For this edition of Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman looks at a recent film from the busy Blumhouse boutique genre production label.
In 1985, the Reverend Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane in a white suit with a folksy-sinister accent) of the ‘Heaven’s Veil’ cult presides over what seems to be a mass suicide at his woodland retreat… and only a little girl survives.
In the present day, driven documentarian Maggie Price (Jessica Alba), daughter of the FBI agent who led the raid on the camp and later killed himself due to bad memories, and Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe), the grown-up sole survivor, visit the site with a crew of genially disposable techies in the hope of finding some answers… which lead them to an abandoned house the FBI never found (accessible by seemingly walking across a lake surface). The place is full of corpses, film cans (and video tapes) and other useful stuff, which prompts flashbacks that give a slightly different view of what happened on that fateful day in 1985. [SPOILER ALERT] For a start, Jacobs was given to deathtripping à la Flatliners and had an antidote prepared for his poison sugar cubes so his followers could be revived en masse, but Maggie’s dad showing up scuppered that plan, setting the charismatic loon off on his backup scheme, which involves killing the documentarians and bringing them back to life in CGI-ghostfaced semi-possessed form to perpetuate his cracked beliefs. Oh, and Sarah learns he was her dad and his faithful nurse Karen Sweetzer (Aleksa Palladino) his mom. [END OF SPOILER]
This lesser Blumhouse production is a collaboration between eclectic screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (Jessabelle, Night at the Museum) and not-that-busy-lately director Phil Joanou (State of Grace, Final Analysis), which riffs on the suicide cult theme – resurgent in the movies thanks to The Sacrament – by blending Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, though it’s less concerned with weird beliefs and groupthink than simple creep stuff with a gang of Scooby-Doo-like kids in a van being done in and brought back in an eerie woodland setting. Alba, slipping a bit from the mainstream, and Rabe, a rising spook name thanks to varied turns on American Horror Story, are oddly given slightly thankless roles, upstaged by the decent, mostly engaging supporting stooges, who at least give the impression of being lively characters before their demon-zombification. It looks great, with blue-tinged widescreen images of ominousness, well-staged 1985 flashbacks and a couple of semi-workable scares, but it’s a predictable, pat programmer.
This silent Czech tale of seduction continues to mesmerise with its sensual portrayal of female sexuality.
Erotikon tells the tale of first love – the mad kind that makes a good girl throw away all caution. Andrea (Ita Rina) is living a quiet life with her old father at a country railway station. One stormy night, a suave stranger appears and her father kindly invites him to spend the night, only for the man to seduce his daughter while he’s out on his shift. Naturally, the stranger departs the next morning, leaving Andrea with an unwanted pregnancy and an irrational devotion to the slippery playboy. When their paths cross again in the city, will she give up her secure, conventional marriage to risk everything with this womaniser, even as he’s being pursued by another lover’s angry husband?
Gustav Machatý’s film was famous for its edgy portrayal of sexuality, female sexuality in particular. When Andrea goes to bed after first meeting the stranger and is in the throes of torrid dreams, we observe her through the camera’s (male) gaze, which takes in her upper body, with its erotically extended neck and arms thrown wildly above her head, as well as her bare calves sticking out from under the covers. But when she is actually seduced, the crucial part of the action takes place from her perspective, with delirious point-of-view shots of the man’s intense kohl-lined gaze as he advances on her, and diagonal whip-pans across the walls and furniture as she falls back onto the bed.
Our sympathy centres on Andrea, while the stranger is a caricature of a vain, opportunistic hedonist with little to recommend him apart from matinee idol looks. Accordingly, it’s Andrea’s actions that are the backbone of the film’s drama, while the stranger’s antics and their effect on jealous husbands are a source of comic relief.
One of the peculiarities of silent storytelling is the importance it lends to objects. The ‘Erotikon’ of the title fits the overarching theme of passion, but only appears in the film on the label of a bottle of perfume that the stranger gives to Andrea, the first step in his seduction – and how interesting that a film that can only directly appeal to one of our senses, sight, uses scent as a catalyst to advance the story. The stranger initially tries to apply the perfume to Andrea’s neck himself; she at first refuses both the gesture and the gift, but finally accepts the bottle. She tries the perfume when she is alone in her room, and we wonder whether it has some kind of magic effect on her, inspiring her wild dreams. When she emerges from her room to answer the phone, the stranger intercepts her, and recommences his seduction by smelling the finger she used to apply the perfume.
Later, the narrative continues to revolve around objects: Andrea and her husband are thrown together with the stranger when they meet in a piano shop where the stranger befriends her husband by allowing the couple to take the last model of a piano. When Andrea is on the point of deciding between her lover and her husband, the story ricochets between two objects: the goodbye letter that Andrea has instructed a servant to give to her husband at a set time, and the compact that another woman has left on her lover’s bed: one object threatens her conventional life, and the other her dream life of romantic passion.
The 20th ‘Made in Prague’ Festival offered a rare opportunity to see this film on 35mm (recently restored by the Czech National Film Archive), with flawless live accompaniment by pianist Thomas Ang, and Lydia Kavina on theremin. One of the earliest electronic instruments, the theremin has a ghostly sound and wonderful range: Kavina (who studied under the instrument’s inventor, Léon Theremin, himself) was able to evoke the deep rumble of a train, piercing notes to accentuate moments of high emotion, and even play jaunty dance tunes – no easy task when you have no physical contact with the instrument you’re playing. The theremin is an instrument whose vibrato seems very much of its time and perfectly suited to the melodrama of silent film, yet it also feels contemporary: not only is it electronic, but effectively a wireless form of music.
Sion Sono diverts Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno Reboot into a subversively playful and multi-layered take on the female condition.
The 2016 edition of the Etrange Festival offered audiences the chance to see two of the five films commissioned by Nikkatsu for their 100th anniversary, as part of the Roman Porno Reboot Project. Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind was labelled by Nikkatsu as ‘Battle’, and Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno as ‘Art’. The latter director is a regular at the festival, as there has hardly been a year without at least one Sion Sono film programmed.
Anti-Porno starts in an Almodóvar-like colourful flat, in bright blue, yellow and red, with young Kyoko naked (but for her panties) dancing to her ghost-sister’s rendition of Offenbach’s ‘Nuit d’amour’, after a particularly boozy night. Unlike his earlier contemplative I Am Keiko (Keiko desu kedo, 1997), where the action (or the lack of it) was confined to an unrealistic red-painted flat fitted with yellow-painted appliances, so as to focus on the passing of time, the frantically paced Anti-Porno is rather a reflection on confinement and on the impossibility of real freedom, as the leitmotiv of a living lizard inside a whisky bottle reminds us constantly.
Every detail in this room feels artificial and exaggerated, while the film becomes more and more hysterical, as the versatile artist Kyoko becomes more and more sadistic with her assistant. Kyoko eventually has her bleeding and then raped during an interview that she gives to lesbian fashionista journalists. And just when we tell ourselves that this is really too much and too kitschy, so does the director, who orders the scene to be cut. Once the suspension of disbelief has been shattered, Sion Sono plays with endlessly embedding successive layers of reality, as he did with parallel worlds in Tag.
Sion Sono loves metaphors and, as in most of his films, he can’t get enough. Both the flat and the bottle stand for the virgin/whore dichotomy, to which Kyoko finds herself confined by the world of men. Sion Sono also adds another layer, using butterflies escaped from a biology book and trapped under a schoolroom ceiling to denounce the glass ceiling still blocking Japanese women. Yet Kyoko’s several soliloquies do not do justice to the film’s clever, manifold levels of perception and reality, concluding on one final and rather trivial aphorism: ‘Men’s world is shit, men’s dreams are shit… Porno is shit’. Why did Sion Sono opt for such an obvious and direct address? Was it because the film was a commission for Nikkatsu? Because he had already perfected the poetic treatment of the female condition in Japan in his previous films? Or because he feared he had not been fully understood so far? For, despite a few delightfully funny scenes, among which the bourgeois family dinner conversation on genitalia certainly ranks highest, Sion Sono gets excessively serious here. One has the impression that Anti-Porno moves from a form of criticism to that of a manifesto, bringing hope in the wake. In Tag, Mitsuko’s only solution was seppuku; in Anti-Porno, though Kyoko’s sister chooses death too, in the final scene we leave Kyoko writhing on the floor in gallons of paint, obsessively seeking ‘an exit’.
Cast: Caroline Munro, Verónica Polo, Marta Flich, Almudena León
Release date: 11 July 2016
Distributor: High Fliers Films
Directors: Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf
Writers: Karl Bardosh, Mauricio Chernovetzky, Mark Devendorf
Based on the novella by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Alternative title:Angel of Darkness
Cast: Stephen Rea, Eleanor Tomlinson, Julia Pietrucha
USA, Hungary 2014
Kim Newman rummages through the straight-to-DVD treasure trunk
This double bill of European vampire movies revisits oft-told stories. Indeed, the ghosts of earlier incarnations hang as heavily over the films as the curses of the past affect their mostly doomed characters.
José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres (1974) is among the most minimally-plotted horror films – a fusion of the Spanish director’s sensibilities with the last gasps of the British Gothic boom as a pair of lesbian vampires who might have come from a Jesús Franco or Jean Rollin film (or a Halloween layout in Knave magazine) bloodily prey on feeble men in that familiar decaying mansion that turns up in so many UK-shot horror films. Contemporary Spanish director Victor Matellano shares his script credit with Larraz on Vampyres (2015), a close remake – it even restages some gore/sex scenes shot-for-shot as in the Gus Van Sant Psycho, though a few new ones are thrown in (the ever-popular Bathory-inspired human blood shower is featured). 1970s genre fixture Caroline Munro gets a non sequitur role as a hotel owner and seems as out of place in these surroundings as she did in the New York sleaze of Maniac in 1980. Spanish horror star Lone Fleming, heroine of the first Blind Dead films, also pops up. Further evidencing Matellano’s interest in genre history, new passages of the script have the hapless Harriet (Veronica Polo) – reduced to a tent, since this even-scantier production can’t stretch to the camper van of the original – discover a copy of Théophile Gautier’s vampire story ‘La morte amoureuse’ and ponder how it might feed into the current situation. Marta Flich and Almudena León replace Marianne Morris and Anulka as vampire vixens Fran and Miriam – they are pretty, and willing to do nude splatter scenes with abandon, but Matellano doesn’t get out of them what Larraz did of his stars. It’s a case of the direction being at fault rather than any thespic lack: Morris and Anulka were nude models rather than actresses and their performances were entirely shaped by Larraz (and professional dubbing). As properties suitable for remaking go, Vampyres was an odd choice – a film distinguished by approach and ferocity rather than any particular strength of concept or story. Transplanting the whole thing to contemporary, non-specific Spain from the tatty, fraying edges of 1970s Britain cuts away much that makes Vampyres interesting. It’s a remake that feels like a footnote, and – though it’s scarcely an hour and a quarter long – your attention is likely to wander quite a lot while it’s running.
Writer-directors Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf’s Styria (released on UK DVD as Angel of Darkness) tells an even more familiar story. It adapts J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s much-filmed ‘Carmilla’, with moments that explicitly evoke many of the story’s earlier incarnations (Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, Roger Vadim’s Et Mourir de Plaisir/Blood and Roses, Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers, Vicente Aranda’s La Novia Ensangrientada/The Blood-Spattered Bride) and such Carmilla-by-association efforts as The Moth Diaries and Byzantium. In a more sophisticated manner than the simple Gautier-read-aloud sessions of Vampyres, Styria draws on a wealth of pre-Bram Stoker vampire stories to present a version of the myth that’s unusual and distinctive. Carmilla films often seem odd because the Stoker/Lugosi/Hammer vampire myth is so entrenched in pop culture that Le Fanu’s more nebulous, ambiguous creatures appear somehow ‘wrong’ in interesting ways. Even the very physical Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s own take on the story, does some ghostly vanishing that wouldn’t do for Christopher Lee’s Dracula.
Styria sets the story in Hungary in 1989, and pares away much of Le Fanu’s plot and most of the supporting cast. Dr Hill (Stephen Rea) comes to a shuttered castle to examine murals that have been papered over, working under the threat of the collapsing communist regime levelling the building. Lara (Eleanor Tomlinson, who has now taken the Angharad Rees role in the remake of Poldark), his teenage daughter, has just been expelled from school after a violent incident. The sulky girl’s interest is piqued when she learns the castle once belonged to the family of her absent mother, whom Dr Hill doesn’t like to talk about. In the forest, Lara sees Carmilla (Julia Pietrucha) escape from a car driven by a bullying official, General Spiegel (Jacek Lenartowicz), and befriends the blonde, peculiar girl, who becomes a major influence in her life.
Though there’s a kiss that mimics a scene in Blood and Roses, Styria plays down the lesbian eroticism – too often taken to be the only interesting feature in Le Fanu’s extraordinarily complex story – and makes Carmilla possibly the protagonist’s alter ego, imaginary friend, sister, incarnated wild side or reincarnated mother. The film mostly stays in the crumbling castle to concentrate on the two girls … only venturing into the village near the end, to show the gruesome depredations of the vampire (whoever she may be) among the local population. It’s a successful evocation of the approach Euro-horror took in the 1970s rather than simple pastiche, and there are creepy, fresh scenes: a night-long sleepover on a bare mountain, which ends with Lara waking to find a bloody smiley face scrawled on a rock, a midnight swim with cold fingers that might be dumped statues or petrified corpses brushing Lara’s feet. The performances are all pitched slightly high – and Lenartowicz goes over the top as a malign take on the fearless vampire killer – and there’s attention to décor and atmosphere rather than shock, though the last reel (which borrows a lick from Hammer’s Kiss of the Vampire) is eventful and gruesome. Following The Moth Diaries by blurring the roles of vampire and victim, Styria gives Tomlinson (who is excellent) as much to play with as Pietrucha. This gets around the persistent problem that Le Fanu’s heroine, Laura, is a passive doormat who tends to be the dullest part of any film adaptation, even when played by Elsa Martinelli or Madeline Smith. Arty and sometimes too elliptical for its own good – Carmilla draws art film attention as much as commercial horror – Styria is nevertheless an interesting, unusual vampire movie.
Cast: Mari Törõcsik, György Cserhalmi, József Madaras
Miklós Jancsó’s richly inventive 1974 adaptation of the Greek myth sends an oblique political message.
Electra, My Love mesmerises from the very beginning: the beat of the music, the dance of the actors, and the sweep of the camera in extended takes all combine to draw you into the film’s rhythm. So too do the portentous words of Electra, sole voice of justice in the village, where a tyrant king has taken over after the death of her father, Agamemnon. Electra is convinced that her brother, Orestes, will return from exile and help her to liberate the people.
It’s hard not to see the film, made in 1974, as a comment on Hungary’s situation at the time, and a message of encouragement to the director’s fellow citizens. While Hungarians were living under a restrictive Communist regime, Electra, My Love used native folk music and dances as a backdrop to speeches about the need to speak the truth at all costs, and engage in a continuous struggle against oppression: to be reborn every day, like the phoenix.
As the film was made with public funding and under Communist scrutiny, any message of resistance had to be oblique. In his excellent liner notes to this new DVD release by Second Run, Peter Hames explains that Miklós Jancsó’s films are considered ‘difficult’ precisely because the audience is left uncertain as to whether they’ve understood them. The director believed that such ambiguity was important, as it made the viewer engage actively with his films, trying to figure them out, whereas traditional storylines encouraged passivity and escapism.
Just because a film is difficult to understand, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to watch. Electra, My Love treats the viewer to a rich and thoroughly enjoyable spectacle, not wasting a second of its 71-minute runtime. It includes a peacock, dogs, traditional costumes, whip and swordplay, nude dancers, impossibly large adobe huts, a giant ball and even a helicopter, all filmed in rich colour photography.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that this entire highly choreographed film contains just 12 shots. In a 28-minute interview included as extra material on the DVD, Jancsó’s cinematographer János Kende shares insights about the process of filming such long takes. He talks about Jancsó’s preference for improvisation, how camera technology allowed him to progress from 5-minute to 12-minute shots, and the challenges faced by actors in Electra, My Love, who needed to deliver poetic lines while Jancsó yelled stage directions through a megaphone.
Kende also shares fascinating anecdotes about the production process: how Jancsó was inspired to introduce the giant ‘football’, which features neither in the original myth of Electra, nor the play by László Gyurkó on which Electra, My Love was based. He also confides that they neglected to install a lightning conductor on the prairie where they filmed, and lightning did indeed strike, destroying part of the set, luckily while no one was there and after 90 of the filming was complete.
Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s twilight tale of an isolated Mexican family in the woods impressed at the L’Étrange Festival.
This year’s L’Étrange Festival opened with the world premiere of Daniel Castro Zimbrón’s new feature film The Darkness (Las tinieblas). After Tau (meaning ‘sun’ in the Huichol language), which dealt with a biologist stranded in a sunburnt desert and forced to reconsider his past and present, this second part of the ‘Trilogy of Light’ explores the other extreme, while starring the same Gustavo, convincingly and charismatically played by Brontis Jodorowsky. This time the desert gives way to a misty forest, where a father lives with his three children: a teenage Marcos, 12-year-old Argel and 8-year-old Luciana. They live alone in the woods, cloistered in a house repeatedly haunted by something dark, noisy and scary, in an unspecified future. The post-apocalyptic dimension of these woods is only vaguely hinted at when young Argel asks his father about the use of an old rusted pick-up, a relic from an unknown, bygone past. In this indefinite future there seem to be neither seasons nor any difference between day and night – only claustrophobic mist-ridden twilight. The title’s darkness is recurrently created by the father’s meticulously closing the shutters and locking his children in the cellar for bedtime. This world is further blurred by Argel’s mystical dreams, which invade the narration now and again, revealing their oneiric nature only when Argel wakes up. In one such dream, a Pandora-like box diffusing a blinding white light alludes to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where a similar box was the fruit of the Manhattan Project.
The fact that the whole story is narrated from Argel’s point of view, oscillating between dream and reality, adds to the general mystery, as does the masterful cinematography of Diego García who, as in Tau, shoots exclusively in natural light. Tenebrist tableaux, reminiscent of Caravaggio or Joseph Wright of Derby, are worth a look for themselves, but Zimbrón avoids complacent indulgence in mannerist camerawork by endowing his shots and his plot with an inner depth that transfigures the film from a post-apocalyptic thriller into a universal comédie humaine, exploring the confused limits between parental protection and authority, set against young Argel’s coming-of-age. For the beast that visits the house ‘nightly’ is (to quote the director’s own words) ‘a metaphor of the world in which we live, in which the beast represents the dangers outside the home as well as the dark side of human nature’. During his waking hours, the father makes elaborate wooden puppets of and for his children, the last one being fashioned after Luciana’s drawing of him as a spider-shaped monster. Like this puppeteer, Zimbrón manipulates our expectations, scatters contradictory clues as to what is really going on, and deceives us into believing in a M. Night Shyamalan-like twist, only to depart from it in the last part of the film, leaving us eventually, bewitchingly and literally in the dark.
Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
Julia Ducournau’s technically masterful female-focused cannibal film is less insightful than it may seem.
A girl walks alone at dawn, alongside a deserted country road. When a car drives by, she dives underneath it, causing the car to crash into a tree. The driver is dead and the girl leans over the car door to examine him. Here we are, then, revisiting David Cronenberg’s Crash, one might be tempted to think. Yet we soon find out that, if Julia Ducournau’s first feature film – selected for the Cannes Critics’ Week 2016 – definitely pays tribute to the ‘baron of blood’, it is most indebted to his recent novel Consumed. (Incidentally, let it be said that the English title makes the film’s cannibalistic turn evident from the start.) Cronenberg makes a perfect and duly acknowledged tutelary figure for the 32-year-old French director, who must have been fed pithy anecdotes from dissecting tables and emergency wards in her early days by her dermatologist father and gynaecologist mother. This might partly account for Ducournau’s obsession with the transformation of bodies, already omnipresent in her short film Junior (2011) and in her TV film Mange (2012). Junior actress Garance Marillier – now come of age and confirming her talent – is entrusted with the main role of Justine, who joins her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) for her first year in a veterinary school. During the unavoidable fresher initiation ritual (and in France medical schools are known to be the most gruesome), vegetarian Justine is forced to swallow a raw rabbit kidney, which, after an allergic reaction, triggers a novel taste for meat. A bikini-line depilation accident transforms this taste into a craving for human flesh, which actually runs in the family, as Alexia turns out to be ‘crash’ girl, eating her victims’ spare parts.
Although at first sight, Ducournau seems to be using the horror genre as a vehicle for a reflection on the passage to adulthood, the film is rather short on social or psychological insights, while the plot and the characters seem half-baked. In fact, Ducournau indulges in a sensationalist exploitation of the theme and the wide range of unpalatable reactions it provokes. This was clearly confirmed when she presented her film at the Etrange Festival, and evidently relished retelling the pungent anecdote from the Toronto Film Festival where paramedics had to be called during the screening to assist a spectator who had found the film hard to stomach. Thus, inscribed within the horror genre, Raw rather self-consciously plays with its codes, safe within its boundaries and often verging on parody. Ducournau delivers an efficient and technically mastered (but one would not expect less from a Fémis graduate) variation on the cannibal flick, which manages to keep a few twists in store alongside the more expected final feast. Ducournau was one of the 30 people on The Alice Initiative 2016 list, which aims to boost the number of female directors. Let us hope she gives us more fat to chew on in the years to come.
Amat Escalante’s SF exploration of Mexican society’s attitudes to sexuality is compelling despite its overuse of the supernatural.
Two Mexican films shown this year at the Etrange Festival – The Darkness and The Untamed – happen to focus on a small house in a forest clearing where strange things happen. But this is as far as the comparison extends. Awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Amat Escalante’s The Untamed borrows its premise from Pasolini’s Theorem: a family is disrupted by the arrival of a very attractive stranger who seduces all of its members and turns theirs lives upside down. Where Pasolini was lashing out at the Italian bourgeoisie of the 1960s, Escalante similarly confronts a contemporary Mexican society still hopelessly bogged down in machismo, misogyny and homophobia.
The opening sequence, which contrasts two visions of female sexuality, gives a good insight into what Escalante is driving at. After a shot of a meteorite in outer space, the camera zooms on a naked Veronica (Simone Bucio) slowly reaching a climax in a dark room, eventually revealing a glimpse of the receding long tentacle that has just given her pleasure. She then leaves the wood cabin wounded and bleeding. In the next scene we witness a couple – Angel (Jesús Meza) and Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) – waking up in a sunlit bedroom. Without any preliminaries or even a kiss, Angel takes Ale from behind while the camera zooms in on her face, still and expressionless on the pillow as she waits for him to come. She then wipes herself, gets up and masturbates under the shower until she is interrupted by their kids… After meeting Ale’s gay brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), who works as a nurse in the local hospital, Veronica intrudes into the lives of those three characters, changing them for ever.
