The Films of Larry Fessenden

Wendigo

Larry Fessenden is a prolific figure in the world of horror. As a director, he has made only five full-length films, but he has produced and starred in over 40 other features. As actor and producer, Fessenden’s films range from B-movies, best watched after several drinks on Halloween night, to cult classics in the making by up-and-coming directors. However, as an auteur filmmaker (he produces, writes and stars in most of the films he directs) he has brought a refreshing new voice to a genre that seems too often unwilling to experiment – ironic for a type of storytelling that is all about the fear of the unknown.

At this year’s FrightFest, he spoke on stage as part of a panel of his peers (Ti West, Lucky McKee, Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Andrew van den Houten), who are almost exclusively directors of slasher movies and ‘torture porn’, and, with the exception of McKee, have done little to innovate. Hilariously, these directors had the arrogance to complain about big-budget horror remakes in recent years being helmed by ‘unknowns’ – second-unit directors and editors of Hollywood schlock. But the truth is, their own output is barely known outside of the cultish clan of aficionados with a high tolerance for the drivel often found at horror festivals.

Fessenden’s work is also little known outside of the pages of Fangoria or independent video shops, but in his four horror films (his 1985 Experienced Movers has rarely been seen since its year of production) and one TV episode, he has established himself as a terrific filmmaker. First was a thoughtful trilogy that commented on the classic tropes of horror films – Frankenstein in No Telling (or The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), vampires in Habit (1995) and werewolves in Wendigo (2001) – followed by The Last Winter (2006) and Fear Itself: Skin and Bones (2008), in which he further explored the myth of the Wendigo.

In Native North American folklore, the Wendigo is a kind of cannibalistic spirit with a shape-shifting exterior. In Fessenden’s films, the Wendigo’s appearance changes, depending on who is telling the narrative. In Wendigo, it first appears (or rather, doesn’t appear) when the members of a family who survive a car crash all encounter different aspects of an animalistic shape, one part sticks rustling in the wind and one part fur-covered Arctic predator. Here, the Wendigo has some kind of amorphous role in protecting its environment, but the link between the creature and the land is made more explicit in The Last Winter. As a multinational company starts drilling in the Arctic tundra, the humans who have braved the lethal environment encounter the spirit: first as a flock of birds, ready to peck out the eyes of anyone crazed enough to stay outside to the point of hypothermia, then as madness that drives the men into the cold, then as an enormous shadowy figure made of smoke that stalks the land at night. Finally it appears as a flock once more: dark, velociraptor-style predators gorging themselves on the human remains. In The Last Winter, Fassenden presents the monster as a monitor and destroyer of the men who encroach on its territory or endanger the planet. In his TV episode Fear Itself, Fessenden reveals it to be the animal within, as a character in the show transforms into the Wendigo.

Fessenden is interested in the ambiguity of horror and of storytelling, and in unreliable narrators. Fessenden challenges every aspect of mankind, from our position at the top of the food chain, to being subservient to an eco-system we try to master, to the unreliable perception of the environment itself. Science fiction wouldn’t be a challenging enough genre for this kind of storytelling – although the director flirts with it in No Telling when a mad scientist experiments on the animals in his care. Fessenden wants to disrupt, to unsettle and to disturb, while keeping an ecological leitmotif in all of his horror films, except Habit (and even then, perhaps, the transformation of man into vampire is a type of evolution).

Since 2001 his films have been beautifully shot and thoughtfully directed, evolving from his more underground, ultra-low-budget roots to slick verisimilitude, which seems comparable to the work of the Coen Brothers (if they only worked in horror). The only flaw in the director’s tales is his unwillingness to provide his films with a definitive or satisfying ending – but if horror is to disturb and unsettle, perhaps one should leave the cinema with the sense of a drama left unresolved. Certainly with Fessenden, the journey to a final door left ajar is always one worth taking.

I spoke to Larry Fessenden immediately after the panel discussion on modern horror at 2011’s August FrightFest.

Alex Fitch: You spoke eloquently on stage about how you had a love of classic horror films as you were growing up, of RKO films like King Kong, and then in the 1960s, films like Night of the Living Dead. But, as well as an interest in those classic horror tropes, something that’s very prevalent in your movies is your anger about how man is destroying our environment. What sort of experiences in your formative years created that anger?

Larry Fessenden: I’m not impressed with people who put on airs, and I think the whole of humanity has that element. I had a passion for thoughtful and eccentric people – I went to a great school when I was young, and I thought that was the way of the world. Then when I went out into the real world, I saw that many people were faking it, and were un-genuine, and would call on the name of a religion in a false way. So it’s an anti-authoritarian thing. I also grew up going to Cape Cod and liking nature, respecting it. I’m not an outdoors man, I just believe in respect for your elders, and there’s nothing older than the Earth. Although some in America would question that, too.

In films like No Telling, humanity has manipulated evolution for our own survival. When it comes to presenting that on film, horror is a very good way of doing it, but how do you avoid making it just an issue movie?

Well, some people would feel that I do preach – at least in No Telling, I think things got carried away. There’s a central scene where they’re arguing at a dinner table, and the point I’m making in that scene, which the casual viewer sees as preachy, is how we can’t communicate. You go to parties and people do talk about politics, and you walk away and you realise you can’t change people’s minds. I find that fascinating. So, in a way, I try to have movies where there’s some dialogue about a situation. But then there’s the reality that you’re showing cinematically, and then the one that trumps it – because reality will trump all this conversation. You can say something like global warming is not true, but the fact is, there’s going to come a time when it simply is true and then you have to deal with that.

That basic betrayal of our potential as a species and as individuals is really what drives me. Habit is about how that guy cannot rise above his alcoholism, cannot find his better self, and that’s the tragedy of humanity, I think. That’s why my movies are personal, even though they have this political veneer. If you deal with the environment, people will be defensive, because in our heart of hearts, we all know that we are part of the problem, which I also find interesting and horrific. It’s really what I love about horror – it’s the truth-teller of the genres. I don’t want to make movies that preach about politics, I find that uninteresting, so I have a monster come along, and that vindicates nature!

I suppose the supreme example of that is Wendigo, because it’s very much about the myth of a creature on whose description no one can agree.

Exactly.

It seems very brave of you, that unlike a lot of filmmakers, you will show that it looks different to many people. To the audience that can be frustrating, but there’s an honesty there.

I believe that if you show the monster in different ways, you’re getting at the essence of another theme that interests me, which is the subjective nature of reality. I mean, to one character in Habit, his girlfriend’s a vampire; to his friends, she’s an interloper, taking away his attentions from their party life; and then in the end, there’s a very subtle thing where you realise that both stories are true. He’s either fallen out of the window alone, or he’s fallen out with her. I love this slippery reality. I believe in a very deliberate ambiguity in storytelling because that is how life is. It’s appalling, sometimes, when you talk to someone and realise they hold a different view, and they’re absolutely coming from a genuine place. You realise it’s hard to connect, and it has to do with their upbringing, and every subtle thing that creates a human personality is in play – I like to show that in movies. I think the nature of horror is that it allows you to delve into issues of split personalities, of unreliable narrators and untrue, slippery reality.

The ambiguity of horror films seems to be an antidote to the encroaching apocalypse presented constantly in the news. You spoke on stage about the August riots on the streets of London – but if society is going to collapse, maybe it’s these communal myths that can bring us together again?

Well, that’s also my business. In my films, I’m trying to show not which myth to follow, but how important myths are to give us meaning – because otherwise you’re left with a very bald, desperate reality that is amoral. So I celebrate, and I want people to acknowledge, that if you are clinging to mythologies and your world view is formed for a reason, then you can at least get a window into someone else’s world, and that gives you some hope. I really think the pinnacle would be to make a film that created a new paradigm for people to get behind, and that’s why I’m trying to suggest that could be nature in some way. It’s funny, most people think that my movies are about nature getting revenge and being threatening, but I’m saying: ‘Have awe. Have respect.’ I’m not really saying it’s a baddie. But you realise you can be easily misinterpreted when you’re dealing with something so primal as our relationship to the rest of the world. That’s why I’m not interested in The Exorcist type of film, because it’s dealing with God and the Devil, and I’m like, ‘Let’s stop talking about good and evil and let’s look at this whole other paradigm.’ So, while I’m not going to single-handedly save the world, that is my preoccupation, to sort of put forth a new way of looking at our reality, and if we could agree on that, then maybe we could get to this business of saving ourselves!

Interview by Alex Fitch

Film4 FrightFest 2011 part 2

Tucker & Dale vs Evil

Film4 FrightFest

25-29 August 2011, Empire, London

FrightFest website

Tucker & Dale vs Evil was one of the films that impressed Alex Fitch at this year’s Film4 FrightFest.

Tucker & Dale vs Evil

I went into the screening of Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010) expecting the film to be a guilty pleasure, as a fan of both horror-comedy and the leading man, Joss Whedon regular Alan Tudyk. But the film surpassed my expectations and proved to be one of the most enjoyable of the festival, an uproarious comedy that takes the ‘teens in peril’ slasher genre and subverts its clichés.

Tucker and Dale (Tudyk and Tyler Labine) are an amiable pair of misfits with a close homoerotic relationship that comes across as less affected than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s reoccurring schtick. Travelling into the woods to fix up a shack previously owned by cannibalistic murderers of the Texas Chainsaw variety, Tucker and Dale amble from one misadventure to another and inadvertently present themselves to a group of teens on holiday as the slasher movie style killers the kids are already expecting to find in the woods. As the hapless duo go out of their way to be friendly, the kids variously impale, burn and shred themselves to death trying to escape the innocuous pair.

Hilarious, subversive and occasionally shocking, this is a very welcome example of a spoof slasher movie, a sub-genre that has almost always proved to be unwatchable when attempted in the past, with the gruelling Scary Movie franchise being the most interminable and depressingly successful (part 5 is due in 2012) example.

With its schlocky name, seemingly familiar plot and cast of TV actors, Tucker & Dale vs Evil might struggle to find an audience among the onslaught of bad horror movies that fill DVD rental shelves, but it is to be hoped that it will attract the cult following it deserves and mark the start of a successful career for fledgling director Eli Craig.

Tucker & Dale vs Evil is released in UK cinemas on September 23 by Vertigo Films.

The Glass Man

On the second day of FrightFest, the main screen’s line-up consisted entirely of movies about people killing other people, which is to say they contained no supernatural elements, only monsters of the human kind. As such, not all of the films shown were actually horror films. Preceding The Glass Man was an underwhelming thriller/drama called The Holding (along the lines of Dead Man’s Shoes). The Glass Man itself straddles these two genres, and its only horror credentials are an extended cameo by Neve Campbell, star of the Scream franchise, and the fact that director Cristian Solimeno had the misfortune of playing the male lead in Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears (2007).

