Loosely based on the French graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is an oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, featuring the coming-of-age of middle-class high school girl Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc), who instantly and desperately falls for foxy art student Emma (Léa Seydoux), from the moment she spots her on the street in Lille until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. Below, Sally-Anne Hickman takes an illustrated look at the film, released in UK cinemas by Artificial Eye on 22 November 2013, and on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/B) on 17 March 2014.
First aired on the BBC on 23rd December 1979, Leslie Mehagey’s Schalcken the Painter is lush, weird, postmodern and creepy. Based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 ghost story, both works craft an unsettling fiction around real 17th-century Dutch painters, Godfried Schalcken and his tutor, Gerrit Dou. Pitching his script as an arts lecture that morphs into a horror story, Megahey plays with Le Fanu’s use of historical figures by presenting the film as a documentary, a trick aided by its screening as part of the arts series Omnibus. The film meticulously recreates the interiors made famous by the Dutch masters, lifting them from the gallery wall, and having our protagonists inhabit them.
The film’s opening is slow and elegant, establishing Dou (Maurice Denham) and Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) as deeply unsympathetic characters. Despite the film’s aesthetic beauty, the events it depicts are ugly, as Dou willingly sells his young niece, Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), into a grotesque but lucrative marriage. Despite his sincere affections for Rose, Schalcken is so paralysed by his own aspiration to succeed as an artist under Dou that he does nothing to help the woman he claims to love.
The film works on two levels: firstly, as a slow-burning morality tale in which we wait with unpleasant anticipation for Schalcken’s punishment; and secondly, as a critique on the relationship between art and commerce, sex and money. Thus we return to the ghost story as arts lecture, with the film commenting on the commodification of 17th-century Dutch painting, where private patronage led artists away from spiritual or lyrical subjects towards depicting the plush interiors of the people controlling the purse-strings.
As for the film’s Schalcken, after he trades passion for ambition, we spy on him visiting a parade of prostitutes and employing peasants as models, who we watch undress and pose. A product of its time, Schalcken the Painter is part feminist attack on the brutality of marriage contracts, part exploitation movie as we’re treated to plenty of female flesh. However, the film’s climactic scene undercuts any earlier titillation with an image that is horrific, as opposed to erotic.
The film’s Gothic flashes, matched with the deadpan conceit that what we are watching is a documentary, intensify the contrast between the veracity of the film’s period details and its supernatural elements. In particular, the real Schalcken’s celebrated representation of candlelight is exquisitely mimicked, and yet it is this feature of his painting that is dramatised to suggest the corruption of the character’s soul.
It’s difficult to imagine this as festive viewing. But like Jonathan Miller’s stunning adaptation of M. R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You, also produced by Omnibus for the BBC’s BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is no cosy Dickensian tale. Yet where Miller’s work is visceral, Schalcken the Painter is typified by a cold restraint, like the paintings it honours. However, beneath its cool intellectualism there lurks a pessimism about the human condition that chills to the bone.
A cult classic, not to be missed.
Those of us who remember the early days of computers and an era before technology became the everyday fabric of our social and working existence can’t but have a soft spot for Computer Chess. The fourth feature from Andrew Bujalski, a US filmmaker whose films, including Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, ignited the relatively short-lived ‘mumblecore’ trend of low-budget American independent filmmaking, it is described by its producers as an ‘artificially intelligent’ comedy. Though a little too reductive and pleading for attention, the tag is not a million miles wide of the mark. The winner of the prestigious Arthur P. Sloan Award, an achievement recognising a film based around the theme of science and/or technology, Computer Chess is by some considerable margin the director’s most accomplished, accessible and prescient work.
Computer Chess is set in and around an isolated roadside motel over the course of a 1980s weekend conference, where a group of obsessive software programmers have convened to pit their latest refinements in machine chess and the still-developing field of artificial intelligence against a somewhat circumspect chess master. One of the junior programmers attending the conference, a singularly unappetising banquet of cheap plaid suits, bad coffee and bland interiors, begins to suspect that the computer for which he is responsible has developed the ability to detect the difference between a human and an artificial opponent. The computer begins to display elements of self-consciousness, rather like a benign HAL from Kubrick’s 2001. Meanwhile, the junior programmer’s own attempts to engage with the sole female attendee at the conference, about whom a great deal of fuss is made, is punctured by social awkwardness and a preference for interaction with keyboards and motherboards over humans.
