Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey
By Joesph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik
Xerox Ferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine
By John Szpunar
Looking at Movies
By Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan
616pp. & DVD £34.99
As I compose this instalment of Cine Lit, I have wafting in the background the mellifluous tones of Miles Davis, from the superlative third box-set of Jazz on Film recordings, which this time covers the French New Wave from 1957 to 1962. Jazzwise writer Selwyn Harris’s continuing labour of love in bringing us these terrifically remastered gems from vinyl obscurity is to be lauded and applauded, and, like the other two sets, receives top ratings in this column. This new addition features The Modern Jazz Quartet’s scoring of No Sun in Venice, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Les liaisons dangereuses and Des femmes disparaissent, Miles Davis with his classic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, Michel Legrand’s beautifully constructed score for Eva, Martial Solal’s unforgettable Breathless compositions and Barney Wilen’s Un témoin dans la ville. Essential and unmissable, the recordings are enhanced immeasurably by Selwyn’s well-researched and stellar accompanying text.
There have been a number of recent publications for consideration, ranging from the sublime to the (near) ridiculous. In the former category is The Film Festival Reader, a collection of essays and speculations that should be considered required reading for anyone planning to dip their toes into the relatively new cinematic waters that are forming around the academic discipline of ‘festival studies’. The editor, Dina Iordanova, has been a key player in contributing to the field as a lecturer at St. Andrews University, where in-house publisher St. Andrew’s University Press have provided considerable and commendable support to FF Studies in a similar way to that of the University of Amsterdam Press, where Marijke de Valck – another key player in FF Studies – is based. Indeed, both have contributed essays to this book, which serves as a sort of ‘state of the art’ survey of work in the area. All of the essays have been previously published in various journals and are collected together here for the first time. Rigorous, informed, challenging and thought-provoking, it puts the emphasis on the historical, sociological and anecdotal, without too much excess baggage, from the usual academic suspects such as Deleuze, Žižek, Foucault, Bourdieu et al. In short, an approachable and informative read.
Which brings me to the (near) ridiculous, and I mean this in a most approving way. Headpress – as readers of this column will be aware – are specialists in trawling (crawling!) through the transgressive and liminal spaces of cinematic geography, with a deliciously perverse approach that favours the experiential over the theoretical. Their authors are cinematic miners at the coal heap of trash, extreme and libidinous film. Two recent publications provide further evidence of this commitment, with fulsome tomes adding to this ongoing agenda of providing the reader with information about filmic texts and activities that they didn’t even know they wanted – or needed. Bleeding Skull is a geek’s bible of 1980s trash-horror films that have been recorded – very cheaply – on VHS and obsessively collected by the authors. The entries in this collection were culled from their website and these 300 reviews range from 555 to Le lac des morts vivants. The publisher has also given us the Szupnar book, Xerox Ferox: The Wild World of the Horror Film Fanzine, which documents the diehards who introduced many of these films into the culture by way of the pre-internet, pre-blog punkish energy of the fanzine. Utilising illustrations, interviews and discussion, the book maps out the territory from Famous Monsters to Rue Morgue and to the further shores of luridness exemplified by the likes of Gore Gazette and Sleazoid Express. Shelve these books alongside your copies of Slimetime, Offbeat, X-Cert and Land of a Thousand Balconies.
Finally, a brief word about Looking at Movies. I met with some film student readers of ES who asked – given text book prices – what might be the best value book for a comprehensive overview of movie methods, analysis and history. The standards, of course, are Bordwell/Thompson or Cook or Giannetti – all excellent – but in terms of price, breadth, and with a very useful DVD explaining key ideas and filmmaking methods, the Barsam/Monahan is hard to beat and remains my choice. By the way, don’t let the student designation fool you, there is plenty within for all of us.
Although he doesn’t have the status of Italian filmmaking pioneers and favourites like Mario Bava, Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci, Aldo Lado is often considered one of the most interesting directors in Italian cult cinema, mainly because of a handful of giallo-inspired thrillers he directed in the early 1970s: Short Night of Glass Dolls (La corta notte delle bambole di vetro, 1971), Who Saw Her Die? (Chi l’ha vista morire?, 1972) and Night Train Murders (L’ultimo treno della notte, 1975). Prior to his directorial debut, Lado worked as a scriptwriter, contributing to Maurizio Lucidi’s Hitchcock-inspired giallo The Designated Victim (La vittima designata, 1971), among others.
Like Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), Short Night of Glass Dolls is a remarkable debut feature, and one that shows a talent already well-developed. The film was co-written by Lado himself and Ernesto Gastaldi, the genre’s pre-eminent scriptwriter, responsible for a number of classic gialli, including most of Sergio Martino’s films.
Unlike the majority of giallo films, Short Night of Glass Dolls is not constructed around elaborate set-piece murders, although it does feature a typical giallo hero in Jean Sorel’s Gregory Moore, an American journalist living in Prague. When his girlfriend (Barbara Bach, The Spy Who Loved Me) disappears in the middle of the night Moore begins questioning anyone who might have spoken to her on that last evening, as well as looking into several similar disappearances. In a bizarre twist, all this is related by Moore in a series of flashbacks as he lies on a mortuary slab, having apparently died from heart failure. While the doctors try and figure out why his ‘corpse’ is still warm and why it hasn’t gone into rigor yet, Moore looks back on recent events in an effort to understand what’s happened to him.
In most giallo films the journey is more important than the destination, and the pay-off is often something of a disappointment, although some of the finest efforts manage to construct a climax worthy of the rest of the film (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for example). Short Night of Glass Dolls definitely falls into the latter camp and features one of the genre’s most memorable conclusions, both in resolving the mystery of the girl’s disappearance and in Moore’s eventual fate. Although it appears to be inspired by a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lado takes the film in another, more exotic direction, one which it is doubtful that Hitchcock could have conceived of.
Watch the trailer for Short Night of Glass Dolls:
Although it’s very successful in purely horror terms, Short Night of Glass Dolls also works on a number of different levels. It can be assessed as an overtly political film, with an American journalist struggling to solve a mystery in a society that does not tolerate dissent and hides its secrets behind a corrupt bureaucracy. Because of this approach Lado was able to secure funding from pro-western sources; ironically, he also received financial support from pro-communist groups, who interpreted the film as a parable about the way the wealthy, upper-class elite prey upon the working classes like parasites. On a more abstract level, it’s also concerned with the fleeting nature of youth, and its exploitation by those desperate to recapture their own youthful vitality. This theme is reflected in Lado’s frequent references to butterflies, whose brief lifespan has made them a popular metaphor for youth and mortality. After the director’s original title, Malastrana, was rejected by the producers, it was changed to Short Night of the Butterflies, an appropriate enough choice, but that was altered because it was considered too similar to the title of another giallo released at roughly the same time, Duccio Tessari’s The Blood-stained Butterfly (Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate, 1971).
Despite its continued critical acclaim Short Night of Glass Dolls has not been widely influential, but does seem to have inspired a handful of later films. Both Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio, 1972), which was also (co-)scripted by Ernesto Gastaldi, and Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Il profumo della signora in nero, 1974) feature secret groups and sinister activities. In contrast with Lado’s film, they focus upon female characters played by actresses with a solid giallo heritage, Edwige Fenech and Mimsy Farmer, allowing both films to portray their heroines’ collapsing mental state, much like Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Neither film is entirely successful; All the Colors of the Dark is compromised by a hysterical central character and doesn’t stand up to Martino’s other gialli, while a solid performance from Farmer in The Perfume of the Lady in Black isn’t enough to remedy a slow-moving plot and a largely event-free first hour.
Lado’s second film was another giallo, but a more traditional one, this time co-written by Lado, veteran scriptwriter Massimo D’Avak, and Francesco Barilli. Although it’s not as effective or original as Short Night of Glass Dolls or Night Train Murders, Who Saw Her Die? is still an interesting example of the genre, with a few unusual aspects that make it worth watching. A compelling introductory scene shows a child being murdered by someone in a black veil. Four years later, sculptor Franco (played by George Lazenby, the forgotten Bond) and his estranged wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971) are living separate lives in Venice. When their daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi, Deep Red, 1975) is found murdered, Franco tries to track down her killer, uncovering a web of paedophilia and sadomasochism.
With a grieving father exploring the baroque and otherworldly city of Venice, trying to understand his daughter’s death, it’s not surprising that many commentators have seen connections between Who Saw Her Die? and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), although Lado’s film came out more than a year before Roeg’s. It’s never been established whether Roeg was familiar with Who Saw Her Die?, but the similarity of certain shots, locations and events suggest that he might have been. While Lado’s film is respectable enough, Don’t Look Now is still the superior film.
Watch the trailer for Who Saw Her Die?:
Like Short Night of Glass Dolls, Who Saw Her Die? is a window into a world of clandestine societies with secret agendas, and it’s also concerned with the themes of youth and mortality. The final revelations are less effective here, partly because they’re considerably less exotic, but also because it’s an altogether more traditional film, one that rarely strays from the established giallo pattern. It’s certainly technically accomplished, boasting excellent cinematography from Franco Di Giacomo, who had recently worked on Dario Argento’s long-elusive third giallo, Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971). Like all of Lado’s early films, it boasts an excellent Ennio Morricone score. The composer downplays the jazz-rock tendencies and abrasive strings that characterise most of his giallo soundtracks in favour of choral pieces that predominantly feature children’s voices. This works for the most part, tying well into the film’s subject matter, but some of it seems too light for the material. Ultimately, despite its qualities, Who Saw Her Die? doesn’t stand up to Lado’s other films.
The final effort in Lado’s loose giallo-esque trio is 1975’s Night Train Murders, an unofficial remake of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). One of the most notorious exploitation films ever made, The Last House on the Left depicts the rape and murder of two young girls, and the subsequent bloody revenge taken by the parents of one of them. Although Craven wrote the script, the movie takes its plot and its central themes from the Ingmar Bergman classic The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukä;llan, 1960). Despite its notoriety, Craven’s film was a commercial success and gave rise to its own sub-genre, the ‘rape-revenge film’, including Meir Zarchi’s misogynistic I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Takashi Ishii’s mournful Freezer (2000) and Lado’s Night Train Murders, arguably the finest of the movies inspired by The Last House on the Left.
Night Train Murders begins with school friends Margaret and Lisa, played by Irene Miracle (Inferno, 1980) and Laura D’Angelo; having stayed with Margaret’s parents in Munich, they are travelling to Italy to spend Christmas with Lisa’s family. Although their journey starts out well enough, the presence of two pretty young girls attracts the attention of thug Blackie (Flavio Bucci, Suspiria, 1977) and his junkie friend Curly (Gianfranco De Grassi, The Church, 1989). Margaret and Lisa switch trains to escape from them, only to discover their attackers have done so too. By this time Blackie and Curly have been joined by a well-dressed Woman (Macha Mßril, Deep Red) whose obvious status and wealth conceal a nature every bit as sadistic and brutal as her new friends. They imprison the girls in a deserted carriage and subject them to a barrage of sexual, physical and psychological abuses. Eventually Lisa dies at their hands, and Margaret tries to escape out of the carriage window, but ends up dying on the rocks below. The three killers leave the train at the next stop and unwittingly accept an offer of a lift from Lisa’s parents, who have come to the station to pick up the girls. When they discover what has really happened, they turn upon the killers with surprising ferocity.
Although it devotes less screen time to the protracted rapes and assaults than most films of its kind Night Train Murders still makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing, thanks to a number of scenes that raise the bar for cinematic nastiness. The effect is compounded by the fact that Lado takes his time with Margaret and Lisa, allowing the viewer to understand and sympathise with them before their ordeal begins, roughly halfway through the film. They’re sweet, good-natured girls about to cross over into womanhood, but still childlike in many ways: secretly stealing cigarettes, flirting with boys and exploring their own nascent sexuality. It’s this innocence that draws Blackie, Curly and the Woman to them, with the corruption and destruction of this innocence being their primary motivation, as if rape and murder (and their own personal sexual satisfaction) were secondary considerations. All three of the killers seem genuinely surprised when one of the victims dies; this incident shatters the folie à trois, and they soon begin to turn on each other.
Blackie and Curly are garden-variety thugs. Under the opening credits we see them snatching purses, beating up a market stall Santa, slicing up an expensive fur coat and jumping onto the train to escape from the police. They leer over Margaret and Lisa, attack a navy officer who attempts to help them and generally make a nuisance of themselves. No motives are provided, although Curly is a drug addict, which in a horror movie means he’s capable of anything. The well-dressed Woman is a different matter. We know she is intelligent, well informed and clearly wealthy. Beneath that respectable veneer she’s also a merciless sadist with a high sex drive (she carries pornographic photos in her handbag) and a dominant personality. Blackie’s attempt at rape quickly becomes consensual, with the Woman taking the lead over her surprised would-be attacker. Blackie and Curly revel in violence, but the Woman derives a sexual thrill from watching the rape and torture of two young girls. Her obvious intellect and imagination make her capable of acts of depravity that her cohorts could not conceive of.
Watch the trailer for Night Train Murders:
The Woman’s monstrous sadism is well hidden beneath a middle-class exterior, however, just as her face is concealed by her veil. Blackie and Curly look the part, but few would suspect the Woman of being responsible for a pair of vicious murders. One of the core aspects of the rape-revenge movie is the meting out of justice (or vengeance) upon the responsible parties, but Night Train Murders is one of the few films of its kind in which not all the killers are punished. [SPOILER] Instead the Woman (wearing her veil again) is able to claim that she had been kidnapped by the two thugs, and the credits roll after Lisa’s father has killed Blackie and Curly, with no apparent intention of killing her at all. It’s an incredibly cynical ending, but one that’s in keeping with the rest of the film. [END OF SPOILER]
Set in Germany and Italy, Night Train Murders takes place against a background of violence and revolution. Europe is still reeling from the last war, in which Munich played an integral role. Not everyone has managed to move on yet, as we can gather from the cabin full of German businessmen in suits, happily singing the archetypal Nazi hymn, the ‘Horst Wessel Song’, even though it’s been illegal for 30 years. Like the Woman, their secrets hide beneath a semblance of respectability. Meanwhile Italy is locked in the middle of the ‘Anni di piombi’, the Years of Lead, a two-decade period characterised by political turmoil and violent unrest. The nihilism and anger of young people like Blackie and Curly is being channelled towards political ends, although whether the end result will be any different remains to be seen. Margaret and Lisa’s train is stopped after a tip-off that a bomb has been placed upon it, forcing them to take another train and eventually bringing them into contact with the trio of killers.