The Glass Man, however, is an excellent film. A mid-recession British take on one of David Fincher’s finest movies (I won’t say which one or you’ll get the twist immediately), the film concentrates on the travails of Martin (Andy Nyman), a businessman who has been fired from his job for an unknown reason; the film implies some kind of whistle-blowing. With a mortgage to pay and a lifestyle he and his wife have become accustomed to, he has been lying to her about still going to work for some time and amassed crippling debts when a hitman (James Cosmo) comes to his front door and gives him a choice between becoming his accomplice for the night or waking up Martin’s wife and…

A belated addition to the ‘yuppie in peril’ sub-genre that flourished briefly in the mid-1980s (Into the Night, After Hours), The Glass Man‘s relentless atmosphere of impending doom and Nyman’s constant nervousness about unarticulated peril keep the audience transfixed even though not a lot happens on screen for much of the running time. A terrific directorial debut by Cristian Solimeno, who proves himself to be an actor’s director, in a film dominated by the interaction between Nyman and Cosmo, judged exquisitely well.

The Wicker Tree

Some belated sequels, which no one particularly expected or wanted to see, are actually well worth a look. These include films that see actors returning from the original, for example Paul Newman in The Color of Money (1986), or ones that revisit the title and the source material, for example Return to Oz (1985). Others, while they retain one of the original creators, for example Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 (1984), seem ill-conceived from the start, as few directors, if any, could top Kubrick at his best.

Unfortunately, and somewhat inevitably, The Wicker Tree (2011) is an example of the latter. The original film, The Wicker Man (1973), was in many respects an example of lightning caught in a bottle – a dependable British cast at the top of their game, an unusual story and a witty script that flirts with different genres but is hard to pin down. As the original film depended on many disparate elements fitting together in a production that was beset by problems, a sequel would have to be brilliant to match its reputation. A script of ‘The Wicker Man II’ by original writer Anthony Shaffer did the rounds for decades, but this was stymied both by his death in 2001 and Edward Woodward’s in 2009. The actor, almost unbelievably, was prepared to return to the role of Sergeant Howie, following in the footsteps of Donald Pleasance in Halloween 4 (1988) as another apparently fireproof hero. With Shaffer and Woodward gone, director Robin Hardy has come up with his own thematic sequel, which takes the audience to another Scottish pagan community who enjoy orgiastic celebrations and sacrificing Christians.

Christopher Lee returns in a brief cameo as a former patriarch of the community (possibly Lord Summerisle, depending on the vagaries of copyright law), but the cast of TV actors he’s surrounded with rarely lift the material above the standard of an episode of Midsomer Murders, which in tone, atmosphere and set dressing the film seems particular keen to recreate. As in the original, there are some great uses of music, some well-judged moments of tension and some good depictions of decadent Brits taking their desires to their logical conclusion. However, the comedy moments are often forced and occasionally embarrassing to watch while the horror is never extreme enough to be particularly shocking, with more disturbing and memorable cannibalistic orgies served up in recent years by Perfume (2006) and episodes of True Blood in 2009.

The Wicker Tree isn’t unwatchable, unlike parts of the misguided American remake of The Wicker Man (2006), but adds nothing to the original. A worthy sequel to the 1973 cult movie is perhaps one best left to our imaginations.

More FrightFest reviews online next week, including Lucky McKee’s controversial The Woman.

Alex Fitch

Richard Kelly’s Apocalypse and Apocatastasis Trilogy

Donnie Darko

Title: Donnie Darko

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 July 2011

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Richard Kelly

Writer: Richard Kelly

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle

USA 2001/2004

113 mins/133 mins (director’s cut)

‘If a Tangent Universe occurs, it will be highly unstable, sustaining life for no longer than several weeks. Eventually it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence.’ – from The Philosophy of Time Travel by Roberta Sparrow (as seen on screen in Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, 2004).

As the debut feature by director Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko is a stunning statement of intent, depicting the last day(s) of the eponymous troubled teenager who, having narrowly escaped death by UFO (a mysterious, unclaimed jet engine that falls through his bedroom ceiling) due to his somnambulism, spends the next month being visited by an animal totem warning him about the approaching end of the world. Kelly effortlessly mixes a perfect recreation of the 1980s, through subtle direction of his young cast as well as extended cameos by notable children of the 80s – Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze – the well-chosen backdrop of a presidential election (many jokes in the film derive from Michael Dukakis’s claim on office) and a terrific soundtrack including well-known and lesser-known tracks from the period. Indeed, the latter aspect of the film drew comparisons with the work of Quentin Tarantino, another director renowned for creating atmosphere in his films through a well-curated soundtrack, and Kelly’s debut came second in Empire magazine’s list of ‘Greatest Independent Films’ after Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992).

In the original cinema release of Donnie Darko, Kelly expertly combines the eschatological and SF aspects of the script with the depiction of teenage angst and ennui. Donnie’s psychological problems are contrasted with his visions of humanoid demon rabbit Frank, Frank’s ability to conjure wormholes and forcefields, and the billowing iridescent snakes that Darko sees issuing from people’s chests, which display their future paths through life. Almost every aspect of the film is spot on, from the terrific casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead, his real-life sister Maggie as his fictional sister on screen (a sibling double act to rival John and Joan Cusack), to the subtle humour in the dialogue and in visual gags, such as the local cinema’s advertising of an irresistible Halloween double bill: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and The Evil Dead (1981) – two films about resurrection whose leads are also harassed by supernatural forces.

It’s been said that director Orson Welles lived his career in reverse, starting with the finest film that he (and arguable anyone else) ever directed, followed by a downward slide. Unfortunately, in his first three films as director, Kelly has followed a similar path; Darko is excellent but Southland Tales (2007) is absolute drivel and The Box (2009) is a wasted opportunity. Without grilling the director and his collaborators, it’s hard to work out what went wrong. It’s possible that Kelly only had one really good film in him, or made a good film despite himself – as evidenced by the considerably less successful director’s cut of Darko, which bloats the running time by 20 minutes, including scenes that don’t work as well as the original footage (such as an awkward and ill-judged discussion of divorce by his parents) and unnecessary shots of information being both downloaded into Donnie’s brain and superimposed on screen. If you listen to the director’s commentary on the movie (in conversation with Kevin Smith), it becomes increasingly apparent that Kelly always intended to make a less ambiguous film than the one originally released. There’s a lot to be said about the modern phenomenon of the director’s cut – certainly the most famous example, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982/1992), does improve on the cinema release (although 2007’s ‘final cut’ doesn’t) – but just because a director can do a more idiosyncratic cut of a previously released film, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she should. Unlike Blade Runner, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko thankfully hasn’t superseded the original, otherwise the film’s reputation might be gradually tarnished, but the director has gone on to make underwhelming films that may yet damage his own reputation.

Title: Southland Tales

Format: DVD

Release date: 31 March 2008

Distributor: Universal

Director: Richard Kelly

Writer: Richard Kelly

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Wallace Shawn, Kevin Smith, Jon Lovitz

USA 2006/2007

160 mins (Cannes cut)/144 mins (Cinema/DVD release)

First to follow Donnie Darko is the grande folie Southland Tales, a 144-minute sci-fi comedy that fails to tell a coherent narrative in its interminable running time. Following a disastrous screening at Cannes of an even longer cut (I’ve had the misfortune of seeing both), it led to Kelly writing three prequel comic books to start off the story. For better or worse, George Lucas inspired a generation of filmmakers, and like his most famous film, Southland Tales begins with ‘Episode 4’, a device that may have added to the allure of Star Wars (1977) when it was re-released, but does nothing for Kelly’s confused epic.

Tales is a multi-voiced narrative set in the south of the United States after a nuclear explosion has irradiated Texas and accelerated the advent of a police state and the need for new forms of electrical production. Unlike Donnie Darko‘s sideways travels in time, which make sense at least within the film’s internal narrative (even if it’s not clear what Frank’s predicted apocalypse will entail), Southland Tales sees two characters travel back in time. Unlike Donnie Darko, actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) and police office Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) have ended up as their own doppelgängers (something that would reoccur in the sequel to Donnie Darko, S. Darko, in 2009), co-existing with them. In Boxer’s case, his copy has died, but as two Taverners still co-exist, their eventually meeting – in a plot device seen in many other time travel movies, where there are dire warnings about confronting oneself – presages the apocalypse.

So far, so comprehensible. However, Kelly adds florid performances by a range of comedy actors, including director Kevin Smith, Wallace Shawn, Jon Lovitz and Curtis Armstrong, who all play their parts broadly and unsympathetically to each other. Even the moment of apocalypse itself is made absurd by the two Taverners meeting in the back of an ice-cream van, which is used by gun-runner Christopher Lambert in plying his trade. Southland Tales also marks the start of Kelly’s apparent interest in making beautiful women look unattractive – Sarah Michelle Gellar in this movie (which may have destroyed her career) and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Box – and miscasts Gellar as a dumb adult film star (a sci-fi Magdalen, perhaps?) who has foretold Boxer’s messianic potential in her portentous movie script. Elsewhere, Gulf War veteran pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) narrates the tale from his vantage point of a tower-mounted machine-gun outpost, watching the streets for violent crime and terrorist activity, while various stoners haphazardly mount a ‘neo-Marxist’ protest to the current regime. When the only watchable scene in a movie is Justin Timberlake miming to The White Stripes in a beer-fuelled pastiche of a Busby Berkeley musical number (a scene that Kelly hilariously refers to as ‘the emotional heart of the movie’), you know something has drastically gone wrong, and if the preceding sentence has piqued your interest, please do find that scene on YouTube, but take my recommendation in avoiding the rest of this tedious movie…

I haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), but the mixed (and generally unfavourable) reactions to that film suggest that Southland Tales is a similar experience, not only as a broad, ill-conceived comedy postulated as a response to a semi-apocalyptic event inflicted on the American people (Pearl Harbor, belatedly, in Spielberg’s case / September 11, 2001, in Kelly’s), but also as the product of an imaginative low-budget director being given more money than he knows how to spend, with access to a comedic cast he doesn’t know how to direct. Although Spielberg’s subsequent films have included comedic elements – witty dialogue in the Indiana Jones films, for example – he hasn’t done another full-blown comedy again, and on the basis of this, it is to be hoped that neither will Kelly.

Title: The Box

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 April 2010

Distributor: Icon Home Entertainment

Director: Richard Kelly

Writer: Richard Kelly

Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Frank Ridley

USA 2009

115 mins

I’m not going to explore Kelly’s script (about the real-life bounty hunter) Domino (2005), directed by Tony Scott, as there’s nothing about the movie that deals with the fall of mankind, other than Scott’s attention-deficit-disorder style of shooting and editing, but Kelly’s third film, The Box, is a partial return to form and a thematic prequel to Donnie Darko in many ways. Like Darko, The Box effectively mixes a well-conceived recreation of a recent historic era – in this case the mid-1970s – with mysterious presages of doom (here, facially scarred Frank Langella and his acolytes, replacing his namesake in Darko as the disrupter of a suburban household) and autobiographical elements. I don’t know if the high school scenes in Darko are based on Kelly’s own experiences – there is an honesty and reality to them that suggest they are – but certainly the lives of Arthur and Norma Lewis in The Box, as played by James Marsden and Gwyneth Paltrow, are based on Kelly’s own parents, including the former’s role at NASA and the latter’s pedal deformity and job as a high school teacher.

