)
This Iranian film about a surreptitiously printed manuscript, which details the truth behind a failed government plot to kill 21 writers and journalists in a staged bus accident, is a searing indictment of the Iranian regime and its ruthless attempts at censorship and control of the truth. It follows two impoverished men working for the regime as assassins, who are tasked with getting back the three extant copies of the manuscript in question. The two have been hired to find – and eliminate – the remaining writers who have the scripts and to return them to the government offices. Their task is no more, no less than to silence any opposition to the official government line. The matter-of-fact way that they go about their business while in pursuit brings to mind the mundane conversations between the hitmen in Pulp Fiction, though with less ironic patter and more of a ‘just making a living’ urgency. Beautifully shot in wintry colours, the sense of desperation of the oppressed victims and the moral and ethical dimensions of the script are wonderfully realised by director Mohammad Rasoulof. A superior meditation on state violence, oppression, censorship and morality in contemporary Iran, the film won a Fipresci prize at Cannes this year.

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kabozia Partovi, 2013)
The unstoppable Jafar Panahi has made his second film since being sentenced to house arrest for six years and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. His earlier feature, This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran to Cannes in 2011. Two years later the tone of his new film is darker, more claustrophobic and has overtones of death wishes – Panahi films a fictional suicide of himself as part of the narrative. Establishing the mood of the film with his everyday ritual of taking in the groceries and then blacking out all his windows from spying eyes, we the audience are trapped with him in his beach house, where he lives among his memories of better days, his film posters and scripts. That narrative arc is abandoned by the abrupt entry into his house of two absconding young people…Who are they? Why are they there? Are they undercover Revolutionary Guards? As the elliptical mystery unfolds, no one – least of all Panahi – are even certain that they are not figments of imagination or projections of his cracking psyche. This is a brave and imaginative film given the circumstances of its production, and the extremely limited means and freedoms within which the director is forced to work. It would be churlish to gripe too much about insignificant technical or formal details given this situation, and better to state that it is a successful and, in its own way, life-affirming piece of work. Let’s hope the new regime will see the folly in keeping him under arrest and cinematically speechless.

Watch the trailer for Closed Curtain:

Palestine Stereo (Rashid Masharawi, 2013)
The production credits say much about the state of funding for Palestinian films. It is a Palestine/Tunisia/Norway/United Arab Emirates/Italy/Switzerland financial pudding – but nonetheless focussed for all that input. ‘Stereo’ is a nickname for a former wedding singer who, having lost his home and wife in an Israeli missile strike, has likewise lost the spirit to sing. His brother Samy is an electrician who lost his ability to speak or hear in the same bombing. Deciding to emigrate to Canada, the two undertake various schemes to earn money, most notably renting out sound equipment from the back of an old, used ambulance which they purchased. Balancing the absurdities of West Bank life with a compassionate, humane and ironic – sometimes droll – script and sensibility, Rashid Masharawi has produced a touching and realistic film which doesn’t shy from awkward politics or from the complications of life in Ramallah. A film that makes its points and is served by a terrific cast, especially the actor Mahmud Abu-Jazi. A film, then, with something to say, and for me one of the best of the festival. It is a follow-up to his successful Laila’s Birthday.

A Wolf at the Door (Fernando Coimbra, 2013)
At long last, a Brazilian bunny boiler! Which to some extent gives the plot away. Learning that their six-year-old daughter has been picked up at school by an unknown woman, a distraught husband and wife, Bernardo and Sylvia, wait furtively at the police station for any news. During the course of their own questioning, Bernardo confesses to the detective that he thinks it may have been his lover, Rosa, who was responsible. When she calls him, Bernardo decides to take matters into his own hands, and meets with her in hopes of having his daughter returned. From here darkness descends upon this thriller, and the back stories and duplicitous nature of the protagonists are slowly revealed. As are the cruelty of humans and the lengths to which revenge can be taken. Suffice it to say that the Todorovian idea of narratives – equilibrium established, equilibrium disrupted, equilibrium restored – does not quite apply to this feature debut by Fernando Coimbra.

