Tag Archives: horror film



Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 4 April 2016

Distributor: Matchbox Films

Directors: Yoav Paz, Doron Paz

Writers: Yoav Paz, Doron Paz

Cast: Yael Grobglas, Danielle Jadelyn, Yon Tumarkin, Tom Graziani, and Howard Rypp

Israel 2015

94 mins

The gates of hell open in Jerusalem in this tense and fun Israeli horror film.

***½ out of *****

History, folklore, various ancient scriptures and occult experts have agreed that there are three gates to Hell. Two of them are usually associated with topographically/geographically tempestuous regions like oceans, volcanoes and deserts. The third one is located in a variety of ancient cities.

To my mind, the scariest has always been the southern portion of Old Jerusalem, oft-referred to as the ‘Old City’, about 35 square miles contained within its venerable walls and a crossroads twixt the faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity (not to mention a considerable Armenian population around the turn of the 20th century). Given the on-going Israeli-Palestinian claims to the Old City, it seems an ideal Gate to Hell for a horror film, one in which Jews, Muslims and yes, even Christians (who only really want to convert the other two to their side of the God Squad), must all try to put differences aside and work together, if and when the Jaws of Hades spew forth the most malevolently and seemingly unstoppable demons.

This is the rich, visually tantalizing backdrop to JeruZalem.

Americans Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) and her dad (Howard Rypp) have been in mourning over the death of their brother and son respectively. Dad decides to bankroll a trip to Tel-Aviv for the beautiful, raven-haired apple of his eye and Rachel (Yael Grobglas), her golden-tressed, equally hot bestie. Most importantly, Dad bestows Sarah with the most wonderful gift of all, the insanely expensive Google glasses, which not only act as prescription spectacles, but offer a first-person digital video camera and all manner of internet connectivity and handy-dandy voice-activated apps like Skype, browsers and Google-icious mapping and GPS info.


What this means for us, is that we don’t have to question why the first-person camera keeps running as its wearer is tear-assing away from fucking demons when the gates of Hell spill out a variety of winged nasties and cloven-hoofed giants. Hell, at one point, Sarah even places her glasses down (conveniently) whilst receiving the root from Kevin (Yon Tumarkin), a handsome, young stud who (conveniently) happens to be an anthropology-archaeology grad student and (even more conveniently) affords us glimpses of delectable nudity.

It’s what one can call ‘win-win’.

Yes, this is yet another found-footage horror film shot on a shoestring, but there’s no need to despair since JeruZalem is a wildly entertaining, often unbearably intense and occasionally drawer-filling experience. Featuring hot babes and hunky hunks (including the well-humoured hotel employee Omar, delightfully played by Tom Graziani), plus cool digital effects (some of which have a Ray Harryhausen other-worldly. borderline stop-motion quality), whiz-bang direction, editing that knows when to sparingly mess up spatial concerns, and shots of both the action and the Old City ably captured by cinematographer Rotem Yaron, the movie yields some worthwhile terror-infused shenanigans.

Add to the mix a few ultra-hunky Israeli soldiers, generally decent acting (save for the clunky deliveries of Indiana Jones-wannabe and Sarah’s bone-beau Tumarkin), a few fun scenes in Old City night clubs, plenty of chills in the labyrinthine streets and, among a few terrific set pieces, one set in an asylum which is so creepy and chilling that some of you might wish you’d worn adult diapers. Importantly, most genre fans will respond positively to a horror picture that benefits greatly from its indigenous flavour.

Hilariously, the Paz Brothers shot this film in The Old City without the usual permissions and permits required since they managed to convince the powers-that-be that they were shooting a documentary. The results of this bravado added a few warm cockles to the guerrilla filmmaking side of my heart and reminded me of those halcyon days of producing no-budget independent movies in the 80s and 90s when I used to do the same damn thing.

I normally care less about exigencies of production, but these have such stellar attributes, that the result is one rip-snorter of a ride.

It’s like a travelogue to Hell.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:

Tenderness of the Wolves

tenderness of the wolves
Tenderness of the Wolves

Format: Dual Format (Blu-Ray + DVD)

Release date: 2 November 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Ulli Lommel

Writer: Kurt Raab

Original title: Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe

Cast: Kurt Raab, Jeff Roden, Margit Christensen, Ingrid Craven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Germany 1969

106 mins

Produced by R.W. Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel’s take on real-life serial killer Fritz Haarmann is restrained and stylised.

