Let the Right One In

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 April 2009

Venues: Cineworld Haymarket, Gate, Curzon Soho, Rio, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director:Tomas Alfredson

Writer: John Ajvide Lindquist (based on his novel)

Original title:

Cast: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar

Sweden 2008

115 mins

According to the established lore, vampires cannot enter a house uninvited. In Let the Right One In, 12-year-old Oskar discovers what happens if a vampire bends the rule when he dares Eli (for all appearances, a 12-year-old girl who has recently moved in next door) to enter his apartment without formally inviting her in. As Eli steps across the threshold, she begins to alarmingly ooze blood from her mouth, nose, eyes and skin pores. Horrified, Oskar hastens to say the magic words and the bleeding stops. In a striking reversal of the tradition, the vampire is not a frightening figure threatening penetration of the victim’s private space, but a vulnerable creature harmed by her friend’s reluctance to trust her. A lonely, passive, sleepy-looking boy who can only dream of revenge against the bullies who torment him at school, Oskar learns that letting in the seemingly dangerous other is the best thing he can do. In Eli, an outsider like him, he finds the possibility of love.

Let the Right One In is one of a recent number of vampire films that have focused primarily on love. Since its appearance in Victorian literature, the vampire has always symbolised socially unacceptable sexual practices and desires, and film adaptations have thoroughly mined the steamy repressed sexuality that underlies Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. But as female desire, lesbian relationships or fellatio, for example, have stopped being seen as risqué subject matter, a preoccupation with love, rather than sex, has become more central to recent revisitations of vampire mythology (although the success of Twilight shows that in the USA’s current neo-Puritan climate at least, the vampire as metaphor for the dangers of teenage sex still has life in it – no pun intended).

Let the Right One In takes the focus on love further than some of the recent vampire films on the subject in that the relationship it centres on is entirely asexual. Even when Oskar and Eli share the same bed one night, there is nothing sexual about it. When Oskar asks Eli to be his girlfriend, it is through the sweetly quaint ‘Want to go steady?’ Eli, whose main objection is that she’s not really a girl, agrees when Oskar explains that it wouldn’t involve anything more than hanging out.

In this, Let the Right One In is close to Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature Cronos (1993), a vampire movie that revolves around the relationship between a little girl, Aurora, and her grand-father. Both Cronos and Let the Right One In are concerned with a love that is not only asexual but also unconditional. In Let the Right One In, Oskar gradually learns to love and accept Eli for what she is, whatever that may be. In Cronos, there is a great tenderness between Aurora and her grandfather and she unquestioningly accepts him, whether human or ghoul, alive or undead.

In both films, it is an imperfect, tainted kind of love: the first time Eli sees Oskar, he is stabbing at a tree with a knife, repeating ‘squeal, pig, squeal’ in a fantasy of revenge against his tormentors. From the start, their relationship is marked by intimations of violence, and in the end their love is indeed sealed in blood. There is an ever-present sense of danger whenever Eli and Oskar are together (subtly maintained through evocative sound effects): her animal nature is revealed early on and we can never be sure that she would not harm him. It is this threat underlying their love that makes the film so touching and melancholy, so real and unsentimental. Let the Right One In, perhaps more subtly than its predecessors in the sub-genre, perfectly captures the nature of love as a delicate and dangerous balancing act, lovers poised for a fleeting, magical moment between need and defiance, trust and menace, sweetness and violence.

Tina Park

This is an edited extract from ‘A Stake Through the Heart: Vampire Love’. Read the whole article as well as an interview with writer John Ajvide Lindqvist in our spring 09 print issue. Focusing on Tainted Love, it includes articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, François Ozon’s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kôji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), the Polish New Wave that never existed and comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation + much more!

Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 April 2009

Venues: Odeon Covent Garden, Phoenix, Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: Revolver Entertainment

Director: Werner Herzog

USA 2007

99 mins

Sheets of ice expand beyond the borders of the screen in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. The director draws our attention to the enormity of the glacial shelves, reminding us that ice was once the means through which nature destroyed planetary life, through which it undid its own handiwork. The memory of this first apocalypse is called to mind as prelude to a coming one. In Herzog’s world-view, we are only guests on the planet, the continental surfaces of which will long outlast the human species. His title is in this way doubly suggestive.

Our encounter with these vast spaces is also intended to remind us of all that we fail to see. Where the blue-grey ice meets the blue-grey sky, we detect nature’s purpose emerging only now and again from behind a niveous veil of fog just as it had in Herzog’s Heart of Glass (1976), Nosferatu (1979), and The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985). Encounters thus tells us more about the director’s distinctive perspective than it does about McMurdo Station, the Antarctic research centre where the film was shot. Herzog’s impatience with the human race, his antipathy to our clumsy and intrusive presence, here takes centre stage. Yet in this film, as in his other works, we are presented with a contradiction: though Herzog may be annoyed with mankind, awaiting the apocalypse and even simulating it on the screen in the form of those desolate, empty spaces where he finds little more than abject traces of human industry, the director likes people, especially the ‘dreamers’ who inhabit Antarctica. He appears to find them endearing, just as he did Timothy Treadwell, the late star of Grizzly Man. How can Herzog have so much antipathy toward humans – taunting and objectifying them, even comparing them unfavourably to ants, apes and other animals – while at once offering them a steady supply of sympathy?

That nature is titanic and we are trivial is a point Herzog makes by repeatedly including images of the Ross Sea, a frozen surface so extensive that it would cover the state of Texas. The sun reflecting off the surfeit of snow and ice can be blinding, but Encounters implies that we have blinded ourselves. In one sequence new arrivals to McMurdo prepare for the dangerous eventuality of a white-out, a massive snowstorm, by placing plastic buckets over their heads. During a two-day training exercise called ‘happy camper’, they learn to construct survival trenches and igloos. The activity that involves white plastic pails – each with an eerie happy face scrawled upon it – is known as ‘buckethead’. Predictably the bucketheads lose their way; as is often the case in Herzog’s films, his protagonists find themselves, either despite or because of their intentions, wandering in circles. Self-imposed blindness is, of course, his point. Snow and ice, however powerful they may be, are not our enemies. In willfully forgetting that we are guests on this planet, it is we who have placed the buckets atop our heads. Though Herzog includes historical footage of Ernest Shackleton struggling heroically to overcome the perils associated with Antarctic exploration, our real foe is not the ice, it is us.

Herzog has a history of making nature films that seem to set themselves against other nature films. He is slowly reshaping the genre, and in this regard Encounters is no exception. It recalls its many predecessors: a visit to Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island, suggests scenes from Herzog’s La Soufrií­Â¨re (1977); the seal-scientist sequence reproduces images from Bells from the Deep (1995); and footage of a plane landing on a wide frozen space brings the opening moments of Fata Morgana (1971) to mind. Each of these films are stages in the director’s continuing dialogue with the nature film, but even more they concern our relationship to nature itself. In making sport – more or less directly – of the family-friendly film March of the Penguins (2005), Herzog teasingly asks an Antarctic penguin researcher about ‘gay penguins’, about the possibility of their ‘strange sexual behaviour’, and about whether or not there is ‘insanity among penguins’. This is clever, and it confirms for us that Herzog is refusing a quaint portrait of the penguin world, yet his point becomes poignant when we watch one penguin wander off course, parting from the pack. Herzog describes the penguin as ‘deranged’, and as we observe the lone wanderer helplessly crossing the snowscape Herzog informs us that ‘he is heading towards certain death’. The director’s aim, however, is not to depict animal insanity – he has little interest in penguin psychology – but he instead wants to let the image of the penguin resonate with us. It is doomed and lonely, small and stubborn, and will in the end have been tormented by its own volition. Whether we are penguins or bucketheads makes little difference: though at times we may be likeable, the ice will long outlast us.

Brad Prager

This is an edited extract of ‘Snow Blind: Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World‘, first published in the winter 08 print issue of Electric Sheep, which focused on snow in cinema. For more information about this issue, go to our Archive.

Read about other films by Werner Herzog: Rescue Dawn, Fitzcarraldo, The Wild Blue Yonder.

Watch the trailer


Tony Manero

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 April 2009

Venues: ICA Cinema (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Network Releasing

Director: Pablo Larrain

Writers: Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren, Pablo Larrain

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Paola Lattus, Héctor Morales, Amparo Noguera

Chile/Brazil 2008

97 mins

Given that Chilean films only make rare appearances on British cinema screens outside of specialised festivals, Pablo Larrain’s second feature Tony Manero is a welcome, engrossing and utterly disturbing surprise. Set in Pinochet’s Chile in the late 1970s, the film takes its title from John Travolta’s main character in Saturday Night Fever, with whom the middle-aged, tight-lipped and highly damaged protagonist Raíºl is fatally obsessed. Spending most of his days in the local cinema watching Travolta’s moves again and again, he gets himself a tailor-made white disco suit, dyes his hair black, meticulously rehearses the slick choreography with his girlfriend, her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend, and even builds a flashing glass floor in the bar where the group performs at the weekends. Raíºl aims high, and he will stop at nothing to become Chile’s official Tony Manero lookalike in a national TV contest.

As the plot unfolds and the magnitude of Raíºl’s fixation becomes apparent, it is clear that the hero of Larrain’s strangely affecting South American disco nightmare has barely anything in common with Travolta’s American working-class kid trying to dance away his boring life. Raíºl Peralta is a loner, a psychotic and nihilistic murderer, but played with heartbreaking dedication by Chilean stage actor Alfredo Castro (who is also co-author of the film’s script), he’s a riveting character, his blunt roughness and unprepossessing appearance masking a skewed inner grace.

This bizarre charm infuses the film as a whole, and is emphasised by the grey and grainy texture, apt cinematography and handheld camera, which seems to weigh down on the central character as it follows him, almost perched on his shoulders. Larrain thrusts the viewer into the feral rhythm of Raíºl’s desperate march towards showbiz stardom, focusing on the character’s endless perambulation, and offering a gripping portrait of a restless existence lost in a socially and politically repressed society at a dead end.

The film’s greatest strength lies in the unsophisticated manner in which it presents the evil deeds that Raíºl is driven to commit in the pursuit of his goal. This crudeness is compounded by the film’s sparse use of music, which is only occasionally enlivened by snippets of the original Bee Gees soundtrack and a romantic Latin-American song played on an old tape recorder. In that latter scene, Raíºl’s girlfriend tries to reach out and offer some warmth to her isolated companion, but he foolishly chooses her sensual daughter instead, merely proving once more his inability to connect with others in the screwed up world he lives in.

Superbly paced, deftly acted and pervaded with satirical wit, Tony Manero is full of a dangerous, manic energy that comes directly from its main character, a man capable of dazzling gestures and a remarkable self-control in spite of his confusion. But ultimately there is little respite in Tony Manero, and that’s what makes it a film of such peculiar emotional intensity.

Pamela Jahn



Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 April 2009

Venues: Cineworld Haymarket, Curzon Soho (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Eran Creevy

Writer: Eran Creevy

Cast: Riz Ahmed, Daniel Mays, Jason Flemyng, Nitin Ganatra

UK 2008

85 mins

Eran Creevy’s debut feature follows two former childhood friends reunited by chance, regret and the need for mutual consolation. Riz Ahmed plays the eponymous protagonist, a Muslim drug dealer who earns í‚£3000 a week, has as much casual sex as he can manage and lives at his older brother Rez’s, who gave him a second chance when their parents disowned him. His life is spent dodging the local addicts and the threats of a ruthless rival dealer while trying to ensure that his brother doesn’t find out about his secret business empire.

Enter Chris (Daniel Mays), Shifty’s estranged best friend who left their small town without notice four years earlier, leaving his accomplice to take the fall after a tragic incident involving his own sale of drugs. In the intervening years, Chris has cleaned up his act, with a job in recruitment and a steady mortgage, while Shifty has spiralled further into the business, selling crack to pensioners and gaining fresh young customers by force. Over 24 hours, Chris follows his old friend, rediscovering the life he left behind and finding out what’s become of the people who stayed, while attempting to counter the criticism levelled against him for his past actions.

From the outset, Creevy’s undeniably gritty drama distances itself from similarly themed tales set in small-town Britain. His protagonist is played neither for cool nor to deliver a moral lesson, but there’s a great depth to Shifty’s character, helped in part by a breathtaking performance from Ahmed, who inhabits the role with a sense of urgency and experience. At times there’s an unbearable intensity in his eyes, contrasted with the calmness of his voice, that convinces the audience, and perhaps Shifty himself, that he has what it takes to be a drug dealer. He also displays a beautifully underplayed vulnerability. For his part, Mays breathes some sensitivity into Chris, who spends the film walking the line between saviour and hypocrite, and the two share an undeniable chemistry. This is typified in a scene where they recapture memories of their youth in a children’s playground, the mood aptly complemented by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott’s delicate piano-driven score.

The film’s greatest strength lies in its structured fragility, much like the relationship between the two leads, which allows for reassuring banter to switch in seconds to uncomfortable and potentially threatening situations. This is perfectly exemplified in an early scene where Chris is invited into Shifty’s kitchen, considerately asked if he’ll eat Halal sausages, playfully mocked by Rez, then slammed with the question as to why he left. Moments such as this drive the film emotionally; in spite of their actions, the characters aren’t presented as devoid of compassion, and Creevy never condones the way they choose to lead their lives.

One of the first films to be funded by Film London’s Microwave, whereby selected filmmakers are challenged to shoot a feature film with a budget of í‚£100,000 with support from established industry figures (Creevy’s mentor was Asif Kapadia), Shifty is an accomplishment for both its filmmakers and the new scheme itself.

James Merchant


Firefly Dreams

Format: DVD

Release date: 6 April 2009

Distributor: Stoney Road Films

Director: John Williams

Writer: John Williams

Alternative title: Ichiban utsukushí® natsu

Cast: Maho Ukai, Yoshie Minami, Etsuko Kimata

Japan 2000

100 minutes

Naomi, played with surly grace by Maho Ukai is a sulky city kid with dyed, pale orange Lion King hair and a sullen pout that’s projected in the direction of her exasperated parents. The opening moments of Welshman John Williams‘s film are a giggling homage to teen girl life in Nagoya: Naomi paints her nails instead of paying attention to algebra, she bunks off school, stays out late and teeters around town on clunky-heeled shoes. She spends her nights out drinking beer at house parties and clubs and her days accompanying her best friend to dubious photo-shoots as a way of making extra money. It’s the classic case of nice girl going off the rails, as her mother and father’s relationship falters and fails. Mum is having an affair whilst Naomi’s bewildered dad sits on the sofa, drinking too much, and dismissing his daughter’s taste in music with the expected ‘the bands these days aren’t up to much’.

When her mum finally deserts the family home, her dad decides to send Naomi to her aunt to the country for the summer until things get on a more even keel in their small cramped flat in the concrete wilderness of Nagoya. Self-centred Naomi is more than reluctant. There’s the chores of the dilapidated hot-springs hotel that her aunt runs to contend with, the annoyingly pestering presence of Yumi (Etsuko Kimata), who has learning difficulties, and the added indignity of having to look in on Mrs Koide (Yoshie Minami), an elderly women who’s growing increasingly confused and forgetful.

But it’s here, in the slow-paced countryside, accompanied by the melancholy drift of musical director Paul Rowe’s soundtrack and a chorus of insects, that Naomi begins to change. She gradually becomes intrigued by Mrs Koide’s past – the elegant elderly lady’s fragmentary conversation hints at an illicit love affair in her youth and a film role – and starts to relish the time she spends with her. She makes friends with Yumi, but in a pleasing bit of nasty realism, is still capable of reverting to pure mean girl – when Naomi’s holiday romance with the motorcycle delivery guy doesn’t work out, it’s Yumi who bears the brunt of her disgruntledness.

Williams is determined to avoid the sentimentality so beloved of happy-ever-after Hollywood. He rejoices in leaving matters ambiguous, unsolved, unresolved. Watching Firefly Dreams is like looking at series of framed pictures – glimpses from doorways, a view from a window, a shot from a corner of a beautiful lit room, suggest the story or imply the past without explicitly explaining what exactly has gone on. The film seems made up of beguiling moments – Yumi and Naomi building a 3D jigsaw of the Eiffel Tower, Mrs Koide asleep on her chair, Naomi dreaming at her feet, the two cousins splashing in a riverside pool.

The beautifully filmed countryside adds to the sense of dreamy enchantment, a perennial reminder of the importance of nature in a world being transformed by speedy consumerism and careless consumption. The shady pine forests of Horaicho, the river, the lonesome roads that Naomi cycles along with a particular joy are a glorious part of this subtle and understated coming of age tale. Firefly Dreams is just lovely, an unmissable meditation on memory and loss and growing up.

Eithne Farry

Read our interview with John Williams and a review of his 2006 Starfish Hotel.


Red Riding - 1974

Format: TV + DVD box set

Screened on: 5, 12 and 19 March 2009 on Channel 4

Release date: 13 April 2009

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Directors: Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker

Writer: Tony Grisoni

Based on the novels by: David Peace

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Paddy Considine, David Morrissey, Saskia Reeves, Sean Bean, Mark Addy

UK 2009

3 x 102 minutes

As this year’s Oscars clearly show, in terms of quality, television is no longer cinema’s poor relation. From the 2009 Emmy winner Mad Men to the great HBO shows of the past few years (The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood) television has reached heights not often matched by contemporary mainstream cinema. Such Oscar fare as Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, seems by contrast just a mild diversion arbitrarily confined to what Alfred Hitchcock called the endurance time-limit of the human bladder (2 hours)or as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, severly testing that limit. Stretching over 10 hours or more, especially when watched en bloc on DVD and often on equipment nearly as good as that of the local multiplex, shows such as The Sopranos or The Wire offer an epic experience far superior to the average feature film.

With Red Riding, Channel 4 seems to have made a determined attempt to join these ranks. Where once we had great adaptations of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens Red Riding illustrates a shift in what is considered ‘quality programming’: violence, convoluted plots, stylish direction and mild controversy (HBO-ness in short) are now the order of the day. It features the greatest assembly of British acting talent since I Claudius, all sporting impeccable Yorkshire accents with the likes of Saskia Reeves matching Sean Bean and Mark Addy flattened vowel for vowel. Each episode of the trilogy (adapted from David Peace’s quartet of crime novels) is directed by a ‘real film director’ – Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker. In contrast to the HBO shows, there is no overall style to the series, but each director was given a free hand with very little (if any) consultation between them. Although all three episodes are scripted by Tony Grisoni all have different cinematographers, editors, lead actors and music composers.

The first episode, set in 1974 and shot on grainy 16mm film, is directed by Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited). Depending on your point of view, its style is either eerie and dreamlike or slightly annoying and heavy-handed. With its surreal violence (mostly aimed at swans) crossed with kitchen-sink mundane it falls somewhere between Twin Peaks and Prime Suspect, but is drenched in enough 70s period detail (36p a pint we are even informed) to seem like a nastier trans-Pennine Life on Mars. The period detail is so all pervasive even Erich von Stroheim would be impressed – yes, even the underwear is authentically 1970s. It is a world full of old-school coppers, with Warren Clarke’s Bill Molloy taking his gruff-voiced no-nonsense to the extremes he often seems almost capable of in Dalziel and Pascoe, and the whole thing is clouded in enough smoke to fill a pub pre-2007. With the film reprising David Peace’s unreliable narrator there is much that we are not told – there is very little back story and strange holes puncture the plot (although most of these are filled in the final episode). The main protagonist, ambitious self-centred journalist Edward Dunford (Andrew Garfield), is at first as much concerned with losing the story to his rival as he is in covering the inquiry into the murder of a little girl. But as his colleague explains to him, with a wonderful Yorkshire take on Edmund Burke’s maxim, ‘Devil triumphs when good men do nowt’. There is no CSI-style evidence gathering, nor even old-school investigative work, and Dunford finds his man after being subjected to a combination of threats, beatings and mysterious tip-offs. In many ways, what is finally revealed in the last episode is pretty standard crime-serial stuff, and after three 2-hour episodes of ‘whodunit’ we are left with a Cluedo-style conclusion – it was the butler with the candlestick. But it is the way in which the series gets to that conclusion that makes Red Riding different.

The second episode is by far the best. Directed by James Marsh who made the excellent Man on Wire (the best film at the Oscars this year), it is held together by a typically great performance from Paddy Considine treading the line between authority and vulnerability with great skill. It is set in 1980 as the Yorkshire police (more or less deliberately) blunder through the real-life Ripper enquiry. This blurring of fact and fiction is something that Peace has virtually made his own (to the annoyance of Barbara Clough amongst others). There is even a strange appearance by Peter Sutcliffe (spookily played by Joseph Mawle), after he is almost accidentally caught red-handed (excuse the pun), confessing the details of his crime in a flat monotone Leeds accent. The style is less showy, the characters more developed and human, and Sean Harris as the slimy Bob Craven almost steals the show (the prize for the best Yorkshire accent also going to the Londoner). The great shot compositions and the melancholy score by Dickon Hinchliffe of the Tindersticks certainly make the most of wide-screen surround-sound televisions.

The final episode directed by Anand Tucker (Hillary and Jackie) is my least favourite, in particular because it looks for the poetic and metaphoric where it doesn’t seem appropriate. Back-lit smoke-filled interrogation rooms and a snowstorm of feathers in an allotment shed seem laboured and ill-fitting with the general grittiness of the story. Some fine performances, particularly Mark Addy and David Morrissey, are not given enough space to really develop and the narration in rhyme seems misjudged. It is reminiscent of how well Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper worked in The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), but in contrast here the same device just seems annoyingly contrived.

Overall, Red Riding is somewhat uneven and not quite the ground-breaking television opus it is so obviously trying to be. Perhaps the mistake is in trying to be too cinematic. The mix of crime show clichés, TV commercial style and visual metaphors is awkward. But perhaps the hype has led us to expect too much. Comparing any TV show to The Sopranos is surely unfair, and if I’d ventured out to the local cinema Slumdog Millionaire or Benjamin Button were my only options. So perhaps we should be grateful for Red Riding and happier still to have Mad Men. And as The Wire is coming to BBC2 shortly, maybe staying in is the new going out.

Paul Huckerby

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

Female Prisoner Scorpion 1
Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Part of Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection limited edition box-set

Release date: 8 August 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Shunya Itô

Writers: Fumio Konami, Hirō Matsuda

Based on a manga by: Toru Shinohara

Cast: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi

Original title: Joshû 701-gô: Sasori

Japan 1972

87 minutes

Itô’s psychedelic, offbeat direction makes his Female Prisoner films much more than politically aware exploitation movies, positioning them somewhere closer to art-house cinema than to some of their crass, demeaning counterparts in the genre.

Raped by a gang of yakuza, sacrificed and betrayed by the corrupt cop that she innocently gave her virginity to, Nami Matsushima (played by the stunning Meiko Kaji) finds herself in a women’s prison, watched over by monstrous guards determined to crush her indomitable, vengeful will. Matsu, nicknamed Scorpion by her fellow inmates, seeks not only revenge on the men responsible for her fall from grace, but justice for her tormentors within the prison walls.

This is the premise for Shunya Itô’s debut film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), the first in a series released by Toei in the 1970s as part of the ‘Pinky Violence’ line the studio developed to attract declining audiences back to the cinema. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion ticks all of the requisite boxes of classic exploitation cinema, in particular the sub-genre of Women in Prison films that also flourished in America and Europe: violence, nudity, rape, bondage, lesbianism and catfights. Yet, Shunya Itô’s contribution to the genre (he also directed the following two films in the series) defies easy categorisation.

Genre and exploitation films offered young, radicalised directors like Itô a vehicle for subversive messages about Japan’s entrenched patriarchal society. Itô’s pointed, sarcastic criticism appears in the film’s opening shot: a Japanese flag is raised at a ceremony to commend the sadistic prison guards for their (anything but) honourable service to their country. A banner draped down the side of a building in a later shot celebrates the ‘Beautiful Soul and Harmony of Japan’. In contrast, the prison guards are presented as little more than animals, who routinely brutalise the female inmates, meting out collective punishment when the women fail to submit to their undeserved authority. When the prisoners riot, their demands for an end to slave labour, torture and beatings are met by a categorical refusal by the demented warden, who sees any sort of negotiation with them as entirely unacceptable.

In contrast to the villainous, grotesque men (and some of the women) in the film, Matsu is always quietly composed and dignified; she mostly keeps her clothes on, and in her only lesbian scene, she cleverly uses her charms to seduce a mole planted by the male authorities. Even when causing the violent death of her enemies, Matsu is nothing but elegant in extracting her revenge.