Watch a clip from A Wolf at the Door:

Brazilian Western (René Sampaio, 2013)
Another first feature from Brazil, René Sampaio’s gangster/thriller film is set in Brasilia, where the main character, Joao, comes from the wrong side of the racial tracks and the wrong side of the law – at the start of the film Joao kills the cop who killed his father. After doing his time for the crime he heads to the big city, where a relative is able to get him a job as a carpenter’s assistant, but he must also agree to do some moonlighting as a drug dealer. As he gets deeper and deeper into the morass of dealing, he encounters a beautiful, white architecture student whose father is a Senator. Cue racial tensions and fatherly disapproval, but also cue audience bewilderment as to quite why a privileged upper-class student would fall so completely and utterly for this convicted dealer, and risk everything – life and limb – to be with him. But as in the other Brazilian film, A Wolf at the Door, the unusual settings – in this case Oscar Niemeyer’s famous utopian architectural buildings standing in stark contrast to the shantytowns butted up against them – make for a more insightful exposition about crime, punishment and retribution in other cultural milieus.

Watch the trailer for Brazilian Western:

To the Wolf (Aran Hughes, Christina Koutsospyrou, 2013)
I wanted to report on this film as, for me, it was a year of seeing less-known national cinematic offerings, in this case a Greek/UK co-production set in rural Greece and featuring a large cast of goats. Extremely long takes and even longer static shots tell the tale of extreme marginal existence in contemporary Greece, where the peasantry is particularly hard hit by the economic crisis. A bleak film shot in drizzly rain conditions, and utilising local shepherds, it’s a quasi-documentary which doesn’t so much tell a story as it reveals a situation. Regrettably the audience doesn’t really get to know much about the characters – other than their menial existence and constant complaint – and so no real empathy evolves. Added to this is the fact that this film is not an example of slow cinema, or even slower cinema, but slowest cinema. The running time of 74 minutes felt considerably longer.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophüls, 2013)
In this autobiographical, self-directed film, the renowned documentary filmmaker, 85-year-old Marcel Ophüls, looks back on his life, talking with old friends and discussing a variety of clips from his films. And he has had quite a life – son of the great Max, he spent many years in Hollywood among the likes of Preston Sturges and Bertolt Brecht. Deciding to become a film director himself, he made first fiction films and then switched to documentaries, which is where he gained an international reputation with films such as The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988). The history that he has lived through and the remarkable people he has come into contact with make this a fascinating history piece, but it is the curious mix of this and his own accounts of life good and bad, lucky and unlucky, and his unsparing critique – and lauding – of himself that fascinates. The tales of his confrontations with war criminals and his often-appalling tales of how he has treated his wife make for an unflinching and wholly satisfactory self-portrait rich in detail, remembrance, humour and curmudgeonliness.

Watch the trailer for Ain’t Misbehavin’:

Le Week-end (Roger Michell, 2013)
This satisfying film written by Hanif Kureishi centres on two older characters who choose to return to the site of their honeymoon, Paris, after 30 long years of marriage. This city of romance and escape is not going to alter the emotional tensions and anxieties that fairly bleed between the two characters. But this film neither cow-tows to the recent trends in making older couples’ cinematic presence charming or cloying, but rather shows them as bickering, snappy, frustrated, yet still reliant on one another, and full of a curious kind of affection. It is a softer Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As the sea between them rises and falls, they go through a weekend journey both comedic and serious.

Le Week-end is released in the UK by Curzon Film World and out now cinemas nationwide.

The duo of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan and their obvious acting chemistry brings out the best of Kureishi’s script, and Lindsay Duncan’s work in the film is particularly noteworthy and something of a revelation. During their flanerie about Paris they run into old school chum, Morgan, played by Jeff Goldblum. But Goldblum’s style of acting tends to subvert the delicate balance between pathos and comedy that has been established by Broadbent and Duncan, and this exaggerated and non-realistic performance from Goldblum throws the film a bit off-kilter. The climactic dinner scene is effective, if a bit predictable, but nevertheless, Le Week-End is a bitter-sweet confection, and the knowing nod to Godard at the end of the film is a subtle touch and makes for a satisfying conclusion.

James B. Evans

Venice International Film Festival 2013

The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises

Venice International Film Festival

28 Aug – 7 Sept 2013

Venice, Italy

Biennale di Venezia website

With the looming infringements of this year’s Toronto ahead and the snapping of the glitzy behemoth that is Cannes behind, the Venice International Festival of Cinematographic Art – the oldest international film festival in the world – is beginning to feels its age. Despite the roundness of the figure 70, the line up that was announced in August in Rome included few big names and no giants, and the sense at the festival was that the programme had been front loaded so that big-name journalists could leave halfway through and not miss much. That said, with the absence of big hitters, the field felt open and there was a general high level, including some surprises.

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
Festival favourite Hayao Miyazaki returned to the Lido with what is promised to be his last film, The Wind Rises, an epic biopic of the aeronautical designer Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), who dreams of great things and goes on to design the Mitsibushi Zero fighter. In Japan the film is being viewed as a timely intervention in the debate regarding the rewriting of the post-war pacifist constitution; but film’s pacifist stance and adoration of the dream-like qualities of airplanes clang at times with the real rise of fascism and the bellicose uses that Jiro’s dreams are put to. The film follows the myopic hero’s own vision in failing to see or ignore the obvious historical context of his work, the invasion of Manchuria and the disastrous course of the war. In fact, the soft development of a love affair between Jiro and Naoko (Miori Takimoto) increasingly becomes the dramatic focus and emotional core of the film. This is such a sui generis movie for Miyazaki that many fans of the Japanese animator will be confused, but deep down the themes are the same: the dangers and delights of a beguiling imagination.

Watch the trailer for The Wind Rises:

Child of God (James Franco, 2013)
James Franco has alienated many with his interview techniques, the temerity of his ambition and his pretty-boy good luck, but his latest literary adaptation, from the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God, is as much a snarling, feral beast as its protagonist Lester Ballard, played here with ferocious abandon by Scott Haze. Ballard is a disenfranchised woodsman who lurks in the mountains, gripping a rifle that seems a part of himself, while gripped by his own mental demons and a hidden yearning for company. Franco’s dedication to the original text can occasionally dip into Sixth Form literalism – to represent the different perspectives of the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, his version employs split screen throughout – and here lumps of text are quoted on screen; the plot of the book is followed closely, but the core of McCarthy’s concerns, the violence of male loneliness and madness of the heart and the head, are clearly depicted.

Watch the trailer for Child of God:

Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil.

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)
Having won the 1994 Golden Lion with Vive L’Amour, Tsai Ming-liang returned to the Lido with Stray Dogs, a ‘motion’ picture of glacial slowness, a portrait of life clawed by the sharp end of the Taiwanese free-market economy. Lee Kang-sheng is a human billboard, standing at a busy intersection to make some cash, battered by the wind and rain and the incessant thunder of the traffic. When not blowing his money on booze and cigarettes, he supports his son and daughter (played by the director’s nephew and niece), who have to fend for themselves during the day, eating free samples at supermarkets and killing time until they can retreat to the container squat where they sleep amid the flotsam. A kindly/disturbed supermarket worker (played by three actresses: Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Yi-ching) visits a ruined tower block to feed the ‘stray dogs’. She befriends the little girl and, when the drunken father tries to take the children away on his boat one stormy night, she rescues them.

The experience of watching the film is mixed. Initial curiosity and admiration for Ming-liang’s obvious skill at shot composition gives way to an awareness of boredom and discomfort as single shots of not-very-much-happening begin to push the ten-minute mark. The initial realism gives way to an absurdist, archly black humour. When we watch Kang-sheng holding up his sign for several minutes we can get an inkling of the boredom and unpleasantness of the job. Life is literally passing him by; he’s forced into paralysis by the harshness of an economic system which has no room for him. But later, as he stands staring at a wall with the woman who has taken in his family, I began to suspect Ming-liang was forcing his character into stasis as a way of preserving the austere beauty of his composition, and the wall staring was a meta-joke on us.

Watch the trailer for Stray Dogs:

Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, 2013)
With four feature films to his credit and at the fresh age of 24, Xavier Dolan might be someone any budding young director would gladly see roughed up, and in Tom at the Farm Dolan gives us that opportunity. Based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the young director casts himself as Tom, a dishwater-blonde city boy in an oversized leather jacket who drives into the rainy countryside to attend his lover’s funeral. However, once at the farm, Tom finds it difficult to escape the cloying needs of his lover’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy), who knows nothing of her son’s homosexuality, as well as the violent intimidation inflicted on Tom by elder son and psychopath, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). With a streak of self-loathing-fuelled sado-masochism, Tom’s burgeoning relationship with Francis goes from being enemies to something resembling a weird love affair. There is a Lynchian apprehension of the weirdness of normality, with the rural rain-drenched setting, the endless fields, the barns and creaking rooms of the farm, and the neon-lit bars adding a sense of Alfred Hitchcock menace. Gabriel Yared’s richly orchestral score swoops and soars with the delirious decadence of a Bernard Herrmann composition circa the 1950s.

