Cast: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Kiara Glasco
Six long years after his impressive debut feature The Loved Ones bowed at Midnight Madness at TIFF, Australian writer-director Sean Byrne is back in the same slot – only this time with supernatural horror awash with heavy metal. While The Loved Ones offered out-of-the-box dark humour – boasting a psychotic, would-be prom queen protagonist wielding a power drill, no less – this sophomore outing from Byrne feels less developed and somewhat formulaic.
The story’s focus lies on a metal-head artist named Jessie (Ethan Embry), whose corporate commissions become transformed when he and his young family move into a cut-price (and haunted) house. With his long-suffering wife (Shiri Appleby) and gothic daughter (Kiara Glasco) indulging him, Jessie paints up a grim storm in his new work space.
Not far away, the house’s former tenant, oddball Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), is stewing over his mental unease in a nearby motel. Police tell him to keep the noise down – for comfort, he plays a Flying V through a Marshall amp at night! By day, he evidently kidnaps kids, for the devil’s pleasure. Naturally, Jessie’s family is soon on his hit list, as Ray craves his old family pile.
Byrne’s grasp of unease remains potent throughout this brief but barmy outing. Casting is spot on (Vince has the lion’s gold). The tiny town in Texas where it was shot feels suitably chilly. Even the cops don’t seem quite all there, in a Lynchian sort of way.
Despite this, the action unfolds in uneven terms. Jessie’s transformation into possessed artist is slight. His daughter’s school bullying is never glimpsed. Ray’s release back into the world after 20 years in psychiatric care goes unnoticed by local police, and several kids going missing. For good measure, Ray’s also constantly dressed in a bright red, ill-fitting jogging suit. Still, he goes undetected.
On a positive note, the heavy metal motifs that feature throughout feel authentic and refreshing. Costume and production design is convincing. Music comes courtesy of Metallica and Slayer, among others.
While The Devil’s Candy isn’t anywhere near the game-changer it might have been – and coming after The Loved Ones, one would have expected something of that ilk – it’s still entertaining enough, with some memorable sequences (and ideas) that are worth exploring on VOD.
To tie in with our ‘Daughters of Darkness’ theme, Howard Hardiman revisits Brian De Palma’s supernatural horror classic Carrie (1976), based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. Carrie is out now in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/B), released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
More information on Howard Hardiman can be found here.
Directors: Simon Langton, Alan Cooke, Peter Sasdy, Claude Whatham
Writers: Robert Muller (7 of 8 screenplays), Sue Lake (Viktoria)
Cast: Billie Whitelaw, Ian Hendry, Robert Hardy, Jeremy Brett, Gordon Jackson, Denholm Elliott, Sinéad Cusack
Fevered, fervid and not a little bit fruity, Robert Muller’s anthology TV series Supernatural was broadcast by the BBC in the summer of 1977 with little fanfare, to a largely indifferent reaction, and then sat on the shelves, unrepeated, ever since. If Dead of Night, the other spooky 1970s anthology offering recently released by the BFI, was an attempt to drag the ghost story into the modern world and drop all the traditional trappings, Supernatural represents a wholesale volte-face, an enthusiastic swan dive into all things Gothic, Stygian and stylised, from the opening blast of doomy organ and shots of gargoyles onwards. It’s all set in the 19th century, with a delicious framing device wherein the Club of the Damned is gathered to hear the true-life tale of terror of a would-be member. If their story chills the club’s blood sufficiently, they will be allowed to join; if not, death awaits. We don’t see much of the club’s activities beyond the slurping of claret, so we have to assume the rigour of the entrance exam is worth the candle.
The meat of the show then consists of the likes of Robert Hardy, Jeremy Brett and Gordon Jackson relating their terrible tales, seven in all, over eight episodes, which run the gothic gamut, featuring ghosts, werewolves, doppelgangers, vampires and the reanimated dead. A common theme is of the unspeakable desires bubbling under the surface of an excessively polite and straitened society, so in Viktoria, the tale of murder, remarriage and revenge from beyond the grave, is complicated by the wicked stepfather’s barely repressed homosexual longings. In Night of the Marionettes, Jackson’s scholar has a troubling, passionate relationship with his own daughter (Pauline Moran). And in Mr Nightingale the timid titular character (Brett) brings chaos and ruin to a Hamburg family household when his libido is unleashed, via his doppelganger, shagging one daughter (Susan Mawdsley) and inducing pyromaniac ecstasy in another (Lesley-Anne Down). Perhaps it was all those stultifying conversations about fish…
If the above suggests a barrage of blatant filth and depravity, then relax, gentle reader, for Supernatural is one of the least explicit, and most literary forays into freakery that TV has created. It’s mainly about performance and dialogue; eloquent, precise and polysyllabic in the style of the works it references, Muller’s scripts (only one, Sue Lake’s Viktoria, was not his work) are as rich as Christmas cake, and clearly relished as such by a cracking cast of British thespians. The two parter Countess Ilona/The Werewolf Reunion, for instance, manages to have a theme of sexual exploitation and venereal disease, a self-confessed ‘erotomane’ as one of its characters, and features four apparently grisly deaths via lycanthrope, without showing so much as a bare buttock or a hairy hand. Its delights rest in Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Charles Kay and Edward Hardwicke having a whale of a time as the utterly despicable representatives of the male sex whom Ilona (Billie Whitelaw) has assembled for a ‘surprise’ party. Lady Sybil manages to assemble the great Denholm Elliott and former angry young man John Osborne as the loosely hinged sons of grand dame Catherine Nesbitt, for a tale of phantom visitations and wayward mesmerism. The first tale, The Ghost of Venice has Sinéad Cusack, and Robert Hardy as an aging actor, getting lost in obsession and self-deception, and the last, Dorabella, is a twisty number about vampiric infatuation. In all, there is no place for naked fumbling or method mumbling – this is all about sweaty brows and crisp pronunciation, with performances aimed at the back row, Loachian realism be damned. Near everybody here seems prone to fits of delirium and the derangement of the senses. It’s drenched in Mary Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson, and all things dark and romantic. Marionettes actually turns on the Byron/Shelley/Polidori meeting on Lake Geneva that spawned Frankenstein. And it’s telling that what seems to be a gratuitous close up of a see-through blouse in one episode turns, via a dissolve, into a literary reference.
This is not to suggest that Supernatural’s charms are purely verbal. Shot on the customary, for the time, mix of 8 mm film and standard videotape, the series has a distinctive look, revelling in Dutch angles, chiaroscuro lighting and deliberate compositions. Some effects are clearly borne of budget, like the close-ups of woodcut drawings shot in ‘wibble vision’, which replace expensive exterior shots of period Venice and Hamburg, or the use of negative to create Mr Nightingale’s visions of ‘black seagulls’; other techniques show a creative mastery of the technology available. Overlays and dissolves are used extensively, but most of the show’s mood is conjured by stagecraft, sleight of hand and elaborate set design. One gets the feeling that every ornate candlestick holder or piece of carved wood from the BBC backlot was used thrice over to fill out the Olde European Castles, Mansions and dodgy roadside Inns required.
Supernatural, in all its florid excesses, is an honest attempt to revel in the possibilities of the gothic genre, and while at times it skirts close to camp, there is no winking at the audience here, no arch references to modern mores. It may be played to the hilt, but it’s played straight nonetheless. The stories all have something to say about sexual politics, repression and desire, and are packed with sly and unexpected moments and strange details. How much you enjoy it rests upon your tolerance for its wordy, slow-burning storytelling, its emphasis on atmosphere over sensation, and its utter lack of interest in humdrum reality. Personally I found it irresistible. Some episodes work better than others: Ghost is too stagey, and ultimately too silly, and Dorabella doesn’t ring enough changes with its vampire schtick to pay off, but all have their moments. Mr Nightingale is gleefully subversive and cruel, Lady Sybil is The Old Dark House with weird psychology, and The Night of the Marionettes is an extraordinary thing, with its German expressionistic stage sets and freaky living puppets. All in all, it’s smart, engaging stuff, and well worth a wallow.
Based on:The Fury by John Farris
Cast: Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Carrie Snodgress, Amy Irving
There’s a lot to like about Brian De Palma’s The Fury, his big-budget 1978 follow-up to horror classic Carrie (1976). For one thing, there’s the monumentally dramatic score from celebrated film composer John Williams, which swoops and creeps with a sense of epic malevolence. Add to the mix De Palma’s stunning operatic visual flair, Rick Baker’s special effects, and the remarkable cinematography of Richard H. Kline, and you’ve got yourself a potent slice of late 1970s mainstream cinema. It’s a shame it completely bombed on its initial release, mostly due to it not being Carrie.
The plot literally is the stuff of those pulpy paperbacks that fill the shelves of airport bookshops, adapted for the screen by John Farris from his original novel. (Farris was also responsible for other such sensational literary titles as The Corpse Next Door and The Axeman Cometh.) Kirk Douglas plays government agent Peter Sandza, whose telepathic son has been abducted by colleague Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), who plans to exploit the boy’s psychic abilities for warfare. Sandza’s desperate search for his son brings him into contact with a teenage girl named Gillian (Amy Irving), who also has immense telekinetic powers. Together they join forces in the hope of saving his son from the evil grip of Childress before it’s too late.
Aging Hollywood legends Douglas and Cassavetes don’t seem to have any delusions as to what kind of film they’re in, and give it everything they’ve got. Douglas is great as the tormented father, and Cassavetes is equally memorable as his incredibly intense and menacing adversary. Between all the running about and telekinetic hocus-pocus, it’s fantastic to see such movie heavyweights sharing the screen. Amy Irving is a very sympathetic heroine, who’s picked on by fellow classmates, confused by her special psychic abilities, and unaware of her full potential, but without Carrie’s religious baggage and domestic issues.
Essentially a supernatural horror tale, The Fury also succeeds as an action film and a mystery/suspense thriller, with De Palma never slacking on the pace and effortlessly balancing out the elements of each genre into a very entertaining cinematic hybrid. Of course, there are moments (mostly during the final act) that are complete nonsense in terms of narrative, but it’s extremely well-composed and directed nonsense, with lots of split diopter shots and wondrous over-cranking, culminating in an unforgettable final scene that could quite possibly be an incredibly humorous, horrific and gruesome homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.
Although The Fury has never been perceived as one of De Palma’s more credible efforts, it’s definitely worthy of attention, and still stands up as a compelling, entertaining and enjoyable thrill ride.
This fine, puzzling documentary by Eric Walter consists largely of interviews with Daniel Lutz, who is, nowadays, a worker for the UPS, but who was, back in the 1970s, the oldest son of the Lutz family, who were at the heart of the ‘Amityville Horror’ paranormal case study/ media franchise. Walter gets to film Daniel playing guitar, riding around in hot rods, visiting a therapist and meeting up with various people who had a connection to the original case in some kind of quest to attain closure and peace.
The film lets everybody speak for themselves, with no editorial voice-over or evident bias, which is fair enough, though it does kind of assume that you’re familiar with the AH phenomenon, in which the Lutzes were supposed to have endured 28 days of supernatural assault after moving into a house that they picked up as a bargain after it had been the scene of a nasty mass murder (Daniel was 10 at the time). I, for one, could have done with a few more subtitles spelling out the facts where the facts are known. But this is a case where hard facts are hard to find. AH is a battleground between those who believe that it was all a hoax and those who believe the Lutzes’ account, with the waters further muddied by Jay Anson’s decidedly dodgy bestseller and the 1974 film, with its various sequels and remakes.
There are some great characters and strange ideas revealed along the way, and a visit to a psychic’s house (dozens of occult carvings, twin roosters crowing in cages, a piece of the ‘true cross’ revealed) that is weird comedy gold. But the main reason to watch My Amityville Horror is Daniel, clearly scarred by the dysfunctional home life that erupted into a media sensation. He fled home at 14 and is now estranged from his family, paranoid, intense and angry, and prone to making forceful statements that beg more questions than they answer. A brittle man in a macho shell, he recalls the subject of Errol Morris’s 2011 doc Tabloid, another film where the very idea of ‘truth’ becomes slippery and elusive. Did this stuff happen? Does Daniel need to believe it did? A film to argue over.
This review was first published as part of our LFF 2012 coverage.
Watch the trailer:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews