Tag Archives: horror



Format: Cinema

Seen at TIFF 2015

Release date: 24 June 2016

Distributor: Vertigo Releasing

Director: Can Evrenol

Writers: Can Evrenol, Ercin Sadikoglu, Cem Ozuduru, Ogulcan Eren Akay

Cast: Gorkem Kasal, Ergun Kuyucu, Mehmet Cerrahoglu, Sabahattin Yakut, Mehmet Fatih Dokgoz, Muharrem Bayrak

Turkey 2015

97 mins

Turkish director Can Evrenol has expanded an earlier short film into a pulse-pounding feature-length horror-fest.

**** out of *****

Imagine a clutch of tough-talking cops of various ages, demeanors, experience and corruption levels, hanging around an isolated roadside bar, swapping tales, ribbing each other, engaging in rat-a-tat-tat patter that might make Quentin Tarantino envious and/or mouth-wateringly engaged in the proceedings.

Imagine they’re all speaking in Turkish since, uh, they’re in Turkey.

Further imagine, if you will, that a call for backup, to an even more remote area than they’re hanging around in, forces them to unwittingly unlock a portal to Hell.

Well, imagine no longer, for this is the dense, scary, hilarious, nastily yummy-slurp world of eventual viscous-dribbling and mega-perversion that comes to us courtesy of Turkish director Can Evrenol, who has expanded an earlier short film into a pulse-pounding feature-length horror-fest entitled Baskin. Though most of the proceedings (insanely thrown into the pot by no less than four screenwriters) are a dream-like blur that sometimes makes little sense, it seems not to matter too much and is probably part of the grand design. I think. It matters not.

We’re treated to a myriad of flashbacks, flash forwards, inexplicable details that go unexplained, little in the way of backstory (save for one character’s opening dream, involving his parents’ grunting lovemaking, waking him up to all manner of horrid images more disgusting than the oldsters bumping their uglies) and the sense that all of the characters have been doomed from the start and may well be in a perpetual, purgatorial loop of suffering.

It starts with a terrific slow-burn in the bar, wherein the snappy repartee is peppered (so to speak) with the flavorful seasoning of several grotesque shots of raw meat (from a supremely dubious source) hacked up and tossed onto a grill, whilst the head cop gets into an odd squabble with the joint’s proprietor. I can accept this. So, I think, will you.

Soon enough we’re on the road with our crew in a ramshackle van as they make their way deep into a Turkish Delight of depravity. A naked guy leaps in front of their van, weird gypsies hunt frogs (of which there appear to be several million, hopping and squirming about), and the dread mounts a thousand fold. All the cops, save perhaps for the sucky young twerp with the parental-unit-humping dreams, are some of the most miserable, unsympathetic, macho men you’re likely to encounter in any recent movie, but for some insane reason, their piggishness endears them to us even more.

Sounds just fine to me. And so it is. The film is a supremely entertaining freak-show extraordinaire from a director with talent, style and filmmaking savvy oozing from every conceivable orifice. Speaking of which, orifices and oozing, that is: it doesn’t take long before we follow our reprehensible thug-like cops into the breach of utter horror. The first sign that something’s not quite right appears to be when one of the cops who called for backup smashes his head to a pulp against a concrete wall. The next sign that shit is amiss appears when our men of the law encounter a grim-looking Black Mass.

Enter, The Father. We know this sicko is going to be trouble. The biggest hint appears to be the fact that he resembles the acromegaly-inflicted 40s’ horror actor Rondo Hatton, if Hatton’s head had been made of Plasticine and scrunched into a misshapen gourd. Oh, and he’s adorned in a cloak – always a bad sign at any Black Mass.

Call it torture porn, if you will, but the final thirty minutes are revoltingly shocking – replete with all manner of eviscerations, eye gouging, flesh burning and – my personal favourite – sodomy involving a half-woman-half-goat. Well, it appears to be a woman. The goat part is unmistakable.

And that, ladies and gents, is what you’re in for with Baskin. Take it or leave it, but I was very happy to have partaken. So, I suspect, will more than a few other pervy geeks. Oh, and if you’re wondering what the title refers to, it beats me. I’ve seen the film twice and still have no idea what it means.

Greg Klymkiw

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The Witch

The Witch
The Witch

Seen at
TIFF 2015

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 March 2016

Distributor: Universal

Director: Robert Eggers

Writer: Robert Eggers

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson

USA, Canada 2015

90 mins

** out of *****

There are some horror films you know you’re going to love right from the very beginning. Alas, a lot of what tingles thine fancy – the deviations from the norm by which one is seduced during the first third of said pictures – eventually cave in on themselves and collide with elements more true to the genre, which are not especially well-handled by this filmmaker. That’s the good and the bad of The Witch, but then, there’s the ugly. Before we get to that, let us survey the good.

The movie has atmosphere to burn – so much so that it burns with as much vengeance, if not more so, than did the Puritans who used to burn witches at the stake – blending period-perfect 17th-century language culled from actual documents of the time with meticulous adornments upon every aspect of the film’s production design.

William (Ralph Ineson), the character we’ll be spending most of the film with, is the patriarch of a family that includes his wifey Katherine (Kate Dickie), a woman whose kisser looks like she’s perpetually sucking on lemons (especially when her baby is suckling on her teat); their sexy, drool-inspiring teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), on the cusp of burgeoning manhood; and a pair of pint-sized twins, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson) who are so annoying that one is hoping they’re eventually dispatched in the most vicious (and viscous) manner possible.

What’s immediately creepy and oddly hilarious is that William and his family have been living in a commune of religion-soaked Puritan nutcases, but our hillbilly-like patriarch decides to move his family deep into the wilderness as he fears the commune isn’t religious enough. To say he a religious fundamentalist in extremis would perhaps qualify as an understatement.

He drags his family out into the middle of nowhere, forcing them (and himself) to endure backbreaking hardships. When the baby is kidnapped by an evil witch and dragged off into the woods, Mom goes completely bunyip, Dad gets even crazier, meaner and more violent with his 17th-century Tea Party-like values, the eldest son and daughter become even more sexually frustrated and the twins skyrocket into the kind of obnoxiousness we’re still hoping yields a fate worse than death itself.

The film’s pace is that of a snail – albeit a snail, to quote Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, ‘that’s crawling along the edge of a straight razor’.

This is all good. We wait breathlessly, if not helplessly, until the genuine shite of Salem evil hits the proverbial fan of terror. However, it doesn’t happen. The movie continues loping about like a kind of drearily blinkered and infuriatingly late-career Terence Malick, the narrative repeatedly spinning its wheels and creepy transforming into just plain Dullsville.

That’s the bad. The ugly is threefold. Occasional dollops of horror movie tropes are spat out with ever-frequent ineffectiveness and, secondly, the movie dives feverishly into religious hysteria, which is so intense it detracts from our enjoyment from what should be scary by this point, as opposed to what the film’s director wants us to find scary, the religious hysteria itself.

Lastly, the meticulous pace veers between overwrought and just plain boring, so much so that we’re allowed far too many opportunities to daydream about where all this is going. If you’re like me, you’ll realize that the whole movie is slowly building to a ‘shock ending’ we can see coming from miles away. It’s one of those, ‘Oh God, I hope the picture is not going to go here.’ Then, when it does, we’re left wildly underwhelmed.

Cinema has always had a grand tradition of dealing with religious hysteria tied to the patriarchal fear of pussy, lest we forget Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, plus virtually anything foisted upon us by Ingmar Bergman. Unfortunately, The Witch wants to have its cake and eat it too. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but the film’s director has not quite amassed the skill necessary to seriously explore patriarchal ignorance, which uses religion to murder innocent women, with the shudders and shocks needed to render a flat-out horror film.

The Witch is bargain basement Terence Malick crossed with a Roman Polanski wannabe and dollops of half-baked Bergman, but worse yet, is not unlike lower-drawer M. Night Shyamalan.

That, my friends, is truly chilling.

This review is part of our 2015 TIFF coverage.

Greg Klymkiw

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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

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Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead

Format: Cinema

Screening as part of The Colour of Money

Screening date:
14 September 2015

Venue: Barbican

Director: George A. Romero

Writer: George A. Romero

Cast: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger

USA 1978

127 mins

As of writing, George A. Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead is just three years shy of its 40th birthday, and its influence on the zombie sub-genre of horror movies is still as keenly felt now as it was back in 1978. A seminal entry into the horror canon and a hugely important release in terms of independent film distribution, Dawn of the Dead has been pored over, analysed and celebrated so often down the years that any new attempt at a re-evaluation could be considered a fruitless exercise. The middle part of Romero’s original Dead trilogy, preceded by the equally influential Night of the Living Dead (1968) and completed by the sorely under-appreciated Day of the Dead in 1985, Dawn is the trilogy’s Boys Own adventure when compared to Night‘s claustrophobic terror and Day‘s unflinching nihilism. A satirical romp about contemporary life in the era of conspicuous consumption, Dawn uses sledgehammer visual metaphors, a perfect location and countless exploding blood squibs to take potshots at a justly perceived political and spiritual malaise in 70s American society.

Despite being a little creaky in places and boasting some make-up work that hasn’t aged all that well, Dawn is still one of the great film visions of societal breakdown. The media is presented as being beholden to ratings even as the ship is visibly sinking, the general populace fractures off into an every-man-for-himself mentality, and authority figures abandon their posts and head for the hills or, in the case of the film’s quartet of lead characters, the sky in a helicopter. On a relatively small budget and with a star-free cast, Romero’s movie has a palpable sense of the everyday being torn apart by the most fantastical of events. The familiar clashes with the bizarre as tenement blocks, rural gas stations and shopping malls are overrun by the shuffling, flesh-hungry walking dead. The simultaneously creepy and comically absurd nature of the situation is never more apparent than in the hordes of zombies mindlessly stumbling their way around the gigantic Monroeville Mall, a sight as eerie as it is imbued with the potential for slapstick. Romero eventually exploits the latter quality to the hilt, as custard pies are splattered into undead faces along with bullets and machetes.

Putting metaphors and socio-political commentary to one side, Dawn of the Dead is enjoyable simply as a visual spectacle, thanks to the memorably gory and inventive FX work of Tom Savini. The highlight of Savini’s work for Romero may have come seven years later in Day of the Dead, but Dawn is still a gruesome delight for those enamoured with such things as heads explode, flesh is chomped and blood spurts with gleeful, anarchic abandon. Although Romero’s later zombie films – Land, Diary and Survival – have unfortunately been severely lacking in quality, his original trilogy changed the face of the horror genre forever, with Dawn its most accessible centrepiece.

Neil Mitchell

The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)

The Human Centipede 3
The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 July 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment/ Monster Pictures

Director: Tom Six

Writer: Tom Six

Cast: Dieter Laser, Laurence R. Harvey, Eric Roberts, Bree Olsen, Tom Six

USA 2015

100 mins

So farewell then, the Human Centipede, our time together was brief, yet far too long, and frankly I wish we hadn’t gotten quite so intimate. The THC trilogy are/were a perfectly perfect modern phenomenon, in that they were so successful as an internet meme and clickbait talking point that the actual films themselves seem surplus to requirements. The central idea broke through into comedians’ routines, spawned a South Park episode and a porn parody, and weaved its way into pub (if not dinner party) conversation and water cooler chatter. In short, it became a thing, and a thing that even people who don’t like that sort of thing became aware of. That three features have been whipped up from an idea you could explain during a one-stop bus ride is some kind of malign miracle.

If you must catch up with the actual series, part three is set in an American prison, being run, badly, by Warden Bill Boss and his accountant Dwight Butler, played by Dieter Laser and Lawrence R. Harvey, the stars of the first and second films. Given a deadline to improve matters by Governor Hughes (Eric Roberts) Boss is eventually convinced by Butler that they should take inspiration from the Human Centipede films and convert the riotous prisoners into one long alimentary canal. The plot takes a good while to get to where it’s clearly getting to, and is, in any case, mainly there to provide a series of depravities along the way before we get to the 500-person’ ’pede final act. So we get a pen-knife castration, a boiling water-boarding, a gunshot execution via a stoma hole, some light cannibalism and the various indignities inflicted upon the warden’s secretary Daisy (Bree Olsen), all of which would be a lot more offensive if it weren’t carried out by Dieter Laser as Boss in probably the most grotesquely mannered scenery-gargling performance ever committed to film. His stratospherically over-the-top gurning ensures that we can’t take any of this gleeful obscenity remotely seriously, and his mangled German/American syntax makes much of his gratuitously profane dialogue indecipherable. Anybody sharing screen time with him is left the quandary of whether to follow his lead or to go low key and restrained in order to effect some kind of balance; mostly they look a little startled that he’s doing whatever he’s doing.

But the idea that anybody so clearly eye-rolling bugfuck insane and obnoxiously undiplomatic would be put in charge of anything is absurd from the outset, and we are clearly in the realm of the absurd here. If the Final Sequence has any ambition beyond making you want to toss your cookies it’s as a sledgehammer satire on the politics of the U.S. of A.: the prison is named after Dubya, there is lots of business with flags and eagles, the suffering detainees prominently feature Muslims, Blacks and Native Americans, and there are plentiful shots of orange jumpsuit-clad prisoners being tortured, all with the take-home message being that any atrocity is permissible here as long as it upholds the bottom line. It’s not subtle.

The other theme taking up a lot of screen time in the third Human Centipede film is, um, The Human Centipede. The second film had Harvey’s nebbishy Martin Lomax becoming inspired by the first film to create his own monster, this one opens with Boss and Butler watching the first two. Thereafter most of the characters are required to voice an opinion on the THC films, generally positive, though another screening to the inmates is clearly regarded by them as cruel and unusual punishment and results in a riot. It’s as if Tom Six can’t imagine a viewing of his films as anything other than a life-changing obsessive experience or at least provoking strong reactions for or against. This strain peaks in this film with a cameo by Mr Six, playing himself, in arsehole uniform of mirror shades and linen suit, approving Mr Butler’s proposal as long as he can watch. Six has enough self-awareness to depict himself throwing up when confronted with the reality of his ideas, and I’m sure there are some who’ll find all this meta business playful and diverting. But the net result is that you have a 102-minute film written by, and starring, Tom Six, in which everybody onscreen keeps banging on about the work of Tom Six. I think the phrase I’m looking for is ‘Christ, dude, get over yourself’.

Where Six is going to go after this is anybody’s guess, there’s a peculiar European flavour and sensibility to the trilogy that might develop into something, though it’s often buried beneath the other business. The film kinda works on its own terms, it sets out to be disgusting and succeeds, and to criticise it along those lines would be a fruitless endeavour. It seems more valid to point out that it is oddly paced, stilted and set-bound, that Laser should have been reined in, and that we spend an awful lot of time in Boss’s office and not much with the prisoners. I can’t help wishing the dialogue was better, and with the meat and potatoes set-ups here I’m not entirely convinced he knows what he’s doing behind a camera. But hey, it pulls itself together a bit for the last act, and delivers what anybody renting, streaming or buying something called The Human Centipede 3 would want to see. He clearly has no problem coming up with foul ideas, his main claim to fame is that he has come up with an idea that’s just that bit more repellent than everybody else’s. The problem being that, like the human centipedes in all three films, once created they don’t actually go anywhere or do much other than die. I’m pretty sure that a fair proportion of the audience want to see the group creature go on a rampage that just never happens, damnit. Ah well, in my review of the first outing I voiced my regret that the creators didn’t break out the spangly top hats and canes for an unforgettable musical finale. This time I couldn’t help wishing that, in collision with another internet meme set in a prison yard, we could have had a synchronised routine to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. If you’re listening, Tom, that’s not a call for part four.

The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) is released in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD on 20 July 2015 by Monster Pictures.

Mark Stafford

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Therapy for a Vampire

Therapy for a Vampire

Director: David Rühm

Writer: David Rühm

Cast: Tobias Moretti, Jeanette Hain, Cornelia Ivancan

Original title: Der Vampir auf der Couch

Austria, Switzerland 2014

87 mins

David Rühm’s Therapy for a Vampire, which screened at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, is a spry, witty and likable Gothic comedy that puts Sigmund Freud together with a pair of undead shape-shifters in 1932 Vienna.

Director David Rühm displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic horror tropes, with his arch-fiend gliding along with the camera like Lon Chaney Jnr in Son of Dracula, or moving out of sync with his shadow like Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. An unusually in-depth familiarity with vampire folklore allows him to include in his film, for the first time that I’m aware of, the vampire’s mythic mania for counting: if objects are spilled on the floor, a vampire must stop what he’s doing to gather them up and count them. OK, I suppose Sesame Street’s Count may have exploited this trait previously. But it’s a great device, since it implies that vampirism and obsessive-compulsive disorder may be connected, and suggests that this particular vampire may not be misguided in seeking the help of a therapist.

Tobias Moretti is both graceful and funny as the lovelorn Count, turning in a physical performance that successfully bridges the gap between supernaturally creepy and funny. Jeanette Hain as his black-bobbed partner embodies the word ‘vamp’. There’s also an all-too-rare chance to see David Bennent, former child star of The Tin Drum and Legend, as his disfigured chauffeur and victim-supplier.

Combining a few simple locations with plenty of fairy tale CGI to create some phantasmagoric settings, the movie manages to look beautiful on a budget.

This review is part of our 2015 EIFF coverage.

David Cairns

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Freaks 1

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 June 2015

Distributor: Hollywood Classics / Metrodome

Director: Tod Browning

Writer: Tod Robbins

Based on the story: Spurs by Tod Robbins

Cast: Wallace Ford, Lila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles

USA 1932

64 mins

Few films fit into the category of ‘cult film’ quite as well as Tod Browning’s controversial masterpiece, Freaks (1932). Due to its use of real freak show performers and its ‘unwholesome’ themes, the film was almost universally reviled by critics and audiences alike. Already a major director thanks to a string of silent horror hits and the classic talkie version of Dracula (1931), Browning never recovered. His handful of post-Freaks films were hampered by the limitations of the Motion Picture Production Code or suffered extensive studio interference, like 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, and the director finally retired in 1939.

For modern viewers the idea of using real-life genetic anomalies and the disabled in a horror film would seem at the very least tasteless and exploitative; even in Browning’s day it was considered excessive. But from the outset it is clear that the ‘freaks’ are not the horror content here; this is not like the later Rondo Hatton films, where Hatton’s deformities were intended to shock and horrify, made synonymous with villainy and violence. Instead Browning – who spent part of his youth working in a circus and befriended many of the performers – shows us these people in their everyday lives, focussing on their relationships. Although the sight of a man with no arms and legs lighting a cigarette by himself (apparently, the original cut featured him rolling the cigarette too) is certainly bizarre, it’s not presented as ridiculous or amusing.

The only characters given a negative presentation in Freaks are the film’s villains, seductive trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and her lover, strongman Hercules (Henry Victor). Together they hatch a plan for Cleopatra to marry little person Hans (Harry Earles) – and then murder him for his sizeable inheritance. When the other performers realise that Cleopatra has a murderous agenda, they punish her and Hercules in a terrible fashion. There are other subplots, most obviously the developing romance between Venus (Leila Hyams, Island of Lost Souls) and clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), but Cleopatra’s scheme is the main focus of the film. Even given the film’s short, 60-minute running time (the full 90-minute cut is now considered lost), there isn’t quite enough story here, and the pacing is quite slow.

However, the two key scenes are more than memorable enough to outweigh any minor flaws. The first is the notorious wedding feast (never entirely comfortable with sound pictures, Browning prefaces the scene with a silent-style title card). The assembled troupe try and accept Cleopatra into their community, only to see her flirting outrageously with Hercules and drunkenly giving vent to her true feelings about the ‘dirty, slimy freaks!’ Even more effective is the climactic storm scene, as the troupe of knife-wielding performers slowly descend upon Cleopatra and Hercules. Their actual punishment is not shown; Browning intended to have the strongman castrated, but (unsurprisingly) that did not make it into the final cut. Freaks is not easy viewing, or a pleasant film, but it is far more sensitive than the title would suggest. With the equally controversial Island of Lost Souls, it’s one of the strongest, most memorable horror films of the pre-Code era.

Jim Harper


Rabid 1

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 16 February 2015

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Cast: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver

Canada 1977

91 mins

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

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

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

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

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

David Cairns

The Nightcomers

The Nightcomers
The Nightcomers

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 23 February 2015

Distributor: Network Distributing

Director: Michael Winner

Writer: Michael Hastings

Cast: Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Thora Hird

UK 1971

92 mins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Cairns

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