From his casting to the score to the occasional change in film ratio, Dolan’s film is a firm-handed piece of filmmaking. The comedy is unnervingly funny and the performances are all top class. Towards the last third the restrictions of the origin material begin to impinge, but on the whole the film will continue to elevate the status of a precocious and fascinating talent.

Watch a clip from Tom at the Farm:

Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas, 2013)
Greece continues to challenge Austria as the world leader in miserablist exploitation with Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence, an icily efficient and technically accomplished portrait of a dysfunctional family, which ultimately has nothing new to say. Themis Panou – who picked up the Best Actor award – plays the quietly spoken head of a family that comes under official scrutiny when Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) leaps from the balcony to her death halfway through her 11th birthday party. Her mother and grandfather insist it was an accident, and the family try to resume their normal life, but just what that normality consists of is slowly revealed to be horrific abuse and exploitation. Treading closely in the footprints of Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Cannes success Dogtooth, Avranas manipulates his audience with his slow reveals and black absurdist humour. The banality of evil has sadly become something of a cliché and Miss Violence, from its baffling title to its glib provocation and tonal incongruities, revelled too much in what it ostensibly sought to deplore.

Watch the trailer for Miss Violence:

Via Castellana Bandiera (Emma Dante, 2013)
Writer, director and actress Emma Dante based her feature-film debut, the Sicilian-based drama A Street in Palermo on her own partly autobiographical novel, and took one of the lead roles. Rosa (Dante) has returned to Palermo for a wedding with her lover Clara (Alba Rohrwacher). Driving on a narrow street they come face to face with Samira (Elena Cotta, who picked up the Best Actress award at the festival) and her family. Samira has a life touched by tragedy and has regressed into an almost catatonic state. Egged on by her ne’er-do-well son-in-law Saro (Renato Malfatti) she refuses to budge and the two women are locked into a battle of wills. The neighbourhood watch on with interest as bets are placed and plots are formed around the nucleus of epic female intransigence.

The strength of Dante’s film is its slippery evasion of the clichés that abound in Italian cinema and which the opening of the film seems ready to reinforce. However, there is an abiding sense of mischief here, as the women enjoy their battle – indulging in a literal pissing match at one point with Leone-esque close-ups of the twitching eyes – to the numb incomprehension of those around them. The abiding irony is that the women have much more in common with each other than they do with those who are supposed to be close to them. Dante’s background in the theatre can be seen in the in the ensemble acting and the occasional Brechtian flourishes, such as a chorus of women who briefly invade Rosa’s car to proffer advice.


Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.

The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him.

The Police Officer’s Wife (Philip Gröning, 2013)
Told in a series of 59 short chapters, Philip Gröning’s domestic-abuse jigsaw puzzle The Police Officer’s Wife is a gruelling, but disconcertingly and powerfully intimate close-up portrait of a nuclear family gone Chernobyl. Uwe (David Zimmerschied) is the police officer and Christine (Alexandra Finder), the eponymous wife, who live in a redbrick terrace house with their young daughter Clara. Their lives seem to be cut off from the outside world, but the elliptical style of storytelling means that very little is certain and nothing is explicitly laid out. Indeed, the narrative gaps that fall between the title cards ‘end of chapter x’ and ‘beginning of chapter x’ could represent the unknowability of interiority, and the motivations that lead to not only violent abuse, but the decision to submit to it. Gröning’s reputation was built on his documentary work, in particular 2005’s Into the Silence, and he is very good at achieving a neutral non-style for his camera and rendering the textures of confined domestic space. However, not giving the audience information is just as manipulative as spoonfeeding them. The inclusion of 118 chapter cards is an unnecessarily arch gesture at high-mindedness and feels, along with the accumulative power of the violence, to be punitive. The manner of the documenting of the violence drains its victim of any agency, in the same way Uwe does, and even makes her culpable in her own oppression. It is a film that will linger and irk and worry long after you’ve watched it, though the watching it is in itself a trial.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature films after an almost decade-long absence, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van, searching for young men who will not be missed. Mixing arthouse visuals of mesmerizing abstraction with naturalistic (and occasionally incomprehensible) street scenes and occasional lurches into Lynchian horror, the film escapes the gravitational pull of its genre and the dubious slightness – and potential misogyny – of its storyline. As with Johansson’s victims, we are beguiled by the look of the film, its self-confessedly empty eroticism and its otherworldly perspective on mundane British life. Whereas the criminally underrated Birth riffed on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Under the Skin ditches the lightweight satire of the Michael Faber source novel to absorb the influence of Nic Roeg – The Woman Who Fell to Earth if you will – and create a disturbing trip into the other.

