Format: DVD + Blu-ray (A/1)

Release date: 27 February 2015

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada

Directors: Chad Archibald, Matt Wiele

Writer: Tony Burgess

Cast: Julian Richings, Lisa Houle, Adam Seybold

Canada 2014

87 mins

**** out of *****

‘We were never alone,’ says Cassidy (Julian Richings), amidst a world of UFO sightings and contact with unidentifiable life forms, far too many of which have been discounted in knee-jerk fashion as being the product of mental illness. They can’t all be out of their gourds and that’s what gives you the willies.

From the visionary Collingwood, Ontario, crazies known to genre fans as Foresight Features (Monster Brawl, Septic Man), Ejecta is, without a doubt, one of the scariest science-fiction horror films you’re likely to see this year. Buoyed by intense, intelligent writing from Canuck horror scribe Tony Burgess (Pontypool), it’s a screenplay that induces fingernail-ripping, which makes biting nails to the quick pleasurable by comparison. Featuring a riveting performance from one of Canada’s greatest actors, Julian Richings (Hard Core Logo, Cube, Man of Steel), Ejecta plunges you into the terror of one utterly horrendous night in the lives of three men who experience a series of close encounters of the third kind. Be warned, though. There are no happy-faced hairless alien midgets making Kodály Hand Signs whilst smiling at a beaming François Truffaut. No siree Spielberg, the mo-fos in this picture induce drawer filling of the heaviest order. That said, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is worth noting, because Ejecta shares one very important element with Spielberg’s bona fide masterpiece: obsession.

The journey Burgess’s screenplay takes us on begins quite evocatively with some cold, impersonal Ascii text being typed onto a hazy computer monitor:

Tonight the universe is no bigger than my head.
It’s time to make room for some visitors.

Visitors indeed. William Cassidy (Richings), a conspiracy theorist living off the grid in the middle of some godforsaken Ontario hinterland, is inundated with unwelcome guests – a filmmaker, an interrogator and a mean-ass alien. Joe (Adam Seybold) is the most benevolent of the three. This ultra-indie one-man-show doc-maker is granted an audience with the ‘Holy Grail’ of UFO experts. Unlike Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, most of Cassidy’s adult life has been fraught with the obsession an alien encounter instigates. At least Dreyfuss had tangible things to lose, but poor Cassidy appears to have lost everything before he could even get a chance to amass it. His has been a life of questions, pain and endless, seemingly futile attempts to let the world know about his experience. He’s lost a life he could have had. That’s scary enough, but happily, the movie delivers its share of visceral chills to complement those of the philosophical variety.

At first, Joe makes the mistake of referring to the alien ‘abduction’ Cassidy suffered almost 40 years ago, but is sternly corrected. Cassidy declares:

They met inside my mind. I could feel them, I could hear them. They ignored me and then they left something behind, something inside of me, and it’s been there ever since. When I’m awake it hurts, but when I’m not, it floods me with… it’s not nightmares, it’s something else, something much, much worse.

Damned if we don’t believe him. The words Burgess provides to Cassidy border on the poetic, and it’s these flights of fancy rooted in the unknown that terrify the bloody bejesus out of you. When Cassidy explains the feelings he has because of the intrusive alien presence within him, he notes in desperation: it’s ‘the fear of the anticipation of this feeling [which] eats away at my life’. Well, Jesus H. Christ Almighty! Hand me an extra large pair of Depends Adult Diapers because this statement and the chilling manner of its delivery were as scary as another beautifully directed set piece, in which Cassidy and Joe hide in a shed from an alien prowling malevolently outside.

Structurally, the film benefits from a three-pronged approach to this night of horror. Firstly, there’s Joe’s documentary footage, then there’s the perspective of the military through various helmet-cams, and finally, the present tense unfolding of Cassidy’s brutal interrogation at the hands of a nasty military official. The film essentially gives new meaning to the old movie tagline ‘Watch the Skies’ because here, it’s not the skies you need to watch, it’s the universe implanted in your brain, and that is really fucking scary.

Ejecta is also available on DVD and Blu-ray (B/2) in the UK, released on 19 January 2015 by Signature Entertainment.

Greg Klymkiw

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Fires on the Plain

Fires on the Plain
Fires on the Plain

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Writer: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Based on the book by: Shohei Ooka

Original title: Nobi

Japan 2014

87 mins

War is hell! But that cliché is often contained in a more mundane frame. In Terrence Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line the battle for Guadalcanal is soothed by philosophical voice-overs and magic hour photography. The same year Saving Private Ryan had Steven Spielberg seek to justify the bloody horror of war with a broader ‘good war’/ ‘greatest generation’ frame. Clint Eastwood’s twin films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are remarkable for their shifting perspectives and ambivalence, but as with the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, there is a sense that each film is careful of its historical context. Authenticity is as much concerned with uniforms and hardware as with the lived experience of war.