She is the visitor here, and Escalante plays on the name given to Terence Stamp’s character in Theorem, as the Visitor in this story is also an alien creature from outer space. The director justifies his recourse to the supernatural by the fact that reality has already gone beyond fiction, but by including a long explicit sex scene between Ale and the alien (and why not one of the men?) – which was greeted by laughter among the audience of the L’Étrange Festival – he undermines more than he enhances the film’s social criticism. In Possession (1981), Andrzej Żuławski (whose influence is acknowledged in the final credits) explicitly opted for the realm of madness, altogether forsaking realism. But Escalante wants to have it both ways and fails to solve the conflict between the genres. Showing the demon in Possession made sense in order to blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. But since Escalante’s alien is established as real from the outset, it is hard to see the point of a sex scene that, far from producing the disturbing effect it had in Żuławski, seems to be revisiting Hideki Takayama’s manga and animés with an Overfiend redesigned by H. R. Giger. Escalante would have been better advised to follow the example of his Mexican compatriot Daniel Castro Zimbrén in The Darkness and retain more mystery, so that the otherworldly presence might serve more efficiently as a metaphor for the Mexican social atavisms he has been so brilliantly exposing in his films since his 2005 feature debut Sangre. The Untamed tones down the violence that shocked in Heli (2013) or Los Bastardos (2008) in favour of a more diffuse atmosphere of sadness and despair that still succeeds to convey Escalante’s powerful social message – despite, rather than thanks to, the alien’s presence.
The untamed screens at the London Film Festival on 8, 10, 16 October 2016.
Ivan I. Tvedovsky’s second feature film is a bold fable about non-conformity that is not always successful at blending genres.
In Zoology, his second feature film – the first was Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, 2014) – director Ivan I. Tvedovsky confirms his evident predilection for films about non-normative bodies. While his debut was about a wheelchair-bound girl with myopathy, his new film takes the theme a little further.
Zoology is about a lonely and rather frumpy middle-aged woman, Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova), who lives a rather mundane and uneventful life and seems to have no social contacts save for her superstitiously religious mother, with whom she lives. Her desk-bound job at a local zoo offers little human respite as her colleagues dislike her and tease and bully her. At one point, they fill one of her desk drawers with rats and mock her as she screams at the unexpected swarm of rodents. It seems her only solace is in wandering around the zoo and nurturing the caged animals – one of a number of sometimes stretched metaphors the filmmaker employs in this near-fable. The realm of the fabulous kicks in when this solitary, ignored, and it seems, defeated woman makes a curious discovery about her body: she has grown a tail. At which point I must take note of the impressive, touching and brave performance of actress Natalia Pavlenkova who carries off this difficult role with such aplomb and charm. She has definitely earned her Best Actress Awards at European festivals.
Natasha is at first horrified and embarrassed by her new-found appendage and seeks medical advice. The scenes at the clinic, however, present the first inklings of a problem that hampers the film somewhat. As the visits to the medical clinic are of a serious nature and are shot in a very realistic style (Tverdovsky cut his teeth on documentaries), a satire on the indifference of the Russian medical establishment ensues, which obfuscates the film’s deeper intentions. And therein lies one of a rather lame group of satirical commentaries parachuted into the film, which distract, and even divert from the plot. Now this may be a case of failed national comedy cross-overs, but they operate much more as awkward plot digressions, and this contributes to the fact that the film doesn’t entirely succeed as either fable, moral lesson, curious romantic comedy, parable or fairy tale.
As Natasha becomes less embarrassed and more empowered by her ‘difference’ and uniqueness she encounters a younger, handsome medical assistant who becomes fascinated with, and enamored of, her. They commence a beatific erotic liaison as both parties, in a romantic bubble, come to accept and love the tail (a persuasive if uncanny special effects prosthetic and CGI motion appendage) until it soon becomes evident, in a strange tail-fellating scene, that the young man loves her in the main for this part of her body. Talk about chasing tail!
As this realisation becomes clear to Natasha, her hard-won confidence and newly found ‘mojo’ begin to crumble. Understanding that her unusualness does not bring happiness she decides that she has to finally resolve the situation – an outcome that will not be spoiled in this review.
A film about romance, fragility, the fabulous, the courage to stand out from the crowd and the pressures of conformist society, Zoology is a brave film in a cinematic world of realistic or frothy and formulaic offerings. Not wholly successful in putting a narrative foot firmly down in any of the several genres introduced into the story, and not always clear in several motives and occurrences – there are a few plot holes and unconvincing happenings – Tvedovsky is definitely to be applauded for an audacious, interesting, arresting film – however curious and at times un-persuasive. Long may the spirit of independent visions last. Recommended viewing.
Masculinity is the true focus of Stuart Heisler’s noir tale of crime, power and lust.
Power, corruption and lies are at the burning heart of The Glass Key, with lust adding fuel to the fire. It’s election season, and local power broker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) has unexpectedly decided to throw his weight behind the reform candidate Ralph Henry, turning his back on his own shady interests and his gangster cohorts. The reason: Henry’s beautiful, clever daughter Janet (Veronica Lake), who’s more than happy to take advantage of Madvig’s intentions to help her father’s campaign.
But events are complicated further when Janet’s gambling-addicted brother Taylor, in debt to Madvig’s former partner-in-crime Nick Varna (and also secretly involved with Madvig’s sister Opal), turns up dead, his body found by Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Madvig’s right-hand man. The death becomes a pivotal moment in the power struggle between Varna and Madvig, with Beaumont’s involvement, rather predictably, ensnaring Madvig, Janet and himself in a love triangle. It’s classic noir territory, although Stuart Heisler’s 1942 adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel doesn’t quite sit as easily alongside some of the greats from the genre, due to its slow, muddy start.
Donlevy plays Madvig as something of a clown, his romantic volte-face derided by his opponents, while everyone seems to know that Janet is playing him for a fool. Veronica Lake is icy in her demeanour, all chiselled cheekbones and glossy, smooth hair, any feelings she has buried beneath her cynical exterior. But The Glass Key is really Alan Ladd’s picture (despite some good lines, Lake is criminally underused in the film). Beaumont comes into his own after Taylor’s death; though initially a suspect himself, he’s canny and connected enough to get himself off the hook, using guile and misdirection to figure out who is behind the murder. But Varna is clever too, sensing blood when Madvig emerges as the most likely suspect.
Everyone is in somebody’s pocket, including the local newspaper owner and the district attorney, with everyone looking after their own skin. It’s these sleazy back-room deals that make the film compelling, the tension increasing as Beaumont finds himself in increasing danger. The Glass Key really picks up after Varna decides to get to Madvig through Beaumont, taking a satisfyingly dark turn that leads to the film’s most explosive and powerful scenes. While Ladd fails in this as a romantic lead, with some wooden acting in his scenes with Lake, and, through no fault of his own, some laughable soft-focus close-ups, he excels as a man fighting for his life. In the end, the most compelling relationship in the film is the one that develops between Beaumont and one of Varna’s thugs, Jeff (William Bendix), who is full of admiration for his opponent’s fighting spirit.
In the end, it barely seems to matter who murdered Taylor, the film more concerned with the themes of honour, loyalty and masculinity. Despite its early failings, there are moments when The Glass Key really shines, with some classic cinematography, plenty of innuendo, and some standout performances, especially from the minor characters.
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