However, while Darko told a relatively straightforward narrative in a beguiling way, Kelly’s adaptation of the short story ‘Button, Button’ by Richard Matheson (previously filmed as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1986 by Peter Medak) sees the director distracted by too many narrative possibilities, left potentially unexplored by the original short story and TV adaptation. While his overegging of the script in The Box doesn’t cause this eschatological soufflé to completely collapse – as Southland Tales does – it is too complicated for its own good and makes the casual viewer wonder why the director felt the need to over-embellish a memorable story that succeeded due to its simplicity.

The Box is set in Langley, Virginia, in 1976, an evocative time and place due to the celebrations of America’s bicentennial and the first contact of mankind (or at least its robots) with the Martian landscape, bringing with it the potential discovery of life on another planet. The juxtaposition between these events, the arrival of a mysterious man, who offers ordinary couples the chance to earn a million dollars through the pressing of a button in a box, and the subsequent execution of a random stranger, is never fully articulated. The non-terrestrial origins of Langella and his network of remote viewers are never explained either. But the co-opting of some of the style and imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) suggests that mankind’s first landfall on another world (as with the unearthing of the Black Monolith on the Moon in 2001) has initiated a test by a greater intelligence to see if we need guidance from now on. Certainly the aims of Frank Langella’s character are described as a test of our morality, to see if we are worthy of continued existence as a race.

Like Darko, The Box contains a text that ‘explains’ (or rather obfuscates) the nature of travel between different realities: ‘Grandma Death’ / Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel in Darko and Human Resource Exploitation Manual, Section 1 – Abstracts (July 1976) in The Box. Both feature exactly the same drawing (which must indicate more than just laziness on the director’s behalf) of a human skeleton moving through dimensions and both contain mention of some kind of watery portal between these places. In an extract from The Philosophy of Time Travel seen on screen in Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, we read: ‘Water is the barrier element for the construction of Time Portals used as gateways between Universes’, which is applicable to the ‘science’ we see in both movies and suggests both books are possibly one and the same.

In Darko, when a character asks about how time travel can be philosophical, this is entirely apposite as it’s as much about Donnie’s experience and interpretation of the world – indeed the entire movie could be the hallucinations of a disturbed mind (possibly during his last hour of life). This is crystallised in a conversation that the character has with his science teacher; when Donnie asks about how God might influence time travel, his lecturer ends the conversation as it is beyond his remit as both a scientist and a state-employed teacher to answer that kind of question. However, although The Box has an atmosphere of hard science – the male lead character works for NASA, after all – the brief glimpse we have of the book doesn’t even contain good science, including such extracts as: ‘Test subject is submerged in NaOH+Hcl barrier during analysis period of 60 minutes.’ Curious about the chemistry, I googled it and ‘NaOH+Hcl’ is meaningless in this context – it describes the production of water in an acidic chemical reaction. The correct formula is something along the lines of ‘H2O+[C10F18+O2]’, which describes the properties of an oxygen-rich liquid that human beings can be submerged in for long periods of time, as proposed for future space exploration (which is mentioned elsewhere in the film) and shown in other SF films such as James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), a film that clearly influenced Kelly in its (CGI) depiction of water-based life forms.

The problem is that Kelly wants to have his cake and eat it – he proposes pseudo-science that sounds plausible, but the more you give the audience a chance to examine it, the greater the chance they might realise how daft it is. To try and deflect this realisation, in The Box, Kelly has Marsden quote writer Arthur C. Clarke: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ while staring at a religious canvas in the Renaissance style, suggesting that simultaneously he wants to try and understand the science, dismiss the science as too hard to understand, and attribute a supernatural/religious aspect to it. Continuing the theme of art and religion, in a deleted scene on the Blu-ray we see a triptych of deformed self-portraits by Francis Bacon on a desk in Frank Langella’s ‘Bond villain’ lair – inviting questions about whether an alien possessing the body of a man with a horrifically scarred face is looking for a reflection of himself, or whether his scarification was intended to evoke a literal example of humanity’s self-loathing.

In an additional line of voice-over added to the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, Frank says, ‘pay close attention, you could miss something’. But with Kelly’s scattergun approach to imagery and ideas in all his films except the original cinematic release of Darko, there are so many elements, clues and red herrings, that without clearer storytelling, the audience is more likely to be perplexed than enraptured. Within The Box and its excised footage, there’s the potential for a better film – trying to come up with a coherent edit of Southland Tales would defeat even an expert editor – and a double bill of Kelly’s first and third films makes for arresting viewing. However, the question of what it all means is left unresolved – the workmanlike remake/sequel S.Darko does the original no favours – so unless the director’s next or subsequent project forms a more satisfying trilogy with Donnie Darko and The Box, it is a picture of the apocalypse left unresolved, an ‘apocatastasis’ where one has a vision of the end times but the revelation is interrupted and remains incoherent. Whether the director can show us the end of the world in a way that satisfies the audience is yet to be seen. I wonder if anything interesting happened in his family history in the 1990s that may yield another good film in the future.

Alex Fitch

SCI-FI-LONDON 2011: Apocalyptic Podcast

The Gerber Syndrome

SCI-FI-LONDON

23 April – 2 May 2011

London, UK

Festival website

To complement our Apocalypse theme this month, you can listen to Alex Fitch’s podcast on the Sci-Fi London website, 3.16 – Apocalypse (cinema) now. In a pair of on-stage interviews recorded at this year’s Sci-Fi London 10 festival, Alex Fitch talks to a couple of filmmakers about their recent takes on the apocalypse in film: Dekker Dreyer, whose film The Arcadian stars Lance Henriksen and Brian Thompson, and mixes the iconography of shamanism with elements of the road movie in a post-apocalyptic setting; and Maxi Dejoie whose film The Gerber Syndrome is an Italian take on 28 Days Later…, using a pseudo-documentary style to follow a member of a biohazard clean-up crew who is scouring the streets looking for the contagious, and is the first overtly political zombie film in a long time. In the latter interview, Alex and Maxi are also joined by Gerber producers Claudio Bronzo and Lorenzo Lotti.

Source Code: Interview with Duncan Jones

Source Code

Format: Cinema

Release date: 1 April 2011

Venues: nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Duncan Jones

Writer: Ben Ripley

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga

USA/France 2011

93 mins

With Duncan Jones’s new film Source Code firmly ensconced in UK cinemas, Alex Fitch caught up with the director to talk about some of the film’s themes and its links with computer games and modernist sculpture.

Alex Fitch: There are a lot of parallels between Moon and Source Code – the lead character who’s in a situation not of his making, which is connected with technology and so on. Do you think that’s why the writer and producers approached you? And did you take on the project because they are themes that interest you?

Duncan Jones: The first part is absolutely right, it was actually Jake [Gyllenhaal] who approached me; I was in Los Angeles doing international press for Moon at the time and was trying to meet up with people I wanted to work with. Jake had seen Moon and very much enjoyed it, so we met up to try and find something to work on together, and he suggested I read the script for Source Code, which he had been sent. I got very excited about it, not because of any similarities – I didn’t even notice the similarities – but because of what I thought were the differences and how it was an opportunity to do things I hadn’t done in Moon. But I think Jake gave it to me because he saw similarities between Moon and this project and thought there were certain things I’d done in Moon that would transfer well to Source Code.

[SPOILER]

The narrators of both films have been constructed in a way by technology – they’re not quite human – and I wonder to what extent we should treat Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Colter, as an unreliable narrator. We can take a lot of the film at face value, as much as he’s experiencing it, but there’s this one scene where he’s talking to someone and suddenly they get pixellated, so you’re unsure whether it really is a simulation or a kind of time travel. How much did it interest you to play with those ideas? You could almost take the ending of the film as the fantasy of a dying man that perhaps doesn’t actually happen…

A la Brazil or something? Well, I believe there is a logic to the way I told the story, which can be interpreted in one specific way, which would all be coherent. I wasn’t going to throw stuff in there just to put you off the scent! It all does work towards a particular goal; I can tell you what parts of it are: the pixellation in particular, you’re right, is a key moment. How does the pixellation work with parallel realities? The idea is: in all other versions of the source code, when he gets sucked back into the original reality – which means there is still some kind of link with this mysterious source code at that point – and he hears about the news of his own death, it basically short-circuits him so much, that tenuous link yanks him back to the original reality. In the very last version of the source code where he’s sent off to what is supposed to be a heroic death, that tenuous link is severed and he actually exists in that parallel reality. That’s my explanation…

I’m surprised that you’re happy to give a definitive version as other directors would say, ‘well, I don’t want to explain it to you’!

That’s because they don’t know what the answer is! Also, obviously in that final passage, that final source code where Colter has gone off to that parallel reality and has stopped the train from going off, we now exist in a new reality where because the train was never blown up, he was never sent on the mission in the first place, so he must still exist in the facility where [his military handler] Goodwin is. That is the same Goodwin in this parallel reality who receives the email he sends from the train. I love the paradox of that ending, which was why I was so keen that was part of the film.

[END OF SPOILER]

I suppose – and I’m not suggesting you want to do ‘Source Code 2’ – you could end up with a scenario where several versions of Colter from different parallels end up in the same place, because he’s succeeded on various missions!

Absolutely!

Obviously if terrorists were looking for a target to blow up, they would choose a city to cause maximum damage, but I’m interested in the idea of the film’s theme of a character processing information around him, and since he’s going from a less complex system – the suburbs – to a more complex system – the city – I was wondering if those were themes you’d considered, that he was disrupting increasingly complex environments…

That’s interesting, I can’t say I have. You see, I’m admitting I didn’t have a pre-existing plan there! No, that’s very interesting, that’s a fascinating interpretation. It’s something that was there in the script to begin with and structurally I thought the script was very sound, so it made sense to run with it.

That’s another parallel with Moon, that both characters go from a place that’s quite sparsely populated and very much contained to a very open environment where their presence may become an increasingly disruptive presence, because they’re more than human.

That’s true, there are a number of parallels regarding identity and the nature of a working person trying to impose some kind of rights for themselves against a malicious authority and through the use of technology. It does make you realise just how blinkered you can be at times: when I was reading the script I wasn’t seeing those parallels! I got very enthusiastic about certain aspects of it and they must have been coming through on a subconscious level.

