The Golem

The Golem

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 28 November 2012

With live piano duet accompaniment by Robin Harris and Laura Anstee

Venue: Barbican

Directors: Cark Boese, Paul Wegener

Writers: Henrik Galeen, Paul Wegener

Original title: Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam

Cast: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Ernst Deutsch

Germany 1920

85 mins

Despite the best efforts of writer, actor and director Paul Wegener, the Golem has never quite achieved the status it deserves, lagging behind the vampires (F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, 1922), insane scientists (Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920) and disfigured fiends (Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera, 1925) that occupy the ‘first tier’ of silent movie monsters. Inspired equally by Hebrew mythology and 19th-century literature, Wegener’s 1920 classic Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (‘The Golem, and how he came into the world’), is the last of three Golem films he starred in, and the only one to survive. Like many of the iconic films of silent cinema, Der Golem has appeared in a variety of running times and print qualities, but restored and remastered versions are readily available.

Der Golem begins in 16th-century Prague, in the Jewish ghetto, where the Rabbi Loew foretells disaster for the Jewish people. Sure enough, the emperor announces that the Jews are to be driven from their homes. In order to protect his people the Rabbi creates the Golem, a stone being reanimated by the demon Astaroth. The Rabbi takes the Golem to the imperial court, where the assembled company are suitably impressed. After the creature prevents the palace roof from falling on their heads, the emperor agrees to let the Jews remain in their homes. Unfortunately the Golem is later possessed by Astaroth, who allows it to rampage through the streets of Prague, burning and destroying.

Although he co-directed Der Golem with Carl Boese, Wegener’s most important contribution to the film is his performance as the Golem itself. Despite portraying a creature made of stone, he manages to create a surprising level of emotional expression, primarily through his eyes. A victim of man’s weaknesses, the Golem is the archetype for all subsequent tragic creatures, most obviously Boris Karloff’s monster in James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931). After Wegener’s Golem, architect Hans Poelzig’s set design is the star of the film; his portrayal of the sprawling Prague ghetto is nothing short of incredible. A riot of lopsided angles and bizarre shapes, it’s one of the finest cinematic cityscapes ever created.

Like a great deal of Der Golem, Poelzig’s designs have been tremendously influential. Edgar G. Ulmer’s surreal horror-noir The Black Cat (1934) appropriated both the architect’s images and his name for Boris Karloff’s satanic villain, Hjalmar Poelzig. It has sometimes been claimed that Ulmer worked on Der Golem – often by the man himself – either as a set builder under Poelzig or as a cameraman under visionary cinematographer Karl Freund, but corroboration for such assertions is scant. Already one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Europe, Freund would later work on Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927), as well as several of F.W. Murnau’s greatest films. After moving to Hollywood in 1929 Freund shot Tod Browning’s genre classic Dracula (1931), before directing The Mummy (1932), a sombre mood piece that has much in common with Wegener and Boese’s Der Golem.

Periodically, news surfaces of a possible remake of the story of the Golem – Italian special effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti has often said he would love to direct a new version – but so far nothing has become of such rumours.

This screening is part of the Step into the Dark season of films exploring dystopia, the sublime and the surreal at the Barbican throughout November.

Jim Harper

Horror Express

Horror Express

Format: Blu-ray (US)

Release date: 29 Nov 2011

Distributor: Severin

Director: Eugenio Martín

Writers: Arnaud d’Usseau, Julian Zimet

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza

UK/Spain 1972

90 mins

There are few films that fit the title of ‘cult favourite’ better than Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1972). Despite being one of the best Spanish horror films of the 1970s, Horror Express didn’t make much of a splash in the domestic market, but even today cult fans recognise it for what it is: a colourful, fast-paced monster movie filled with oddball characters and equally loopy plot twists.