Despite some flaws – Lisa’s parents, played by veterans Enrico Maria Salerno (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Marina Berti (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, 1974), are essentially just cardboard cut-outs – Night Train Murders is still one of the best Italian cult movies from the 1970s, and comfortably superior to almost every other rape-revenge film, with the exception of Wes Craven’s trailblazing original. It even inspired its own knock-off, Ferdinando Baldi’s awful Terror Express (La ragazza del vagone letto, 1979), which pads its brief running time with soft-core sex scenes that try to be controversial or shocking but usually end up being laughable instead. At the other end of the spectrum, Franco Prosperi’s Last House on the Beach (1978) was another stylish, well-made rape-revenge movie based on a story by Ettore Sanzò, who co-scripted Night Train Murders and What Have They Done to Your Daughters? The last twitch of the Italian rape-revenge cycle was Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park (La casa sperduta nel parco, 1980), a rather unpleasant film that cemented Deodato’s reputation as one of the most extreme Italian exploitation directors. It’s the opposite of the taut, economical plotting of Night Train Murders, and a somewhat ignoble end to one of the more notorious aspects of Italian cult cinema.
London-born artist and composer Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, creates genre-defying experimental sound pieces, influenced by everything from film scores to architecture and fashion. He’s composed work from found mobile phone conversations and the hidden noises of the urban environment, and has staged installations and performed at venues from Vienna to Vietnam. This week sees the re-issue of The Garden Is Full of Metal/Homage to Derek Jarman, a sound portrait made of recordings from spaces that Jarman inhabited, on the 20th anniversary of the artist-filmmaker’s passing. A live album recorded in a Dresden amphitheatre in Germany, Electronic Garden, will also be released on 24 February 2014. For more details on both albums and to buy them, please visit Scanner’s website. Below, Scanner chooses 10 films that have inspired and entertained him.
1. Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
A mind-blowingly inventive film that touches on memory, appearance and history, and most definitely a work that can’t be written about in one paragraph. Is it fiction or reality? As a student, I saw this when it was first shown in London at the ICA, and I remember leaving the cinema as if in a spell. Indeed, when it was first shown on Channel 4 the following year, I recorded the entire film on cassette so I could just listen back to this expansive free-form travelogue.
2. Mauvais sang (Leos Carax, 1986)
I saw this at the Metro Cinema in London when it was released, with no expectations at all. Super stylish, with a central love story between a young, animated Denis Lavant and Juliette Binoche, the film exhibits beautifully detailed directorial touches, such as the marks on her skin from the sheet when she wakes up in bed. It’s a hymn to Paris with a love of Godard in every scene.
3. Ghost Dance (Ken McMullen, 1983)
Again I discovered this at the ICA, initially drawn to the film having read that the esteemed David Cunningham of The Flying Lizards composed the score and performance artist Stuart Brisley made an appearance. A film about ‘ghosts’ in our everyday world, it’s a thought-provoking and haunting film, with an unforgettable cameo by the late, great Jacques Derrida in a smoky Parisian café.
4. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
A film that has frequently been referenced with regard to my earlier work exploring scanned mobile phone calls and the invasion of privacy. Long before the net and social networks took precedence, this film, about a surveillance expert who is destroyed by his own obsession, focused on the limitations of sound and how we listen and interpret. Gene Hackman plays his role with a lonely passion for his job, yet filled with angst and caution about everyone he meets.
5. Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
I could easily have chosen Lynch’s Eraserhead or Blue Velvet, but this twisted film is bewildering and surreal, where the rational needs to be left at the door. Characters swiftly morph into others, while locations urgently switch from one to another. I love how Lynch plays with his own reputation, as he sends characters into dark corridors with a sombre industrial soundtrack and they emerge again unscathed. Best use of a David Bowie song (‘I’m Deranged’) in a film since Mauvais Sang too.
6. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
A war film that is more about retreat than attack, and arguably one of the strongest war films of all time, where sorrow and failure take priority over dominance and a sense of conquest. As the remarkable soundtrack mirrors the devastation of the war on the young man, with ever increasing noise in the score, we are made true witnesses to all that is the horror of war. It’s an uncompromising and heart-breaking film that always makes me think of Klimov’s short film Larisa (1980), an elegy to his late wife, Larisa Shepitko.
7. The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
As with most of my choices here, images remain burnt into my retina long after seeing the film, and this one in particular features harrowing scenes, notably the execution scene where we witness the fierce, unblinking stare of a boy looking into the eyes of condemned men. Seen alongside Come and See by Shepitko’s husband Klimov, this film is heroic in ambition, and it is a tragedy that Shepitko died so young. The score by Alfred Schnittke is transcendent and as cold as white snow.
8. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
A film that divided many people. I remember watching this in the splendid Art Deco Tuschinski cinema in Amsterdam, and had never seen so many people leave a film screening until I was left as one of a handful of mesmerised viewers, enraptured by this prayer to the image, to the soul. Within the opening 20 minutes I had tears in my eyes, as the John Tavener score soared to spiritual heights, the dreamlike editing and stunning images taking me with them on this elegiac journey into childhood and the afterlife.
9. Starsky & Hutch (Todd Philips, 2004)
We all have guilty pleasures, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve seen this film around a dozen times and still find it affectionate, playful, deliberately formulaic in its narrative and reliably amusing. A kind of paean to 1970s cinema and all the baggage that this brings with it in the most enjoyable way.
10. The Last of England (Derek Jarman, 1988)
As with many of the other directors I’ve mentioned here, I could just as easily have chosen Jarman’s The Garden, The Angelic Conversation or Caravaggio, but The Last of England is the vision of an angry Jarman, raging against the system of the time, with visceral, kinetic images that push the viewer to make a real commitment to this dreamlike tale. Given that he died before the advancements in digital filmmaking and mobile technologies, it still saddens me to wonder what magic Jarman would have been producing if he were still with us today.
After a strong, ambitious programme in 2013, which proved that there is still very much life in the 60-year-old festival, this year the Berlinale felt like a step back. But while the Competition line-up in particular left much to be desired, the festival on the whole included attractive events (including special screenings of Snowpiercer and Nymphomaniac) and terrific guests such as Nick Cave and Lars von Trier, all radiating an unflinching sense of excitement about the of future editions.
One of the most enjoyable entries in Competition was Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land. A nihilistic neo-Western road movie comedy thriller, the film was originally shot in 2009, but then held by censorship authorities and rescheduled several times over the past few years because of its allegedly negative portrayal of the police. After at least three official resubmissions and endless editing and re-cutting, the version of the film presented here was the one that had finally been released theatrically in China in 2013. Yet, it came as a welcome surprise that, except for its newly attached, and effectively arbitrary ending, Ning Hao’s wildly cynical (and frequently bonkers) fable remains tightly paced and eminently fun to watch, if nothing more substantial.
Scratching a little deeper beneath the surface of China’s social malaise, it was bizarre frozen noirBlack Coal, Thin Ice by fellow countryman Diao Yinan that was deemed worthy of the Golden Bear for Best Film. And, much to everyone’s surprise, the jury also honoured its star, Liao Fan, with the Best Actor award. The story begins in 1999 in northern China, where Zhang (Liao Fan), a washed-up, recently divorced cop, is tasked with investigating a murder case after some body parts were discovered in a number of coal shipments in the area. But rather than solving the mystery, Zhang eventually loses his place on the force until, five years later, a chance encounter with an old colleague leads him to become entangled with the case again. With nothing else in his life to cling to, he quickly becomes obsessed, both with the investigation, and with the widow (Gwei Lun Mei) around whom it all seems to revolve. What becomes clear in the course of increasingly irritating events is that, while a truly extraordinary visual experience, Black Coal, Thin Ice can’t disguise the conventional heart that beats at the centre of the narrative. Still, in the context of a fiercely underwhelming Competition, it did make the film engaging and puzzling enough to stand out from the rest.
Watch the trailer to Black Coal, Thin Ice:
A similar plot problem prevented Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance from being anything more than average, fun crime fare. Convincing embodying a man whose resolve is sorely tested, Stellan Skarsgård plays Nils, a reputable snowplough driver by profession, more at ease with action than words – especially if he is upset, or angry, or both. Devastated when his son suddenly dies of a heroin overdose, he decides to take revenge. Although the filmmaking is assured and the pace correspondingly brisk, keeping in line with its hero’s spirit, there is no denying that Moland also reworks an all too well-tested formula here, which places his playful slice of Nordic noir at risk of running idle.
