As part of our ‘Repulsion’ theme this month we look at the repellent anti-hero of William Lustig’s Maniac (1980) in anticipation of the release on March 15 of Franck Khalfoun and Alexandre Aja’s revisiting of the story.
South Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s The King of Pigs is a harsh, bleak animated feature that looks at the terrible fate of three childhood friends who were bullied at school. The pervasive violence of the highly hierarchical South Korean society has been tackled in a number of films, one of the most notable being Yang Ik-joon’s gut-wrenching Breathless (2008), which The King of Pigs recalls to a certain extent in its unrelenting darkness and its atmosphere of absolute despair (interesting to note that director-actor Yang Ik-joon voices the character of Jong-suk in the film).
The King of Pigs opens as the bespectacled failed businessman Kyung-min, having apparently just strangled his wife in their high-rise city apartment, gets a phone call from a detective who has tracked down his childhood friend Jong-suk. A wife-beating failed writer, Jong-suk agrees to meet Kyung-min after 15 years in which they have had no contact. Their conversation in a restaurant leads to a number of flashbacks to their school years and the bullying they endured at the hands of older, richer boys. The animal metaphor of the title is used to describe the vicious hierarchical organisation of the school, and by extension, of Korean society: the ‘dogs’ are the boys from well-off families who rule the school and persecute the ‘pigs’, who come from poorer or less respectable backgrounds.
But this seemingly unchangeable brutal order is challenged when a boy called Chul comes to the defence of Kyung-min. Chul is a true outsider and refuses to be bullied into submission. In one chilling scene, he tells the boys, ‘you need to be a monster if you don’t want to keep living like a loser’. When he beats up an older boy, he becomes ‘the king of pigs’. Soon, he has a plan to make sure the ‘dogs’ can never have happy memories of their school days. But as Chul realises the complexities of the adult world he does some growing up, even though Kyung-min and Jong-suk still desperately need him to remain a ‘monster’ and recklessly stand up to the bullies.
The animal metaphor is somewhat laboured and heavy-handed in places and this is not helped by the terrible quality of the subtitles. The low budget is apparent in the lack of sophistication of the animation, which is quite stilted and not very detailed. But this is compensated for by a very expressive colour scheme, from the oppressive dark blues and muted tones that dominate the film to the rare luminous pink skies that punctuate the gloom. Also notable are a number of hallucinatory sequences: boys with dogs’ heads, a murdered ghost cat spitting out sardonic comments, a glue-induced nightmarish vision.
The King of Pigs is an uncompromising, hopeless depiction of a society corrupted by the idea of success as money and the brutal upholding of the hierarchical order it creates. Despite its flaws, it is an intense, riveting, affecting drama that delivers a truly shocking conclusion.
Watch the trailer:
An interesting exercise in combining the portmanteau picture and the found-footage genre, V/H/S is the new offering from some of the hottest indie directors on the block (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence).
Following the usual genre rules, it sets out a wrap-around concerning a bunch of deadbeat guys who are hired to break into a house and find a certain VHS for an undisclosed amount of money. As they are faced with a mountain of tapes, their attempts to find the right one are the pretext for the other stories until the very final tale, which, in an unusual touch, explains the nature of what has gone before.
At two hours, the film outstays its welcome by at least one segment and the wraparound is a muddled affair delivering none of the punch expected from such a tale. However, despite all this V/H/S works very well, with some of the segments genuinely inducing a sense of dread and unease while others create a videotape reality that just delights with its own twisted logic.
The final story also pulls out all the stops making sure the entire anthology ends on a high, sending the audience out into the night feeling as if they’ve been through on a ghost ride.
All in all, definitely worth catching – although not necessarily at the cinema given the lo-fi specs.
The creepiest, sexiest and most romantic contemporary vampire picture is now out in UK cinemas. One of the 10 best films of 2011, this is a picture that deserves a hallowed place in any self-respecting genre geek’s movie collection.
Jacob (Zak Kilberg) is sick. Very, very sick. He leads a solitary existence in a basement apartment with all the windows sealed shut. By day, he is a brilliant young artist – painting variations on a similar theme: exquisite renderings of the sun. He pays his rent working as a night-shift security guard. He is so sensitive to the rays of the sun that his arm bears the horrendous scars of burned flesh.
Of late, he’s been extremely hungry and in spite of wolfing down as much food as possible, he’s becoming thinner and paler. One night he collapses at work – blacking out completely. A doctor examines him and expresses concern that he is becoming anaemic from malnutrition. This, of course, simply cannot be. He’s eating more than a 500 lb circus freak can ingest in a week.
The thing is, Jacob needs meat.
Pure and simple.
On his way home from the doctor visit, he buys a juicy steak from the butcher shop, fries it up and scarfs it down. Alas, he’s still hungry. Eyeing the Styrofoam platter his steak lay upon prior to ingestion, Jacob is especially drawn to the glistening droplets of blood dappling the white foamy surface. He voraciously laps up the treacly crimson goo.
This taste treat inspires yet another visit to his friendly neighbourhood butcher shop whereupon he buys an entire container of blood. He greedily guzzles the haemoglobin treat and feels energized like he hasn’t in some time.
Jacob knows now what he needs to survive.
Jacob needs blood.
Such are the opening minutes of Scott Leberecht’s Midnight Son, one of the most exciting feature-length directorial debuts in years. Given what passes for vampires in these dark days of the ludicrous Twilight franchise, it seems almost insulting to toss this original and affecting horror movie (also scripted by Leberecht) into the same putrid bucket containing Stephenie Meyer’s rank turds.
Still, we must call a spade a spade and a vampire movie Midnight Son most certainly is. As such, it’s one of the creepiest, sexiest and truly most romantic vampire pictures to grace the screens in many a new moon.
Its unique blend of gorgeously gritty camerawork and equal dollops of both neorealism and existentialism place the picture closer to the tradition forged by George A. Romero’s Martin, Larry Fessenden’s Habit and Abel Ferrara’s double scoop of the horror brilliance that is Driller Killer and The Addiction.
What Leberecht brings to the table that’s all his is a tremendous degree of heart. He manages to shock us, creep us out AND move us. This is an astounding achievement.
When Jacob meets the coke-addicted cigarette girl Mary (Maya Parish) they’re instantly attracted to each other – two lost souls in the big city, who deserve much more out of life and most certainly deserve each other. As played by the beautiful, sexy, but wholly real Parish, the character of Mary has what Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart is unable to bring to her vampire-loving heroine – a sense of humour and play. She’s a character that the audience falls in love with because she has a perfect blend of bigger-than-life and girl-next-door properties (albeit slightly tarnished by the cards life has dealt her).
Jacob too feels like somebody we could know, or even be. He’s trapped by circumstance and lonely out of necessity. That he should discover his potential soul mate at the worst possible time isn’t just the stuff of great drama, it’s rooted in realism – an experience so many have had when they find something or someone special, but the timing is so damned inopportune.
Leberecht’s mise en scène is superb. He captures strange corners and pockets of Los Angeles with the same eye for detail Larry Fessenden brought to the Manhattan of Habit. Leberecht’s choice of locations, shots and interiors never feel stock. Most of all, he delivers a side of L.A. we seldom see on film. It’s gritty, all right, but the picture plunges us into the sort of strange places David Lynch himself might be envious of.
My personal favourite is a toxic materials dump in the rear lane of a hospital wherein we’re introduced to one of the weirdest pushers we’ll encounter in any recent movie – the sleazy blood-peddling orderly (brilliantly played by Joe D. Jonz) who discovers a rare, but needy market for what he can provide – no clover, but plenty of crimson.
This is a mere appetizer of inspired casting.
Happily, Leberecht and his team had the exquisite taste to cast one of the greatest character actors working in American cinema today. Appearing as Jacob’s only living cohort in the office tower, Tracey Walter plays the kindly night janitor who dispenses humour, wisdom and assistance. Walter has been in a zillion or so cool movies, but in the context of Midnight Son, it’s especially cool to see him play a character that fondly reminds of the UFO-obsessed trash man Walter played in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (another great picture with a unique sense of place).
Visually and narratively, Midnight Son leads us confidently into territory we almost never see, but even when things start to feel familiar, Leberecht throws us a curve ball – not just for the sake of tossing one our way, but because it’s rooted in the emotion of the story.
One of my favourite trick pitches in Leberecht’s movie falls into a category I like to call ‘Scenes We’d Like to See, but Never Will’. Lo and behold, though, I was resoundingly gobsmacked when the insanely ambitious Leberecht delivered the unthinkable. Imagine a lovemaking sequence where a sexy lady has just snorted several lines of coke, then mounts her lover cowgirl style and vigorously rides that bucking bronco of vampiric prowess. In the throes of passion she’s overtaken by a horrendous coke-influenced nosebleed, which geysers mightily onto Jacob’s face. This would be a shocker for him in any context, but it’s especially delightful as he happens to be a blood-starved vampire.