[SPOILER]

Colter is obviously a very likeable and engaging character, we’re with him on his journey and we’re happy that he succeeded, but at the same time I feel the film doesn’t spare a thought for the poor guy whose body he’s stolen. It’s all very well that he was going to die in every other reality, but when Jake survives it’s because he’s stolen someone else’s life.

It’s true and it’s part of the less-than-rosy happy ending people talk about, which the film doesn’t actually have, but at the same time there was really no way of getting around Sean Fentress dying; he was either going to die when the train blew up or everyone else was going to be saved and he was going to die because Colter was going to have to use his body. So it was the one sacrifice that was going to be unavoidable…

[END OF SPOILER]

Was the sculpture that the two leads confront at the end in the script? Is it set in Chicago or was that a visual element you brought to it?

The script was originally set in New York, but because of sensitivities to the terrorism angle, they felt it was important to move it away from there. We discussed a number of cities but for a list of reasons, we decided that Chicago was a great city to do it in – it’s a big multi-cultural city in the Midwest, something that both the East and the West can relate to. Visually, it’s a very beautiful city as well. We knew we were going to be shooting in Montreal so we needed to find a place we could match. Montreal can be matched with a lot of places, but Chicago is particularly easy and I was really pushing for this because I wanted to use this Anish Kapoor sculpture. I knew it could be a really useful visual metaphor, a useful tool in the flashbacks he’s having, and make a good payoff at the end of the film as well. It looks alien, it doesn’t even look real! I love that aspect of it…

And obviously, aesthetically, it echoes some of the themes of the movie.

Absolutely, it’s about reflections.

And narrowing your vision down to one specific point…

…and distort it. Distorted reflections, at that.

The film is an Anglo/French/Canadian/American co-production. It’s all very well considering the success of The King’s Speech, but post-Film Council, a lot of people are probably wondering, ‘what is the future of the British film industry?’ Based on your experience, I imagine it’ll be a lot of co-productions?

I think so. Before Source Code happened, we were talking about looking into Anglo-German co-productions. There’s a lot of opportunity there: the Germans have got a lot of money they’re investing in co-productions, and Canada was another good one. I think and hope The King’s Speech is a bit of a game changer. But the Film Council didn’t invest any money in Moon, so I have no idea how they work!

Another influence on the film, whether directly or indirectly, seems to be computer games. You have this idea of a character trying to complete a level; they learn the rules as they go along and as they persevere, they master it. Was it in the script, or are you actually a gamer?

I’m a massive gamer! I have been all my life. I started off on the Atari, got a Commodore 64 and the first floppy drives, then it was the Amiga 500s. I’m a hardcore gamer and always have been, and not just a hardcore gamer, a PC gamer – I’m not one of these console lightweights! (laughs)

So like Colter, you’ve also had to suffer the frustration of levels not quite loading properly.

Oh absolutely! I remember the old days of having to type in: ‘CONFIG.SYS’ and ‘AUTOEXEC.BAT’ to get things to run on a 486! That was a bit geeky, wasn’t it? Sorry about that!

Interview by Alex Fitch

The Many Lives of Laurie Strode

Halloween

Although the Halloween franchise is mainly associated with indestructible serial killer Michael Myers, six of the 10 films (and by next year, seven of the 11) in the saga also feature returning ‘final girl’ Laurie Strode – the ultimate objective of Michael’s murderous rampage. The final girl, as observed by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, is a common fixture in the slasher genre, the female character who survives a killing spree and often turns up in the next instalment, only to be dispatched by the monster then. The final girl is often asexual and straight-laced in contrast to the teenage victims, who, in most slasher films, are seemingly punished for having pre-marital sex, drinking and taking drugs. Because of this, according to the documentary Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (2006), Jamie Lee Curtis, when approached by John Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill, would have preferred to have played one of the other girls in the film who did have ‘fun’. But by being cast as the more innocuous Laurie, Curtis helped create an iconic character that she would be asked to reprise in various sequels, not to mention similar parts in another three horror films – The Fog, Terror Train and Road Games – all made between Halloween and Halloween II (1981). Being a fan of Hitchcock, Carpenter also found the idea of casting the daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh (one potential final girl who didn’t survive the second act of her brush with a serial killer) as the lead irresistible, something that would be commented on explicitly and awkwardly in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998).

In Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, Carpenter mentions that when Michael Myers first sees Laurie, through the ageing net curtain of his abandoned family home, he sees something sisterly in her aspect. This familial attachment to his victim(s) of choice would form the backbone of the sequels, but here it carries a double meaning. First, Laurie’s bland femininity negates her as an object of desire – she would only be allowed a (doomed) relationship belatedly in Halloween H20 – but it also bears comparison to Michael’s first victim on screen, his sister, whom he voyeuristically stalks pre- and post-coitus through the window and doors of his family home, before stabbing her to death in the film’s memorable prologue.

The characters in the film refer to Michael as the ‘bogeyman’, a word whose etymology comes from an old Celtic word for ghost, and Celtic mythology becomes increasingly important in the sequels. In this first instalment, Michael is at his most ghost-like, his featureless (well, William Shatner-esque) white mask removing any emotion from his face and his drab boiler suit being at odds with his ability to appear and disappear like a wraith, who moves slowly when observed, but like lightning when off screen. One other Celtic reference makes it into the first instalment: Michael leaves the word ‘Samhain’ scrawled in the shop where he steals his iconic mask, a reference to a festival associated with legends of adventurers fleeing monsters in order to be proved worthy (which Laurie does in the films) and connected with the slaughter of mammals to allow people to survive the winter months, also applicable to the residents of Haddonfield as Michael only massacres on his favourite feast day and the days before.

Lead characters Michael, Laurie and Sam Loomis – Laurie’s erstwhile doctor, who spends the sequels in a Cassandra-style role, warning the residents of Illinois against their itinerant bogeyman, and who is always ignored until the bodies start piling up again – survive the end of the first instalment, but Carpenter and Hill hadn’t intended a sequel until the financiers revealed they had a massive hit on their hands. Fuelled by beer and sleepless nights, the workmanlike and generally pointless sequel written by Carpenter and Hill does Curtis/Laurie a great disservice by keeping her sedated in a hospital bed for half the running time of the film while Michael stalks the corridors of the institution failing to find her (Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween II in 2009 condenses this down to 25 minutes). In writing the sequel, Carpenter came up with the idea of actually making Laurie Michael’s long-lost sister, who was brought up by foster parents, and retrofitted the original film with this idea, by having the killer write the word ‘sister’ on a wall in an additional scene filmed for the extended TV version made for ABC in 1981. Why Michael wants to murder all the younger members of his family is never really explained, but when Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t reprise her role for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) the killer went on to stalk his niece, cousins and daughter respectively in the next four instalments of the saga, as well as any other young person who got in his way.

The killer generally doesn’t change from film to film beyond the stuntman playing ‘The Shape’, as Michael is referred to in the end credits of each film, and the directors of some of the sequels even forget he should have third-degree burns covering every area of his skin whenever we see his hands on screen after his return in 1988. Laurie, however, goes through as profound a change as sci-fi final girl Ellen Ripley in the Alien saga, who goes from blue-collar space miner in Alien (1979), to maternal soldier in Aliens (1986), to shaved prisoner in Alien 3 (1992) to resurrected half-alien clone in Alien: Resurrection (1997). In Halloween, Laurie is an asexual senior high-school student, in Halloween II, a traumatised, drugged hospital patient, in Halloween H20, an alcoholic headmistress with separation anxiety, and in Halloween: Resurrection (2002), she’s back in hospital, borderline psychotic, awaiting the inevitable return of her nemesis. Perhaps in order to survive against an implacable foe, the final girl is the one who has to change, both in her approach to each return of the killer and to provide another instalment of a franchise with a degree of freshness as well as familiarity.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is only a thematic instalment of the saga, featuring cursed masks, another hospital immolation and references to Samhain, but none of the original main characters. However, the mystical cult it introduces, which wants to kill all the children of America (not just the ones who do pot or are related to Laurie Strode), makes a return to the screen in part 6, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (2005), in a confusing plot that mixes astronomy, black masses, genetic manipulation and incest! Before this narrative dead end, which along with parts 4 and 5 would be ignored by the script of H20, Halloween 4 starred a much younger final girl, Laurie’s daughter Jamie Lloyd, who would also go through similar transformations to her mother – becoming a killer herself in the final scene of part 4, being variously catatonic and telepathic in part 5 and a rape/cult victim in part 6…

In Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Laurie is only present in the form of a photograph, at which her abandoned daughter gazes forlornly after she has apparently died off screen. This plot element is retained for Jamie Lee Curtis’s return to the franchise in H20, where it is revealed that Laurie faked her own death and moved to California to bring up her son, though why she left her daughter behind is anyone’s guess. Like Jamie in the previous instalment, she was perhaps impregnated by Michael off screen between sequels and she was separated from her first child for nefarious reasons…

Sequels generally follow patterns, and every third sequel to Halloween is largely quite good. Part 4, while a retread of the original with Michael stalking his niece rather than his sister, is atmospheric and has a terrific ending where Jamie re-enacts the beginning of the first film. Part 7 (H20) brings Laurie back to the franchise in a film that gives the characters genuine depth and should have brought the entire narrative to a close. Part 10, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (2009), finally allows Laurie to have some fun and adds a touch of David Lynch/Oliver Stone-style surrealism to the proceedings.

In contrast, part 6, The Curse of Michael Myers, is almost incomprehensible and exists in two different versions. The bootleg ‘producer’s cut’ ends with a child Laurie babysat in the first film, now an adult played by future comedy actor Paul Rudd and the first ‘final boy’ of the series, who immobilises Myers by surrounding him with Celtic runes (!). The recut theatrical version had 40 minutes of different/alternate scenes mixed into the film and tones down the black magic angle (which offers some explanation for Michael’s indestructibility) while some mumbled lines and briefly glimpsed computer screens add genetic engineering to the plot… Donald Pleasance died before they shot these new scenes, so his exit from the series is off screen, only represented by a scream he recorded for the original cut.

However, The Curse of Michael Myers still turned a profit and producer Moustapha Akkad, who once joked he’d stop with part 22 (!), managed to convince Jamie Lee Curtis to reprise her role for the next film in the series, which brought the saga back to basics. The seventh instalment of a long-running franchise is often interesting, as following a pair of trilogies, filmmakers who take on a convoluted narrative have to come up with a new angle to keep the fans coming back and bring new audiences to the saga. This can mean a new, younger cast – the successful casting of Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973) following six performances by Sean Connery as James Bond, or Patrick Stuart taking command of the USS Enterprise in the seventh Star Trek film, Generations (1994) – or a gimmick that sets apart the new instalment from its predecessors – Jason Voorhees coming up against a psychokinetic final girl in Friday the 13th part VII: The New Blood (1988), ‘Saw VII’ being retitled Saw 3D (2010) – or the return of the star from the first film, as in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (on Elm Street, 1994) with original final girl Heather Langenkamp, and in this case Curtis in H20.

Having continued for 20 years at this point, the Halloween franchise, having helped create the slasher genre, also became influenced by its peers. The original film in the series was relatively bloodless, but following test screenings of Halloween II, John Carpenter had to shoot additional scenes of gore to shock an audience who had already seen Alien (1979), Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Alligator and Dressed to Kill (all 1980). By 1998, the genre had also been dismantled by director Wes Craven, writer Kevin Williamson and editor Patrick Lussier in the first two Scream films (1996-1997), and Williamson was called in to come up with a first draft of Halloween H20. Although his credit had been reduced to co-executive producer by the time the film was released, the writer’s fingerprints are all over the production, from the clip of Scream II showing on a TV in the film (replacing the classic black and white horror films of previous instalments), Lussier in the cutting room, the presence of Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams as a student, and the references to other horror films, including the casting of Janet Leigh as the secretary of Laurie Strode (now Keri Tate), who has moved to California, where the first film was actually shot. Leigh’s casting could have been a subtle in-joke, but it is heavily underlined: while the rest of the film creates fairly realistic characters, Leigh states she always felt ‘maternal’ to Curtis’s character, leaves the film to the strains of the score from Psycho and drives Marion Crane’s car!

However, Curtis is given plenty to do in this film: raise a son, cope with her post-traumatic stress disorder, run a school, hide her alcoholism and finally dispatch her murderous brother. H20 is the best sequel to date and it’s just unfortunate Curtis agreed to cameo in one more instalment, the lacklustre Halloween: Resurrection, which sees her killed off in the pre-credits sequence by the ‘real’ Michael Myers, as opposed to the impostor she unwittingly decapitated at the end of the previous film. Channelling Linda Hamilton’s muscled up and institutionalised Sarah Connor from Terminator 2: Judgment day (1992), Laurie Strode’s final scene wastes the character who has been with us on and off screen since 1978.

Post-Resurrection, the franchise was rebooted yet again with Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween in 2007. Reasonably entertaining, the new Halloween is as pointless as the first sequel was in 1981 as it’s just more of the same but not as good, with the only noticeable addition being that Michael’s childhood is explored, and his abuse by a poor white trash family removes much of his mystique. The new Laurie Strode is a more traditional teenager, swearing and listening to loud music, which also makes the contrast of the ingénue versus the monster less interesting, and while a capable actress, Scout Taylor-Compton isn’t a patch on Jamie Lee Curtis. However, as the eleventh instalment of the series has been announced – the inevitable Halloween 3D in 2012 – we can only hope for a female killer (as teased but not followed up on in the endings of Halloween 4 and H20), since Zombie’s Halloween II ends with Myers downed in a hail of bullets and Laurie Strode picking up her brother’s knife…

Alex Fitch

Light in the Darkness: William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogy

The Exorcist III

In William Peter Blatty’s Faith Trilogym all three films use the outré scenarios as a starting point for engaging discussions of faith and humanity.

In 1973, The Exorcist briefly became the most profitable film of all time, beaten by Jaws a couple of years later. Depending on whether you count Jaws as a horror film or a thriller, The Exorcist can be said to be the most successful horror film ever made. Naturally, not long after its release, the studio wanted a sequel, but neither writer/producer William Peter Blatty nor director William Friedkin was interested. This led to Warner Bros commissioning the risible Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977, which was damned by critics and was listed as the second worst film ever made (following Plan 9 from Outer Space) in Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards.

William Peter Blatty, needless to say, disowned the sequel; he was approached by Warner Bros after Exorcist II was completed to help promote the film, which he’d had no involvement with, and famously told the producers that he’d only be prepared to re-edit and redub the dialogue of the film if they wanted to release it as a comedy! Blatty himself hadn’t wanted to do a direct sequel anyway at this point and instead wanted to script an adaptation of his 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane, hoping he could interest Friedkin in directing it. While considering this project, Blatty rewrote much of the book and republished it as The Ninth Configuration in 1978, before directing the film himself a year later. Blatty went on to consider The Ninth Configuration to be the true sequel to The Exorcist. He then wrote the novel Legion in 1983, which he adapted into film as The Exorcist III in 1990, turning his series into a trilogy. Although not a direct sequel to The Exorcist (he wrote Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane first), The Ninth Configuration shares some of the themes of his most famous script, and if you compare the plots of all three movies (which also all feature actor Jason Miller in decreasing amounts of screen time) you can see how they complement one another.

[SPOILER ALERT] If you haven’t seen all three films, the following paragraphs contain spoilers.

The Exorcist tells the story of a young girl who is possessed by a demon and a priest who has lost his faith but regains it in sacrificing himself to save her. The Ninth Configuration is about an astronaut who has become terrified of going into space due to the absence of God in the void, and his relationship with a Vietnam veteran who has created an alternate personality to avoid his past but conquers it by killing himself. The Exorcist III is about an undead killer possessing the bodies of the mentally ill and a cop who has lost his faith in humanity but regains it by killing his best friend. By making connections that weren’t actually present in The Exorcist, both Blatty and his fans make a case for these being direct sequels – Lt Cutshaw in The Ninth Configuration may be the unnamed astronaut at the party in The Exorcist that possessed Regan MacNeil informs, ‘You’re going to die up there’; and Exorcist III misremembers the relationship between police officer Lt Kinderman and Father Karras in the original as being best friends, when in fact they only meet once in the film and three times in the novel. Regardless of the direct connections between the films, each concerns the battle between good and evil, and the influence divine and demonic forces have on the world. Each film also has existed in at least two versions, although the director’s cut of Exorcist III was supposedly destroyed by the distributors.

Although memorable for its shocking content, The Exorcist is Blatty’s finest work because of the variety of fascinating three-dimensional characters whose lives intersect and are all touched by the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil. For that reason, the producer’s cut released in 2000, titled ‘The Version You’ve Never Seen’, is perhaps better than the original cut, if only because we get to spend a little more time with all the characters – although the additional CGI superimpositions of the face of Pazuzu on top of existing footage was a somewhat ill-advised addition by Blatty. The sequels suffer in comparison by having too many characters – The Ninth Configuration – or too few – Exorcist III. However, all three films use the outré scenarios as a starting point for engaging discussions of faith and humanity, which complement and add gravitas to each plot.

These elements are perhaps best exemplified by the reoccurring themes of sacrifice and confession in each film. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) – a very literal deus ex machina, whose brief appearances in the film and novel bookend the story – dies in his attempt to exorcise the demon from the young girl in The Exorcist. Father Karras (Jason Miller), whose wrestling with faith and ability to connect with other people are some of the major plot points of the story, commands the demon to enter him instead and tries to destroy it by hurling himself through a window down the infamous long flight of steps. As we will see in Exorcist III, this sacrifice was vain, but at this point he has at least succeeded in curing Regan through his compassion rather than (in comparison with Merrin) his accomplishments as an exorcist, and as he lies dying on a cold street in Georgetown he is absolved of his sins through silent confession by squeezing the hand of another priest, Father Dyer, who administers his last rites.

The Ninth Configuration is set in a remote Gothic-style mansion (supposedly owned by a former horror film star), which has become a sanitarium for Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental afflictions. The idea of the traumatised Vietnam vet is something that has become almost tedious as a cinematic plot, following the likes of Oliver Stone’s various films on the subject and the Rambo franchise, but was a topic of more subversive films in the 60s and 70s. By presenting much of the dialogue as humorous, Blatty seems to place the film within the tradition of irreverent war comedies such as Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and M*A*S*H (1970). In the 1960s, a comedy by William Peter Blatty would not have surprised anyone: before The Exorcist he was best known for co-writing the screenplay for Blake Edwards’s A Shot in the Dark (1964), the first sequel to The Pink Panther (1963), which set the template for all the sequels in the 1970s and beyond (making Clouseau the lead character and introducing Herbert Lom’s Dreyfuss and Burt Kwok’s Kato to the franchise). However, post-Exorcist, Blatty was famous for penning an Oscar-winning horror screenplay, and The Ninth Configuration sits in between horror and comedy with the set, mise en scène, lighting and atmosphere all comfortably evocative of the horror genre while the absurd dialogue is comedic. One could argue that much modern horror is unsuccessful because it treats horror as absurd, and the curious and atypical mixing of the tropes of each genre makes The Ninth Configuration a hard film to like or indeed sit through for nearly two hours.

The Ninth Configuration is released in the UK on Blu-ray on 25 April 2016 by Second Sight.

The variety of patients being treated in the story include a character (played by Jason Miller) who wishes to perform the works of Shakespeare entirely cast with dogs, and the aforementioned astronaut who has dreams of coming across the crucified Christ on the Moon and believes that God is in fact a giant foot. It’s worth noting Terry Gilliam’s giant foot first appeared in Monty Python’s Flying Circus three years after the publication of Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane, and many of the set pieces here are Pythonesque and similar to sketch-based comedy, which makes the running time somewhat hard to stomach. However, the scenes between Kane (Stacy Keach) and Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) are excellent and make the entire production worth watching, allowing for the self-indulgence elsewhere. Unlike the dramatic scenes of exorcism in The Exorcist and Exorcist III, no physical manifestations of the power of God or the devil are visible on screen here, beyond the architecture of the asylum and outside of Cutshaw and Kane’s subconscious; the latter dreams of the three crosses at Golgotha on his way into the asylum, a scene thankfully cut, as it originally had the three crucified making jokes about their predicament. Themes and lines of dialogue in The Exorcist and Exorcist III first appeared in Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane, such as an exchange between Cutshaw and Kane about the evil/goodness in the world, transposed to Father Dyer and Regan’s mother in The Exorcist, and references to the demon Legion from the gospels first appeared in another dream sequence in Kane.

As the plot continues, we realise that the lead character of The Ninth Configuration, who we believe to be Doctor Kane, is actually his brother Col Vincent Kane, who has taken on the identity of his sibling, with the acquiescence of the actual doctors (indeed the first doctor we see in the facility is also a fake, played by Blatty himself) to help cure him of his guilt over a massacre he committed during the war. His ultra-violent nature reasserts itself during a bar fight where Cutshaw is being tormented by Hell’s Angels, and, depending on which version of the film you watch, he either dies from wounds received during the fight, or stabs himself to atone for his sins. Like Karras, who kills himself at the end of The Exorcist to destroy the actual demon he now has inside him, Kane kills himself (in the original cinematic release and Blatty’s definitive 2002 DVD version), or allows himself to die (the 1998 ‘director’s cut’), to protect the world from his potential evil. Like Karras, Kane has acted as confessor to the various disturbed individuals he has taken on the role of doctor to, and he believes the ‘shock therapy’ of his death will help them deal with their own afflictions.

The third of William Peter Blatty’s protagonists whose surname starts with a ‘K’ (which, if you want to read anything into it, is the Arabic letter signifying ‘He wrote’, bearing in mind that the opening scenes of The Exorcist take place in Iraq) is Lt Kinderman, promoted from minor character from the first drama to the lead in Exorcist III. The character of Father Karras has taken the opposite journey, going from lead in The Exorcist to a minor one here, who apparently didn’t appear in the film at all in the cut initially presented by Blatty to the studio before they asked him to reshoot and add certain scenes.

Exorcist III is set in Georgetown, 12 (novel) or 17 (film) years after the events of The Exorcist and the same number of years after the execution of the ‘Gemini’ killer, a serial murderer fashioned after the real life ‘Zodiac’ in San Francisco (the subject of a film by David Fincher in 2007 and the inspiration for the villain in the first Dirty Harry in 1971). Now, over a decade after his death, the killings have resumed and his victims are people associated with the original exorcism. Lt Kinderman is back on the case, and having failed to satisfactorily solve the death of Burke Dennings in the first film (in the novel, it’s revealed that he knows Regan is the killer but defers to the clergy to deal with the problem), he is dealing with the legacy of that murder. His investigations lead him to an asylum – a location also common to all three films as Karras’s mother is also institutionalised prior to her death – where a formerly catatonic patient is revealed to be Father Karras, who is being kept from death by the spirit of the Gemini killer (played by Brad Dourif), a spirit that also takes possession of other, more ambulatory patients and uses them to perform his executions.

The original cut, more faithful to the novel, which Blatty presented to the studio as The Exorcist: Legion, was mainly a two-hander between Kinderman and the Gemini, and this still forms most of the second half of the film. However, Jason Miller was brought in to provide a more obvious visual reference to the resurrection of Karras, and Nicol Williamson added in the character of Father Mourning, another exorcist who arrives, like the original’s Merrin, in the final act. The addition of Miller is a welcome one, but Williamson, whose equally failed exorcism includes egregious scenes of fire and serpents, undoes much of the psychological horror that this film excels in. As Williamson was most famous for his hysterical (in every sense of the word) performance as Merlin in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), his acting style, combined with the addition of the number ‘III’ to the title unfortunately links this film more explicitly with Boorman’s dreadful Exorcist II, something Blatty was trying to avoid at all costs.

However, since the director’s cut of this film is lost (and, to be honest, there’s little difference between the various cuts of The Exorcist and The Ninth Configuration), we have to consider the version of Exorcist III that is available. Generally it’s a success, with genuinely creepy murder scenes and more of the memorable dream sequences – including a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as a blind man in heaven – that pepper all three films. Blatty has always written excellent dialogue, and here Kinderman is dryly witty throughout as a world-weary cop who has seen too much suffering to have any faith in humanity any more. The final scene of the 2000 producer’s cut of The Exorcist and the novel sees Kinderman and Father Dyer start a friendship, the conclusion of which (with Dyer’s murder by the Gemini) is seen here. Unfortunately, the actors who played these roles don’t reprise them; Lee J. Cobb died in 1976 and William O’Malley (a priest in real life), who was infamously slapped across the face by William Friedkin before he rolled camera on the climactic scene in The Exorcist, gave up acting after his one performance. The new Kinderman and Dyer are well cast though, George C. Scott is terrific as the savant-like detective in a crumpled coat and old car (Blatty wrote The Exorcist in the same year that Columbo was picked up for a series) and Ed Flanders is a fine replacement for O’Malley and one of four actors returning from The Ninth Configuration.

At the end of Exorcist III, Karras regains possession of his body and commands Kinderman to shoot him – suicide by cop – once more facilitating his own death to destroy the demon within him. In The Exorcist, Regan is possessed by a variety of personalities, albeit all the same demon, while in Exorcist III, the one personality inhabits a variety of bodies, reimagining the possession by Legion in the gospels. The suicides of the two Karras – at the end of his original life and his resurrected one – remind us of the pigs in the Bible destroying themselves in a river when the demons are driven out by Jesus.

In the other sequels, Karras and Dyer weren’t the only priests from the original to return – Max von Sydow reprised the role of Father Merrin in flashback in Exorcist II and Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd took over for Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist in 2004 and 2005 (the most extreme version of an Exorcist film existing in two versions). While these extrapolated prequel adventures of Merrin should generally be avoided (although Dominion has its moments) William Peter Blatty’s ‘faith trilogy’ is one of the most fascinating triptychs on film. The Exorcist is a genuine masterpiece in terms of directing, casting and writing (if not approaches to directing actors), The Ninth Configuration isn’t to my personal taste but it is an intriguing film, and Exorcist III, while a slightly odd and low-key conclusion to the trilogy, is an under-rated thriller that is well worth seeking out.

If watching the three films is slightly unsatisfying overall, due to the changes of pace, style and cast, there are other potential Blatty sequels and remakes in the wings, ignoring such recent homages as Possessed (1990), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Rite (2011). Blatty has mooted a TV mini-series remake of The Exorcist to adapt all 320 pages of his original novel and wishes to collaborate again with Friedkin on an adaptation of his gripping new book The Redemption (a.k.a. Dimiter – another project of his with two different names), which again mixes elements of faith and unbelief, good and evil, light and darkness and tells the tale of a once evil, somewhat supernatural assassin, who becomes good during a terrible mission in Albania and goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The book is told somewhat obliquely in the style of The Third Man, and in my opinion The Redemption is a better thematic sequel to The Exorcist than The Ninth Configuration. So, if Friedkin and Blatty do bring this to the screen, then perhaps an even more satisfying trilogy (or tetralogy) will have been achieved than the one we have already.

For all the horror on screen in Blatty’s trilogy, the titling of this series as his ‘faith’ trilogy (by the writer himself and others) is apt. While short-sighted religious groups damned The Exorcist as being demonic on original release, the film and its follow-ups by the author actually champion faith in humanity and in a higher power represented by the conquering of evil and the appreciation of the sublime in the world around us. In the original novel, Blatty describes a moment shared by Fathers Dyer and Karras before the latter has his life destroyed by demonic possession: ‘The burnished rays of the setting sun flamed glory at the clouds of the western sky and shattered in rippling, crimson dapples on the darkening waters of the river. Once Karras met God in this sight. Long ago. Like a lover forsaken, he still kept the rendezvous.’ The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration and The Exorcist III aren’t books and films to convert a non-believer like me to Christianity, but they contain enough intrigue and beguiling storytelling to make readers ponder the questions they raise.

William Peter Blatty’s novel The Redemption was published in the UK by Piatkus Books on 3 February 2011 and is available in paperback and Kindle formats.

Alex Fitch

Interview with Hammer and Tongs

Hammer and Tongs

Title: The Hammer and Tongs Collection

Format: DVD

Release date: 15 November 2010

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Title: A Town Called Panic

Format: DVD

Date: 22 November 2010

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Directors: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar

Writers: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar

Original title: Panique au village

Belgium/Luxembourg/France 2009

75 mins

The Belgian stop-motion animated film A Town called Panic is out on DVD this month after a theatrical run in October. Unusually for a European film, a pair of British filmmakers have taken on the responsibility of promoting the film here even though they had no involvement in making the film. To find out why, Alex Fitch spoke to Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith (a.k.a. ‘Hammer and Tongs’) about their love of simple animation and marketing a film during the demise of the UK Film Council.

Alex Fitch: Would I be right in thinking that you guys are the British executive producers of A Town called Panic, or is that too posh a title?

Garth Jennings: It sounds fantastic!

Nick Goldsmith: It sounds bizarre…

GJ: I like it!

NG: Yes we are. We’re helping support the film as we love it so much, that’s the main thing.

American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese have been known to promote a classic world cinema title for a DVD or cinema release, but I think this is the first time I’ve come across directors from one country picking up a film that they have no involvement in but felt so passionate about it that they’ve taken over the PR…

GJ: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We just really loved it that much. It was odd when we were first asked to consider it, because we’ve always made our own things, but when we saw it, we thought it would be worth doing to try and get as many people to see it as possible.

So you basically came to the film cold, you hadn’t seen any of the shorts beforehand?

NG: I hadn’t, Garth had.

GJ: I’d seen the shorts – I hadn’t seen all of them, I think there were three seasons of the TV series; I’d only seen one and I don’t think I’d even seen the whole season but I liked it. I’ve always loved that style of animation. We’d followed the progress of the film being made and always thought it would be great – seeing it premiered at Cannes, it looked so interesting. I don’t know about you, are you one of those people who looks up trailers all the time?

I used to, but I’ve grown out of it…

GJ: I used to be addicted! I’m probably the same as you now, but went through several years of always wanting to know what was going on and watching all the clips of new films, and that one was so different and unique.

It seems like a film that’s tailor-made for your appreciation. Having seen Son of Rambow, about an amateur filmmaker who’s using the tools available to him, and then seeing some of your more recent pop promos such as the video you made for Hot Chip, which was like an extended episode of Art Attack where the band were making things, it seems exactly like your kind of thing.

GJ: Yeah, we’ve done our fair share of in-camera effects and stuff. We’ve always messed about with things like that and it appeals to us. I think it’s not so much the aesthetic as the sense of humour that appealed to us the most, but then I suppose that is tied in to the aesthetic. It’s the way that they’re animated that’s often the funniest thing about the scene. It’s just so clever and endearing, imaginative and funny, but very different to the work we do, obviously because it’s animated. I think there’s maybe a match in sensibilities, an appreciation of silliness.

Well, when I interviewed you last about Son of Rambow, we spoke about how that film was very much about the zeitgeist then, the fascination there was at the time with a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark that was remade by kids and people putting that kind of footage on YouTube. The release of A Town Called Panic seems to be coinciding with the increase in makers’ fairs and an interest in craft.

GJ: I like the idea of being part of a zeitgeist but let’s not go into the fact that we have no idea! We’re just going with our gut on all of this! (laughs) I don’t know what to say to that…

NG: In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy we had that section where the crew become knitted and that was stop-frame animation… I think there’s just something more fun in it being in front of you and it being tactile and your being able to touch it and move it. It’s there and you can see the craft of how it’s being made right in front of you. With A Town called Panic, even though they’re very simple characters, the craft is in how well they’ve animated them and how they’ve animated them in a way that’s still in keeping with the structures that they are, for instance a plastic toy whose feet are stuck to the ground together, and that’s how it can then run. I think there’s a charm in that.

It’s like the lo-fi version of Toy Story… I imagine that if a kid watches Toy Story, they might think it’s amazing, but with A Town called Panic, they might think: ‘I just need a video camera and I can make it.’

GJ: It’s true. Even though it’s incredibly clever and complex – there’s 200 models per character – you’re right, it’s something tangible; it’s in the room. There is something nice about knowing that something exists as well, certainly as things become more virtual, it balances it out. It’s like knowing the radio is live – there is something engaging about knowing it’s happening right there and then, rather than it being on the iPlayer. I’m not against all that – it’s great, we’ve used all that technology – but it’s about trying to find the most engaging way to tell a story. The filmmakers have invented their own world over there – loads of their own rules about everything: colour schemes, sounds and voices, everything. It’s very concentrated.

