The Survivor

The Survivor

Format: DVD

Release date: 27 June 2011

Distributor: CrabTree Films

Director: David Hemmings

Writer: David Ambrose

Based on the novel by: James Herbert

Cast: Robert Powell, Jenny Agutter, Joseph Cotten

Australia 1981

87 mins

In 1981 there were sky-high hopes for plane crash thriller The Survivor, which, coming in at a total of one million Australian dollars, became the country’s most expensive film. But what could have boosted the flagging national industry crashed and burned instead, with disappointing critical reception and box office sales.

Bizarrely, rather than use the country’s home-grown talent The Survivor is based on a book by British author James Herbert, has a British director (David Hemmings) at the helm and two British actors (Robert Powell and Jenny Agutter) in the lead roles.

Powell’s chiselled features are put to nearly as good a use here as they are in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) in his role as a pilot who wakes up in hospital to discover he is the sole survivor of a plane crash. The victims’ families, the press and officials carrying out an inquiry into the crash quickly make him the scapegoat, especially as he’s conveniently suffering from memory loss, but things take an eerie turn when a woman called Hobbs (Jenny Agutter, dressed in Railway Children-era garb) turns up to claim the victims are trying to make contact with the living. Tortured by the knowledge of how many people he might have killed and desperate to remember what happened on the ill-fated journey, he puts logic aside to ask for her help.

Disappointingly, after a promising start the plot moves at the rate of a taxiing plane rather than one in mid-flight, and instead of showing off the film’s flash budget, most of the action takes place in near-complete darkness. However, an eerie score by Brian May (another Brit) and some intensely creepy moments involving the ghost of a young girl killed in the crash warrant the film’s recent survival onto DVD format and save it from becoming a complete disaster.

Lisa Williams

The Kingdom

The Kingdom

Format: DVD

Release date: 4 July 2011

Distributor: Second Sight

Directors: Lars von Trier, Morten Arnfred

Writers: Tómas Gislason, Lars von Trier, Niels V&#248rsel

Original title: Riget + Riget II

Cast: Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Kirsten Rolffes, Ghita N&#248rby

Denmark 1994 + 1997

537 mins

The words ‘made for television’ are likely to send a chill through the heart of the dedicated horror fan. After all, for every TV horror gem like Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot or Nigel Kneale’s ground-breaking Quatermass franchise, there’s a wealth of cheap ‘haunted house’ movies and several faithful but entirely toothless Stephen King adaptations. Ironically enough, one of the more noteworthy King-produced mini-series of the 2000s was Kingdom Hospital, an English-language reworking of the 1994 Danish TV series The Kingdom (a.k.a. Riget), which is finally getting a UK DVD release this month. Supervised by writer/director Lars von Trier, The Kingdom was intended to be shown in three separate mini-series, but the third and final instalment was never made. Since several key characters have now died, it seems unlikely the series will ever be completed.

Set in Denmark’s largest hospital, The Kingdom is perhaps best described as the mutated offspring of a hospital-based reality TV show and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Shot on multiple hand-held cameras, the footage has been heavily processed until only a grainy, yellow sepia-like tone remains, providing an entirely false note of cinéma vérité. Several central characters are introduced, including Krogshoj, an unambitious junior registrar with a knack for diverting hospital supplies into other avenues; the intolerable Stig Helmer, a megalomaniac Swedish doctor trying to avoid a malpractice suit; the elderly Mrs Drusse, a medium who believes the hospital is being haunted by the ghost of a young girl who died there 80 years before, and many others. Naturally, these characters provide endless material for comedy: Mrs Drusse tries to fake any number of illnesses so she can get re-admitted and continue looking for the ghost, while Stig Helmer ends each episode by standing on the hospital roof, looking across the sea towards Sweden and hurling abuse at the idiotic Danes.

However, it would be a mistake to categorise The Kingdom as a comedy. From the very first scene - an obsolete ambulance briefly appears outside the hospital in the middle of the night, with no driver visible - it is obvious that there is something very wrong here. A pregnant doctor’s unborn baby grows at an incredible rate; a child’s cries can be heard in the elevator shaft; blood begins to run down the walls, and the buildings themselves seem on the verge of collapse. In the hospital kitchen two teenagers with Down syndrome handle the washing up, and also serve as a Greek chorus, keeping the viewer up to date on the various developments. As the series progresses the horrific begins to take centre stage, although there are always humorous elements present. The Kingdom‘s horror might seem tame to viewers of Saw and Hostel, but von Trier manages to establish - and increase - a surprising level of tension and atmosphere, something that suits the work much better than explicit violence and gore. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but The Kingdom is absolutely essential viewing for lovers of horror or fantasy, as well as anyone with a passion for the weird.

