Tag Archives: horror cinema

Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 26 September 2011

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Ruggero Deodato

Writer: Gianfranco Clerici

Cast: Robert Kerman, Carl Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes

Italy 1980

95 mins

The year is 1978 and a respected group of American documentary-makers led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) have disappeared in the Columbian jungle while attempting to film the cannibal tribesmen reputed to live there. Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) is dispatched to find out what’s happened to them. He makes arduous progress through the land and its peoples, finally making contact with the feared Yamamomo, or ‘Tree People’, who reveal to him the grisly remains of Yates’s crew, and several cans of undeveloped film, which he manages to take back to New York. The TV executives who financed the documentary are desperate to broadcast it as ‘the green inferno’ but the more Monroe hears about Yates and his methods the less he likes it, and when we finally see the footage our worst suspicions are confirmed. It’s a horrifying catalogue of rape, mutilation and murder in which the film crew burn down a village, kill livestock, and essentially stop at nothing to achieve ever more sensational footage, goading the ‘Tree People’ into brutal vengeance that they remain determined to capture on film even as their friends and lovers are slaughtered in front of them. It can’t be screened. ‘Who are the real cannibals?’ Monroe ponders as he walks out onto the NY streets…

Context is everything. I first saw Ruggero Deodato’s film by chance rather than design one morning around 20 years ago, hung over and feeling none too clever in Alex B’s Lewisham flat. Alex is a musician, writer and inveterate gore-hound. It was a hand-labelled VHS tape of recent acquisition, a bootleg Japanese forbidden artefact, banned by the Video Recordings Act of 1982, which bizarrely left all of the violence and unsimulated animal cruelty (1) intact, but used an optical blurring effect over any shots revealing genitalia. I’d seen a Lucio Fulci film or two and thought I knew what I was in for. I was wrong. The film was, in my fragile state, utterly psychologically toxic; the nihilistic tone, brutal imagery and ugly portrayal of human nature didn’t leave me after the tape had played out and I’d found my way home, and would bother me for a long time after. It was probably my most extreme reaction to a film since the joy I had watching Star Wars at the age of seven.

2011: I encounter Cannibal again, but this time at the Cine-Excess V (‘the politics and aesthetics of excess’) conference. Deodato is one of the guests and will receive an honorary doctorate from Brunel University at the Italian Cultural Institute as part of the event. I’m waiting for a screening of his 1976 film Live Like A Cop, Die Like a Man (2) when one of the directors of the Institute refers to Deodato as ‘Il Maestro’, with evident respect. Over the weekend dozens of academics will present papers on ‘Cine-torrent: Remediating Cult Images in Online Communities’ and ‘Bad Sisters in Prison: Excesses and Gender Politics in 1970s Exploitation’ and the like (3). Cannibal Holocaust itself is shown in a brand new print at the Odeon Covent Garden. I’m sitting next to a nice bloke from Cardiff who has driven here for the film, he thinks of Cannibal as a classic. A much loved trip he is delighted to revisit on the big screen in the presence of its maker. I ask if it’s his Toy Story 2 and he happily agrees. That bootleg VHS nasty has become a revered totem of the golden age of exploitation, no longer forbidden contraband, now name-dropped as the first ‘found footage’ film, made long before The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Watching it again is a strange and numbing affair. I’m not overwhelmed this time. I’m taking notes.

It’s a film of bone-deep misanthropic anger whose targets are the sensationalist media and the careless exploitation of the Third World. But it undermines and contradicts itself in various ways. I’m sure these contradictions serve to confirm its status as morally repugnant hackwork to many, but I think they also give the film an irksome power it wouldn’t otherwise possess. If it made more sense it would doubtless lose its nightmarish edge.

For instance the moralising tussles between Monroe and the TV execs (4) seem absurd in the context of Cannibal Holocaust‘s excesses, its relish in putting everything on screen. Real animal mutilation and stock footage of actual executions are mixed in with the faked rape, forced tribal abortion, rape, dismemberment, rape, cannibalism, ritual murder and rape. You’re attacking the news media for its excesses and you’re showing us this? And while Deodato’s sympathies are mainly with the tribespeople, they still function as the film’s bogeymen, go uncredited and appear largely as an undifferentiated mass in various shades of mud, their status as victims made questionable as they commit savage ritual after savage ritual, invariably against defenceless women. Monroe is given to us as the moral centre of the film, in that he tries to treat the natives with respect for their customs, and fights with the TV company over funding and screening these atrocities, yet even he doesn’t seem to care much that it took the killing of a few Shamataris to ingratiate his group with the ‘Tree People’.

The film’s biggest dichotomy, though, is one between style and story. ‘Realism’ is emphasised throughout, there is no studio work, it’s all shot on real locations. It begins with a news report about the missing crew; documentary footage and footage from ‘the green inferno’ is wound in and out of the narrative. The found footage that dominates the second half of the film uses fogged, scratched and wrongly exposed film (even a sly shot where a camera is adjusted for the wrong diaphragm), all to achieve a remarkable verisimilitude. But this documentary ‘realism’ has to battle with an increasing sense of unreality about the behaviour of the Americans; they are so uncaring, stupid, disrespectful, and in the end, flat-out evil that they become absurd. The hard-won ‘realism’ scrapes against this over-the-top suicidal obnoxiousness, creating a trippy doublethink that underlies the final slaughter.

The new edit leaves the genitalia unsmudged, but optically fudges over scenes of real animal death, which are now totally unacceptable. As to whether the rest of the film is acceptable, or of worth, well, it’s still extraordinary, made an age before irony conquered all when exploitation films meant it. Its edges have been a little blunted by time; Riz Ortolani’s fine, strange soundtrack of inappropriate syn-drums, doomy chords and syrupy strings, and the style of the ‘TV’ sequences have dated. And the occasional flat performance and line of clunky dialogue now stick out more than I remember in a film straining for ‘realism’. But the smart structure, the skill of the filmmakers, the disturbing idea behind that last reel, where the urge to film takes precedence over self-preservation or humanity, all give the film a power that lifts it above most depravity shows of that era. There are resonances here that reach back to Peeping Tom, forward to Man Bites Dog and Four Lions. Its furious contradictions and lack of control mean that it remains troubling, a magnetic north indicating how far a film can go. It’s a misanthropic, misogynistic, gratuitously offensive piece of crap. It’s a seminal transgressive masterpiece. It is what it is.

Mark Stafford

1 Deodato probably regrets the scenes of animal abuse he incorporated in Cannibal Holocaust and Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1976), mainly, one feels, because he’s sick of answering questions about it… ‘Everyone asks about animals… If you grow up on a farm, none of this is unusual… If I only showed the Americans killing other humans it would have no impact, they had to kill animals to be killers… We’ve been inured to real death… In the US they give a child a rabbit, ‘aw sweet bunny’, then the kid goes to school, kills 15 other kids, goes back to the bunny, sings ‘aw, sweet bunny’ Etc, etc… It wasn’t a trope he invented, it was there in the Mondo movies of the 60s and Umberto Lenzi’s Deep River Savages (1972), but outside of cult circles, those films have vanished from public sight. Cannibal Holocaust‘s profile means that Deodato’s still dodging flack.

2 If you were looking for a more nuanced insight into the human condition from Deodato outside of his misanthropic masterwork, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man wasn’t it. The film opens with an astonishing, perilous bike chase through Rome that raises hopes for something special, but it is, for the most part, crass, witless, sexist and fatally lacking in any kind of tension or credibility. It details the efforts of two ‘Special Force’ cops (Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock as Fred and Tony) to take down crime boss Pasquini using frankly random methods (burning the cars outside one of his clubs, sleeping with his nympho niece) while fending off his thugs’ assassination attempts. A case was made at Cine Excess that Live Like a Cop was Deodato’s reaction to Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’, a period of violent political and social unrest. If so, it’s unfortunate that it most reminded me of The Bullshitters, TV’s ‘The Comic Strip presents’ parody of The Professionals, right down to the nylon underwear and homoeroticism. Fred and Tony are arseholes, from beginning to end (best encapsulated in the moment when they laugh at the idea that getting their maid’s daughter pregnant might be considered their problem), but they aren’t significantly better or worse than anybody else on screen. The result is a bit of a shrug.

3 It really is an odd event, fans of the word ‘contiguity’ should make a date. Iain Robert Smith’s presentation on International Guerillas (1990), a long-lost ‘masala’ movie from Turkey, wherein three squabbling brothers unite to go and kill Salman Rushdie, was an eye-opener…

4 A female TV executive on audiences: ‘The more you rape their senses the happier they are!’ Well, that’s Bargain Hunt for you…

Cine-Excess V took place from 26 to 28 May 2011 at the Odeon Covent Garden, London. For more information please go to the Cine-Excess website.

Who Can Kill a Child?

Who Can Kill a Child?

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 May 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director:Narciso Ibañez Serrador

Writer: Narciso Ibañez Serrador

Based on the novel by: Juan José Plans

Original title: &#191Quién puede matar a un niño?

Cast: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, Antonio Iranzo

Spain 1976

112 mins

Narciso Ibañez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? (1976) is arguably the best Spanish horror film ever made. It’s also a classic of 70s horror, but you’re unlikely to find it on many ‘best of’ lists, from either fans or critics. This is mainly due to its half-hearted distribution; saddled with a number of other titles - including Island of the Damned and Death is Child’s Play - and shorn of up to half an hour of footage, Serrador’s film surfaced briefly on the drive-in circuit before slipping into obscurity. It did occasionally appear on television, however, and grey-market VHS copies circulated among fans of cult and horror cinema. Through this limited exposure, the film acquired a growing fan base, although it wouldn’t receive an uncut release in the USA until 2007. Finally, in 2011, Who Can Kill a Child? is being released in the United Kingdom.

Young biologist Tom and his heavily pregnant wife Evelyn (Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome) are on holiday in Spain. They decide to visit Almanzora, a small island off the coast. It isn’t necessarily the best place to go - there’s no doctor, no telephone and it takes four hours in a boat to get there - but they want to get away from the tourists. When they arrive, the island appears to be deserted, except for a handful of children. The shops are open, but empty, and it’s obvious no one has been there for several hours. Tom follows a group of giggling children into a building and finds them playing a game in the courtyard, swinging long poles at an object above their heads. But it’s not a piñata hanging from the ceiling - it’s the battered body of an elderly man. As Tom struggles to imagine what has happened on the island, he and Evelyn encounter one of the locals, hidden upstairs in the hotel. He tells them that the previous night the children took to the streets, laughing and playing, going from one house to another. Screams of pain and horror followed, as the children began killing every adult they could find. It’s time for Tom and Evelyn to leave, but will the children let them escape?

Like Village of the Damned (1960) and Children of the Corn (1984), Who Can Kill a Child? pits adults against children, this time working from the template established by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Unlike those films, Who Can Kill a Child? doesn’t dilute the horrific premise by making his children aliens or religious maniacs controlled or directed by a supernatural entity. The children of Almanzora were, until the night before, completely normal. Even now they’re behaving much as children should - playing, giggling, running around the town having fun. It’s just the nature of the ‘fun’ that has changed. Following Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) and Romero, Serrador provides no real information that might help to understand or explain the events taking place. Tom and Evelyn have better things to do than speculate about why the children have slaughtered the adults.

Serrador’s only serious misstep occurs almost immediately. As a prologue to his film he attaches 10 minutes of real-life footage depicting various wars and man-made humanitarian disasters, always stressing the number of children who died in each instance. This establishes the continued victimisation of children by adults (accidental or otherwise), opening the door for the children of Almanzora to turn the tables. Unfortunately, footage of concentration camps and African famines makes for an uncomfortable way to begin watching what is essentially a frivolous form of entertainment. Thankfully Serrador avoids such ham-fisted moralising for the rest of the film. When Who Can Kill a Child? gets going, it’s a masterpiece of atmosphere and a deeply unsettling, original experience, and one that deserves to be seen by a much wider audience.

Eureka’s new Region 2 edition carries the same content as the US Dark Sky edition, using the same high quality, uncut print and featuring documentaries about the director and the cinematographer.

Jim Harper

Julia’s Eyes

Julia's Eyes

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 May 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Guillem Morales

Writers: Guillem Morales, Oriol Paulo

Original title: Los ojos de Julia

Cast: Belén Rueda, Lluís Homar, Pablo Derqui

Spain 2010

112 mins

During a thunderstorm a distraught woman screams abuse into the darkened corners of the room, until a flash of lightning reveals that she is blind, and that there is nobody there. It’s clear she is tormented by something as she makes her way down to the cellar, but by what is unclear, and as the strains of ‘The Look of Love’ pour from the stereo, we see the noose waiting.

Astronomer Julia (Belén Rueda) immediately senses that something is wrong with her twin sister Sara and drives with husband (Lluís Homar) to her house to discover an apparent suicide. Both sisters suffer from a degenerative disease that leads inevitably to blindness, and everyone apart from Julia believes Sara’s more advanced condition caused her to take her life. So Julia begins her own investigation, against the wishes of her husband, seeking out a man her sister was with but whom no one seems to have seen, every step she takes bringing on the stress-induced episodes that reduce her vision more and more…

The first few minutes of Guillem Morales’s film set out the stall for what is to follow, which is 90-odd minutes of splendid Gothic nonsense. We are in a strange Spanish hinterland of almost permanent rain and glowering skies, peopled by odd-looking types with something to hide, the lighting, sound and set design all working overtime to create an atmosphere of unease and lurking menace, where Morales can create creepy scene after creepy scene. One, where an unnoticed Julia listens in on a conversation about her sister in a centre for the blind, closely surrounded by chattering naked women, desperately trying to avoid their detection, had me stunned by its brilliantly mounted wrongness, the sightless women reconfigured into figures of spiteful menace, blithely discussing suicide as an unavoidable consequence of their condition, Julia’s awkwardness, repulsion and embarrassment mounting until the whole scene turns on its head with another twist. All great stuff, in the venerable thriller sub-genre of blind-women-in-peril, in the wake of The Spiral Staircase and Wait until Dark. With lots of artful use of point of view shots and selective framing, we see both through the eyes of the killer whom nobody sees, and through Julia’s steadily darkening vision.

The trouble is that anybody enthusiastic about all this malarkey will have seen enough of it to predict the film’s final twists and turns. Julia’s Eyes is fantastically entertaining for about three quarters of its running time and slightly disappointing thereafter. It’s still pretty scary, but never steps outside the confines of what you’d expect from this kind of thing. The splendid sense of menace built up around the shadowy killer is dissipated as their actual nature is revealed, and the last 20 minutes is unnecessarily cluttered with red herrings and dead ends. And don’t get me started on that final bloody scene… Still, it has all the qualities you’d expect from a Guillermo del Toro production, it looks and sounds great, Rueda plays Julia with the right mix of vulnerability and defiance, and there must be a fair few out there who’ll be just as swept up by the final reel as I was by the rattling nasty fun preceding it.

Mark Stafford

Watch an interview with Guillermo del Toro:

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Long Weekend

Long Weekend

Director: Colin Eggleston

Writer: Everett De Roche

Cast: John Hargreaves, Briony Behets, Mike McEwen

Australia 1978

92 mins

Christopher Eggleston’s cult Ozploitation shocker Long Weekend (1978), released at the height of the Australian New Wave, is an eco-horror movie portraying all aspects of Mother Nature as being interconnected and humanity as a pollutant to be eradicated. Scripted by Everett De Roche, whose other screenplays include Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978) and Razorback (Russell Mulcahy, 1984), Long Weekend offers up a sinister vision of the planet’s collective ‘immune system’ closing ranks and fighting back against unwelcome foreign bodies. With a tag line reading ‘their crime was against nature… and nature found them guilty’, De Roche’s plot sees crass, macho Peter (John Hargreaves) and cold, neurotic Marcia (Briony Behets), a closeted, selfish and unhappily married urban couple, descend on an untamed coastal area rich in flora, fauna and wildlife for a weekend camping trip arranged to help save their failing marriage. Out of their ‘natural’ city environment and showing ignorant, callous disregard for their new surroundings, the wholly unsympathetic couple upset the rhythm and equilibrium of the area with fatal consequences. Their ‘crimes’ include running down a kangaroo, blindly ignoring a ‘Private - keep out’ sign, destroying plant life, taking an axe to a tree for fun and shooting a harmless sea cow. The ensuing clash, as plant life, wildlife and land, sea and air fight back against the man-made guns, axes and insecticides, dominates the unfolding events and the ostensibly beautiful ancient surroundings turn ugly, a reflected physical manifestation of the couple’s contemporary inner torments. Peter and Marcia, symbolic of mankind’s self-indulgent and rapacious appetites, are watched, judged, rejected and finally coughed up and spat out like an unwanted furball.

Reminiscent of Saul Bass’s woefully under-appreciated ant invasion chiller Phase IV (1974), Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and William Girdler’s The Day of the Animals (1977), among other loosely related man-against-nature films, Eggleston and De Roche’s imagined scenario has a strong subversive streak running through it. Audience expectations are constantly challenged: the titular break, that cherished extended weekend, becomes a drawn out, tortuous descent into marital breakdown, paranoia and death, the lead characters are the invaders to be repelled and audience sympathy is squarely aligned with Mother Nature’s vicious retribution. By alternately having the camera at ground level among the plants and insects, circling the incessantly argumentative and unlikeable couple in a predatory fashion or assuming the God-like position among the treetops, the director leads the audience to become omnipotent, judgmental and complicit. A combination of striking imagery, tight narrative structuring and impressive use of sound creates an ultra-weird and increasingly delirious sense of paranoia, which the couple simultaneously suffer and are accused of causing. The soundtrack, a mixture of cacophonous, discordant electronica, primal, guttural animal sounds and moments of eerie deathly silence, is an essential factor in creating the tension, off-kilter atmosphere and sense of symbiosis in the film. A repeated aural motif is used to link the differing elements - when one creature or plant is hurt or destroyed an anguished howl of pain/rage is heard coming from elsewhere in the environment. The supposedly dead sea cow exemplifies the disturbing and uncanny events, dragging itself incrementally up the beach and into the couple’s campsite, invading their territory as they have invaded nature’s.

Film critics at the time claimed that Hargreaves, described as ‘the quintessential Australian man’, and Behets, a regular in television soaps, were miscast in their roles, but it is precisely because they seem ill at ease that their unnatural status within the narrative is strengthened. Long Weekend, while not without flaws, succeeds in its exploitation and twisting of genre conventions, with its eco-horror themes and re-positioning of mankind as an alien threat creating an effective, unsettling experience. Eggleston’s film, the subject of an inferior 2008 remake starring Jim Caviezel by fellow Australian director Jamie Blanks, is an enduringly bizarre example of reversed psycho-geography, where the effects of mankind on environment produces extreme and unforgettable results.

Neil Mitchell

We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are

Format: Cinema

Release date:12 November 2010

Venues: Curzon Soho, Odeon Covent Garden, Screen on the Green, Vue Islington (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Jorge Michel Grau

Writer: Jorge Michel Grau

Original title: Somos lo que hay

Cast: Adrián Aguirre, Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Carmen Beato

Mexico 2010

90 mins

When a middle-aged man drops dead in a shopping mall in urban Mexico, black blood exuding from his mouth, he leaves a terrible legacy. He has been the sole hunter for his wife and children who, like him, are cannibals. Jostling for position, they clumsily embark on the hunting for themselves. As we follow their exploits, Jorge Michel Grau’s debut feature is pulled in several directions; unearthly characters create subtle tensions that are cut through by caricatured cops and avenging prostitutes, Guillermo del Toro rubbing shoulders with Pedro Almodóvar. Some of the hunt scenes jolt along to a jazz soundtrack creating a West Side Story-ish fragmented hysteria, done so well in, say, Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris. Grau stitches together a Frankenstein’s monster of styles.

The family home is an artful, Gothic offering with dingy lighting and clutter that points to an obsession with time and repetition: a tin of strange ribbons incessantly counted by mother and hundreds of ticking clocks left by the departed horologist father. The uncanny continues with a soundscape that is full of intricacies that merge the everyday with the grotesque, such as the exaggerated sound of Mum’s (Carmen Beato) shoes clomping begrudgingly and curtly up the staircase. She is the one in the end who batters the human prey with matter-of-fact precision, and her deadpan performance evokes black comedy to add to the plethora of Grau’s styles.

The actual ‘rito’, the ritual dismembering, takes place on the family dining table surrounded by candlelit plastic crime-scene sheets: mother and daughter carve. The family are trapped in the cycle of performing these killings but it’s unclear whether this is fuelled by psychotic delusion or by a supernatural curse, where they will physically perish if they don’t eat human flesh. Their cult logic resurrects the Aztec obsession with carrying out protective sacrifice on a mass scale in order to ensure prosperity, and so Grau brings anxiety about literally putting ‘meat on the table’ into the here and now. Indeed the sacrificial victims are duped and lured in sites of poverty, trade and expenditure all elegantly picked out with lush cinematography and shallow depth of field; a traders market, a kerb-crawling zone, a flyover inhabited by vagrant children. The ‘dog eat dog world’ socio-economic metaphor here is heavy-handed.

Grau gets even more mileage out of the symbolic meaning of cannibalism as it also points to the psychic brutality families can inflict on each other. The exploration of these family dynamics is the strength of the film, take or leave the cannibalism. The father’s death is a catalyst for the eruption of drives that have been kept under wraps. As the family claim their victims their sexual orientations are revealed and these individual vignettes are sensitively played out, but teenage torment vies with the necessity of providing dinner for the family. The Bildungsroman elements of the film are the most moving and worthy of development and while the horror milieu is beautifully rendered, the social commentary comes with its own spoon.

Nicola Woodham