Gesturing towards the semi-virtual, hyper-social and dehumanised landscape that is now our everyday reality, Computer Chess effectively anticipates how insecurity and a lack of self-confidence would come to be rendered of little consequence in a brave new digital era, an environment dominated by the iPad, the iPhone and the age of the app. Perfectly capturing a period in which technology seemed within easy reach – although it still had to be accessed by middle-aged men with terrible haircuts, synthetic suits and spectacles the size of sofas – the film’s most genuinely astonishing aspect is its beautifully articulated visual aesthetic. Like Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s recent No, which was filmed on Umatic VHS cameras to capture the visual tone of 1980s Chile, Computer Chess uses period equipment to incredible effect.
Sourcing archival, analogue vacuum tube-based video cameras, Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky deliver a work that really looks and sounds as if it belongs to another time. There is an innocence to the look of the film that we know now to be utterly at odds with the seismic social and technological changes that it anticipates. That innocence is accentuated by the film’s aesthetic and it is interesting to imagine how younger viewers will react to the film’s abstract wonder for clunky screens and dot-matrix monitors that would soon completely reconfigure and change our lives. As filmmaking becomes more and more reliant on effects and artificially generated images, it is encouraging to see directors like Bujalski reflecting on shifts in film and technology in general. That he does so in a film as witty and engaging as Computer Chess is all the more invigorating.
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The strange saga of Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor is one of this year’s most perplexing. Shielded from the critics by its studio until the eleventh hour, The Counsellor is an authentic film maudit – a cursed film, spluttering on the fumes of its own demise.
Looking at the pedigree of the talent involved, and the oddly subdued damp squib that they eventually turned out, it’s a weirdly gratifying task figuring out exactly how it all went wrong. Let’s start with the script: it’s the first screenplay by the great American novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose pitiless desert landscapes and gallows humour are intensely cinematic. The film came together quickly, with the most bankable A-list names attached, and the unflappable, prolific Scott to direct (although it seems like a more natural project for his late brother Tony, to whom the film is dedicated). And as for the finished project? Well, it’s a confused, violent clusterfuck, profoundly strange in a way that can only be made by very talented, but very distracted people.
The Chinese finger trap of a plot plays out on the Tex-Mex border, juxtaposing the high-flying magnates profiting off the illegal drug trade against the squalor and the aggression of the cartels. Michael Fassbender is the Counsellor, unnamed like a classic existentialist anti-hero, yet in a surely not-so-classic film. For some obscure reason, given his obvious success as a crooked lawyer, he gets involved in a high-stakes drug deal with almost unlimited financial potential, aided by debonair criminals Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). Lurking hawk-like on the sidelines is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner’s scheming girlfriend. Needless to say, there’s a sting in the tail, and the whole transaction goes to hell, with devastating consequences for everyone. Yet despite Malkina’s interference, the real source of the menace behind the deal’s unravelling hovers mostly ambient and depersonalised, bearing down on its sorry victims with God-against-Job mercilessness.
Although The Counsellor is not an unqualified success by any stretch of the imagination, if you squint ever so slightly, and consider the very accomplished and playful elements that make up the film, it just about looks like a good one. No Country for Old Men, the most successful McCarthy film thus far, was a searing thriller with a dark heart – an exhilarating downer. The Counsellor, in contrast, plays its most disturbing elements for an almost-camp shock value, inflating the film to the level of cruel, crude black comedy (a bit like the Coens at their worst). The characterisations are ridiculous and acted to the absolute hilt, with Javier Bardem looking like a flail-spiked pop-punk front man in a Hawaiian shirt, and Cameron Diaz (oh so terrible) in full Cheetah regalia with two-tone black-blonde hair and leopard spot tattoos. Brad Pitt, decked out in a Southern-gentleman cowboy hat and tails, fares a little better; he’s the only one that seems to fully get the jazziness of McCarthy’s dialogue, and is thus able to inject some genuine menace and charisma, as he has done so brilliantly in his more serious recent roles, such as his parts for director Andrew Dominik.
The trajectory of the story is most obviously a cautionary tale, a modern and drug-flecked variation on the tale of the ‘forbidden fruit’: ‘Don’t err, or be prepared to suffer’. But the film is too in love with its depraved sensibility, and too eager to push the audience’s buttons, to make that nostrum fully convincing. We’ve paid our money to see carnage, and that is what we get, with no sense of real redemption, apart from those willing to recognise that the game has always been rigged. Maybe the unwillingness to provide any respite for the audience’s sympathies makes The Counsellor quite radical for an expensive, mainstream-oriented thriller. Ultimately though, after a strong initial build-up, with plenty of terse exchanges and foreshadowing, everything detonates, moral standards crumble, the Counsellor weeps, and my, it is not pretty.
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TV veteran Jeremy Lovering’s feature film debut In Fear effectively draws on moody British landscapes to construct a flawed, but chilling study of primal terror. On their way to a music festival, new young couple Lucy (Alice Englert) and Tom (Iain De Caestecker) plan to spend a romantic night at a countryside hotel. But misleading signs pointing in contradictory directions lead them in circles, and as night falls they seem unable to find their way back to the main road. Lost in an infernal maze in pitch-black darkness, they begin to believe that there is someone out there threatening them. Unbalanced by frustration, fear and paranoia, Tom and Lucy are pushed to their limits by the taunts of their invisible tormentor, and what they believe is their fight for survival.
Lovering revealed as little of the script as he could to his two leads during shooting, which results in intense, raw performances, especially from Englert, who seems genuinely terrified. The minimal set-up explores the way in which the characters are manipulated into extreme behaviour by an enigmatic figure playing cruel games – interestingly, it is fear that is the trigger for violence here, rather than the other way around. Lovering skilfully creates a potent atmosphere of surreal dread, brilliantly supported by Roly Porter and Daniel Pemberton‘s excellent soundtrack. All in all, however, the film feels a little slight, requiring a fair amount of the audience’s good will in order to work, and the conclusion is an unsatisfactory unravelling of the tension that had been so tightly wound up.
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There’s a lot to like about Brian De Palma’s The Fury, his big-budget 1978 follow-up to horror classic Carrie (1976). For one thing, there’s the monumentally dramatic score from celebrated film composer John Williams, which swoops and creeps with a sense of epic malevolence. Add to the mix De Palma’s stunning operatic visual flair, Rick Baker’s special effects, and the remarkable cinematography of Richard H. Kline, and you’ve got yourself a potent slice of late 1970s mainstream cinema. It’s a shame it completely bombed on its initial release, mostly due to it not being Carrie.
The plot literally is the stuff of those pulpy paperbacks that fill the shelves of airport bookshops, adapted for the screen by John Farris from his original novel. (Farris was also responsible for other such sensational literary titles as The Corpse Next Door and The Axeman Cometh.) Kirk Douglas plays government agent Peter Sandza, whose telepathic son has been abducted by colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), who plans to exploit the boy’s psychic abilities for warfare. Sandza’s desperate search for his son brings him into contact with a teenage girl named Gillian (Amy Irving), who also has immense telekinetic powers. Together they join forces in the hope of saving his son from the evil grip of Childress before it’s too late.
Aging Hollywood legends Douglas and Cassavetes don’t seem to have any delusions as to what kind of film they’re in, and give it everything they’ve got. Douglas is great as the tormented father, and Cassavetes is equally memorable as his incredibly intense and menacing adversary. Between all the running about and telekinetic hocus-pocus, it’s fantastic to see such movie heavyweights sharing the screen. Amy Irving is a very sympathetic heroine, who’s picked on by fellow classmates, confused by her special psychic abilities, and unaware of her full potential, but without Carrie’s religious baggage and domestic issues.
Essentially a supernatural horror tale, The Fury also succeeds as an action film and a mystery/suspense thriller, with De Palma never slacking on the pace and effortlessly balancing out the elements of each genre into a very entertaining cinematic hybrid. Of course, there are moments (mostly during the final act) that are complete nonsense in terms of narrative, but it’s extremely well-composed and directed nonsense, with lots of split diopter shots and wondrous over-cranking, culminating in an unforgettable final scene that could quite possibly be an incredibly humorous, horrific and gruesome homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.
Although The Fury has never been perceived as one of De Palma’s more credible efforts, it’s definitely worthy of attention, and still stands up as a compelling, entertaining and enjoyable thrill ride.
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A seven-part anthology with a supernatural theme, Dead of Night (title nicked wholesale from the Ealing classic) was originally broadcast by the BBC in 1972. Producer Innes Lloyd’s brief for the show seemed to be a desire to remove the ghost story from its traditional Gothic trappings; the resulting episodes still concerned hauntings, of a kind, but Dead of Night specialised in characters being haunted by regret, middle-aged malaise and repressed emotions made manifest, rather than any run-of-the-mill spectres. Unfortunately, four of the seven plays have been lost, with this BFI disc containing the three remainders.
The Exorcism, written and directed by Don Taylor, concerns a Christmas dinner being given by Edmund and Rachel at their newly renovated country cottage for guests Dan and Margeret. Champagne Socialists all, they revel in the modern conveniences that working in P.R. can bring, and sit down to a sumptuous feast. But it soon becomes clear that someone, or something, has other ideas: the power fails, the ‘lovely burgundy’ Dan has brought along turns to blood in Edmund’s mouth, the turkey sets their mouths on fire, and the outside world seems to have disappeared. The Exorcism isn’t exactly subtle in its social message or delivery, taking one generation to task for the crimes of another, and pointing out that the comfortable lives of the bourgeoisie are, here literally, built upon injustice and suffering. A couple of shots of the cottage exterior aside, this is pretty much a one set, four-hander chamber play. It’s the most traditional of the ghost stories on offer, in that it features manifestations of a specific unhappy spirit, but the strident political tone makes this more of a very 1970s’ curiosity than a successful spookshow. It’s like Abigail’s Party goes to hell, with appropriately alarming fashion choices, and a tone of howling despair.
Return Flight, directed by Rodnet Bennet from a Robert Holmes script, is more elusive. It stars Peter Barkworth as Captain Rolph, a recently bereaved commercial airline pilot who becomes plagued by visual and audio manifestations of WW2 aircraft and radio chatter. He’s a bit of a cold fish, a man of a certain generation, unlikely to admit to weaknesses of any kind, and the things he’s seeing and hearing seem to well up from somewhere in his psyche, representations of a life not lived. Fair enough, but when he’s flying a crowded airliner, there’s more than his mental well being at stake, and Return Flight builds a fair amount of disquiet out of this situation. The first half is a character study of a damaged man, the second follows his low-key breakdown on a troubled flight, and the increasingly alarmed responses of Air Traffic Control. Ultimately, though, the execution here lets the inspiration down. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t like Captain Rolph much, maybe the technical demands were beyond a 1972 BBC budget, but this is all a bit well mannered, when it should be a study in sweaty brows and mounting tension.
A Woman Sobbing, however, is a stone-cold gem. Anna Massey is excellent as Jane Pullar, who has a stable marriage with husband Frank, two boys, and a sizable house in the country. Convention suggests she should be happy with her lot, but something is clearly wrong: she is being tortured at night by the sound, coming from the attic above, of a woman sobbing. Jane takes her valium, calls in the gas fitters, tries shrinks and priests, all are found wanting. She wonders, for a while, if her dull, undemonstrative husband is trying to drive her crazy a la Gaslight. She wonders if the house is haunted, if only women can hear the noise. The sound persists. John Bowen’s script is sharp and tragic, presenting an inescapable, circular nightmare in which suburban desires, modish psychiatry, and the modern church are skewered. It’s a feminist work which manages to avoid being reductionist or humourless. Here, as in Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, supernatural phenomena are bound up with the daily trials of modern female existence, but here they are denied a backstory explanation or simple cause. Jane’s children get on her nerves (’I’ve decided I don’t like them much nowadays’) and Frank may indulge in fantasies about the au pair, but he’s no bastard. Everybody seems to be doing their bit, but nothing gets any better. ‘They didn’t build haunted houses in 1910’, reasons her husband, amusingly, and he may well be right, but still, that doesn’t help Jane.
While not up there, in terms of chills, with Nigel Kneale’s fantastically creepy series Beasts, or the splendours of the BBC’s M.R. James Ghost Stories (both pretty much essential), Dead of Night is well worth a look for fans of vintage cathode weirdness. There’s something about that blend of video and 16mm, that solid British thespian commitment and unflashy professionalism, that conjures an atmosphere not found in contemporary cinema. These are tales of emotional complexity and political mindfulness, which seem a touch mannered and artificial to modern eyes, but nevertheless carry their own distinctive charge.
Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.
Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.
Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time.