Originally broadcast in two seasons of four episodes each, the first season was edited into a single movie for a British VHS release in 1998, but this is the first time that both seasons have been available in this country. Thankfully, the new release includes all the supplementary material found on the Danish box-set, so we have scene-specific commentaries, trailers/TV spots, background details and some of director Lars von Trier’s more memorable commercials.

Jim Harper

The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone is coming to DVD and, for the first time ever in the UK, to Blu-ray. Over the course of 2011, Shock Entertainment and FremantleMedia Enterprises will be releasing all five complete seasons of the series (originally broadcast between 1959 and 1964) plus the complete 1980s revival series. The Twilight Zone: The Original Series was released on DVD and Blu-ray on May 2 and The Twilight Zone: Season Two on June 20. Season Three, Season Four and Season Five will follow over the next few months and complete box-sets of the original series and the 1980s series will be released on DVD only on October 31.

To see the animated version of John Spelling’s comic review, just click on it!

Comic review by John Spelling
For more information on John Spelling, go to his blog.

Sawako Decides

Sawako Decides

Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 July 2011

Venues: ICA (London) + key cities

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Yûya Ishii

Writer: Yûya Ishii

Original title: Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa

Cast: Hikari Mitsushima, Kotaro Shiga, Ryô Iwamatsu

Japan 2010

112 mins

Sawako’s life is less than stellar. Given that Japanese director Yûya Ishii opens his film with the titular heroine having a spot of comic colonic irrigation, it invites comparison to a more fundamental element. Sawako lollops out into the lacklustre landscape of a very unglamorous Tokyo, and then heads to her fifth dead-end job, wearing a washed out pink uniform and a resigned expression, as her bosses boss her around, and her slouchy co-workers criticise her attitude and her mediocre love life. The television news hum with fears of global warming, and crime reports are full of parents murdering their children. Beer-swilling Sawako’s resigned motto for life is ‘It can’t be helped’, and her divorcee boyfriend, a jumper knitting, eco-friendly, unimaginative sacked toy maker doesn’t add any sparkle to the darkness. Even the gorilla at the zoo is depressed.

And then her uncle calls with the news that her father, whom Sawako hasn’t seen for five years, is dying form cirrhosis of the liver, and encourages her to return to the countryside and rescue his ailing fresh water clam business. In the hands of Hollywood, the soundtrack would lift with inspiring strings, as Sawako takes a train to her destiny. Here it’s a lonesome accordion and a melancholy drumbeat that accompanies her on her homeward bound train, with her boyfriend and his young daughter along for the ride.

With her mop of dark hair and her engaging face, Hikari Mitsushima is a bright presence. The scenes with her father in the hospital and at home are tender, her first appearance at the clam factory, surrounded by judgemental older women, a study in befuddlement and reluctant responsibility, a delicate contrast to the sometimes too broad sweeps of Ishii’s humour.

Sawako’s past is gradually revealed, the stealing of her best friend’s boyfriend at the age of 18 and her elopement with him, her anger at her father’s affair with a clam factory worker, her continued belief that she’s ‘a sub-middling woman’ and that all she can expect from life is shit, as she ladles sewage onto the family’s vegetable plot.

Nonetheless, Sawako is inspired to change this. Temporarily ditched by her hapless boyfriend, she tries to forge a link with his daughter, a pat metaphor of her own relationship with her dad, and sets about transforming the clam business. Dropping the company song, with its bleakly ironic anthem of ‘blue rivers… mutual co-operation, and bright futures’, she tells it like it is, in a funny, down-with-the-government song that proclaims that ‘our work is tedious and boring’ and the clams come ‘from the bottom of the river’ but are heading ‘into your hearts’.

Yûya Ishii’s film is about ordinary people, who live ordinary lives; they cheat, break up, get dumped, make mistakes, but get on with it. When Sawako’s father dies, a watermelon that’s grown in the vegetable plot is brought along by Sawako to the funeral, a tragicomic mixture of heartbreak and slapstick that reinforces Ishii’s message. Life is mostly crap, but there’s a sweetness in recognising reality, even if it isn’t an awe-inspiring Hollywood happy ever after.