Watch the trailer to In Order of Disappearance:
It was Andreas Prochaska’s rare Austrian Western The Dark Valley, presented out of competition as part of the Berlinale Special strand, which turned out to be one of the most debated revenge chillers of the festival. A former editor for Michael Haneke, Prochaska first gained credit as a director with slash horror flick Dead in Three Days (In 3 Tagen bist du tot, 2006), but The Dark Valley is a different kind of beast entirely. Based on the 2010 bestseller by Thomas Willmann, the film is set in a distant higher region of the Tyrol Alps in the 19th century. Grim-faced Greider (Sam Riley), a storybook-style lonesome horseman, arrives in a remote village just as winter sets in, isolating the place from the rest of the world. Introducing himself as a photographer intending to capture the impressive landscape and its inhabitants, the mysterious, quiet American is greeted with distrust but eventually finds shelter with Luzi (Paula Beer), the narrator of the story, and her widowed mother. It comes as no surprise that Greider’s true intent is nothing less than vengeance, in this case against old Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg), an uncompromising patriarch who has ruled over the women in the village for decades by claiming droit du seigneur over any newlywed brides, including Grider’s beloved mother. It’s not long before blood is shed and once the cards are on the table, things move slowly towards a final showdown. While the film has been widely criticised for its clumsy storytelling, flat, cliché-ridden characterisation and uncompromising, grim stolidity, its advocates suggest that The Dark Valley is well worth a second look as it stumbles into that small canon of films that dare to relocate the tropes and texture of the Western genre to some bleaker bolder, more eccentric climes. There is no denying that, aesthetically and conceptually, Prochaska aims high here, but while he dazzles on the former level, he is not as successful on the latter. Still, you have to admire Riley for keeping a perfectly straight face throughout his fierce revenge frenzy, while Prochaska and his cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast make excellent use of the snowy landscape that serves as an appropriate setting for a staggering war of retaliation.
Watch the trailer to The Dark Valley:
One of the true standouts this year was Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s intriguing and vastly inspiring Nick Cave portrait 20,000 Days on Earth. Following on from the short films they made to accompany the albums of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the artist-filmmaker duo have created a beguiling, artistic and spirited look at the life and work of a man who, celebrated as a musician, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional film actor, never seems to rest.
Through a vivid collection of memories, archive materials and conversations with those who have affected and inspired him, both professionally and personally, the film explores Cave’s very personal views on the world in general, and his everyday life and creative process in particular. If there was one thing to take away from the film, and perhaps the festival on the whole, it was that dazzling feeling of awakening and the incentive to work hard for your passion and dreams – to suffer the pains and savour the victories.
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Leonor Varela, Willem Dafoe
Best described somewhere on the Blu-ray extras as ’Bill and Ted’s Naked Lunch’, John Dies at the End is the latest Don Coscarelli film in a nigh-on 40-year body of work. He doesn’t make perfect films, the early ones tend to oscillate between ramshackle goofiness and arresting surrealism, but he does make winningly inventive ones, crafted against the odds on tight budgets. Phantasm and Beastmaster are genuine cult classics, and hell, if you don’t love Bubba Ho-Tep there’s just something wrong with you.
In a phone interview conducted at 9am Los Angeles time, Mark Stafford talked to Don Coscarelli about filming a spider crowd massacre, the Presley estate’s reaction to Bubba Ho-Tep, and how Tarantino has changed indie filmmaking.
Mark Stafford: I first saw John Dies at the End at the London Film Festival a couple of years back. That was fantastic, but it’s been a long, long road to this DVD/Blu-ray. Was the cut you first screened at Sundance different to the LFF version?
Don Coscarelli: It was an interesting process because we filmed in digital format, so consequentially after every festival screening I was able to make adjustments to the movie. I showed it at Sundance and I made some changes, and we showed it at South By South West and made some more changes, and probably by the time we showed it in London that was the final version… I don’t think they’d let me make changes that late into the process.
It becomes clear watching the extras that you do a lot of takes. Was that always part of your process, or has the technology encouraged that?
As I’ve made more films I think I’ve made less takes. Early on I took a lot because I didn’t have confidence in myself. It was always: ‘that was pretty good, can we get a better one?’ But it all depends. Some actors, by the way, seem to get better the more takes they do, others get worse. It’s the actor. But I do like to shoot lots of takes because movies are like a puzzle that’s built in the editing room, and the more material you have to work with the better. Sometimes you’ll get an odd look from an actor during a take, which doesn’t have any meaning at the time, but that you can use in the edit to make a point. But I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many as Stanley Kubrick did…
John Dies at the End relies a lot on the casting, which is great. How long was the process? Did you get everybody you wanted?
Generally yes. I’d worked with a couple of the actors before, like Angus Scrimm. And I knew Paul Giamatti, and he came on board very early, to help also as a producer. There was a built-in challenge making this movie: we had limited resources, so I had to find some unknown guys for the two leads, and as a horror director the most terrifying part of making the movie was whether I could find those two actors. The first few days of casting I’d only seen actors who were wrong for the part, who’d just butcher the dialogue, and I began to question whether I could make the film. Luckily Chase Williamson wandered in, this guy who had just come out of college and had never been in anything at all. And then, to compound the challenge, first day of shooting he has to come in and shoot eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti as his first scene ever. It all worked out.
How much of the film was locked down on the page before shooting began? Some of the stuff on disc gives the impression of a film being made on the wing, on the fly…
I pretty much follow the script but sometimes the most interesting elements in a movie happen by accident, when one of your collaborators does something extraordinary. An actor, a set designer, a cameraman will do something with lighting, and you have to try to stay open. The challenge of making movies is that you have this finite amount of time. Every day you have your 12 hours to get the shots done, and you don’t always do it, and being an editor I know how crippled I’ll be if I don’t get those shots… So you want to have it pre-planned, you want to have it organised, and you also want to be spontaneous, but usually spontaneity takes time, to investigate where the spontaneity takes you. It’s a juggling act at all times, and just talking about it gets me exhausted.
I haven’t read John Dies at the End, the novel, but watching the film again I noticed how much it shares some bits of business with your other work, the interdimensional travel, insects, the way that Phantasm has a severed finger and John Dies at the End has a couple of pills that turn into flying bugs…
Reading the book was exciting for me. What was nice about it was this brilliant young author exploring themes and topics that I’ve been interested in for decades, but with this fresh voice, especially the way he writes dialogue. I thought the book handled those themes in a way that would connect with a modern audience. So I jumped at the chance to get the rights and make a film out of it. Then it became a challenge because he had so many wonderful ideas, and unless you’re Coppola or Cameron or Scorsese, who can make three-hour movies, you’re limited to a very tight time frame of maybe 90-100 minutes. Trying to find a way to shoehorn that book into a tight screenplay was difficult. I had to leave a lot of good stuff behind, unfortunately.
You said onstage at the LFF that your method was to go through the book and cut out anything that cost a million dollars.
That’s true, there were things that, with a huge effort, we could still never really approach. Still, I did look for ways to do that. There was this massive sequence in the book that I just loved (the spider trench massacre), and there was just no way we could create that in the movie. But I was able to get a friend of mine (David Hartman) to come in and do a little animated version of that sequence. Though I was worried for a while that that wouldn’t be accepted by fans of the book…
John Dies at the End is based on David Wong’s novel, Bubba Ho-Tep was based on a Joe R. Lansdale short story. Is there a pile of books by your bed waiting to be adapted?
There aren’t that many. It’s hard to find a book that suits my taste and where I can see a viable path to getting it funded and made. What was great about the Joe Lansdale story was that, other than the mummy, it was a pretty simple story that you could make on a budget. Some of the best moments of that film are just the two actors talking in the bedroom, and that’s pretty simple to shoot. I’m always looking for something like that. John Dies at the End is a lot more ambitious but I’m always reading, looking for projects.
Did you ever get any reaction from the Presley estate to Bubba?
We did get a reaction, I don’t know how legitimate this story is. We were always a little concerned that we’d gone too far with the movie and that we’d get an adverse reaction from the estate. I don’t think it’s any secret that they guard their intellectual property, trademarks and images very carefully. Luckily, I’m assuming, they approached it like everyone else did, that Bubba Ho-Tep was a piece of fiction, a parody. But I did hear that one of the folks who worked on our crew called over there just before the movie came out to see if they could get co-sponsorship on some kind of promotion. It was a completely ill-advised move and I was really angry when I found out about it. But apparently, when they called the response that they got was just, ‘oh, we’ve heard about that movie, we really want to see it!’ The thing is that the movie and the book had a really good spirit, and despite the state, the terrible predicament Elvis is in Bubba, we really did treat him and his legacy respectfully. I think we all looked to the better side of Elvis. That was the very nature of it, we couldn’t accept the fact that Elvis died the way he reportedly did. We had to say, ’he was the man, he wouldn’t go out, wouldn’t die that way! He had to die on his feet kicking mummy arse!’
You’ve been an independent filmmaker for 40 years, what do you think’s changed the most over that time?
There have been all kinds of changes. I think the worst is that it’s just much more difficult to get films funded these days. There used to be a lot less films being made. It’s all Quentin Tarantino’s fault, for making being an independent filmmaker cool. Millions of young people across the world decided ‘I’m gonna be a director!’ They’re all making movies and the competition is fierce. It seems to me that back in the day there was a lot more experimentation, a lot more willingness to take risks. There were always young filmmakers out there trying to figure out some new way of making a movie, it was exciting. There were a lot of movies that were popular back then, but wouldn’t be considered viable now, like The Last Picture Show or, say the Truffaut movies that were very simple but not exploitative, and they seem to have gone away.
I once interviewed Franco Nero, talking about the 60s, and all his stories seemed to be like ‘my hairdresser mentioned to me that her boyfriend had written a script,’ and four weeks later they’re shooting a movie. These days everything seems to take years. I asked him what the difference was between then and now, and he said ‘We used to have producers.’
There’s something to that. It’s gotten strange in that the divide has grown. There used to be a lot of pictures in the middle range, or lower middle range. These days you have the micro-budget on one side and the mega-budget on the other, so you either have to make your movie for two bucks or for two hundred million. That limits the kind of movies that can be made.
Abel Ferrara’s 1981 rape-revenge movie Ms.45 is all too often forgotten by film fans. Maybe it’s because, in the UK, it never made it onto the Department of Public Prosecution’s final banned list in the early 80s, like Ferrara’s iconic video nasty Driller Killer (1979). Or maybe it’s because, for exploitation fans, it’s just not as grisly as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). What is certain is that Joe Delia’s score has never received any real appreciation outside the context of the film because, up until now, it has never been released.
The Ms.45 LP sleeve artwork by Alice X. Zhang and sleeve notes by composer Joe Delia.
Ms. 45 is the New York tale of Thana (the late Zoë Lund), a mute seamstress who survives not one rape attack, but two: first in the street, and then, when she gets home, a burglar, waiting in her apartment, repeats the ordeal. What follows is a shocking one-woman rampage against all male chauvinists.
Joe Delia started out in music in the late 60s, touring in backing bands for the likes of Stevie Wonder and The Isley Brothers. In the 70s he studied composition, and got his big break with Ferrara’s first feature, Nine Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976). His career in film and TV now spans almost four decades.
The score of Ms.45 was his third feature-length effort. He had the tough job of jamming out the real sounds of New York, as well as making up for the glaring silence of our mute anti-heroine. For example, down-tuned guitars cling to a racing post-punk rhythm, intensifying the horror as Thana is dragged from the street in the first attack. Whereas, when the burglar points his gun at her, the shrill of a saxophone, like a crazed seagull, pleads: not again, because she can’t. When her transformation into Ms. 45 is complete, Delia subverts this saxophone motif to signify Thana’s rebirth as a woman of vengeance. Her full red lips take centre stage as the music demands you know she’ll no longer be a victim. These dramatic, broad musical tones are complemented by gentler, stripped-down piano compositions.
Everyone who knows this movie knows ‘Dance Party’, and its Liquid Liquid/ESG-type disco-punk groove. On screen a band performs it at a fancy dress party as Thana – in a sexy nun’s habit – bides her time before her final, fatal act of vengeance. [SPOILER] For this climax Delia switches, on the first gun shot, to the haunting Gregorian sounds of ‘Voices’ as Thana shoots every man she finds in her cross hairs at the party – only to be halted when one of her fashionista colleagues (literally) stabs her in the back.
Delia recorded four other tracks for Ms. 45, but they only featured as snippets in the final film. He doesn’t consider these part of the score so they do not appear on the Death Waltz record. However, they are included as digital extras when you buy it, together with two elements tracks – 25 and 45 minutes long – thrown in for good measure.
Zoe Pilger was born in London in 1984. She is an art critic for The Independent and currently researching a PhD on romantic love and sadomasochism in the work of French artist Sophie Calle. Her debut novel, Eat My Heart Out (Serpent’s Tail, £11.99), which started life as a short story, is a wild and wicked rampage through the psyche of a lost young woman as she looks for answers in London’s more outré offerings. Eithne Farry
In François Ozon’s 2003 French-British film Swimming Pool, Charlotte Rampling plays Sarah Morton, a famous crime writer, now middle-aged. She wears dark glasses, smokes, drinks whiskey alone in dingy London pubs. Her hair is cut marmishly short but she retains that Rampling look, those cheekbones, that staggering, dark sexual power.
Sarah lives with her elderly father in a dusty house full of books and heavy curtains. There is the suggestion of a long-term, painful affair with John, her smarmily elegant publisher, played by Charles Dance. It is John who suggests that she go and write in his empty holiday house in the south of France.
What follows is the most visually serene but murderous of stories about the creative process. Sarah is unexpectedly joined in the house by John’s 20-something daughter, Julie, played by the blonde, bronzed and crookedly beautiful Ludivine Sagnier. Sarah is the uptight English ‘spinster’; Julie is the lascivious French ‘slut’. Sarah binges on plain yoghurt with artificial sweetener, while Julie devours foie gras and charcuterie. Julie becomes Sarah’s muse; when Julie eventually commits a dreadful act of violence, she says that she did it for Sarah’s book. The message is clear: creativity requires sacrifice.
I first watched the film when I was at university; I have watched it at least 10 times since. I love it. While I was writing Eat My Heart Out, Sarah and Julie emerged in my imagination as complementary poles of a particularly female experience. In order to get the book done, I had to live like Sarah sans the whiskey: shutting myself away from the world and focusing all on the story.
But my novel’s heroine, Ann-Marie, is more like Julie: she is desperate for male attention, she plays the game. She is raw and intelligent and wounded. She will survive at all costs; she will do violence to survive. While Sarah and Julie are both classic feminine types, Ozon gives them a grace and depth that is not typical. They help each other; indeed, they need each other.