Fear(s) of the Dark (McGuire)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 October 2008

Venues: Odeon Panton St, Ritzy (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Directors: Charles Burns, Blutch, Marie Caillou, Richard McGuire, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattoti

Writers: Charles Burns, Blutch, Pierre di Sciullo, Jerry kramski, Richard McGuire, Michel Pirus, Romain Slocombe

Original title: Peur(s) du noir

France 2007

85 mins

Black and white seems to be the new colour when it comes to adult animated movies from France, especially those with a comics source or styling. Hot on the high heels of Marjane Satrapi, who co-directed Persepolis from her autobiographical graphic novel, and Christian Volckman, who put his future thriller Renaissance into motion-capture monochrome, comes Fear(s) of the Dark. This ensemble piece dares to allow leading innovators in French and American comics to transpose their motionless, soundless storyworlds to the animation medium.

The strong opener, Charles Burns, is the best known outside of France for his Black Hole saga, in development as a live-action film. His obsessions with the creeping unease of adolescence and uncontrollable bodily mutation resurface in his flashback about a timid biology student whose sweet first girlfriend changes after an insect bite into a terrifying sadist, overturning their male and female roles. Despite occasional awkwardness to the movements, it’s truly unsettling to experience Burns’s inhumanly precise outlines and saw-toothed feathering in motion and sound on the big screen. The other American participant, Richard McGuire, closes the film with a display of his elegant minimalism, conveying a man stumbling around an isolated ‘old dark house’, his silhouette sliding between shadows, his candle picking out hidden secrets.

Instead of these pure contrasts of chiaroscuro, three of the French-based teams opt for palettes of grey. Marie Caillou with writer Romain Slocombe take us into the disturbing memories of a bullied Japanese schoolgirl, driven by a samurai’s ghost to violence, the only flash of red in the film. Caillou’s greenish tones add a cold, clinical chill. Italian-born Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramski recall boyhood terrors about mysterious disappearances and an unseen monster. Mattotti’s evocative shading shimmers and shifts sublimely in this atmospheric, allusive folk tale, tinged in sepia. A fleshy pink infuses Blutch’s brushstrokes as a cruel squire unleashes his raging hounds, one by one, on the innocent, its closing twist something of a let-down. Least successful are the interludes by typographer-designer Pierre di Sciullo who abstracts a woman’s confessions of fears great and small into symbolic geometric patterns. Still, this is a haunting sextet of chillers, rich with such diverse, distinctive drawings emerging from that most fearful of dark places, the imagination.

Paul Gravett

Paul Gravett is the author of Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life and The Mindscape of Alan Moore. To find out more about his work on comics, go to paulgravett.com.

Read this review and much more in our autumn print issue. The theme is cruel games, from sadistic power play in Funny Games to fascist games in German hit The Wave and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!


A Bloody Aria

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 October 2008

Venues: ICA Cinema and key cities

Distributor: ICA Films

Director: Won Shin-yeon

Writer: Won Shin-yeon

Original title: Guta-yubalja-deul

Cast: Cha Ye-ryeon, Han Suk-kyu, Jeong Kyeong-ho, Kim Shi-hoo

South Korea 2006

115 mins

‘Only fools abide by the rules’, arrogantly proclaims singing professor Park after jumping a red light while driving his pretty young student In-jeong back to Seoul after an audition. ‘You must be mistaken, I always abide by the rules’, grovels the same professor Park a moment later when stopped and given a ticket by incorruptible, stony-faced policeman Moon-jae. Ten minutes in, the film has clearly established the pecking order: policeman at the top, professor below, young female student at the bottom. Status, and the authority associated with it, is everything here, and to Park’s dismay, the flashy white Mercedes he is driving loses out to Moon-jae’s uniform. This is the start of A Bloody Aria‘s anarchic, absurdist, clever, complex and darkly funny investigation of the power games that dominate human relationships.

Humiliated by his encounter with Moon-jae, Park won’t leave it at that and his rash two fingers at the law forces him to take the Mercedes down a back road to the kind of psychotic bumpkin country mapped out by Deliverance or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Having stopped at an isolated creek by a river, Park and In-jeong are confronted by a gang of dim-witted thugs led by the insanely jovial Bong-yeon, who soon enough reveals himself to be a sadistic bully. Far more astute than he lets on at the beginning, he starts playing elaborately cruel games, not only with Park and In-jeong, but also with schoolboy Hyun-jae, his unfortunate habitual target.

This may sound like a predictable scenario but the plot wrong-foots the audience at every turn. Director Won Shin-yeon sets us up beautifully, playing with the familiar staples of the horror genre all the better to twist them. Key to this is the disorientating, incongruous sense of humour that accompanies even the most violent moments. Just as Bong-yeon teases his hapless victims, Won Shin-yeon toys with the audience, alternating moments of tension with a humorous release that feels both pleasurable and disturbingly inappropriate, playing a cat-and-mouse game with our emotions.

All the possible variations in the power relationships are explored, with the bully in one scene becoming the victim in the next. There are no innocents here, all play the game the best way they can. The girl and the schoolboy may seem like the most blameless characters, but – and this is one of the most chilling aspects of the film – it is not a moral choice; they simply lack the necessary strength to be bullies. When Hyun-jae gets a chance to turn the table on his tormentors, he does so with frightening gusto. And Park’s attempt to force himself on In-jeong comes after she flirtatiously tries to manipulate him into helping her singing career. ‘I had a huge crush on you when I was at school’, she says, before asking if he will coach her. In-jeong’s weapons in the game are her youth and beauty, but of course they are of no use against brute force.

For ultimately, everything comes down to who can bang their chest the loudest. The rural setting, together with the animal imagery that punctuates the film (the soaring bird of prey in the opening shot, or in a later scene, the half-witted thug crudely killing another raptor with a baseball bat), point to this essential truth: men are ruled by no other law than the brutal law of nature. Most disturbing of all, the final scenes suggest that the character who should best represent order and civilisation may well be the most savage of them all.

But the film’s truly brilliant touch, and what makes this mordant fable all the more effective and original, is its use of music. In an early scene, Park tries to use his professorial authority to force In-jeong into his arms by making her sing the Papageno/Papagena duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute – basic animal urges masquerading as high art. And at the end, in a typical tonal shift, the sombre vision of humanity propounded by the denouement is relieved by a ferociously ironic coda: the utterly defeated professor is towed away in his wrecked Mercedes to the triumphant strains of the ‘Toreador Song’ from Bizet’s Carmen. What we’ve witnessed previously is no glorious struggle between bullfighter and beast, between savage and civilised: in A Bloody Aria, there are only beasts.

Virginie Sélavy

Read this article and much more in our autumn print issue. The theme is cruel games, from sadistic power play in Funny Games to fascist games in German hit The Wave and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Plus: interview with comic book master Charles Burns about the stunning animated film Fear(s) of the Dark and preview of the Raindance Festival. And don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!


Good Dick

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 October 2008

Venues: Odeon Panton St,, Ritzy (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: The Works

Director: Marianna Palka

Writer: Marianna Palka

Cast: Marianna Palka, Jason Ritter, Martin Starr

USA 2008

86 mins

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a film about porn and masturbation set in Los Angeles would be the latest release from the Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow school of romantic comedy. But Good Dick, written and directed by Marianna Palka, who also plays one of the main characters, is a subversive, refreshing take on the genre – a touching and funny look at the confused relationship between two highly damaged people.

Jason (son of John) Ritter plays a nameless character who works in a video store with a bunch of fellow slackers, filling the monotonous hours with pseudo-intellectual conversations about capitalism and the end of the world. Homeless, he sleeps in his car, washing himself with Wet Wipes and brushing his teeth using bottled water. Obsessed by the enigmatic, dishevelled young woman (Palka) who comes into the video store every day to rent hard-core porn, he begins to pursue her (you could call it stalking) by worming his way into her home, and essentially refusing to leave. Their relationship progresses inch by tortuous inch, from watching porn together on opposite sides of the sofa to sharing a bed (no touching allowed) to a twisted variation on the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship – just without any physical intimacy.

Palka refuses to pander to generic notions of romance and behaviour, and instead plays with the usual stereotypical gender roles. Ritter is needy, desperate for affection, and willing to take all sorts of abuse to be near the woman he cares about. He washes her hair, cleans the house, and cooks dinner, taking on traditionally female, submissive roles. Traumatised by some unknown event, Palka shirks away from any kind of emotional connection, insulting him constantly for being crazy enough to want to be with her, while at the same time craving his presence. She’s the dominant one, calling all the shots. But her emotional scars are obvious to Ritter and to the audience, and by the time her version of a happy ending rolls around we’re relieved rather than appalled.

What makes the film so refreshing is that Palka is unafraid of tackling female sexuality head on, and offers an entirely realistic – if perhaps surprising to some viewers – take on women’s attitude to porn and masturbation among other things. Very well written, the screenplay avoids the heavy-handed, expository dialogue rampant in other relationship films like Before Sunrise, or In Search of a Midnight Kiss – another LA-set indie film released a few months ago (Good Dick is the better film of the two). Thankfully, few male fantasies are indulged in the film, in contrast to so many comedies where the ordinary guy always ends up with a super model, or at least a woman who looks like Katherine Heigl.

Palka deservedly won the Best New Director’s Award at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Let’s hope that Morning Knight, the production company she and Ritter recently co-founded, will continue to put out clever, entertaining indie cinema like Good Dick.

Sarah Cronin


The Fall

Format: Cinema

Release date: 3 October 2008

Venues: Curzon Soho, Ritzy, Picturehouse Greenwich (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Momentum

Director: Tarsem

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Nico Soultanakis, Tarsem

Cast: Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell, Lee Pace

India/UK/USA 2006

117 mins

Although he made his feature debut with The Cell in 2000, Tarsem has been working as director of commercials and music videos since the mid-90s and this is clearly visible in the lavish credit sequence that opens his second, self-funded effort The Fall. Images of figures jumping heroically from horses and trains in slow motion, wonderfully cinematic as they may be, would also fit perfectly in adverts for Marlboro or Nike. To say that the film focuses on style over substance is not far removed from the truth and even the more emotionally engaging scenes only serve to highlight his undeniable talent as a visual artist.

The Fall (based on the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho) is set in Los Angeles circa 1915, at a time when action-adventure films are beginning to take their grip on Hollywood, bringing with them the ever-increasing dangers of precarious stunts. A victim of such hazards, stuntman Roy Walker is bed-ridden in a hospital, unable to feel his legs and heartbroken after his girlfriend dumped him for a suave film star. Surrounded by hypochondriacs and old-timers with removable dentures, his only relief comes in the form of Alexandria, a young immigrant girl who fell from a tree while picking oranges (excellently played by the young Catinca Untaru, who allegedly spoke no English prior to filming). Finding friendship through shared mischievousness, the pair escape daily banality through the stories that Roy invents for Alexandria, in particular a vivid account of five warriors who set out across a mythical landscape, each with a personal vendetta to settle with a fascist emperor.

As one would expect from a director with such visual flair, the film’s imagery is truly breathtaking. Everything from the vast scenery to the flamboyant costumes is meticulously captured, with sporadic fighting scenes being more akin to choreographed dance than to the video-game-influenced bouts seen so frequently in cinema today. There’s also a fantastic stop-motion animation sequence, which is used to depict the operation Alexandria has to undergo following a fall. Sequences such as this add to the sense of surrealist fantasy as well as to the escapist desires that dominate the film.

However, as engaging as the film’s visual elements may be, the script (co-written by Tarsem with Nico Soultanakis and Dan Gilroy) varies far too much in tone and style to fully engage, veering between emotional indifference and full-on melodrama. Cutting between the fictive and real worlds, the film slowly meanders through its first half, drawing few parallels between the two stories, to the extent that the film feels entirely directionless. It’s only as the pace picks up, following an event revealing Roy’s dark side, that the two worlds begin to blur more satisfyingly and the film manages to create an emotional connection between the two leads. However, the overtly paternal relationship between Roy and Alexandria never quite convinces and when the tears and cries for help come, they just seem unnatural.

Just like The Cell, The Fall succeeds brilliantly on a visual level but falters when it comes to constructing a well-structured plot. This is all the more surprising here as storytelling is of such importance to the narrative. It may well be that the director’s talents are better suited to other mediums.

James Merchant


La Zona

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 October 2008

Venues: key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Rodrigo Plí¡

Writer: Rodrigo Plí¡, Laura Santullo

Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Maribel Verdíº, Daniel Tovar

Mexico 2007

97 mins

While police corruption and the divide between rich and poor might not be original subject material in recent Latin American cinema, Uruguayan-born director Rodrigo Plí¡ has crafted an innovative, compelling addition to the burgeoning genre with his debut feature, La Zona. As the film begins, the roaming camera tracks a white butterfly through a neighbourhood of pristine yards and gorgeous homes, before panning up a menacing barbed-wire fence to reveal the sprawling, dismal slums on the other side of the barrier. This is La Zona, a heavily fortified community in Mexico City that exists virtually outside of the law, thanks to the patronage of a judge who’s granted the wealthy residents privileged status and their own exclusive rights.

When a storm knocks over a billboard and creates a breach in the fence, three young men from the barrio take advantage of the opportunity for a smash and grab, breaking into an elderly woman’s home to rip her off. When she surprises them with a gun, things go tragically wrong, and four people end up dead. The residents of the community, who may lose their special status if there is violence in the compound, soon realise that one of the offenders is still trapped on their side of the fence.

Desperate to keep the police at bay, they collectively decide to hide the violence from the police and to launch a manhunt to find the fugitive themselves. Any voices raised in opposition to the plan are sharply silenced by the majority. Plí¡ intersperses the film with CCTV footage of the fortress community, emphasising its enforced isolation and the siege mentality that consumes its inhabitants. Those who object to the majority’s decisions are prevented from leaving the zone, trapped inside as surely as the intruder who has become the residents’ prey.

That prey is 16-year-old Miguel; young, poor and out of his depth, he doesn’t stand a chance against the bloodthirsty residents and the compromised police. While the police captain is initially determined to investigate the killings in La Zona, his motivation has as much to do with pride and his own dislike of the residents as it does with any notion of justice. Regardless of motivation, however, his determination can do little in the face of widespread corruption and the ingrained belief that the lives of the rich are worth infinitely more than those of the poor.

What’s so disturbing about the film is that it lies within the realm of human possibility. Though the community itself may be exaggerated, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a society in which the haves live in isolation from the have-nots, with their own laws and social order. The mob mentality that consumes the zone’s residents, who are furious at anyone and anything that threatens their insulated existence, is all too realistic, while neither the poor nor the rich trust the cops to bring anyone to justice. A suspenseful and stomach-churning thriller, La Zona conjures up a bleak but riveting picture of humanity.

Sarah Cronin


Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 August 2008

Distributor: Second Run

Director: Jaromil Jireš

Writers: Jaromil Jireš, Ester Krumbachová¡, Jirí Musil

Based on the novel by: Ví­tezslav Nezval

Original title: Valerie a týden divu

Cast: Jaroslava Schallerová¡, Helena Anýzová, Jirí Prýmek, Jan Klusák

Czechoslovakia 1970

73 minutes

‘It’s nothing… Just a hanging man.’ Whatever else it may be, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is probably not best approached as a horror film. Valerie’s little world is replete with crypts and cobwebs, resurrections and beastly transformations, and features a notable Max Schreck copyist. It also evokes the lusty peasant world of bosoms barely contained by ruffled white cotton that serves as counterpoint to undeath in so many Hammer productions. It even has some of the colour and texture of The Wicker Man. But there is no Edward Woodward figure here, traumatised by the reign of misrule. Valerie, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, is oddly matter of fact and accepting of the deep strangeness that envelops her. Thus, the dangling corpse of the priest who has tried to molest her is all in a week’s work for Valerie. It is as if, innocent as she appears, she already has an inkling Father Gracian will emerge hale and hearty from a coffin at some point anyway. Perhaps even that he will turn up again in the film’s flailing song and dance finale, incarcerated in a giant bird-cage in the middle of a forest.

According to the prevalent interpretation of the film, Valerie does indeed know, because what we see are the fantasies of a girl on the verge of womanhood. The Freudian/surrealist shtick is definitely there: we open and close on Valerie viewed from above asleep; very near the beginning we see drops of blood fall onto daisies under her feet, and so forth. So the hoydens on whom Valerie spies frolicking in the river, dropping fish into their décolleté, or sweetheart-cum-brother Orlík, or the bewildering array of parental avatars who alternate between bloodless ghouls, and buff young objects of desire, are all pretty much a function of Valerie’s particularly lurid family romance. But, while there is certainly a lot of voyeurism and projection going on, it would be a shame to simply explain the film in this, or in any other way. Why does a band of flagellants burst onto the square with a sudden fury, lash the water of the fountain, give chase to Orlík, then just as suddenly saunter off with their arms round each other, carousing merrily? Why does Father Gracián (Jan Klusák building on the range of camp creepiness already evidenced in The Party and the Guests) bear down on his doe-eyed prey, sashaying and ripping open his cassock to reveal a necklace of big pearly tropical seashells? One might as well ask why Christopher Lee looks the way he does as he leads the cortège/bacchanale that will end with Edward Woodward as chicken in a basket.

The film does, however, realise a world that is all its own by virtue of its intense vision of colour and texture. Father Gracián’s necklace, then, while not straightforwardly symbolic of anything, can be read against some of the film’s most insistent visual preoccupations. The shiny white shells against wiry black chest hair repeat, texturally, the glint of teeth between bearded yet rosy lips. Engorged (red) life palpitates next to (white) dead matter; and it is not always easy to say which is more beautiful, which more disquieting, or indeed which is which. Costume designer Helena Anýzová, who manages to pack at least three roles into one of only two outings as an actress (she also appears in The Cremator), pretty much runs the gamut. As Valerie’s Grandmother, she seems to have been run over by a giant paint-roller while her bone china-white house was being decorated. As ‘Elsa’, essentially a vampirically rehydrated Grandma, all rosy lips and lush red hair, she is a more alarmingly rapacious prospect. Yet, as Valerie’s long-lost mother, she radiates the same ruddy palette as Elsa. The family reunion scene has, at one and the same time, all the innocence of an old GDR television fairy tale adaptation, and all the disquiet of the phrase ‘a still unsplit pomegranate’ issuing from the sweeping black cape and white gloves of a vampire-priest haranguing a group of docile virgins from a beetling pulpit.

In one of the film’s most strikingly composed shots, Valerie sits down to eat with Grandmother and Father Gracian at a table in a meadow above a lake. Her ‘innocent’ white, the matt emulsion of her guardian, and the greasepaint against black of the priest, all stand out weirdly against a magnificent backdrop composed of equal bands of lime and slate, pre-storm iridescent, as meadow and lake are captured in a dramatically flattened depth of field. The film revolves around this sort of intensity of tableau. Director Jires shows scant regard for notions of continuity of location, or normal rules of shot-reverse-shot. It would be impossible to map Valerie. Yet the persistent idiosyncracy of vision – saturated colours, dramatic angles and deep shots framed by intervening branches and cobwebs – fashion a little world that is fully realised within its own terms and will haunt many a viewer.

Stephen Thomson


They Live

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 September 2008 (John Carpenter box-set out on Oct 6)

Distributor Optimum

Director: John Carpenter

Writer: Frank Armitage (John Carpenter’s pen name)

Based on: a short story by Ray Nelson

Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster

USA 1988

93 mins

A commerce-crazy America with a widening gap between rich and poor is the backdrop of John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi action movie They Live. John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a homeless labourer who, amid mass economic disenchantment, discovers an alien conspiracy to use Americans as commodities while they live off the fat of the land masquerading as humans.

While following a group of people posing as religious preachers, Nada finds some specially-designed sunglasses that allow him to see subliminal messages such as ‘obey’, ‘marry and reproduce’ and ‘this is your god’ embedded into advertising, television broadcasts and on money itself. More importantly, the glasses interfere with electric rays that disguise the skeletal-like aliens as humans, enabling him to tell the imposters from real people. As it happens, some people are in on the conspiracy, notably the police and the rich, and they are suitably rewarded for aiding the status quo with inflated bank balances, promotions and other material elements of the American Dream.

After a lengthy, yet stripped down, fight scene, Nada convinces his buddy John Armitage (Keith David) to try on the glasses too, and together they find others who have also been enlightened and attempt to beat the system. The film’s high point comes with Nada and Armitage’s trip to the other side, when they pose as alien sympathisers and stumble upon an underworld of decadence and indoctrination. The ideas are simple enough, but they bear a resemblance to the methods used by repressive societies the world over – systems which Carpenter felt were beginning to take over his own country.

The thinly-veiled social commentary of the piece seems a little heavy-handed by today’s standards, with lines such as ‘We all sell out every day, we might as well be on the winning team’ delivered by those whose acquiescence to the aliens has served them well. But this camp dialogue is part of the film’s charm. Even at the beginning of They Live, when Nada looks out over his impoverished surroundings to the skyscrapers that lie beyond and declares, ‘I believe in America, I follow the rules’ – a faith soon tested by his world-shattering discovery – we believe him.

The B-movie aesthetic is used as a vehicle for the social commentary, and black comedy penetrates the film throughout. In fact, Carpenter sweeps aside political preaching to allow the film to finish on a note of humour when the aliens are finally revealed for what they are.

The DVD features a short ‘making-of’ documentary, also made in 1988, which
is worth watching for the hilarious sequence about Piper, a professional wrestler who Carpenter cast after meeting him at a wrestling convention. Piper tells the interviewer: ‘I’ve been electrocuted, I’ve been stabbed three times, I’ve been in a plane crash, I don’t know how many car crashes.’ Carpenter muses: ‘He seems to have lived life…’

Lisa Williams

The John Carpenter Collection, including Halloween, The Thing, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, Escape from New York and Prince of Darkness, is out on Oct 6. They Live is available from September 22.



Format: DVD

Release date: 20 October 2008

Distributor Scanbox

Director: David Lynch

Writer: David Lynch

Cast: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Judith Roberts

USA 1977

85 mins

The re-release of Lynch’s debut Eraserhead is a prime opportunity to re-visit this idiosyncratic masterpiece! Lynch claims that, in all the years since the film appeared, no reviewers have come anywhere near to his own interpretation of the film. I have no intention of trying to suss what was happening in The Head of our dear Mr Lynch, yet I shall attempt to give some impressions of my own.

Eraserhead sets the tone for Lynch’s career, the Emphasis upon 1950s Americana, the many dreamlike slow-motion scenes with constant industrial rumblings and hissings always subliminally present. The place is hideous, the homes and interiors depicted in the film are hideous – you can almost smell the damp and the grease! And yet, these images are also exquisitely Beautiful in their hideousness… A kind of Beauty from Hell!

The film opens with the Main Character Henry out in the eternal cosmos limply jettisoning a sperm from His mouth (‘In the beginning was the word’). Within a cosmic egg awakens a Vulcan Type character, deformed and of evil appearance, who noisily cranks the gears of machinery. There is a sense of this figure being at the heart and centre of the creative forces of the universe… but Lynch depicts even this figure as being reflective of the diseased and claustrophobic Industrial squalor that the rest of the film is steeped in.

Henry is the archetypal fool, Nature’s plaything and tool, who bumbles through the film’s dark byways without any conscious realisation of what exactly may be happening, with his dorkish backcombed high-style hair, haunted glare, uneasy manner and ill-fitting suit! Henry is trapped within a constantly oppressive mechanical nightmare – the view from his room… a desolate brick wall! … A fitting symbol of his future. Even the chicken at the family dinner is a man-made mechanistic parody of Death made life. Getting his girlfriend mysteriously pregnant is somehow part of this grinding, creaking nightmare of life, and the resulting baby, which he is left to care for after she freaks out and leaves, is the most hideous Alien slimeball, cackling and taunting him in the night.

Lynch plunges Henry through various convoluted, highly symbolic mini-adventures, all with a strong theme of hopelessness and Nihilism. As is characteristic of much of Lynch’s work, there are scenes embedded within the film which may be nothing other than some twisted dream. Such is Henry’s encounter with a Woman who lives in the room opposite: his bed becomes a Bath of milk into which they both sink. Coming as his masculine force is being relentlessly crushed by the pressures of being left alone to tend the creature, this scene feels very much like just a fantasy.

Eraserhead gets its title from a scene where Henry’s head is ejected by the sheer force of the Alien child’s own head sprouting forth from his shoulders, replacing and Erasing his own identity. His head is found by a young boy in an industrial wasteland and taken to a factory merchant where the brain is drilled out and used as rubber for the ends of pencils! The poor man’s intellect has been reduced to a symbol of pure nothingness, his creative force and individuality destroyed by the Evil offspring that is now completely possessing him.

Henry keeps a small worm reminiscent of his lost seed in a cupboard, the seed that was set in motion seemingly against Henry’s will by the sinister Demiurgic figure seen in the opening sequence. Opposite the cupboard is a Radiator, Henry’s only place of refuge and escape from the grimy cold monotony. Within it is the ‘LADY IN THE RADIATOR’, a kind of perverse, hamster-cheeked caricature of Marilyn Monroe, who sings a fantastic and haunting melody about everything being Fine in Heaven, as if she was the source of his salvation.

At the end of the film, Henry seems to be set free. By destroying the alien baby, Henry seemingly performs his only true act of ‘Will’ in the whole story. The Demiurgic figure Stares with Menace at Henry and struggles to maintain his grip on the grinding gears, now screeching and kicking forth masses of sparks, his face contorted in a grimace of pain as he strives to hold this world together. Destruction and creation are merged, and our hero realises that the source of heaven is within the light and heat of the Radiator Lady’s arms. Here he is at last absorbed, and mercifully released from the bondage of the dark creator’s world.

The film’s atmosphere was inspired by industrial Philadelphia, where Lynch had spent much time. In the interview included on the new DVD, Lynch states that when he arrived in LA he was overwhelmed by the light, compared to the oppressive gloom of Philadelphia. This may have something to do with the inspired choice of the Monroe-like figure, the star being associated with LA, as a source of Heavenly light.

Franz Kerola


Terror in a Texas Town

Format: DVD

Release date: 8 September 2008

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Joseph H Lewis

Writer: Dalton Trumbo (front Ben Perry)

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Ned Young

USA 1958

77 mins

In the 1950s the western really came of age. The endlessly repetitive oaters and singing cowboys of the 30s were replaced by a fad for political allegory and greater psychological depth. The latter may well have been the equivalent of what Orson Welles called ‘dollar-book Freud’ but it certainly helped create some great films – from Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and many more – setting a standard that the revisionist westerns of the 60s, though interesting in their own way, would rarely equal. The political climate may have made overt political content (at least of a certain colour) difficult but many filmmakers were keen to make a point. The ‘liberal’ western High Noon (1952) written by soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman and Howard Hawks’s famous riposte Rio Bravo (1959) are perhaps the most famous examples.

Despite its lurid title and its standard plot (probably pitched as Shane meets High Noon – with harpoons!!!), Terror in a Texas Town stands as the epitome of these developments. Written by perhaps the most famous of McCarthy’s Hollywood victims, Dalton Trumbo (who, having served a year in prison and living in Mexico, gave the credit to Ben Perry), the film comes with a heavy dose of both psychology and politics.

The working men (the farmers) hold a meeting to discuss forming a united front against the greedy capitalist McNeil (Sebastian Cabot with a slimy Sidney Greenstreet impersonation) who is trying to force them off their land. A Swedish farmer, Hansen, believes that everyone should stick together; if they don’t: ‘I stick alone – by myself’, he declares. His determination leads to him being McNeil’s next ‘example’. His loyal friend and neighbour Pepe – a rather standard helpless Mexican character – witnesses his murder by McNeil’s man. Pepe then discovers why they want the land – oil.

Sterling Hayden (also famed for his run-ins with McCarthy, albeit with a different conclusion) stars as Hansen’s son George, the man who stands up for the townspeople against the hired gunman. But unlike Shane he is no gunfighter, perhaps even the antithesis of the western hero. He speaks with a strong (and strange) Swedish accent, carries a large unwieldy chest and wears a derby hat instead of a Stetson. He stands with the townspeople behind him and fights oppression with the tool of a working man – his whaling harpoon (a hammer and sickle would have been too blatant, I suppose).

His nemesis Johnny Crale (Ned Young with a villainous Humphrey Bogart impersonation) is a ball of existential and psychological torment. He embodies Freud’s ‘Todestriebe’ – or as McNeil calls him: ‘death walking round in the shape of a man’. As in many westerns, from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to The Wild Bunch, the taming of the West has rendered the gunfighter an anachronism, as his gal Molly tells him: ‘one man with a gun can’t make it anymore.’ Although he is missing his right hand, he has learnt to shoot with his left. However, it is an inability to cause fear that finally renders him ‘impotent’; and if the metaphor was not clear enough Molly spells it out – via Trumbo’s wonderfully unsubtle dialogue: ‘…you see, Johnny, it just doesn’t work anymore’.

It is directed by B-movie legend Joseph H Lewis, who earned the nickname Wagon Wheel Joe for his penchant for framing shots through the spokes of a wagon wheel, and such striking visual compositions in depth are much in evidence here. The gunfight – a preview of which opens the film – features a close-up of the gun in Crale’s holster with Hansen standing in the distance armed with his harpoon. At times though the strong style, great performances and seamless stock shots fail to hide the meagre budget – the town and saloon seem bizarrely empty, the set creaks and the look of the film occasionally foreshadows Lewis’s subsequent move into television – directing episodes of Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

It is heavy-handed for sure (Trumbo – here at his most ripe – and Lewis couldn’t possibly do subtle and nuanced) but also quite strange and wonderful. The quirky soundtrack with its sprightly theme – a mix of Spanish guitar and marching bugle – certainly adds to the weirdness. But it stands alongside Gun Crazy and The Big Combo as one of Lewis’s greatest achievement. It’s a small film that aims high (perhaps ridiculously high) and almost hits the target.

Paul Huckerby

The following western classics are also released by Optimum: Day Of The Outlaw, Doc, The Hills Run Red, The Hunting Party, Man of the East, Man of the West, Legend of the Lost, Navajo Joe, The Spikes Gang, Young Billy Young.



Format: DVD

Release date: 22 September 2008

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Michael Crichton

Writer: Michael Crichton

Based on: the novel by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson

Cast: Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Victoria Shaw

USA 1973

88 mins

In the near future, a theme park has been created which lets visitors experience the past by interacting with living, breathing creatures. However, something goes wrong and before long the exhibits start killing the guests… If this sounds all too familiar, Michael Crichton’s film Westworld contains many of the same themes as his later novel Jurassic Park, except here the themed worlds (representing a Roman palace, a medieval castle and the Old West) are populated by androids rather than genetically engineered dinosaurs. In both cases, however, the moral of the story is the same – to quote Jurassic Park‘s character Ian Malcolm: ‘Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!’

Tighter, darker and more thought-provoking than Jurassic Park, Westworld predicted both the big android films of the 1980s – Blade Runner and of course, Android – as well as the endless cycle of ‘slasher’ movies from the late 70s onwards. Yul Brynner effectively reprises his character from The Magnificent Seven as a gunslinging android in the ‘Old West’ world, but here, instead of an enigmatic leader who hires half a dozen gunmen to protect a village from bandits, he’s an indestructible killer who keeps coming back from the ‘grave’. It is difficult to explain why his performance in this film has been forgotten and it is a shame that it is often only remembered for the first (and limited) use of CGI in a movie. As a serial killer who keeps coming back from the ‘dead’, Brynner’s character precedes Michael Myers in the endless Halloween saga by five years, and as a taciturn, indestructible cyborg who has to be stripped of his flesh before becoming vulnerable, he precedes Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator franchise by a decade. By reprising an earlier character from his career who becomes an indestructible copy of his former self, dehumanised by reconstruction, he’s emblematic of the entire sci-fi/horror action genre, which keeps returning to its iconic characters and bringing them back from the dead/retirement over and over again.

The central idea of the film is how hedonism leads to barbarism: the three worlds of the theme park allow the visitors to murder and seduce the androids for entertainment with no moral repercussions, at least until the slaves inevitably rebel. In contrast with the dinosaur rebellion in his most famous work, Crichton doesn’t fall back on techno-babble about chaos theory and never tries to explain why the robots kill their creators and masters, and this ambiguity enhances the morality of the tale. The only survivor of the story is the one who has some guilt and reservations about shooting and shagging his way through the theme park. As the unlikely hero, the amiable comedy actor Richard Benjamin is well cast; the everyman who has to survive when tracked by a killing machine, he brings a playfulness to the humorous early scenes before the film turns into a thriller. In this film and his other movies of the 1970s such as Coma (1978) and The First Great Train Robbery (1979), Michael Crichton shows himself to be an excellent director before he gave up the craft for the more reliable paychecks of increasingly dumb airport novels. Benjamin became a good director himself in the 80s, giving fellow comedy actors Tom Hanks and Burt Reynolds the most underrated roles of their careers in The Money Pit and City Heat respectively.

Westworld was undermined by its terrible sequel Futureworld and the TV series Beyond Westworld, which was cancelled after three episodes, and this DVD release allows for a long overdue re-evaluation of the film as Crichton’s most successful combination of sci-fi, action and thriller, and as a pivotal genre movie that would provide a template for some of the most acclaimed films of the next quarter of a century.

Alex Fitch