Cast: Chin Siu-ho, Anthony Chan, Kara Hui, Lo Hoi-pang, Paw Hee-ching
Hong Kong 2013
Juno Mak, who played the lead in, and wrote the story for, tragic thriller Revenge: A Love Story, makes his directorial debut with a superb, sombre homage to 1980s Chinese vampire films, in particular Ricky Lau’s supernatural action comedy Mr. Vampire. Featuring members of Lau’s original cast, Rigor Mortis foregoes the humour of the earlier film for a brooding, melancholy mood and dreamlike atmosphere. Mr. Vampire’s Chin Siu-Ho plays a forlorn former actor who attempts to commit suicide after moving into a bleak, ominous building. His neighbour Yau intervenes and saves him, but Chin and his neighbours will have to face the dark forces at work in his new home.
Rigor Mortis draws on Chinese vampire mythology, which gives the story a fascinating, mysterious (to Western audiences) edge. Taoist vampire hunter Yau and his ally/nemesis, the black magician Gau, use amulets, spells, glutinous rice and red string (creating gorgeous tentacular visuals), and, in Yau’s case, the Taoist wheel and its five elements, to control the supernatural creatures unleashed – including an impressively macabre zombie/vampire. With CGI used to terrific effect, the film features breath-taking fight sequences that alternate flowing balletic grace with sharp bursts of bloody action.
Startling, beautiful and eerie, Rigor Mortis takes place in an otherworldly realm of constantly croaking crows, muted grey colours, strange children and upside down gardens growing on ceilings, all underpinned by a haunting, creepy score. While the elliptical, circular narrative is left open to interpretation, it seems to suggest that what we are watching is the heroic death dreamed by a dying actor, the casting of Chin Siu-Ho giving added poignancy to this idea. A superb, haunting, darkly poetic debut not to be missed.
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Stephen King, Viveca Lindfors, Leslie Nielson, Fritz Weaver
Stephen King’s first original screenplay, directed by George A. Romero, ought by rights to have been a major piece of work. The fact that it remains defiantly minor perhaps points to Romero’s excessive respect for King, and King’s lack of respect for cinema. ‘I like moron movies,’ he declares in his otherwise smart study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre. And so he set out to write a silly movie, inspired by EC Comics, but actually dumbed down the material. Romero’s own idea, described in the extras on this fine new Blu-ray, was to create an anthology that tracked the development of the horror flick, beginning in black and white 1:1.35 and expanding to colour and widescreen as it went on. With his lack of sensitivity to the formal elements of cinema (see also his preference for his TV mini-series version of The Shining over Kubrick’s feature film), King wasn’t interested in that.
So Romero was saddled with a script that often doesn’t seem to make sense or to satisfy on a basic level of plot. He entertains himself by chopping the frame into comics panels and using lurid coloured lighting, which often changes mid-shot as if in a stage show, to create an analog of the four-colour comic strip experience. He also gets some very lively performances from a disparate cast, some of whom hit just the right note of frenzied caricature.
The problems and benefits of the approach are immediately obvious in the first episode, which follows from a remarkably thin framing structure (a nasty dad is upset about his kid reading anachronistic 1950s monster comics). King seems to have written the film rather quickly, and I don’t think he spent much, or any, time polishing it, so the first section, Father’s Day, is certainly the weakest. A zombie rises from the grave to get his cake, and kills a bunch of relatives along the way. Said crowd include a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Viveca Lindfors, and a young Ed Harris, whose disco dancing may be the most disturbing thing on show. No really strong reason is given why the characters have to die (though Harris’s funky moves arguably warrant a capital sentence) and indeed the deceased dad seems to have been a nasty piece of work anyway.
However, one benefit of the anthology film is that if you don’t like one episode, another will be along shortly, and Creepshow stands to gain fresh bursts of energy from its ever-changing cast and its team of editors, who give each instalment a subtly different rhythm.