Most of the action takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway as it hurtles across the Siberian tundra from Peking to Eastern Europe. Among the passengers are two British scientists, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee), an archaeologist, and biologist Dr Wells, played by Peter Cushing. Others travelling on the train include a Polish nobleman (George Rigaud), his beautiful young wife (Silvia Tortosa), and their unstable, Rasputin-like priest (Alberto de Mendoza); a Spanish engineer; a Russian detective (Julio Peña), and a woman later revealed to be an international spy (Helga Liné). Saxton is travelling with several crates containing the finds from his latest expedition, including the frozen corpse of a primitive humanoid, believed to be millions of years old. Before the train has even left the station the curious properties of the thing in the crate have begun to emerge; after attempting to open the box, a Chinese thief is found dead on the platform, with his eyes completely white. Later that night a hairy, bestial hand emerges from the crate, finds a rusty nail and expertly picks the lock. Before long there is a mounting pile of corpses on the train, and all with the same white eyes. Dr Wells performs autopsies and discovers another bizarre symptom: the victims’ brains are entirely smooth, leading the doctor to conjecture that they have been drained of memory and learning. Whatever is loose on the train is not simply killing, it’s also accumulating the knowledge and experience of all its victims.

As you might guess from the two main stars, Horror Express draws much of its inspiration from the Gothic horror tales of Hammer, but Martín and his scriptwriters can at least be commended for not repeating the usual Cushing/good vs. Lee/evil set-up. In many ways Saxton is a typical Lee character: proud, aristocratic and distinctly unlikeable, the opposite of Cushing’s good-humoured Dr Wells. Despite this, Horror Express does give Lee a chance to flex his heroic muscles – something he rarely did with Hammer – as he leads the fight against the prehistoric monster and rescues the damsels in distress. Saxton might be an insufferable snob, but he does at least manage to save the day. Further references to Hammer’s films are dotted throughout Horror Express, whether it’s the prehistoric beasts of Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), the disastrous archaeological expeditions of Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (1959) or the sensationalist pseudo-history of Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Naturally, no true Hammer tribute would be complete without Peter Cushing opening at least one skull with a saw and chisel, and sure enough, there’s one here too. There’s also plenty of Hammer-style pseudo-science: ‘The creature’s visual memory resides in the eye, not the brain!’

Such knowing references might well appear lazy and derivative in a lesser work, but in Horror Express – a film that displays its influences openly – they contribute to its considerable charms. A key factor in this is a witty and original script that treads comfortably between humour and horror, without undermining either of them. It’s a claim that’s often made and rarely warranted, but there really isn’t another film like Horror Express. At first it’s a fairly standard creature feature, with the victims locked in an enclosed space with an ancient monster, but before long the bizarre plot developments start to appear. [SPOILER ALERT] The primitive primate is not the creature itself, it’s just a body the being inhabits – and it can move bodies too, along with a few other abilities that make killing it a bit more difficult. The heroes’ task is complicated by human factors too, including the increasingly unstable priest who comes to believe that the monster is a being of divine origin. Fed up with pandering to the ‘spiritual needs’ of the nobility, he decides to offer himself to the diabolic creature and tries to stop Saxton and Wells from killing it. Even more troublesome is the presence of Captain Kazan, an army officer played with enthusiasm by Telly Savalas. Sent to deal with the problems on the train, Kazan believes it’s all the work of agitators or anarchists, and his solution involves whipping or beating anyone whose face doesn’t fit. Naturally the Count and Countess are spared this treatment and allowed to return to their carriage. [END OF SPOILERS] If there’s a subtext to Horror Express, it concerns the insulation of the Count and his wife. Appropriate surrogates for Generalissimo Franco, still in power at the time, they sit in luxurious and comfortable surroundings while their servants brutalize anyone they please with impunity.

As well as Cushing and Lee, Horror Express features a number of well-known faces from the European horror scene. Seasoned gialli stars Alberto De Mendoza and George Rigaud both appeared in Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) together, as well as a handful of Sergio Martino films separately. German-born actress Helga Liné is much the same, having racked up an impressive number of genre credits, including Amando de Ossorio’s When the Screaming Stops (1976). Before his death in 1972, Julio Peña had been a mainstay of Spanish cinema, appearing in almost 100 films since the 1930s. Although Horror Express is one of her few genre credits, Silvia Tortosa is still a popular TV star. Special mention much go to Telly Savalas, whose flamboyant, over-the-top performance as the thuggish vodka-drinking Captain Kazan is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, even though Savalas is only on screen for about 15 minutes. Whether it’s entirely appropriate is up to the individual viewer, but Kazan’s sudden appearance kicks the film into high gear and brings in the energetic final act as Saxton and Wells make one last attempt to save the passengers and destroy the monster.

Although it doesn’t play fair by bringing some new monstrous abilities for the climax, such left-field plot developments are comparatively commonplace in Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Thankfully Martín and his two leading men have the sense to approach the film’s increasingly loopy narrative entirely straight, aware that even a hint of irony or condescension could have a disastrous effect on a movie like this. The finished result is an atmospheric, original and very entertaining film, and one of Spanish horror cinema’s best works. Ironically enough, it’s also the kind of film that British studios were finding it increasingly difficult to produce. Hammer’s most recent efforts were not inspiring: Dracula A.D. 1972 was a misbegotten attempt to bring Dracula into the 20th century, while the promising Vampire Circus (1972) was hampered by rewrites and post-production difficulties. Similar problems afflicted Amicus, the producer of endless anthologies of short horror films. In comparison with Horror Express, the 1970s output of both Hammer and Amicus looks somewhat pale indeed. Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is another Spanish horror film that makes far better use of its English locations than most British directors could.

Jim Harper



Format: Cinema

Screening date: 10 November 2012

As part of SCI-FI-LONDON APOCOLYMPIC weekender

Dates: 9-11 November 2012

Venue: Stratford Picturehouse

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Writer: Brandon Cronenberg

Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell

Canada/USA 2012

108 mins

Brandon Cronenberg hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to distance himself from his father’s work here. His first feature has weird medical practices and perverse ideas aplenty. In a world where the hysteria surrounding celebrities has spawned a number of spin-off industries well beyond the racks of gossip magazines, you can buy pounds of lab-grown celebrity meat, celebrity skin grafts, and, in the clinic where Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works, get yourself infected with genetically modified exclusive celebrity diseases. Syd’s an effective salesman, trusted in the company, but he’s got a little dirty business on the side, infecting himself with the valuable maladies and passing them on to his underground contacts. Unfortunately, one of the new infections proves to be far more virulent than he expects, and he finds himself a seriously sick and seriously desirable man, with criminal and legitimate interests vying to exploit the strange new superstar virus coursing through his veins. As Malcolm McDowell informs him, ‘I’m afraid you’ve become involved in something sinister’.

If we must make comparisons with his dad’s oeuvre, and, y’know, it’s begging for it, then Antiviral continues in the vein of the 80s Scanners/Brood/Videodrome period, though it lacks their pulpy forward momentum and energy, and takes a while to get going. What it does have is a well thought through look of gleaming white surfaces and strange technology, a lot of woozy discomfiting camerawork and a fantastic sound design that pulses and throbs menacingly, combining to create a queasy subjective experience. Cronenjunior sets out to make you unwell watching his film, and has succeeded admirably: it builds into something truly troubling. He’s aided hugely by the extraordinary-looking Caleb Landry Jones, pale of skin and red of hair, who adds flesh and blood to an intentionally blank and unknowable lead, stripped entirely of past and personal clutter. Good stuff, very promising, though I’d steer well clear if you have a thing about needles – and don’t expect a McDonalds tie-in campaign…..

Antiviral screened at the London Film Festival last month.

Mark Stafford

Room 237

Room 237 (The Shining)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 26 October 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Rodney Archer

USA 2012

102 mins

Subtitled ‘Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts’, Rodney Ascher’s diverting documentary features a group of obsessives ranging from eccentric to out-and-out whacky expounding upon their theories about the Stanley Kubrick film in voice-over. Those are illustrated by an artfully assembled montage of graphics and manipulated clips from the film, together with well-chosen odds and sods from Western cinema in general and Kubrick’s oeuvre in particular, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Curtis’s work. Ascher does his damnedest to make it visually and aurally interesting, and lets his chosen voices speak without judgement.

Most of the speakers were disappointed by their first encounter with the film, but went back to it on VHS, on DVD, on Blu-ray, watching it over and over, convinced that a cinematic master with an IQ of 200 couldn’t just produce an overly mannered misfire, no, there had to be more to it than that. They started to map the geography of the Overlook hotel, read the posters, props and set decoration for clues, and assume that continuity errors must be there for a reason. The result suggests that what The Shining was really about was, well, take your pick: the Holocaust, Greek myth, American ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the genocide of the native population, and, my personal favourite, Kubrick apologising for his part in the faking of the moon landings by Apollo 11. This is Great Movie Mistakes as seen by people who don’t believe in mistake, chance or coincidence, and how much you enjoy it is going to be dependent upon how long you’re prepared to indulge their company – 102 minutes is a stretch.

But it says something about the reputation of the man and his cinema that this film, and doubtless hours more like it could be made. I can happily believe that he read the book Subliminal Seduction about hidden messages in advertising and interviewed Madison Avenue executives about how they worked. Maybe some of the weirdness in The Shining was the result. Who knows? But in his massively extensive research and attention to detail, the Kubrick of legend was just as obsessive as any of the contributors to this film. If, y’know, slightly more hinged.

As one of the unseen says at one point, ‘Kubrick is thinking about the implications of everything that exists!’

Mark Stafford

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Format: Cinema

Dates: 19 October 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Benh Zeitlin

Writers: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly

USA 2012

93 mins

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a little black girl who lives with her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub, a small, ramshackle Louisiana riverside township of rundown rummies, long-in-the-tooth hippies and out-and-out outsiders. This is the community of the other, the one that doesn’t think of itself as a victim even as it falls off the map: hell, it doesn’t even enter into Mitt Romney’s 47%. They live on the margins in the wetlands, happy to be forgotten and left alone, but the world is changing and Hushpuppy dreams of terrifying giant hogs, old creatures that will be released by the melting ice of the Arctic and will descend on their community, destroying everything in an end-of-days stampede.

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild caused a great deal of critical buzz after its premiere at Sundance followed by its entry in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and the praise was amply justified. Zeitlin’s film approaches a section of society that is often generically ghettoised in worthy social realism. His mixing of poverty with a rich strain of dark Gothic fantasy does have some problems, but the exhilaration of a film that refuses to tick the usual boxes and prefers to follow the chaotic breathless journey of its main character and narrator is well worth the ride. Hushpuppy herself is an admixture of Huck Finn, Pippi Longstocking and Dennis the Menace; she’s an ASBO Alice in Wonderland, but all that said, she’s also herself, a perfectly original angry unique little girl. She lives near her dad Wink – but crucially not with him – but Wink is ailing. Along with the awakening Lovecraftian aurochs, there’s a very real storm brewing and flood is coming, and Wink’s wrung out body is at the wrong end of a lifetime of alcohol and neglect. Hushpuppy makes sense of her own dilemma on her own; she draws her own history of the universe on the walls of her shack; tends to her animals and communicates with her long-lost mother, who she now feels she must find if everything is going to be alright. She even attends school occasionally, but, being Bathtub, it isn’t exactly a Michael Gove-approved academy. ‘You are all meat,’ the teacher tells her wards – that is, when she’s not preparing voodoo medicine.

The music, cinematography, the sense of place, and the wonderful narration Hushpuppy provides – ‘The world belongs to us. It was made for us’ – creates a bold, challenging vision and, although moving, the film never descends into mawkishness. It never asks for sympathy – ‘No tears,’ Wink shouts at Hushpuppy. However, there is a danger that in the fireworks (quite literally at times) and the yelling and whoops of celebration as well as the millennial excitement and dread, the film might remain oddly comforting. Hushpuppy’s empowerment seems a part of the fairy tale skeleton of the plot. A corrective might be Roberto Minervini’s Low Tide, which premiered at Venice this year, and which tells a very different story of a child’s resilience in the face of awful parental neglect. The two films would make for an interesting double bill.

That said, Hushpuppy’s mission is really to stand alone. And this is a film that weaves its fascinating magic and leaves all other questions for another time.

John Bleasdale

Female Trouble

Female Trouble

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 July 2007

Distributor: Entertainment in Video

Director: John Waters

Writer: John Waters

Cast: Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole, David Lochary

USA 1974

97 mins

The Cinema of Transgression movement was named in the mid-1980s by Nick Zedd, although independent filmmaker John Waters was doing the leg work in the mid-1970s. His irreverent and splendid films challenged accepted notions of normality with a truly free spirit, including the black comedy atrocity that is Female Trouble (1974), starring actor, singer and drag queen Divine as Dawn Davenport. Here, John Waters revels in a thorough stripping apart of a 1970s North American puritan, conservative moral code. He replaces it with as much grotesquerie you can fit into a 97-minute feature. Self-confessed ‘thief and shit kicker’ Dawn and her crew know no bounds as they trash conventional heterosexual family values, shove a stiletto heel into the ideal of passive femininity and spit in the face of the law. Dawn does not back down. This is a diva biopic that dispenses with sentimentality and spoons on the dirt.

Divine is unique as Dawn as we follow her on a journey from destitution to stardom. She starts as a teenage runaway when her parents don’t buy her the cha-cha heels she wants for Christmas. Then she moves quickly on to single motherhood, cat-burgling, stripping and finally extremist modelling. Other Waters favourites feature: Edith Massey plays the burlesque Aunt Ida and her hyper-tense daughter Mink Stole as Taffy. Both characters give the film some of its hilarious incisive lines, as when Taffy retorts to her step-father, ‘I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls,’ and Ida says to her nephew Gator: ‘I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.’

When Dawn is recruited by über-fashionista couple the Dashers, played by Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary, she embraces their mantra ‘Crime is beauty’. They teach Dawn how to jack up on liquid eyeliner and promise her fame in return for racy photographs of her involved in violent acts. Dawn becomes more and more drawn into the idea that violence and disfigurement are truly sublime. With this descent, or ascent, depending on how you want to look at it, Waters stretches the limits of taste even further. Many mainstream directors dip one toe into the mire of pevrersion, wave it about a bit and pull out before they do anything the censors or the imaginary, banality-loving audience might not like. Narratives are neatly tied up, the ‘immoral’ are punished. Waters doesn’t do this. Without giving too much away, Dawn does get stung in the end for her depravity in a Gun Crazy meets Sunset Boulevard face-off. Although I can hardly say that Waters’s ending conveys a sense of normality resuming. Waters and other transgressive filmmakers like him raised questions about what normal was in the first place. Once criticised for his ground-breaking work Waters is now a national treasure, but his work has a resounding message: ‘It’s normality that should keep you awake at night, not me.’

Nicola Woodham

Holy Motors

Holy Motors

Format: Cinema

Dates: 28 September 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Leos Carax

Writer: Leos Carax

Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes

France/Germany 2012

115 mins

A man leaves home in the morning to go to work; a well-dressed man of obvious success, with an American haircut, waving to his family. He boards his white stretch limo, driven by Celine, a striking elderly lady (Edith Scob) and departs. Inside the limo there is a changing room and the man transforms himself into a destitute bag lady who shuffles the streets muttering to herself perhaps incoherently, perhaps mystically, ignored by those around her whatever the case. The man (played with a tour de force performance by long-time Leos Carax collaborator Denis Lavant) is an actor and he will spend the day transforming himself into a variety of characters – weird morphing aliens, a scatological leprechaun, M. Merde, a gangster, a tired working father. Each character plays a small scene divided by conversations with his driver, a glass of something, a smoke a moment to tiredly take stock of his existential dilemma. Who is he really? What is this that we are watching? Is it genius? Is it indulgent tosh? Is it a bizarre mixture of the two?

The film came out of Leos Carax’s frustration. After a number of feature film projects fell through his last feature-length movie dates back to 1999’s Pola X – Carax devised this project by which he could make a series of short genre-spanning films that would, if the project were to fall through again, be able to survive as stand-alone pieces. This economy of necessity is one of cinema’s happier accidents. Driven by a desperate need to make films, the film Carax has accomplished is an aching love letter to the art form that seems to have treated its disciple so cruelly. The meaning of the metaphor might not bear much heavy discussion – the actor’s name is Monsieur Oscar and this is probably a joke as to the only way Carax can get close to the statuette that marks Hollywood approval – but what cannot be denied is a sense of exhilaration at the possibilities of film as something other than a way of transferring books, plays, games (computer and board), graphic novels, old TV series and comic books to screen. Instead of a dumping ground of the culture’s nostalgia for itself, Holy Motors is about continuing the hard slog of original creation. Among the episodes, there are the gobsmacking flights of fancy, the musical interlude and Kylie Minogue’s musical number are particular highlights, but then there is the quiet social realism of a drained father dealing with the nuanced quiet pain of his daughter not quite fitting in with her friends. Carax’s cinema has violence and exuberance, hilarity and giddiness, but it also has moments of true human feeling.

Of course, some will be put off, and when I saw the film at the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year, there were many dissenting voices. In fact, the film was one of the most divisive entries. However, as a sheer exercise in pushing the boundaries of what you can get away with, even if some think he went too far, I would rather go too far with Carax than stick to the comfort zone of our present cinematic environment.

John Bleasdale

Santa Sangre

Santa Sangre

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 September 2012

Distributor: Mr Bongo

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Writers: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Roberto Leoni, Claudio Argento

Based on the novel by: S.E. Hinton

Cast: Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Guy Stockwell

Mexico/Italy 1989

123 mins

Largely vanished from the cinema scene after his late-night classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky made a surprise return in 1989 that attempted to marry the director’s visionary, Felliniesque excess to the dying giallo genre (Claudio Argento, brother of Dario, was producer and co-writer).

The director’s son, Axel (it’s a family affair), plays Fenix, son of circus artistes who, in childhood (where he’s played by Adan, another Jodorowsky offspring) witnesses a horrific incident in which his knife-thrower father, cheating on mum with the tattooed lady, is castrated with a bottle of acid and takes bloody revenge, hacking off her arms before cutting his own throat.

Confined to an insane asylum until he reaches adulthood (he thinks he’s a bird so they kindly provide him with a perch), Fenix is released to the care of his armless mother, and forms a symbiotic relationship with her, becoming her arms not only in the mime act they perform (based on an old routine originally developed for Marcel Marceau), but also in private life. When this extends to murdering any woman who threatens the maternal bond, the stage is set for either tragedy or redemption, since Fenix is motivated not just by twisted mother-love and misogyny but by finer feelings too, notably his childhood love for a mute girl, Alma.

Promoted with the apt slogan ‘Forget everything you have ever seen’, Jodorowsky’s film takes no prisoners, except maybe for purposes of torture. The circus scenes eat up much of the narrative, so that when the psycho-thriller action begins it feels like a new movie erupting from the ashes of the old, but this allows the Chilean maniac to serve up set-pieces like the elephant’s funeral (with black-clad clowns squirting tears) and wallow in his own perversity to considerable impact.

Overheated performances, with almost everyone speaking heavily-accented English, combine with some ridiculous moments to make this a film that doesn’t walk any consistent line tonally. Entranced by a sexy strongwoman (in reality a he-man with plastic bosoms), Fenix finds himself wrestling a python. The python is his penis, get it? Operatic emotion bashes against Cocteau-esque fantasy and blood-drenched violence, with bursts of tinted lighting evoking Bava or Argento. If you simply surrender to the ride, this needn’t be a problem.

