The Wicker Man: Unfamiliar folk

The Wicker Man

All traditions are invented, post facto confabulations and imagined communities. None more so than the British folk song tradition. Seen in this light, the soundtrack composed by American playwright and songwriter Paul Giovanni for The Wicker Man might be seen less as the inauthentic oddity it has often been regarded as, and more as the very ideal type of the genre. An unholy Creole of original compositions, nursery rhymes and assorted fragments from the traditional music of England, Wales, Scotland and even Bulgaria, as an attempt to realistically recreate the indigenous sound of a long isolated Hebridean island, Giovanni’s score must be regarded as a laughable failure. However, as an unheimlich phantasmagoria aimed at transporting its audience into the strange yet hauntingly familiar other places of the unconscious, it is little short of a masterpiece.

The songs were, for the most part, written on guitar by Giovanni, and then arranged and scored by associate musical director Gary Carpenter with additional input from the assembled musicians. Carpenter, who was then a recent graduate from the Royal College of Music, was auditioned for the post by Giovanni, as were Peter Brewis (who played recorders, Jew’s harp, harmonica and bass guitar) and Michael Cole (concertina, harmonica and bassoon). The rest of the band was recruited by Carpenter, largely from his own short-lived folk-rock combo, Hocket. Assuming the name Magnet (after discovering their first choice, Lodestone, was already taken), the band developed and recorded most of the music prior to the film shoot and appeared as performers in several key sequences of the film.

Fans of The Wicker Man are wont to insist that it is not a horror film – in much the same way Kurt Vonnegut fans will sometimes try and dissociate their idol from the science fiction genre, in order not to besmirch such an auteur with such a pulp genre. Considering the importance of music to The Wicker Man, the intimacy with which the songs are integrated into the narrative, and the embedding of performers within the frame, one wonders if those fans would be any more comfortable thinking of it as a musical.

Robert Barry

Me and My Rhythm Box: The Music of Liquid Sky

Liquid Sky

With a plosive stab of white noise, the music of Liquid Sky bursts onto the screen with the title card in the same stuttering neon as the visuals. Casiotones of synbrass and spaceflute match the synthetic apparel of the dancers in this garishly re-imagined Manhattan nightclub. The dancers flail their limbs wildly as a walking bassline trundles up and down its arpeggios, but the beat sounds more like a ticking bomb than a disco drum kit. This is New York in the early 80s, but we are certainly not in Studio 54, and neither are we down at CBGBs. This is some Other New York, caught somewhere between the cartoon concrète of Tod Dockstader and the acrylic club scene of Larry Tee.

When diminutive extra-terrestrials land on the roof of a Manhattan apartment, they discover that their best source of food is to be found in the endorphins released in human brains by heroin use and orgasm. Easy pickings among the smacked out fashionistas that strut through this aloofly debauched film, as strung out as it is plumed and primped. Russian emigré director Slava Tsukerman composed the music himself and steers it far away from anything we might expect either from space aliens or drug addicts. There is none of the louche lassitude of the Velvet Underground to these strange jarring noises.

Even notwithstanding that electronic music was by now long out of favour as a soundtrack to alien invasion (remember, in Close Encounters, it’s the humans who play synths – the aliens are represented by tubas and heavenly choirs), Tsukerman’s music here is very far from the kind of smooth whoops and whooshes that characterised SF movie music in the 50s and 60s. Far more crotched and rangy than the Barrons’ work on Forbidden Planet, Liquid Sky‘s score finds itself instead somewhere between the Manhattan Research projects of Raymond Scott and the QY20 sessions of the early Max Tundra. Less the bludgeoning porno-beats of electroclash – the musical genre of recent times most associated with the film – than a curiously childlike take on exomusicology: true sci-fi lullabies, advertising jingles for absurd products not yet invented.

Robert Barry

Sonic Ectoplasm: The Music of The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House

John Hough’s British horror film The Legend of Hell House (1973) concerns the attempt of a small group of psychics and parapsychologists to exorcise the spooks of a notorious haunted house, using the latest scientific equipment. The summoning of ghosts via scientific analysis and electronic equipment could stand as a reasonable description of the activities of the film’s composer, Delia Derbyshire (yes, and Brian Hodgson, but I think by now it is fairly safe to say that in most cases where we see both names credited, it’s Delia’s work that will be making our jaws drop).