Fires on the Plain offers something quite different. Shin’ya Tsukamoto presents a tubercular nightmare vision of war in all its bloody ferocity. This is an infernal internal vision. Private Tamura (Tsukamoto himself) racked with TB is a dead man walking, staggering from field hospital, where he is refused treatment, back to his unit, where he is beaten because he is too sick to forage for food. ‘If they turn you away again, kill yourself with the grenade,’ his commanding officer tells him. But some feint erotic memory keeps Tamura clinging to life and he flees into the jungle as the Americans launch another attack.

Everything we see from Tamura’s perspective is heightened with the same mad subjectivity that carved Tsukamoto’s punk body-horror Tetsuo a cult niche. The jungle is a painful emerald green, so gorgeously fecund and vital as to make it seem impossible that these men are all starving and rotting away. The enemy is an invisible power striking with God-like impunity from the skies, and even when the soldiers are drawn into battle on the ground they first unleash a God-like bright light onto proceedings, before the machine guns and bullets begin to churn up bodies once more.

Taken from Shohei Ooka’s novel Nobi – already filmed in 1959 by Kon Ichikawa – Fire on the Plains tears to shreds ideas of Japanese military honour. There is scant Bushido here. All cohesion and discipline has broken down, and madness grips the tattered remnants of the army. Isolated from his unit and ever closer to death, Tamura is pushed to the extreme, stripped of everything that makes him human, wandering the jungle looking for escape. Like John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), the film attains the power of fable as Tamura descend through a paradisiacal landscape into a realm of the dead, where the survivors are reduced to cannibalism, gnawing on each other like something from a Goya canvas.

Fires on the Plain screened as part of Black Movie Festival 2015.

John Bleasdale


Rabid 1

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 16 February 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver

Canada 1977

91 mins

Rabid was David Cronenberg’s second Canadian exploitation film, a phase that evolved more or less naturally from his period as an underground filmmaker, before he mutated into a more mainstream auteur via films such as The Fly (1986). It even features a cameo by Adrian Tripod himself, Ronald Mlodzik, star of Crimes of the Future (1970). Bigger in scope than its predecessor, Shivers (1975), but perhaps more rough-edged, it explores the effects of an experimental surgical technique performed on an injured motorcyclist (porn star Marilyn Chambers) where she is treated with ‘undifferentiated tissue’ – an idea borrowed from William S. Burroughs which anticipates current developments in stem cell research. The unfortunate and unexplained side effect is the growth of a retractable, penis-like spike in her armpit, through which she sucks blood and passes on a rabies-like virus.

Cronenberg has always played nonchalantly innocent about this subject’s misogynist undertones. Chambers becomes a kind of Typhoid Mary, immune to the disease herself but passing it on through her depredations, which are all redolent with sexual subtext (hot-tub lesbian encounter; porno cinema pick-up). Though Cronenberg rightly says that the character is portrayed as sympathetic, it is also somewhat hard to relate her given her strange denial of what is clearly going on. The virus seems to induce a kind of amnesia: her victims go about their business after being vampirised, until suddenly going berserk in a way familiar to viewers of Romero or Danny Boyle flicks; Chambers seems to know she’s draining blood, but thinks little of it until the discovery that she’s been spreading a kind of plague brings about a crisis of conscience. Her eventual fate seems uncomfortably like a puritanical judgement, or a deliberately provocative pastiche of one.

The film betrays its status as an early, crude effort, in other lapses in psychology and logic. The opening motorcycle crash seems to happen on a straight stretch of road where the mobile home parked across the road would be clearly visible for some considerable distance; but the hero just yells in panic, drives straight at the obstacle, and then swerves at the last possible moment. That hero (Frank Moore) presents a considerable problem. Cronenberg is only partway to his eventual solution to the monster movie problem, which involves making the monster the main character. Here, our attention and empathy are needlessly diffused by the useless Moore character, whose defining trait is his tendency to be wherever the plot is not unfolding (because if he was ever in the right place at the right time, he would perish immediately). The same problem would afflict the lumpen protagonist of The Brood (1979), but in Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), the hero is himself deviating from the normal, and in the latter film we actually view the entire action filtered through his gradually mutating consciousness, a trope the filmmaker would return to repeatedly.

It’s notable that Cronenberg has never fully embraced the idea of a female lead character. His heroes can develop vaginal openings in their abdomens or be penetrated in their lower spine by Willem Dafoe wielding a bolt gun, they can turn into insectoid hybrids, they can be one consciousness split between two bodies, and they can be psychotic. But they can’t have one of those alien openings from birth: they have to be supplied by the special effects department.

Rabid is most intriguing in its adoption of the plague narrative form used by George Romero in The Crazies (1973), or by Eugene Ionesco in his play Here Comes a Chopper. Rather than following a single character, we follow the disease itself as it filters through society: the scenes of psychodrama with Chambers alternately weeping and feasting are distractions from what could be a perfect Cronenberg hero: a quasi-sexually-transmitted virus.

David Cairns

The Nightcomers

The Nightcomers
The Nightcomers

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 23 February 2015

Distributor: Network Distributing

Director: Michael Winner

Writer: Michael Hastings

Cast: Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Thora Hird

UK 1971

92 mins

‘Marlon, you’re a great actor. I’m not a great director. Do what you like.’ This was supposedly how Michael Winner began his unlikely collaboration with the king of the method players. Brando was in the midst of a severe career slump, from which he would only escape with the double whammy of Last Tango in Paris and The Godfather the following year. The Nightcomers marks the last gasp of Brando’s wilderness years, which had stretched through pretty much the entire previous decade (fascinating though some of those films maudits are).

The idea of a prequel to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an odd one for any studio seeking commercial success: Jack Clayton’s adaptation, The Innocents, had appeared exactly 10 years earlier, and despite being an artistic masterpiece it hadn’t done terribly well at the box office. Too subtle, too intelligent, too defiantly non-generic. Only the last quality really applies to Winner’s movie, which is even more of an odd duck than the eerie Cinemascope ghost story it both follows and foreshadows.

Giving no acknowledgement to the 1961 classic, The Nightcomers nevertheless starts with a snatch of ‘Willow Waly’, the folk song/nursery rhyme sung in spooky solo over the credits of Clayton’s film. This is promptly followed by a jarring crash zoom, neatly encapsulating the clash of temperaments that makes up the film’s style: half literate and dreamy, half leering and vulgar, rarely very successful.

It’s a shame, since Robert Paynter’s moody, muddy photography is beautiful and atmospheric, making something evocative from the mixture of dim, wintry daylight and dancing grain. It’s just that everything Winner makes him do with his camera, save the wide shots, is rather trashy. Many of the scenes might have been rescued, since Winner is at least shooting a decent range of coverage, but he insisted on cutting the film himself (using the admittedly hilarious pseudonym of Arnold Crust Jnr), and he has absolutely no sense of rhythm, mood, drama, character, or any form of continuity beyond the most basic – making sure the actors are standing in the right places. It’s not that the props or costumes jump around when you’re not looking, it’s that none of the shots build to a total effect, and the actors often seem to be staring into space rather than at their off-screen co-stars (which is probably the case, given Brando’s tendency to take off whenever not required for a close-up).

Brando himself is… sort of good? It’s quite an extreme version of an Irish accent he’s doing, but it’s at least less goofy than Orson Welles’s in The Lady from Shanghai, still the gold standard in rogue brogues. Trying to suggest an alluring, poetic psychopath, Brando is slightly hampered by his excess years and pounds, though Winner, whose eye was usually unflattering in the extreme, protects both his star and his audience by framing out the Brando bare belly (which was back under control, briefly, in time for his sexual exploits of 72).

The script by Michael Hastings riffs off the clues provided in James’s novella, but actually rewrites fictional history to create a more (melo)dramatic story, in which Brando’s lusty gardener corrupts both nanny Miss Jessel (luscious, warm Stephanie Beacham) and the two children under her charge. Touching on the themes of Forbidden Games and Lord of the Flies, the movie slowly turns its emotionally damaged children into horror movie monsters, complete with an ending that strongly implies that classic horror movie trope, ‘It’s all going to happen again!’ In fact, readers of James and viewers of Clayton will be aware that things are not as simple as that, and certainly neither artist intended for their uncanny children to be seen as deranged killers.

Hastings’s dialogue is often smart, strange and literate, suggesting the alien mindset of the Victorian era with its odd, stilted formality. This gets pushed further into the realms of the bizarre by the kids’ line readings, and the very particular acting style of Thora Hird as the housekeeper (it’s a style a less charitable critic might call ‘reading it out’, but I love Thora and would never put her down like that). Brando seems genuinely amused by his unlikely co-star.

What will likely interest viewers most in this age of shifty grades of fey, is the sex, which includes all the unsafe bondage techniques and dubious consent issues people seem to want nowadays. The kinky stuff gets dealt with pretty quickly, but is fairly strong for the time. Winner’s melting it together in those lap dissolves reserved for tasteful sex scenes back in the day gives it a safely old-fashioned quality, though, which explains why this wasn’t seen as taboo-busting in the same way as Last Tango. Though in both films Brando degrades his partner by making her repeat lines after him and makes reference to pigs, so I guess we can be fairly sure that’s what he was genuinely into. Future biographers take note.

David Cairns

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