Is the version that’s being released in this country dubbed or subtitled?

NG: Subtitled. They asked us about that when we got involved and it feels like there’s so much in those voices that are shouting all the way through the film, and the fact that it’s in French actually adds to it. So it was a discussion that we all had but Optimum and everyone thought it should stay the same.

Also, by encouraging subtitled kids’ films, you might actually help to get children into foreign languages more…

NG: They’ll all know how to say ‘horse’ in French!

GJ: My kids have all seen it six times! They don’t understand what the words mean in French but they understand what’s going on – they absolutely love it.

I think your passion for the film is something that’s quite unusual in this day and age. When I went to the preview screening a month ago you were there to introduce it, and they gave away Cowboy hats and Indian head dresses to everyone in the audience…

GJ: Yes, that was lovely, I wish we could have stayed longer, it was really good fun. There were quite a lot of ways to promote the film that we came up with, with Optimum. In the past I’ve been used to it being the opposite, you have grand ideas and it’s like: ‘well, that guy wasn’t available, so we’re going to do this instead’ or ‘we didn’t have the money for that, so we’ve scaled it all down to this’… It hasn’t been like that at all – not that it needs a tremendous budget or anything, but we had inventive and funny ideas. It’s got an ambition that film, even though it’s got tiny figures, it’s got a bombastic approach: ‘Right! Now we’re going to go to the Arctic! Now we’re underwater and they’ve stolen the walls!’ We thought that somehow that spirit should be in the ideas we have for marketing the film. So, they range from daft things like making 2D glasses – so that people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth after all this 3D business – through to all sorts of other things that felt like they would have been made by the characters in the film.

Did you have many discussions with the filmmakers?

GJ: No, the main thing was just to discuss with them that they were OK with us coming on board and it turns out we were both fans of each other, so that worked out!

NG: We showed the film at Somerset House on a double bill with Team America – we introduced it there also, videoed it and sent it to the filmmakers so they got an idea of what the screening was like.

Was the crowd suitably uproarious?

NG: We got them to give a big cheer! It was great…

Isn’t what you’re doing with this film – British filmmakers promoting European cinema – part of the remit of the UK Film Council?

NG: We are the UK Film Council! (laughs)

GJ: …all that’s left!

As the UK Film Council is being curtailed, do you think it’s now going to be…

NG: Tongs Council?

…not necessarily just you guys, but maybe any successful British filmmakers who are keen about certain subjects, like Guy Ritchie or Michael Winterbottom. Without a government-supported scheme anymore, is it going to be down to British filmmakers to promote films similar to theirs?

GJ: I’d never even thought of that. Seriously, I don’t know…

It does almost feel like you’re starting that process off with this film, however unintentionally.

GJ: This film is a bit of a one-off though, it doesn’t feel like this could catch on because it’s such an odd and unique film. You know how Quentin Tarantino helped with all the fighting films from the Far East, you can see him bringing all those films to everyone’s attention. This is the only one of its kind. It’s not like there are lots of stop-frame toy movies, but our ambitions…

NG: …have just changed! (laughs)

GJ: It is interesting how you get films out there and how people come on board to help. I suppose there are no rules really. I hadn’t thought of it past this, though.

You don’t think then that after this film, you might watch other obscure movies and want to help them get released in the UK?

GJ: The Horse Whispers of film? That doesn’t appeal to me at all really.

NG: Supporting films is brilliant and promoting this one is a joy but what we want to be doing is making films and hopefully having everyone support us.

GJ: Hopefully we’ll be getting support in Belgium!

How’s the animated project that you’re working on going?

GJ: It’s early days and it’s not confirmed yet, but we are putting it all together and it’s very interesting. It’s a new area, even though we’ve worked with animation in commercials, music videos and that sort of stuff. To do a full feature film’s a new thing for us, and also trying to find the language and the style. This is where we’re at, at the moment. It’s experiment time, but it’s going well.

A podcast of Alex Fitch’s interview with Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith is available at Panel Borders.

Interview by Alex Fitch

Dario Argento’s ‘Animal’ Trilogy

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Title: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Format: DVD/Blu-ray

Release date: 31 January 2011

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Dario Argento

Writer: Dario Argento

Based on the novel The Screaming Mimi by: Fredric Brown (uncredited)

Original title: L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo

Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho

Italy 1970

98 mins

Dario Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo) was released in Italy on 19 February 1970, followed in quick succession by Cat o’Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code, 11 February 1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 Mosche di velluto grigio, 17 December 1971). Although not a trilogy in terms of reoccurring characters, there are enough links between the three films that make them worth considering as a sequence that is linked thematically and stylistically, even if the middle film is only an ‘animal’ film in name alone.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an astonishing debut film. As a reviewer who has seen all but one of the director’s movies (1973’s comedy drama Le cinque giornate [The Five Days], which remains unreleased in America and the UK) and both of his episodes of the TV series Masters of Horror, I have to admit that I was beginning to doubt the director’s talent in recent years: my memories of his excellent early films began to fade and were replaced by his recent output, which has gone from the below average Do You Like Hitchcock?, The Card Player and Non ho sonno in the first half of the last decade to the actually unwatchable – Giallo and Mother of Tears: The Third Mother – in the last three years. However, returning to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage after a gap of several years has revealed a film that is still fresh, innovative and deserving of its status as a seminal giallo.

The Horror Channel (Sky channel 319 / Virgin 149 / Freesat 138) presents a triple bill of Dario Argento on October 31 from 9pm, including The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red and Phenomena. More information on the Horror Channel website.

Having not read the uncredited novel by Fredric Brown, I don’t know whether any of the striking set-pieces, costumes and characters can be attributed to Brown, but the plot is significantly different from the novel’s (filmed previously in 1958 by Gerd Oswald), so it’s possible that Argento only kept the book’s basic premise of an artist obsessed by a traumatised woman who is being stalked by a serial killer. There are numerous memorable scenes in the film: the powerless spectator trapped behind glass as he witnesses a murder, the police pathologist who wears dark glasses while a bank of open reel computers process the evidence behind him, a couple having sex while a metronome ticks, the protagonist throwing a cigarette packet to a suspect to see which hand he catches it with, and bizarre lines of dialogue such as ‘How many times have I had to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites not the perverts’!

This is a film that provides a segue from the noir genre that inspired it – the femme fatale and the amateur detective following her – to a new form of filmmaking and storytelling that seems equally inspired by Ennio Morricone’s jazz score (Argento often cut his films to his musical scores) and Freudian dream logic. While Mario Bava can stake a claim as the progenitor of giallo cinema, Argento also looks elsewhere to international filmmaking (he was a professional film critic before becoming a script writer) with chase scenes reminiscent of The Third Man, featuring close-ups and characters lit by car headlights, the familiarity of those elements made strange by Morricone’s discordant strings and the director’s fast zooms and cuts.

Only the final scene of the movie disappoints, as a police expert explains the motives and psychology of the killer; Argento doesn’t have the blank stare of a comatose Norman Bates to juxtapose with the banal monologue, so instead cuts to random shots of planes on runways as the hero sits waiting to leave the country. While the director doesn’t seem to know how to end his first film, in the third film of this unofficial animal trilogy, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, it seems like he doesn’t know how to continue beyond a fascinating beginning, as will be seen below.

The Cat O'Nine Tails

Title: The Cat O’Nine Tails

Format: DVD/Blu-ray

Release date: 24 January 2011

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, Dardano Sacchetti, Bryan Edgar Wallace (uncredited)

Original title: Il gatto a nove code

Cast: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi, Horst Frank

Italy 1971

105 mins

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was a massive hit, making twice its budget back in Italy alone, so it’s unsurprising Argento made a follow-up within a year and would make his third film another six months later. The Cat O’Nine Tails starts with a similar premise: a vulnerable man – this time blind, rather than trapped behind glass – is the only witness to a murder when a laboratory break-in leads to the death of a security guard.

Bird, Cat and Flies‘ lead protagonists were American TV actors Tony Musante, James Fransiscus and Michael Brandon respectively, Bird‘s lead actress (and former ‘Bond girl’) Suzy Kendall is British, while Cat‘s witness (who ends up as Fransiscus’s sidekick when he starts investigating the crimes) is Czech-American film star Karl Malden, whose post-Argento career would mainly be on television. The casting of Americans as the leads shows the director’s international aspirations – understandably, following the popularity of Leone’s Westerns with American leads, who would be dubbed into Italian for the local releases. Cat in particular is a slick thriller in the American mould, Argento keeping his own stylistic flourishes to a minimum compared to the other films in the ‘trilogy’, and including an exemplary car chase and cross-cutting between scenes in the style of American spy shows such as Man in a Suitcase and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Other international affectations include a climactic rooftop chase that recalls Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a Morricone score similar to the music of Lalo Schifrin, as well as references to Edgar Allan Poe, who would inform much of Argento’s work. The opening credits of Four Flies on Grey Velvet would make this explicit – a beating heart against a black background – and here we have grave-robbing, someone trapped in a locked tomb, and rats menacing a bound child. German cinema also gets a look in, with an uncredited rewrite by ‘Krimi’ scribe Bryan Edgar Wallace and Teutonic star Horst Frank.

Argento may have also looked to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni – another Italian director working with English-speaking actors at the time – as many of Cat‘s twists and turns recall the obsessive nature of the photographer investigating a crime in that director’s Blow-Up, made five years earlier. In contrast with the frustrating endings of Blow-Up and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento and his three collaborators provide The Cat o’Nine Tails with a satisfying conclusion: the killer tries to convince Malden’s character that he murdered his little girl and should be executed at his hands in revenge, which recalls the beginnings of the previous and next film by the director.