By the time Hodgson and Derbyshire left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they had already collaborated on a number of other projects, moonlighting under the pseudonyms Nikki St. George and Li De La Russe. It was under these names that the pair worked on the first White Noise album (which shares with the Hell House soundtrack a tendency towards orgasmic breathiness) and on the Standard Music Library album that would later provide most of the music for ITV’s The Tomorrow People. But this was the first thing they worked on under their own names, and at Hodgson’s own Covent Garden studio, Electrophon.

Back at the Workshop, Derbyshire was known to have had a particular lampshade, favoured for its peculiar sonic properties. I don’t know whether she was able to take it with her when she left (in lieu, perhaps, of a gold watch) or if she found some sort of replacement, but one of the most uncanny sounds to be heard in The Legend of Hell House is distinctly reminiscent of those she found by removing the attack velocities from that lampshade (in the manner of Pierre Schaeffer’s cloche coupée) and leaving the dreamy susurrus of plaintively modulating noise to drift on in its wake. This sound, usually heard first pitched down then pitched up, is probably the film’s most common leitmotiv, acting almost like punctuation, denoting time passing, a sonic ellipsis.

Throughout the film, there is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between music and sound effects. Even the ostensible theme tune opens with a plangent woodwind motif that echoes the squeak of a rusty gate. This little trill acts like the opening to another world, welcoming in a stuttering electronic rhythm, pulsing with tribal energy, its ons and its offs never entirely stable. An organ stabs out its chords somewhere in the background, more wood wind floats in with a vaguely jazzy sensibility, only serving to destabilise the tonality even further.

The Legend of Hell House was released in the same year as Nigel Kneale’s TV movie, The Stone Tape, similarly about an attempt to apply scientific method to an apparently haunted house and scored by Derbyshire and Hodgson’s old boss at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Desmond Briscoe. But whereas The Stone Tape is rallied around a certain blokey rationalism, Hough’s film is always escaping the bonds of its thin veneer of scientific reason, suffused with a barely suppressed sexuality that seeps out in physical manifestations of ectoplasm and the rhythmic throbbing, the electric murmuration of Derbyshire’s music. It was those same sounds that led to an electronic signature tune Derbyshire composed for a BBC sex education programme a few years earlier being rejected as ‘too lascivious’.

Robert Barry

The Drums, The Chanting, The Lights: I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked with a Zombie

Much of what we see in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is impressionistic and inconsequential, a shadow play of strange superimpositions and light dancing on surfaces. At the same time, much of the dialogue remains prosaic, and is delivered in curiously flat tones. As a result, a considerable amount of the narrative functions of the film are handed over to two elements of the soundtrack: the voice-over and the (mostly diegetic) music.

The major thematic concerns of the film are set in place by the contrast between the near-ubiquitous voodoo drumming and the brief fragment of Chopin’s Etude in E, Opus 10. The opposition here is not, however, the obvious one between white and black, reason and superstition, or Christian missionaries and voodoo priests – as the film soon makes clear, such boundaries are not nearly as stable as they may at first seem.

The Chopin piece comes to stand, rather, for a kind of absent big Other in a place where all moral authority seems to have collapsed. Paul Holland (Tom Conway) thus plays the romantic piano repertoire as if to force some dignity, some reserve upon himself in a desperate situation. The drums, by contrast, represent what Lacan called ‘lamella’, a sort of undead persistence, a horrifyingly plastic partial object; as such, the sound is associated as much with the baroquely polygonal lines of desire connecting almost all the film’s characters as with the voodoo ceremonial these nets get caught up in. As Slavoj &#381i&#382ek says of the lamella, voodoo magic, as imagined by Tourneur, does not so much exist as insist.

On the other hand, there is the voice-over, which comes in two parts, both of which pertain to aspects of the Christian liturgy: the fraught confession of the nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), which opens the film, and the prayer that closes the film. But the voice-over does not cover the full extent, or even the greater part of the storytelling, with practically all the backstory being delivered in the form of song. The ‘Papa Legba’ song that we hear in the voodoo ceremony delivers the mythological background, while the family history of the film’s central half-brothers and the wife that came between them is sung by calypso singer Sir Lancelot, who makes a cameo appearance singing his ‘Fort Holland Calypso Song’, written especially for the film. Stripped of its original title, its perverse mystical associations – and sometimes even its writers’ credit – the tune would later become a major international hit for groups such as Peter Tosh and the Wailers, the Kingston Trio, and even Madness.

Robert Barry

The Shining’s hauntological score

The Shining

‘You are the caretaker, you have always been the caretaker.’

Very little of the score Stanley Kubrick commissioned Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind to compose for The Shining made it into the final cut. Instead, Kubrick returned to the Eastern European modern classical music that had transformed our expectations of the sound of outer space in his earlier 2001: A Space Odyssey, namely that of György Ligeti, and in addition, perhaps even more importantly, Krzysztof Penderecki. The resulting sonic landscape of the Overlook Hotel – the 1930s popular songs of Al Bowlly soaked in reverb as they echo and refract around the hotel corridors, the rumbling whistling drones and spectral harmonics of Penderecki and Ligeti, and the few remaining snatches of Carlos’s electronics and Elkind’s ghostly layered vocals – became representative of a certain trend in recent music that critic Simon Reynolds and theorist Mark Fisher have labelled ‘hauntological’.

The term, derived from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1993), refers to the ambiguous ontology of ghosts, an absent presence of half-buried traces, familiar fragments made strange by their post-historical (lack of) evocations. Among those artists labelled ‘hauntological’, along with Philip Jeck, The Focus Group and Ariel Pink, we find The Caretaker, a project by James ‘V/Vm’ Kirby specifically inspired by the haunted ballroom scene in Kubrick’s film.

Most previous discussion surrounding sonic hauntologies have tended to focus on just two elements of The Shining‘s music: the ballroom ballads of Al Bowlly and the analogue electronics of Wendy Carlos. What is less often remarked upon is the use of Penderecki’s music in the film’s dénouement, when Jack Torrance is chasing his son Danny round the snow-caked maze.

According to music editor Gordon Stainforth, while filming this scene Kubrick played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to the cast and crew through a little portable cassette player. However, there is little evidence that Kubrick ever intended this to remain in the final cut, and, though Stravinsky’s ballet score may well have given those on set the requisite sense of violet energy, it is unlikely the scene would have been so chillingly effective had this music stayed to the final cut. In fact, the final choice of music for this scene appears to be one of the few moments in the film where Kubrick directly insisted on the specific works used, rather than leaving the individual choices – out of a wide selection made previously by the director – down to Stainforth, as happened for most of the rest of the picture.

The scene actually layers several different tracks of music on top of one another, all of which, however, are taken from the second half of Penderecki’s Utrenja (1969-71). The piece is scored for strings, percussion and choir, and the composer has compared the orchestral effects used to the kind of sonorities associated with electronic music. The text, taken from the Orthodox Christian liturgy, is concerned with the resurrection of Christ.

One could easily make too much of the Christian symbolism in The Shining – the Faustian pact Torrance makes with the hotel when he offers his ‘good damn soul’ for a drink; the suggestion, at the end, that he may be the resurrection of a man in a photograph from 1921 who shares his face. What is significant, though, is that the action of the film ends with a piece of music – whose uncanny effects are produced by stretching the technique of ‘natural’ acoustic instruments until they sound electronic and inhuman – which reminds us that Christianity is essentially a religion of the undead rising from the grave; a religion of ghosts.

Robert Barry

Something Secretive, Whispery and Indecent

The Innocents

Nowadays, perhaps the most recognisable element of the soundtrack to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is the haunting lullaby ‘O Willow Waly’, composed by Georges Auric and Paul Dehn, which is the film’s very first sound – even before the appearance of the 20th Century Fox logo (some projectionists apparently took this for a mistake and re-cut the opening before showing it). To modern audiences, the song may be uncannily familiar: a sample of the girl Flora singing it in The Innocents is buried in the crackle and hum of the cursed tape in Gore Verbinski’s US remake of The Ring. Watching Clayton’s film again though, what really disturbs us, at the very moments when the film is at its most disturbing, are the eerie electronic noises that creep around the edges of Auric’s lush impressionistic score. These noises, though unmentioned in the film’s credits, were created by Daphne Oram.

Four years earlier, Oram had been the architect of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, the soundhouse that would one day create the out-of-this-world music for Dr Who, Blake 7, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – not to mention countless science programmes, children’s broadcasts and local radio jingles. Oram had wheeled vast old tape machines and battered old war surplus oscillators from studio to studio late at night to experiment on the sly while working by day at the BBC, before a long campaign of lobbying had finally granted her a little room at Maida Vale, a long-cherished dream of hers. There, she and Desmond Briscoe would use the tape manipulation techniques of musique concrète in radio dramas such as Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, and Giles Cooper’s The Disagreeable Oyster, before a trip to the Brussels World Expo in 1958 convinced Oram to leave the BBC and set up her own studio, in Tower Folly, a converted oast house in Fairseat, Kent. It was there that, in between experimenting with her own Oramics drawn-sound composition system, she worked on the music for The Innocents, along with a number of other films, adverts, ballets and theatrical productions.

The image of a woman, dead for over a year, appears across a pond and we hear a rising tremolo of stacked sine tones, harmonised spectrally in just intonation; amid a babble of phantom voices, a door falls shut and the echo from its slamming noise swells into a dark cavernous drone. When we first hear the electronic sounds Oram created for this film, we are inclined to take them, much like those crafted by Delia Derbyshire for John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House 12 years later, as the noise of the ghosts that haunt the old house in which it is set. It soon transpires, however, that Oram’s special sounds are, on the contrary, the leitmotif of Miss Giddens’s creeping insanity, the theme to a certain panicked look in her eye. If the audience spend much of the film unsure whether the ‘monstrosities’ we see are truly phantoms or phantasies, spectres or symptoms, the redoubtable Ms Oram is clearly under no such uncertainty.

If the electronic noises in The Innocents are the sound of encroaching madness, Oram has prior form. In the late 50s, the sound of a nervous breakdown was rather considered to be the Radiophonic Workshop’s stock in trade. The first BBC production to use the word ‘radiophonic’ – Frederick Bradnum’s ‘Radiophonic Poem’ entitled ‘Private Dreams and Public Nightmares’ produced by Oram along with Briscoe, Norman Bain and Donald McWhinnie – featured among its opening dialogue the ominous pronouncement, ‘I fall through nothing, vast, empty spaces. Darkness and the pulse of my life, bound, intertwined with the pulse of the dark world’. Accompanied by a ‘comet-like shriek’ and a ‘pulsating beat’, the piece realistically evokes the inner monologue of a manic depressive. Oram once compared, in her only published book, An Individual Note, the descent into madness with a kind of psychic feedback loop, an overloading ‘through having too high a playback volume’. It is in precisely this way, the echo of feedback overloading, swelling to the point of distortion, that she created many of the chilling sound effects for The Innocents.

Robert Barry

Dario Argento’s Operatic Terror


Dario Argento must be one of horror’s most operatic auteurs. Few directors can lay claim to such a consistency in the blending of image and music with the Grand Guignol theatrics of his most celebrated murders. He is also a great director of women and writer of female characters – this was, after all, one of the reasons he was brought on as a writer for Sergio Leone’s epic Once upon a Time in the West – in a grand Italian tradition that stretches back, at least, to the prima donnas of Puccini and Verdi. But it was only after he stopped working with his regular musical foils, Ennio Morricone and then the various members of Goblin, that the occasional oblique references to opera composers in his films (the great dorm house in Phenomena, we are told, once belonged to Richard Wagner) evolved into the full-scale quotation of actual operatic arias.

His most recent work, Giallo, opens in the lush surroundings of Turin’s legendary Teatro Regio with a burst of recitative from Mozart’s late opera seria, La clemenza di Tito; his Phantom of the Opera re-tread features the overture from Gounod’s Faust as well as the famous habanera from Bizet’s Carmen; even The Stendhal Syndrome manages to squeeze an aria, played on a little boom-box, into one of its murder scenes.

In 1987’s Opera, however, Argento came to believe his choice of quotation had rather got the better of him. Against the advice of many, Argento insisted that the opera being rehearsed in the film’s story should be Verdi’s Macbeth, and during filming, Argento suffered a number of misfortunes that led him to believe he may have become the victim of the famous curse of ‘The Scottish Play’. Major actors pulled out of the film at the last minute, minor actors were accidentally killed on set (crushed by a car), Argento’s proposed marriage to Daria Nicolodi was called off, and his father died suddenly during production. ‘But I felt,’ says an ever sanguine Argento, ‘that I had started with Macbeth, so I had to finish. And anyway, there could be no ravens in Cosi Fan Tutte.’

Apparently, the part of Marco in the film (played by Ian Charleson in his last screen role), the horror film director turned opera director, was based on Argento himself. A hint perhaps, now that film directors from Patrice Chereau to Werner Herzog have taken the helm at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, that Argento is waiting for the call from La Scala.

Opera is available on DVD in the UK as Terror at the Opera from Arrow Video.

Robert Barry

Film4 FrightFest 2010: Inventive Killers and Sinister Dreamers


Film4 FrightFest

26-30 August 2010, Empire, London

FrightFest website

This year, Film4 FrightFest presented one of its most ambitious, diverse and satisfying programmes yet. The festival cast its net wide, pulling in not just monsters, killers, zombies and hoodie tormentors, but also hippies, dreamers and misfits, exploring horror and fantastic cinema in the largest sense possible, and it was all the better for it.

Sadly, FrightFest was forced to pull A Serbian Film out of the programme after the BBFC imposed 49 cuts. The FrightFest organisers said, as their reason for the cancellation, that ‘a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety’ and we entirely agree with them: the extreme imagery of the film is meant to make a political point about Serbia and any cuts would alter its effect and meaning. Of course, the short-sightedness of British censorship is notorious and long-standing, as we were reminded by a timely screening of a documentary on the ‘video nasties’, which provided a wider context for the BBFC’s latest misguided decision.

Elsewhere there was much to enjoy. Tobe Hooper was in attendance to introduce his rarely seen 1969 first feature Eggshells, a wonderfully trippy, loose document of the period and a reminder of the influence of experimental cinema on 60s and 70s horror film. Other highlights included Mexican cannibal tale We Are What We Are, harsh and tender murder story Red White and Blue, giallo reverie Amer and brutal Hong Kong property-slasher Dream Home. Below we review some of the high and low points of the festival in more detail.

Hatchet II

I nearly gave Hatchet II a miss because of the paucity of ideas in the first instalment. Inexplicably popular, Hatchet is an unimaginative re-tread of 1980s horror films featuring a handful of stars from the genre – Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street 1-8), Tony Todd (Candyman 1-3)and Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th parts 7-9). It follows the misadventures of a boatload of tourists who visit the haunted house of a deformed boy presumed dead, only to be dispatched one by one.

In his introduction to the sequel, which premiered as the opening film of FrightFest 2010, director Adam Green assured the audience that it was much better than the original and I’m happy to report he got the formula right this time. Hatchet II is also a love letter to 80s horror, and Todd and Kane return, joined by ‘final girl’ Danielle Harris (Halloween 1-2 and 4-5) and a less annoying cast of victims who get variously disembowelled, hacked in half and turned into paté. Needless to say, this isn’t a film for the squeamish, but the deaths are so over the top, they are clearly intended as a parody of the genre.

The casual homophobia and risible, relentless titillation of the original Hatchet have been left behind and the enjoyment of the cast is obvious on screen. That said, having seen Green’s more laudable thrillers Frozen and Spiral, it is clear that the world doesn’t need a Hatchet 3. Alex Fitch

Dream Home

Mixing spectacular violence and a concern with the harsh realities of the Hong Kong property market, Dream Home is difficult to categorise and full of surprises. Cheng Li-sheung is a young woman working in a tedious sales job at a bank. Obsessed with buying a flat with a sea view, a much sought after and astronomically-priced commodity in Hong Kong, she will stop at nothing to achieve her dream.

Dream Home works well as a slasher, featuring some very brutal and sadistically inventive dispatch methods, but also offers a provocative take on its central theme. The violence Li-sheung inflicts on her property rivals and potential neighbours, although extreme, does not feel entirely gratuitous: it appears to be an angry reaction against the greed and corruption from both the state and criminals that have priced ordinary people out of the property market. But Li-sheung herself is not quite the people’s avenger, and her ruthlessness ensures the film never falls into any facile sentimental explanations for her actions. Virginie Sélavy

Cherry Tree Lane

Cherry Tree Lane, the latest from London to Brighton and The Cottage writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, is a home invasion movie in which a middle-class couple are brutalised by a gang of hoodies lying in wait to ‘fuck up’ their son when he gets home from football practice. You can tell Williams wants Cherry Tree Lane to work on the associative level, tapping into the rich vein of suburban paranoia as mined by Lynch, the Coens and Haneke before him. The trouble is, it just doesn’t.

The naturalistic performances from the really quite excellent young cast, coupled with their characters’ prosaic reason for being there in the first place – the son is a snitch – marks them as individuals rather than representative types. With the exception of the opening shot of the house, all shots are internal. The only glimpse at a context for the film comes from TV news reports on the anniversary of the July 7 London bombings, which might suggest a general climate of fear in the UK. However, under such isolated scrutiny, terrorist to hoodie is too much of an imaginative leap to make.

So, in this instance the couple’s suburban paranoia is justified, but why are the hoodies like this? Is this just a contemporary problem, or is there something deeper about human nature at work here? Williams does not give the audience enough elements with which to speculate. Alex Pashby

Cherry Tree Lane is released in the UK on 3 September.

We Are What We Are

This Mexican cannibal film was another FrightFest selection that was not easily pigeon-holed. Gritty, realistic and slow-paced, it had the feel of an art-house movie, but was punctuated by moments of startling, grisly brutality. When the father dies, the rest of the family has to figure out how to provide for themselves. As the eldest boy, Alfredo is expected to take on that role, although he does not feel up to it. Power shifts in the group as his sister Sabina, clearly the brains of the family, makes plans, their violent brother Julian mostly messes them up, and their formidable mother struggles to assert her authority. Despite a certain lack of direction, the film presented a disturbing study of family dynamics and a chilling portrayal of those on the poorest margins of Mexican society, literally forced to eat one another. Virginie Sélavy

We Are What We Are is released in the UK on 12 November.


An experimental film with a loose plot based around the experiences of four teenage friends who share a suburban house, this is more of a ‘tone poem’ or artist’s film than an ur-slasher movie. Combining moments of comedy, science fiction, surrealism and kitchen sink drama, this is a sweet-natured portrait of the end of the ‘summer of love’ as the kids hang out together, go for walks in the park, take communal baths and throw parties.

The closest we get to horror are scenes set in a supposedly haunted basement where one of the characters has encounters with a pink light that resembles HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey – which must have influenced the visual light effects in the more hallucinogenic scenes. Elsewhere, scenes where a character has a date in the park surrounded by balloons, or another attacks the group’s bubble car before setting fire to it and throwing all of the clothes he’s wearing into the conflagration, recall The Monkees as much as the darker elements of the end of the 1960s. The final scene sees the cast sucked into a prop from a science-fiction B-movie before being extruded as sludge and smoke, which, although it sounds like horror, is less horrific than many scenes from Monty Python.

Padded out by scenes of presumably improvised inane dialogue recorded at such a high level the speech is distorted into incomprehension, the film is occasionally unintelligible, soporific and obtuse, but includes enough visually stunning and memorable scenes to make it worth a watch. Comparable to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, this is an intriguing experience that suggests that outside of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper never reached his full potential as a director (or was allowed to, as there is a persistent myth that Steven Spielberg directed half of Poltergeist). Alex Fitch


F. is a very enjoyable and well-made film clearly modelled on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but takes place not in a near-empty police station, but after hours in the empty corridors and classrooms of a contemporary British college. After being attacked in his classroom and finding no support among his colleagues, English teacher Robert Anderson (David Schofield) turns to alcohol and eventual burn-out. One of his pupils is his daughter, with whom he has lost connection, and as he tries to repair this relationship while facing his other demons, he finds himself confronted by a relentless attack on the school by a group of faceless thugs and bloodthirsty killers in the guise of those folk devils du jour, the hoodies.

The cast universally contribute to the film’s success but David Schofield is especially effective and notable for his role as Anderson. While steeped in conventions and plotlines with which we are all too familiar, F. is nevertheless an interesting, clever and very watchable low-budget film, which has both relevance and panache. Definitely director Johannes Roberts’s best work to date. James B Evans

F. is released in the UK on 17 September.


A beautiful but unkind young professional from Seoul goes back to the remote island where she grew up for a break. There she is reunited with her sweet-natured childhood friend Bok-nam, married to a violent man and badly mistreated by his family. Bok-nam bears the beatings and indignities she is subjected to for the sake of her daughter, but one day, a tragic event tips her over the edge and she turns from subservient wife into violent avenger.

This South Korean film felt like a folk or fairy tale. The story had a compelling quality but the two-dimensional characters were painted with broad strokes and the film was heavy-handed in its denunciation of the oppression of women in Korean society. It was very slow-paced for the most part, making the sudden change of tone, sadistic killings and final bloodbath all the more shocking. Virginie Sélavy


The plot of After.Life oscillates between the possibilities that Christina Ricci’s character is dead and can only be seen by a creepy funeral director played by Liam Neeson, or he’s a serial killer who has kidnapped her and is trying to convince her she’s that way. This is a relatively rare subject for cinema, as few films cover the existential experience of the recently departed – outside of the occasional zombie movie shot from the point of view of the undead, or comedies featuring ghosts (Ghost, Beetlejuice, Casper). But this isn’t new ground for TV – Dead like Me, Six Feet Under and Being Human have all had lead or reoccurring characters that are ghosts – so this film will feel familiar to fans of telefantasy – and actually might have worked better as an episode of an anthology show like The Twilight Zone.

The film toys with the necrophiliac possibilities of the plot, but is generally more interested in displaying Ricci’s naked flesh as much as possible than in considering the psychological implications of the various traumas experienced by the cast on screen. Running for nearly an hour and three-quarters, the movie outstays its welcome by at least 20 minutes, but convincing performances by everyone involved keeps the atmosphere reasonably unnerving. Compared to some of the more hysterically scary movies shown at Frightfest, it was refreshing to see something a little more low-key. Alex Fitch

After.Life is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on 6 September by Anchor Bay.

The Dead

A zombie movie set in Africa was a great idea on paper, but The Dead failed miserably to do anything interesting with it. As a horror film, it was actually boring and as slow and directionless as the shuffling undead hordes. The two central characters fighting the zombies, although both military men, were so inept they might as well have been already brain-dead. Watching Africans killing black zombies with machetes inevitably brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, but the film did absolutely nothing with this. In fact, there was something slightly patronising and Western about the film’s approach to Africa, from stereotypical details such as a preposterous witch doctor to the fact that the main character was a white American. The end was not only a cop-out but it was also nauseatingly sentimental. Virginie Sélavy

Isle of Dogs

American director Tammi Sutton (Killjoy 2, Welcome to Graveland) elected to come to the UK to shoot this screenplay penned by Sean Hogan (Little Deaths, The Devil’s Business) and therein lies the first problem with the film – what should have been at times a subtle, British Ortonesque black humour at work in the script becomes in this director’s hands obvious, over-the-top gags, which muddy the tone of the film. What she evidently thought were clever post-modern references recede into triteness and near-camp.

The film concerns itself with Darius (Andrew Howard), a criminal gang boss and psychotic bastard who is married to a Russian former prostitute, Nadia (Barbara Nedeljakova). While heaping physical and verbal abuse upon her, he comes to learn that she has been sleeping with Riley (Edward Hogg) and determines to seek revenge. He offers Riley one way out – kill Nadia or be killed. Thus commences the orgy of killing that will occur during the evening.
This is a story about the lengths to which humans will go to survive and contains some neat plot twists and sharp dialogue – that is when the dialogue can be discerned – which brings me to the second and biggest problem with this film. Someone in post-production clearly went mad with the audio levels. The cacophony of sounds that bludgeon the viewer – and oftentimes the script – into aural submission serve only to undermine specificities of dialogue and mood. This bombastic and unrelenting John Zorn-like score is really quite unbearable as well as irritating. When the director revealed that it was a showcase for the music of her boyfriend it became clear: Isle of Dogs served partly as a lengthy horror pop-promo for him. A shame because as mentioned, there is a much subtler film here waiting to get out from underneath the wall of sound. James B Evans

Red White and Blue

Erica likes to fuck and run. She doesn’t fall in love and she doesn’t ‘do friends’. But when the dangerous-looking, craggy-faced Nate moves into the same lodging house, some sort of relationship develops between them. Soon, however, the dysfunctional tenderness that unites them is disrupted by the re-appearance of a former lover of Erica’s, who brings bad news.

This was one of the best films in the festival, unpredictable and complex, sweet and gruesome, moving without being sentimental, with fully rounded characters who, although they were capable of the most terrible acts, were neither good nor evil, but always achingly human. Virginie Sélavy

The Last Exorcism

Coming from the production stable of Hostel director Eli Roth, the closing film of the festival, predictably, has its fair share of moments to be labelled ‘not for the squeamish’. Director Daniel Stamm similarly took the mockumentary format into macabre territory with his 2008 feature debut, A Necessary Death, which claimed to follow the final preparations of a suicidal volunteer. Under his hand, The Last Exorcism is clearly as comfortable manipulating its audience’s emotions as it is manipulating its own generic format. As with The Blair Witch Project, however, one can’t help but feel that, were you to strip away the shaky cam conceit of the frame, you’d be left with a remarkably formulaic script. That is not to say it is not grimly effective.

In the end, perhaps the most consistently disturbing feature of this film is not the apparently psychotic teenage girl, or the demon that is supposed to be possessing her, but her control-freak fundamentalist father. And it is in the light of this that The Last Exorcism is very much an Exorcist for our times. Robert Barry

The Last Exorcism is released in the UK on 3 September. Read the full review and listen to the Eli Roth podcast.

Things to Come: Operatic Urban Regeneration

Things to Come

As well as being one of the first ever sci-fi talkies, William Cameron Menzies film of HG Wells’s Things to Come (1936) is notable for inaugurating a new wave of British film soundtrack composition. It was in this era, with Muir Mathieson as music director of Alexander Korda’s Denham Studios (later to become part of the Rank Organisation), that a number of important British composers of concert music began writing scores for the screen – notably Ralph Vaughan-Williams, William Walton, Arnold Bax, and Elisabeth Lutyens, along with Things to Come‘s own composer, Arthur Bliss.

With Wells himself given an unprecedented level of control for a screenwriter, the music was placed in a position of paramount importance from the very beginning, and Bliss became involved in the earliest stages of pre-production. Unlike many concert composers who dip their toe into the murky waters of composing for film, Bliss maintained a markedly similar style to his usual music, and as a result the concert suite adapted from the film’s soundtrack remains popular to this day. Even if, as Wells desired and is sometimes reported, the music was not in fact recorded in advance of filming for onset playback, in certain sequences it is evident that the visual and musical aspects were conceived in parallel.

In addition to the resources of a full symphony orchestra, Bliss also had at his disposal a specially enlarged percussion section. It is during the rebuilding of the city, with the operations of the great factories and blast furnaces, that this additional battery is exploited to its full potential, literally chiming with the machinery of production. However, with the City of the Future built, its newly erected skyscrapers glistening like Corbusier’s dream, Bliss’s music returns to the sort of bluff quasi-impressionistic Britishness heard in the film’s opening sections.

With the forward march of scientific progress seemingly unstoppable, the film reaches its climax with a protest of artists and craftsmen against a proposed trip to the moon. You scientists, cry the artists led by the sculptor Theotocopulos, make our creations ‘look small’. The reflexive sense of this mise en abyme may be found in the way the film’s visionary picture of scientific progress and urban regeneration can scarcely be matched by any corresponding music of the future.

Robert Barry

Triumph of the Will: Feeble Bombast

Triumph of the Will

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Writers: Leni Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann

Original title: Triumph des Willens

Germany 1935

114 mins

The ghost of Tannhäuser haunts the opening scenes of Leni Riefenstahl’s hyper-real document of the 1934 Nuremberg rally. The surging rhythms and melodic leaps from Wagner’s great overture are intertwined within Herbert Windt’s blustery score. Ironic, perhaps, that the theme for the Goddess of Love should here soundtrack the entrance of the high priest of hate. Shortly afterwards, we hear something that at first we might mistake for the Internationale – of course, it’s not. But the resemblance is typical of the way the National Socialist regime appropriated motifs from the International Socialist Movement. Later on, the manner in which the front ranks of the crowd will speak in unison was, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, an ‘outright imitation of communist propaganda methods’.

It is tempting to see in Herbert Windt’s diffuse and oleaginous appropriation of popular themes and classical allusions some sort of articulation of a distinctly Nazi aesthetic – the analogue in many respects to their rhetoric. But Wagnerian motifs and Straussian harmonies were as common to pre-Nazi German cinema as they were to Hollywood films before and after the war. What Triumph of the Will‘s music lacks, of course, is the element of doubt and uncertainty introduced by the influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system on many Hollywood composers. Nonetheless, in its jingoistic heroism, and the peculiarly thin, under-composed feel much of the music reveals on closer examination, Windt’s style finally recalls none other than John Williams. It is a fact remarked on by Mervyn Cooke in his recent History of Film Music, that many of Windt’s themes and fanfares would not sound out of place in Star Wars.

Robert Barry