Eithne Farry

Pigs and Battleships

Pigs and Battleships

Format: Dual Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 27 June 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Writer: Hisashi Yamauchi

Original title: Buta to gunkan

Cast: Hiroyuki Nagato, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Tetsurô Tanba

Japan 1961

108 mins

The events of Shôhei Imamura’s cruelly entertaining Pigs and Battleships take place during the transitional period for Japanese society when the once-proud nation was still reeling economically and spiritually from defeat in the Second World War while being occupied by the American military due to the renewal of the American-Japan Security Treaty. In the port town of Yokosuka, young couple Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) and Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are reaching a crossroads in their relationship; Kinta associates with a low-level yakuza crew, aiming to become a ‘big shot’, while Haruko wants to leave town and encourages Kinta to take a stable, if low-paid, factory position in a neighbouring community. Kinta and Haruko may have different ideas about how to ensure a better future, but both are reacting to their surrounding environment, which is essentially a red light district populated by pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals, with the local economy being propped up by the after-hours activities of the American Navy shipmen stationed there. The mutual and individual choices of the central couple are also informed by their respective familial circumstances, as Kinta has seen his hard-working father struggle to make ends meet, while Haruko’s parents want her to follow in her sister’s footsteps by entering into an arranged marriage with an American soldier. Despite protestations from the down-to-earth Haruko, the naí¯ve Kinta believes that he can become a prominent underworld player if he takes the fall for a hit that he did not commit and help with a scheme to start a pig farm. Imamura surrounds Kinta and Haruko with a motley assortment of acquaintances, most of whom are swindlers on some level, thereby showing a morally polluted cross-section of post-war Japanese society.

In narrative terms, Pigs and Battleships is rather ramshackle, but more rooted in genre than such subsequent Imamura works as The Pornographers (1966) and Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), meaning that this is arguably one of his most accessible films. Still, the director certainly orchestrates a collision of styles, with black comedy, crime drama and social-political critique jostling for tonal supremacy, making Pigs and Battleships a typically ‘messy’ film by modern cinema’s foremost cultural anthropologist. The opening scenes serve to set up Imamura’s social investigation, with his camera initially focusing on the brand new buildings adorned with the American flag that have been constructed on higher ground, before panning across the town, then down to the slum where sailors wander the otherwise empty streets. From this omniscient daytime view of Yokosuka, the director cuts to a street-level excursion around the red light district after the sun has gone down and sailors are sufficiently drunk to open up their wallets for sexual services. Amid the squalor, Imamura skilfully introduces Kinta and Haruko when the former steals the cap of a sailor as a means of leading the American to a back-street brothel, while the latter is seen working as a waitress in the adjoining bar. With the rocky relationship between the young couple and the machinations of the local mobsters providing narrative foundation, Imamura allows his stylistic impulses to run riot: restless tracking shots, ‘Scope photography, and the celebrated use of a spinning camera to capture the violation of Haruko by a trio of sailors are examples of Imamura’s then-emerging virtuosity. Yet, he often returns to the plight of Haruko in order to keep his energetic crime caper on the rails.

Due to her strong-willed individuality, Haruko is the only character for whom Imamura seems to hold out any hope; she is seeking escape not only from the temptations of Westernisation, but also from the trappings of familial traditionalism, eventually resulting in a breakdown in relations with both Kinta and her parents. Haruko is not perfect as she makes errors in judgment and remains loyal to Kinta when she should just cut and run, but Imamura often portrayed women as survivors, and the progressive Haruko is no exception. Everyone else is either corrupted by the lure of easy money, or simply incompetent, hence Imamura’s mockery. Dark humour abounds, especially when a corpse washes up after being dumped at sea and then fed to the pigs, only for the bones and false teeth to turn up in a pork lunch, while the climax - with blazing machine guns and pigs running wild in the streets - is pure farce. Pigs and Battleships caused such controversy on release in 1961 that Imamura was suspended from filmmaking for two years by studio Nikkatsu. He used the time to develop screenplays as contractual conditions prevented him from seeking directorial work elsewhere, and returned from the wilderness with The Insect Woman (1963), a powerful portrayal of rural poverty. However, it is possible that his suspension had less to do with his cynical depiction of American-Japanese relations - Nikkatsu was known for chasing trouble in order to boost box office takings - than it did with angering studio executives by going over budget on the action scenes. A vivid indictment of a nation struggling with a serious identity crisis, Pigs and Battleships is a biting social satire by a truly brilliant filmmaker.

John Berra



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 27 June 2011

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento

Cast: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Veronica Lario

Italy 1982

110 mins

Other than John Waters, it is difficult to think of a filmmaker who revels so much in ugliness as Dario Argento. And yet his ugliness is not really the same. Rather than Waters’s grotesqueries, we have the ugliness of the nearly beautiful. In Tenebrae, his lighting is bright despite the title of the film, eschewing the shadows of the genre; his colour scheme is garish, bright reds and greens and yellows a-go-go; his actors and actresses are always a bit shy of movie star beautiful and even when they are conventionally attractive they have a pallid, unwell and plastic look to them. And Italy - il Bel Paese - becomes particularly un-bel, an almost entirely urban clutter of concrete and glass or rain-soaked streets populated by dirty old men, psychopaths, angry dogs and prostitutes. And that is before we consider the ugliness of the violence to which many of the characters are subjected.

Peter Lane (Anthony Franciosa) is a successful murder mystery novelist in Rome as part of a publicity tour when a series of murders begin to take place, each featuring a connection to his latest novel, Tenebrae. A woman is killed with an old-fashioned straight-edged razor and pages of the novel are torn out and shoved into her mouth. The list of suspects includes an obsessive ex and a deranged journalist and any number of demented fans. As with Deep Red, we have some unlocated flashback episodes that point to an earlier trauma and go some way towards explaining the insanity of the killer.

Generally considered Argento’s last good film before a precipitous decline, Tenebrae was a return, after experiments with supernatural horror, to the classic giallo formula: the black leather gloves, the endangered foreigner, the inventive murders and the killer’s point of view. It offers a series of satisfying twists and turns, although some of these are facilitated by almost transparent trickery, lapses in logic and a general holiness of plot to compete with the nearby Vatican. The acting is exactly one notch above porn and the comedy is weak - ‘are you going to wear that hat? Aren’t you afraid it’ll fall off?’ ‘What, this hat? This hat won’t fall off’ - but no one watches a Dario Argento film for the comedy, we watch for the horror. And there are genuine moments of tension and unpleasantness - the scene with the dog is a particularly gruelling moment.

Argento identifies more closely with the killer in this film than any other. The murderer is self-consciously artistic, taking photographs of his own crime scenes, many of which also feature in the publicity material for the film itself. He or she seems wildly protective of Lane’s book Tenebrae (which obviously shares the title of the film), killing a shoplifter who has purloined a copy. Anyone who downloaded the film illegally might be wary of sharing a similar fate. Argento revels particularly in the murder of the lesbian film critic who has accused Peter Lane of misogyny - the bitch will die in her knickers for having the gall - with the same bitterness with which Clint Eastwood had a Pauline Kael substitute murdered in The Dead Pool (1988). This double murder is introduced by a justly celebrated crane shot, lasting over two minutes without cuts and which took three days to film.

Argento pushes the bloodletting to the extreme and pulls off some genuinely shocking moments, which remain so even today. His gallon-sized tubs of red paint will always be preferable to the CGI gloop we are treated to nowadays. And his eye for the telling physical detail, the drool of a strangled victim or the slipperiness of a fatal spike, are more effective in conveying the pain than any kind of gore. Yet I can’t help but exit each of his films relieved, not because the tension has been resolved, the killer caught/done away with etc, but rather just to get out of that world of over-lit post-modern interior design.

John Bleasdale



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 8 August 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Fridrikh Gorenshtein, Andrei Tarkovsky

Based on the novel by: Stanisław Lem

Original title: Solyaris

Cast: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet

USSR 1972

159 mins

Solaris is science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction.

This justly famous film is based on a Polish novel from 1961 by Stanisław Lem, which first appeared in English in 1970. Both are science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction. The film is easier to enjoy if you don’t know the book well. Tarkovsky’s work here is often brilliant, especially when there is not much happening, but he is erratic in his handling of the plot and clumsy with dialogue. The screenplay changes quite a lot of the mechanics and details of Lem’s story: sometimes it seems as though the writers have misunderstood the book, more often as though they are trying to correct it, and this usually has the effect of substituting crudeness for subtlety.

The worst bits are the talky passages, in particular a sub-Dostoevskian scene where the characters sound off bitterly and sarcastically at each other. And towards the end, the characters seem to be trying to explain the film to us by means of meandering philosophical ponderings. There are problems with the acting - plenty of hammy moments, and a general sense that the actors are not quite sure what they’re aiming for. A notable exception to these criticisms is the luminous Natalya Bondarchuk: the director himself observed that this 21-year-old fresh out of drama school outshone the rest of the cast.

The best bits are not just those with no actors on the screen, but also the mainly silent scenes, central to the story, between Kris the spaceman and Hari the woman from his past. A couple of dream/hallucination sequences are inspired additions to Lem, in terms of imaginative vision if not of content. The most striking invention is a weightless scene of great beauty and mystery. And with the exception of the dialogue scenes, the film is a visual tour de force. About two hours in (!) it really takes off, as the director seems to forget about getting the story straight and contents himself with making strange and beautiful variations on themes of doubt, unease and illusion.

For all its faults, this is an extraordinary film. But, especially if you admire the book, you might prefer the 2002 remake by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. It concentrates on the crucial relationship between Kris and Hari, and it supplies what Lem and Tarkovsky both fail to come up with: a really excellent ending. If buried in you there are any feelings of regret or remorse about ended relationships, be ready to have them unearthed. The remake manages, like the book, to convey the sense that this work of science fiction is perhaps not really about strange happenings in an imaginary future, nor even about man and the unknowable universe, but about love and loss and memory in our own lives.

This review was first published for the release of Solaris as part of Artificial Eye’s Andrei Tarkovsky Collection box set in June 2011.

Peter Momtchiloff