On paper, Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) is an unlikely project, to say the least. The film was produced by legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but bears little similarity to his powerful and astutely observed social dramas; it’s certainly difficult to imagine Fassbinder tackling the story of a prolific German serial killer in one of his own films. It was obviously a very personal project for long-standing Fassbinder associate Kurt Raab, who wrote the script and starred as the vampiric, cannibalistic killer. Another Fassbinder contact took the director’s chair: Ulli Lommel, later known in cult circles as the director of the supernatural slasher flick The Boogey Man (1980).

In the wake of World War Two, Fritz Haarmann lives out a comfortable existence, thanks to a campaign of petty crime: fraud, theft, black-market racketeering. He’s a convicted homosexual with a long rap sheet (homosexuality was illegal in Germany at the time), but the overworked and understaffed police turn a blind eye to his activities because Haarmann is a valuable informant. Haarmann himself exploits his police connections by regularly ‘patrolling’ the local train station, which feeds into his secret career as a brutal serial killer who preys on young men and boys, many of them drifters who take shelter at the station. After each kill, Haarmann always has plenty of fresh meat to sell to his friends and neighbours, and give as presents to his police friends.

Despite the grim subject matter, Tenderness of the Wolves is relatively restrained. Although violent and bloody scenes do feature in the film’s final third, for much of its length it focuses on a stylized representation of Haarmann’s life and his interaction with others. While it’s clear that he is killing people, the acts are not depicted, just the initial meeting and the subsequent distribution of ‘meat’. This is not without interest, but it does rob much of the film of any tension or suspense, leaving Tenderness of the Wolves left to survive mainly on Kurt Raab’s distant, slightly otherworldly performance. Raab is consistently excellent as the shaven-headed monster, but like the film as a whole, he seems to move at a deliberate and stately pace, as if forced to figure out his every move in advance, step by step. How much enjoyment you derive from the film is largely dependent on your tolerance for its slow pacing, but Tenderness of the Wolves is not without its rewards.

Director Ulli Lommel has had a varied career, to say the least. Born into a showbusiness family, Lommel’s father was a prominent stage comedian who appeared in a number of films in the 1920s and 30s. Like his sister, Lommel took to stage early in life. In the mid-60s he formed a friendship with then-theatrical director Fassbinder. When Fassbinder began moving towards cinema, Lommel went with him, first as an actor, then as a scriptwriter and director. By the late 1970s he had moved to New York and become associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, eventually directing films, including Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and Blank Generation (1980), both of which featured Warhol himself. They also brought him into contact with actress Suzanna Love, a wealthy heiress that Lommel would later marry. Lommel and Love made a series of low-budget horror films together, including The Boogey Man, psycho-thriller Olivia (1983) and witchcraft revenge story The Devonsville Terror (1983), all of which are quirky, interesting takes on standard genre frameworks. From there Lommel directed a series of increasingly dull, anonymous action flicks and TV movies. He resurfaced in the 21st century with a string of zero-budget zombie and slasher movies, most of which showed absolutely no evidence of the talent and ability that Lommel’s earlier films demonstrated.

Jim Harper

Watch the Arrow Video Story to Tenderness of the Wolves:

Yakuza Apocalypse

yakuza apocapypse 1
Yakuza Apocalypse

Seen at LFF 2015

Format: Cinema

Release Date: 6 January 2016

Distributor: Manga Entertainment

Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Yoshitaka Yamaguchi

Cast: Yayan Ruhian, Hayato Ichihara, Riri Furankî

Original title: Gokudou daisensou

Japan 2015

125 mins

The ludicrously prolific Takashi Miike (as I write this, IMDB lists 99 credits as director since his debut in 1991) seems to work in different modes. There’s the high-end classy work he did for Jeremy Thomas (13 Assassins, Hara Kiri ); there are the extraordinary cult films he made his name with in the West (Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer); and there are a whole lot of other films he seems to have tossed of in short order that work on a ‘throw it against the wall and see if it’ll stick’ principle. Yakuza Apocalypse is very much a third mode film.