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Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet), a good-looking young couple who have eloped, stay in an out-of-season hotel in rain-swept, depopulated Ostend. They are not exactly on honeymoon, just pausing in this luxurious yet faded interzone before the supposedly British Stefan, who has neither an English name or an English accent, takes his new bride home to his aristocratic mother – who, as we see in a cutaway shot, is a man in a dress (Fons Rademakers). Stefan also takes his belt to his wife during lovemaking, and shows signs of other kinks unusual in the clean-cut leading man of a horror movie – compare young bridegrooms in everything from The Black Cat (1934) to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) for exemplars of straight values. The only other guests in the hotel are the Countess Elisabeth Bathory (Delphine Seyrig) and her pouting, tempting secretary Ilona (Andrea Rau). The aged clerk (Paul Esser) and a retired policeman (Georges Jamin) are certain that the Countess was here before, too many years ago for her apparent age, and is mixed up with unsolved murders that have left blood-drained corpses behind…
Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness is an unusual horror film, depicting vampirism (and lesbianism) as a reasonable alternative to stifling or perverse male desires. It’s cine-literate, casting Seyrig for her association with art cinema from Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad, set in another hotel in limbo) and dressing and coiffing her like 1930s Marlene Dietrich. But it’s also creepily, delicately sophisticated, with a witty, evocative score by Francois de Roubaix and an interesting, unusual set of monstrous mannerisms. The Countess shimmers in a silver sheath dress and shows white, white teeth in her red, red mouth and waves a feather boa like the fronds of a poison anemone to attract the young couple into her coils in a distant echo of Dracula’s victim-enveloping cloak. Bathory is named for the Hungarian mass murderess (who may have been framed) and recurrent film character, and Seyrig seethes sexually as she recounts the atrocities committed by her supposed ancestress, which excites the sneakily sadistic Stefan.
There are moments of unsettling physical horror – Ilona’s death, bleeding out in a shower after a blunder with a straight razor, foreshadows the death by running water of Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame) in Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 (1972) – but also of black farce and high-end erotica. For some unknown reason, a clutch of seemingly unrelated films told very similar stories in the early 1970s: Stephanie Rothman’s The Velvet Vampire (1971), Vicente Aranda’s The Blood-Spattered Bride (La novia ensangrentada, 1972), Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and José Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) all likewise revolve around vampire matriarchs seducing innocent girls away from lumpen men. These are films which exercise a vampire-like power of fascination. Far more steadily paced than the vigorous Hammer Gothics, likely to get distracted by some apparently minor element of art direction or costuming, and alert to the erotic potential of teeth against skin in a self-aware manner, they show the vampire genre had evolved to the point when films were being made by artists who knew what they were doing rather than directors perhaps unconsciously channelling the dreams and desires of their audiences.
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The earliest extant film version of Dracula, F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens), starring Max Schreck as Count Orlok, ironically mirrors the Count’s own struggle to survive death. The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel was successfully sued by the copyright holders, and every copy but one of the film was destroyed. It would be nice to think stakes were driven through the cans of celluloid. Once the copyright had expired, that one copy rose from the dead, and Murnau’s Nosferatu firmly established itself as an early classic of German Expressionism, and would haunt horror cinema everywhere.
Werner Herzog’s decision to remake the film was a typically bold, even foolhardy, one, but it is also one of the best post-war retellings of the Dracula story. Eschewing the camp and cheaply Freudian reiterations, Herzog took a grimly sympathetic approach. First of all, he firmly establishes his innocents. An uncannily beautiful Isabella Adjani plays Lucy (not Mina as in the novel) and Bruno Ganz is Jonathan Harker. They live a weirdly colourless and blurry existence of mutual adoration in Wismar. Their watery love is depicted with a walk along a mud-coloured beach in a scene that anticipates the sopping romantics of Terrence Malick’s bathetic To the Wonder. Given the job of finalising a property deal, Harker journeys to the remote mountains of Transylvania. Here, using the thrusting theme from Wagner’s Rheingold (which Malick would also borrow for The New World), Harker becomes a Caspar David Friedrich romantic who – the sea-level dweller having gained some altitude – begins to pose heroic. The sublime is almost a cleansing ceremony, a man alone in the racing clouds, but it is at exactly this point that the romantic tourist meets the resident of the mountains, and discovers the true meaning of loneliness. As Goethe would have reminded Harker, unhappy people are dangerous.
In his second collaboration with Herzog, Klaus Kinski gives a compellingly haunted performance. His Dracula is a creature who is as much a victim of his own condition as anyone else: a vampyre who thinks with his fingernails, while his big frightened eyes look on helpless at the damage he is compelled to commit. His remarkable ugliness, his determinedly unsexy creepiness, and his famished need make a mockery of the teenage rip ‘em up fantasies that now parade as nightmares. Kinski’s creation invades Jonathan and Lucy’s hometown, bringing with him disease, rats and death, a Pied Piper in reverse. As with many Kinski/Herzog films, the latter half slides towards disaster with the unstoppable force of a bad dream, but, as like with other great horror films (and I’d include The Shining in this category), the film is not really frightening as such. Nothing goes bang in the night. Rather there is a continuous unsettling drone screech of everything going wrong all the way through.
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