Unfortunately, episode two, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, features Stephen King himself, gurning and going cross-eyed as an unlucky yokel infected by some kind of alien fungus he contracts after unwisely handling a meteorite. Borrowing the horror premise from William Hope Hodgson’s classic tale ‘The Voice in the Night’, King rides roughshod over the eerie and tragic potential of the story with his cack-handed performance. It’s one thing to say he’s deliberately over-the-top, but his buffoonish act is not just broad but totally unskilled. Bad acting is best left to the professionals. Again, the basic cause-and-effect of a horror retribution yarn is garbled, with Jordy fantasising about making a fortune from his falling star after he’s already been tainted by it. So we can’t even interpret his horrible fate as an excessive punishment for greed, nor can we see it as a manifestation of his lifelong bad luck, since the script doesn’t get around to mentioning that until later.
Leslie Nielsen comes to the rescue in Something to Tide You Over, a blackly comic revenger’s tragedy in which he gleefully buries a pre-Cheers Ted Danson up to his neck in sand to await high tide. Nielsen, though very funny, is nevertheless giving a true performance, unlike King. He had done Airplane!, and was just about to appear in Police Squad!, but was still more of an actor than a clown. His ebulliently nasty millionaire, obsessively recording his crimes on tape, can be seen as an avatar of the coming video-horror age, but truly embodies the spirit of EC, making sadism funny. The zombie climax hasn’t really been prepared for in any meaningful way, but the execution (with typically gross Tom Savini makeup effects) is so enthusiastic it seems forgivable.
Less forgivable is The Crate, boasting the strongest cast of all (Fritz Weaver, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau) and an amusing conceit, in the form of a still-living specimen from an arctic expedition discovered in a box at a university, and eating its way through the faculty. But Romero struggles to make the misogynistic fantasy palatable, working with a very crude pastiche of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? provided by King, in which we are invited to root for Holbrook to dispose of his shrewish wife using the crated creature as assassin. Weaver renders a typically detailed and funny study of male hysteria, Holbrook does his best to keep up, and Barbeau gamely surrenders to the role of hate-object, but it’s all very poorly worked out, and even the monster is unappetising.
Fortunately, the final episode produces authentic shivers of revulsion, and again centres on a zesty performance, this time from E.G. Marshall in clown-hair as a Howard Hughes-type nasty obsessive. The slender logic of EC is delivered intact for once: he’s mean and he hates bugs, so he’s assailed by masses of cockroaches. If you’re not itching by the end of this one, you’re already dead.
Somehow mostly likable in spite of its casual approach and occasional reactionary excesses, its lack of logic and its excess of high spirits, Creepshow benefits from lush presentation on Blu-ray. Romero’s tinted scrim effects and wacky panel shapes have never looked so good, and some of the accompanying cutting is authentically snazzy in an almost avant-garde way. It’s a shame he never found a pleasing style for the more conventional moments, and it’s a shame the good episodes are just outnumbered by the bad, but somehow, on balance, the film comes away more winning than otherwise.
Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp
Released in 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a wide-ranging critical and commercial success, establishing the faltering young studio New Line – nicknamed ‘The House that Freddy Built’ – and revitalising the career of writer/director Wes Craven, as well as introducing the cinema-going public to the enduring horror/comedy icons, Freddy Kreuger and Johnny Depp, who together must have inspired a significant demographic of fancy dress and Halloween costumes. Returning to the original film in the wake of the increasingly bizarre sequels, culminating in Wes Craven’s meta-mad New Nightmare and Samuel Bayer’s dourly unnecessary 2010 remake, I was surprised by how much fun it is. For some reason, I had retrospectively given the original film a patina of respectability in the light of the daftness of what was to come, but that daftness was right there from the beginning, and Nightmare is best enjoyed as a pulpy B-movie that sneakily delights in its own absurdity.
Although Robert Englund is credited in the opening titles as playing ‘Fred Krueger’, he really is Freddy from the get go. Forget any contemporary neuroses about the ubiquity of paedophilia; Freddy, the disfigured knife-clawed child murderer, is a cackling, malevolent clown figure who delights in the fear and disgust he causes his victims. His costume is circus-tent red and green, and in an early appearance, his arms stretch out from one side of the street to the other, both ludicrous and genuinely frightening. He’ll happily lop of a finger for a giggle, and his murders are gruesome jokes on his victims, involving peek-a-boo chases and Johnny Depp’s Greg getting sucked into the pit of his bed to be spewed out, like the gushing spill from the elevator in the Overlook Hotel. ‘You’re not gonna need a stretcher,’ a cop tells the rushing medics. ‘You’re gonna need a mop.’
Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, Freddie’s target and adversary, has a goofy awkward innocence and a weird dreamlike nonchalance. Everyone in the film behaves with an odd dreamy logic, though the dreams themselves are never really that dream-like, with the exception of the gooey staircases that melt under Nancy’s running feet. The dreams are more like Hollywood-digested Freud, with the boiler room as the steamy, ready-to-blow site of repression, rage and dark history, in stark opposition to the pastel-coloured suburban life on show. Freddy himself is a product of Nancy’s parents’ crimes, and they are as much a danger to her as Freddy, with Ronnee Blakley as Nancy’s booze-drenched mom and B-movie legend John Saxon as the absent police detective dad.
Ultimately, Nancy will try to inhabit Freddy’s sado-comic world and play by his rules. Anticipating the Home Alone antics of Macauley Culkin’s Kevin, Nancy improvises a series of Wile-E-Coyote traps – a hammer falling from a door, exploding lightbulbs – but these manoeuvres and her attempt at psychological release will be dubiously effective against a cartoonish figure who, like all cartoon heroes, simply won’t die.
Cast: Roberts Blossom, Cosette Lee, Leslie Carlson
Deep within America’s rural Midwest the dutiful and devoted Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) looks after his elderly, overbearing and bed-ridden mother (Cosette Lee) in a secluded farmhouse. Fanatically religious and slightly insane, Ezra’s mother believes that the wages of sin are gonorrhoea, syphilis and death, and has instilled in Ezra a hatred for all women. Following her own death, Ezra sinks into deep despair, and as loneliness pushes him further towards madness, he decides to dig up her body and carry on as if nothing has changed.
In an attempt to restore his mother to her former self, Ezra begins to study taxidermy in the hope of creating a new skin for his deceased parent. At first he experiments with animal skins, and then resorts to stitching together the flesh scraped from recently deceased corpses. But when the results are less than perfect, Ezra’s morbid pursuit becomes homicidal when he decides that he needs younger, fresher material to work with.
Released the same year as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen’s cult horror Deranged also took its inspiration from the horrific exploits of legendary serial killer Ed Gein. Although not as well known and revered as Tobe Hooper’s seminal slasher, Deranged certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its contemporary. It has also been noted that Deranged is far more faithful to the life of Ed Gein and his dreadful crimes.
Unforgettably foreboding and with a deep sense of the macabre, it’s also surprisingly well paced and directed. Much like Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), it’s a master class in pragmatic B-movie aesthetics and how to be as effective as possible within the constraints of an extremely limited budget, crew, cast and locations. The minimal sets, small clutch of characters, and the device of an omnipresent journalist who randomly appears to narrate the story and fill in the gaps add to the surreal atmosphere, rather than hindering the film. There are also some incredibly garish and grimy interiors that give the film that authentically 70s feel of opaque gloom.
As we witness one man’s bizarre descent into psychopathic madness, the film effortlessly progresses from pitch-black gallows humour to something far more harrowing and nightmarish. Along with the deadpan dialogue, the scenes involving Ezra driving his mother back from the graveyard and a bizarre date with a sex-craved clairvoyant are the most overtly humorous. But it’s Ezra’s rotting dinner guests, his banal, workmanlike attitude towards his actions, and his cold-blooded and predatory hunt for his final victim that linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
The previously censored brain-scooping scene (created by the legendary Tom Savini) may be the film’s most notorious aspect, but its most unsettling and effective element has to be Roberts Blossom’s perfectly judged performance as the unhinged Ezra, turning Deranged into one of the few 70s exploitation horror films that actually lives up to its title.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley
UK, USA, Ireland 2012
Eighteen years after filming Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Neil Jordan has returned to undead mythology with another adaptation, this time of a play by Moira Buffini. Eschewing the usual clichés, Byzantium, set in a rundown seaside town, is a moody, melancholy film that focuses on the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter who became vampires two centuries earlier.