Itô’s psychedelic, offbeat direction makes his Female Prisoner films much more than politically aware exploitation movies, positioning them somewhere closer to art-house cinema than to some of their crass, demeaning counterparts in the genre. Matsu’s rape scene is filmed on a Perspex floor, with the camera shooting the grotesque faces of her attackers; another stand-out scene bathed in nightmarish blue light sees an enraged, demonic fellow prisoner attempt to stab Matsu with a piece of broken glass in the communal baths; while during a prison revolt the painted sky burns blood red. Although Itô’s exaggerated, cartoon-like style can sometimes seem a little crude, and the un-synched sound effects are comical, there’s an undeniable sophistication in the filmmaking that matches Kaji’s performance. Itô and Kaji made a formidable team in the trilogy of Female Prisoner movies they created together (Kaji made one last Female Prisoner film in 1973, directed by Yasuharu Hasebe), and the result is a film that plays out not so much for a male audience in search of titillation as for a female audience bent on its own liberation.

Sarah Cronin

This review was first published in April 2009 in connection with the release of the Female Prisoner Scorpion Trilogy box-set by Eureka Entertainment.


Naked Lens: Beat Cinema

Format: Book

Author: Jack Sargeant

Publication date: 1 January 2009

Publisher: Soft Skull, revised edition

Paperback: 288 pages, illustrated

As Jack Sargeant acknowledges in his introduction to Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, to offer a definition of ‘Beat’ is inherently problematic. The term carries with it a number of political, philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic possibilities and connotations, and is deeply rooted in the underground culture of post-war American society, with such novels as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ representing its popularly celebrated literary legacy. Sargeant’s Naked Lens, which is now in its second edition, is a unique exploration of the relationship between the Beat Generation and the medium of cinema, and the early influence of the literary movement on American independent film. Through his discussion of significant shorts and features, and interviews with such Beat filmmakers as Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank, whose Pull My Daisy (1959) is often cited as the first Beat film, Sargeant offers an enlightening account of a spontaneous cinema which occurred on the social margins, yet eventually penetrated the cultural mainstream and proved to be a profound influence on such directors as David Cronenberg and Gus Van Sant. Naked Lens benefits from a structure that is at once loose yet purposeful, providing a sense of Beat cinema as both a wilfully experimental art form and a closely-knit community with a genuine sense of social engagement.

Part One, ‘Searching for a Free Vision’, considers the roots of Beat cinema in Pull My Daisy, which was written by Kerouac, and the emergence of avant-garde activity in San Francisco in the early 1950s, alongside the films of John Cassavetes, Taylor Mead, and Jack Smith, the latter of whom intertwined Beat culture with camp in his exotic Flaming Creatures (1963). Part Two, ‘The War Universe of William S. Burroughs’, focuses on the influence that the author of Queer and Junky had on experimental cinema. Although more conventional accounts of the Beat Generation have chronicled the life and work of Burroughs, most notably Graham Caveny’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs and Barry Miles’s The Beat Hotel, the second part of Naked Lens is a fascinating insight into his collaborations with Anthony Balch and Ian Somerville, which were rooted in the ‘cut up process’ that had been devised for literary purposes at the Beat Hotel. The original incarnation of this method entailed cutting through a pile of old papers, creating montage and juxtaposition within the confines of the written word, and Sargeant provides an analysis of how this technique was appropriated to cinema, with Burroughs appearing in, and providing the narration for, such non-linear films as Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut-Ups (1967). Burroughs did not associate himself with the Beat Generation, often insisting that, although he was close friends with Kerouac and Ginsberg, his writing and outlook were distinctly different to those of his contemporaries, but Sargeant illustrates his importance to Beat cinema, discussing David Cronenberg’s polarising adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991), alongside Nick Donkin’s The Junky’s Christmas (1993) and Philip Hunt’s Ah Pool is Here (1994), a pair of short films that encapsulate the surreal humour of Burroughs’s writing in animated form.

In the tradition of Beat culture, Sargeant does not provide a conventional conclusion to Naked Lens, reaffirming his theory that this is an ongoing movement which manifests itself in a variety of texts, both literary and cinematic. He discusses the milieu with enthusiasm, including such affiliated figures as Peter Whitehead and Conrad Rooks, but resists the temptation of myth-making to instead elaborate on the creative process and cultural context of Beat cinema, making Naked Lens as much of a map of its underground networks as it is a celebration of its subversive spirit.

John Berra