Watch the trailer for Under the Skin:

John Bleasdale

London Film Festival 2013 – Part 4

The Witches
The Witches

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

As this year’s London Film Festival draws to a close, we review more films from the 57th edition. Some better, some worse.

Check out Part 1, 2 and 3 of our 2013 LFF coverage.

The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966)
’Nothing can eat your soul,’ states the voice of reason, Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), just before the mission school she has been running in Africa is attacked by freaky mask-wearing witch doctors and she dissolves into a blubbering mess. Months later she is back in England, supposedly recovered from her ordeal, but still clearly brittle. She is delighted to be offered the post of headmistress in the archetypal English village of Heddaby. Everything seems delightful at first, with colourful characters and rolling fields, but slowly bits of weirdness creep in, and all the locals seem overly concerned that schoolgirl Linda (Ingrid Brett, frankly, hot) should be separated from her would-be boyfriend as soon as possible. When the boy falls suddenly ill, and a headless plastic doll with pins in its chest is found, it becomes clear to Miss Mayfield that something is up, but as she begins to pry, her fragile state comes under strain, and under scrutiny.

The Witches is largely a woman’s picture, with Miss Mayfield (and her oddly Thatcherite hair) at the centre, and Linda and her mum, newspaper columnist/community leader Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), pushed to the fore, with the men supporting, at best. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) is especially useless: ‘I wanted to enter the church but I failed,’ he says, and seems to spend much of the film going silent and sloping off whenever the conversation takes an awkward turn. It’s an atypical Hammer from 1966, adapted from a Peter Curtis novel by the great Nigel Kneale. I’m not sure how much is Kneale and how much Curtis, but the confluence of’ ‘old ways’ hoodoo with modern science is a Kneale trope, and certain lines have that spark of offbeat realism (‘I’ve got veins!’). The way that the full import of the words ’give me a skin for dancing in’ are left to dangle in the viewer’s mind is sublimely horrible. But time and again the full impact of the script is let down by pedestrian staging, and meat–and-potatoes cinematography. There are some nice shots and the occasional visual coup (a writhing, jerking cloth doll on a pentacled floor is authentically nightmarish). But a film in which the lead character may be losing her marbles should look a lot more deranged than this, and the climactic witches’ sabbath looks, unfortunately, like the rehearsals of an off-Broadway musical. All things aside, though, it’s a bit of a forgotten gem, looking ahead to elements of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Occult madness in sleepy England is always a winner, and Leonard Rossiter pops up as a doctor. Well worth checking out. MS

The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.

Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess. MS

Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem:

How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
Filmmaker Paul Kelly has built up a fine body of work over the last decade devoted to chronicling London’s hidden corners and gems, through films such as Finisterre and This is Tomorrow. His latest is a lyrical love letter to London’s post-war past, beautifully composed of footage housed in the BFI National Archives. With just the right amount of narration delivered by a throaty Ian McShane (and written by Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough), the film almost wordlessly lets the audience glide through the transformation of London into a modern city.

A blonde woman in a long white coat wanders lost among the bombed-out ruins of her neighbourhood; wrecking balls smash through the remaining walls of destroyed terrace homes; London Bridge is dismantled before its move to the US. The men in bowler hats commuting to work in the City are replaced by boys with long hair and leggy girls in mini-skirts. In one of the most engaging sequences, a skateboarder threads his way through the crowds crossing a bridge over the Thames to the sounds of Saint Etienne. The excellent soundtrack, composed by the band’s Pete Wiggs, terrifically sets the mood, from some jazzier numbers to more sombre notes, and in many ways it serves as the fabric that binds the interwoven images together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the hypnotic visuals, and find delight in the little details that fill the frame with every shot. But what is most strikingly revealed in How We Used to Live is how much of the old London remains – shop fronts may have changed, cafés and clubs are gone, but the heart of the city, the people, are still there. SC

Watch the trailer for How We Used to Live:

Sx_ Tape (Bernard Rose, 2013)
Jill is a would-be artist being filmed going about her business by Adam, one of those boyfriends incapable of putting the camera down in films like this. She paints a little, they have sex, shop, eat, annoy each other. Try to have sex again, before being rudely interrupted. He wants to show her something: a huge abandoned hospital where ‘naughty women’ used to be sent to have abortions. The perfect venue for an art show. She breaks in, he, reluctantly, follows and then bad things happen to Adam and Jill and later arrivals Ellie and Bobby, the film’s regulation aggravating, macho arsehole.

It seems a little mystifying as to why Bernard Rose chose this script to mark his return to the horror genre; it’s a late jumper onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon, passably executed and pretty unpleasant. There’s a theme, of sorts, about the abuse and exploitation of women, but it gets lost among the shock tactics. Too often the illogicalities felt preposterous rather than nightmarish, and the series of endings on offer at the climax of the film (none of which resolve the film’s police station-set opening sequence) seem to confirm that nobody really had a handle on this mother. I’d be lying if I said I was bored. Or that there was nothing here of interest, but films like this need to develop some solid, creepy ideas to really pay off, and this just ain’t working. MS

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.

Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film. GK

Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:

Pioneer (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2013)
A pleasingly paranoid Norwegian thriller from Insomnia creator Erik Skjoldbjaerg. It’s the early 1980s and American and Norwegian diving teams are collaborating on a project which will exploit the oil and gas deposits to be found under the ocean floor in the Norwegian Sea. This is deeper than any diver has been before, and to this end the American team have developed a special breathing mix which should enable the teams to operate below 500m. But things go horribly wrong during the first test dive at sea, and Petter (Aksel Hennie, great), a dedicated diver with little outside life, becomes obsessed with finding out why, bringing him into conflict with political and commercial forces who want the tests over, and the money to start rolling.

As with Insomnia, a standard thriller set up is made much more interesting by a derangement of the senses. Petter is experiencing little blackouts, lacunae in his ability to function, and we are left unsure as to exactly how compos mentis he is – we have already seen him hallucinate a seabird into existence in the dry-run test of the opening sequence – so when he starts throwing accusations around, and breaking into offices to steal medical files, a suspicion remains that this might be all in his head. Decompression chambers here are used as instruments of torture, and places to isolate the inconvenient. Everything is murky, motives are obscure and, as in The Conversation, the evidence is open to interpretation. Pioneer plays games with focus, becoming increasingly woozy and warped as it goes on, and in the closing sections of the film Petter and the viewer have a case of the bends, which is not the best state to be in when unravelling a conspiracy or fending off shadowy killers. Good stuff, with an occasionally wonderful soundtrack by Air.
Potential viewers should be warned that this film contains Norwegian hair. MS

Watch the trailer for Pioneer :

We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)
For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.

There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug. MS

Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013)
The experience of watching Grand Piano is something like wandering around a Victorian folly – a cunningly constructed, visually appealing exterior that knowingly obscures a lack of substance. Directed by Eugenio Mira, this giallo-influenced film stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who is about to perform in front of an audience for the first time in five years after a disastrous concert led to his retirement. The occasion: a tribute to his mentor a year after his death, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play his priceless grand piano before it’s shipped to Switzerland.

Wood effortlessly conveys all the stress and stage-fright that threaten his come-back performance, and his anxiety is only magnified when he discovers that there’s a sniper in the theatre threatening to assassinate his glamorous, movie-star wife if he plays a wrong note during his grand finale. There is a point to the slightly absurd plot, which is finally revealed towards the end of the increasingly bloody stand-off (although Mira does well with delivering an ambiguous ending). But it’s not the film’s premise that makes the movie appealing – it’s simply great fun to watch, an entertaining 90-minute visual treat. The art design is excellent, while the blood red tones that infuse the cinematography lend a terrific atmosphere to the thriller. There’s some clunky writing and ham-fisted acting by the more disposable characters at play, but in the end it all seems like part of the game. SC

The Sacrament
The Sacrament

The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, it perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father, the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.

Very restrained in its use of violence, The Sacrament is about a disturbingly realistic kind of horror, recalling the Jonestown Massacre and similar fanatic cults. Key to the film’s emotional power is the complex character development, one of Ti West’s greatest strengths, helped by tremendous performances from the excellent cast. Aimy Seimetz is both unnerving and pitiful as the screwed-up sister who has traded drug addiction for another kind of escape, and Gene Jones is extraordinary as Father, a frighteningly intelligent, creepy, manipulative man, who also desperately believes what he preaches. There is a great sense of human tragedy in all of the characters, including the gung-ho reporters who sober up as they become the unwitting catalysts for horrifying violence. An intelligent, original, category-defying gem. VS

Virginie Sélavy, Mark Stafford, Greg Klymkiw, Sarah Cronin