What might trouble you more is the director’s love for decorating the action with physical oddities: the fat lady and the one-eared man are particularly gratuitous, but merely the tip of a malformed iceberg. Fellini is certainly an influence, but no doubt Jodorowsky comes by his obsessions honestly. The only question is, is he exploiting his subjects like a carnival showman, or collaborating with them as artists? Probably both.

The film is about misogyny, on one level. Jodorowsky cheerfully confesses to this disease, and says the film cured him of it. Again, one can doubt whether the movie is at all times an examination of the vice or an indulgence of it. One spectacular showpiece murder, scored with upbeat Latin rhythms, certainly veers into very murky, blood-slicked terrain, and the victim is portrayed variously as a malevolent harridan, temptress and collection of obscene poses and body parts, so the film has some furious back-pedalling to do to avoid simply coming across as hate-porn.

But for all that, it does something practically no giallo delivers: an interrogation of the psychology behind the films of woman murder. Often giallos reveal a female killer at the end, as if to derail examination of the filmmaker’s motives: ‘This isn’t about my misogyny, it’s about women’s.’ Despite knifing fictional women for decades in his films, Dario Argento still seems disinclined to consider why he is so drawn to such imagery. Not that I necessarily want to condemn it, but I’d like to understand it.

Well, Santa Sangre at first blames a castrating, woman-hating woman for the murders it so gleefully depicts. But the ending, which I won’t spoil, deepens and complicates the discourse. Jodorowsky, though he’s a sucker for a big splashy image or cheap shock effect, has nevertheless genuinely considered who is really moving those murderous arms, and why. The hand that rocked the cradle does not wield the blade.

David Cairns

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly

Format: Cinema

Dates: 21 September 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Entertainment Film

Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik

Based on the novel by: George V. Higgins

Cast: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Sam Shepard

USA 2012

97 mins

Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to his sublime meditative Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is a return to the small-time criminal fraternity that he made his name with in his fantastic debut Chopper (2000). Brad Pitt plays professional mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, who gets called in when a mob-run poker game gets robbed. Suspicion immediately falls on the unlucky Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who has form in knocking off his own games, but Cogan knows someone else is responsible and sets about finding them.

With his elderly colleague (Sam Shephard) wasting away, Cogan is living in a world that he is increasingly at odds with. The mob he works for are a bunch of timorous second-guessers, not even appearing in the movie but working through the intermediary of an unnamed driver, played by the ever reliable Richard Jenkins. Likewise, an old acquaintance whom Cogan calls in to assist, Mickey from New York (James Gandolfini), is an ageing drunk and no longer seems up to the job.

Based on an old George V. Higgins novel, the film refuses to run along regular generic lines. The plot is by the by. We know whodunit right from the get-go, as does Cogan. There’s a slippery sense of inevitability as the various men trundle through the film towards their fate. Dominik seems far more interested in creating a real, believable small-scale criminal underworld. Cogan is a professional surrounded by incompetence and naivety, but he also has a code by which he abides and a philosophy as convincing as it is chilling. In fact, it is the expounding of this philosophy against Richard Jenkins’s objections that provides much of the entertainment. Working well with a director he obviously likes, Pitt gives another mature and nuanced performance, allowing much of the first half of the film to go by, listening to others, just an audience to a series of great performances from the ensemble cast, before staking his claim and taking it over. ‘Very few guys know me,’ he tells a guy in a bar, and Pitt manages to exude a cool (and cold) threat without posturing, a murderer with a heart of gold and an opinion about everything, who doesn’t like killing people but will do whatever it takes to get his money.

From a wider perspective, with its run-down litter-strewn streets and boarded-up shop fronts, the film places us in a world of creeping failure, a country in irredeemable decline, a country where even the criminal fraternity lack energy, imagination and balls.

Killing Them Softly is an explicit ‘No you fucking can’t’ to the bland optimism of Obama’s America. ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business,’ Cogan declares. And according to this film, it’s a failing one at that.

John Bleasdale