To that, I say: ‘Top that, Stephenie Meyer!’
Watch the trailer:
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space was in circulation when Roman Polanski made Repulsion. Published in 1958, it appeared in English translation in 1964 just one year before the film’s release. Bachelard observes an intimate relationship between the form of a domestic dwelling and its inhabitants. Corners, garrets, drawers, chests all affect a way of being. In turn, the occupant leaves a trace on their home both physically and in the realm of memory and the imaginary. Polanski too made much of this interdependence in each of his ‘Apartment Trilogy’ films: Repulsion (1964), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). They all encapsulate the feng shui nightmare of cheapskate landlords’ conversions: thin walls, creaking floor boards, damp and drafts. Polanski’s architecture of choice is the late Victorian flat with its excesses of cornicing, cast iron radiators and sash windows, which all provide details for his lingering camera. These are pads with ‘character’, ornate abodes which have an agency that makes them unsung stars in his films. For Carol, played by Catherine Deneuve, the South Kensington flat she rents serves as an escape from the busy streets and bustling beauty salon where she works. It is a place where she can resist the advances of suitors and relax with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Gradually, it houses and mimics her mental collapse as she becomes locked into an alternate reality of paranoid visions and catatonia. Polanski’s scenes of ‘living walls’ are some of the most memorable in the psychological horror genre.
Many writers have tried to decipher Carol’s mental state. Is she depressed? Schizophrenic? Is she ‘sex repressed’, or possessed by ‘demons’ of the unconscious mind as Bosley Crowther reviewing for The New York Times would have it in 1965? Or, more delicately, was she abused as a child? The cryptic family portrait we see in her lounge might suggest this. The film shrugs off definite answers, but what is clear is that Carol is terrified of being ‘broken into’. Her comfortable routine is shattered by her sister’s oafish boyfriend and his clumsy stuffing of his toothbrush and razor into her water glass. Sexual imagery here speaks for itself. It is often mentioned in write-ups of the film how openly Polanski exposes the intricacies of Carol’s demise. But just what does this involve? My interpretation is that Polanski creates a psychological space with his sophisticated use of the mechanics of cinema – a space where a woman is terrified of intruders – and then he invites us in. We are with Carol every step of the way, perceiving the world as it is to her: when she is alone in the house, when she is visited in the night by the imagined rapist grabbing and pushing in close. We are given the spare key and taken up a kind of multiple occupancy of Carol’s mind. Polanski makes us psyche-cine intruders, able to come and go as we please. It is this that makes the film so unsettling and perversely enigmatic.
So what of this filmic architecture – how does Polanski build this cine interior? To me his methods are Lovecraftian. By fragmenting and dislocating sound and image Polanski creates monstrous and unearthly reconfigurings of the banal. One observation I made in seeing the film again was the fracturing of one of the early moments where Carol is walking outside and passes by a roadworks site. Piles of rubble suggest disintegration and recall the cracks in the pavement and wall that fascinate Carol. One of the workers, sweating and wearing a soiled vest, leers at her and suggests ‘a bit of the other’. This one scene then splits into tiny shards that resurface during the remainder of the film. A similar vest keeps reappearing in the flat, as if it moved of its own accord. It is a sign of Carol’s curious disgust of male sexuality – one she finally absorbs into her own horrific version of domesticity. Later and quite separately from the initial workmen scene, Carol appears even more disturbed on her walk home. Here, within the drums and percussion of Chico Hamilton’s jazz score it is possible to hallucinate the sounds of car horns and drilling. The film is shaped by these explosions and dream logic arrangements. Cinematography (Gilbert Taylor) sound editing and mixing (Tom Priestley and Leslie Hammond), editing (Alastaire McIntyre) and art direction (Séamus Flannery) are the building materials of this psychic folly for Polanski.
In Poems to My Other Self(1927) Albert-Birot pre-empts Polanki’s concerns in Repulsion, and indeed his words suggest one of Polanski’s interior tracking shots. Bachelard selects this quotation in Poetics:
…Je suis tout droit les moulures
qui suivent tout droit le plafond
‘I follow the line of the moldings
which follow that of the ceiling’
Mais il y a des angles d’où l’on ne peut plus sortir.
‘But there are angles from which one cannot escape.’