Saoirse Ronan is spellbinding as eternal teenager Eleanor, who seems condemned to be a sad, isolated outsider forever, while Gemma Arterton plays her more earthly, busty, gutsy mother Clara, with much vim and vigour (sometimes a tad too much). After a violent incident, Clara and Eleanor are forced to leave their tower-block apartment and move to an unnamed coastal town. Posing as sisters, they meet the meek and lonely Noel, who invites them to move into the dilapidated guesthouse he owns, the ironically named Byzantium. But tensions develop between Clara, who sets up to provide for her daughter and herself as only she knows how, and Eleanor, who is tired of hiding and yearns to share her secret, even more so after befriending sick teenager Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). As mysterious black-clad men try to track mother and daughter down, the conflict between them only increases the danger of their situation.
The focus on the mother/daughter dynamic provides an original, inventive angle on the vampire myth. There is great love between the two, but they have come to the heartbreaking moment when the daughter has grown up and is pulling away from her mother. Eleanor has become critical of her mother’s choices, but Clara will still ruthlessly do anything it takes to protect her daughter, as she’s always done. Their eternally youthful appearances add a strange twist that heightens the poignancy of a familiar situation. And although Gemma Arterton is not capable of the same emotional weight and expressiveness as Saoirse Ronan, her shortcomings may actually work well to convey the clumsy love of a woman forced into motherhood at too young an age.
Byzantium was the opening night film at this year’s Sci-Fi-London (30 April – 6 May 2013). Check out the full programme here.
There is also a little feminist touch to this vampire story: Carla is up against a male-dominated society (doubly so, both the society of her time, as well as a secret brotherhood), where her class and gender put her at a disadvantage. But with tremendous energy and spirited cheekiness, she fights and claws things back from the men who have maltreated her, raising herself and her daughter to a unique – and forbidden – position.
The film alternates between modern times and flashbacks to their past, contrasting today’s burnt-out pier, seedy guest house and grey skies with lush, candle-lit interiors, stunning coastlines and dark crypts. The vampiric transformation takes place on a sinister rocky island where a waterfall turns blood red once the change has been effected. It is a stylish, atmospheric film, with gorgeous cinematography and true visual flair, although it’s not without flaws. Gemma Arterton’s performance is patchy, while Caleb Landry Jones is totally overplayed. There are some jarring tone shifts and the pace does not always feel fully controlled, with the final showdown, most notably, ending too quickly. Despite these gripes, however, Byzantium is a thoroughly enjoyable, beautifully shot vampire film with a beating heart.
Directors: Various, including Adrián García Bogliano, Marcel Sarmiento, Angela Bettis, Noburo Iguchi, Jorge Michel Grau, Yûdai Yamaguchi, Anders Morgenthaler, Timo Tjahjanto, Ti West, Bruno Forzani & Hélène Cattet, Srdjan Spasojevic, Jake West, Lee Hardcastle, Ben Wheatley, Xavier Gens, Jason Eisener, Yoshihiro Nishimura
USA/New Zealand 2012
A high-concept portmanteau piece for which 26 modern horror directors were assigned with a letter of the alphabet and tasked with creating a short film. The resulting 123 minutes, from A for Apocalypse to Z for Zetsumetzu is, as you might expect, a mixed bag, with low-key, lo-fi naturalism next to cartoon expressionism, art house butting up against gross animation.
The batting average for the shorts is pretty high overall, with few outright duds. The problem is that most of the contributors come from a similar age, sex and mindset, resulting in a cumulative blokey, snarky chat-room feel as the film progresses – a battle to be more transgressive, freaky and cool, with surprisingly few films aiming to actually scare you. The viewer starts to feel somewhat numb, clocking up where they are in the alphabet and wondering how much more T & A, toilets, reflex post-modernism, bugs and Cronenbergian ickiness they can take.
For the record, Timo Tjahjanto wins the sickness race with Libido; Ben Wheatley delivers a sharp, subjective camera shock with Unearthed; Hydro-Electric Diffusion is agreeably bonkers; Quack and WTF are pretty funny, in a knowing, American smartarse way; Youngbuck winningly feels like a twisted loveletter to the 80’s high school movie and Fart and Zetsumetsu (both Japanese) seem determined to throw as much weirdness as possible at the screen in the hope that some of it might mean something. For my money, the real standouts were Dogfight by Marcel Samiento, a jagged little tale with a political edge that is scored, edited and shot to perfection, and Forzani/Cattet’s Orgasm, which is a beautiful, erotic semi-abstract nightmare unlike anything else around it. But hell, dive in, there’s something to upset everyone.
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza
There are few films that fit the title of ‘cult favourite’ better than Eugenio Martín’s Horror Express (1972). Despite being one of the best Spanish horror films of the 1970s, Horror Express didn’t make much of a splash in the domestic market, but even today cult fans recognise it for what it is: a colourful, fast-paced monster movie filled with oddball characters and equally loopy plot twists.
Most of the action takes place on the Trans-Siberian Railway as it hurtles across the Siberian tundra from Peking to Eastern Europe. Among the passengers are two British scientists, Sir Alexander Saxton (Christopher Lee), an archaeologist, and biologist Dr Wells, played by Peter Cushing. Others travelling on the train include a Polish nobleman (George Rigaud), his beautiful young wife (Silvia Tortosa), and their unstable, Rasputin-like priest (Alberto de Mendoza); a Spanish engineer; a Russian detective (Julio Peña), and a woman later revealed to be an international spy (Helga Liné). Saxton is travelling with several crates containing the finds from his latest expedition, including the frozen corpse of a primitive humanoid, believed to be millions of years old. Before the train has even left the station the curious properties of the thing in the crate have begun to emerge; after attempting to open the box, a Chinese thief is found dead on the platform, with his eyes completely white. Later that night a hairy, bestial hand emerges from the crate, finds a rusty nail and expertly picks the lock. Before long there is a mounting pile of corpses on the train, and all with the same white eyes. Dr Wells performs autopsies and discovers another bizarre symptom: the victims’ brains are entirely smooth, leading the doctor to conjecture that they have been drained of memory and learning. Whatever is loose on the train is not simply killing, it’s also accumulating the knowledge and experience of all its victims.
As you might guess from the two main stars, Horror Express draws much of its inspiration from the Gothic horror tales of Hammer, but Martín and his scriptwriters can at least be commended for not repeating the usual Cushing/good vs. Lee/evil set-up. In many ways Saxton is a typical Lee character: proud, aristocratic and distinctly unlikeable, the opposite of Cushing’s good-humoured Dr Wells. Despite this, Horror Express does give Lee a chance to flex his heroic muscles – something he rarely did with Hammer – as he leads the fight against the prehistoric monster and rescues the damsels in distress. Saxton might be an insufferable snob, but he does at least manage to save the day. Further references to Hammer’s films are dotted throughout Horror Express, whether it’s the prehistoric beasts of Val Guest’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), the disastrous archaeological expeditions of Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (1959) or the sensationalist pseudo-history of Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Naturally, no true Hammer tribute would be complete without Peter Cushing opening at least one skull with a saw and chisel, and sure enough, there’s one here too. There’s also plenty of Hammer-style pseudo-science: ‘The creature’s visual memory resides in the eye, not the brain!’
Such knowing references might well appear lazy and derivative in a lesser work, but in Horror Express – a film that displays its influences openly – they contribute to its considerable charms. A key factor in this is a witty and original script that treads comfortably between humour and horror, without undermining either of them. It’s a claim that’s often made and rarely warranted, but there really isn’t another film like Horror Express. At first it’s a fairly standard creature feature, with the victims locked in an enclosed space with an ancient monster, but before long the bizarre plot developments start to appear. [SPOILER ALERT] The primitive primate is not the creature itself, it’s just a body the being inhabits – and it can move bodies too, along with a few other abilities that make killing it a bit more difficult. The heroes’ task is complicated by human factors too, including the increasingly unstable priest who comes to believe that the monster is a being of divine origin. Fed up with pandering to the ‘spiritual needs’ of the nobility, he decides to offer himself to the diabolic creature and tries to stop Saxton and Wells from killing it. Even more troublesome is the presence of Captain Kazan, an army officer played with enthusiasm by Telly Savalas. Sent to deal with the problems on the train, Kazan believes it’s all the work of agitators or anarchists, and his solution involves whipping or beating anyone whose face doesn’t fit. Naturally the Count and Countess are spared this treatment and allowed to return to their carriage. [END OF SPOILERS] If there’s a subtext to Horror Express, it concerns the insulation of the Count and his wife. Appropriate surrogates for Generalissimo Franco, still in power at the time, they sit in luxurious and comfortable surroundings while their servants brutalize anyone they please with impunity.
As well as Cushing and Lee, Horror Express features a number of well-known faces from the European horror scene. Seasoned gialli stars Alberto De Mendoza and George Rigaud both appeared in Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) together, as well as a handful of Sergio Martino films separately. German-born actress Helga Liné is much the same, having racked up an impressive number of genre credits, including Amando de Ossorio’s When the Screaming Stops (1976). Before his death in 1972, Julio Peña had been a mainstay of Spanish cinema, appearing in almost 100 films since the 1930s. Although Horror Express is one of her few genre credits, Silvia Tortosa is still a popular TV star. Special mention much go to Telly Savalas, whose flamboyant, over-the-top performance as the thuggish vodka-drinking Captain Kazan is one of the film’s most memorable aspects, even though Savalas is only on screen for about 15 minutes. Whether it’s entirely appropriate is up to the individual viewer, but Kazan’s sudden appearance kicks the film into high gear and brings in the energetic final act as Saxton and Wells make one last attempt to save the passengers and destroy the monster.
Although it doesn’t play fair by bringing some new monstrous abilities for the climax, such left-field plot developments are comparatively commonplace in Spanish horror films of the 1960s and 70s. Thankfully Martín and his two leading men have the sense to approach the film’s increasingly loopy narrative entirely straight, aware that even a hint of irony or condescension could have a disastrous effect on a movie like this. The finished result is an atmospheric, original and very entertaining film, and one of Spanish horror cinema’s best works. Ironically enough, it’s also the kind of film that British studios were finding it increasingly difficult to produce. Hammer’s most recent efforts were not inspiring: Dracula A.D. 1972 was a misbegotten attempt to bring Dracula into the 20th century, while the promising Vampire Circus (1972) was hampered by rewrites and post-production difficulties. Similar problems afflicted Amicus, the producer of endless anthologies of short horror films. In comparison with Horror Express, the 1970s output of both Hammer and Amicus looks somewhat pale indeed. Jorge Grau’s excellent The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is another Spanish horror film that makes far better use of its English locations than most British directors could.
During the J-Horror boom of the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, no aspect of contemporary Japanese life seemed to be off limits to filmmakers aiming to make audiences jump out of their seats: from the videotape in Ring (1998), to wife-seeking in Audition (1999), to electricity in Pulse (2001), to an apartment leak in Dark Water (2002), to cell phones in One Missed Call (2004), directors such as Hideo Nakata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike appropriated aspects of consumer culture or domestic life to suit their respective scare tactics. Arriving as the cycle was arguably running out of commercial and creative steam, Sion Sono’s Exte is a bizarre genre entry that adds hair extensions to the ever-expanding list of modern phenomena that you should beware of because it might be haunted. Distributed by major studio Toei and featuring a recognisable star in Chiaki Kuriyama, best known for playing violent schoolgirls in Battle Royale (2000) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), this was Sono’s chance to cross over into a lucrative market following a series of controversial independent films - Suicide Club (2001), Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), Strange Circus (2005) - that firmly established his credentials as a cult auteur. Yet it finds the director working around, rather than adhering to, the rules of genre, suggesting a brief fling with the system rather than a bid for regular employment. Despite this dual identity, Exte succeeds in imbuing its urban nightmare scenario with the director’s trademark societal exposé to be sufficiently interesting for genre aficionados and Sono devotees alike.
Exte opens with customs agents discovering large quantities of human hair in a shipping container, along with the body of a young girl. At the morgue, an autopsy confirms that the girl has been the victim of organ theft, probably committed by a human harvesting operation. Before the investigation can continue, night watchman Yamazaki (Ren Osugi) steals the body and takes it home, where he discovers that it is re-growing hair, not only from the head but also from other parts and orifices. This sexually excites Yamazaki, who is a hair fetishist, while also providing an additional stream of income as he is able to make extensions and sell them to salons. One business that he visits is the place of work of Yûko (Chiaki Kuriyama), a stylist who is taking care of Mami (Miku Satô), the eight-year-old daughter of her irresponsible sister, Kiyomi (Tsugumi). The staff of the salon are impressed by the quality of Yamazaki’s extensions, but the employee who tries them on is killed later that night: the dead girl has a score to settle with society, and her hair is able to control the minds of those who wear it, sharing her horrible experience on the operating table, before committing murder from beyond the grave. Yamazaki’s infatuation with the hair of Yuko and Mami places them in danger, while Sono has macabre fun with his main prop: hair sprouts from eyes and mouths, holds police detectives captive, and slices with the severity of a very sharp knife.
As with his subsequent ‘true crime’ stories Cold Fish (2010) and Guilty of Romance (2011), which favoured narratives of transgression over accurate dramatisation of the facts, Exte finds Sono demonstrating a general disregard for the genre in which he is operating: this is ostensibly a horror film, yet the director spends as much time exploring the fractured family unit as he does staging the requisite shocking set pieces. Mami is a neglected child, and possibly a victim of abuse: the sadistic Kiyomi uses Mami as a means of accessing her sister’s apartment to steal food and raid the wardrobe for new clothing, while treating her daughter as a punching bag when her mood swings. Sono also throws in enough darkly humorous details and lines of dialogue to suggest that he does not take the genre as seriously as his contemporaries: the name of the salon is Gilles de Rais, a reference to the 15th-century French mass murderer, and lines like ‘My nose hair’s out of control lately’ openly acknowledge the ridiculous nature of the premise. Even some of the expository exchanges are played for knowing laughs, such as Yuko’s conversations with her roommate. However, there are some very strange special effects to satisfy gore-hounds, with hair shooting out from a woman’s head, attaching to the ceiling, then lifting her up before dropping its victim to her death. Exte would be immediately overshadowed by the epic satire of Love Exposure (2008), but it remains a typically subversive, and occasionally brilliant, Sono experience.
Cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke
Hard-up 1930s Depression-era cinema-goers were eager to escape the everyday in a tantalising world of the strange and uncanny. The success of Universal’s Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) saw other studios keen to carve themselves a bloody slice of the action. Paramount seized H.G. Wells’s anti-vivisectionist novel The Island of Dr Moreau, adapted to become Island of Lost Souls (1932). Designed to combine grotesque thrills with jungle drama (another hot genre at the time), it was knocked out quickly by work-a-day director Erle C. Kenton. Little did the studio know that the end product would be one of the weirdest, creepiest films to emerge in the pre-Hays Code era and would defy time to become a transgressive horror classic.
Finally out on DVD after years of fuzzy bootleg VHS copies, Island tells the tale of square-jawed Edward Parker, marooned on the eerie South Seas island of sinister scientist Dr Moreau (the wonderful Charles Laughton). Parker is shocked to discover that Moreau has created a shambling experimental race of half-human, half-animal creatures, some cloven-hoofed, some sprouting hair in unusual places, who live in the jungle, obedient to Moreau lest they be summoned to his sadistic ‘house of pain’. Moreau’s latest creation is the sensual Panther Woman. Looking rather unlike Moreau’s other creations – more like an alluring animalistic Betty Boop – she has never seen a handsome man before. In the name of science, Moreau unleashes her on hunky Parker - and that’s when the trouble starts.
As mad Moreau, Charles Laughton dominates proceedings with an incredible performance that veers expertly between quietly understated and the edges of overblown. Like Colin Clive’s Dr Frankenstein, he compares himself to God; but Laughton’s Moreau is not a misguided would-be do-gooder; he is a cheerfully unhinged genius who revels in doing evil. Beaming proudly at the screams of his botched animal-human hybrids, cracking his whip over the awful monsters he’s created, lounging decadently across his vivisection table like a modern day Roman emperor, or simply oozing creepiness as he offers a guest a cup of tea, Laughton plays his part with delicious relish. Somehow he convinces the viewer that despite his odious transgressions against nature, humanity and God, he’s rather a fun fellow really; despite the fact that he is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, we remain sympathetic to him right to the end. This creepy moral paradox is central to the film’s unique, unsettling, perverse power.
Bela Lugosi, the ‘Sayer of the Law’, the chief experimental-reject responsible for conveying Moreau’s orders to the beast-men, deserves mention (as always). Despite sporting a mighty brush of facial hair that would infringe upon anybody’s expressive powers, he turns a lemon of a minor part into lemonade, delivering a convincing, memorable portrayal through pure energetic force of will. â€œAre ve not men?â€ he demands of his savage brethren, in that inimitable distinctly un-South Seas voice of his. And he means it. Some of the so-called ‘civilised’ characters are equally fascinating - from the booze-addled, neglectful skipper who thinks nothing of heaving Parker from his boat, before later attempting to chat up his fiancée, to a pipe-puffing disgraced medic, who finds hope of redemption in Moreau’s demise.
It all looks terrific thanks to legendary cinematographer Karl Struss. Like many of the early sound horrors, it has that distinctly creepy quality, an indefinable spookiness that faded away somehow as horror got glossier towards the 1940s. Struss’s camera is always moving, pulling back and forwards through crowded, labyrinthine sets. From the fog-shrouded ship-bound scenes to the steamy verdant undergrowth, he takes us to a distant place. We feel the oppressive claustrophobia of the jungle. In one justly renowned sequence, a succession of imaginatively made-up horrors lurch vengefully towards the camera to attack their master (British make-up specialist Wally Westmore gives Universal’s Jack Pierce a run for his money here). Briefly glimpsed, gangly, dark and hairy, they strike a potent contrast with glistening, corpulent, baby-faced Laughton in his vivid white suit, before they gleefully turn on him in one of the most gloriously twisted finales to grace a 1930s horror.
Wells was outraged by what they’d done to his novel and disgusted by the insertion of a sexual, sensual edge. The British censor banned the film outright for many years; and, even today – perhaps especially today, in these times of genetic experimentation - this tale of man messing with nature retains its creepy potency. Throw out your VHS, the DVD looks great. This is absolutely your best chance to see whether – as is rumoured – Buster Crabbe, Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott really make unbilled appearances as beast-men. Let’s hope some of the other great forgotten horrors of this era can get a similarly lavish make-over. Can we start with White Zombie (1932)?
Cast: Laurence R. Harvey, Ashlynn Yennie, Emma Lock, Katherine Templar
Like last year’s infamous A Serbian Film, The Human Centipede 2 has managed to become the hot button issue of the UK film industry. In one corner, we have the BBFC; in the other, the fans. What is being fought over is not only the morals of British society but also our approach to controversial art in the future.
First, the BBFC banned the film, because they said it was impossible to cut it to an acceptable format. Now they’ve allowed it in a cut version although one member of the board abstained from voting in favour of the decision. Some critics love it, some absolutely hate it. Audience members throw up, some cheer, others boo. The contents have now become almost mythical for their gratuitous violence. So how does a low-budget horror film elicit such strong reactions from every segment of the film industry?
With The Human Centipede, Tom Six proved that horror did not need to live up to expectations to fulfil its potential. Audiences expected gross-out body horror of the most extreme kind, and he delivered a well-timed and skilful update of the mad scientist figure.
With the sequel he seems to have pulled out all the stops to deliver something visually extreme. However, at the core of his film lies a central performance that borders on slapstick. Laurence R. Harvey stars as Martin, a seemingly mild-mannered car park security guard who lives with his abusive mother. Martin seems to spend his days watching the original Human Centipede on repeat and putting together a shoddy plan to continue the work of Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser). As his psychosis blooms, no one around him is safe from his fantasies of playing doctor and conducting the ultimate centipede experiment.
In this sequel, Tom Six promises that the whole thing is ‘100% medically inaccurate’ and to say that he fully delivers on this claim is an understatement of sorts. Martin is an introvert, the kind of person who as a child would get picked on at school, and his understanding of surgery and human anatomy leaves a lot to be desired. However, Martin compensates for his lack of knowledge with a gleeful sense of enthusiasm that drives the film forward.
Laurence R. Harvey’s performance is pitch-perfect: Martin lies somewhere between the deadpan mannerisms of Buster Keaton and the full-blown psychotic tendencies of Henry. Each gesture, each facial expression perfectly conveys his character. He is not moral or amoral but free from these considerations - a child lost and never found.
Perhaps the biggest problem with The Human Centipede 2 is the forced cuts by the BBFC - reading their detailed report on the film, it’s hard not to feel cheated by these numerous snips, which create leaps in the narrative logic and a sense of discordance. However, as it stands, The Human Centipede 2 is still a terrific movie: if you can tune into its warped, droll humour and excessive brutality, this is one hell of an experience you are sure not to forget. Tom Six has managed to channel a true British nasty through his uniquely European approach. Unmissable.
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