‘Unkillable’ yakuza boss Kamiura is in fact a vampire, who manages to infect loyal underling Kageyama with his condition after being decapitated by assassins. Kageyama in turn infects some of the common populace and soon the world is out of whack: if everyone is a yakuza vampire, then where do Kamiura’s old gang get their status from? Soon a Kappa demon turns up and the conviction grows that some kind of apocalypse is in the offing. A female yakuza has steaming milk issuing from her ears, with which she tries to cultivate a new crop of ‘decent civilians’. The end of days arrives in the shape of a frog-headed martial arts master who looks like a sports team mascot with a bulging hypnotic eyeball. A Kageyama/Frog smackdown ensues. The world ends.

Trying to describe the plot of this effort is a thankless task. There’s stuff in here from spaghetti Westerns and Road Runner cartoons. There’s a lot of informative and/or baffling dialogue (‘Yakuza blood tastes bad and has no nutrition’). There are nice ideas that go nowhere, and wacky bits of business that occasionally pay off (love that frog). There’s an almost philosophical thread about what defines a yakuza. (Kageyama’s skin is too sensitive to allow for the requisite tattoos, the dearth of ‘decent civilians’ makes the old gang question their place in the world.) But much of this gets forgotten as the chaos mounts. It’s not boring, but it is frustrating, all a bit scrappy and makeshift and half-baked. There are the desired moments of weirdness that Miike fans would expect, but here they just don’t add up to much. Ah well, there’ll be another one along any minute…

Mark Stafford

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.

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Format: Cinema

Seen at LFF 2015

Release date: 6 May 2016

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic

Writers: Lucile Hadžihalilovic, Alanté Kavaïté

Cast: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier

France 2014

81 mins

Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s follow-up to Innocence is as poetic, disturbing and elusive as its predecessor.

Ten years after her wonderfully disquieting debut Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilovic returns with a tale that feels intimately close to it, thematically and atmospherically, despite the differences in setting. Here again, birth and transformation are elliptically explored through the creation of an immersive, sensory world infused with slow-burning unease. Just like its predecessor, Evolution starts in water and ends with an ambivalent coming out of the water – symbolic birth? Escape? Expulsion? Abandonment? But where Innocence revolved around a little girl’s education at a peculiar boarding school, the protagonist of Evolution is a little boy who lives on an island seemingly peopled only by women and other young boys. After seeing something alarming while swimming in the sea, a boy begins to question the way in which he is brought up. Soon he finds himself in hospital, the reason for his treatment unclear.

Is what we see just a manifestation of a little boy’s anxiety at growing up, or is the reality of life on the island truly sinister? Just as in Innocence, Hadžihalilovic skilfully treads an ambiguous line, leaving us to interpret what we witness. Although at first view the film could be seen as the male pendant of Innocence, its real focus is once more on the female. Choosing to tell the tale from a young boy’s point of view allows the film to present the women as incomprehensible creatures with strange bodies and customs, and to underline the alien, disturbing nature of human reproduction. Innocence looked at the rituals that marked a young girl’s transformation into adolescence and adulthood. Here, the emphasis has switched to worrying, unexplained mutation, and to the weirdness of living matter in all its squelchy, mushy monstrousness. This comes to a head in a few moments of startlingly horrific imagery, which punctuate the fluid flow of oblique impressions, all the more powerful for their sparseness.

Imbued with a mythical quality, Evolution is constructed from simple, but unsettlingly effective motifs: water, a starfish, the colour red, the decaying white village and the decrepit hospital, the women’s red hair and odd features, their identical outfits, either austere khaki dresses, or quaint white nurses’ uniforms. These elements subtly draw on legendary and filmic creatures, suggesting aliens, sirens and monsters, giving the story a deeper resonance. A beguiling mix of art and horror, Evolution is a richly evocative, intensely physical experience, an eerie, darkly poetic meditation on the strangeness of organic existence. Hadžihalilovic makes a cinema of textures, colours and sounds, a cinema of ideas embodied in sensations, a rare, precious kind of cinema that is both sophisticated and visceral. Let’s hope it doesn’t take her another 10 years to make another film.

Virginie Sélavy

This review is part of our LFF 2015 coverage.



Format: Cinema

Seen at TIFF 2015

Director: Marcin Wrona

Writers: Marcin Wrona, Pawel Maslona

Cast: Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Żulewska

Poland, Israel 2015

94 mins

Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona delivers one of the scariest, most sickeningly creepy horror films of the year.

**** out of *****

The dybbuk has always been one of the most bloodcurdling supernatural creatures, yet its presence in contemporary horror films has, for the most part, been surprisingly absent. Rooted in Jewish mythology, it is the spirit of someone who has suffered a great indignity just before death and seeks to adhere itself to the soul of a living person in order to end its own purgatorial suffering. Alas, it causes as much nerve-shredding pain to the spirit as it does to the body of the one who is possessed. Invading the physical vessel in which a fully formed spirit already resides is no easy task and can result in a battle of wills, which not only implodes within, but tends to explode into the material world with a vengeance.

Demon successfully and chillingly brings this nasty, unholy terror to the silver screen, where it belongs. The late Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona (who died suddenly and mysteriously at age 42, just one week after the film’s world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival) hooks us immediately and reels us in with an almost sadistically gleeful use of cinema’s power to assail us with suspense of the highest order.

On the eve of his wedding to the beautiful Zaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska), the handsome young groom Peter (Itay Tiran) discovers the remains of a long-dead corpse in an open grave on the grounds of his father-in-law’s sprawling country estate. He becomes obsessed with this ghoulish treasure lying within the unconsecrated earth of a property bestowed upon the couple as a wedding gift. Not only will the nuptials be performed and celebrated here, but the happy twosome have been blessed with this gorgeous old house and lands as their future home.

Much of the film’s stylishly creepy events take place over the course of the wedding day. Wrona juggles a sardonic perspective with outright shuddersome horror during the mounting drunken celebrations at this extremely traditional Polish wedding. As the band plays, the guests dance between healthy guzzles of vodka, whilst the dybbuk clings to the poor groom, his body and soul wracked with pain. When Peter begins to convulse violently, the lone Jewish guest at the Roman Catholic wedding, an elderly academic, is the one person who correctly identifies the problem.

Wrona’s camera dips, twirls and swirls with abandon as the celebratory affair becomes increasingly fraught with a strange desperation. Are the guests merely addled with booze, or is the estate a huge graveyard of Jews murdered during the Holocaust? Is it possible that an army of dybbuks is seeking an end to their lonely, painful purgatory?

Demon raises many questions, but supplies no easy answers. What it delivers, however, is one of the scariest, most sickeningly creepy horror films of the year. If anything, the dybbuk has finally found a home in the movies, and we’re the beneficiaries of Wrona’s natural gifts as a filmmaker, as well as the largesse of this ancient supernatural entity, which so happily enters our own collective consciousness as we experience its nail-biting havoc over a not-so-holy matrimonial union.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:


Videodrome 1

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 17 August 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits

Canada 1983

89 mins

***** out of *****

Every national cinema has its own unique brand of indigenous storytelling, but by virtue of its geographical proximity to the economic and cultural juggernaut that is the United States of America, English Canada has had the unenviable position of maintaining a voice and identity all its own, struggling for half a century to tell uniquely “Canadian” stories to speak to both Canadians and the world. French Canada has always been able to maintain a distinct identity because of the language issues. English Canadian culture has had a tougher time of it, but it’s not simply a more tasteful, literate version of the United States.

David Cronenberg, along with the likes of Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Peter Mettler and a clutch of other visionary filmmakers in English Canada, generated product which can be viewed as Canadian by simple virtue of the fact that both the style and content of the films could only have been made in a North American context that prided itself on uniquely indigenous qualities in spite (and perhaps even because) of the southerly Behemoth of Uncle Sam.

And though plenty of Canadian dramatic product was (and often continues to be) almost unbearably tasteful, this has happily never been a problem for any of the aforementioned filmmakers – especially not David Cronenberg. “Tasteful” has seldom reared its ugly head anywhere near his films.

Videodrome is as Canadian as Maple Syrup, beavers and the MacKenzie Brothers, but with the added bonus of almost hardcore sadomasochistic snuff-film-style torture weaving its way throughout the picture as narrative and thematic elements.

Max Renn (James Woods) is the head honcho of a tiny independent Toronto TV station which specialises in unorthodox programming with an emphasis upon lurid, exploitative and downright sensational stylistic approaches and content. This is clearly a fictional representation of the uniquely Canadian Toronto company CITY-TV which became famous for its soft-core “Baby Blue Movies” and the open concept studios for news and public affairs. Though Cronenberg denies it, Max Renn is clearly modeled upon the real-life Canadian visionary Moses Znaimer who revolutionised broadcasting throughout the continent, and even the world, due to his unorthodox approaches.

Renn finds himself looking for something to take his station and broadcasting in general in far more cutting edge directions. Via his pirate satellites, he discovers a rogue broadcast from Malaysia featuring non-stop BDSM. The actions are vicious, hard-core and clearly the real thing. He searches desperately to track down the direct source of the feed, seeking the learned counsel of Professor Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) a “medium is the message” guru (based on Canada’s Marshall McLuhan).

Unfortunately, Renn has been exposed to a nefarious virus by watching the footage and soon reality and fantasy begin to mesh together while he engages in an S/M relationship with radio interviewer Nikki Brand (Deborah “Blondie” Harry) and discovers that his body has sprouted its own VCR within his guts.

There is, of course, a conspiracy and, of course, it’s rooted in America where the snuff station is actually broadcasting from. The goal of mysterious New World Order-like power brokers is to use Max to infect the world with total acquiescence.

To say Videodrome is prescient, is a bit of an understatement. Cronenberg brilliantly riffs on early 80s Canadian broadcast innovations and visionaries (like Znaimer and McLuhan) to create a chilling, disturbing look at how a corporate “One-World” government seeks to anesthetise the world (and destroy all those who are not susceptible to the virus of brainwashing).

Videodrome is scary, morbidly funny, dementedly sexy (gotta love lit cigarettes applied to naked breasts, a vaginal cavity in Renn’s stomach which plays videotapes and stashes firearms and, among many other horrors, masked figures exacting violent torture on-screen) and finally, one of the great science fiction horror films of all time.

I will not spoil anything for you by elaborating upon the following, but I will guarantee that you’ll be able to experience the shedding of the “old flesh” to make way for “the new flesh”. Right now, though, you really don’t want to know.

A famous Canadian TV commercial during the 60s-80s featured a variety of British tea-sippers slurping back Canada’s “Red Rose” tea and looking directly into the camera to remark (in a full Brit accent):

“Only in Canada, you say? A pity.”

It’s kind of how the rest of the world can feel about David Cronenberg and his Videodrome. It is precisely the kind of movie that could only have been spawned in Canada, but unlike Red Rose Tea, it’s available worldwide and forever.

Greg Klymkiw

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town that Dreaded Sundown
The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 April 2015

DVD release date: 17 August 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Cast: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Anthony Anderson, Gary Cole, Ed Lauter

USA 2014

86 mins

Charles B. Pierce‘s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) was an independent exploitation film that purported to tell the story of the true crime case of ‘the Phantom Killer’, who committed a brutal series of murders in the town of Texarkana, on the border between Texas and Arkansas, in 1946. The film is mainly discussed today as a proto-stalk-and-slash movie, one of those films, like Bob Clark‘s Black Christmas (1974), that came within a gnat’s hair of the winning formula of Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), but not quite… In the case of Sundown, Pierce gave us a masked killer and a body count structure, with gruesome deaths by gun, knife, and, notoriously, trombone slide, but couldn’t supply the payback climax or the final girl, for the good reason that the actual phantom killer was never caught, he simply stopped, leaving fear and mystery behind him.

If Pierce‘s film could be said to have been ahead of the pack, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s new version would appear to be tardy to the party, arriving long after every other slasher movie of the 70s has been remade, to varying degrees of worthlessness. This time, it’s Halloween 2008, in Texarkana and Jami (Addison Timlin) feels uncomfortable at a pop up drive-in screening of… The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Her date gallantly drives them off to ‘park’, but they are attacked by a hooded, gun-toting maniac, a copycat phantom who only lets her live to send a message and tell the world that he’s back. Thereafter other murders occur, following the pattern laid down in ’46 (or the movie version thereof), the town grows more and more paranoid and hysterical, the Texas Rangers are called in, and Jami begins her own investigation, alongside local archive nerd Nick (Travis Trope), convinced the murders of ’46 hold the key to the killings around her…

Sundown ’14 is, for most of its running time, considerably more fun than it should be. A fizzy, unhealthy concoction brought to us by the people behind Glee, American Horror Story, Sinister and the Paranormal Activity franchise. It looks handsome, and as with all the grindhouse remakes, clearly has fancier technical resources to hand than its progenitor. It moves at a fair clip, the small town weirdness is well realised, camerawork and editing are lively and inventive, and it always helps to have the likes of Gary Cole and Veronica Cartwright filling out your cast. Moreover the victims are actually sympathetic characters for a change, rather than the parade of obnoxious ‘types’ that normally populate this branch of cinema these days, neatly established in swift tabloid strokes, and including a rather sweet, nervous, first-time gay couple.

It’s made texturally and textually more interesting by the presence of the ’76 film effectively haunting this one. It pops up, looking faded, bleached out, and rather shonky, on screen after screen, and almost subliminal blips of it are inserted into the edit. Further, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s script has all kinds of meta-games to play: we have Pierce’s son as a character, and even see the 70s film crew in one travelling shot. Most amusingly we have Anthony Anderson as ‘Lone Wolf’ the Texas Ranger realising, upon viewing Sundown for the first time, that he has parroted the dialogue of Ben Johnson, who played the character in the original. There is a theme running of how real life gets turned, over time, into stories, the past never lets go, and of how the Phantom Killer becomes the Boogey Man.


All good nasty fun, so it’s a pity that the makers turned for the finale to the Kevin Williamson Scream sequel model of ‘whodunnit’ reveal and final girl payback. For one thing, the ‘whodunnit’ reveal at the climax of a slasher movie always felt surplus to requirements to me, like being tasked with doing a crossword puzzle at the end of a rollercoaster ride. All the running and screaming suddenly gives way to discussions of identity and motivation that seem absurdly Scooby Doo. For another, the climax plonks the remake firmly into a run-of-the-mill stalk-and-slash model when, for a while there, it seemed smarter than that. So, entertaining enough, but a little disheartening. The modern drive-in won’t allow for ambiguity, and it’s not over until somebody gets ‘empowered’. Ah, for the 70s, where violence was always degrading…

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:

The Tales of Hoffmann

The Tales of Hoffman
The Tales of Hoffmann

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Date: 23 March 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Writers: Dennis Arundell, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Based on the French libretto for Jacques Offenbach’s opera by: Jules Barbier

Based on the stories by: E.T.A. Hoffmann

Cast: Moira Shearer, Robert Rounseville, Ludmilla Tchérina

UK 1951

138 mins

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 film of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann – newly restored to its full 138-minute glory, including a delightful curtain call for all the performers as seen through the film’s magic spectacles – is eternally astonishing. That such a gorgeous, daffy, erotic, demented Technicolor pageant could emerge from the British film industry at a time when the dominant mood was black and white, emotionally and economically austere and inclined to drab realism remains a bizarre mystery. The makers must have been aware of this because they have conductor Sir Thomas Beecham defiantly stamp ‘made in England’ in gilt over the end title.

Mounted in the afterglow of the success of The Red Shoes, partly to find another showcase for red-headed ballerina Moira Shearer, Hoffmann is an entirely stage-bound fantasy based on an 1881 opera (which Offenbach didn’t live to see performed) based on a play based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). By default, it’s a key horror anthology and an early instance of metatextually incorporating an author into his own world by mixing up his fantasies and his life. Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier tease the historical Hoffmann by making him the fall guy of his own biography: the poet (Robert Rounseville) falls in love with a robot, is seduced by a Satanic harlot, can’t save a doomed singer and gets so drunk on his own storytelling that he lets the love of his life fall into the clutches of his shapeshifting arch-enemy Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpmann). With highly stylised sets that play tricks with the eye and non-stop music, it has the feel of a Cabinet of Dr Caligari in colour and sound… and similarly slips between levels of reality in the telling of these tales.

The plot has Hoffmann passing the time before an assignation with Stella (Shearer), the ballerina he loves, in a Nuremberg beerhall where he entertains boozers with episodes from his own life (‘Olympia’, ‘Giulietta’,’ Antonia’), which are actually versions of his most famous stories (‘The Sandman’, ‘The Lost Reflection’ and ‘Rath Krespel’) and find him involved with women in Paris, Venice and a Greek Island. Hoffmann was one of the first great horror writers, and these stories influenced Mary Shelley, Poe (a lot), Sheridan Le Fanu and others. Each of these tales stands at the head of a sub-genre – lifelike doll/mad scientist, soul-selling pact with the Devil, Usher-like recurring family tragedy – and showcases a beguiling, yet strange woman. In the prologue, Shearer’s Stella dances in an insect costume tighter and more revealing than any female superhero has ever dared… but her role as Olympia, the life-size wind-up doll Hoffmann sees as real through magic specs, is one of the cinema’s great inhumans, along with Brigitte Helm in Metropolis and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Dancing and singing with impossible virtuosity, until she runs down and has to be wound up, Olympia is an unresponsive love object – she may not be real but the feelings she inspires are. At the climax of her dance (the aria is ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’, also known as ‘The Doll Song’), as her creators argue over her, she literally comes apart… that blinking severed head sprouting copper springs is a nightmare punchline for a joke that Powell takes seriously. Note the aside of ‘half-man, half-puppet’ Cochineel (Frederick Ashton) fetishising a severed hand.

In ‘Giuletta’, Hoffmann is ensnared by a courtesan (Ludmilla Tchérina) in Venice, who is collecting souls for the devilish Dappertutto (Helpmann). This story runs to an amazingly explicit orgy, a fast and peculiar duel in a gondola, the haunted Schlemil (Leonide Massine) sporting silver double eagle epaulettes, the stately yet creepy barcarolle (‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour’ – the hit of the show) and the seductress’s bare feet treading on the sculpted faces of damned victims. ‘Antonia’ is a precursor of the Corman-Poe films, especially ‘Morella’ from Tales of Terror and Tomb of Ligeia, with a consumptive heroine (Ann Ayars) led by sinister Dr Miracle (Helpmann) to sing herself to death under the influence of her dead mother. It’s a strong story, but the weakest episode because Ayars, who acts and sings, isn’t as inhumanly desirable or exotically terrifying a presence as Shearer or Tcherina. Pamela Brown, in drag as Hoffmann’s devoted (but slightly unhelpful) friend, is another weird, sexually confusing player, while Helpmann (who might be auditioning for a great unmade Dracula movie as the multi-faced villain), Massine (who does comedy and horror) and Ashton (funny yet poignant as broken-hearted jesters) show why dancers often make great screen performers.

This is a one-off, even in the extraordinary Powell-Pressburger filmography – there’s just so much in it. Make the effort to see this on a big screen.

Kim Newman

Watch the trailer:

The Voices

The Voices
The Voices

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 March 2015

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Writer: Michael R. Perry

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton and Jacki Weaver

USA, Germany 2014

103 mins

It’s no wonder that Marjane Satrapi’s directorial debut borrows so heavily from the comic genre. Her work to date has been entirely in that domain, with a number of graphic novels to her name. Most notable among them are twin novels Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis: The Story of a Return, which recount her experiences of growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and her subsequent move to Vienna.

The transition to filmmaking happened with the adaptation of these two novels into the animated feature Persepolis, which, in the English-language version, featured the voices of Sean Penn and Iggy Pop. Satrapi co-directed and co-wrote the film, which went on to become a joint winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

The Voices is her next big project (there was a live-action adaptation of her novel Chicken with Plums starring Mathieu Amalric, but it had limited distribution outside of France), and it really is big, with Ryan Reynolds in the starring role – lending it serious box office muscle – and Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick among the supporting cast.

Reynolds plays Jerry, a worker at a bathtub factory with a sweet nature but severe mental health issues. His universe is as simple as a 50s sitcom, with his ‘aw-shucks’ demeanour and old-school-Americana surroundings inflected with pops of bubblegum pink. Life bumbles on quite merrily as he flits between warehouse work, his room above a deserted bowling alley and sessions with his sympathetic psychologist (Jacki Weaver). He also receives counsel from his two pets: a dopey, kind-hearted dog, Bosco, and an acerbic Scottish cat, Mr Whiskers (both voiced by Reynolds), who take on the roles of angel and devil respectively. So far, so manageable.

Things take a darker turn when he falls for office vamp Fiona (Arterton) and, on a night out, ends up accidentally killing her. Having dispensed with his medication, Jerry falls into a maniacal tailspin, leading him to live in squalor among Fiona’s remains and submitting to the fiendish goading of a chorus now made up of Mr Whiskers and Fiona’s disembodied head.

The film is simultaneously horribly gory, terrifically funny and terribly sad; a combination which could be confusing in any other hands than Satrapi’s. It’s cartoon-like elements temper the horror: sound effects – from bones being sawed, to death blows being delivered – are heightened to the point just shy of adding ‘Pow!’-style captions, while the polished, stylised vision of Jerry’s world elevates the film from gritty horror to camp satire. Furthermore, the women are not simply victims. Weaver’s psychologist posits deeply logical, compassionate views on mental illness, self-doubt and spirituality, and Arterton’s character, in danger of being the arch bitch, redeems herself through humour. We are repulsed by Jerry’s crimes, despite being thoroughly subsumed into his mindset.

Coursing through all this is a dark, throbbing vein of black humour that brings life to each scene, starting from the film’s heart – the naïve, troubled Jerry in a game-changing performance from Reynolds – and ending in a surreal, celestial coda.

The Voices is released in the UK on DVD, Blu-Ray and Steelbook on 13 July 2015.

Lisa Williams

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What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows
What We Do in the Shadows

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 November 2014

Distributor: Metrodome

Directors: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi

Writers: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi

Cast: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer

New Zealand 2014

85 mins

New Zealand directors and comedians Jemaine Clement (best known for Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows has wowed festivals and midnight screenings around the world since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year – and rightly so. Among the tide of low-fi productions based around an amusing (or scary) concept and a couple of improvising actors, this smart, canny and often hilarious comedy truly stands out. Expanding on Clement and Waititi’s 2005 short film, their debut feature observes the lives of a bunch of bloodsucking flatmates who are trying to connect and keep up with the modern world with joyful lunacy and great sympathy for both the living and the undead.

Aged between 183 and 8,000 years, über-dapper Viago (Waititi), medieval ladykiller Vladislav (Clement) and Deacon (Jonny Brugh), a rogue rebel and big fan of the Nazis, are forced to face the fact that, despite continuing worries about sunlight, crucifixes and garlic, the actual crux of the vampire matter nowadays lies primarily with the mundane. As they try to deal with paying the rent, going out clubbing and annoying arguments about the bloody dishes or cleaning the carpet after a messy dinner, things become increasingly complicated. For one, recently turned bloodsucker Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) hasn’t got anything better to do than spreading the news about his transformation around downtown Wellington, which draws unnecessary attention to the residence. And then there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), the eldest of the biting brood and everybody’s darling, who occupies a coffin in the basement and seems to be entirely free from following the rules and rotas of the (relatively) organised household.

Beneath its insanity and immortal issues, the film has an unashamedly soft core that largely revolves around Viago, who is also the narrator of the story. Bravely dedicated to defusing the tensions in the house, he is not only the good soul of the film, but deeply haunted by a love from the past that once brought him from Europe to New Zealand. And Waititi captures his character brilliantly, walking the fine line between human and brutish consciousness and pitching his admission at just the right level to inspire both empathy and horror.

Boasting believable performances throughout, which ensure that no one is cast as either purely evil or innocent, What We Do in the Shadows manages to make the oldest genre clichés and stalest jokes funny again. At the same time, it is original and inventive enough to generate an irresistibly entertaining vampire romp of sorts, even if things get occasionally monotonous in the mid-section. Nonetheless, poignant comic timing, themes of skewed tolerance and commitment, and the smart blend of farce and sympathy lift this alleged doc-comedy way above the mockumentary pack.

Pamela Jahn

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