The fact that all three of Argento’s films made in 1970-71 contain an animal in their title suggests that at some point during production of his second film, he or the producers decided to brand them as a trilogy. But although the titles of Bird and Flies refer to clues that lead to the discovery of the killer, The Cat o’Nine Tails doesn’t feature a cat anywhere on screen or in the foley recording, nor does it feature the 17th-century torture device. One explanation of the title is that it refers to the number of suspects that Franciscus investigates, while I prefer the idea that it suggests the multiple chromosomal combinations that get discussed in a scene about the genetic psychopathy of the killer. Either way, since the title has no reference to the plot, this suggests it was added to the film late in production, to tie it to its predecessor and thematic sequel, which Argento would have already started work on before Cat arrived in cinemas.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Title: Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Format: DVD (Region 1)

Release date: 24 February 2009

Distributor: Mya Communication / Ryko

Director: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi, Mario Foglietti

Original title: Quattro mosche di velluto grigio

Cast: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Tom Felleghy, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Fulvio Mingozzi

Italy 1971

104 mins

Watching a director’s films in chronological order, you expect trends to dovetail, and in this sense Argento’s first three films almost feel like they were made in the wrong order. Bird mixes a traditional thriller with the director’s more surrealistic leanings, Cat is the most conventional and least Argento-like of the three films, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the most surrealistic of the three, with a negligible plot that exists purely to superficially connect the gory murders. So instead of the third film recapitulating, or elaborating on, the first two, it feels like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was separated into its constituent parts in the next two films.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the weakest of Argento’s early output, but in comparison to films he would make three decades later, it’s an underappreciated gem that provides the template for much of the director’s later work – theatrical, random and bizarre deaths that serve mainly to indulge the voyeurism and fetishes of horror aficionados. The opening features a rock/jazz band at practice being observed by a mysterious man in sunglasses who leaves a trail of burning cigarette butts on the floor. When one of the musicians leaves and eventually realises he’s being stalked, he follows the mysterious figure into a theatre; there, he gets maneuvered into inadvertently murdering the stalker while being photographed by a character in the shadows, who’s wearing a pig mask and talking in whispers. This striking and memorable set-piece isn’t really followed up in the plot – the musician isn’t blackmailed to any notable degree for a start – but is echoed in scenes that are artistic and thematic reflections of the opening, showing how unconcerned the film is with telling a traditional narrative.

The progression of violence on screen is also noticeable in Argento’s first three films – Bird is fairly tame by today’s standards, Cat contains a few violent deaths, in particular a character hit by a moving train, captured in slow motion, but Flies seems to exist purely for the depiction of violent deaths that are almost dreamlike at times – a reoccurring scene shows the lead character dreaming of his own decapitation in a bleached-out arena, which seems like a lost scene from an Italian ‘swords and sandals’ movie. The disjointed nature of Argento’s third film isn’t helped by Morricone’s shortest score to date – apparently he and the director fell out during the film and wouldn’t work together again for another 25 years. It segues from repetitive minimalism (which predicts John Carpenter’s score for Halloween) to strange comedic counterpoints to the action, such as a chorus of ‘Hallelujahs’ accompanying the arrival of Bud Spencer’s character, who helps the musician with the murder investigation. This musical sting is presumably an in-joke aimed at Italian audiences related to Spencer’s reputation playing a deus ex machina in B-movies, or even an obscure reference to the pseudo-religious 1968 album The Book of Taliesyn by Deep Purple, who were Argento’s first choice to score the movie, but it stops the film in its tracks by bruising, if not breaking, the fourth wall. Due to the crumbling relationship between Argento and Morricone, several scenes unfold with no music whatsoever, and these are the ones that tend to drag, in between the lurid and bloody executions on screen.

Perhaps encouraged by recent success, Argento uses the film as a way to experiment with his craft: a scene where an otherwise useless private detective stalks the killer is framed mainly in shots of arms and legs on a crowded metro train, and there are jump cuts during a sex scene (which may have influenced Nic Roeg when he travelled to Italy to shoot Don’t Look Now three years later). Without a complete score to fill the running time of the film, Argento uses the absence of music experimentally in one scene where we hear the sounds of driving juxtaposed with the lead character’s thoughts of travel. The nightmarish plot just about allows for the absurd pseudo-science where the four flies of the title are revealed when a bright light is projected through the severed retina of one of the victims.

As I suggested at the start, this is a trilogy of films that is linked through visual and thematic motifs. Each film is concerned with the act of looking and being seen; for example, in Cat, the killer cuts a hole through a door to look through it, and the hero’s girlfriend tries to stab his eye. There are also strange characters on the periphery that alternately aid and retard the investigation, for example the homeless man in a shack who keeps cats in cages for food in Bird. To this is added unusually honest (for the time) portrayals of homosexual characters on screen (which were cut as much as the violence in early English-language prints), the use of the P.O.V. of the murder weapon (pace Peeping Tom), femmes fatales, city-based locations and the jazz-like riffing on a central theme.

While neither The Cat o’Nine Tails nor Four Flies on Grey Velvet are quite as good as Argento’s first film – the second being slightly too slick and anonymous, the third a little too free-form and under-plotted – the three complement each other and are all worth watching for fans of giallo as they are among the best examples of the genre. As Arrow Video are releasing lavish new DVD / Blu-Ray editions of Bird and Cat, one can only hope they obtain the rights to Flies as well, to allow British audiences to see one of Argento’s rarest films and complete the set of three.

Prior to its DVD re-release from Arrow Video, Midnight Movies presents a special screening of Dario Argento’s classic gory 80s horror Demons on Friday 26 November 2010 at Curzon Soho. One fateful night in a Berlin cinema, art imitates life as one by one the audience are possessed by blood-hungry, puss-filled demons. More details on Curzon Cinemas website.

Alex Fitch

The Hole in 3D: Interview with Joe Dante part 2

The Hole in 3D

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 September 2010

Distributor: E1 Entertainment

DVD release date: 17 January 2011

Director: Joe Dante

Writer: Mark L. Smith

Cast: Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett, Nathan Gamble

USA 2009

92 mins

In the second part of Alex Fitch’s interview with Joe Dante, the director discusses his other recent project available to UK audiences, an excellent new horror film for kids called The Hole in 3D, his interest in the new technology that made the film possible and his hopes regarding the next film on his slate.

Read the first part of the interview with Joe Dante about his new TV and web mini-series Splatter.

Alex Fitch: It’s interesting that The Hole was out in UK cinemas at the same time Splatter was on TV. Splatter is a very quick, low-budget series designed to be shown on small screens while conversely The Hole is being shown in 3D cinemas using the newest 3D technology, and the film has won an award for 3D cinematography…

Joe Dante: I guess I just embrace any technology I can get my hands on! (laughs) The Hole wasn’t initiated in 3D. When I first got involved with it, I suggested it might be enhanced by shooting it in 3D now that the new system is far superior to the one that I grew up with. We did win an award at the Venice Film festival for ‘Best 3D’, and it was the first time they’d given that award. The way I approached it was a little less aggressive than I think people expect. There are some things that come out of the screen at you, but to me that’s not the appeal of 3D. After a while you get tired of having spears thrown at you, and I think the real value of the medium is to be able to envelop the audience in the story and make them feel as if it’s happening to them, and that’s what we tried to do with that.

Obviously the 3D technology has improved exponentially; when you saw 3D films when you were young, did you think, ‘If I ever get the chance to make films, I hope the technology will be considerably more advanced and I get to make the film that I wish I was watching now’?

I think I was too young at the time to have been thinking about having a career in anything, let alone movies, because 3D died off when I was about 10 years old. There were efforts to revive it later on that, for technical reasons, weren’t really very good. But I always loved 3D, in fact the movie that got me interested in movies was It came from Outer Space, which was shot in 3D in 1953, and I was very impressed with it. So I’ve always followed 3D. I’m part of a revival group that we have here in California that every so often – once a decade – runs all the 3D movies that are extant from the 50s in a sort of film festival, and we’re still looking for some of the ones that haven’t come to light. I’ve always been a 3D fan, but I can’t say I’m a 3D fanatic; I don’t run around proselytising that everyone should make every movie in 3D, and frankly I’m a little worried about the future of 3D because of the endless parade of fake 3D movies that have come down the ‘pike, movies shown in 3D that have been computerised to look that way and are far inferior to the results that you get when you actually shoot in 3D.

It seems very odd that various companies are releasing 3D TVs when there doesn’t seem to be enough product to show on them and no evidence that this revival of the format isn’t going to be another flash in the pan.

Well, there is something about this 3D TV thing that has all the retailers excited because everybody gets to replace all their equipment – that’s what they love. It’s like 8-track tapes, then they went to cassettes and then discs… They love to be able to sell you everything three times!

The Hole is a horror film for young adults – it’s not nearly as gory as Splatter or your early films such as Piranha and The Howling – and it has ended up in UK cinemas showing at the same time as the tail end of the theatrical run of Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D, so you’re kind of competing with a sequel to one of your own movies, which must be quite funny…

It’s not quite for the same audience, though. Piranha 3D is a gore fest of proportions I couldn’t have imagined being allowed on British screens during the 70s – back then in Britain every Western would have a splice when the gun went off. You didn’t see the guy die! It was very strict in those days, but now obviously things have changed. Piranha 3D is a really, really gory film and The Hole is not, it’s more of a psychological film. I don’t think it’s the same frat boy audience…

Looking at the history of 3D films, even Hitchcock made a movie in 3D – Dial M for Murder – in 1954, or maybe it was converted, I don’t know the technology behind it…

No, he shot it in 3D and it’s one of the best 3D movies ever made. Very few people have seen it in 3D, because it came along at the end of the cycle but it’s the movie that was a template for me when I was doing The Hole.

That’s what I was wondering, because it seems about time that someone – and I’m glad that you have done so – made another thriller in 3D, not relying on the technology just to exaggerate special effects, but using it as another way of making the special environment that the thriller is set in sinister, because the camera can move in a larger number of directions.

Yeah, I’m hoping that if 3D does catch on – if it does manage to survive this wave of crummy 3D movies – it will become a tool, a useful tool like Cinemascope was, something that is not suited to every story but in certain circumstances can enhance the movie and make it more of an immersive experience.

I read that your next film is going to be a behind-the-scenes fictionalisation of Roger Corman’s The Trip

I’m hoping that’s my next film. You know how it is these days with independents, I hope I can get it financed, it’s very tricky in today’s environment to get films off the ground. It costs so much money to make films, to release them, to make prints and advertising. It’s daunting, so you find the ones that get made are films that are very, very cheap or tent-pole, very expensive gambles. Often, they’re not really gambles as they’re usually remakes of TV shows or have the title of something you remember. Films about showbiz are always tricky to get financed because financiers think that audiences don’t relate to that sort of thing.

Even though there is a fascination among movie buffs for the history of the media?

Movie buffs alone don’t sell the tickets, and all the ancillary effects they used to expect from movies – you know, they would finance a movie and if it didn’t work theatrically it would make money on DVD – are no longer there, now the DVD market is getting soft and it’s turning into video on demand and no one is quite sure how the accounting of that works. So there’s a lot of uncertainty and even fear about the future of the entertainment business.

Why are you interested in making a film about that era? Is it down to your fond memories?

I was actually sent the script by the writer Tim Lucas…

From the magazine Video Watchdog?

Yes, he had written it on spec, basically, and wanted to know what I thought of it, and I liked it so much, I said I would love to do this movie. It’s been a challenge, but it’s a movie I want to see! My whole credo is that I don’t make movies that I wouldn’t go see and his is one that I would like to see, so obviously nobody is going to make it but me and I’m trying to get it off the ground…

Joe Dante is presenting a Director’s Night on the Horror Channel on 25th November where he’ll be introducing his selection of movies including Splatter, Bay of Blood and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Interview by Alex Fitch

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews